Google Maps used as justification to occupy Costa Rica island

(Alex Covarrubias)

(Alex Covarrubias)

Turn left at the border in 1.7 miles. Oops, I meant one mile. In an age where Google Maps is replacing its paper counterpart, most people have relied on its perplexing directions. Not lost at all, President of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega used a Google Maps error to back his positioning of troops on Costa Rican soil.

Fueling a border dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua that has been around for centuries, Google Maps incorrectly drew the border along the San Juan River between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, according to Time Magazine.

The Cañas-Jerez Treaty of 1858 gave the small island at the mouth of the river, Isla Calero, to Costa Rica. Ortega, however, argues that everyone can see for themselves where the border belongs by simply Googling it, reported The New York Times.

Google Maps has since fixed the border, citing maps from the U.S. state department as the source for their inaccuracy.

“While Google maps have a high quality … in no way should they be used as a reference when deciding on military action between two nations,” posted Google in their Latin American Blog. “This time, Google determined that there was an inaccuracy in the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua and is working to update the information as quickly as possible.”

While the media has highlighted Google’s involvement in the conflict, no one is allowing the error to justify Ortega’s actions, as Ortega refused to pull out after the map was fixed.

“Frankly, the military forces are not supposed to rely on Google Maps,” said Harry Vanden, professor of political science and international studies at the University of South Florida. “I think the Nicaraguans have a bit more responsibility and I don’t think we can recur to Google for arbitrary international disputes.”

Vanden has written ten books and numerous essays about Latin American politics and has developed a thorough understanding of the nature of such disputes.

Last month over 50 Nicaraguan troops set up camp and raised their flag on the Costa Rican Isla Calero. Dredging and clearing trees, they aim to make a channel that reflects where they believe the river was in the 1850s, reported The New York Times.

“In the 1600s and 1700s, the river covered an enormous amount of territory at its delta,” said Ortega in the Costa Rican Tico Times. “And as the zone has dried, the river has moved and (Costa Rica) has continued to advance and take possession of terrain that doesn’t belong to it.”

While Costa Rica appealed to the Organization of American States (OAS), Nicaragua claimed the organization incompetent in the matter, according to a local English paper Inside Costa Rica. The Nicaraguan constitution doesn’t heed organizations they are a part of, and claim they will only listen to the International Justice Council, according to American Quarterly.

Lacking an army, Costa Rica sent heavily armed police units to the region, prompting calls of Nicaraguan unity and defense from Ortega, Time Magazine reported.

“Costa Rica is seeing its dignity smeared and there is a sense of great national urgency (to resolve the dispute),” said President of Costa Rica Laura Chinchilla, according to the Guardian.

Both presidents had agreed to meet Nov. 26 and 27 to talk about the issue, but Ortega canceled at the last minute, stating he was willing to talk but not to accept conditions, reported the Nicaraguan paper La Prensa.

With warning that the next step may be the Security Council, the Associated Press reports that Costa Rica’s Foreign Minister René Castro will meet with the U.N.

Castro’s threat does not seem to worry Nicaragua. According to La Prensa, Nicaragua’s U.N. representative Mary Rubiales said that the U.N. has no competence in border issues and Costa Rica has no legal justification.

The New York Times reports that Ortega may be trying to unite the country and gain support for elections in 2011. With attention directed at the common rival of Costa Rica, the normally polarizing Ortega has most of the county on his side.

“Historically, border issues have been a way to unify a nation,” said Assistant Professor of History Alvis Dunn in an e-mail. “Ortega may very well be doing this now to present himself as a man of honor and patriotism and Chinchilla would most likely be above such a thing either for that matter.”

“That said,” Dunn added, “Ortega has little to lose, at least in political capital and possible gains, in sabre rattling at this time.”

This holds true as the Costa Rica News reported a massive downturn in tourism, the country’s primary economic industry, since the start of the conflict.

The dispute will continue to draw international attention and is fueling more debates as people choose sides.

In Panama, President Ricardo Martinelli pledged all his support to Costa Rica while Panama’s Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) called him biased and accused him of contradicting the country’s policy of neutrality. Instead the PRD calls for the two countries to remain peaceful and refrain from aggravating each other in a letter released by the militia.

While Nicaragua continues to remain on what the rest of the world recognizes as Costa Rican soil, it is doubtful the conflict will escalate beyond words anytime soon.

“We don’t want the blood of brothers to spill,” said Ortega, according to the Tico Times.

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