Costa Rica Loses Land and Seeks an Army

By Federico Delgado

By way of a purported dredging of the San Juan River that started in October, a Nicaraguan army team recently finished redirecting a sliver of its flow through and around a tip of Costa Rica's territory. They ripped across the wetlands, emerging into a lake estuary in the countries' Caribbean border, opening up the rough groundwork for an inter-oceanic canal.

Based on a morphological study released early January by the United Nations satellite service, combined with the fact Nicaragua recently altered its official border maps to reflect the changes, it seems that was their purpose all along. In the process of redirecting the flow of the San Juan, Nicaragua, annexed slightly less than a square mile of Costa Rican soil. Not much: comparatively not even half of Central Park in New York City.

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But that is little consolation to Costa Rica, which has protested vehemently.

Costa Rica pushed through two resolutions at the Organization of American States demanding Nicaragua withdraw its forces and cease activities. It lobbied for inspections and studies from several international agencies to record and verify Nicaragua's actions. And, most recently, it brought the case to the World Court in The Hague where it is currently awaiting a preliminary ruling.

If that ruling comes down favorably, Nicaragua could be ordered to hand back the territory. If it refuses to do so, Costa Rica could then move the case to the United Nations Security Council. However, considering the dispute's relatively low profile, the case has next-to-no chance of ever making it to debate. A reparation, mandated by the World Court and/or brokered by a third party, is reasonably the best Costa Rica could hope for. Considering Nicaragua's precarious finances the amount is likely to be limited and go unpaid for a long time.

That is assuming, of course, the World Court's ruling is favorable. If that body determines outright that it will not meddle in the affair then that will be that. The trip from The Hague back to San Jose will be a long one.

All of which is to say that, when all is said and done, Costa Rica may never regain the piece of territory Nicaragua so tranquilly sliced off. It is unlikely to ever get retribution. Which makes its plight, along with the consequent implications, so remarkable: would you believe a country could lose 225 acres so casually?

In any other border around the world this whole episode would have likely resulted in an armed skirmish, if not worse. Of course, Costa Rica has no military so that was impossible.

So Costa Ricans are finding it very difficult not to question whether a forceful response at the start might have dissuaded Nicaragua. From that hypothetical there is a short and straight line to embracing the creation of a national defense force to safeguard the country's borders - tantamount to reestablishing a Costa Rican military.

Accordingly, the idea is proving increasingly sensible not just to hawkish pundits, but to many others, including officials within President Laura Chinchilla's administration. Government officials have tried to temper and condition the animus of its opponents but the momentum toward forming a military is clearly there.

And it could be rekindled into more widespread fervor soon when the World Court ruling comes down - particularly if Costa Rica is slighted. The absence of armed forces is after all the preeminent factor in conditioning a foreign policy that predisposes national defense on international jurisprudence. Such faith could prove itself completely and frustratingly useless precisely when it matters the most.

The 60-plus year absence of a military has long been a point of pride for many Costa Ricans. It is stoked whenever the country garners praise and admiration for the fact. Particularly so when it comes in the form high-profile spaces like a Nicholas Kristof column a little over a year ago.

That article was widely reproduced and emailed across the country. It is pertinent now to note how quickly and surreally things can change when national defense becomes involved. There is a very real chance those lofty celebrations will be forgotten as anger mounts over approximately 225 acres of wetlands.

So, if Costa Rica does indeed reestablish its armed forces in the coming years, what will it mean?

From an academic point-of-view it would become one of the most interesting case studies in the debate between the realist and liberal schools in international affairs. After all, Costa Rica has until this moment firmly embraced, and was arguably the greatest champion, of the latter camp.

But, as it rarely happens, this is an academic dilemma that could translate quickly and easily enough into a practical policy matter. Costa Rica's particular foreign policy, and therein its (lack of) defensive capabilities, serve as a stabilizer in Latin American affairs - particularly so in Central America. This unarmed and relatively prosperous country, in a region with such a violent militarist past, functioned as a trustee for regional peace and non-aggression over the last 30 or so years. Its role has been subtle but essential.

Yet, even adding the platitude of voices like Kristof's which celebrated the non-existence of a Costa Rican army as instrumental to its equally-praised development model, what good is all that if the State cannot protect the integrity of its territory? Can anyone actually criticize Costa Rican authorities if they chose to reformulate the nation's armed forces after what just happened with Nicaragua?

So here is a budding paradox the Americas could soon face: the establishment of a Costa Rican military could well make perfect sense to the country's basic interests. But it could push the region one step closer to unstable and mistrustful interstate affairs. Costa Rica's plight, a direct result of the brazen actions by Daniel Ortega's government, underreported and practically unacknowledged by the international community, could well have nefarious reverberations beyond its wounded pride.

Federico Delgado is a political and economic consultant who has worked throughout Latin America with international organizations, investment firms, and telecommunication companies.

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