Latin American territorial spats enter perilous waters

Times Staff Writer

Colombia says Nicaragua gave up all claims to this idyllic Caribbean island in a 1928 treaty. Nicaragua contends that it signed the treaty at the point of a gun while occupied by U.S. Marines and that it is the rightful owner.

The territorial spat, now before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, is just one of several roiling Latin America these days.

In some ways, the region resembles a neighborhood with residents at one another’s throats. The issues aren’t loud music or barking dogs, but the environment and ownership of lucrative oil and fishing rights, land and waterways.


Chile, Bolivia and Peru continue to bicker over land and maritime rights that Chile has claimed since it won a three-way war in 1884.

Venezuela is at loggerheads with Guyana to the east and Colombia to the west over its borders, with rich oil and mineral deposits at stake.

Ecuador claims its territory is being violated by Colombia’s anti-coca spraying.

Argentina says that pollution from a paper plant being built in Uruguay on the banks of the bordering Uruguay River will violate border accords.

Nicaragua and Costa Rica, meanwhile, argue over rights to their common river boundary, the San Juan.

There is no near-term prospect of territorial wars over these border disputes such as those fought by Peru and Ecuador in 1995 and El Salvador and Honduras in 1969, and the fighting between Argentina and Britain in 1982 over the Falkland Islands.

But tensions are rising.

The Colombia-Nicaragua standoff over San Andres, two other Caribbean islands and thousands of square miles of ocean floor, all under Colombian control for two centuries, is especially complex. It pits opposing principles in boundary disputes: what has been agreed to in the past versus what modern conventions deem a fair division of territory.


“Modern law of the sea, which is still evolving, is confronting the classic stance of international law with its strict respect for treaties,” said Antonio Rengifo Lozano, a law professor at National University of Colombia in Bogota. “The way this and other conflicts will be solved is crucially important because they will set lasting precedents for the 21st century.”

In 1803, Spain assigned the islands to the jurisdiction of its Nuevo Granada colony, which included modern-day Colombia. The 1928 treaty solidified that claim, while giving Nicaragua rights to the so-called Mosquito Coast on Nicaragua’s Caribbean shoreline.

Nicaragua now says it signed the treaty under duress, while American troops were in the nation quelling a rebellion. Before the Marines pulled out in 1933, the U.S. installed its ally Anastasio Somoza as head of the combined military and police forces, positioning him to become dictator a few years later.

Tensions have risen in recent years. In 2003, Colombia sent naval ships to the disputed zone to prevent oil exploration by a U.S. firm that had been granted rights by Nicaragua. Last year, Nicaraguan patrol boats seized a trawler in waters claimed by Colombia.

In July, in what Nicaragua viewed as a provocation, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe chose San Andres as the place to observe Colombia’s independence day, leading a march through the island’s main town. At a subsequent meeting of Central American leaders that Uribe attended, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in so many words said Uribe was not welcome.

Norman Miranda, a Nicaraguan attorney, university professor and specialist in territorial issues, said the U.S. occupation meant his country’s sovereignty was at the time “diminished,” a legal principle important in overturning agreements.


Other experts disagree.

“The legitimacy of the Nicaraguan government that signed the treaty is simply irrelevant,” said David Bushnell, a retired University of Florida professor and author of a history of Colombia. “The pertinent facts are that the islands have been formally part of Colombia from the time of independence until now [and] the great majority of inhabitants want to stay part of Colombia.”

What is certain is that the concept of territorial fairness used in deciding border disputes has undergone big changes, particularly since a 1982 United Nations maritime agreement that said nations may have a sovereign right to the continental shelf extending as far as 200 miles from their coastlines.

Advanced fishing technology and the advent of deep-sea oil drilling made those offshore rights more valuable, and preliminary drilling in the disputed area of the Caribbean indicates that significant oil and gas reserves may lie beneath the ocean floor, said Francisco Avella, a geography professor at National University of Colombia’s graduate studies program here.

Fairness is a principle that Nicaragua has cited since taking the dispute to The Hague in 1999 at the initiative of then-President Arnoldo Aleman. The action apparently was prompted by a treaty Colombia signed with Honduras in 1999 in which Honduras recognized the validity of Colombia’s claim.

Nicaragua contends that the modern standards should nullify terms of the 1928 treaty that give Colombia title to the islands and ocean space about 100 miles east of the Nicaraguan coast.

Nicaragua’s continental shelf extends another 100 miles into the northern part of the disputed marine area, so the maritime rights should be theirs, according to the government’s argument. The Nicaraguans also point out that San Andres Island is more than 400 miles from the Colombian coast.


Some observers, including Avella, believe Nicaragua has little interest in or hope of recovering the islands. Rather, the theory goes, it wants expanded maritime rights so it can drill for oil and gas and gain part of the lucrative lobster and shrimp fishing on the Luna Verde shelf now under Colombian control.

The fairness principle also is at the core of the legal argument that Peru and Bolivia are making to recover land and marine rights they lost in 1884 to Chile.

“The modern law of the sea is clear that maritime boundary delimitation must produce an equitable solution,” said Martin Pratt, a geographer at the International Boundaries Unit at Britain’s Durham University.

It has been the movement of Bolivia and Chile toward a settlement of their long-standing dispute that has provoked Peru. After Chilean President Michelle Bachelet expressed willingness to give Bolivia control, but not sovereignty, over a strip of land and long-sought access to the sea in northern Chile, Peru protested that it had approval rights to any Chilean boundary settlement involving a third party.

In 2005, Peru’s Congress voted to unilaterally redraw the maritime boundary with Chile, claiming more than 10,000 square miles of ocean space now under Chilean control. Chile claims the disputed area was ceded by Peru in a 1952 deal, whereas Peru says it was a fishing, not a boundary, agreement.

In June, Peruvian President Alan Garcia declared that he would take Peru’s case to The Hague, and relations have gone downhill since. Early last month, Peru published an official map with the new marine boundary, provoking a diplomatic protest from Chile. Peru then responded by recalling its ambassador.


Much further along is the Colombia-Nicaragua case, on which hearings began at The Hague in June. The Colombian government said it was not appropriate for the International Court of Justice to even hear the case, contending that the treaty signed by both nations takes precedence over latter-day international accords.

(Although the claim was first lodged by Nicaragua in 1999, it is still in the preliminary stages at the international court, which is to decide by the end of the year whether to take it on. If it does, it will take four years to render a decision. Any decision would be up to the U.N. to enforce, though countries typically abide by the court’s verdicts, Pratt said.)

The Colombians also make the case that because the islands have been under their control since 1803, to change sovereignty would be traumatic for residents. “There is absolutely no one there as far as I know who wants to join Nicaragua,” historian Bushnell said.

Yet it also appears that a large segment of the San Andres population does not want to remain Colombian, either. The black Raizal minority, which settled the island and makes up a third of its population of 80,000, has mounted a movement seeking autonomy and vows to ignore any court decision.

“The movement has come about because of the ill treatment of the natives by the Colombian state,” Pastor Raymond Howard said. “As long as Colombia continues to exercise power over us, the legitimate owners, the Raizal people, will continue to be second-class citizens.”



Special correspondents Alex Renderos in San Salvador and Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile, and Andres D’Allessandro of The Times’ Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.