Monday, November 19, 2012

The Keys to Losing an Archipelago?

Colombian officials cheered this morning as the International Justice Court in the Hague ruled that Colombia was the rightful owner of not only the islands of San Andres and Providencia, which historically have been claimed by nearby Nicaragua, but also some bits of land portruding from the Caribbean whose ownership had been disputed.

But the cheers turned to laments when the court read the other half of its decision: that Nicaragua possesses a 350 miles 'exclusive economic zone' extending east from its coast into the Caribbean. The court's reasoning seems sensible and fair enough, since that economic zone is standard around the globe. But it leaves the San Andres archipelago enclosed in a narrow corridor of Colombian waters, and leaves two of those bits of land, called keys, and their 12 mile territorial waters surrounded completely by Nicaragua's exclusive economic zone.

Nicaragua's petty tyrant Daniel Ortega is celebrating his nation's 'triumph' in the international court. And well he should: besides a boost to his tiny nation's international prestige and his own beleagured political prospects, the expansion of Nicaragua's economic zone also means more opportunities for Nicaraguan fishermen and probably oil exploration, which Colombia had banned in waters it controlled around the islands.

The big losers here are the archipelago's fishermen, and possibly Colombia itself. The court slashed the islanders' fishing territory, endangering their livelihoods and an important part of the island's economy.

It's possible that island residents will soon reason: 'If we were only part of nearby Nicaragua instead of far-away Colombia, we'd be able to fish far and wide'.

In the short term, the Hague court's ruling reaffirmed Colombia's sovereignety over the San Andres archipelago and its nearby keys. But in the long term, by changing the San Andres residents' economic interests, the ruling could well weaken the island residents' allegiance to Colombia.

San Andres is a real political and geographical anomaly. The first Europeans to settle the islands were English Puritans (whose language still endures on the islands). Later came African slaves and pirates of various nationalities. After the South American revolutions, the islands belonged to La Gran Colombia, if only tenuously so, as did the isthmus of Panama. When American President Teddy Roosevelt chopped off Panama and made it independent in order to dig a canal across it, the archipelago stayed part of the rest of Colombia, leaving us with the geographical anomaly we have today.

More broadly, Colombia's possession of these distant islands has probably influenced Colombia's geopolitical alliances. It's part of the reason why Colombia has cool relations with Argentina and warm ones with Great Britain, which has its own dispute with Argentina over the far-away Falkland Islands just off of the Argentine coast. And it may also be why Colombia, Chile and Britain get along well: Chile possesses Easter Island way out there in the Pacific Ocean.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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