Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 292 | Noviembre 2005



The Río San Juan: Source of Conflicts and Nationalism

Historian Arnold J. Toynbee wrote: “The spirit of nationality is a sour ferment of the new wine of democracy in the old bottles of tribalism.” Costa Rica’s case against Nicaragua over the Río San Juan at the International Court of Justice in The Hague has once again rekindled that spirit in Nicaragua, because the San Juan is more than just a river; it is a myth; it is “liquid history.”

José Luis Rocha

A river, an abandoned territory and a biological reserve all add up to problems. The Río San Juan, the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican border zone and the Indio-Maíz Reserve spark passions that constantly threaten to short circuit. The Río San Juan is the sinuous strait premeditatedly discovered by the Spanish conquerors who dreamed of a broad turquoise band of water that would lead them to India. Nicaragua’s border zone with Costa Rica is a model of how successive Nicaraguan governments have left whole communities and municipalities in the hands of divine providence, not to mention hoards of pirates, filibusters and natural resource pillagers. And with its 263,980 hectares, Indio-Maíz is Nicaragua’s second largest natural reserve.

A territory where “Nicaraguan-ness”
is sold, venerated and prostituted

The Río San Juan can be reached from Managua by traveling to Granada and taking an all-night boat trip from the pier; a torturous nine-hour journey along roads that in the winter are boggy, barely negotiable traps; or, for the privileged few, a half-hour trip in a light airplane. Its abandonment persists after successive Somoza, Sandinista, Chamorro, Alemán and Bolaños administrations. The national electricity grid only came to Boca de Sábalos, the capital of the municipality of El Castillo, until 1992, and the telephone network took two more years. The town of El Castillo, which is today little more than a string of houses, grew up around an artillery-doted castle built to cut off the incursions and pillaging of 17th- and 18th-century pirates in one of the favored areas for their adventures.

The novelty of declaring the jungle surrounded by the Indio and Maíz rivers a “reserve” dates back to 1999, although it had been designated a “protected area” nine years earlier. Created almost on the threshold of the 21st century as a manifestation of globalized environmentalism, this green expanse of land has been turned into a great totem, a vegetable idol to which some apparently want to sacrifice the area’s governability and development, while the irreverent seek to sacrifice the area itself to profit.

The combination of so many contradictory interests has turned the zone into a sacred territory in which “Nicaraguan-ness” is gambled away, sold, rented, touted and prostituted. This combination has not brought the announced economic boom. In 1850, German geographer Julius Froebel found that only two boat trips a week ran from San Carlos to San Juan del Norte—the two ports located at the opposite ends of the river. Over a century later, in 1966, Nicaraguan poet José Coronel Urtecho confirmed that the same held true; and it remains true right up to the present day. The only visible fishing trade is on the days the boats leave, and then it is languid. The rest of the week sleepiness reigns. Transport, trade and development appear congealed in this region, developed only to the country’s lowest level of underdevelopment. Who would be interested in those quagmire lands, the asphyxiating clouds of gnats or even the legends of pirates?

In fact every summer these very lands are of great interest to Plywood, the timber company that is gradually devouring the Indio-Maíz Reserve’s buffer zone, breaking the environmental regulations. Plywood is the local patron saint. Roads follow Plywood, but don’t go anywhere else; the same is true of taxes, because otherwise there’s no way of charging them. The zone’s municipal governments are virtually impotent without Plywood’s collaboration.

The Río San Juan and its surroundings also awaken the occasional interest—and worst intentions—of politicians and state officials whose statements display homicidal irresponsibility. Now, with the Costa Rican government calling for a revision of its rights on the river, Nicaragua’s politicians are stirring up the waters to obscure their own glaring ineptitude and create the cohesion they’ve been incapable of forging due to their non-existent capacity for consensus. They are resuscitating 19th-century nationalist zealotry, a sure sign that they have absolutely no ideological propositions regarding a river many of them have never even been on, because neither touristic curiosity nor their bureaucratic administration have so far led them there.

What does Costa Rica want?

The ever-latent tensions between Nicaragua and Costa Rica over the Río San Juan resurfaced in September 2005 when Costa Rica grew bored of trying to convince the Nicaraguan government to dust off the old agreements and reinterpret the rights they recognize. So it went to ask for arbitration from the International Court of Justice in The Hague. It’s not clear what moved the Costa Rican government to adopt this measure at this particular moment. Perhaps it’s seeking cohesion in a country divided by the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States, or maybe it’s seeking to exploit the permanent quarry of anti-Nicaraguan nationalism to bolster its legitimacy, eroded by economic deterioration and the weak justice meted out to two former Presidents accused of corruption. Or it could be acting at the service of businesspeople interested in tourism in the area. Each is reason enough in itself and they are not mutually exclusive.

But the publicly recognized reason is that Costa Rica is claiming the right to supply its police posts along the stretch of the river that forms the border between the two countries river with uniforms, rain capes, ammunition and arms, which can only be done by boat. As the agreements from the 1858 Cañas-Jerez Treaty stand, the river belongs exclusively to Nicaragua, and Costa Ricans are only allowed free navigation along it for commercial purposes. Costa Rica is now asking for the concept of “commerce” to include tourism. At the time of both the treaty and the Cleveland Award—the arbitral decision thirty years later that ratified it—tourism was virtually nonexistent in the world. It is a new commercial concept that the Costa Rican government wants included in the reinterpretation of the Cleveland Award’s phrase “with the objects of commerce.”

