Celebrated northern route quickly becoming a political albatross

While President Laura Chinchilla visits Europe, the scandal over the new road along the Río San Juan becomes more complex.

The Nicaraguan government has expressed its concern because road construction has caused silting of the river nearby.

The road was started in a rush to counter Nicaraguan incursions into the Isla Calero because there was no land route through the forested area. Most of the travel in the northern area was on the river, but that river belongs to Nicaragua.

The foreign ministry has countered Nicaraguan claims by saying that Costa Rica was defending its national territory in the face of the military invasion by Nicaragua. Without the highway and with uncertainty over river travel, Costa Rica had no access to the land in the extreme northeast that is the core of the border dispute, the ministry said.

And, the ministry said, the country was only carrying out instructions from the International Court of Justice by taking steps to mitigate environmental damage in the area of the invasion.

Costa Rica challenged Nicaragua by calling the new road Ruta 1856, the Juanito Mora Porras highway. Mora was the president who successfully battled U.S. filibusters and their Nicaraguan allies in 1856.

Meanwhile, Nicaragua filed a case of its own at the world court over environmental damage to the river due to road construction. Some of the claims appear valid based on photos from the area of the highway.

The situation continues to deteriorate and is becoming a
domestic political crisis. The left-leaning Asociación Nacional de Empleados Públicos y Privados is calling the highway the biggest scandal of recent governments.

The Spanish-language daily La Nación has taken the lead in exposing problems with the road. The revelations cost the public works minster his job.

The public employees union summarizes the situation this way:

Great quantities of payoffs. No environmental impact study. Phantom construction companies in one case and in others companies behind in payments to the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social and some failing to be registered with the Colegio Federado de Ingenieros y Arquitectos. Some of the machinery has not had required safety inspections. Contracts were let by a mysterious high-level commission. And there were unneeded cutting of trees and construction without systems for carrying away water.

The biggest problem that Ms. Chinchilla will face is the allegation that 20 billion colons or about $40 million vanished without a trace in the construction project.

The public employee union claims are based on verified news reports.

The scandal comes at the end of a series of unrelated disclosures involving taxes, missing museum paintings and other woes that has sapped public confidence. In fact, the new finance minister said Tuesday that part of his job was to restore public optimism.

That probably will not happen soon because investigations are underway involving all of the scandals, including that of the new road. So they will be in the news for years. And the case will be in the world court for years, too.

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