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Colombia and Nicaragua's Maritime Dispute Intensifies

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Less than one year after the International Court of Justice settled a long-standing maritime border dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia, the two countries are verbally sparring again. The southwestern Caribbean is important to both Nicaragua and Colombia for both strategic and symbolic reasons, as they play into energy and security issues, as well as domestic and regional politics. The issue will create political noise on both sides and lead to some moderate military posturing that could add new complications to exploration projects in the area, but Managua will mostly be relying on legal means in trying to pursue its strategic goals in the Caribbean.

This latest round of the dispute centers around two main issues. In June 2013, Nicaragua submitted information to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in an effort to establish the outer limits of their continental shelf, thereby paving the way for additional territorial concessions. These efforts would grant Nicaragua sovereignty, and thus responsibility, over waters with significant economic potential. Secondly, in early August 2013, Nicaragua allegedly offered up oil blocks in Colombian and Costa Rican territorial waters, further aggravating Colombian officials. 

Currently, neither Colombia nor Nicaragua produces oil or natural gas from the contested territory. However, Nicaragua has recently sealed a contract with U.S. firm Noble Energy for an exploratory well to be drilled in August 2013 off the coast of Bluefields, relatively close to the disputed area. Additionally, Spanish energy firm Repsol is also currently negotiating an exploration contract with Nicaragua, though the location of that well has not been publicized. For Colombia, the possibility of offshore oil and gas around the San Andres and Providencia archipelago make Nicaraguan territorial claims worth challenging.

This maritime territory lies on a direct line between the Gulf of Mexico and the Panama Canal, and it is an important trade route for both lawful and illicit goods. Colombia's navy has historically patrolled these waters and it is unclear if the Nicaraguan armed forces, which are comparatively much smaller, will be capable of guaranteeing security. For this reason, as well as to send a message to Colombia, the Nicaraguan navy recently purchased six naval vessels for use in the Caribbean, two of which are Russian-built corvettes armed with surface-to-surface missiles. 

Domestic and regional political repercussions will heavily influence Colombia's response. The threat of a second territorial maritime loss to Nicaragua would further weaken President Juan Manuel Santos' reelection prospects. Inaction against Nicaragua, when combined with slow-moving negotiations with the FARC rebel group could cost Santos' political party the presidency in 2014.

But acting against the court's decision or taking military action would have major regional consequences. Colombia cannot act too aggressively with its naval forces, as this could concern both the United States and Venezuela. The United States would regard political tension or overt aggression as a threat to political stability in its traditional sphere of influence. Venezuela would perceive movement of naval forces by Colombia as a threat to its own interests. Therefore, Colombia will continue to posture and vehemently challenge Nicaragua's claims, but sensitive political issues make the use of hard power by Colombia highly unlikely. Nicaragua will meanwhile rely on legal means in pursuit of this territory.

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