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Russian Warships in Nicaragua Rekindle Territorial Disputes

San Carlos, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua. Photo by Daniel Fajardo Valenti on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

San Carlos, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua. Photo by Daniel Fajardo Valenti on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The presence of two Russian warships in Nicaragua's pacific port of Corinto has heightened tensions between Colombia and Nicaragua over a longstanding maritime boundary dispute which had been resolved by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague back in November 2012.

The ICJ's resolution has also set the stage for recent diplomatic conflicts that include Costa Rica and Panama, reviving old territorial and annexation disputes in the region.

The origin of the dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia is the San Andrés Archipelago, and the Providencia, Quitasueño and Santa Catalina keys, all of which are close to the Nicaraguan coast. After considering a claim filed in 2001 by Nicaragua, the ICJ upheld Colombia's sovereignty and expanded the maritime territory of Nicaragua around the archipelago, as a way of offering a middle ground solution. The decision has sparked a discussion about expansionism in the region, national pride, and the role of the ICJ.

Colombia’s government has not been forthcoming about accepting the ICJ ruling and has said it will seek remedy, since the decision supersedes sovereign and fishing rights. The government has further claimed that the ICJ pronouncement has permitted Nicaragua to start illegal oil exploration activities [es] within its territory.

The dispute with Colombia is part of a series of boundary claims that Nicaragua has engaged in, including the dispute over the San Juan River boundary with Costa Rica and the supposed claim over Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province.

In August 2013, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega had already hinted in a speech before army forces that Nicaragua might seek a ruling from the ICJ to regain possession of Guanacaste.

The speech caused widespread indignation in Costa Rica. As a result, Costa Rica's President Laura Chinchilla issued a communique on August 15 [es], where she refers to Nicaragua as an “adversary country” that has already in the last 2 years “invaded parts of the northern” territory, and calls the ICJ's approach a “foolish ambition.”

On September 9, 2013 Colombia formally announced the repudiation of the ICJ decision, which it considered invalid without a formal treaty between self-governing states; and President Santos expressed his willingness to enforce Colombia's sovereignty with these words:

Lo que vigilé como marino y lo que defendí como ministro lo voy a proteger, hasta las últimas consecuencias, como presidente.

Those areas that I patrolled as a sailor and later defended as a Minister, I am willing today to protect, as President, to the very last consequences.

Santos went on to mention the “expansionist ambitions” of Nicaragua, which were affecting not only Colombia but Costa Rica, Panama and Jamaica.

In August, two Russian warships arrived in Nicaragua's pacific port of Corinto. Last week, following the communique by President Santos, regional online media was set abuzz by the declarations of the captains of the ships released on YouTube, saying they were ready to defend Nicaragua in any eventuality, should it be required.

The presence of the Russian ships in the Pacific coast is seen as a warning that Nicaragua could be willing to escalate its border disputes, including the San Juan River controversy.

San Juan River, Nicaragua

San Juan River, Nicaragua

The tensions between Costa Rica and Nicaragua arise against the backdrop of a planned inter-oceanic canal to be built by Hong Kong company HKND Group, converting the San Juan River into a broad commercial waterway. The San Juan Canal is planned to compete with the Panama Canal in sea freight.

According to the boundary treaty signed in 1858, the San Juan River belongs to Nicaragua, but the navigation of the river for commercial purposes is shared and no exclusive rights of cabotage should exist.

Not only sovereignty and national pride are at stake, it seems, but also a huge and profitable project and a political legacy: A conflict over such a notorious public issue could help Costa Rica's President Chinchilla, who finds herself struggling with declining approval ratings and a looming election that may throw her party out of government in February 2014.

In the YouTube video [es] uploaded August 19, 2013 by “canalestrellatv,” two Russian navy officers who speak excellent Spanish are heard expressing the following views:

Rusia y Nicaragua son dos países amistosos. Si es necesario apoyar, y existe la decisión política, nosotros vamos a apoyar.

Russia and Nicaragua are two friendly countries. If it is necessary to support Nicaragua, and the political decision is made, we will support them.

In the same video, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is seen waving from the deck, escorted by a Russian official, and then the officers go on to describe the kind of weapons the ships carry.

The discussion on Twitter has been controversial and instructing, with a pause to think about regional brotherhood and to congratulate each other on their shared celebrations of independence on September 15:

It is regrettable that we act patriotic only this time of the year…

While others reflect on the meaning of the symbolic passing of the torch of liberty and independence between Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans in Guanacaste:

Torch smooths political conflict between Costa Ricans (ticos) and Nicaraguans (nicas).

But only days before, the tone of discussions on Twitter was different altogether, with many users commenting on the supposed intentions on both sides to snatch away territory, and on the supposed help that other countries in the region were providing. Opinions have sometimes been posted in outright crude ways:

Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica have the intention to steal the ocean from Nicaragua, but the three thieves won't be able to.

One user jokingly compared the supposed coalition against Nicaragua to the Trio Los Panchos, an old and defunct music group, and incisively pointed out the relationship of the maritime conflict and the canal:

The Trio Los Panchos united against Nicaragua; Costa Rica because of the San Juan, Colombia because its faraway ocean and Panamá because of the new canal

The perception of the role of Nicaragua goes from that of a victim of antagonist forces in the region to that of an aggressive local power that uses whatever means available to impose a territorial and legal agenda:

Nicaragua has been a victim of the Colombian expansionism and of the opportunistic Costa Ricans!

Nicaragua is a nation of double moral standards that resorts to bullying and takes advantage that Costa Rica has no army and invades it!

One post pointed out that Costa Rica supporting Colombia against Nicaragua in the ruling about the San Andrés Archipielago, out of fear of the expansionism that this could trigger, would set a precedent for other territorial disputes. In the case of the San Juan River, an ICJ decision could favor Costa Rica, forcing the future administration into a difficult position:

If Costa Rica supports Colombia, would it disregard the ruling that favors Nicaragua in the boundary and environmental damage case?

Finally, Francisco Álvarez de Soto, a former Sub-secretary of Foreign Affairs of Panama, proposed that the way to go is to discuss the pretensions in a regional forum like the SICA (Central American Integration System) summit, as solution to the impasse that might result in an escalation of diplomatic faux-pas and misunderstandings that have spread to the public and social networks in the weeks before:

Territorial claims of Nicaragua against Costa Rica should be discussed at the SICA summit. Panama should support Costa Rica.

It is clear that one way or another the conflicts in the region will have an impact beyond the immediate presidential elections and the battle of claims and speeches. It might also reignite old boundary conflicts that were resolved (but apparently not settled) in the last century.

Correction: A previous version of this article mentioned that the Chinese government was participating in plans for an inter-oceanic canal in Nicaragua. Chinese businessman Wang Jing of HKND Group has denied any ties with the Chinese government, as reported by CNN in June 2013. The line that mentioned the Chinese government's participation has been removed.

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