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  Number 304 | Noviembre 2006
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Costa Rica

Politics Comes to the “Third Space”

A concert by MRS Alliance vice presidential candidate Carlos Mejía Godoy and his group, Los de Palacagüina, in La Carpio, that emblematic community of Nicaraguan migrants in Costa Rica, generated questions and left behind some bitter-sweet feelings. It revealed the distance separating Nicaragua’s political class from those driven out of Nicaragua by hunger.

Carlos Sandoval García

Although it had rained a lot during the afternoon, as tends to happen in San José during October, it was a night for a concert. But this concert wasn’t like the normal ones in the Costa Rican capital, such as recent shows given by Joaquín Sabina and José Luis Perales, who combine the best of social causes with the priciest of tickets.

On this occasion, the media had announced that Carlos Mejía Godoy and his group, Los de Palacagüina, would appear in the community of La Carpio with Edmundo Jarquín, the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) Alliance’s presidential candidate in the Nicaraguan elections. The outdoor stage and sound system were ready by 7 pm. Minutes earlier Jarquín had wrapped up a dialogue with his countrymen and women in the half-built Lutheran church in La Carpio. The hostess, community leader Alba Luz Álvarez, was offering people coffee, soft drinks and cookies.

On San José’s cultural
and political listings

“The Ugly One,” as Jarquín’s publicity affectionately dubbed him, was joined by several other MRS Alliance leaders and his wife, Claudia Chamorro, whose surname is well known in Nicaraguan politics; she is one of four children of former President Violeta Chamorro and her martyred husband, newspaper director Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, gunned down by Somoza’s National Guardsmen. A dozen community members were still chatting with an informed and friendly Jarquín, who seemed totally at ease in such a modest setting. He answered their questions, insisting that the MRS really would incorporate the migration issue into its political agenda. Many of those present were happy because they were being “taken into account.” Mario Florián, a Nicaraguan who has lived in La Carpio for over ten years, was waiting for Jarquín because he had once worked for his family and wanted to greet him.

An hour later Los de Palacagüina had taken control of the stage. With the stage presence resulting from his years of experience performing, Carlos Mejía quickly won over the audience. He greeted those present who were originally from Managua and went on to do the same for people from all the other departments of Nicaragua. He joked with his band members and with people watching from the second floor of a half-built house across the way.

The stage was positioned in front of a police post set up in case of trouble, and several patrol cars had been positioned there even before the concert began, but there were no unfortunate incidents. Los de Palacagüina’s first concert in La Carpio took place on a clear night. The media wanted to hear declarations from Jarquín and cameras were continuously capturing images of the concert.

It was almost certainly the first time that the Costa Rican media had sent staff into La Carpio at night without some illicit act to report on. That night something “positive” was making news. From the Costa Rican media’s perspective, there’s not much in the way of either “culture” or “politics” in any sense in that community. That night, the concert put La Carpio on the capital’s cultural and political listings. It was one of the rare occasions that the community wasn’t associated with “problems” and the journalists covering events in La Carpio weren’t from the accident and crime desk. During those same weeks Costa Rican news was focusing on the protests against the CAFTA free trade agreement with the United States and little was being said about Nicaragua’s upcoming elections. The concert was a timely reminder.

I’ve met so many “Quinchos” here

This was the first time the musical group that put Nicaragua on the international map had performed in the community that is emblematic of Nicaraguan immigration in Costa Rica. Thirty years after its song “Quincho Barrilete” won the OTI song festival in Spain, the words and music rang out for the first time in La Carpio. The song tells the story of a boy who helps his mother by making and selling kites, anticipating his fight against the Somoza dictatorship.

Most people couldn’t get over the shock of witnessing a concert in La Carpio that was part of a political act. Many sang along to some of the songs, like “Son tus perjumenes mujer.” And when I listened to the story of “Quincho Barrilete” being sung, my eyes filled with tears. I’ve met so many Quinchos in this community. It seemed a wonderful dream to hear live the song that put the fight against the Somoza dictatorship on Costa Rican radio dial when I was a teenager.

Songs and visits with
bitter-sweet questions

Most of the young people who attended the concert didn’t feel any great identification with “Quincho Barrilete.” The song sounded familiar, but not close to the heart. Most have lived more years in Costa Rica now than they did in Nicaragua and are as much from there as from here, or maybe aren’t even from either side.

The concert raised questions and left behind a certain bitter-sweet feeling. Maybe the most pressing question was why it had taken so long for a musical group so well-loved in Nicaragua to come to the biggest bi-national community in Costa Rica. Another question was why it took an election for this to happen. A few weeks previously, a community leader and close friend had commented how happy she had felt when a comandante of the revolution, whose modesty still shines as in decades past, had also come to La Carpio to visit them. As a Sandinista, she felt flattered, but couldn’t help wandering if the visit would have happened had there not been an election on the horizon in which the Sandinista movement was divided. “We came over ten years ago and they haven’t come until now,” she said. She was summing up an open secret: except for notable occasions, Nicaragua’s political class has ignored the country’s migrants.

