SAN JOSE — A surge of around 2,000 Cuban migrants trying to cross Central America to reach the United States triggered a diplomatic spat between Costa Rica and Nicaragua on Monday, plunging tense relations between the two countries to a new low.
The row boiled over on the weekend when Nicaragua sent back the Cubans, who had been given temporary visas by Costa Rica to traverse its territory.
Nicaraguan police said the Cubans had crossed into their country "by force" and caused damage at a border crossing.
The military stepped up border surveillance to prevent further crossings, and the Nicaraguan government accused Costa Rica of "unleashing a humanitarian crisis with serious consequences for our region."
On Monday, Costa Rica's government held an emergency meeting to react to the Nicaraguan move.
Ahead of the meeting, Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez accused Nicaragua of using the Cubans "politically."
Costa Rica, he said, was "fulfilling its obligations" regarding refugees and Nicaragua's action "deserved the reproach of the international community."
US thaw with Cuba
Cubans fear the thawing of Cold War-era ties between Washington and Havana announced nearly a year ago will end their longstanding right to asylum in the United States. So many are rushing to make that trip now.
Rather than risk crossing the Florida Straits by boat, where the US Coast Guard can send them back, they are increasingly flying to places like Ecuador, then making their way overland through Central America and Mexico.
The standoff between Costa Rica and Nicaragua has exacerbated ties already strained by border disputes.
Four years ago, Costa Rica accused Nicaragua of invading Isla Portillos, a sliver of land on its northeastern Caribbean coast.
Nicaragua in turn said that a road Costa Rica was building along its side of the San Juan, the river that forms much of their shared border, was causing environmental damage. Both cases were taken before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Now, ties between the Central American neighbors risk plummeting to lows not seen since 1979, when leftist Sandinista rebels overthrew the US-backed Nicaraguan government and installed a junta led by Daniel Ortega – who since 2007 is back as the country's elected president.
Costa Rica is a pro-US nation whose stability and wealthier economy has attracted an estimated 350,000 Nicaraguan immigrants.
Busted people-smuggling ring
Many of the 2,000 Cubans stuck in Costa Rica were stranded after crossing over from Panama last week when Costa Rica arrested local operatives of their smuggling ring.
Ring members had charged the Cubans $7,000-$15,000 each and promised to smuggle them into the United States.
Left penniless and without necessary papers, around 1,000 of the Cubans ended up massed on the Costa Rican side of the border with Panama, having crossed over but unable to get past passport controls.
After initially threatening to send the Cubans back to Panama, Costa Rica relented as their numbers grew to 1,700 and gave them, and as well as a couple of hundred other Cubans elsewhere in the country, a seven-day visa to continue their trip to Nicaragua.
Costa Rica also made an "urgent appeal" to other Central American nations to let the Cubans head all the way north without further obstacles.
By blocking the migrants, Nicaragua, a Cuban ally, rebuked that call.
The Cubans, however, have said they are determined to reach their final destination, no matter what. — AFP