Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 161 | Diciembre 1994



Roots of the Colombia-Nicaragua Territorial Dispute

Augusto Zamora

Atiny and anomalous document from 1803, which was only in effect for a scant three years and never had any practical consequences, has served right up to today as the pretext for Colombia to claim a number of islands and keys from Nicaragua, and to dispute the limits of the fish? and mineral?rich marine platform beneath them.

The Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry has decided to take the dispute all the way to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. "I want to leave the problem resolved at the end of my mandate," President Chamorro has declared, as technical and legal exports prepare the way for a resolution favorable to Nicaragua. For its part, the Colombian government is strengthening its military presence in the extensive disputed zone to which the new President has recently reiterated Colombia's "right."

It All Began Two Centuries Ago

This is not a geographical boundary dispute. By both geography and history, these small islands are clearly part of Central American territory, directly off Nicaragua's Caribbean coast. In fact, Colombia has no borders with Nicaragua. Both Costa Rica and Panama lie along the 2,000 kilometers of Caribbean shoreline that separate Nicaragua from Colombia. Understanding the controversy requires the help of history.

At the end of the 18th century, the Spanish Crown, in possession of vast territories of the continent through conquest and colonization, named Tomás O'Neille governor of San Andrés Island, close off Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast. Its goal was to make Spain's authority prevail over England, which had been gaining increasing dominion over Central America's Caribbean coastlands for more than a century, although the English were officially confined to Belize.

Like the rest of Central America's Caribbean side, the islands of San Andrés, Santa Catalina and Providencia were never really occupied by Spain. Given their geography, they served as the center of operations for adventurers and contrabandists, and English families had lived on them since 1631.

The newly appointed Governor O'Neille was ambitious and aspired to higher posts, a better salary and extensive lands for his African slaves to work. He decided to take the first step in this direction. Supported by English buccaneers living on San Andrés and by the Viceroy of Santa Fe (then under Spanish domain and today Colombian territory), O'Neille secretly wrote to Madrid describing a pathetic situation in San Andrés and asking that it become a "dependent in all aspects" of the Viceroyalty of Santa Fe. The letter was posted without consulting the Captain General of Guatemala, the Spanish authority with dominion over all Central American territories including San Andrés. The King of Spain agreed and expedited a Royal Order to that effect on November 30, 1803.

In a dozen lines, this Royal Order established that "the islands of San Andrés and part of the Mosquito Coast from Cape Gracias a Dios inclusive to the Chagres River are hereby segregated from the Captaincy General of Guatemala and dependent on the Viceroyalty of Santa Fe." That's it. That's the basis of today's territorial dispute.

Once this became known to the Captain General of Guatemala, he energetically protested the decision, claiming that "the Mosquito establishments have always depended on this Captaincy General." He requested that things return to their previous status. The Captain General's reasons were listened to and the 1803 Royal Order repealed by the Royal Order of 1806.

In its formality, the Royal Order of 1803 had an eminently military character, the objective of which was to defend the island's coasts from attacks by corsairs and pirates. Since all the provinces were Spanish territory, the Crown made those with the strongest naval posts (Yucatán, Havana and Cartagena) responsible for protecting other territories. And although the word "segregation" used in the Royal Order could lead to error, this was cleared up by the fact that no other disposition followed that indicated any other than a military scope, and none was applied in practice.

As a matter of fact, the Viceroyalty of Santa Fe (Colombia) did nothing whatever to protect the Mosquito Coast. The English maintained their presence there and San Andrés Island itself fell into English hands on March 26, 1806. Without firing a shot, O'Neille surrendered after his troops had fled in disarray. Not even the island's occupation by the English triggered any action by the Viceroyalty of Santa Fe.

These territories were still in this state of abandonment when the wars of independence against Spanish rule erupted in Mexico and South America. Incidents from those years show that Simón Bolívar and his government did not consider the islands part of the continental territory they were liberating from Spain.
The correspondence between Guatemala, Madrid and Santa Fe throughout the pre?independence years demonstrates that the Mosquito Coast and its adjacent islands remained under Guatemala's jurisdiction. The Royal Order of 1803 was never again mentioned by anyone.

