Nicaragua-Costa Rica tensions over strategic canal route

This Dec.1 report (condensed here) from the Tico Times, Costa Rica’s English-language newspaper, notes a World Court case between the Central American country and its northern neighbor Nicaragua over the strategic San Juan River that forms the border:

With historical tensions again flaring between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Rodrigo Carreras, Costa Rica ‘s ambassador to Nicaragua, is calling for understanding and tolerance between the neighboring nations.

In a time when barbed comments, venomous “jokes” and mutual suspicions serve to fan nationalistic passions and xenophobia on both sides of the San Juan River, a little brotherly love can go a long way, Carreras said. “My role is to have empathy and communicate to my government what the people of Nicaragua think and feel about things,” he said.

At the moment, the ambassador laments, a lack of empathy between the two neighboring nations is again spurring the perennial dispute over Costa Rica’s claims to navigation rights on the San Juan—prompting the Tico government in September to take its case before the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

That move has prompted Nicaragua to counter with a reprisal entry tax levied on Costa Ricans, and ponder aloud its historical claim to the northern Costa Rican province of Guanacaste. Several Costa Rican academics took the border dispute to the next level this week by reminding whomever would listen that the Costa Rican border markers south of Lake Nicaragua were misplaced over a century ago, unknowingly giving Nicaragua a large swath of Costa Rican territory (what is today Los Guatuzos).

While there are several points of historical contention, at the center of the border dispute flows the mighty San Juan River.

Over the years, the river issue has become a topic that is impossible for the two nations to discuss in any meaningful way.

Carreras sums up the impasse: “Costa Rica doesn’t have as much right to the river as many Costa Ricans think, but we have more rights than many Nicaraguans claim we do.”

In Nicaragua, meanwhile, street vendors are selling T-shirts that read: “The San Juan River is 100% Nicaraguan,” and otherwise levelheaded citizens talk freely about taking up arms to defend the river if Costa Rica invades.

The article fails to mention the strategic nature of the San Juan River. International investors are eyeing the Rio San Juan as a possible inter-oceanic trade route to replace or augment the antiquated Panama Canal. The river flows from Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean, leaving only a narrow strip of land between the lake and the Pacific. It was eyed as a canal route in the 19th century, but the US chose Panama after an 1893 revolution brought the nationalist regime of José Santos Zelaya to power.

As we reported in May 2003, the Florida-based Phenix Group is seeking to build a pipeline across Nicaragua, a project being hailed as the first step towards a possible “Dry Canal” of pipelines, highways and high-speed rail with free trade zones and containerized shipping ports on either side.

The “dry” project actually cuts north of the San Juan basin and Lake Nicaragua, linking the little Caribbean coast town of Monkey Point to the Pacific port of Corinto. Peter Constantini reported for Inter Press Service in October 1996 the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff had launched a $20 million feasibility study of a “dry canal” or “land bridge” across Nicaragua.

The Nicaragua Network Environmental Committee reports two competing “dry canal” proposals by the Nicaraguan Interoceanic Canal Consortium (CINN), and the second by Global Intermodal Transportation Systems (SIT-Global).

The UK Guardian Oct. 23, 2003, reported two proposals for an actual new canal that would follow the Rio San Juan. One is for a so-called “Eco-Canal,” priced at just $50 million, which would make “low-impact” use of the river and lake. The river would be dredged in places but maintain its natural banks. Instead of traditional locks, air-powered moveable dams would be used to assist cargo barges to pass two stretches of rapids. The Eco-Canal would serve national and regional trade, rather than compete for a share of the international container market. It already has the approval of Nicaragua’s congress, but has struggled to raise the $4 million needed for a feasibility study.

This is contrasted to a “hugely ambitious” scheme dubbed the “Grand Canal,” which envisions the historical of irony of Nicaragua as the replacement for the Panama Canal. However, the Grand Canal would cost more then ten times Nicaragua’s annual GDP.

Either the San Juan basin or “dry canal” route would cut through remote rainforest and impoverished peasant regions.

Tensions between the US and Nicaragua are also now escalating, with the Bush Administration openly warning of an aid cut-off if the leftist Sandinistas win in next year’s presidential race. (See our last post.) Costa Rica, which does not share Nicaragua’s revolutionary nationalist tradition, is closer to the United States.