TICO AUTHOR TRACES  ROOTS OF BORDER CONFLICT


          A Review of Juan Rafael Munoz' Book,  “Liberia, My Tribute to Its Settlers, to My People,

                                                                                    By Jiri and Leni Friedman Valenta


                                                     Published by the Tico Times, February 10, 2012 

                                                           An old map of the Nicaraguan Transit Route. Courtesy of Juan Rafael Muñoz

There was one inexcusable omission in U.S. President Barack Obama’s Jan. 24 State of the Union address. The speech lacked any mention or even hint of Central America and the growing, multidimensional threat to U.S. national security. Sadly, GOP presidential debaters also have not placed the United States’ backyard within the framework of present and potential dangers. Virtually nothing has been said about the buildup of a dangerous new axis.

Celebrating Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s creeping dictatorship last month was Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the man who earlier pledged to destroy Israel. Together with bosom friends Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Castro brothers, he celebrated the hoped-for downfall of the U.S. and capitalism. Naturally, one has to give credit to the U.S. president and Navy for their comprehensive challenge to Iranian ambitions in the Persian Gulf. But if Iran eventually succeeds in acquiring weapons of mass destruction, has anyone considered how our hemispheric foes will be empowered?

Also ignored by the president and the dysfunctional U.S. Congress is the brewing border conflict between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and the continuous territorial ambitions of Nicaragua. Surely many analysts have neglected the creeping coup orchestrated by Sandinista leader Ortega. Also not well analyzed in the U.S. press is the 2011 Sandinista intervention on Isla Calero on the San Juan River, and the disputes raging over a road Costa Rica is building by the river. Although we have not yet witnessed such openly aggressive prospects towards Costa Rica as the earlier Sandinista support of the El Salvador guerillas in the 1980s, the potential is there. 

Tico author and farmer Juan Rafael Muñoz provides a comprehensive historical, geographical and environmental analysis of Costa Rica and Nicaragua in his 2003 book, “Liberia, My Tribute to Its Settlers, to My People."  

To really understand Nicaraguan-Costa Rican tensions, readers should pick up Juan Muñoz Fonseca’s 2003 book, “Liberia, My Tribute to Its Settlers, to My People,” available in Spanish and English. 

Although Muñoz’s focus is the region in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, he provides much enlightenment on the history of the two nations. Notably, unlike most Latin American and North American scholars, he writes within the framework of the great French historian Fernand Braudel, showing how environmental factors, the complexity of geography, weather conditions, ethnic groups, flora, fauna, agriculture and animal husbandry helped to shape the history of this conflicted, strategically shaped region and northwestern frontier. He takes readers there with satellite pictures, maps, drawings, historical documents, agricultural statistics and eyewitness accounts of early settlers.

To be sure, Costa Ricans have not been innocent bystanders in the border disputes, and Muñoz’s reporting is objective. His book also predates the recent Isla Calero intervention and continuous friction and debate surrounding the road. Yet the agricultural expert turned historian has not written a simple, diplomatic history, but a major study.

Careful reading suggests that two key geographic and environmental factors have had an impact on present tensions. One of these, as Muñoz explains, is the past importance of the San Juan River, previously known as the Nicaragua Transit Route (NTR). So named by industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt in the 19th century, the NTR sought to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans between the strategically important harbors of San Juan del Norte and San Juan del Sur (part of the trip had to be made by land). The route was primarily used for agricultural exports to Europe, especially coffee, and eliminated long shipping to Europe around the Horn of Africa. Decades thereafter, in 1914, Nicaragua solicited and received U.S. support for a treaty giving it the right for 99 years to build a canal. Notice: The treaty will expire in 2013. 

Ortega’s aggression may have also been inspired by the 2008 Russian intervention in Georgia, demonstrating that borders can be changed by the use of force. Wasn’t Ortega’s country, together with Venezuela, one of the few that supported that intervention? 