Central America's independence in 1821 found the islands virtually abandoned. They were occupied at the time by a corsair who said he was fighting under the flag of Buenos Aires and Chile.

Colombia claimed no right to Central American territory until after July 1825, when, quite by accident, someone discovered the forgotten Royal Order of 1803 among the papers of the Viceroyalty of Santa Fe.
The dissolution of the Central American Federation in 1838 bifurcated the controversy. Since Panama was still part of Colombia at that time, Costa Rica bordered Colombia on the north and thus inherited the main part of the dispute. Nicaragua's situation was extremely complicated, since its Mosquito coasts were still occupied by England.

Throughout the 19th century, Colombia periodically and symbolically protested that England should recognize its claims over the Mosquito Coast, but the British government categorically refused. On the other hand, Colombia occupied the islands of San Andrés and Providencia, basing itself on the Royal Order of 1803, while engaging in ongoing controversies and negotiations with Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, Nicaragua worked tirelessly to recover its Mosquitia. Its efforts slowly bore fruit. In 1860 England recognized the coast as part of Nicaragua, a right confirmed in 1881 in a finding by the Emperor of Austria. During that whole century and all those negotiations, no country took Colombia's supposed rights seriously.

Two notable events occurred at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1900, French President Emile Loubet, the designated arbitrator in the Colombia-Costa Rica conflict, decided in favor of Costa Rica, denying the validity of the Royal Order of 1803 and leaving Colombia without legal arguments on which to base its claim to Central America's Caribbean coast. The other event was the signing of the Altamirano?Harrison Treaty in 1905, in which England formally recognized Nicaragua's sovereignty over its Mosquitia. Prospects for the dispute with Colombia to be resolved in Nicaragua's favor could not have been better.

But the government of Colombia, legally caught and disarmed, made use of two other devices. First, it asked arbitrator Loubet to declare the San Andrés archipelago as a case separate and distinct from the Mosquitia and therefore as Colombian. It got it. Second, it artificially "divided" the Mosquito Coast, "adjudicating" to itself the territory corresponding to Nicaragua.

Colombia's ongoing strategy to deform the facts led historian Manuel María de Peralta to state: "Colombia has imposed upon itself the odious task of felling history and Spain's legislation in America with the goal of appropriating or adjudicating a territory that has NEVER belonged to it, and sees itself obliged by the necessity of its cause to give assistance to the error or negligence of an amanuensis, making him write histories and geographies quite worthy of Father Periquet."

While all this was going on, the US government, basing itself on what was known as the "Guano Law" of August 18, 1856??which gave it authorization to occupy islands, rocks or keys not under the jurisdiction of another state??had declared the keys and banks off Nicaragua to be US property. (Guano, it should be mentioned, is the dung of seagulls, bats and other marine life. The huge guano deposits found in caves and other uninhabited areas was extremely profitable as fertilizer in the 19th century.)

Under this law, the United States took over Serrana Key in 1869 and the two adjacent ones??Quitasueño and Roncador??in 1871. In its imperialist expansionism, it "forgot" that the American continent was not "no man's land" and that all the territories once under the dominion of the Spanish monarchy now belonged to their adjacent states, as successors. The Guano Law and this US decision would have nefarious consequences for Nicaragua.

Arbitrator Loubet's decisions, first in favor of Costa Rica and then of Colombia remained only on paper; they were not implemented due to precipitous political events. In 1903, the United States tore the territory of Panama away from Colombia, "fabricating" an independent country just so it could build an interoceanic canal through it. Colombia thus ceased to have any geographic relationship with Central America, and Panama inherited the dispute. The new nation and Costa Rica redefined the border issue and submitted it to new arbitration in 1910. The finding of US arbitrator Edward White essentially confirmed that of Loubet.

