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Costa Rica: Border Conflict with Nicaragua

Categories: Latin America, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Citizen Media, Politics, Protest

What began as a simple cleaning or dredging [1] of the San Juan River [2], the natural border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, has resulted in a diplomatic and military conflict.


San Juan River. Image by Flickr user Guillermo A. Durán, used under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license

The government of Nicaragua decided to start dredging the San Juan river in order to ease the navigation of larger boats. This was not a problem, because the river belongs to them. But days after starting the work on the river, the government of Costa Rica realized that the materials extracted from the river were being deposited in Costa Rican territory. After Costa Rica complained about the issue, Nicaragua said that everything had been a mistake and that it would not happen again, but that was just the beginning of the problem.

On November 1st, Costa Rican newspaper La Nación [4] [es] reported: “Government confirms incursion of Nicaraguan Army into national territory,”

El Gobierno confirmó esta tarde la incursión de tropas del Ejército de Nicaragua en territorio costarricense, específicamente en la Isla Calero, ubicada en la zona fronteriza, en la desembocadura de los ríos San Juan y Colorado.

“Esto es una lesión a la soberanía nacional, no se puede interpretar de otra manera,” [Ministro de Seguridad José María Tijerino.]

The Government confirmed this afternoon the incursion of Nicaraguan Army troops into Costa Rican territory, specifically in Calero Island, located in the border area at the mouth of the San Juan and Colorado rivers.

“This is an infringement of national sovereignty, it can not be interpreted otherwise,” [Minister of Security José María Tijerino.]

As a result, Costa Rica has called on the permanent council of the Organization of American States (OAS) [5], where it will present evidence with photographs, videos and testimony of the neighbors in the area. Minister Tijerino said [4] [es] that,

“Costa Rica, que no tiene ejercito, confía en los canales diplomáticos para evitar una confrontación que solo agravaría la situación.”
“Costa Rica, which has no army, relies on diplomatic means to avoid a confrontation that will only worsen the situation.”

This problem goes beyond the border conflict, because it could trigger an increase in the problems immigrants face. In Costa Rica there are nearly 600,000 Nicaraguans [6], mostly undocumented, and it's no secret that xenophobia is an issue, something the border conflict could worsen.

Dean Cornito in La Suiza Centroamericana [7] [es] writes,
Cualquier otro país latinoamericano que hubiera sufrido la violación de su territorio, ya estaría en estado de guerra con su vecino. Y eso exactamente es lo que quiere Daniel Ortega, que siempre que tiene un problema interno, busca como desviar la atención del público creando un conflicto externo artificial.
Any other Latin American country that had suffered the violation of its territory, would already be at war with its neighbor. And that's exactly what Daniel Ortega [8] [the president of Nicaragua] wants, who always has an internal problem, and seeks to divert public attention by creating an artificial external conflict.

According to comments made on various blogs, Costa Ricans have come to see these problems as a totally normal situation, where it is said that whenever Nicaragua is on election season it seeks to divert attention to other things so that their internal problems don't stand out and the incumbent government doesn't lose votes. El infierno en Costa Rica [9] [es] writes about this,

Una de las tradiciones más arraigadas en la cultura política nicaragüense en las últimas décadas, es que cuando se acercan las elecciones, se debe provocar un diferendo con Costa Rica, preferiblemente por el Río San Juan; lo anterior con la finalidad de limpiar la imagen del gobernante de turno, llena de corrupción, incapacidad para solucionar los problemas, entre otros [..]

One of the most deeply rooted traditions of Nicaraguan political culture in recent decades is that when elections approach, they will create a dispute with Costa Rica, preferably about the San Juan River; this in order to clean the image of the current ruler, full of corruption, unable to solve problems, etc. [..]

The opinion of many bloggers is that this is a time to think clearly and make good decisions, so that neither of the two countries are affected, because as neighbors, mutual cooperation is very important. Costa Rica and Nicaragua are trading partners and these problems affect exports from both sides; many sources of jobs could be affected.

Julio Córdoba from Ciencia Ficción con Julio Córdoba [10] [es] thinks that,

Como representante de nuestro país el ministro debe promover como valor superior la paz y el Derecho como única herramienta para resolver el conflicto y dejar a otros la promoción de la guerra, valor que no forma parte del sentir costarricense.
As a representative of our country, the Minister must promote peace as a superior value and law as the only tool to resolve the conflict, and leave to others the promotion of war, a value that is not part of the Costa Rican character.

The general feeling in Costa Rica, the only country without an army on the continent since 1948, is clear: The option of an armed conflict with Nicaragua is not a topic for discussion, since Costa Rica does not have the means to confront them. H3dicho [11] [es] says:

Los gobernantes Nicas son los más trogloditas de la región, y con tal de desviar la atención de sus problemas internos, no les importa poner en riesgo vidas de costarricenses y nicaragüenses. […]

Dichosamente nunca es tarde, y ante una nueva incursión del ejercito nicaragüense a nuestra frontera, nuestro gobierno solicita la intervención de la OEA, como país de paz que somos. […]

A las autoridades nicas las debemos enfrentar con firmeza real, sin dar un paso atrás, pero con diplomacia, nunca con las armas contra un país hermano.

The Nicaraguan authorities are the troglodytes of the region, and in order to divert attention from their internal problems, they don't care about risking the lives of Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans. […]

Fortunately, it is never too late, and in front of a new Nicaraguan army raid on our border, our government sought the intervention of the OAS, as the peaceful country that we are. […]

We have to face the Nicaraguan authorities with real strength, without taking a step back, but with diplomacy, never with weapons against a brother country.

To keep this situation from affecting trade relations in both directions, and at the same time to avoid affecting Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica, the authorities have turned to international bodies to resolve this conflict in the best possible way. Dean Córnito in La Suiza Centroamericana [7] [es] points out:

Con todo y todo, es mejor tolerar una violación de nuestra soberanía por algunas semanas hasta que el sistema interamericano de defensa mutua se mueva a favor de Costa Rica, que lanzarnos a una guerra sinsentido e innecesaria para nosotros. Nuestras autoridades tienen mucha razón al proceder con cautela.

All in all, it is better to tolerate a violation of our sovereignty for a few weeks until the inter-American system of mutual defense moves in favor of Costa Rica, than to get involved in a senseless and unnecessary war for us. Our authorities are correct in proceeding with caution.

Update 11/6: After this post was written in Spanish, the AFP [12] and other sources reported that a Nicaraguan official “cited Google's version of the border map in an interview with Costa Rican newspaper La Nacion to justify a raid on a disputed border area.” Global Voices published this short update post [13]on the subject.