- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is proposing a military alliance with Venezuela, while pressing a legal challenge to Colombia’s control over a tiny group of Caribbean islands in an area thought to have untapped oil deposits.

Mr. Ortega appeared to link the two issues during a weekend speech, using the common thread of virulent anti-Americanism and antipathy toward Colombia that he shares with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

At one point, Mr. Ortega said Nicaragua would establish a “mutual defense” against any attack.

In the same address to his ruling Sandinista party, he accused Colombia of not respecting Nicaragua’s “sovereignty” over three Caribbean islands and their surrounding waters.

“We have to affirm our sovereign rights before international organisms, but we also have to defend ourselves mutually as nations of ALBA,” Mr. Ortega said. He was referring to the “Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas,” a regional pact promoted by Mr. Chavez that also includes Cuba and Bolivia.

Mr. Ortega’s anti-American rhetoric was routine, but the significance of his speech was the revival of an 80-year-old dispute over the Caribbean islands of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina.

Mr. Ortega spoke with Sandinista officials on Sunday, shortly after appearing with Mr. Chavez on the Venezuelan weekly talk show “Hello President,” in which Mr. Chavez repeated calls for a regional military alliance against the U.S. and lambasted Colombian President Alvaro Uribe as a “pawn of imperialism.”

Relations between Venezuela and Colombia have deteriorated as a result Mr. Uribe’s reluctance to accept Mr. Chavez as a mediator in talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a Marxist rebel group known by its Spanish acronym FARC.

A 1928 treaty granting Colombia sovereignty over the islands is considered invalid by Mr. Ortega, who says Nicaragua was under U.S. military occupation when the document was signed.

Cesar Augusto Sandino, for whom the Sandinista party was named, battled U.S. troops in Nicaragua from 1927 until their withdrawal in 1933.

Today, Colombian gunboats chase away Nicaraguan vessels trying to fish near the islands.

Some analysts think Nicaragua is reviving its claim because the area could contain oil reserves.

The International Court at The Hague affirmed Colombia’s sovereignty over the archipelago’s three main islands, but the Dec. 31 ruling opened the way for Nicaraguan jurisdictional claims over some islets and rocks in the archipelago.

Mr. Ortega battled the U.S.-backed Contra rebels throughout the 1980s, but agreed to hold presidential elections in 1990, which he lost.

After winning the presidency again in 2006, he followed Mr. Chavez’s lead with a series of anti-American gestures, including a visit last year to Iran.

At an ALBA summit last month, Mr. Chavez pledged to provide discounted oil to Nicaragua through joint state ventures.

Other countries including Honduras and Dominica, which attended the meeting as observers, also were promised discounted Venezuelan oil if they joined the group.

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