Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 270 | Enero 2004


Costa Rica

Are We Costa Ricans “Exceptional”?

Costa Rica has traditionally imagined itself to be unique, democratic, special. The rest of Central America, too, has always viewed it as “exceptional.” Today, however, it is beginning to reveal some darker sides.The presence of so many Nicaraguans in Costa Rica has opened a debate about national identity that challenges national narcissism

Carlos Sandoval García

Relations between Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans in Costa Rica have developed like a three-act play. Act One: Some intellectuals postulate that immigration—especially of Nicaraguans, which have come in droves—represents a threat to Costa Rican national identity. Public figures linked to the Social Democrats or the Left are identifying themselves as card-carrying proponents of a hostile migrant policy, voicing an intellectual populism that identifies society with nation. Act Two: Fictional works representing the Nicaraguan community in Costa Rica have become very popular. And while rhetoric is the intellectuals’ weapon of choice, often excluding alternative visions for dealing with the themes under discussion, fiction has allowed other voices to be heard. Act Three: Some immigration-related public policy proposals, in particular recent ones aimed at modifying the Migration Law, suggest questionable changes.

Our national identity: An open debate

National identities often fuel debate. Although most nations are relatively recent, nationality is associated with a sense of “past,” of time, of continuity. Similarly, although the majority of nations result from a coming together of people from different origins, nations are represented as “unique,” with geographical borders seen as symbolic limits and those who transgress them a threat to “national pride.” “Globalization,” perhaps the word most cited by politicians and intellectuals today, does not seem to be weakening the sense of national belonging. In fact, nationality is frequently globalized through activities such as sports or tourism, at the same time that globalization is nationalized by fast-food chains, such as McDonalds which offers us McPinto while Coca Cola sponsors Costa Rica’s national men’s soccer team.

Do we in Costa Rica have such a clear and shared vision of who we think we are? It’s an open question. Identities come under discussion when they are in transformation, in crisis, when there seem to be no institutional conditions or collective self-visions that legitimately unify them. There would appear to be a vacuum of proposals in Costa Rica today in terms of a national project, forms of representation and political and civic platforms from which to elaborate these challenges.
Twenty years ago, the welfare state lost its legitimacy, and the ensuing neoliberal policies have intensified inequity all over Latin America, but few proposals have accompanied the protests. The anti-immigrant hostility is aimed at reigning in the anxiety generated by this period’s uncertainty.

Intellectual populism: Voicing xenophobia

The Nicaraguan community in Costa Rica is the theme of innumerable media commentaries and daily conversations. Will the Nicas become the majority? Will they impose their customs? Will they edge the nationals out of their jobs? Are Nicaraguans responsible for the deterioration of public services? They same recurring questions are being voiced in the United States and Europe with respect to other immigrants. The actors change, but the plots are the same.

Recognized intellectuals have begun to express a xenophobic discourse. The common denominator is the thesis that national identity is being affected by the arrival of immigrants and by those arguing for fair treatment for the recent arrivals. Rodolfo Cerdas, a university professor and former parliamentary representative for a leftist party, wrote in the national newspaper La Nación in November 2002: “It has recently become very fashionable to criticize Costa Rica, as if nothing here had merit and we only had defects. To repudiate the xenophobic rejection of immigration, especially Nicaraguan immigration..., there is a tendency to perpetuate three inadmissible errors: first, to denigrate all Costa Ricans in general, devaluating the great deal of good we have achieved; second, to ignore the real problems migrants bring with them; and third, to attribute all manner of virtues and advantages to migrants, without recognizing the disadvantages they bring with them regarding education, health and social adaptation. Just as self-complacency distorts democracy, such a falsely progressive focus, which replaces objectivity with self-flagellation and self-blame, fails to help the immigrants, blocks an understanding of their problems and makes it impossible to educate people.”

The national icon is in crisis

Rather than self-flagellation, what really seems to energize this debate about identities in Costa Rica is an institutional and symbolic crisis in the very sense of national identity. The 1998 and 2002 general elections, for example, registered the highest abstention rates since 1953. The image of a middle-class nation, the usual icon of nationality in Costa Rica, has also been eroding after twenty years of structural adjustment programs and other macroeconomic policies. According to the 2002 UN Development Report, the gap between the 20% of the population with the highest income and the 20% with the lowest widened between 1996 and 1999. For these same past twenty years, the welfare state has been losing legitimacy, but no new proposals are emerging. There is an absence of both inclusive policy alternatives and forms of representing nationality.

