Surge of Cuban migrants sends Costa Rica-Nicaragua ties plunging

San José (AFP) - A surge of some 2,000 Cuban migrants trying to cross Central America to reach the United States triggered a diplomatic spat between Costa Rica and Nicaragua Monday, plunging tense relations between the two countries to a new low.

The row boiled over this past weekend when Nicaragua forcibly sent back the Cubans, who had been given temporary visas by Costa Rica to traverse its territory, ignoring an appeal by San Jose that they be given a "humanitarian corridor" through the region.

As Nicaragua's military stepped up border surveillance to prevent further crossings, Managua's ambassador to the United Nations, Maria Rubiales, accused Costa Rica of "violating our sovereignty" and lodged complaints with international bodies.

Costa Rica's government held an emergency meeting on Monday in reaction to the Nicaraguan move.

Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez accused Nicaragua of "politically" exploiting the Cubans to draw attention away from a border dispute between the neighboring countries expected to be ruled on by the International Court of Justice within days. He said a "strong protest" has been sent to Managua over its actions.

Costa Rican officials called the issue of the migrants a "humanitarian crisis" whose solution lay in regional treaties recommending facilitated passage for Cubans headed to the United States.

- US thaw with Cuba -

The number of Cubans trying to reach America has soared in recent months. They 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.

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, which has no visa restrictions on Cubans. They then make their way through Central America and Mexico.

Costa Rica estimates a "constant flow" of 300 Cubans a day are now trying to move across its territory.

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 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 to $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 a few hundred other Cubans elsewhere in the country a seven-day visa to continue their trip to Nicaragua.

Although blocked again, for now, the Cubans say they are determined to reach their final destination no matter what. Going home, they say, is not an option.