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Judging from what I_m hearing from U.S. and European diplomats, escalating tensions between several Latin American countries over century-old border disputes are not only resulting in growing military expenditures, but are also affecting talks on trade, investment and security issues with the region.

U.S. and European officials complain that it_s hard to negotiate agreements with Central American or South American economic blocs because their members refuse to sit at the same table with their neighbors because of border disputes or political conflicts.

Among the several territorial disputes that have been heating up in recent weeks:

__ Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, speaking Sept. 18 aboard a warship patrolling waters that are being disputed between his country and Nicaragua, said that Nicaragua_s latest legal claims against Colombia at the International Court of Justice in The Hague are _unfounded, unfriendly and reckless._

Santos, who has said that Colombia will not accept a recent ICJ ruling that would give Nicaragua 30,000 square miles of potentially oil-rich waters between the two countries, accuses Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega of having _expansionist goals._ Many Colombians fear Nicaragua is planning to invite Chinese companies to explore oil in the area.

Colombia is expected to bring the issue to the United Nations General Assembly this week.

Panama_s President Ricardo Martinelli, who is also accusing Nicaragua of encroaching on his country_s territorial waters, has said that he plans to sign a joint letter with Colombia, Costa Rica and Jamaica to U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon denouncing Nicaragua_s expansionist ambitions.

__ Ortega is not only quarreling with Colombia and Panama over territorial waters, but also with Costa Rica over land along the San Juan River on their common border.

That long-standing conflict escalated in recent weeks after the Nicaraguan president made a rambling speech before his country_s army seemingly suggesting that Nicaragua may seek to make a legal claim before the ICJ over Costa Rica_s province of Guanacaste.

Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla issued a statement on Aug. 15 calling Nicaragua an _adversary country_ that _invaded_ part of her country two years ago. The two presidents accuse one another of inflaming nationalist passions to cover up for their domestic political troubles.

__ Bolivia earlier this year took its territorial claims against Chile to the ICJ, demanding a passage to the Pacific Ocean through what is today northern Chile. The two countries do not have full diplomatic relations, and Bolivia_s President Evo Morales recently accused his Chilean counterpart of _lying_ about the conflict.

__ Peru, which took its dispute with Chile over waters along the two countries_ maritime border to the ICJ in 2008, is expecting a ruling within the next few months.

U.S. officials say that Washington_s efforts to negotiate economic agreements with the Central American Integration System, the region_s economic bloc, have been hurt by the fact that the presidents of Nicaragua and Costa Rica will often not sit at the same table, or go to summits hosted by the other country.

Asked whether the Obama administration is concerned about this, Roberta Jacobson, the State Department_s top official in charge of Latin American affairs, told me that while the United States is not getting involved in these territorial disputes, _it is always a concern when partners and allies in this hemisphere have tensions with each other. It complicates cooperation._

European diplomats, in turn, complain that Paraguay_s suspension from South America_s Mercosur economic bloc and a lingering political dispute between Paraguay and Venezuela over membership in that bloc have further complicated long-delayed European Union-Mercosur free trade negotiations.

Jose Miguel Insulza, head of the 34-country Organization of American States, told me in an interview last week that _this is a problem, because no extra-regional interlocutor will be very interested in conducting a negotiation when all parts of the deal are not sitting at the same table._

My opinion: Regardless of who is right on each of these border disputes, it_s time to isolate them from regional and international negotiations. Border disputes should be subject to a diplomatic quarantine, as if they were animals with dangerously contagious diseases.

With the regional economy expected to grow slower this year because of stagnant commodity prices and other external factors, Latin America cannot afford to allow century-old disputes to delay its much-needed economic integration within itself, and with the rest of the world.

Miami Herald | Andres Oppenheimer

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