As Muñoz shows, another key factor contributing to the continued border belligerence is clearly the environmental setting of his province, particularly the immense savannah extending to the Pacific Ocean, and leading north to Nicaragua and south to the Gulf of Nicoya. Blessed with beautiful beaches and four colossal volcanoes, the Guanacaste province, where thousands of U.S. expats live, is not only attractive to tourists, but also is of immense agricultural value. 

The location of the provincial capital, Liberia, is important as Guanacaste’s communications hub, a factor recognized by Costa Rican and Nicaraguan officials, as Muñoz shows, since the middle of the 19th century. 

Within environmental factors, Muñoz covers some important history, demonstrating that Costa Rica – and belatedly the U.S. – supported the Sandinistas in 1979. Moreover, as he explains, it was not just the U.S.’s earlier support of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, but Soviet support of El Salvador guerillas, Cuban proxies and the Sandinistas that escalated the Cold War. In the late ’80s, U.S. support for the Contra War eventually brought an unanticipated result: peaceful change – at least until Ortega’s post-communist manipulations. As co-editor and author of the book “Conflict in Nicaragua,” we consider Muñoz’s coverage of the Sandinista wars one of the best short histories available. 

Other fascinating history not objectively available elsewhere is the attempted conquest of Central America by U.S. Col. William Walker, who captured Nicaragua but ultimately failed in his attempt to extend slavery to Central America. Had the U.S. South won the Civil War, the history of this region might have been quite different.

 There is not enough space to discuss all the aspects of Muñoz’s book. The English version could be better edited, and the writing is alternately eloquent and overloaded with detail. It needs an index. But the book is an essential treasure trove for policymakers, historians, students and expats. 

Using a comparative perspective, for example, the Guanacaste province, incorporated into Costa Rica in the 19th century, has been disputed much as the Russians and Georgians have disputed South Ossetia and Abkhazia, or the Israelis and Palestinians have disputed the West Bank, or the Armenians and Azerbaijanis have battled over Nagorny-Karabach. 

Thus, it underscores that another world hot spot has the potential to get worse. In upcoming months, after the petty wrangling of the electoral process, U.S. policymakers must pay more attention to this strategic backyard in general, and in particular new frictions regarding the singular democracy of Costa Rica, a country with no military of its own, in the heart of the Central American isthmus.

                                    How would George Kennan Respond to Nicaragua´s

                                 Growing ´Military Dependency´ on Russia?

                                                                                                                  May 21 2014

Why is this happening now?  Conveniently for Putin, a 1914 treaty, giving the U.S. first dibs on building the canal, ran out in December 2013.   Putin likely aims at distracting   us in our strategic backyard while destabilizing the eastern Ukraine.   This resembles the strategy Nikita Khrushchev pursued in Cuba while trying to destabilize West Berlin in 1960-62 – the one that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Yuri Andropov did likewise in Nicaragua and El Salvador in 1980-83, while we were arming Afghanistan´s Muslim resistance.

Meanwhile, Costa Rican former Minister of Foreign Affairs Enrique Castillio,   has warned about Russia´s intrigues, or as he put it, Nicaragua´s “entering into a relationship of military dependency with Russia.”  Democratic Costa Rica has no army and its leaders fear Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega´s threatened reconquista of Costa Rica´s Guanacaste province.   It´s no coincidence   that Nicaragua, together with  Venezuela, were virtually alone in recognizing  Russia´s carving of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia in 2008.    Or that Russia reciprocated with military aid to Venezuela and Nicaragua, and naval war maneuvers with Venezuela in the Caribbean.  A day before the 2014 annexation of the Crimea, a Russian intelligence ship was deployed in Havana harbor.   The anti-U.S.  Caribbean trio is  also included in Russian Defense Minister Sergei  Shoigu´s   new global strategy   to extend Russia´s naval and strategic bomber power through facilities  worldwide.  Meanwhile, Putin has   doubled the  investment in Russia’s military since 2007.  It´s  expected to  triple by 2016 -- even as  our own military has been cut to pre-WWII levels!  


