Canal intrigues behind Nicaragua border disputes

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega announced Dec. 3 that his nation's ships are already exercising sovereignty over resource-rich Caribbean waters claimed by Colombia but granted to the Central American nation by the World Court last week. "At midnight on Sunday [Dec. 2] our ships sailed, they sailed to the recovered area, and by now they have established sovereignty in that whole territory," Ortega said in a message on television and radio. (Reuters, Nov. 26) The ships actually appear to be fishing boats, as Nicaragua has virtually no naval forces—while Colombia has dispatched warships into the disputed waters. Nicaraguan fishing boat captains told the English-language Nicaragua Dispatch that they are "fishing with fear" in the disputed waters beyond the 82nd meridian. "We are doing our part to support the government," said Carlos Javier Goff, president of the Copescharley fishing company out of Puerto Cabezas.  "We feel protected by the government and by the international community and, God willing, this won't go to extremes… it won't get beyond words and intimidation."

Meanwhile, the situation remains tense. One of Colombian patrols attempted to board one of his Nicaraguan fishing vessels early last week, as well as menacing his fleet from the air, Goff said. "They were doing daily flyovers of our boats last week in helicopters and planes." The Nicaraguan government would not comment on the claims of harassment, other than to say that Ortega met with Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos met in Mexico to try to de-escalate the situation over the weekend. (Nicaragua Dispatch, Dec. 3)

Ironically, after the World Court ruling, Nicaragua's National Assembly approved a presidential decree authorizing US troops to enter the country's expanded maritime territory to conduct joint drug patrols. Although the target is ostensibly narco-traffickers rather than the Colombian military, the move seems an implicit admisison that Nicaragua lacks the capacity to protect its new waters. It marks the first time Nicaragua's congress has approved the entrance of foreign troops for a military mission other than "humanitarian aid" or training exercises (Nicaragua Dispatch, Nov. 30)

"Colombia got blindsided by this ruling and right now they are venting their spleen to get the venom out and come to grips with it," said Nicaragua’s ex-Foreign Minister Francisco Aguirre, who presented Nicaragua's case against Colombia before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague in 2001.

Aguirre told the Dispatch that he thinks Colombia will eventually "regain its senses and act like an adult nation," but insists Nicaragua needs to be prepared for the worst. In the event that Colombia defies the ruling with military force, Aguirre said Nicaragua will launch an aggressive diplomatic offensive before the UN, OAS and the Central American Integration System (SICA).

But if that happens, Nicaragua could expect immediate pushback from Costa Rica—which claims Nicaragua is also violating the will of the ICJ by maintaining brigades of Sandinista Youth in a disputed border region in the Río San Juan Basin. Costa Rica's Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo says Nicaragua's continued presence on Harbour Head island in the river that forms the international border "constitutes a brazen lack of compliance with the International Court of Justice's provisional measures" handed down March 8, 2011. (Nicaragua Dispatch, Nov. 25)

The Costa Rican government in October issued a diplomatic missive expressing its "energetic protest" over continued Nicaraguan activities on the island, which Nicaraguan claims as Harbour Head and Costa Rica claims as Isla Calero. The letter charged that Sandinista Youth members were building a barbed-wire fence around the disputed island.  

Costa Rica noted that it has been two years since it first denounced Nicaragua's alleged "military invasion of Costa Rican territory," and a year and a half since the ICJ ordered both countries to withdraw personnel from the disputed zone as a provisional measure.

Since that time, Nicaragua has maintained a constant presence on the island with a Sandinista youth camp (see report on Camp Harbour Head) that operates under the guise of an environmental field camp. The diplomatic letter sent by Foreign Minister Castillo stated: "This recent work build inside the territory where the International Court has issued provisional measures is another flagrant violation of the Court’s orders." (Nicaragua Dispatch, Oct. 31)

The makeshift camp run by a Sandinista Youth environmental brigade called "Guardabarranco" has been operating since April 2011, three weeks after the ICJ ordered Nicaragua and Costa Rica to withdraw their security personnel from the disputed border zone. More than 70 such "environmental brigades" have passed through the island on week-long shifts since then. (Nicaragua Dispatch, Sept. 26)

