The president of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, announced yesterday she hoped the International Court at the Hague would move rapidly to resolve the border conflict between Costa Rica and Nicaragua on the Rio San Juan. I wanted to laugh out loud. How hypocritical of her, and of Costa Rica. But, let me backtrack.
In October of 2010 the Costa Rican government discovered Nicaragua dredging the river separating the two countries. No crime there as Nicaragua was awarded the river in a previous fracas with Costa Rica, and has every right to support it. But Costa Rica also claimed Nicaragua dumped the dredge material on Costa Rican soil and then chopped down a swath of jungle to clandestinely establish a new channel across Costa Rican territory. The two countries have traded barbs ever since.
In November, according to the daily La Nacion, Costa Rica deployed “camouflaged and armed police” to the scene while the two sides attempted communication through diplomacy. The paper was full of who said this or that. Then Nicaragua’s foreign minister lashed out in missive to Costa Rica’s counterpart demanding Costa Rica quit violating Nicaragua’s dominion. He went on to cite continued invasion by “Costa Rican armed forces.” Costa Rica’s government shot back reminding Nicaragua that Costa Rica disbanded their military more than 60 years ago. There followed a bitter exchange of words everyone regretted and were later forced to withdraw.
It has gone on and on resembling some tragicomedy of Shakespearean scope. There have been quotes and misquotes. Accusations and rebuttals. There was even a squabble about whether Google Maps could be used as evidence. Finally, Costa Rica appealed to The Hague.
Now, the reason I feel Chinchilla’s demand for a rapid resolution to the tawdry affair hypocritical is that many of us who live in this fountain of democracy called Costa Rica can attest to a legal system here that resembles something out of Dickens’ Bleak House.
A U.S. attorney, and longtime resident, recently talked about the failing of the legal system here with A.M Costa Rica. He admonishes that Costa Rica’s legal system is “in the 19th and not 21st century.” He goes on to recommend that the entire system be computerized. “That costs money, but not doing it costs even more money… both for clients and for the courts.” The system is not geared to move cases along with due speed. What time lines exist are often violated without penalty, and many judges do not push cases as rapidly as they ought. Some not at all. He says, sanctions for undue delay or frivolous lawsuits are “pathetically nonexistent or inadequate.” The result— and I can verify— “is uncertainty for the client, the attorneys and the court, with undue delays causing hardship.” Cases take years, if not decades, in Costa Rica. Cases that would normally be finalized within a year in the U.S.
Our case is a miniature version of the scrum at the Rio San Juan. We live in an area where land grabs and squatting are practically a national pastime, and our case has languished in the courts of Limón since 2006. There have been several attempts at a trial, cancelled once by the judge, once by the defendant’s lawyer because he was “sick.” Both happened right after La Navidad, Christmas, a notorious vacation centered around drink and partying. Once a case is suspended it rotates to the back of the line pushing the trial date back six months or more.
So, I had to laugh when I read in the paper today that the Hague has instituted medida cautelares, a restraining order, against both Nicaragua and Costa Rica. They are to refrain from sending police or troops into the area until the case is settled. This, I might add, is as far as we have gotten in our case.
The Hague said the trial could be “a number of years from now.” See how that feels, Costa Rica!