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Last Updated: 01/20/2011
Costa Rica moves towards militarism
Monica Paniagua

Monica Paniagua comments on the current debate in Costa Rica about increasing the scope and weapons of the national police force as a response to the ongoing border dispute with Nicaragua. Paniagua argues that Costa Rica should stay true to its tradition of diplomacy and avoid the slippery slope to militarism.

Conflict between Costa Rica and Nicaragua

On the surface, the conflict between Costa Rica and Nicaragua is about land, but it has become a test of the power of diplomacy to resolve international disputes. What is at stake for Costa Rica, ultimately, is the tradition of pacifism that has been at the foundation of our culture and international reputation for over half a century.

disputed area

Since October 2010, Commander Edén Pastora of Nicaragua has led operations to dredge the San Juan River, depositing the waste of the river in Isla Calero, as well as clearing forest and establishing troops. When the government of Costa Rica accused the government of Nicaragua of invading Costa Rica`s territory, the government of Nicaragua responded by claiming Isla Calero as part of the territory of Nicaragua.

When Nicaragua refused to take their troops out of Isla Calero, Costa Rica took the case to the Organization of American States (OAS). The meeting held on November 12 was chaotic: eight hours of discussion between the representatives of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Manuel Insulza, Secretary General of OAS, recommended that the government of Nicaragua to pull their military and police troops out of Isla Calero and asked the two countries to dialogue no later than November 27. 22 countries voted in favour of this recommendation; Ecuador, Dominica, and Guyana abstained, and Nicaragua and Venezuela voted against. This resolution went into effect immediately but is not binding, and has been ignored by Nicaragua.

Recently, the power of the OAS was challenged with the coup d’état in Honduras, to which the organization was also unable to adequately respond.

We need to remember that Nicaragua will hold elections in 2011 and the interest of President Daniel Ortega to gain supporters is very high. The population sees Ortega as a hero that is fighting for their territory against Costa Rica which not only took Guanacaste from them, but also wants to take San Juan River and now Isla Calero.

Recently, this conflict has been brought to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, where both sides have now presented their arguments. Outside of court, Nicaragua seems to be open to dialogue with Costa Rica but Laura Chinchilla is willing to talk to Daniel Ortega only if the troops of Nicaragua leave Isla Calero.

What Costa Rica wants is that the Court gives preliminary measure to Nicaragua, making them leave Isla Calero immediately, since a possible resolution is likely to take four or five years. Nicaragua is asking to the Court for the right to use the Colorado River (a Costa Rican river) while they continue to work on the San Juan River.

The president of Costa Rica is now talking about the creation of a “specialized border police” that will be equipped with heavier arms and trained by other Costa Ricans who were trained in the United States. Among others functions, the new police will restrict the nocturne transit of boats in border rivers with Nicaragua, and they will patrol the border with the help of a new network of heliports.

The president’s plan is to defend the sovereignty of the country with this “special police”; the Minister of Defense told La Nacion newspaper on January 14, 2011 that the police will possible be armed with machine guns. Laura Chinchilla is trying to make clear that this is not an “army”, but her declarations and those from the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Rene Castro) tell a completely different story.

Laura Chinchilla wants to use 1% (about 200 000 million colones) of the national budget for security, that is five times more than Nicaragua invest in their army; Rene Castro talk about 2 to 4% (that is what they use right now for support the public universities), and would be comparable to military spending in other Latin American countries.

On August 16 of 2010, I listened to Rene Castro at the Interamerican Institute of Human Rights in San Jose, talking, in the name of the president, about “human rights education” (that was the title of the course by the Institute), the discourse had nothing to do with that topic, instead the minister talked about the history of Costa Rica as a country of peace. He spoke of the other Latin American countries using 2 to 4% of their national budget on arms in highly disapproving language, and he mentioned his pride in Costa Rica’s use of that money for education.

Also, before Laura Chinchilla became the president of Costa Rica, she defended the decision of Jose Figueres of eliminate the army in the country in many debates, and talk about Costa Rica as a country of peace, a country invests in education and health rather that in armament.

Now that she is the president, however, there are plans to reduce government support of public universities, and it looks like security is the most important thing on the government’s agenda. Costa Rica is already part of the war against drugs led by the United States (especially in the province of Limon).

Costa Ricans have reacted to all this with an outpouring of patriotism. In the last months, nationalism was raised with the publicity of the government to put a flag in your house, in your facebook, in your car or anywhere, to demand respect to our sovereignty and dignity. The people want to see the nicas out of the territory no matter how, without realizing that Costa Rica is losing much more.

For many decades, the country has been admired and respected by the international community for preferring education and health over an armament and it has been a source of pride for ticos to be identified as a country of peace. In all the different forums and dialogue, Costa Rica has held the flag of peace and education thanks to the decision of not having an army, and our entire culture is base on that. Our slogan is peace over war, education over war, health over war.

What Laura Chinchilla and her cabinet are doing is proving to the world that everything that we said before is not worth it, is a lie; she is demonstrating that we need guns to resolve a problem, that we need to be ready to combat, and that the international instruments don’t work.

As a peace student, a human rights activist, and a Costa Rican, I cannot agree with her position. I was educated to answer conflicts with ideas and dialogue, not with guns and violence; I grew up proud of my country and the decision of not having an army, invest in education rather than in armament. There is no need to further militarize the border, there is need of more schools, more programs of conflict resolution, and more support for hospitals. Certain areas of the country, such as the province of Limon, need investment and social support from the government so that they can stabilize themselves economically and resist the problems of gangs and narcotics-trafficking.

As mention above, Costa Rica is a country with out an army, this tradition has been defended and admired in the international community and among Costa Ricans for more than fifty years. Rather than giving in to the pressures of those calling us backwards, back to the time when disputes were settled by force of arms, Costa Rica could use this conflict as an opportunity to prove to the world that politics have evolved.

Monica Paniagua is currently a student of the Masters in International Peace Studies of the University for Peace. Monica graduated in International Studies and have a Masters in Human Rights and Peace Education. Currently specializing in International humanitarian law, peace operations, African studies and responsibility to protect.