Nineteenth-century treaties
and nineteenth-century reactions

Costa Rica’s ambassador to Nicaragua, Rodrigo Carreras, argues that the “fiscal cutter” that the Cleveland Award authorized to navigate the river was a small boat for fiscal protection. In other words, it was to control contraband, an activity that is inconceivable without arms. It is on this interpretation that Costa Rica bases its right to navigate the river with arms. The Costa Rican government says it proposed arbitration to Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Norman Caldera, but when no positive answer was forthcoming, it decided to clarify its rights at The Hague, where it presented its case to the what is commonly known as the World Court on September 29. The reaction of a mixed bunch of Nicaraguan nationalists was immediate and disproportionate. Politicians, governors, journalists and lawyers all clamored for the defense of national sovereignty over the Río San Juan.

Costa Rica is calling for revision of an agreement reached 147 years ago in the case of the Cañas-Jerez treaty and 117 years ago in the case of the Cleveland Award. How can Nicaragua assume, in a fit of juridical fundamentalism, that bilateral agreements can never be revised in the light of new circumstances, such as tourism? Given the current context, how can it possibly renounce the chance to negotiate migratory regulations favorable to the hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguan migrants in Costa Rica or the cancellation of our debt with that country? If we can change our own Constitution, modify the penal code or adjust national legislation in line with international legal instruments resulting from the formulation of new rights, why can’t we review bilateral agreements to facilitate the implementation of mutually convenient programs?

Presenting a case at an international court is not exactly designed to avoid conflict. But if doing so were tantamount to a declaration of war, as some have interpreted it in Nicaragua, the International Court of Justice in The Hague would have no reason to exist. It would be illogical. But the Nicaraguan army increased its troop strength and aquatic patrols at El Castillo, Bartola, Boca de San Carlos, Sarapiquí, Delta and San Juan de Nicaragua as if the case presented by Costa Rica would have an immediate effect on the river’s security or as if we had received a real threat of invasion. The army particularly beefed up its posts at points where the Costa Rican police have access to the river, because “that’s where they could enter the river armed,” explained Colonel Sánchez, head of the army’s southern detachment.

This kind of logic dovetails nicely with Nietzche’s justification of armies in Human, All Too Human: “…the army is supposed to serve for defense, and one invokes the morality that approves of self-defense. But this implies one’s own morality and the neighbor’s immorality; for the neighbor must be thought of as eager to attack and conquer if our state must think of means of self-defense…Thus all states are now ranged against each other: they presuppose their neighbor’s bad disposition and their own good disposition. This presupposition, however, is inhumane, as bad as war and worse. At bottom, indeed, it is itself the challenge and the cause of wars, because, as I have said, it attributes immorality to the neighbor and thus provokes a hostile disposition and act.”

That was the situation of states at the end of the 19th century, which we seem currently to be trying to emulate. With 19th-century treaties, 19th-century reactions and, if they let us, even medieval ones. Is this what we want to emulate as we raise high the banner of Central American integration? Will the new wine of integration fit in the old bottles of treaties that express precisely the failure of former attempts at integration?

Inflamed passions and growing tension

When he heard about Costa Rica’s case, President Bolaños ordered that all Costa Rican police officers found bearing arms on the Río San Juan be disarmed and judicially charged. Then he went to visit the river like a dog marking his territory, accompanied by the head of the army. Does this primitive gesture mean the government is going to invest more in this abandoned part of Nicaragua? The authorities of the San Carlos municipal government reminded Bolaños that he had never previously worried about their municipality. In another thrust, Nicaraguan legislators threatened to slap a 35% “patriotic” tax on all goods and services Nicaragua imports from Costa Rica. Using 2004 imports as a benchmark, this would imply over US$66 million in additional income, which the legislators argued could be used to finance the defense team representing Nicaragua at The Hague. What it really implies, however, is that the pockets of a few experts in international law would end up fuller, Nicaraguan consumers would pay more for Costa Rican products and Costa Rica’s producers would divert the supply of their goods to the demand from other countries. Moreover, the Nicaraguan border communities would have bi-national tensions added to those of trying to survive every day in one of the Nicaraguan regions with the fewest public services, least income-earning opportunities and highest prices. In other words, there would be profits for the white-collar money-grubbers, but more losses for the same ones who always end up short-changed.

In repost, the Costa Rican government started assessing the possibility of presenting a complaint against Nicaragua at the World Trade Organization as well. After these first thrusts and parries, both governments—encouraged by their respective media—feel that ceding even a millimeter would undermine their legitimacy (read manhood). The decisions by both of them regarding the conflict left passions inflamed and the politicians between the devil and the deep blue river.

A law with a concrete objective
and the call of “El Nica

In the context of these mutual threats, the reform of Costa Rica’s Migratory Law, under discussion by its National Assembly for some three years, was finally passed on October 27 by 38 of the 43 legislators present at the plenary session. The law penalizes even those who provide lodging and work to undocumented migrants. Given that Nicaraguan immigrants constitute the vast majority of undocumented foreigners in Costa Rica, this law targets a very specific population.

With passions so inflamed, it was inevitable that passage of the law would be interpreted as a reprisal in the tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye approach that has marked relations between Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans since the fuse on the Río San Juan issue was relit. Former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias questioned the approval of the reforms, calling it “too repressive, draconian; a reaction to the growing wave of xenophobia.” His attitude had merit but was politically risky, given the sympathies that inspire xenophobic positions among certain sectors of Costa Rican society.

