Nicoya is a small breakaway state in the northwest of Costa Rica.
Background: Before 1983
Named for a 16th-century chief, the Nicoya Peninsula was a distinct cultural sub-region in pre-Columbian times, the southern limit of the Mesoamerican civilization. Nicoya was part of Nicaragua province in the colonial era, but shortly after independence it was annexed by Costa Rica together with the rest of Guanacaste. Within Costa Rica, Nicoya was one of the few regions with a substantial indigenous population. Divided between Guanacaste and Puntarenas provinces, its main settlement has always been Nicoya city, one of Costa Rica's oldest.
Civil War: 1983-1990
Nicaragua's Sandinista government invaded Costa Rica shortly after Doomsday in pursuit of Contra rebels. Nicaragua quickly declared that it was re-annexing all of Guanacaste, including Nicoya. By 1987 Nicoya was securely in Nicaraguan hands.
In December 1987 an alliance of Contra groups, called the People's Front of Nicaragua (FPN), stormed through Guanacaste and seized the cities of Liberia and Nicoya. The main Sandinista stronghold, near Puntarenas city, was cut off from Nicaragua. But under General Joaquín Cuadra and with the support of local Costa Ricans, the Sandinistas managed to shatter the Contras' organization and drive them out of the province. The rump of the Contra army held out in Nicoya. That rump army included a number of prominent Contra leaders, including Alfonso Robelo and former Sandinista Edén Pastora.
The FPN lost contact with Contra groups outside the peninsula. But within their hideaway, they were somewhat secure. The Nicaraguans' attention was turned elsewhere: one Contra group had moved into Costa Rica's central valley; others had headed back north into the Mosquitia region; and Costa Rica's government was contesting the Nicaraguans' occupation. The Sandinistas judged that attacking the remnant of the FPN was not worth a costly campaign in the rugged terrain of the peninsula.
After 1990, Sandinista forces in Nicaragua and Costa Rica split with one another. Nicoya was in the no-man's-land between them. The Contras in the peninsula were able to take advantage of the situation and maintain their hold on the area.
For several years, Nicoya was governed as a guerrilla outpost. Rebel leaders debated their next course of action. The energetic Pastora wanted to gear up for more attacks on the Sandinistas as quickly as possible. The more cautious Robelo wanted the guerrillas to bide their time in Nicoya for an indefinite period, securing their territory and waiting for a more opportune time to strike. While the more aggressive party was in power, they were unable to make good on their promises to attack. Even Pastora saw that it would be suicide for the small remnant force to provoke the Sandinistas in either Nicaragua or Costa Rica. So Contra energies were focused inward, on making sure Nicoya could support them in the long term. This meant establishing the rudiments of a government over the peninsula and making sure adequate food could be produced for both the guerrillas, and the people they now depended on.
Alfonso Robelo and his followers staged an internal coup in 1995. Pastora fled to Puntarenas and (re-)defected to the Sandinista government there. Robelo declared the Republic of Nicoya, claiming that both Nicaragua and Costa Rica were "infested" with Communists. However, Robelo was not in power long. Another coup was accomplished in 1996 with substantial aid from local Nicoyanos. Robelo himself was killed, and many of his followers were either killed or driven to certain execution in Sandinista territory. In order to win local support, the new regime pledged an expansion of rights and democracy - pledges it had no intention of fulfilling.
The Counter-Counter Revolution
In 2001 yet another power struggle removed the last of the old Contra leaders from power. The new ruling clique was a mix of aging lower-ranked guerrillas weary of the ideological movement, and Costa Ricans who saw it as in their interest to preserve the state's authoritarian outlines but resented the Nicaraguans' monopoly on power. Even more so than the 1996 coup, the leaders of '01 tried to cloak their rise in the appearance of democracy. They officially dissolved the FPN and held elections for a local Congress. Congress met sporadically for a few years but eventually was phased out quietly.
In 2010 Costa Rica finally secured its northeastern border with Nicaraguan and Siberian help. This left Nicoya as the only piece of prewar Costa Rican territory still occupied by rogue groups.
The Nicoya Incident
The success of the campaign in the northeast filled Costa Rican leaders with confidence, and two years later they tried to replicate it. In October of 2012, three columns of troops entered the Nicoyan zone from different directions, seeking to occupy it quickly before the ill-equipped Nicoyans could respond. But Nicaragua was not willing to concede the peninsula, even after years of cooperation and improving relations between the two countries. Nicaraguan ground forces were rushed to the border, planes took off, and a naval squadron blockaded the Costa Rican base at Carillo.