We in the U.S. must surely must be  concerned  about  unmonitored shipments of  drugs as well as arms and --who knows -- even WMD – traversing a  Nicaraguan canal.  Recall the North Korean ship interdicted in July, 2013  in the Panama canal   bearing undocumented arms and Cuban missile parts.     A  member of the Proliferation Security   Initiative, U.S.-friendly Panama blocks  illegal and dangerous cargo.  Will  Nicaragua?

So what should America do now?  We do believe  the late George Kennan, father of our containment policy vis-à-vis  Russia, is very relevant here.  He believed that rather than challenge  Russia  in her remote   “near abroad,”  we should  challenge her ambitions  in our own hemisphere.   “If the Soviets remained in Afghanistan and attempted to use the country for strategic purposes further afield,” he stated in 1980, “than military action against Cuba might be justified.”  


Given this outlook,  Kennan would likely have  disavowed   adding  Georgia and  Ukraine to NATO.  While  opposing boots on the ground in the Ukraine, however, he  would likely have supported arming  the Ukrainians against Russia as we did after WWII.  Ukrainian partisans bled the Russians for a decade.  He would also have recommended  formidable public diplomacy and sizable aid to  the Venezuelan democrats in their struggle.  Both Nicaragua and Cuba run on Venezuelan oil.


  Doubtless, the Russian president thinks that Obama, weakened by Washington scandals and an isolationist mood in the country,  is reluctant to use  military force.  Obama must change those perceptions!   An extra-hemispheric, nuclear  power  patrolling   our waters,   building a military facility in Nicaragua and aiding in the building an unmonitored new canal  is  unacceptable!   Kennan surely would have reminded us of the third corollary to the Monroe Doctrine that he devised In 1950.  Witnessing the  growing   Soviet influence south of the border,  he pledged in his memo to the Secretary of State, “the most scrupulous respect for… sovereignty and independence… of our Latin American neighbors!”  

In return for, “You do not make your countries the sources or the seats of dangerous intrigue against us.”   

Here is some necessary background for this article.  Jiri´s book, Conflict in Nicaragua, Allen & Unwin, 1987, co-edited with E. Duran, provided for the first time the general platform of the FSLN. This key, secret document was furnished by a former Nicaraguan  ambassador.  Despite domestic changes and acceptance of democratic elections by Daniel Ortega in the last two decades, it raises the question if Ortega, in foreign affairs, is still  motivated by the strategic objective of struggle  against the “Yankee Imperialists”  and revival of the Russo-Nicaraguan military alliance?  For the Gaddis-Smith book review see   

                                 JVLV: As  Yogi Bera Would Say, It's Deja Vu Again in Nicaragua

                                                                                        By Jiri Valenta with Leni Friedman Valenta

                                                                                            October 4, 2015

Kudo to Elliot Abrams. We are happy he’s keeping his eye on déjà vu in Nicaragua even despite the Middle East inferno, and not only for the sake of Nicaragua’s Misquito Indians fighting settlers on their land. Sadly, he and we happened to be right on Nicaragua in the 1980’s. In retrospect, the defeat of the Sandinistas in the 1989 presidential elections, was only a temporary setback for them. They became much more cautious and used their indigenous political culture to come to power not by the bullet but by the ballot.

We have lived and conducted research on the Costa Rican side of the San Juan River (2011-2014), and after interviewing Costa Rican as well as Sandinista officials, and undertaking a research trip for days along the Costa Rican-Nicaraguan borders from its Pacific to its Atlantic coasts, it became clear to us that if the Sandinistas stay in power in Nicaragua, not only Misquito Indians will suffer. Groaning with them will be decimated Nicaraguan campasinos, some of them former contras, and members of the democratic opposition in Nicaragua.

