After a month of offering confusing and – at times – contradictory statements on the border dispute with Costa Rica, Nicaragua’s Sandinista government this week decided to put its arguments down in writing.
The government is circulating a white paper report called “The San Juan River of Nicaragua: The Truths that Costa Rica Hides.”
The 76-page report, which was translated into English, describes Costa Rica as an historically manipulative and dishonest aggressor, while characterizing Nicaragua as a law-abiding victim of foreign hostilities.
“Nicaragua has been prudent and has acted in a responsible and constructive manner. It was Costa Rica that deployed troops, air and navy means, and special forces equipped with military weapons,” the English-language document reads in its opening paragraphs.
“The declaration of a Costa Rica without armed forces is past history,” the white paper continues. “The country budgets $240 million for its armed forces, which is five times greater than the budget allocated by Nicaragua.”
The white paper, which has been provided to the media and international diplomatic missions, is divided into 12 angrily titled chapters, such as: “Costa Rica says that Nicaragua invaded its territory militarily. FALSE!”; “Costa Rica says it does not have an army. FALSE!” ; and “Costa Rica sells itself as a country that promotes human rights. FALSE!”
The report’s affirmations about Nica-ragua’s merits are equally loud, even if not written in ALL CAPS.
Regarding Costa Rica’s complaint of environmental damage caused by Nicaragua’s river-dredging operation, the white paper asserts: “No environmental damages are being caused. Nicaragua’s leadership in this area is so deep-rooted that it is beyond questioning.”
Juxtaposed with Nicaragua’s “unques-tionable” environmental leadership, Costa Rica is described in the white paper as a wasteland.
“Costa Rica has cut down trees in its northern zone, contaminated rivers, destroyed tropical forests and wetlands, authorizing (sic) open-sky mining operations, spilling chemicals, cyanide and agrochemicals into the San Juan River, attempting to channelize the water of Lake Nicaragua to other projects of a commercial nature, and depriving its own citizens of this vital liquid.”
Costa Rica’s main goals, according to the government’s white paper, are to force Nicaragua to stop its dredging project and to try to usurp Nicaraguan territory.
“Costa Rica’s true strategic goal is to have direct access to the Lake of Nicaragua and the San Juan River,” the report affirms.
The report states that Nicaraguan soldiers have always been active in the border region to combat narco-trafficking. Costa Rica’s sudden complaint of a Nicaraguan military incursion onto Tico land is nothing more than a smokescreen to halt the dredging operation, the white paper asserts.
“The complaints of Costa Rica about the presence of Nicaraguan authorities in the zone of Harbor Head occurred after Nicaragua announced the beginning of the work to clean and improve the San Juan River,” the report reads. “The disproportionate lie about the invasion is nothing more than a manipulation to hide its interest to suspend the work to clean the San Juan River.”
No Invasion of Calero Island
Despite the Sandinista government’s previous contradictory statements about Isla Calero, the river island on the southern bank of the San Juan River, the white paper states that Nicaragua recognizes the island as Costa Rican territory and has no intention to claim the land as its own.
But the Nicaraguan government insists its troops have never “invaded and illegally occupied” the Tico island, as Costa Rica claims. Nicaragua troops, the white paper says, are located in Nicaraguan territory in the area to the north of the island, in a spit of land known as Harbor Head. Nicaraguan troops have never stepped foot on Isla Calero, the government report stresses.
“Calero Island is located between the margin of the Colorado and Taura rivers, in a southerly position, which Costa Rica calls Portillo Island, that is to say, distant from the permanent location of the Army of Nicaragua in the Harbor Head River in the locality of San Juan de Nicaragua,” the report reads.
The white paper concludes, “Nicaragua does not dispute Costa Rica’s sovereignty over Calero Island. Nicaragua has never invaded nor will invade Costa Rica territory. On the contrary, Nicaragua has been attacked.”
A Moving Border
Nicaragua concedes that the San Juan River, which defines an important part of the southern border with Costa Rica, is “not a static border, but subject to changes undergone by the course of the river.”
However, the Nicaraguan government argues, the only acceptable changes are those caused by Mother Nature, and not those caused by Costa Rica.
The problem, Nicaragua insists, is that most of the alterations to the river’s flow over the past 100 years are blamed on Costa Rica’s deforestation of the area and its dredging of the Colorado River in the 1950s.
“It should be taken into account that in the last decades the largest portion of the waters of the San Juan River has been diverted toward the branch (river) called Colorado, which is located in Costa Rican territory,” the white paper reads. “In the last 30 kilometers of a river … 90 percent of the (water) volume disappears through the territory of Costa Rica. The river that until the nineteenth century the English and other Europeans, as well as the North Americans, wanted to use for the trans-oceanic canal now empties almost completely in its final part into Costa Rica. In addition, the mouth of the river is no longer a ‘flat and sandy delta’ (described in the 1858 border treaty), rather a swamp.”
Nicaragua asserts that neither of the two governments’ maps of the area are to be trusted, since none of the maps have been reviewed or updated in more than 100 years.
“The maps in this case are not definitive because they do not reflect the changes in the course of the river,” the white paper reads. “For that reason, both the official maps of Nicaragua and Costa Rica clearly express that the data on which they are based ‘has not been verified in the field’.”
Ultimately, the issue of the elusive border’s true location will be resolved in the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
The preliminary hearing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua is set for Jan. 11-13, 2011. At that hearing, the world court will decide whether or not to uphold Costa Rica’s request that Nicaragua withdraw its troops from the disputed area and halt its dredging efforts until the border issue can be resolved – a litigation process that could take up to four more years.
In the meantime, Nicaragua says, it will continue to push forward “with greater resolve” on its river-dredging operation.
Wait, How Far From The Old Hut?
For those who thought following directions in Managua was complicated, consider the treaties delineating the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
The Jerez-Cañas Treaty of 1858 starts clearly enough, stating that the border, “Begins in the North Sea, at the extreme end of Punta de Castilla, at the mouth of the San Juan de Nicaragua River, and continues on the right bank of that river to a point three English miles from the Castillo Viejo.”
But when Gen. Edward Porter Alexander attempted to clarify the border’s exact location in 1897, the delineations become more specific and more confusing.
Gen. Alexander wrote: “I declare the initial line of the boundary to run as follows, to wit: Its direction shall be due northeast and southwest, across the bank of sand, from the Caribbean Sea into the waters of Harbor Head Lagoon. It shall pass, at its nearest point, 300 feet on the northwest side from the small hut now standing in that vicinity. On reaching the waters of Harbor Head Lagoon the boundary line shall turn to the left, or southeastward, and shall follow the water’s edge around the harbor until it reaches the river proper by the first channel met. Up this channel, and up the river proper, the line shall continue to ascend as directed in the treaty.”
He later elaborated by adding:
“I therefore rule that the exact dividing line between the jurisdictions of the two countries is the right bank of the river, with the water at ordinary stage and navigable by ships and general-purpose boats. Fluctuations in the water level will not alter the position of the boundary line, but changes in the banks or channels of the river will alter it, as may be determined by the rules of international law applicable on a case-by-case basis.”
Or, in modern-day “Nicañol” Spanish, “allí no más.“