On this side of the river, Human Rights Ombudsman Omar Cabezas exploited Nicaragua’s signing of the International Convention for the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families to denounce the new migratory law and the difficulty of holding any dialogue with the Costa Rican President on the migration issue. With ill-thought words and figures straight out of science fiction, he spread alarm about the possible deportation of over 175,000 Nicaraguans and a precipitous drop in the flow of remittances back to Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan foreign minister then took a measure that in any other circumstances would have been plausible enough, but which in the current ones amounted to an untimely example of petty reciprocity: he applied a $20 entry visa charge on Costa Ricans, matching the cost of Costa Rican entry visa for Nicaraguans and visitors from other countries.

With the whole affair now taking on all sorts of colors and flavors, we received a call to come to our senses and set aside this coat-and-tie tribalism, not by a Costa Rican (Tico) or a Nicaraguan (Nica); but by a Tico-Nica living in Costa Rica. Nicaraguan-born actor-playwright César Meléndez, famous for El Nica, his scintillating full-length monologue drama about a Nicaraguan immigrant in Costa Rica, said in Managua at the end of October: “We mustn’t confuse certain people in the Tico government with the Tico people, just as the Nicaraguan people are different from their government.” At the end of the final presentation of his work in the Rubén Darío Theater, Meléndez, waving the flags of both Costa Rica and Nicaragua, spoke against the current: “Don’t listen to those who exalt hatred. I invite you to think about the things that join us and stop thinking about those that divide us.”

A mystic river

Why were such disproportionate reactions felt so immediately in Nicaragua with all voices chanting the same slogan: “The river is ours”? Bolaños’ gain is obvious, as such a reaction elevates his depleted legitimacy by cultivating—at least regarding this aquatic line—the cohesion he has failed to produce in any other area. But why does everyone else join in the chorus? Why are there no dissenting voices on either the left or the right of the political spectrum, not among extremists, moderates, fanatics or skeptics? Why don’t the conflicts over the coastal limits with Honduras and Colombia or over the San Andrés keys arouse such an exaggerated rending of garments?

For one thing, the Río San Juan is more important, in part because it has acquired a mythical character, meaning that many nerves connect the river to our self-image as Nicaraguans. Different events have made the San Juan permanently present in the Nicaraguans’ sense of self. It’s like a national nerve-river. Many countries and regions have nerve-rivers, their mystic river, their river of history: the Masacre between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the Volga in Russia, the Ganges in India, the Mississippi in the United States, the Nile in Egypt, the Mekong in Indochina, the Congo in Africa, the Thames in England...

The Río San Juan is Nicaragua’s legendary river. It is, as poet John Burns once said of the Thames, “liquid history.” It first appears dreamed of, but still not seen, at the beginning of the Spanish conquest in the colonial chronicles, according to which Christopher Columbus was the first to think of seeking the “doubtful strait” that would lead to India, believing himself to be between Malaya and Sumatra. When barely crowned, Charles V ordered all of his governors to explore mainland bays and rivers to find that dreamed of passage between two oceans. In 1523, seven years after his coronation, he urged Hernán Cortés to seek the passage connecting the two seas “to cut the route of Cathay (China). Cortés answered that “Whoever possesses the passage between the two oceans can consider himself owner of the world.” Cortés’ words would turn out to be prophetic when the United States became owner of both the Panama Canal and the world.

An axis of national destiny

For a long time this river was an axis of national destiny. The recurrent idea of building an interoceanic canal that would exploit the Río San Juan’s course and the need to control those who came in via the river kept it in the news and in the studies, consultancies and plans of all governments.

In 1525, Granada’s mayor and alderman Ruy Díaz, accompanied by Captains Hernando de Soto and Sebastián de Benalcázar, made it eastward along the river as far as a site known as Casa del Diablo (Devil’s House), next to the rapids at El Castillo, to study the possibility of using the river to get all the way to the Caribbean Sea. In 1529, Diego Machuca and Alonso Calero concluded the exploration of the Río San Juan or Drainage of the Freshwater Sea (as Lake Nicaragua was known), opening up a trade route between Granada and many Caribbean ports. In 1545, the bishop of Nicaragua, Fray Antonio de Valdivieso, informed the Spanish Crown that this province was the “key to the Southern Sea” and asked for fifty slaves to be sent to clear the rapids blocking the river’s navigation by deeper-keeled boats. In 1555 the Council of the Indies studied a project to eliminate those rapids, 11 years after the Granadians had insisted to the Spanish Crown that the river be dredged. In 1567, Philippe II sent Italian engineer Juan Bautista Antonelli to study the “Nicaragua Route” for passing from one ocean to the other. Antonelli reported on the enormous difficulties involved in opening up the route, but the dream persisted, and the movement of English pirates and troops demonstrated that such a route was possible.

The Río Juan has been the coveted object of innumerable sudden and gradual assaults and sackings, the scene of government apathy, of the purely extracting activities of the adventurers of the day and of the bloodiness of human ambition. Some of the myths that structured Nicaraguan nationality took place along it. A constant in any Nicaraguan history book are the heroic deeds of Rafaela Herrera, the young woman who in the 18th century challenged the English invaders who wanted to take the fortress at El Castillo. The river is also the origin of the fortune of Nicaragua’s richest family: the Pellases started to amass their currently enormous capital with The Caribbean & Pacific Transit Company Limited.