What Cerdas does not address is why national identity and the attitudes of Costa Ricans toward Nicaraguans have become such controversial and debated issues. In addition to Costa Rica’s crisis of institutionality, the uncertainty about identity has grown out of an important shift in academic research on national identities and nationalism, which in Costa Rica’s case began in the nineties, particularly triggered by Steven Palmer’s historic research. The current debates are not aiming so much to “discover” “the Costa Rican” as to deconstruct the modes by which “Costa Rican exceptionalism,” so laden with narcissism, has been built over time.

The fight against “chaos”

In the colloquium, “Costas Ricas: all their names,” organized by the Spanish Cultural Center in San José in November 2002, Juan José Sobrado, a lawyer, university professor and frequent contributor to La Nación, made an unforgettable presentation, arguing that Nicaraguan immigrants pose a threat to Costa Rican identity. If we continue receiving immigrants, warned Sobrado, “we will turn San José into a Calcutta.” Many of his comments constructed identity signifiers referring to spaces, in which Calcutta is associated with chaos and London is seen as an ideal and exemplary place, thus illustrating how the postcolonial vision of cities located well away from Central America expresses a racist discourse about immigration.

The references to space as an identity signifier were accompanied by other images. According to Sobrado, immigration is a threat comparable to “a cancerous tumor” or AIDS. The body was a metaphoric representation of the nation, with immigration being compared to a disease affecting the body—and by extension the nation.

In January 2003, José Luis Vega, sociologist and columnist for Al Día, another newspaper belonging to the publishing group that owns La Nación, also wrote about the “chaos” in migration and customs, urging the government of Abel Pacheco to “fight against chaos.” “Why not begin a fight against chaos and national disintegration at the very doors to the country, at the point where people and merchandise enter? Why not start right there, preventing the arrival of undesirable individuals and groups, to banish the anarchy that threatens our social system, splinters our customs, unbalances our labor market, bolsters criminality and increases poverty? Why not make it a state obligation to halt the deterioration or loss of national cultural identity and physical borders, without falling into racism or, worse still, isolation from the rest of the world, establishing a rational, non-extremist migratory policy?”

“EL Nica”: A theatrical success and a successful questioning

Parallel to the emergence of all this intellectual populism, initiatives have also sprouted up aimed at subverting this xenophobic self-image. Videos, plays, public debates, songs and music have all sought to respond to it. One example is “Objeciones a una novia Nica,” produced by Giselle Bustos Mora, which is a combination of fiction and documentary about an adolescent couple’s relationship, aimed at high school students. Another is “Desde el Barro al Sur,” a documentary made in Nicaragua by María José Álvarez and Martha Clarissa Hernández, in which young Nicaraguans from very poor rural areas who migrate to Costa Rica narrate their experiences. Both videos have been shown in theaters, communities and educational centers to promote debate.

The play “El Nica,” a monologue performed by César Meléndez, a Nicaraguan who went to Costa Rica when he was an adolescent, has awakened the greatest attention. He first worked as a member of various musical groups and after several years started studying dramatic arts. He is currently also acting in the series, “La Pensión,” a comedy broadcast weekly on Channel 7, in which he plays a homosexual character named Ricky.

The “Nica” he plays is José Mejía Espinoza, a construction worker, one of the most common jobs for Nicaraguans in Costa Rica. In his monologue, he talks to an image of Christ, passionately questioning it about why the Nicaraguan community in Costa Rica is so discriminated against. “Why is my life so similar to yours?, José grumbles. “It’s so hard to turn the other cheek!,” he adds, alluding to what he calls the “magic words”—“SOB Nica”—with which they continually offend him. Throughout the play, the actor relives the stigmas associated with the Nicaraguan community in Costa Rica, throwing the audience’s own stereotypes back at it.

While speaking to Jesus and his work mates, the “Nica” also attempts a dialogue with the audience, confronting it with his poverty and loneliness. The laughs initially elicited by the play turn into serious reflection over the course of the performance. At the end, the “Nica” appeals directly to the audience, asking the Costa Ricans to forgive him his accent, his color and his “Indian” hair. He also asks their forgiveness for being a guard in a middle-class neighborhood or one of the thousands of domestic workers in Costa Rican homes. When the two-and-a-quarter-hour play ends, small groups of people always approach Meléndez to congratulate and converse with him.