After various incidents, Costa Rica and Panama resolved their controversy and Panama never again claimed any right to the Mosquito Coast. Colombia, meanwhile continued to claim the Nicaraguan Mosquitia, despite its legally unsustainable position, and also retained the islands. Even though two arbitration findings and two independent nations??one of them Panama, the successor to Costa Rica's rights??lay in the way, Colombia continued to lay claim to Nicaraguan territory!

The United States militarily and politically occupied Nicaragua in 1924. It was then that the Colombian government took a new tack: it began making secret deals with the US government to force Nicaragua to renounce its rights.

The US not only wanted to improve its relations with Colombia, which had been seriously damaged due to the separation of Panama, but it also had economic interests. US Secretary of the Treasury Mellon, a multimillionaire, was urging Colombia to renew the so?called Barco Concession for oil exploration, as well as other pending agreements on fishing and navigation between the two countries. Mellon had nothing to hope for from Nicaragua, already converted into a simple protectorate.

In 1925, the prostrate Nicaragua solicited the good offices of the United States to submit its dispute with Colombia to arbitration once again. The State Department's response proposed an "equitable" solution: the Mosquito Coast for Nicaragua and the San Andrés Archipelago for Colombia.

The case remained at an impasse until 1928, when the United States forced Nicaragua to sign an agreement, previously negotiated with Colombia, that embraced Colombia's entire proposal. Occupied Nicaragua could do nothing to oppose the empire's "dictate," which violated both its laws and its Constitution. This "treaty" named Bárcenas Meneses Esguerra after its signers??was signed on March 24, 1928, by the force of the US occupation. Nicaragua's President at the time was "chief accountant" Adolfo Díaz.

The "treaty" only had two articles: Colombia would recognize Nicaragua's sovereignty over the Mosquito Coast and Nicaragua would recognize Colombia's sovereignty over the islands of San Andrés and Providencia and over the other islands, islets and keys of the San Andrés Archipelago. The Roncador, Quitasueño and Serrana keys and banks were excluded from the document, and remained in dispute between Colombia and the United States.

Domestic resistance to the signing was such that the US government was unable to get it ratified in Nicaragua until two years later, on March 6, 1930. It required threatening and otherwise coercing Nicaragua's Congress and government, headed at that time by José María Moncada, who had been awarded Nicaragua's presidency in the infamous Espino Negro pact. The legislative debates were passionate, rooted in the idea that at issue was a despoilment. Meanwhile, in the mountains of Nicaragua, General Sandino and his men were defending national sovereignty against the US Marines.

Parallel to their negotiations over how to get the San Andrés archipelago away from Nicaragua, Colombia and the United States also negotiated the situation of the keys and banks of Roncador, Serrana and Quitasueño. By way of an agreement known as Olaya?Kellog, reached in an exchange of notes and concluded on April 10, 1928, things remained as they had been: the United States kept the keys. Nicaragua's despoilment was complete.

The Somoza dictatorship coincided with the development of new institutions around sea rights, particularly the right of nations with coasts to the adjacent waters and continental platform. Nicaragua insistently claimed its rights to the Roncador, Serrana and Quitasueño keys and their banks, and to its whole continental platform.

Unsatisfied with what it had gotten in 1928, Colombia kept expanding its pretensions to Nicaragua's marine and submarine areas. Its next step, backed only by rusty old warships, was to take the declaration that the Nicaraguan Congress had annexed in 1930 when it finally ratified the 1928 "treaty," to the effect that the 82nd meridian constituted the maritime border between the two countries. It thus unilaterally imposed a maritime border on Nicaragua, depriving it of almost its entire continental platform and adjacent sea.

As a consequence of Colombian geophagy, the incidents between Nicaraguan fishing boats and Colombian war vessels multiplied in the disputed waters. This generated increasing resentment among Nicaraguans toward Colombia, which used force to replace the rights from which it had been orphaned.