Pirates and Nelson in “Dante’s inferno”

What happened in this area of Nicaragua revolved around what the river had to offer. To block the invasion of French, Danish and English pirates, the fort of Santa Cruz was built in 1602 overlooking Devil’s Rapids, but pirate incursions only intensified. The most insistent and ferocious were led by Jean David Nau (alias Francois l’Ollonais), John Davis, Jackman, John Morris and Henry Morgan; the latter came up the Río San Juan twice and sacked Granada—first in 1665 and again 1670.

The Castle of the Immaculate Conception (El Castillo) was built between 1673 and 1675 on the remains of the Santa Cruz fort. Reinforced by other fortified control points further downriver, one of which was located at Bartola, this fortress was the biggest colonial fortification in Central America for more than a century and the main post for Spanish forces sent to watch for and intercept pirate invaders and provide the country minimal stability. Several of its Castillian officers went on to become governors of Nicaragua. A century and a half after Columbus, then, the river was still important.

The fortress of El Castillo did not a put a total stop to the invasions. It was not for nothing that Bishop of Nicaragua Agustín Morel de Santa Cruz—the first bishop to visit the river—called El Castillo “Dante’s inferno” in 1752. Regular British forces penetrated the river in 1762 and were repelled at the fortress by Spanish soldiers led by Rafaela Herrera, the legendary 19-year-old who kept control of the troops after the death of her father, the captain in command, and crushed the attackers with her mastery firing cannons.

Almost two decades later, in 1780, an expedition of 2,000 British soldiers made its way up the river to invade Nicaragua and cut communications among the Spanish colonies. Twenty-one-year-old Lieutenant Horacio Nelson, a member of a new aristocracy, was at the command of the Hinchinbrook, a gun frigate. He lost an eye during the battle, but defeated the Spanish before succumbing to yellow fever and the swamps. Nelson was later promoted to admiral and was immortalized when he was shot by a sniper at his finest hour—leading the British fleet to victory over the combined French and Spanish Napoleonic fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar.

The destruction of El Castillo was decreed by royal order on September 4, 1781, although the order was never carried out. Instead, the castle was maintained with just enough soldiers to guard it. The fort at San Carlos came to be occupied by the main garrison and was strongly reinforced. El Castillo became part of the unpleasant memories of a turbulent past and is now one of the area’s main tourist attractions.

The obsession with the interoceanic canal

Before, during and after the pirates, the ghost of the interoceanic canal has continued to haunt Nicaraguan history. In 1735, French astronomer Charles Maire de la Condamine visited Central America and once back in France suggested the construction of an interoceanic canal through Nicaragua. In 1777, Captain Smith, an Englishman, proposed that his government take the Río San Juan as a route to the Pacific Ocean. Two years later, Charles III ordered that the possibility of an interoceanic route through Nicaragua be investigated. Following similar proposals by Frenchmen Count Louis-Hector de Segur in 1788 and Martin de Labastide in 1791, German scientist Alexander von Humboldt proposed prioritizing the Nicaraguan route for the construction of the interoceanic canal in 1804.

After independence from Spain, during the Federal Congress of Central America, future Nicaraguan head of state Manuel Antonio de la Cerda presented the regional government with a plan indicating that the most appropriate canal route was through the Rivas isthmus, taking advantage of Lake Nicaragua and the Río San Juan. In 1826, the federated Central American government signed a canal contract with a US company headed by the governor of New York, but the capitalists interested in the project were unable to pull together the US$5 million needed to carry out the work and the concession expired before they had taken any significant steps. In 1830, the federal government granted a new canal concession to an association of Dutch capitalists sponsored by the King of Holland, thanks to negotiations by his diplomatic envoy Jan Verveer. But that same year the Belgian war of independence broke out and the plans came to nothing. In 1837, General Francisco Morazán, who was President of the Central American Federation at the time, hired retired English naval officer John Baily to study the feasibility of Nicaragua’s interoceanic route. Baily estimated that it would cost $25 million.

The difficulty of dredging the rapids and other areas scared some people off, but the project did not lose its appeal. Although in summer its fierce rapids forced travelers to stop off and change steamboats, the river remained in the crazy plans and dreams of illustrious visitors who reached that far and of the rubber tappers who in a week spent on luxuries and vices the $1,000 they had earned with three months hard work.

Gold fever, illustrious visitors and first conflicts

These dreams peaked in 1849 with the inauguration of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt’s American Atlantic and Pacific Ship Canal Company, which after obtaining a canal concession became the Accessory Transit Company and offered 36-day journeys between New York and San Francisco during the California gold fever of 1850-1856. Then between 1862 and 1868, it operated as the Central American Transit Company. It carried 81,448 passengers from New York to San Francisco and 75,079 in the other direction in those two six-year periods of existence. Its peak year was 1854, when it transported over 23,000 passengers.

An amazed Mark Twain traveled down the Río San Juan on his way from San Francisco to New York. He never shaped his scattered notes—From San Francisco to New York by way of San Juan and Grey Town Isthmus (1866)—into a final text, but they do describe the paradisiacal vegetation, untamable fauna and colorful landscapes he saw.

There were other illustrious travelers. Years earlier, in June 1849, George Ephrain Squier assumed the post of US Ambassador to Nicaragua. In El Castillo, whose rapids he described as being as tempestuous as a waterfall, he only found a few huts that served as the barracks of a small garrison the government maintained as a sign of its control.

