Ortega Picks On Costa Rica to Rally Support At Home

For the past couple of years, Nicaragua’s president Daniel Ortega has been desperately seeking to subvert his country’s constitution and feeble democratic institutions in order to stand for re-election next year. Since the Nicaraguan constitution bars him from running for a third term (he was president in 1985-1990), Ortega tried unsuccessfully to have the constitution amended by the National Assembly, where his Sandinista party lacks a majority to do so. However, through judicial shenanigans facilitated by a Supreme Court and an Electoral Tribunal packed with Sandinista allies, Ortega is likely to run again next year. Mary O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal and The Economist have documented the case.

Despite seemingly getting away with it, Ortega faces strong challenges at home from the independent media, civil society groups, and the opposition parties, which have all bitterly denounced his illegal maneuvers. His candidacy might be assured; his re-election not so.

Enter my home country: Costa Rica.

Unfortunately throughout both countries’ histories, it has become a norm that the Nicaraguan political class picks conflicts with Costa Rica in order to distract attention from domestic problems and rally nationalist support at home. Ricardo Jiménez, a Costa Rican president in the early 20th century, once said that Costa Rica had three seasons during the year: the rainy season, the dry season, and the season of conflicts with Nicaragua.

This time around hasn’t been different. Approximately 20 days ago, a dredging project of the San Juan River, whose right bank serves as the border between both countries, led to an incursion of the Nicaraguan army into Costa Rican territory. The conflict area is an uninhabited island (approximately 60 square miles) at the mouth of the San Juan River. Aerial pictures show the destruction of tropical forest in the island—which is part of a protected area in Costa Rica—in what seems like an effort to detour the San Juan River at the expense of Costa Rican territory.

Costa Rica has had no army since 1949, so the government of president Laura Chinchilla has to rely on international pressure to get the Nicaraguan army out of the occupied territory. Costa Rica’s bitter complaints at the Organization of American States have been met with calls from other members, and from the ineffectual secretary general of the organization, José Miguel Insulza, for both countries to engage in endless dialogue and solve this “border dispute.” This is not a border dispute, though. Costa Rica has provided dozens of official documents and maps, including maps produced by Nicaragua’s own government, the official texts of the Cañas-Jeréz Treaty that defined the border and subsequent arbitration awards, and a recent ruling by the International Court of Justice. They all show that the occupied area is indeed Costa Rican territory. As the OAS shows its incompetence, Nicaragua continues its military presence and deforestation works on Costa Rican soil.

Unfortunately Ortega’s move has paid off. Nicaragua’s independent media is now full of headlines supporting their government against what they call “Costa Rica’s expansionist agenda.” The opposition parties have also rallied behind Ortega, providing their votes for the unanimous approval of an increase in the military’s budget (this is the first time Ortega has gotten a unanimous vote in Congress). Pro-government mass rallies have been staged in Managua. Facing no external pressure to withdraw, Ortega is likely to continue or even expand the occupation of Costa Rican territory well into next year when he heads to the polls for reelection.

In the meantime, impotency has taken hold in Costa Rica. Some murmur about the wisdom of giving up the army decades ago, although most Costa Ricans still pride themselves on being a pacifist country with a longstanding civilian tradition. However, calls are growing for the government to give up diplomacy and ask a third country to intervene with troops through the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance. There is a realization that San José needs to draw a line in the sand with Managua. Appeasing Ortega will probably result in more conflicts in the near future.

It is still too early to tell what’s next. Costa Rica says it will bring the case to the UN Security Council in case the OAS fails to deliver. However, Russia’s veto is likely given Ortega’s close relationship with the Kremlin. Tellingly, the Obama administration has stayed mostly silent on the issue.