The strongest diplomatic incident between Colombia and Nicaragua occurred in 1969, after the Nicaraguan government had granted oil exploration rights beyond the 82nd meridian (in 1964 to Union Oil, in 1966 to Mobil Oil, in 1965 to Shell and in 1967 to Chevron).
Within its expansionist policy, Colombia signed a new treaty, known as Saccio Vázquez Carrizosa, with the United States on September 8, 1972. Through it, the United States ceded sovereignty of Roncador, Serrana and Quitasueño to Colombia, thus terminating what had been agreed to in the Olaya?Kellog notes. This new treaty unleashed vehement reactions in Nicaragua, which immediately expressed its firm opposition. The Colombian government reacted with arrogance: an official commission, chaired by the Minister of Defense, visited the keys to show off Colombia's naval "might." In response, a group of Nicaraguan journalists raised the national flag on Quitasueño.

The treaty was a political blow to the Somoza government, loyal representative of US interests in Nicaragua. Through his strong lobby in the US Congress, Somoza managed to get the Senate not to ratify the treaty. At this stage, the Sandinista revolution took up the dispute.

In the last months of 1979, Nicaragua's Foreign Ministry concerned itself with defending the country's territorial interests and putting an end to the 70 years of abuse that risked making Nicaragua's territorial losses even greater. As a first step, the decision was made to obstruct Colombian expansionism in the Caribbean Sea, which threatened to deprive Nicaragua of extensive zones of its seas and marine platform.

The first manifestation of the revolutionary government's territorial policy was the issuance, on December 19, 1979, of its Continental Platform and Adjacent Sea Law, which established a 200?nautical mile zone of "sovereignty and jurisdiction," and proclaimed exclusive and exclusionary national dominion over its continental platform and marine resources. Up to that point, Nicaragua had only maintained a 200?nautical mile "fishing zone."

The Foreign Ministry undertook a study of the legality of the 1928 "treaty" in October?November 1979. For the first time since 1909, Nicaragua had a truly national government, not subject to US dictates or interests, which allowed it to develop an active policy in defense of the country's rights. It had no interest in sparking a crisis with Colombia, but it was even less interested in maintaining an unjust situation resulting from 70 years of US intervention in Nicaragua. We were aware that this was an historic opportunity that could not be allowed to slip away.

The Foreign Ministry presented its proposal to the Government Junta in November: 1) Nicaragua should engage in a positive act to rescue its rights to San Andrés and Providencia, and to strengthen its rights over all its marine and submarine areas, particularly with respect to Roncador, Serrana and Quitasueño. 2) The Junta should publicly declare that the 1928 "treaty" was null and void due to uncorrectable vices at its very roots??the fact that it was unconstitutional, imposed by force and violated treaties. Dozens of meetings were held, with explanations, clarifications and additional information. Someone asked the inevitable: "Why so much water?" The answer was obvious: to defend territorial sovereignty and the enormous resources that those maritime and insular spaces contained. Finally, general agreement was reached to declare the 1928 "treaty" invalid.

The decision was not easy. Colombia's Turbay Ayala government had not behaved badly toward the Sandinista revolution. On June 16, 1979, in a meeting in Cartagena, the Andean Pact had recognized the FSLN as a "belligerent force," and afterward had quickly established relations with the new Government Junta of National Reconstruction. They were worthy gestures, considering the tradition of Colombian governments to carry out a low?profile foreign policy in the shadow of US policy. There was no desire that the act of historically, geographically and legally claiming Nicaraguan territory be interpreted as a gratuitous gesture of enmity or a pretext to create an artificial crisis, although it was clear that Colombia would not applaud it. The revolutionary government drafted a "White Paper" explaining Nicaragua's reasoning.

On February 14, 1980, in a formal ceremony with the Cabinet and diplomatic corps present, the full Government Junta??Daniel Ortega, Sergio Ramírez, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, Moisés Hassan and Alfonso Robelo??presented the "Declaration Regarding the Islands of San Andrés and Providencia and Surrounding Territories." In it, the Junta called for the return of these territories, which belonged to Nicaragua by way of unobjectionable legal, historic and geographic titles, and declared the 1928 "treaty" null and void.
This declaration was the new revolutionary government's first international action in defense of national interests. It also provoked the first foreign policy crisis. Colombia's reaction was hard. It immediately rejected Nicaragua's declaration, reaffirming its rights and recalling its ambassador in Managua to Bogotá. The Colombian press filled its pages with articles on the issue, pointing out that a "communist plot" with Cuba was behind Nicaragua's declaration. In December 1980, the government of Colombia published its own "White Book" on the issue, which added no new arguments.