They may be joined by Costa Rican leaders next door some of whom fear the Sandinistas’ canal ambitions in part because of artificial efforts to change the navigation of the San Juan River. However, they also fear the canal will bring economic rewards primarily for the Sandinistas that would be used to further modernize their army. Having no army of their own, the Costa Ricans worry about Nicaraguan irredentism with respect its lush province of Guanacaste, long ago part of Nicaragua.

Elliot asks why the Sandinistas need something that is displacing up to 100,000 Indians, especially since the Panama Canal has just undergone a major enlargement. The answer lies in the Sandinistas’ growing military ties with Russia, Iran and even impoverished Venezuela, in the wake of a nuclear agreement of Iran signed with us and others. The Nicaraguan canal, unlike Panama one, could serve a strategic purpose, including a host of things it might be used for that should be of major concern to us.

For those analysts who want to understand the hidden side of the Sandinsta regime, they should read my and Esperanza Duran’s book Conflict in Nicaragua, which contains the secret platform of the Sandinistas advocating close ties with Russia. Moreover, if you seek to delve further into the strategic importance of the canal and Nicaragua’s persistent irredentism towards Costa Rica, pick up a not well known book by Juan Muñoz Fonseca, “Liberia, My Tribute to Its Settlers, to My People,” 2003, reviewed by us in the Feb. 2012 Tico Times. Although Muñoz’s focus is Guanacaste, he provides much enlightenment on the history of the two nations. Surely my old and much respected friend from Brookings days, Richard Feinberg, who takes a different tack towards the Sandinistas than Elliot and I do, will want to peruse and review this book in Foreign Affairs. It is the best book dealing with Nicaraguan irredentism towards Costa Rica.

In short, further research and debate about the strategic implications of Nicaragua’s planned canal is in order. As usual, Washington turns to Central America during the crisis as it did in the 1980’s after the Sandinista revolution and growing guerilla warfare supported by Cuba and the USSR. But our continued neglect of the isthmus might be at our own peril. For some of our analysis, see our 2014 Tico Times article, “After Visit to Latin America, Russia No Longer Only a Regional Power.”

                                                                The Sandinistas Attack the Miskito Indians–Again

                                                           By Elliott Abrams with comments by Jiri and Leni Friedman Valenta

      September 29, 2015

The hostility between the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast was sharp during the 1980s, and many Indians joined the contra effort against that regime. They wanted little more than to be left alone, but the Sandinistas wanted to conscript them into the revolution. To the Marxist Sandinista leaders they were relics of a pre-capitalist age, and had to brought into 20th century Stalinist reality.

The Sandinistas are back in power in Nicaragua, under the same Daniel Ortega as president, so pity the poor the Indians. Once again they are government targets, and just a week ago 10 were killed.  All the old problems about Sandinista interference in Miskito lives is back–but greatly exacerbated now by the canal project.

The Sandinistas have enlisted China in a project to build a new trans-Isthmus canal, at a cost of $50 billion. The project is wrapped in mystery. No one really knows where the money is coming from. No one knows why it is economically sound to build a new canal. After all, the Panama Canal  has just concluded a big modernization and enlargement project. Why is the new canal needed? What we do know is that somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 Indians will be displaced by this project and the environmental impact will be huge and destructive.

Daniel Ortega’s son is the liaison to the company supposedly building the canal, the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Group. That gives us a hint of what is more likely behind the project: money. Anyone familiar with how Sandinista leaders stole millions from the government they ran, and how wealthy most became, will recognize the pattern here. Those who have forgotten can find one good account of their piñata here, translated from a 1991 Mexican newspaper article. But just as Nicaragua’s peasant farmers never shared in the money the Sandinistas stole, and rose up against them in the contra movement, Nicaragua’s Indians will surely resist this new land grab and the effort by government officials to take even more money home. The open question is whether anyone–groups defending the environment, or defending Indian rights or human rights more generally, or fighting back against Sandinista repression–will help them.

 Posted in Democracy and Human Rights, Latin America, Nicaragua

The Miskito Indians of Nicaragua.