Warm public reception but no official support

“El Nica” has run for over a year and a half in middle-class theaters, schools, universities and urban and rural communities. In December 2003, it celebrated its 300th performance in the Café Britt, where it is usually presented on weekends. Some fifty thousand people have now seen the play, which is an exceptional reception for a work critical of many of the representations supposedly characteristic of “the Costa Rican.” A huge public has even seen this play in rural communities, where there are no theaters but there is a significant presence of Nicas working as agricultural laborers. On occasion, it has been presented twice in the same day.

Despite having been seen by the largest audience in decades, “El Nica” received none of the national prizes awarded annually by the Ministry of Culture. Worse still, the slot for best actor in theater was declared vacant. This palpable lack of official backing contrasts with the public’s ample recognition of the work.

What explains the play’s success?

In a context of such frank hostility toward the Nicaraguan community in Costa Rica, it is not easy to understand the warm response to “El Nica,” but various factors help explain it. First, although the anti-immigrant sentiment has permeated important sectors of Costa Rica society, this hostility is generating concern among others, which consider the stigmatization excessive. Those who want to show solidarity have few possibilities of expressing it and see attending the play as a way of publicly rejecting the anti-immigrant sentiment.

Second, the frivolity that dominates Costa Rica’s theater industry, often criticized for the populist style of many of the works that focus on local customs, offers few options for those who enjoy good theater. The average show bill offers little quality competition for “El Nica.” Third, it is one of the few works presented in educational institutions and communities. Catholic priests in various communities and teachers in both public and private schools frequently invite Meléndez to perform, thus confirming that “ordinary people,” often described as incapable of appreciating the “fine arts,” recognize the quality of what he brings to the stage.

The contrast between the intellectual populism that is inciting anti-immigrant hostility and these efforts to spark dialogue in solidarity with the Nicaraguan community illustrates that the representation of the Nicaraguan community is an arena of dispute and reaction where certain voices become hegemonic but others refuse to be silenced.

“I started to cry when I learned I was a Nica”

This contrast between voices hostile to the Nicaraguan community and those supportive of it is not only triggered at the discursive level, but also influences the formation of Nica and Tico subjectivity. One example can be found in the essays submitted to the contest “Where do I come from and where am I going?,” the initiative of a solidarity network project called “Snack and shoes” (meriendayzapatos@hotmail.com) that provides small grants to Nicaraguan students. The aim is to strengthen solidarity based on local reality and concrete needs.

In her submission, a sixth-grade girl from the Finca San Juan School in Pavas wrote, “When I turned six I was enrolled in kinder in this pretty school with a good and respectful teacher named Ana Patricia. In my first years of study, they didn’t treat me bad for being Nica, since I never told them or even knew myself. After hearing so many insults against Nicaraguans in the school, I got the idea one day to ask my mommy which Costa Rican province I had been born in. When she told me I was born in Nicaragua, I started to cry; I couldn’t accept it for fear of insults or that I would be shunned in school like the others.

But with time, I have started accepting my nationality even though I know nothing about it. So far, I feel happy because both in school and at home they treat me well as an adolescent and know how to accept me. I came to understand that we are all equal before God.”

The narrative by this girl, who ended up accepting her previously unknown nationality, illustrates both how arbitrary nationality is and how Nicaraguan boys and girls are exposed to the dilemmas associated with it, internalizing and negotiating their own identity referents. What for some are only words affect the very lives of this girl and many like her.

“My parents suffered a lot coming to Costa Rica”

Another girl participating in the same contest wrote, “When my mom was pregnant with me, many sad things happened that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. One was when they drafted my dad into Nicaragua’s military service, because at that time my country was at war…. In 1990, my mom had my second sister, the war had ended and my dad came to Costa Rica from Nicaragua, leaving us there. Many things happened, we suffered hunger, illnesses, and economically we had nothing. When my second sister was nine months old, my mom got pregnant with my third sister. After she was born, my father came to Costa Rica again. My mom took the risk of coming to Costa Rica by sea, leaving my sister and me with my grandparents although it rent her soul.... Time passed and in those two years my parents had many difficulties in Costa Rica, and so did we in Nicaragua. My parents had problems in Costa Rica because they weren’t legal and didn’t have enough money to legalize themselves, which was the only way to get us out of Nicaragua…

“Thinking of us and the difficulties he had to deal with, my dad asked some people to rent him a piece of land so he could plant zucchinis. Luckily it was a good crop and my dad did well; he used the money he got to go to Nicaragua and bring us back here. When we got to the farm where my mom was, after two years without seeing her, I felt such incredible happiness! I still haven’t gotten over the happiness of being with them. After being on that farm we went to another….

