Border dispute with Nicaragua has Costa Rica rethinking its lack of army

The International Court of Justice is expected to rule any day on a Costa Rica-Nicaragua border dispute. The case has caused the 'Switzerland of Central America' to reexamine its commitment to disarmament.

German Miranda/picture alliance/Newscom
This Jan. 13 photo shows an aerial view of the estuary of the Rio San Juan in the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

An ongoing border dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica has pushed the “Switzerland of Central America” to the brink of a national identity crisis.

Sixty-two years after Costa Rica made the historic decision to abolish its Army and entrust its sovereignty and national defense to the untested guardianship of international law, Central America’s standard bearer of peace and democracy is facing what it considers its greatest challenge to neutrality: an alleged border invasion by Nicaraguan troops.

“For our country, the armed invasion is a challenge to our way of life and the defense of our national sovereignty, which is based exclusively in multilateralism,” Costa Rican Foreign Minister René Castro told the Monitor in an e-mail.

“Costa Rica is a civilized and peaceful country,” he adds. “But sometimes, those ideals are challenged by reality and our principles are put to test.”

Costa Rica claims Nicaragua crossed into its territory last year while dredging the San Juan River – a Nicaraguan waterway that parallels their shared border. Nicaragua says Costa Rica is “inventing a border conflict" to disguise its own expansionist pretensions. Currently before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, the dispute has forced Costa Rica – a country that prides itself on stability, neutrality, and a laid back “pura vida” approach to life – to reexamine its commitment to disarmament and confront the ghosts of its wimpy image.

“The decision will represent a crossroads in the history of Costa Rica, the history of Central America, and in the whole philosophy of disarmament,” says Daniel Camacho, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Costa Rica.

Unfavorable court ruling could be 'catastrophic'

The last 17 miles of the San Juan River divert mostly into a Costa Rican tributary due to sedimentation buildup on the Nicaraguan side. By unclogging that final stretch of river, Nicaragua hopes to redirect the waters back onto its side of the border – an undesired prospect for Costa Rican fishing lodges in the border region.

Foreign Minister Castro, who in January went on a five-country tour of Europe to drum up support for Costa Rica’s case, said his government is putting its faith in international law. He said he thinks the court’s ruling, expected any day, will be precedent-setting in determining the “efficiency of multilateralism.”

But Professor Camacho warns that an unfavorable ruling could prove "catastrophic." “I don’t even want to imagine what that would mean for Costa Rica’s identity, self image, national project and commitment peace. I think if Costa Rica loses [in The Hague], there will be a strong push for militarization here,” he says.

For Nicaragua, crisis is the norm

A CID-Gallup poll released Jan. 24 illustrates that Costa Rica is far more rattled by the border conflict than is Nicaragua. While 91 percent of Nicaraguans think the crisis has been caused by unclear border limits, 73 percent of Costa Ricans think the crisis is because of Nicaragua’s military invasion of their country.

Carlos Denton, president of the CID-Gallup polling firm, says the conflict has provoked a debate in Costa Rica as to whether the country is “neutral” or “pacifist.”

“The Swiss are a neutral country but will rally an armed force if invaded. But a pacifist country turns the other cheek or appeals to international entities,” says Mr. Denton.

The CID-Gallup poll also underscored how, for Nicaragua, crisis is a way of life – with the current dispute no exception. More than half of Nicaraguans polled erringly said that Costa Rica has an army. And almost 1 in 2 Nicaraguans fear Costa Rica could invade their country at any moment, according to the CID-Gallup survey, despite it lacking anything by way of military tanks or fighter jets.

Nicaraguans seem constantly on the lookout for foreign meddling and prepared for crisis. Oscar René Vargas, a Nicaraguan sociologist, says his country has been “in a constant political crisis" for more four decades, which has come to define the national identity. Having lost territories in the past to Colombia and Costa Rica, Nicaragua has a longstanding shrinking-country complex.

“Nicaragua is the only country in the world that has lost territory to a smaller and weaker nation,” says Nicaragua’s Edén Pastora, who is heading Nicaragua’s river-dredging operation to “rescue” the San Juan River.

Awaiting court ruling, damage may already be done

When faced with threats of invasion from Nicaragua in the past – in 1948 and 1955 – Costa Rica successfully defended itself with a combination of volunteer militias and diplomatic offensives. But in response to the current conflict, Costa Rica has relied mostly on its diplomatic and legal efforts.

Costa Rica did send heavily armed police to the border region last November, but that move was seen more as bark than bite – a claim that seemed to be supported by a Jan. 11 report in the Costa Rican daily Diario Extra that said deployed officers suffered from "profound fear of fighting against Nicaraguan soldiers.”

While this month’s anticipated ruling from the International Court of Justice will provide an institutional solution to the border conflict, many fear the psychological damage has already been done. Costa Rica may not look at Nicaragua – or itself – the same way again.

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