German traveler and geographer Julius Froebel arrived right on Squier’s heels in November 1850. He was convinced that Nicaragua would play a strategic role in the future of world trade due to its potential in the construction of an interoceanic route. Steam navigation on the Río San Juan was already beginning to generate more dynamism among some bankside settlements, such as El Castillo. In 1855 Froebel stated that travelers left between $2,000 and $3,000 behind in the shops and eating places of that small town every two weeks. The steam boats took two days to travel between San Juan del Norte and Granada, while the riverboats known as bongos needed two weeks to make the same journey.

In February 1868, British naturalist and mining engineer Thomas Belt arrived at San Juan del Norte, near the mouth of the Río San Juan, and headed upriver, terrified by the schools of sharks, to take his new post as supervisor of the Chontales Gold Mining Company in Santo Domingo. The prosperity that Froebel had forecast for El Castillo had not materialized and Belt found nothing more than a narrow street there. The only prosperity he registered revolved around rubber production and trading. The toponymy of the municipality of El Castillo still reflects that rubber boom, with communities bearing the names of El Hule, Los Chicleros and La Bijagua.

The first conflicts between Costa Rica and Nicaragua had already arisen by that time. In 1849, the Costa Rican government had granted a contract to a London-based company to build a canal from Lake Nicaragua to the Gulf of Papagayo, through the Sapoá river. Following this poisonous precedent, Costa Rica’s President signed a canal contract in 1857 with Robert Clifford Webster, a British citizen, granting him concessions over the isthmus of Rivas, Lake Nicaragua and the Río Juan River, all of which are Nicaraguan territory. In August of the same year, the Costa Rican army occupied the El Castillo and San Carlos forts. In response, the National Assembly authorized Nicaraguan President Bartolomé Martínez to repel the aggression, but the timely intervention of the Salvadoran government ensured that the situation did not end in war.

Zelaya and Somoza on the Río San Juan

A year after Belt’s arrival, the Nicaraguan Congress granted a canal concession to Michel Chevalier, who was presumed to have the extra-official backing of Napoleon III. Following Fernando de Lesseps’ success in building the Suez Canal, US President Ulysses S. Grant organized a scientific commission in 1876 to study the different potential canal routes in Central America. The commission voted unanimously for the Río San Juan route, but the concessions demanded were such that Nicaraguan President Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Alfaro abandoned the project.

In 1898 US businessmen Edward F. Gragin and Edward Eyre obtained a canal concession from President José Santos Zelaya and formed the Interoceanic Canal Company, financed by important US capitalists. But when they failed to deposit $400,000 before August 9, 1900, Zelaya canceled the concession and retained the $100,000 already deposited at the Finance Ministry. One of the reasons for Zelaya’s overthrow three years later was the challenge to US hegemony represented by his negotiations with British and Japonese diplomats to sound out their willingness to finance a canal project. After the United States sent troops to invade Nicaragua, the Chamorro-Bryan Treaty was signed in 1914, granting the United States exclusive and perpetual rights over the construction of an interoceanic canal and establishing a US naval base in the Gulf of Fonseca. By that time, Panama had already been severed from Colombia and the canal there had been built.

According to British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, the State Department announced on June 14, 1929, in the middle of Sandino’s war against the US marines, that the Nicaraguan government had agreed to allow the eventual canal route through Nicaragua to be inspected by a battalion of US military engineers. Toynbee adds that four days later, President Hoover named a five-member interoceanic canal committee to carry out the terms of Congress’ resolution on the matter.

The reiteration of the canal plans did not help improve the area, but it did attract the interests of Anastasio Somoza García. On his return from a visit to Washington in 1939, he announced with great pomp and ceremony that President Roosevelt had promised to build a canal through Nicaragua. Either buying his own story or propelled by his own incredible appetite for land, Somoza started to buy up property along the Río San Juan. Bringing military and political pressure to bear on the owners, he bought the Las Marías farm from Alfredo Argüello, property belonging to Juan de Dios Pastora and the San Pancho hacienda from the Kautz family. Some of these purchases were made in 1947, and two years later the area was elevated to the status of department, under the name of Río San Juan.

An aquatic frontier separates us from “the others”

The Río San Juan is a place where ambition, events and imagination all meet; but above all it is a focal point for the powerful classes intent on achieving hegemony by cultivating passions inspired by nationalist ideology. As philosopher Fernando Savater observed, starting from the 18th century, all important political, religious or cultural movements have been linked in one way or another with nationalism. Any collective idea or proposal appears to need nationalist support if it is to achieve real popular support.

The river was the perfect excuse to cultivate such nationalism. An aquatic frontier demarcating territory and identity, the Río San Juan expresses with undeniable breadth the construction of an “us” as opposed to “the others” on the opposite bank. It separates Ticos from Nicas. The conflicts over the use and possession of the Río San Juan have been settled through treaties, but marked by historical scars, like Nicaragua’s cession of the territories of Guanacaste and Nicoya, that are always prone to open back up into raw wounds. As of the middle of the last decade, Nicaragua and Costa Rica had signed 35 bilateral treaties, an uncommonly high number for such young states.

One of the most sensible was the Martínez-Mora Peace, Friendship, Alliance and Commerce Treaty, signed on April 30, 1858. Article 10 of the agreement recognizes that the republics of Costa Rica and Nicaragua cannot be rigorously considered foreign nations because they are naturally united by fraternal links and interests of common utility. A decade later, another peace and friendship treaty reaffirmed this vision, adding other reasons such as “common origin due to territorial connections and interests.” Some agreements have demonstrated Costa Rica’s good will, such as the Rivas-Esquivel Convention of December 21, 1868: “The Costa Rican government concedes to that of Nicaragua the waters of the Río Colorado, as diverting them into the Río San Juan could lead to the reestablishment or improvement of the port of San Juan de Nicaragua.”

