>– Strategic Implications of Fabricated Nicaragua-Costa Rica Border Spat:
1) Tests Costa Rica’s Resolve ahead of Russian-Venezuelan-Iranian Plan to Build “Nicaragua Canal,” Steal Business from Panama Canal
2) Provides Possible Cover for Russians and Venezuelans to Insert Military Assets into Central America, Outflank New US Bases in Panama
3) Creates False National Unity among Nicaraguans ahead of Ortega’s Illegal Bid for Presidency in 2011
– Google Glitch Bolsters Sandinistas’ Territorial Claims, Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Demands Retention of Error
Pictured above: Nicaraguan soldiers near Costa Rican border on November 4, 2010. Map of contested area below.
This is not a border problem, it is the invasion of one nation to another.
– Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, statement made on November 10, 2010
As Nicaragua and Costa Rica once again wrestle over legal ownership of the San Juan River, a status that was technically settled in Managua’s favor last year, the Communist Bloc players behind the neo-Sandinista regime are hoving into view. The San Juan empties into the Caribbean Sea and forms the eastern part of the countries’ common border.
The dispute erupted late last month when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega ordered former Sandinista revolutionary hero Eden Pastora, who now sports polo shirts instead of battle dress, to supervise the dredging of the San Juan, ostensibly to improve navigation. Shortly after the operation began, Nicaraguan troops accosted a Costa Rican rancher on his own property, scooped a chunk of the man’s real estate into the river, scared off some farmhands, and killed several cows. A Nicaraguan flag was raised on the seized land. Around the same time, on October 21, Nicaraguan troops appeared on Isla Calero, a 151-square-kilometer coastal island near the San Juan’s mouth, and erected a makeshift base.
Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla rushed 70 heavily armed national police to the northeast sector of the country to help the coast guard patrol the river region. Nicaragua insists Costa Rica has no legal claim to the island, because it is clearly designated as Nicaraguan territory by both 19th-century border treaties and Google Maps (which is a story in itself, as we relate below).
The Organization of American States, responding to an appeal from San Jose, intervened last weekend by dispatching OAS secretary general, José Miguel Insulza, to hold separate meetings with Ortega and Chinchilla. During a three-day visit to Central America, Insulza made two flyovers of the San Juan and Isla Calero. Although Insulza claimed not to have seen Nicaraguan troops during a flyover of the area on Monday, their widely reported presence on the island is the basis of the current spat between Managua and San Jose. After his fact-finding mission, Insulza made this and other recommendations: “To create a favorable climate for dialogue between the two nations, the presence of armed forces in an area where they could generate tension should be avoided.”
In response to Insulza’s recommendations, Enrique Castillo, Costa Rica’s ambassador to the OAS, issued an ultimatum to Nicaragua on Tuesday afternoon, demanding that all Nicaraguan troops retreat from the area within 48 hours. “Beginning right now, we are demanding that Nicaragua remove all military personnel from Isla Calero within 48 hours,” declared Castillo, adding: “We consider their presence on Isla Calero to be a direct violation of national sovereignty and Costa Rican territory.”
Two days before, Chinchilla had warned that her country will go all the way to the United Nations, if necessary, to seek redress: “We have been very clear: If the inter-American system fails us, if it proves weak, we will consult higher authorities. We are willing to take it, if the case calls for it, to the Security Council of the United Nations. Whatever solution that comes from this process will be a peaceful one. Costa Rica is asking only for a fair exit to the conflict.”
Unimpressed by the threats emanating from the otherwise peaceful Costa Ricans, Nicaragua’s vice president, Jaime Morales Carazo, a former Contra rebel, rejected San Jose’s demands that Managua remove around 50 soldiers from Isla Calero. “We cannot invade our own territory,” he chided.
On Wednesday, 84 lawmakers from Nicaragua’s otherwise deadlocked National Assembly held a special session in the river port town of San Carlos. The legislators—representing the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front, the Constitutionalist Liberal Party, and assorted Sandinista dissidents—produced a unanimous six-point resolution to defend Nicaragua’s sovereign right to the San Juan, to support President Ortega’s actions to defend and dredge the river, and to allocate more funds to the Nicaraguan Army to patrol the border.
On Thursday, a 15-member delegation from the National Assembly and top army brass boarded three military helicopters to fly to the disputed river territory (pictured here). Instead of overseeing the withdrawal of troops, the lawmakers and military command arrived at Isla Calero in a show of support for both the troops and national unity. Pastora was quick to join Sandinista and opposition legislators in supporting Ortega: “This congressional session on the river delivers a serious and profound message that all men and women in Nicaragua are united behind the president in defending our sovereignty and dignity. I think Costa Rica is going to have to think twice. Costa Rica is defeated.”