“After some time we had to leave that other farm so we could study because the two schools were far away and it was very dangerous for us because the roads were very isolated. At the beginning, once we were in Paraíso, my mother wanted to enroll me in the Goicoechea School, but a problem came up and the director didn’t want to accept me because I was Nicaraguan. After that I felt very sad but I still wanted to study...”

Institutionalized racism and naturalized exclusion

This child’s experience touched me personally because I went to the same primary school where she couldn’t study because she was Nicaraguan. But beyond my personal links, there are at least three elements to highlight. One is the enormous challenge involved in raising the awareness of public officials about the issue of immigration and human rights. The Forum for Migrant Populations, coordinated by the Residents’ Defense Office, has a number of initiatives aimed in that direction and there is unquestionably a lot to do.

This case also indicates that forms of hostility and exclusion are not just expressed in clearly xenophobic and racist discourses, but are present in public institutions and services and in some cases have become “naturalized;” in other words institutionalized, assumed as the norm, something that is not problematic. We might wonder if to some degree we in Costa Rica aren’t living what is known as “institutionalized racism.” That, however, does not erase the fact that thousands of teachers make it their business to offer support to Nicaraguan students.

The third element is that the signing of international treaties and other forms of legislation is no guarantee of respect for human rights. Costa Rica has signed the Convention on Rights of the Child, yet exclusionary practices still exist in the country. The policy debate cannot be a merely normative issue, about what should be; it requires a discussion about what is done in terms of decisions and institutional practices. The formal acquisition of citizenship does not guarantee civic practice, which is more often determined by one’s accent or skin color than by one’s legal or formal condition. The difference between being “illegal” and being a “resident” does not necessarily change the way a person is treated.

It’s not just a thing of the past

Hostile attitudes toward immigrants are nothing new in Costa Rican public services. Steven Palmer relates that Costa Rica prohibited the entry of Chinese, Arab, Turkish, Syrian, Armenian and gypsy populations in 1897. And in 1908, President Cleto González Víquez told Congress that accepting immigrants could swell the population with “undesirables.” These examples show that repulsion toward natives of the Arab and oriental world dates back far before September 11, 2001, and the war against Iraq. We hated Saddam Hussein even before we knew him!
Nonetheless, xenophobic references are not just evils of the past. Entry into Costa Rica was prohibited, for example, to anyone with “a mental deficiency, disability, or communicable disease, as well as prostitutes and those with no profession or trade” right up to 1996, when Law 7600, an equal opportunity law for individuals with disabilities, abolished some of these provisions. The current version of the Migration Law, however, still blocks the entry of individuals carrying infectious diseases. Furthermore, members of indigenous groups were only recognized as “citizens” in 1993. Previously they had no official ID cards and their citizenship was very limited. Even today, formal recognition has done little to help improve their material living standards.

These examples and surely others awaken a strange feeling among us: a country that imagines itself “exceptional,” “unique,” and “democratic” has its dark side. And that raises doubts about how this “Costa Rican exceptionalism” has been created, how we have come to represent ourselves this way, and even more importantly, how we could leave these images behind. It’s a bit like those “family secrets” that are jealously hushed up, but always come out in the end. Historic analysis and analyses more focused on the present have similar challenges, one of which is precisely to poke around in our institutionality and make us more self-critical about our own formation as a nation.

More control, more restrictions

Recent initiatives to reformulate the Migration Law have repeated stigmas that it was hoped would be eliminated. Even bills that do not affect the migratory policy’s essential provisions are argued with an openly hostile tone. The political class is spreading and reproducing stigmas more explicitly than one would have expected.

Joycelyn Sawyers, a legislator in the 1998-2002 period, wrote the following in the “whereas” clauses to modify the Migration Law: “The migratory issue has currently acquired greater importance on the national agenda, increasingly assuming the category of political-social conflict, which is affecting different sectors of nationals and foreigners who live side by side in the same geographic space and pitting them against each other.

