Nicaragua raises stakes in border conflict

Edén Pastora, the Nicaraguan government official responsible for the dredging project on the Río San Juan—seen as a step towards a Nicaraguan inter-oceanic canal— confirmed to local media Feb. 6 that Managua has asked the International Court of Justice at The Hague for navigation rights on the Río Colorado, located entirely within Costa Rican territory. "This government of Daniel Ortega…applies the logic of  'what's good for the goose is good for the gander,'" he told Managua's Channel 15 TV. "if [Costa Rica] can navigate our waters, why can't we travel the waters of the Río Colorado, if 90% of its water is from the Río San Juan?" This is a reference to the fact that the Colorado is a branch of the San Juan, which is claimed in its entirety by Nicaragua—despite a pending case at The Hague over disputed islands.

Pastora also invoked a treaty he said allows Nicragua access to the Colorado, which breaks off from the San Juan as it approaches the Craibbean sea. Pastora claimed Nicaragua may make use of the Colorado—actually the larger branch than that of the San Juan proper—until it develops its own port facilities. "Until we can establish a safe harbor in Punta Castilla, we can freely navigate Río Colorado, according to the 1858 Cañas-Jerez Treaty," Pastora said.

Punta Castilla was named as the San Juan's mouth in the 1888 Cleveland Award, mediated by US President Grover Cleveland. It is now separated from the Nicaraguan port of San Juan del Norte (Greytown) by a body of water called Harbor Head, which opened after 1888 and is in the area now claimed by both countries. Nicaragua says Costa Rica has unfairly gained territory by the opening of Harbor Head.

As Nicaragua dredges the San Juan, Costa Rica is building a road parallel to the river—which Managua protests as damaging the drainage area. With Costa Rica's case against Nicaragua over the disputed islands still pending, Nicaragua has filed its own case against Costa Rica to halt construction of the road. In December, Managua appealed to The Hague to have the two cases merged. A third case over the Río Colorado would complicate the matter yet further.

"The Tico government's only intentions are to keep provoking," Pastora told Nicaraguan media in reference to the road, using the colloquial word for Costa Rican. "The Río San Juan dredging bothered them, so they responded with a trail that they will later call a road… They will continue endangering nature in Nicaragua and Costa Rica."

Costa Rica especially opposes Nicraguan plans to dredge in the disputed waters, seeing this as a design to recover territory lost when the river changed course. Pastora told Costa Rica's English-language Tico Times in 2011: "We plan to return the river as it was 200 years ago. We plan to return it to how it was when the Jerez-Cañas treaty was created. It's very simple. I don't know why it scares the Costa Ricans so much." (Costa Rica News, Feb. 10; Tico Times, Costa Rica, Nuevo Diario, Nicaragua, Feb. 6; Tico Times, Jan. 21; South East Shipping News, June 7, 2012; Tico Times, Feb. 5, 2011; La Nación, Costa Rica, Dec. 10, 2010; ProNicaragua, Dec. 1, 2010; Ogle Earth, Nov. 7, 2010)