General Julio Aviles, a former Sandinista guerrilla, vowed that the military would defend the San Juan against Costa Rica’s “expansionist pretensions.” He accused army-less Costa Rica of “generating conflict and hostilities” and trying to intimidate Nicaragua as part of a “systematic campaign.” The general huffed: “But these threats don’t intimidate us.” In a somewhat confusing turn of events, Aviles insisted there are no troops occupying Isla Calero. Rather, Nicaraguan soldiers are occupying the smaller, neighboring Isla Portillo (Harbor Head).
“Nicaragua is making a mockery of everyone here today,” Castillo protested after the ultimatum expired on Thursday. San Jose then offered a 24-hour extension but, by Friday morning, it was apparent that more Nicaraguan soldiers had arrived on Isla Calero.
The neo-Sandinista regime is not placated by the OAS intervention. Denis Moncada, Managua’s OAS representative, alleged in the Nicaraguan media that “Costa Rica is conniving with Colombia and Honduras” to link the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border dispute with another tiff between Nicaragua and Colombia over maritime rights in the western Caribbean Sea. “With its activities at The Hague, and its requests at the OAS, Costa Rica is trying to create documents to add to the [International Court of Justice’s] file,” Moncada told Nicaragua’s Channel 4 television.
Both capitals are accusing the other of “provocations,” but it is evident that the neo-Sandinista regime is moving more military and construction equipment into the disputed river region.
This week, San Jose’s Minister of Public Security, Jose Maria Tijerino, announced that the Costa Rican National Police seized six military trucks that were shipped from Germany and bound for Nicaragua. The vehicles landed at the port of Limón as Nicaragua does not have suitable ports on its Caribbean coast. Later, after meeting with President Chinchilla’s Security Council, Tijerino revealed that the trucks would be permitted to proceed to their destination. “This serves as an example we are [a] state of rights and are not at war with Nicaragua,” explained Tijerino.
Although the military trucks seized by the Costa Ricans apparently originated in Germany, geopolitical analysts should prepare for the possibility that Russia will at some point begin shipping military hardware to its old Central American client state. Since KGB asset Ortega returned to power four years ago, Moscow has pledged to upgrade Nicaragua’s Soviet-vintage armed forces. Indeed, earlier this month, Nicaragua’s ambassador to the Russian Federation, Luis Alberto Molina Quadra, attended a session of the Russian-Nicaraguan Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, and Technical Cooperation. The commission held its first “post”-Cold War meeting in Managua last June.
This past Monday, Pastora announced on national radio that Managua will dispatch two more dredges to the San Juan. He did not offer a date for resumption of the dredging, but noted that the project will span two years and, when the work is complete, large ships will be able to navigate the San Juan. The National Port Company will provide one of the new dredges, while a third is being built in the town of El Viejo. Interestingly, as we have pointed out before, the first dredge to appear on site and to provoke the current commotion between Nicaragua and Costa Rica was designed by a Russian engineer.
In an ironic turn of events, Costa Rica’s government is blaming Google Maps for inadvertently bolstering Nicaragua’s claim to Isla Calero, as well as to territory fully south of the river. Pastora justified his actions by informing Costa Rica’s La Nacion newspaper that the Nicaraguan army is relying on Google Maps to remain on its side of the border. “See the satellite photo on Google, and here you see the frontier,” Pastora claimed, adding: “In the last 3,000 meters, both sides are Nicaraguan. From there to El Castillo the border itself is the right bank, clearly.”
Google has confessed its transgression. Charlie Hale wrote on the Google Maps blog: “The map is wrong, and wrong by roughly 2.7 kilometers. It is our goal to provide the most accurate, up-to-date maps possible. Maps are created using a variety of data sources, and there are inevitably going to be errors in that data. We work hard to correct any errors as soon as we discover them.” Undaunted, Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Samuel Santos urged Google representative Jeffrey Hardy to retain the error: “I officially request that the border marking not be modified.”
On November 11, Haaretz was the first major news source to draw a connection between the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border incident and a Nicaraguan-Venezuelan-Iranian plan to build a new canal across Central America. This possibility was lurking in the back of our mind over the last few weeks since we have previously reported on Ortega’s attempt to also solicit Russia’s support in the project, which would rival the Panama Canal in strategic importance. In this light, the Nicaraguan government’s dredging of the San Juan River makes perfect sense. The San Juan links the Caribbean to Lake Nicaragua, from which only a relatively short canal is needed to reach the Pacific Ocean through Rivas Department.
