Google Maps at issue in Central American border conflict

Nicaragua has refused to withdraw troops from a disputed island along the river border with Costa Rica, and is asking Internet giant Google not to change its maps with respect to the contested Isla Calero. The request came from Nicaragua’s foreign minister, Samuel Santos, in a letter sent to Jeffrey Hardy at Google, a copy of which was made available to the press.

The Nicaraguan request is based on arguments made earlier this week by Eden Pastora, the notorious former “Commander Zero.” Pastora is in charge of dredging operations on the river, which relied on Google Maps to identify the border. The international dispute is currently before the Organization of American States (OAS).

In his letter, Foreign Minister Santos confirms the request to Google by the executive director of the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies (INETER), Alejandro Rodríguez, not to accept an apparent request from Costa Rica to change the border between both countries in their satellite mapping service.

Nicaragua’s vice president, Jaime Morales Carazo, rejected Costa Rican demands that Managua withdraw some 50 soldiers from Isla Calero. “We cannot invade our own territory,” he said. Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla countered: “This is not a border problem, it is the invasion of one nation to another.”

Costa Rica has appealed to the OAS in the dispute. The regional body’s secretary general, José Miguel Insulza, visited both countries over the weekend and took a flight over the disputed area.

Daniel Helft, director of public policies for Google Latin America, said the company had found “an inaccuracy in the shaping of the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua and is working to update the information as quickly as possible.” Helft criticized Nicaragua for apparently relying on Google Maps to make such sensitive territorial decision.

Google Maps became embroiled in another territorial dispute this week when it emerged that it had placed Perejil, a tiny island claimed by Spain, within Morocco‘s borders. In 2002, Spain staged a military landing on the island to remove Moroccan naval troops who had been dispatched there. “We have confirmation that a mistake was made, and the correction will follow,” a spokesman for Google Spain told Europa Press. (The Guardian, Nov. 11; Inside Costa Rica, Nov. 7)

Google Maps has also been at issue in Israeli-Palestinian and Sino-Indian conflicts.

Iranian canal designs seen
The Nicaraguan dispute is reviving fears of Iranian designs on a trans-oceanic route through the Central American isthmus. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz writes that the Isla Calero affair “is a sign of an ambitious plan by Venezuela, Iran and Nicaragua to create a ‘Nicaragua Canal’ linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that would rival the existing Panama Canal.”

Citing unnamed “sources in Latin America,” Ha’aretz writes that the border incident is “the first step in a plan formulated by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, with funding and assistance from Iran, to create a substitute for the strategically and economically important Panama Canal.”

Ha’aretz calls the Nicaraguan occupation of Isla Calero “a trial balloon by the creators of the ‘New Canal Plan’—Venezuela, Iran and Nicaragua. Western intelligence agencies are closely following the path of heavy machinery equipment to Nicaragua as well as the activities of Iranians in the Nicaraguan capital Managua.”

However, Ha’aretz conceded that an unnamed US State Department official told the paper’s Washington correspondent that the US is not aware of any plans to build a new canal in Central America.

In 2007, Chavez announced a plan to build a $350 million road connecting Nicaragua’s two coasts, and the Iranians have expressed interest in building a port on the Atlantic Ocean. But the US official “did not express concern about either of those initiatives.” (Ha’aretz, Nov. 11)

See our last posts on Costa Rica, Nicaragua, the politics of cyberspace, and Iran in Latin America.

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  1. saludos con la razon
    Will the Obama administration ever start standing up to the Latin axis of caudillos? Nicaragua invaded Costa Rica last month — yet the State Department is all but AWOL.
    State is taking a carefully worded, almost neutral stand in the dispute between Costa Rica — our ally, and the world’s most pacifist country — and Nicaragua, a key player in Hugo Chavez’s group of Latin strongmen.
    Last month, Nicaragua sent troops into a jungle area at the mouth of the San Juan River, which has long been determined by mediators to be on Costa Rica’s side of the border. The excuse for the invasion: Google Maps recently showed the area as part of Nicaragua.