The massive exodus of foreigners to our national territory and consequent increase of foreigners illegally residing in the country is making the migratory problem more visible and worrisome than in other periods, given the Government of the Republic’s inability to provide adequate responses and aggravated by the phenomenon’s repercussions on the economy, employment, security, health, education, etc.
Members of indigenous groups were only recognized as “citizens” in 1993; before then they had no official ID cards and their citizenship was very limited. Even today, recognition has done little to help improve their material living standards
This being the case, although these migratory amnesties could virtually be catalogued as ‘necessary ills,’ by virtue of the state’s incapacity to maintain effective control over the illegal foreigners, or even due to other special circumstances of an external nature, we believe that they must be regulated more restrictively.”

Fear of “contagion” and the covert stigma

In 2001, then-President Rodríguez Echeverría presented a new migration bill with some worrying provisions. Like the existing law, it prohibited the entry of anyone carrying an infectious disease when this “could represent a risk to public health.” Those sentenced or tried for common crimes with punishments exceeding three years were also prevented from entering.

Is this mention of infectious diseases not the legal form of the discourse presented by the media to create fear of “contagion”? Similarly, wouldn’t impeding the entry of a person already judged be condemning that person twice for the same crime? It is not a question of ignoring concern about the collective interest. The problem is that certain prohibitions are rooted in stigmas and could thus violate individual freedoms.

“Don’t buy from them, sell to them or talk to them”

It is a relief that cross-border and seasonal workers were treated as special categories in that bill. Nonetheless, restrictions set for seasonal workers could in principle be seen as violating freedom of movement and are very hard to monitor. Article 77, for example, statedt: “Seasonal workers may only carry out remunerated labor activities in someone’s employ under the terms, conditions, areas and for employers authorized by the Office, based on recommendations from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, which will also define the seasonal activities and determine the contingent of seasonal workers required.”

Articles 88 and 162 established that a person deported or expelled from the country would be unable to reenter for ten years. From the practical viewpoint, this also makes little sense. Since Nicaraguans tend to slip in and out undetected in search of seasonal work, what is the point of ten-year prohibitions?

Articles 152 and 157 established that no individual or legal entity could provide work or lodging to an undocumented person, nor could they be given unauthorized work. One wonders if this is not the legal version of the slogan, “Don’t buy from them, sell to them or talk to them,” used in earlier times against other stigmatized groups.

Are the Nicas to blame?

In 2003, Public Security Minister Rogelio Ramos presented a new version of the migration bill, replacing Rodríguez Echeverría’s. In his February appearance before the Permanent Commission on Government and Administration, Ramos justified the new legislation as follows: “In the first place, within the Government of the Republic we drafted and adopted a national plan for comprehensive security and civic participation, which is the guideline for all our work in this field. In this respect, it was suggested that one of the Public Security Ministry’s specific objectives should be to exercise strict control on migratory movements, so the migrants can contribute to the country’s sustainable development.” The presumption, then, is that migrations affect security.

During the minister’s appearance, congressional representative Luis Angel Ramírez said, “The latest figure I have from the migration director is that we have approximately 279,000 Nicaraguan residents, but I can tell you that Costa Rica spent 11 billion colons on health care for Nicaraguans in 2001. What shall we do? A campaign to stop them coming? Not provide them health care? Migratory control?” While the legislator linked the number of Nicaraguans to state spending on health, it is well known that the Costa Rican Social Security Fund has been most weakened by reduced investment in equipment and infrastructure and the chronic arrears in both public and private employer contributions.

Although such opinions are nothing new, it is notable that a minister and a legislator were repeating arguments that blame the Nicaraguan community for the deteriorating security and health care situations. In a context in which the nationality narratives have been weakened and political figures considerably discredited, immigration tends to become one of the few topics through which a sense of “nation” can be expressed.

Citizenship and increasing human mobility

This way of linking services, public policies and immigration seems to assume that the condition of citizenship comes as part of the nationality package. In this context, a crucial challenge is how to think about citizenship beyond nationality. Citizenship frequently infers sharing the nationality of the country in which one lives. It is no accident that in both Spanish and English the procedure for acquiring a new nationality is labeled “naturalization”: to become natural to the country in which one lives.

Identifying nationality with citizenship has become more problematic today, given the increasing population mobility, which has become a characteristic feature of our time, along with the growing movement of capital, merchandise and cultural products. Many people are now able to invest in foreign banks, make purchases through Internet or spend hours on end watching cable TV. Capital, production and culture seem to circulate with little problem, yet those who tout this particular opening are often the very ones who promote tightening up the migratory policies to restrict the mobility of people.
More and more people are traveling from one country to another, and with increasing frequency end up living in countries other than the one they were born in, often clinging to cultural referents from their place of origin. These new realities have led to a conceptual search.