A mobile border:
We know where it is, but not where it will be

The most crucial agreement is the 1858 Cañas-Jerez Treaty, rejected by Nicaragua for 30 years. The Nicaraguan signatory, Máximo Jerez, was blamed for making excessive concessions to Costa Rica. Thirty years later, the dispute was submitted for arbitration to US President Grover Cleveland, who delegated responsibility to Undersecretary of State George L. Rives. The first article of the Cleveland Award recognizes the boundary treaty (Cañas-Jerez) of April 15, 1858, as valid. In its second article, this resolution states that “The Republic of Costa Rica under said Treaty and the stipulations contained in the sixth article thereof, has not the right of navigation of the River San Juan with vessels of war,” although it did grant the above-mentioned right to navigate the river with a “fiscal cutter” related or connected “with objects of commerce.”

The Award’s third article states that “The Republic of Costa Rica cannot prevent the Republic of Nicaragua from executing at her own expense and within her own territory such works of improvement, provided such works of improvement do not result in the occupation or flooding or damage of Costa Rica territory, or in the destruction or serious impairment of the navigation of the said River or any of its branches at any point where Costa Rica is entitled to navigate the same.”

Later came the Matus-Pacheco Treaty, signed for Nicaragua by Manuel Coronel Matus, father of the poet José Coronel Urtecho. This treaty agreed that an engineer requested from the US government would draw the definitive dividing line between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, but one of the first conclusions of E.P. Alexander, the engineer contracted specifically for this task, was that there could be no such definitive line.

Referring to the stretch of border delimited by the Costa Rican bank of the Río San Juan, Alexander stated that all of the river’s waters were under Nicaraguan jurisdiction, and all of the land on the right margin is under Costa Rican jurisdiction, but the dividing line at those points does not run in a straight line. It is rather determined by the borders of the waters in their navigable state, thus marking a curving line with innumerable irregularities. Furthermore, he added, the varying levels of the water alter the positioning of the dividing line.

Nicaragua therefore has a mobile border and Costa Rica a variable territorial area. In a situation matching the historical as opposed to natural nature of nations, it’s possible to say that we know where the border is, but not where it will be in the future. Nor do we know where the dividing line between being Nicaraguan and being Costa Rican will be in future, if it still exists at all.

In this tangle of treaties, there is even one that establishes armed commissions from both countries to safeguard the border and for use in resolving conflicts. Signed on February 21, 1949, by Mario A. Esquivel for Costa Rica and Guillermo Sevilla Sacasa for Nicaragua, the “Pact of Friendship between the Governments of Costa Rica and Nicaragua” creates border commissions consisting of four officers from the armed forces of both countries to “coordinate the joint surveillance of the common border and investigate any deed that might disturb the harmony that should exist between the authorities and inhabitants of both sides.” It is an agreement that sets a precedent for the movement of bi-national armed patrols.

Why on earth not negotiate?

In any case, everything established in all of these agreements needs to be reviewed. What possible rational motives could we have for not negotiating? Nationalism is a passion that leaves little or no room for reason. Savater clarified that nationalism can be used for good or bad purposes: “It can serve to emancipate a community from oppressive protection, as well as placing it under the harsh rule of a charismatic dictatorship, reducing its cultural expectations, or diverting popular attention away from the most urgent social demands.”

He warns that “under the influence of its outflow, a people can execute a systematic program of the most crass egoism, without having the least notion of its moral deprivation… The sickening and hollow ‘we’ of nationalism is purely and simply a rhetorical conceit of the most intransigent, rapacious and inhuman (although, oh too human) ‘I’.”

It would make sense to appeal to nationalism to refuse to slavishly follow the IMF’s dictates. Our governors would be coherent nationalists if they renounced their tendency to turn to US secretaries of state and ambassadors as arbitrators in national politics. Nationalism and its ideology of national fraternity would serve eloquent passions if they were invoked to support the demands of and relieve our brothers and sisters affected by Nemagon, or those dying of hunger in over a hundred rat-infested communities of the Río Coco.

Luis Pasos Argüello, a jurist who has dedicated a great deal of time to studying border conflicts and the use of the Río San Juan between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, came to the following conclusion in 1994, with the sense and vision that we can only dream of breathing into our politicians: “I assume the risk that this bombshell about navigation along the whole of the Río San Juan and in the two Nicaraguan lakes might startle many Nicaraguans. It is absolutely true that both the river and the two lakes are deserted and we Nicaraguans are not using them for any production that might benefit us; they are sterile and for this reason they should be negotiated in a gesture of fraternity.”

Costa Rica: A major buyer and seller

Our stubborn refusal to dialogue, however, has sent us running wildly in the opposite direction. And we find ourselves embarking on a game in which we are all losers. This applies first and foremost to what is at stake in the field of commercial relations. Let’s take a quick look at export and import figures. In 2004, Nicaraguan exports to Costa Rica were worth $50.6 million, the equivalent of almost half of what we export to all European countries and 20% of what we export to Central American as a whole.

