Nov 17 2010

The Context Behind the Costa Rican-Nicaraguan Border Dispute

By Guy Burton

The dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica stems from an island located at the mouth of the San Juan River, which forms the border between the two countries. The dispute has been simmering for a month as a result of Nicaragua’s decision to send troops to the region. Several reasons have been put forward for the action, including the concern of Daniel Ortega, the Nicaraguan president, with narco-traffickers in the region and the need for a military presence to discourage them.

In response to what Costa Rica’s president, Laura Chinchilla, has called an ‘invasion’, the matter was referred to the Organisation of American States (OAS). Last Friday the OAS passed a resolution by 22 votes to one in support of Costa Rica and that Nicaragua remove its troops – a request that Ortega has refused. Instead he has suggested taking the dispute to The Hague for resolution, claiming that the OAS has no right to rule on international borders.

The one vote in favour of Nicaragua came from Venezuela. That in itself was significant, since the two are allies and members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA). The organisation was set up in response to the US-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), emphasising regional cooperation on the basis of social and political ties rather than markets and economic liberalisation and deregulation. In addition to these two countries, Cuba, Ecuador and Bolivia are also members of ALBA, all of whom are noted for the opposition to US hegemony in the hemisphere.

Venezuela’s support of Nicaragua is a fact that has been noted but not really analysed by the media. At the same time, there does not appear to have been any explanation why Ortega should have carried out his actions now rather than at another time. This is contrast to the media attention surrounding Costa Rica’s lack of an army and response in sending police forces to the border region. In addition, media reports have also noted that the US has been presented as willing to act as a mediator, if asked to do so.

Arguably the reason for the current situation, including Nicaragua’s recent decision and Venezuela’s support of it, may well be due to wider regional politics – and especially the growing presence of the US in Central America. First, the ‘war on drugs’ has prompted the US to seek a larger role in the region, either in the search for allies or through direct involvement in the struggle against drug gangs. The most notable of these has been its various agreements with Colombia which have enabled it to increase both the number of American bases and troops there. In addition to tackling the drug trade at source, the US has also expanded its influence in the drug supply route, though Central America. In addition to Panamanian bases, the US also recently signed an agreement with Costa Rica last July to allow 46 warships and 7000 troops into the country.

Second, the rise of American influence in the region has coincided with concern by significant sections of these countries’ political and civil societies. In particular there is concern about what American intentions are beyond the ‘war on drugs’. In part this may be explained by the Left’s general antipathy towards Washington and the legacy of American meddling in the region, especially during the Cold War. More recently, it reflects suspicions that Washington may be working against these leftist governments. Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, was overthrown by a coup in 2002, an action which brought swift recognition from Washington at the time, only for the provisional government to collapse days later. In June 2009, Manuel Zelaya, the Honduran president who brought his country into ALBA, was kicked out of office and forced into exile. Although the Obama administration condemned the action, the US was one of the first countries in the hemisphere to recognise the result of subsequent election that took place later in the year. It also pushed for the reinstatement of Honduras back into the OAS, following its suspension after the coup. And following the aborted coup against Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, at the end of September, left-wingers have been looking to see if there were any American fingerprints left behind.

Ortega’s decision to send troops to the border may therefore be read against these developments. On the one hand it demonstrates a determination to exert his power over the armed forces, crucial if any coup attempt is to be avoided. At the same time, it may be seen as sending a signal, both to Costa Rica and the US that Ortega is no pushover, whether in the struggle against the drug trade or as a leader that can be removed at any time. As a result, while others in the region (e.g. Panama) have taken offence at Ortega’s rhetoric that other countries have not acted strongly enough against narco-traffickers, it may well be a signal to ensure that Washington backs off – whether in pressuring Ortega to carry out action against the drug trade himself, or to push disaffected elements of Nicaraguan society that would like to see him removed.

Guy Burton is a research associate for the Latin America International Affairs Programme at the LSE Ideas Centre.

This entry was posted in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Latin America, Nicaragua, United States, Venezuela, Zelaya. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Context Behind the Costa Rican-Nicaraguan Border Dispute

  1. Saeta27 says:

    >If you are going to title the post as 'context' to the Nicaragua-CR dispute you should probably note that far from being something President Ortega "claims", the OAS as a matter of fact does not have jurisdiction or competence over boundary disputes. The ICJ on the other hand has not only ruled on boundary issues in general, but with regard to Costa Rica and Nicaragua specifically (in 2009, in favour of Nicaragua). Also, not that the existence of armed forces institutions should play any role in the validity of said dispute, but Costa Rica despite having no army as per their constitution, outspends Nicaragua's entire security apparatus (Police and Armed Forces)by a factor of 3 to 1. The conclusion you reach may still be valuable as "context" to the conflict, but don't neglect other, equally important aspects.

  2. Landy says:

    >What!?! Even though I think Ortega has some serious issues with his reasoning whatever the situation, there is no way that he sent troops to an uninhabited swamp island to send a message of defiance against the USA. He isnt that silly. If he wanted to defy the USA he could have just vetoed Nicaragua's free trade pact with the US right after he won his election.Here is the context:Nicaragua sent troops to the Costa Rican island in defiance of Costa Rican protests to its project to dredge the San Juan river. It was simply a statement of intent. Ortega cant back down for fear of looking weak, which is why he is claiming the drug gangs are determining Costa Rican policy. This itself is absurd considering that Laura Chinchilla was elected to the Presidency on a campaign to stem the flood of drug related violence. Whilst drug trafficking is a serious issue in the San Juan river delta, if you visit the Costa Rican side you will see evidence of Costa Rica's efforts against drug trafficking as some swanky Police boats were actually confiscated from traffickers.To Saeta27:Whatever Costa Rica's security budget, they still have one of the lowest number of police officers per capita in the world and it is ridiculous to believe that they could be mobilized into a standing army. Costa Ricans themselves would find such a move abhorrent. The dispute stems from the ownership and navigational rights of a river from treaties signed hundreds of years ago. Rivers meander, water diverges and this is a justifiable reason to resolve ownership issues but not to send a military force.

  3. Leopoldo says:

    >If anybody had the oportunity to see C.R. deployment of armed forces to the nicaraguan border could see that the statement "Costa Rica dosen't have an army" is only a propaganda to atract tourism and to look weak and defensless to the international comunity they spend 240 million dollars in defense a year wich is tree times more than Nicaragua and don't be naive to think that they use this money to buy candy.

  4. BSanchez says:

    I live in Costa Rica and I have yet to see where the 7000 U.S soldiers are at. I am truly discusted by how someone miles away in London thinks he knows a country better than the locals. You should spend less time looking onto others and begin to look within your self and your nation (whiever it may be), as Gandhi said, you must be the change you want in the world (paraphrasing here of course).

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