Some speak of “non-resident modernities,” a concept that mainly arose out of the experience of India’s diaspora—nationals living in different countries but still associated with their origins. Something similar is happening in Central America. It is estimated, for example, that some 2.7 million Salvadorans—around 25% of El Salvador’s population—are living outside the country, especially those in the United States.

In Central America, there are countless stories of poverty behind people’s mobility. In our region, as in so many others, those who decide to leave home to see the world and thus become more cosmopolitan are still a minority.

Where is home?

Other approaches insist on the need to go beyond formal citizenship and think about a multicultural citizenry: recognition of all citizens as possessing equal rights as individuals and different needs and desires as members of groups with specific characteristics and social situations. The challenge of both this idea and the “non-resident modernities” perspective is how to construct “communities in difference” for which values such as equity, solidarity and respect as opposed to narratives of national belonging provide the basis for social coexistence.

It is essential to recognize that more and more people feel they don’t belong anywhere. As the song says, they are from neither here nor there; or as one of the millions of Turks living in Germany remarked, “Home is where your work is.” They speak from the interstices of different cultures, always interpreting notions of one culture based on those of another, seeking ways to be like the others while at the same time differentiating themselves from them.

Identifying nationality with citizenship has become problematic today, given the increasing population mobility, which is a feature of our time along with the growing movement of capital, merchandise and cultural products

How to get beyond our exceptionalism

The panorama is not exactly encouraging, particularly because so many years of neoconservative and neoliberal ideologies have made political sensibilities very hostile at the same time as economic changes have been sparking greater mobility. In cultural terms, these policies and ideologies have triggered a backlash to the conquests of previous decades. The neoliberal structural adjustment policies are now criticized from very diverse perspectives, but the neoconservative spin on immigration issues is alive and well.

One of the many challenges, then, is how to involve in this discussion those who formulate public policies and those in charge of providing public services. Legislation and public policies that do not deal with these new times will contribute little.

In Costa Rica’s particular case, we could be facing a double challenge. The first would consist of asking ourselves how these critical perspectives on “Costa Rican exceptionalism” could transcend academic circles, since the discomfort it has created isn’t limited to intellectual debate. Various youth cultures, which commonly express themselves in music, reveal different forms of discontent. Ska groups such as El Guato, among others, have made this abundantly clear.

A second and surely more complex challenge involves asking whether the best alternative lies in formulating a new national iconography and mythology or in imagining the nation and the state in terms of a new political culture based on equity, solidarity and respect. The latter seems both more difficult and more promising. We need to subvert those ideologies that are discussing Costa Rican society’s problems in terms
of nation. We have to explore why, for example, electoral abstention is increasing, why income is becoming more concentrated and why public services and infrastructure are deteriorating, just to name three of the most prominent changes affecting Costa Rican society in the transition from the 20th to the 21st century. We also need to ask what implications this will have in the future.

Nationalist ideology against privatization?

Alongside the need to deconstruct the national self-image that has reinforced national exceptionalism and narcissism is an increasingly urgent need to defend the public institutions that are threatened with privatization. The defense of public institutions is frequently identified with protection of national interests. The privatizing zeal of neoliberalism is leading unions and other organizations into a defensive policy in which the only option left is to resist privatization with nationalist arguments that paradoxically invoke “Costa Rican exceptionalism.” It does not seem at all clear how to mount a discourse on public institutionality without nationalist references. The best example is provided by telecommunications, the defense of which mobilized thousands of people in 2000 and obliged President Miguel Angel Rodríguez to back down from the planned privatization.

Certainly, the public institutions were decisive in providing a better quality of life in Costa Rica and their deterioration has exposed important social strata to the risk of social exclusion. The deterioration of public services and the drop in public investment, however, is usually represented as the result not of neoliberal policies, among other factors, but of the immigration of so many Nicaraguans into Costa Rica. We need to think how to preserve and eventually buttress the public institutions without strengthening the nationalist ideologies that have provided the raw material for hostility and xenophobia toward immigrants, particularly Nicaraguans. The defense of public institutionality and the forging of a new solidarity are thus two of the great challenges facing us.

Carlos Sandoval García, author of the national prize-winning 2002 essay “Otros amenazantes. Los nicaragüenses y la formación de identitidades nacionales en Costa Rica,” is the envío correspondent in Costa Rica. (csandoval@cariari.ucr.ac.cr)

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