CAMBRIDGE—After days of battleship bravado and patriotic proclamations against Nicaraguan expansionism, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos seemed to forget all about his neighborhood nemesis this week when he traveled to the United States to tout his government’s achievements in peace and prosperity.
In separate speeches to the UN General Assembly and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, President Santos stressed Colombia’s unlikely economic progress amid difficult peace talks with intransigent rebels. He talked about his administration’s efforts to balance the budget, push technological advances into rural municipalities, eradicate coca production nationwide, and negotiate peace after a 50-year civil war that has claimed the lives of 220,000 people and displaced 5 million others. But at no point during either U.S. address did Santos mention the main issue that has dominated his political agenda for the past few weeks: Nicaragua’s alleged encroachment into Colombian territory. The Santos government refuses to recognize last year’s world court ruling that granted Nicaragua more than 90,000 kilometers of Caribbean Sea, prompting the Central American country to file another international complaint against Colombia last week.
The decision to ignore the Nicaragua issue on the international stage was a matter of priority, Santos says. “For us, the issue of peace in Colombia is more important than that of Nicaragua,” the Colombian president told The Nicaragua Dispatch, when asked why he chose to remain quiet on the Nicaragua border dispute.
Santos’ response is remarkably candid. But it also demonstrates the difference between Colombia’s local politics and international politics. The South American country’s conflict with Nicaragua may be a hot topic domestically, but it’s also a bit of a red herring that is intended to distract Colombians from the divisiveness of peace talks and local politics. Internationally, Colombia has taken a much calmer approach to the matter.
In a country that has been torn apart by war for half a century, the issue of peace has become far more divisive than the prospect of violence, which Santos says has come to feel sadly normal after half a century of war.
Santos, who last week stood aboard the deck of a Colombian battleship and shook his fist at Nicaragua, admits that peace is the road less traveled in his country. “When I came into office, it would have been easier for me to continue on the current path without really resolving the armed civil conflict, because it’s easier to make war than seek peace,” the Colombian president told the UN General Assembly on Monday. “War would have been easier, but it is not responsible.”
During his speech the following day at Harvard, Santos repeated that message but took it a step further. “War is more politically popular than peace,” he said. “When you have the upper hand, it’s popular.”
Chinchilla carries torch, Panama bows out
In the muddled word of Latin America politics, it’s not always clear who has the upper hand. Last week, it appeared that Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama had formed a formidable regional bloc against Nicaragua’s alleged expansionism into Caribbean waters. While all three countries signed a letter of protest that was delivered to the UN Secretary General this week, within 24 hours Costa Rica was left standing alone as the wheels feel off the wagon.
“The people of Nicaragua and Costa Rica want and desire to live in peace, but the government of Nicaragua is determined to impede that,” Chinchilla said to a mostly empty UN General Assembly on Tuesday.
Santos, who initially spearheaded the regional campaign against Nicaragua, decided not to discuss the matter at the General Assembly, stranding Chinchilla at the UN pulpit. Panama, meanwhile, reached a private gentleman’s agreement with Nicaragua and backpedaled out of its alliance with Colombia and Costa Rica.
As a result, some analysts think Costa Rica fared worse than Nicaragua at this week’s General Assembly, even though President Ortega pulled a no-show (proving that less is often more with the Sandinista leader).
“I think that Chinchilla has overplayed her hand with regard to Nicaragua’s expansionary ambitions,” said Nicaraguan political analyst Arturo Cruz.
Santos, meanwhile, is playing his cards closer to the chest until the final hand is dealt.