Border Bickering Over Guanacaste

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (R) and his wife Rosario Murillo arrive for the opening of the Petrocaribe Summit, in Caracas, on May 5, 2013. Pertocaribe is an alliance Venezuela has with several Caribbean states under which it supplies oil to them at cut-rate prices.   AFP  PHOTO / JUAN BARRETO
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (right) and his wife, Rosario Murillo. Source: AFP/Juan Barreto.

The soap opera that is the relationship between Costa Rica and Nicaragua took yet another turn for the bizarre last week. Less than a month after Ticos celebrated the annexation of their northwestern province of Guanacaste, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega threw everyone for a loop when he proclaimed his intention to reclaim the land that at one time belonged to Costa Rica’s northern neighbor.

The land now known as Guanacaste has almost as colorful a past as the two nations who continually engage in its custody battle. When Nicaragua and Costa Rica received independence from Spain in 1821, most of present day Guanacaste was in Nicaraguan territory. However, after Costa Rica aided its then ally in its National War of 1850, Nicaragua recognized Costa Rica’s annexation of Guanacaste as a thank you.

Sort of.

Parties on both sides still dispute the annexation. Some in Costa Rica say Guanacaste was never part of Nicaragua. Some counterparts in Nicaragua in turn argue that the province’s annexation in 1824 didn’t entail what Costa Rican officials thought it did. While ego may be more at play here than fact between the two rivals, the difficulty in finding the same argument twice is symbolic of the constant border spats between the two nations.

Ortega himself is a big point of frustration for Costa Rica. The renowned, socialist President of Nicaragua has sparked various border disputes over the years — the most prominent being over Isla Calero. Ortega has also continually accused Costa Rica of being unwilling to resolve border disputes diplomatically.

In reference to Guanacaste and his intention of taking matters to the International Court of Justice for a resolution, Ortega said last week “we are always willing to hold talks to search for an agreement, but as long as that path is not open and Costa Rica does not consider that a possibility, there is no other choice but to continue at the International Court of Justice.”

Despite the history of border bickering, the recent Guanacaste proclamations mark a new low in relations between the countries.

The question is, what does it mean? No one knows. Yet.

Some, like Nicaragua’s former foreign minister Francisco Xavier Aguirre Sacasa, say this is just another spat between the two nations that occurs every two or three years. Others think this is a precursor for bigger things to come.

Nicaragua has been picking up political momentum in recent months. With increased ties to political allies Iran and Venezuela, coupled with its mega-deal with Chinese investor Wang Jing to construct a Nicaraguan canal starting next year, its words are starting to have some beef behind them. Combine that with the still mysterious North Korean military ship that was intercepted, coming from Cuba, by Panama a few months ago, and the timing of Ortega’s Guanacaste declaration does have an odor to it.

If intimidation is the motive, Costa Rica isn’t taking the bait.

The initial response from Costa Rica has been strong and direct. As reported by the Tico Times, the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry sent a formal complaint to the Nicaraguan ambassador demanding that its northern neighbor “cease all intention to reclaim Costa Rican territory” and said Ortega’s declaration “severely damaged relations” between both countries.

Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla hasn’t backed down, either. In a statement released last week she described Ortega’s actions as “difficult to comprehend” and that “We do not accept talking to Nicaragua about Guanacaste. Costa Rica does not accept that they challenge its absolute rights over the province of Guanacaste.”

Whether this is simply an extension of ongoing border battles or is the first real attempt for Nicaragua to flex some new found muscle remains to be seen. What we do know is that it isn’t over.

Stay tuned.

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