This past November, two anti-American governments each committed an act of aggression against the island territory of a neighboring democracy. North Korea shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing two soldiers and two civilians. Nicaragua’s well-staffed and armed military forces invaded and occupied the Costa Rican island of Calero. The North Korean aggression prompted full-throated international condemnations and calls for U.N. action. The Nicaraguan aggression, however, was largely ignored.
What explains the different reactions? For one thing, North Korea perpetrated physical violence that led to four deaths, whereas Nicaragua did not spill any blood in its conquest of Calero Island. For another thing, North Korea represents a much greater threat to regional and global stability than does Nicaragua because Kim Jong Il has a nuclear arsenal, while Nicaragua does not. But Costa Rica doesn’t have a military and depends on international law and multilateral institutions for its defense. Moreover, South Korea is a member of the G-20. It was thus to be expected that Pyongyang’s artillery bombardment would draw much more attention than Managua’s cross-border incursion.
Still, Washington’s neglect of the Nicaraguan invasion/occupation is simply astonishing. On January 6, Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela—the top U.S. diplomat for the Western Hemisphere—delivered a 2,600-word speech on U.S. policy toward Latin America that made no mention whatsoever of it. By ignoring the issue, Valenzuela sent a depressingly clear message about the Obama administration’s lack of interest.
Most people reading this article are probably unfamiliar with the Calero Island dispute, given the scant press coverage it has received in the United States. Here’s a brief narrative of what happened: Last fall, while Nicaragua was dredging a section of the San Juan River—which forms part of its border with Costa Rica—its military forces effectively invaded and occupied a river island (Calero) that has always been considered Costa Rican territory. The Organization of American States (OAS) demanded that Managua withdraw troops from the area so that a peaceful diplomatic settlement could be reached. Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega refused to comply. Rather than punish his government, the OAS merely reiterated its initial demands. Ortega remained stubbornly defiant. His soldiers are still occupying Calero Island. It’s been over three months since they first arrived.
Costa Rican officials have loudly and persistently condemned the cross-border aggression. Thus far, however, their outrage has failed to bring a commensurate response from Washington. Indeed, the Obama administration has failed to impose any diplomatic or economic penalty on Nicaragua, and it has failed to push a strong resolution through the OAS. (One wonders how hard it has been trying.) Moreover, shortly after the invasion, U.S. officials agreed to offer Managua another $65 million in development funds through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which is supposed to reward progress on political and economic reform.
Against this background, Costa Rica filed suit against Nicaragua last year, seeking precautionary measures from the International Court of Justice in the Hague. Of paramount concern for Costa Rica has been to limit the damages being perpetrated by Sandinista troops on the island’s particular environment. We still need to see what the ICJ says about this. Nevertheless, very few today are relying on Nicaragua´s compliance with an order to withdraw, given Ortega’s brazen rejection of OAS’s decisions on this matter.
Nicaragua and Costa Rica are small countries, but their current dispute has ramifications for all of Latin America. If Ortega is allowed to invade a neighboring democracy and get away with it, other autocratic populists may be emboldened to pursue similar foreign adventures. Indeed, by failing to penalize Nicaragua for its behavior, the Obama administration and the OAS are sending a dangerous signal to Hugo Chávez and his allies. History teaches us that seemingly minor diplomatic spats can trigger much bigger problems down the road.
For that matter, the conflict between Nicaragua and Costa Rica is not really a “minor” squabble. One country has invaded the other and is refusing to withdraw its armed forces. It’s just that simple. A military occupation is a military occupation. The size of Nicaragua and Costa Rica matters less than the basic principle that cross-border aggression should not be tolerated. Every day that Nicaraguan troops remain on Calero Island, OAS resolutions are being flouted. The hemispheric institution has already lost a great deal of its credibility. It will drift even closer to irrelevance if it cannot summon the will to end Nicaragua’s illegal occupation.
Last November, U.S. officials immediately recognized that the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong demanded a muscular multilateral response. Nicaragua’s belligerence was of a different magnitude and nature, but it must not be excused or downplayed. There’s far more at stake than just the future of Calero Island. Does the Obama administration appreciate that?
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.