Costa Rica's Border War with Nicaragua: A Boost for Ortega?

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Esteban Felix / AP

A university student waves a Nicaraguan flag on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2010, during a rally in support of the government's decision to maintain troops in the disputed area along the San Juan River on the border with Costa Rica in Managua, Nicaragua

Costa Rica famously does not have a military. But in a border tiff that has escalated into a public-relations war, it seems to be getting the better of its neighbor Nicaragua. The point of contention is their shared border. In early November, Costa Rica accused Nicaragua of invading its territory and destroying protected forests as part of the Sandinista government's military-supported river-dredging operations near the frontier. Nicaragua claims it has not crossed the border and argues that Costa Rica's complaint is a pretense to try to steal the San Juan River.

While Costa Rica doesn't have a standing army, the so-called Switzerland of Central America does have a well-trained police force equipped with military-grade weapons and a defense budget more than three times that of Nicaragua. In response to Nicaragua's alleged military intrusion, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla last week deployed a heavily armed defense unit to the nearby border outpost of Barra del Colorado.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega responded by launching a verbal attack on Costa Rica's peaceful image. He referred to Costa Rica's border deployment as a "bellicose threat" by "elite troops" dressed like "Rambo." Nicaragua's top military leader, General Julio César Avilés, said the army is on alert against Costa Rica's alleged plot to "generate conflict and hostilities" as part of a "systematic campaign" to claim Nicaraguan territory. "It is our patriotic duty to defend Nicaragua. We all need to unite against Costa Rica's plans," the general said.

On Wednesday, Nov. 17, Costa Rica upped the ante when its prosecutor issued a capture order for Eden Pastora, the Nicaraguan official in charge of the dredging operation, on charges of usurping Costa Rican territory and violating its forestry law. Pastora, an outspoken former rebel leader who once used Costa Rica as a base for launching guerrilla attacks in Nicaragua, is no longer feeling the love for his formerly adoptive country. Says Pastora: "They call themselves our Central American brothers, but brotherhood doesn't exist at this moment."

While tensions are escalating, it's unlikely that either side will fire anything other than words over the border. Costa Rica, despite its heavily armed rural guard, realizes its best protection — short of foreign peacekeepers coming to its rescue (which wouldn't help tourism) — is to appeal to international law. On Thursday it announced it was taking Nicaragua to the International Court of Justice at the Hague on charges of "environmental damages and violation of national sovereignty." Nicaragua has also insisted the issue be resolved before the Hague.

The problem is that so far, international organizations have proved incapable of offering meaningful intervention. In early November, Costa Rica called for an emergency session of the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS), which by a vote of 22 to 2 passed a resolution calling on both sides to "avoid the presence of military or security forces in the [disputed] area." (The only two countries to vote against it were Nicaragua and Hugo Chávez's Venezuela.) Costa Rica called the resolution a "triumph for peace and law," while Ortega called the vote "rigged" and said Nicaragua would not pull its troops out of the disputed territory. If Nicaragua were to do any pulling out, Ortega said, it would be from the OAS — which, conveniently, would mean the organization couldn't sent observers to next year's presidential elections in Nicaragua.

The strong international support for Costa Rica has only fanned Ortega's conspiracy theories. In a fiery address to the nation on Nov. 13, Ortega accused Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, Mexico and Colombia of representing the interests of narcotraffickers. "Drug traffickers are directing Costa Rica's foreign policy," Ortega charged. He claimed that the Nicaraguan soldiers deployed in the disputed border region are there to fight the war on drugs. He said any country that opposes Nicaragua's military presence in the area must therefore be defending the interests of narcotraffickers.

Ortega's ranting has not impressed neighbors. "Nicaragua's dispute with Costa Rica will only accelerate the decline of support for Ortega throughout Latin America," says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "Even before now, there was not much sympathy for him, in light of serious questions about his personal conduct and blatant authoritarian practices."

Still, the controversy has been hugely beneficial to Ortega: the usually polarizing President suddenly enjoys enthusiastic and broad support in his long-divided nation. He is aided, to a large degree, by history. Nicaraguans still talk about Costa Rica's annexation of their former province of Guanacaste in 1824; Managua has been leery of Costa Rican expansionism ever since. Pastora snorted, "Nicaragua is the only country in the world that has lost territory to a smaller and weaker nation." That is inaccurate, but the sense of humiliation is palpable — and unifying — in impoverished Nicaragua.

Business-sector leaders who ordinarily criticize Ortega's apparent disregard for the rule of law are now applauding his defense of their constitution. The normally quarrelsome and feckless National Assembly passed a unanimous resolution pledging full support for Ortega in defense of Nicaraguan patrimony. And even the opposition newspapers have given the President a temporary reprieve from their barbs. There is speculation that Ortega may even use this newfound popularity and nationalism to overcome the constitutional barrier preventing him from running for another term as President.

He still has to play the border situation smartly if he wants to ride the wave of nationalism all the way to re-election next year. Any bout of real violence with Costa Rica would be a political disaster for Ortega, who after leading the revolutionary government of the 1980s lost three consecutive presidential bids because of mothers who no longer wanted to lose their kids to war. So Ortega wants to maintain the tensions while assuring voters that the border tiff won't get out of hand. "We don't want the blood of brothers to spill," he said. It's not exactly the unity and national reconciliation that Ortega promised, but for the purpose of a 2011 re-election bid, it might be close enough to get the job done.