The San Juan River has not been the only focal point of the Costa Rica-Nicaragua conflict that has been brewing for over a month. Another battle ground, whose boundaries are far less defined than the countries’ river border, reared its head in the dispute: the Internet.
In a region not especially known for its computer savvy, a form of Web 2.0 diplomacy has unexpectedly emerged.
It began when Costa Rica and Nicaragua dragged Google Maps into the fray. Costa Rica claimed the online map’s outline of the border was wrong and Nicaragua insisted the map was just fine the way it was.
Google’s replies are now world famous. They included the November 5 post on its Spanish-language El Blog de Google para América Latina that said, “while Google maps have a very high quality… in no way should they be taken as reference in the moment of deciding military actions between two nations.”
The dispute grew viral at that moment. It was as though the countries had hired search engine optimization advisers to assist in wording their back-and-forth attacks.
The web has also been a theater for bitter bickering among news readers, with Ticos (Costa Ricans) and Nicas (Nicaraguans) insulting one another in long threads of Spanish comments below the latest news updates on the dispute on sites of Costa Rica’s La Nación newspaper or TV channel Teletica and Nicaragua’s La Prensa or El Nuevo Diario.
Costa Rican media has been referring to the disputed area by what their government calls it, Isla Calero, while some Nicaraguan media refer to it as Harbour Head.
International media have also flooded the web with stories, each outlet struggling to decipher the intricacies of the border, land and river, and the Tico-Nica allegations.
But as Internet users are well aware, the news is no longer the province of the news media. Costa Rica’s government seems ever aware of this as well.
During a press conference last week at Casa Presidencial in San José, Costa Rican Foreign Minister René Castro made a call for the public to get busy on their social media networks, like Twitter and Facebook, and post images of the environmental damage he has accused Nicaragua of committing. He showed photos of what he alleged is the making of a Nicaraguan-built canal cutting across Costa Rican territory, which he called an “invasion.”
The special mention of social media shouldn’t be surprising from the administration that took office with President Laura Chinchilla last May. Ms. Chinchilla, the country’s first female president, has insisted that her policies maintain a wide online presence. She proved it soon after taking office: the president announced she would veto a controversial salary hike for legislators, and Tweeted her veto intention with a link attachment to her official communique.
In confronting the Nicaraguan “invasion,” Costa Rica has said it will exhaust all diplomatic channels, and it seems the hemisphere’s leading forum, the Organization of American States (OAS), may already be tapped out. On December 7 OAS member states are scheduled to send their foreign ministers to Washington DC for a special meeting about the dispute, although doubt remains over the organization’s effectiveness after Nicaragua’s no-show during the last session.
A binational meeting planned for this weekend, penciled in before the conflict, will only take place if Nicaragua withdraws its soldiers from the disputed area, Costa Rica’s government has said.
According to El Nuevo Diario, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza said Nicaragua has confirmed its attendance but disagrees about certain conditions.
(Note: the article linked above as of this writing has already begun to draw insulting comments like “pobre tico ignorante.“)
Costa Rica also awaits an outcome after lodging a complaint at the International Court of Justice at the Hague, Netherlands.
Meanwhile, the conflict likely will continue in the chats, article comments and social media that have fostered its buzz from the start, making it possibly the most highly search-engine-optimized dispute to ever flare up in this part of the globe.
*Alex Leff is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org based in San José, Costa Rica, and is a stringer for GlobalPost, Reuters and other media. He was previously the online editor for The Tico Times.