A Man, a Plan, a Canal… Nicaragua?
The San Juan dispute comes as Nicaraguan political and business leaders are promoting an ambitious plan to build a new inter-oceanic canal through the San Juan Basin. Six countries are interested in funding a $30 billion canal in Nicaragua that would link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, said project coordinator Edén Pastora, the notorious "Commander Zero" of the Contra rebel movement of the 1980s. "We've had talks with Japan, China, Russia, Venezuela, Brazil and South Korea and everyone is interested," Pastora boasted earlier this year after his former enemy Ortega submitted a bill to the National Assembly detailing six possible routes for the proposed waterway. 

Costa Rica's Foreign Ministry immediately issued a statement demanding clarifications on the plan, asserting: "It is clear that the realization of infrastructure projects by Nicaragua in its own territory is the prerogative of that country, but Managua must comply with the provisions of the 1858 Treaty of Limits and the Cleveland Arbitration Award of 1888. Therefore, Nicaragua cannot purport to build an interoceanic canal without asking and hearing Costa Rica’s opinion, because our opinion is binding if our rights may be violated." (AFP, June 6)

Nicaragua in November announced it is inviting Taiwanese companies to invest in development of the now-sleepy Caribbean port of San Juan in preparation for the canal project. On a visit to Taipei, Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Samuel Santos López spoke of the need to build containerized shipping facilities at the port at the mouth of the Río San Juan. (See map.)

Taiwan's deputy foreign minister Simon Ko said at the seminar on the canal project that he considered it a "worthwhile" investment opportunity. Commerce between the two countries has been growing steadily since a Taiwan-Nicaragua free trade agreement took effect in 2008. (CNA, Nov. 8)

But Nicaraguan environmentalists have also expressed opposition to the canal project. Salvador Montenegro of the Center for the Investigation of Water Resources (CIRA), affiliated with the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN), declared the project "unviable."  Montenegro cited the need to dredge Lago de Nicaragua, the giant lake which is the source of the Río San Juan, along with massive hydro-electric and irrigation projects planned along with the canal project in the basin, to portray an ecological disaster in the making. He said the only alternative to massive dredging of Lago de Nicaragua (also known by its indigenous name of Lago Cocibolca) would be the risk of devastating oil spill in the event of a tanker accident. (Nuevo Diario, Managua, Nov. 29)

Costa Rica meanwhile continues to maintain that the Guardabarranco brigade is illegally occupying land owned by a farm known as Aragón based on the Costa Rican side of the river, and has repeatedly expressed concerns that Nicaraguan military forces are among the young brigadistas—in violation of the ICJ's March 2011 ruling. Nicaragua last December brought another case before the World Court, challenging Costa Rica's right to build a road parallel to the river. (Global Post, Nov. 5; Tico Times, Feb. 23; Tico Times, Costa Rica, June 26, 2011)

The new case constitutes the third brought before the ICJ over the Río San Juan in as many years. In July 2009, the ICJ ruled (PDF) that Nicaragua had interfered with Costa Rica's right of free navigation on the river. Costa Rica filed that complaint in 2005, arguing that although Nicaragua has sovereignty over the river, it was impeding free navigation in violation of the 1858 Treaty of Limits by requiring visas for passengers aboard Costa Rican ships, requiring that ships stop at Nicaraguan posts, and preventing Costa Rican police from using the river to re-supply border posts. The ICJ found that the treaty did establish Costa Rica's right to free navigation for "commercial purposes," and that "commerce" meant both cargo and transportation. The court said visa requirements would give Nicaragua undue control over a Costa Rican right. But the court rejected Costa Rica's argument that its free navigation of the river gave its ships the freedom to dock at the Nicaragua bank without coming under Nicaraguan control. The court also found that official Costa Rican vehicles, including police boats, are not covered under "commercial purposes," although they should be allowed when performing services necessary to the river bank's inhabitants. (Jurist, July 13, 2009)

See our last post on the maritime dispute.