Costa Rica is our biggest buyer of certain products, paying $10.2 million (54%) of the $18.8 million Nicaragua received for the sale of beans. What would happen to our peasant bean farmers if the tense bi-national relations led to a suspension of the flow of Nicaraguan beans to the Costa Rican market? What would happen if, out of a perverse gesture of reciprocity, the Costa Rican government were to apply its own 35% tax?

Nicaragua spent $189.2 million on Costa Rican products in 2004, which is more than it invested in European goods and services. This figure represents 37% of total purchases from Central American countries and was the equivalent of 38% of everything Nicaragua imported from the United States, our main trade partner.

The value of the products Nicaragua buys from Costa Rica amounts to 8.5% of our total imports. Costa Rica was our main supplier of building materials, accounting for 23% of the value of our total imports in that area. It is also our second main supplier—after the United States—of raw materials and intermediary products for both agricultural and industrial use, respectively accounting for 13.6% and 18.6% of the value of imports in both areas.

So when the Costa Rican ambassador to Nicaragua says that “Nicaragua’s growth is more important for us than that of any other country in the world,” his words have to be interpreted in the context of these strong commercial links. And does it even need to be highlighted that some $50 million in exports and nearly four times as much in imports adds up to a fairly hefty trade deficit with our neighbor each year?

Investor, creditor and
receptor of thousand of emigrants

Costa Ricans have participated in direct foreign investment in Nicaragua, that pet phrase of all recent government-promoted development strategies. The most visible, apparently ubiquitous, results are the Palí supermarket and Musmani bakery chains. Another very strong economic—and cultural—link that could be affected by a troglodyte nationalist unwillingness to dialogue, negotiate and review obsolete agreements is the large numbers of Nicaraguan workers in Costa Rica, the result of mass migration whose mutual benefit is not always recognized.

Also in the economic sphere, we are gambling with the cancellation of our foreign debt with Costa Rica, which amounts to $568 million. I’m not proposing that we trade off the foreign debt for certain rights over the river, but I do feel that unwillingness to negotiate rights over the river could close doors opened by other negotiations, some of which offer rather favorable conditions. One example is the bi-national agreements to regulate the migration of temporary workers, on which there has been progress, including an offer of financing. This initiative is receiving advice from the International Organization for Migration and the International Labor Organization.

The Nicaraguan government has also put itself back on the path towards regularizing temporary labor migrations to Costa Rica through the “Agreement on the implementation of a bi-national labor policy between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.” Signed on January 21, 2005, by the labor ministers of both countries, this agreement recognizes the positive effects of orderly migrations and the need to guarantee the human rights of Nicaraguan migrants in Costa Rica so that they enjoy the same working conditions as Costa Rican workers. To make further progress in that direction, both ministers approved a work matrix for administering migratory flows aimed at the adoption of an agenda that respects the public employment policies in both countries as well as ILO principles.

Promoting temporary permits in the context of regulating seasonal migrations could provide migrants with the chance to work and receive income and social protection free from the tensions and risks they face as undocumented migrants on their way to and during their stay in that country. Costa Rican employers would be offered a suitable and timely supply of labor if they promise to fulfill their obligations as employers. And Nicaragua could install proper channels to satisfy its population’s demand for work and guarantee the rights of its nationals. We’re currently putting this agreement at risk.

We’re putting a lot at risk

We’re also putting the development of the bi-national border zone at risk. Steps have recently been taken in that direction with the Border Development Program between Costa Rica and Nicaragua signed by both nations’ foreign ministers. The main objective of that five-year program, which includes 28 bi-national initiatives and $174 million, is to promote productive, economic, social and institutional opportunities in the border zone between the two countries, as well as attract private investment that respects and sustainably exploits the area’s natural and tourist resources. The area’s local governments will play an active role in the program. But the bi-national border region development commissions could be aborted if the current climate persists.

Also at stake here is the possibility of a bi-national biosphere. The most recent move in this regard was the declaration on the Maquenque Mixed Wildlife Refuge.

And what will happen to the agreement financed by the Pan-American Health Organization to strengthen epidemiological surveillance in both countries’ border communities? Or bi-national watershed protection? Or the possibility of asking the Costa Rican government for an amnesty for undocumented Nicaraguans residing in that country?

The gestures of Enrique Bolaños’ government are an indicator of the less than marginal importance it attaches to the hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans whose efforts to improve the living conditions of their families through the remittances they send back to their native country are sustaining the Nicaraguan economy. Those same migrants are also sustaining the competitiveness of Costa Rican agroexports through the cheap labor they supply. It is calculated that over 100,000 temporary migrants make the round trip to Costa Rica every year, or even several times a year.

This conflict could also end up undermining many other possibilities through which we could propose the bi-national association of municipalities in the not too distant future. This is something that is quite feasible with Costa Rican municipalities displaying good will towards Nicaraguan migrants.

When sovereignty is an undefendable fiction

Nicaragua could lose all of this. And so could Costa Rica. But there is still a long way to go to achieve it. Maintaining its distance from the rest of Central America, Costa Rica continues resisting entry into the CA-4 initiative—which permits free circulation between its four member countries for their respective citizens with no visa requirements and with agile migratory procedures—and continues demanding a $20 visa from Central Americans who enter its territory.

A lot also remains to be done regarding natural resource management. Costa Rican businesses have contaminated tributaries of the Río San Juan and groups of Costa Rican hunters illegally enter the Indio-Maíz Reserve to hunt and catch animals.

