Despite constant presidential summits proclaiming a new era of Latin American economic integration and political brotherhood, an escalation of border conflicts in recent weeks should draw alarm bells everywhere.
Judging from what I’m hearing from U.S. and European diplomats, escalating tensions between several Latin American countries over century-old border disputes are not only resulting in growing military expenditures, but are also affecting talks on trade, investment and security issues with the region.
U.S. and European officials complain that it’s hard to negotiate agreements with Central American or South American economic blocs because their members refuse to sit at the same table with their neighbors because of border disputes or political conflicts.
Among the several territorial disputes that have been heating up in recent weeks:
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, speaking Sept. 18 aboard a warship patrolling waters that are being disputed between his country and Nicaragua, said that Nicaragua’s latest legal claims against Colombia at the International Court of Justice in The Hague are “unfounded, unfriendly and reckless.”
Santos, who has said that Colombia will not accept a recent ICJ ruling that would give Nicaragua 30,000 square miles of potentially oil-rich waters between the two countries, accuses Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega of having “expansionist goals.” Many Colombians fear Nicaragua is planning to invite Chinese companies to explore oil in the area.
Colombia is expected to bring the issue to the United Nations General Assembly this week.
Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli, who is also accusing Nicaragua of encroaching on his country’s territorial waters, has said that he plans to sign a joint letter with Colombia, Costa Rica and Jamaica to U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon denouncing Nicaragua’s expansionist ambitions.
Ortega is not only quarreling with Colombia and Panama over territorial waters, but also with Costa Rica over land along the San Juan River on their common border.
That long-standing conflict escalated in recent weeks after the Nicaraguan president made a rambling speech before his country’s army seemingly suggesting that Nicaragua may seek to make a legal claim before the ICJ over Costa Rica’s province of Guanacaste.
Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla issued a statement on Aug. 15 calling Nicaragua an “adversary country” that “invaded” part of her country two years ago. The two presidents accuse one another of inflaming nationalist passions to cover up for their domestic political troubles.
Bolivia earlier this year took its territorial claims against Chile to the ICJ, demanding a passage to the Pacific Ocean through what is today northern Chile. The two countries do not have full diplomatic relations, and Bolivia’s President Evo Morales recently accused his Chilean counterpart of “lying” about the conflict.
Peru, which took its dispute with Chile over waters along the two countries’ maritime border to the ICJ in 2008, is expecting a ruling within the next few months.
U.S. officials say Washington’s efforts to negotiate economic agreements with the Central American Integration System, the region’s economic bloc, have been hurt by the fact that the presidents of Nicaragua and Costa Rica will often not sit at the same table, or go to summits hosted by the other country.
Asked whether the Obama administration is concerned about this, Roberta Jacobson, the State Department’s top official in charge of Latin American affairs, told me that although the United States is not getting involved in these territorial disputes, “it is always a concern when partners and allies in this hemisphere have tensions with each other. It complicates cooperation.”
European diplomats, in turn, complain that Paraguay’s suspension from South America’s Mercosur economic bloc and a lingering political dispute between Paraguay and Venezuela over membership in that bloc have further complicated long-delayed European Union-Mercosur free trade negotiations.
Jose Miguel Insulza, head of the 34-country Organization of American States, told me in an interview last week that “this is a problem, because no extra-regional interlocutor will be very interested in conducting a negotiation when all parts of the deal are not sitting at the same table.”
Regardless of who is right on each of these border disputes, it’s time to isolate them from regional and international negotiations.
Border disputes should be subject to a diplomatic quarantine, as if they were animals with dangerously contagious diseases.
With the regional economy expected to grow slower this year because of stagnant commodity prices and other external factors, Latin America cannot afford to allow century-old disputes to delay its much-needed economic integration within itself, and with the rest of the world.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for The Miami Herald.