With the world distracted by currency fights, European debt problems, and other economic challenges, Nicaragua has quietly invaded and occupied the sovereign territory of Costa Rica. It is an act of naked aggression that deserves to be condemned and resisted by governments everywhere, yet most Americans have probably read little or nothing about it.
Here’s a brief synopsis of what happened. At the direction of their government, Nicaraguans were dredging the San Juan River, which forms a section of their southern border with Costa Rica. They were doing so in a manner that was damaging many Costa Rican properties, which understandably prompted San José to complain. Then, Nicaraguan military troops entered and occupied a large river island (Calero Island) that has traditionally been considered part of Costa Rican territory. Indeed, they even raised a Nicaraguan flag there. The soldiers are refusing to leave Calero Island, and Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega is insisting—against all evidence—that the island belongs to Managua.
Initially, Managua alleged that an error made by Google maps was the reason Nicaraguan soldiers entered another sovereign nation. And while Google soon admitted an error in its map and corrected the mistake, Nicaragua, nevertheless, still claims the land as its own and hasn’t removed its troops from Costa Rica.
Costa Rica, mind you, does not have an army, but it has dispatched a small police detachment to the region and urged the Organization of American States (OAS) to act. After traveling to the San Juan River, OAS leader José Miguel Insulza recommended that all military or security personnel be removed from the disputed area so that proper diplomatic negotiations could proceed. On November 13, the OAS Permanent Council approved a resolution endorsing his recommendations, with 22 countries voting in favor of it. Nicaragua and Venezuela both opposed the resolution, while Ecuador, Dominica, and Guyana abstained from the vote. (Ecuador and Dominica are members of the Caracas-led Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, and Guyana relies on Venezuelan oil.) In response, Ortega has threatened to remove his country from the OAS. (At the same time, he continues to oppose the readmittance of democratic Honduras, which was expelled following the legal, constitutional ouster of President Manuel Zelaya in 2009.)
Why would Ortega deliberately trigger such a conflict? Simple: to increase his domestic support ahead of next year’s presidential election, and to advance his radical project of turning Nicaragua into a mini-Venezuela.
Nicaraguan politicians of all ideological bents have a long history of rattling sabers toward Costa Rica. The right-wing Somoza dictatorship engaged in such behavior, as did the leftist Sandinista regime (led by Ortega) during the 1980s and the nominally “conservative” Alemán government during the 1990s. Ramping up tensions with their southern neighbor is an easy way for Nicaraguan leaders to inflame nationalist sentiment and rally public support for the incumbent administration.
Ortega has angered and frightened many Nicaraguans with his efforts to rig municipal elections and erode constitutional checks and balances. “Headlines in Nicaragua’s opposition dailies read like cries of distress: ‘Sandinista Dictatorship Established in Supreme Court,’ ‘Dictatorship Thanks to Weakened Opposition,’ ‘Dictatorship, Step by Step,’” Managua-based journalist Tim Rogers wrote recently. Now the Sandinistas are using the San Juan River spat to distract attention from their autocratic abuses and boost their popularity.
The attempted land grab confirms, yet again, that Ortega (and his party) never really changed. Though he won election fairly as the Sandinista candidate in 2006, he’s still the same corrupt, authoritarian thug who ruled Nicaragua with an iron fist during the 1980s, a time when he was receiving significant aid from the Soviet Union. Back then, Ortega looked to Moscow for both economic assistance and ideological guidance. Today, he looks to Caracas. Indeed, with each passing month, Nicaragua becomes more and more like Venezuela.
Chávez has a well-documented record of extra-territorial aggression; for example, his regime has cooperated with terrorist groups like the Colombian FARC and meddled in foreign elections (in Argentina, El Salvador, Peru, and elsewhere). Ortega has spent the past four years mimicking his Venezuelan patron. The land grab suggests that he’s getting bolder in the run-up to the 2011 election.
The Obama administration must take a firm stand against Nicaragua’s belligerence. The occupation of Calero Island represents, quite simply, a cross-border invasion. (Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla is not exaggerating when she uses that word.) If the U.S. and its democratic partners in Latin America don’t firmly and effectively pressure Nicaragua to leave the island and quit its warmongering, other pro-Chávez governments may feel emboldened to pursue similar adventurism. While the stakes in the San Juan River dispute may appear small, they’re actually quite large. Ortega is testing the willpower of his democratic neighbors. Their response will have serious consequences for the entire region.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.