At this point, the Nicoyan guerrillas sprang into action. They launched a major attack on Carillo and on the Costa Rican flanks. They kept up the attacks until the invading force withdrew. The Costa Ricans abandoned Carillo before the end of the year, and the Nicoyan leaders celebrated their victory.
These encroachments on Nicoya's territory prompted the regime to change tactics again. Nicoya took on a more populist flavor as the leaders tried to harness the people to support their own power. Marco Calderón, a local Nicoyano who had risen through the ranks of the militia and local administration, secured the presidency in 2013 and led the way on these changes. He consciously worked to build a Nicoyan identity, emphasizing the peninsula's 30 years of separation from Costa Rica. He made new concessions to democratic rule. Congress was allowed to meet again, but elections were far from free.
Amid this populist awakening, Nicoya began more assertively to present itself as a real country and not just a warlord zone. Calderón actively sought partners elsewhere, including with some of the South American nations and with longtime trading partners Hawaii and Mexico. Formal diplomatic recognition still did not come, but this outreach was able to secure more trade and a little humanitarian aid.
Nicaragua and Costa Rica
The two countries spent twelve years wrangling over Guanacaste province between 1992 and 2004, and during most of that time they put off discussing control of Nicoya out of fear that the talks might fall apart completely. Throughout this period of rivalry, both Costa Rica and Nicaragua tried several times to improve their relative positions by occupying all or part of the peninsula. But each side worried that a major operation in Nicoya would provoke the other to send its own troops. This could lead to open war, something neither side could afford. Overall Costa Rica has had slightly more success than Nicaragua in extending its control. Its foothold on the southeastern tip of the peninsula steadily grew over the years, and between 2000 and 2012 Costa Rica maintained a base at Carillo.
Beginning in 2004 Costa Rica and Nicaragua tried to build a more cooperative relationship, and any attempt to settle the Nicoya Question would seriously complicate matters. The Nicoya Incident of 2012 was the closest that the two sides came to fighting over the land, and after that they agreed tacitly to leave it as a neutral space. With neither country willing to either give up or enforce its claim to Nicoya, the local regime has been left to its own devices.
Nicoya has looked in vain for supporters abroad. The complex geopolitics of Central America, where three major blocs and a few neutral powers compete for influence, has served to keep the would-be nation cut off from the wider world.
Foreign powers have sometimes toyed with the idea of supporting Nicoya to affect the balance of power in the region. South American and Australia-New Zealand strategists have considered arming the breakaway state, or at least extending it diplomatic recognition, as a way to push against Siberian-allied Nicaragua. However, any scheme of this sort would be an even greater offence to neutral Costa Rica, a country that both blocs wish to keep on good terms lest it too slide into the Siberian camp.
Mexican and Hawaiian ships have traded with Nicoya over the objections of both claimant nations. Mexico is the strongest neutral power in the region, and Nicoyan leaders have sometimes looked hopefully in that direction for a potential patron. But Mexico also would have little to gain from supporting Nicoya, and in fact the nation has formed close ties with Costa Rica.
The only neighboring state that has been willing to engage at all with Nicoya has been El Salvador, and that has much more to do with corruption than with geopolitics. El Salvador is an Australia-New Zealand ally and has not given Nicoya any official support, but elements within its government have been happy to sell weapons to the breakaway state. Other arms have come from organized crime within Mexico, and the Mexican government has not always been dilligent about preventing this.
The League of Nations officially lists the territory as "disputed." South American relief workers affiliated with the International Health Organization have brought humanitarian aid to the people on several occasions. Since 2015 there has been an IHO office in Nicoya City.
Life in Nicoya
The Nicoyanos themselves do not live as isolated an existence as most people expect, especially since the status of Guanacaste was resolved and peace returned in 2004. Agricultural products and some other goods are traded across the ill-defined border. Those who can afford radios listen to Costa Rican and Nicaraguan as well as the handful of local stations.
In terms of politics and power, Nicoya remains a closed society. Intimidation and occasional violence are still cornerstones of the regime's power, despite the populist turn of more recent years.
The Contras who occupied Nicoya in the late 1980s used a white flag with the name of their organization in Contra blue. When Alfonso Robelo declared the Republic of Nicoya in 1995, he put the letters on a blue and white Central American tricolor in a pretense to legitimacy. He also changed his party's name from the Frente Popular de Nicaragua to that of Nicoya, keeping the same initials. The coup of 2001 overthrew the Contra leaders and destroyed the FPN as an organization, so its initials were replaced with the word LIBERTAD. Since 2013, the regime has pushed the Morse Code for N as a new national symbol, and this became the official national flag. The old Libertad flags can also still be seen.