Could Higgins have changed the course of a bitter river dispute?

If the President had visited Nicaragua, perhaps he could have mediated in its border dispute with Costa Rica

President  Higgins and Costa Rica’s president Laura Chinchilla  walk to a joint news conference at the Presidential house in San Jose on October 28th. Mr Higgins largely steered clear of contentious political issues during his Latin American tour. Photograph: Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters

President Higgins and Costa Rica’s president Laura Chinchilla walk to a joint news conference at the Presidential house in San Jose on October 28th. Mr Higgins largely steered clear of contentious political issues during his Latin American tour. Photograph: Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters

Sat, Nov 2, 2013, 01:00

It was a shame President Michael D Higgins wasn’t able to make Nicaragua the fourth stop on his tour of Latin America this week along with Mexico, El Salvador and Costa Rica, as originally planned.

Nicaragua and its southern neighbour Costa Rica are involved in a protracted dispute over their border. The President might have been able to help broker a compromise between his old buddy, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, and Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla, one of the hosts on the tour.

The row between Costa Rica and Nicaragua over an area of wetlands south of the San Juan river, the border between the countries, has verged on the bizarre at times since the dispute began three years ago.

Costa Rica does not dispute that a 19th-century agreement grants Nicaragua rights over the river but it is up in arms after Nicaraguan soldiers crossed the river and pitched up on the disputed land.

A naturally occurring problem with the river is that it silts up. When it began dredging the river in 2010, Costa Rica claimed that Nicaragua had committed environmental crimes. The dredging led both countries to send security forces to the disputed area near the mouth of the river at the Caribbean, which is known to Costa Rica as Isla Portillos or Isla Calero, and to Nicaragua as Harbour Head.


Google Maps border
A Nicaraguan commander claimed in 2010 that the version of the border on Google Maps justified the country’s raid into what Costa Rica says is its territory.

Not wanting to be drawn into the dispute, Google consulted the US state department and conceded there was error “in the compilation of the source data, by up to 2.7km [1.7 miles]” on its map, putting the disputed land in Costa Rica and putting Nicaragua in the wrong. Google said the map would be corrected to take account of a demarcation laid out in an 1897 arbitration of a previous border treaty.

Nicaragua challenged Google not to accept Costa Rica’s request to modify the border, believing the internet giant’s first drawing of it was “correct”.

More recently, Costa Rica, using satellite images and aerial photographs, has claimed Nicaragua is responsible for dredging two more canals in Costa Rican territory designed to link the San Juan river with the Caribbean.

In September, the dispute between the countries turned personal as former Sandinista guerrilla leader Edén Pastora, who is leading the Nicaraguan government’s excavation of the river, exchanged insults with Costa Rican communications minister Carlos Roverssi in television interviews. Pastora, also known as Comandante Cero, responded to images of the dredging by labelling Chinchilla and administration officials “crazy and liars”, claiming that the country’s statements were “mere inventions”. He claimed that the two new canals did not exist and there was only one canal, which was “naturally formed by recent rains in the area”.

Roverssi, in response, called Pastora “a coward and a liar” and challenged him to come to Costa Rica to face environmental charges for the 2010 dredging work.

Pastora didn’t let it lie there. He described Roverssi as “vulgar”, a “brat”, “arrogant” and “not to be taken seriously”.

“I’d like to see him come here to [Nicaragua] . . . then I would have a response for him,” he said.

Pastora did acknowledge that Nicaraguan dredges were operating in the area but said they were only removing aquatic plants to facilitate the river’s flow.

The dispute has gone all the way to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Just last month Costa Rica claimed a “moral victory” when during the hearings Nicaragua conceded that it had entered the restricted wetlands. Nicaragua did not go as far as to claim responsibility for the two new canals, but accused Pastora of acting alone.

Next week the court is expected to hear a countersuit from Nicaragua in which it accuses Costa Rica of committing environmental damage to the river by building a 160km road, a route that Costa Rica started constructing in 2011 in response to Nicaragua’s dredging the previous year.


No army
Costa Rica has not had an army since it was disbanded in 1948 after a 44-day civil war. Some officials in the capital, San José, privately believe this might be encouraging Nicaragua’s aggression. Costa Rica has also heightened tensions by supporting Colombia in its dispute with Nicaragua over an area of maritime territory in the Caribbean that both countries claim to own.

Higgins, who met Chinchilla in San José on Monday, largely steered clear of contentious political issues during public speeches on his 12-day Latin American tour. For example, he reserved any real discussion of the high murder rate in El Salvador and the country’s gang problems for his private meetings with Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes.

Scheduling issues around Ortega’s diary led to Nicaragua being dropped from the President’s tour. Had the stop in Nicaragua gone ahead, Higgins might well have had more to discuss privately.