“Sources in Latin America have told Haaretz,” relates Israeli journalist Shlomo Papirblat, “that the border incident and the military pressure on Costa Rica, a country without an army, are 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.”
Papirblat rightly observes that “Panama is a country with a distinctly pro-American orientation,” especially since the election in 2009 of US-educated businessman Ricardo Martinelli. Late last year, President Martinelli concluded an agreement with Washington to return the US military to Panama. The canal’s economic importance to Panama City cannot be understated either, Papirblatt continues:
The transit fees paid by the ships and other canal-related activities account for 75 percent of the annual revenues of Panama’s economy. The Panamanian economy and Panamanian stability would be in real danger of collapse if another canal took away its monopoly on shipping between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
In 2009 the International Court of Justice at The Hague granted ownership of the San Juan to Nicaragua, but gave navigation rights to Costa Rica. “However,” notes Papirblat, “the results of this ruling are not enough to allow for the implementation of the plan formulated by Venezuela and Nicaragua. In order to build a new canal linking the two oceans, they would also need to control the southern bank of the river and the point where the river meets the Atlantic Ocean.”
This past July, the Nicaraguan foreign ministry informed Costa Rica of Nicaragua’s plans to deepen the San Juan in order to improve shipping on the waterway. Nothing was mentioned about building a trans-isthmian canal. Initially, therefore, Costa Rica did not oppose the plans but San Jose should have been tipped off to Managua’s real intentions when Ortega placed the project under the supervision of Pastora, whose nom de guerre was once “Comandante Zero.” On November 8, Pastora inadvertantly (it would seem) exposed more of Managua’s designs when he mentioned that, after dredging, the San Juan would be able to accommodate large ships.
“Sources in Latin America,” reveals Papirblat, “consider these events, and the power demonstrated by Nicaragua, as a trial balloon by the creators of the ‘New Canal Plan’ – Venezuela, Iran and Nicaragua.” He then appends some disturbing data, “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.” The six Nicaragua-bound military trucks that Costa Rican police seized this week may have been part of that “path of heavy machinery equipment.”
According to Novosti, “The proposed canal, whose construction is estimated by experts at $18 billion, would be able to accommodate ships larger than those that can pass through the Panama Canal, even after its enlargement.” Russia’s involvement in the project extends back to at least December 2008, when Ortega broached the subject during his first “post”-Cold War trek to Moscow.
Iran’s involvement extends back to March 2007, when Iranians, some in suits, others in combat dress, were spotted near Nicaragua’s Monkey Point, the potential site for a deep-water port (that could receive Russian warships). Earlier that year, only days after Ortega’s re-inauguration, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad paid a friendly visit to Ortega as part of wider Latin American tour that included a house call to Chavez.
“The imperialists don’t like us to help you progress and develop. They don’t like us to get rid of poverty and unite people,” chimed Ahmadinejad, standing amid Managua’s shantytowns, “But the whole world knows that Nicaragua and Iran are together.” Ortega and Ahmadinejad also announced that they were restoring full diplomatic relations and re-opening embassies in their capitals.
Venezuela’s involvement also extends back to 2007, when Chavez announced a plan to build a US$350 million highway across Nicaragua. As these news reports surfaced, the USA did not express any concern about potential Russian, Venezuelan, or Iranian activities in Central America. According to Papirblat, a US State Department official told Haaretz’s Washington correspondent that the US government is “not aware of any plans to build a new canal in Latin America.”
On a side note, there are indications that Russia and Venezuela may move military assets into Nicaragua under the cover of joint exercises with the Sandinistas. While visiting Managua in February, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced combined maneuvers with the Nicaraguans, but set no date. More than a year ago, joint military exercises that entailed the deployment of Venezuelan warplanes and warships in Nicaragua were also announced for May and June of 2010. Nothing came of this little-reported news item, even though Ortega signed an emergency decree to ratify the arrival of Venezuelan troops in his country. The Venezuelan air force, of course, boasts the latest in Russian fighter jet technology.
As a final point, the border spat between Nicaragua and Costa Rica diverts public attention away from Ortega’s illegal bid for the presidency next year and solidifies support for “Comandante” across party lines. Communist Bloc countries like Russia and Venezuela, as well as their allies, like Iran, have every vested reason to make sure Ortega stays in power.