But there are even more positive aspects in our relations with that country’s state and citizens. The Costa Rican government does much more for Nicaraguans that migrate and reside either temporarily or permanently in Costa Rica than the Nicaraguan counterpart does even for Nicaraguans in their own country. The Costa Rican Office of Human Rights Ombudsman and Labor Ministry offer better services and coverage to Nicaraguans there than the equivalent institutions in Nicaragua. Costa Rica’s social security system covers a good part of the border population through its health centers and it offers free medicine, something the Nicaraguan system can’t even guarantee to the poorest of its own poor.

How can the Nicaraguan government so vehemently and hypocritically claim sovereignty over a territory it keeps marginalized from even the most basic social services? As Andrés Pérez-Baltodano has pointed out, “Sovereignty should not simply be seen as a legal principle with territorial implications. It is a principle of political action with social implications. Without a state with the capacity to organize and develop the life of our country’s abandoned regions, sovereignty is an undefendable fiction.”

Costa Rica is in effect saving our trees, because migration to that country relieves pressure on our agricultural frontier, reducing deforestation. Many of the inhabitants of the Indio-Maíz Reserve’s buffer zone—at least in the areas not accessed by Plywood’s roads—conserve the forest on most of their plots. They only dedicate 8.5 acres to agricultural exploitation, because they spend most of the year working on Costa Rican haciendas. Rain and migration is much more effective than MARENA’s attempts to put the breaks on deforestation. By similar logic, Costa Rica is saving our macaws as well; they are also migrating to Costa Rica, because their natural habitat of almond trees are being wiped out in Nicaragua, while it is prohibited to fell them in Costa Rica.

Nationalism shirks concrete realities

The nationalist fever is not necessarily shared by either the migrants or the inhabitants of the border zone, who are the ones that could be most directly, immediately and severely affected by the conflict. Nationalism is an ideology that frequently shirks daily and concrete realities. The reaction of migrants living in Costa Rica has been very different from that of the Nicaraguan government. They recognize that they should be grateful to the “second homeland” that has received them and they are proposing to collect over half a million signatures petititoning Nicaragua to desist from its conflictive policies.

Nor do the inhabitants of the Nicaraguan communities closest to the border appear to share this patriotic dementia. Martha Cranshaw from the Nicaraguan Civil Society Network for Migration said that “from what I’ve seen, border problems don’t exist for the Río San Juan’s border communities and municipalities. I don’t see them in Rivas either. I think we’re all clear that we give something and we receive something. The population of Cárdenas [Nicaraguan] has no problems communicating and negotiating with the community of La Cruz [Costa Rican] because they know that they give something and they get something back. It’s the same with the Río San Juan communities—be they Nicaraguan or Costa Rican. What those communities are worried about is the damage to nature that could be caused by the land movements being made in Costa Rica, because they vary the course of the river; they’re extending it and they’re going to dry it out. But if someone makes a dam on the Nicaraguan side the communities are going to oppose it as well. The border issues have to be analyzed without xenophobia. Patriotism is another thing altogether. And I believe that there’s a false patriotism. You don’t find that discourse of ‘the Río San Juan is Nica” in the border communities.”

Those communities appear to have an unconscious awareness of Savater’s maxim that only someone worth nothing himself can believe there’s merit in having been born in a certain place or under a certain flag.

We’re Ticaraguan and Nica Rican

Nationalist ideology sustains that the most important feature of human beings is their national affiliation. But human beings have many other affiliations. For the people living on the border zone, being inhabitants of Boca de Sábalos, El Castillo, Papaturro, Coral, Santa Elena, La Juana, La Bijagua, El Diamante or Bartola is probably more important. As is living next to an enormous forest reserve, or having lived as refugees in Costa Rica, or the fighting they engaged in during the 1980s, or their migration from Nueva Guinea, or their religious creed…

These communities and their local governments should decide how to administer, exploit, travel along, share and care for the Río San Juan. The fact is that, as Borges said in Ficciones, “patriotism is the least discerning of the passions.” It ignores diversity, multiple interweaved interests and shared history. The border strip is inhabited by many returnees who lived as refugees in Costa Rica for almost nine years during the eighties and who renew their residency permits every year so they can continue benefiting in Costa Rica from health services that the Nicaraguan government does not provide them.

Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans are related in many different ways: children and parents of different nationalities, uncles and grandparents with both, mixed marriages and all kinds of different combinations through innumerable genealogical permutations. After so many decades and centuries of mixing surnames and exchanging customs, we have become Ticaraguans and Nica Ricans, and that is something we should embrace and celebrate, rather than embroiling ourselves in sterile disputes over the geographical origin of gallo pinto [the traditional plate of rice and beans] or the rights enshrined in documents that reflect the needs and correlation of forces of 19th-century power groups.

And we should refrain from applying the popular saying “each macaw in its guanacaste,” whose double meaning makes it very relevant to the current situation as the guanacaste tree lent its name to a Nicaraguan department that became part of Costa Rica in the 19th century. Let’s stop feeding off the worst kind of nationalism and stop fostering the kind of patriotism that hungers for holocausts. As Savater warns us in Contra las patrias (Against Homelands): “All victims of patriotism are victims of the misunderstanding and the absurdity that at the end of the day only a few—the most brutal—really profit from. And the victims must be respected, honored, pitied; but the idol to which they were immolated deserves nothing more than a few well-aimed blows of a pickaxe.”

José Luis Rocha is a researcher at Nitlapán-UCA and a member of envío’s editorial council.

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