The Colombian government, aware of the growing US mistrust of the Sandinista revolution, became more submissive than ever to the United States, setting itself up as one of the main critics of the Nicaraguan revolution and a staunch ally of US foreign policy. In exchange, the US recognized Colombia's ambitions regarding Roncador, Quitasueño and Serrana. The Turbay Ayala government heaped criticism on the FMLN?FDR and supported the Duarte government in El Salvador; attacked the joint French?Mexican declaration recognizing the FMLN as a "representative political force"; sent armed forces to the Sinai??the only country beside Fiji to do so??and was the only Latin American nation other than Chile that did not back Argentina in the war with Britain over the Malvinas. On March 23, 1981, it broke relations with Cuba for good measure.

The Reagan administration marked the end of any possible coexistence between the United States and Nicaragua. Reagan's anti?Sandinista sentiments led him to ratify, at the Colombian government's request, the 1972 Saccio?Vázquez Carrizosa treaty, in which the United States "ceded" Quitasueño, Roncador and Serrana to Colombia. More than a recognition of Colombia's rights, the act was to punish the Sandinista government for its nationalist and independent policy. Alfredo Vázquez Carrizosa, former Colombian Foreign Relations Minister and signer of the Saccio?Vázquez Carrizosa treaty, commented at the time: "If Nicaragua behaves in friendly fashion, it will be necessary to put off the approval. If badly, the door will be open to legalize it."

The relations between Nicaragua and Colombia improved noticeably with the presidency of Belisario Betancur in 1982. Somewhat surprisingly, Betancur decided to rescue Colombia from its submission to the United States and pull it out of its isolation from the rest of Latin America. Two steps illustrate this new stage: Colombia's entry into the Movement of Nonaligned Countries and its decision to involve itself in efforts to find a peaceful way out of the Central American crisis, which centered around the Contadora Group. Since courtesy does not deny valor, the territorial conflict remained in effect, and the Colombian government protested on two occasions??in 1984 and 1985??against actions in which Nicaragua claimed its rights in the San Andrés Archipelago and the Caribbean keys, but the protest did not go beyond diplomatic exchanges to cover formalities.

During the last year of Betancur's presidency, Nicaragua?Colombia relations cooled again. On August 2, 1986, in the last days of Betancur's mandate, his government signed a border treaty with Honduras, dividing between the two countries almost all of Nicaragua's maritime territory in the Caribbean.

That agreement was coherent with Colombia's ongoing expansionism in Caribbean waters. With respect to Central America, Colombia has signed treaties of this type with Panama (in effect since November 1977) and Costa Rica (signed in March 1977, but never put into effect due to the refusal of the Costa Rican Congress to ratify it). The Colombian Congress ratified the treaty with Honduras on October 23, 1986, with opposition only from the Patriotic Union.

There were no more surprises in the ensuing years; each country maintained its position. In Nicaragua the war ended up pushing territorial issues to the back burner. The change of government in 1990 brought no change of attitude in either Colombia or Nicaragua.

After certain initial vacillation, the Chamorro government maintained the territorial policy drawn up by the Sandinistas, considering null and void all "treaties" fabricated by Colombia over these 60 years to dispossess Nicaraguans of our territories. For Nicaragua, no other policy is possible.

By Augusto Zamora, former legal adviser to Nicaragua's Foreign Ministry.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


World Bank and IMF: Guilty as Charged

Decollectivization: Agrarian Reform

Nicaragua: Through a Glass Darkly

El Salvador
Peace is Built of Many Pieces

Where is the Guerrilla's Tomb?


Roots of the Colombia-Nicaragua Territorial Dispute
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America