Meanwhile, visits by Costa Rican politicians during electoral campaigns are now a custom. Every four years, the main political parties offer deeds to property owners in the community who fulfill the necessary requirements, because although La Carpio originally started to be populated 12 years ago, hardly anybody has a property title yet. Current Housing Minister Fernando Zumbado promised weeks after Oscar Arias took office that titling the lands would be a priority and asked people to applaud at the end of his term, not the beginning. It’s still too early to know whether there will be anything to applaud, but let’s hope so... It was also in La Carpio where then-candidate Arias said he opposed the tough new migration law and in mid-October his government minister, Fernando Berrocal, announced that the government will submit a bill to amend that new law.

Cheap words

In the last weeks before the Nicaraguan elections, cheap words were the order of the day. Eduardo Montealegre promised to “repatriate” his compatriots and Daniel Ortega stated that remittances would be “free of charge,” as if the exchange rate differential weren’t the remittance business’ main profit mechanism. People already knew José Rizo around these parts for the little he ever did for his compatriots while Nicaragua’s ambassador to Costa Rica.

Costa Rica’s new migration law (the original version) came into effect just as Nicaragua’s electoral promises were intensifying. The Nicaraguan consulate is still incapable of offering enough suport and information about the new documentation procedures required. The “mobile consulates” set up by Nicaragua don’t appear to be mobile at all and if Nicaraguans want a passport, they have to pay the consulate US$100. How much of the money collected for migratory documentation is invested into attention, support and accompaniment services for the thousands of immigrant families? Nor should the high price of authenticating documents in the Costa Rican consulate in Nicaragua be forgotten. This money isn’t invested in expediting migratory procedures either, even though none other than Costa Rica’s director of migration has recognized the need to do so.

Only during election campaigns?

October’s concert was a large step forward, particularly because it revealed the distance separating the political class from those who left Nicaragua for survival purposes. With the elections just around the corner, ALN presidential candidate Eduardo Montealegre provided buses to take people from La Carpio across the border to vote for free, and it had some effect. None of the other parties did it. But more than reducing politics to electoral logistics, this election cried out for us to ask about the kind of political culture being formed among the Nicaraguan-Costa Rica community in Costa Rica.

If, as Norbert Lechner put it, political struggle is always also a struggle to define what politics is, this campaign advanced very timidly in terms of extending politics. Political issues such as immigrants’ rights had a very diffuse place in Nicaraguan politics. “We poor only exist during election campaigns,” wrote immigrant Leoncia Téllez in her autobiography in 1999, just before the elections won by Enrique Bolaños.

The third space:
Neither here nor there

Migration cannot be assumed to be merely an economic issue associated to regional and international productive transformations. It also has a cultural element, which may be why the concert flattered people and pleased them, but they never stopped feeling strange at the same time. Those who traveled hungry and with the clothes on their back and now live in Costa Rica “are neither from here nor there” in the words of a song by Alberto Cortés. “Quincho Barrilete” sounded familiar, but at the same time distant. It wasn’t part of the self-image of a bi-national community like La Carpio.

All of this gives rise to the question of what kind of politics could be possible from this third space represented by La Carpio and many other communities. Authors such as Homi Bhabha have pointed out that “third space” doesn’t refer to an arithmetical criterion, but rather to an “interstitial” space where the difference is not one or the other, but rather “something more.” It raises questions about the type of politics that the diaspora can make both in both the country of origin and the country of residence.

Discussions about the third space warn us above all not to resort to essentialism. Paul Gilroy, one of the most incisive authors in the analysis of racism, asks in one of his most recent books how the concept of identity provides the means to talk about political and social solidarity. This is a fundamental question, as discussion about the third space refers in the last resort to the need to imagine a place in which to demand one’s rights.

Nicas through and through?

Politically, the third space offers the possibility of imagining positions as a subject that aren’t reduced to assimilation, adaptation or integration into the society one has migrated to, as if this weren’t happening continuously, despite the continuities with the country of origin, which also exist. Nor is it a question of imagining a kind of ethnic absolutism that vindicates origins as something immutable, as if people who leave their countries don’t change with time and space, while still holding on to memories of their origins.

The alternative to xenophobia is not essentialism, be it nationalist or ethnic. Those born in Nicaragua who have grown up in Costa Rica aren’t “Nicas through and through.” Their lives have changed, they have recovered what they experienced and incorporated new referents. They aren’t a mere repetition of their origins or a mere innovation. They are both one thing and the other. The vindication of their Nicaraguan-ness also demands not losing sight of the fact that this is a culturally, historically and socially manufactured construction.

Rhetoric apart, being Nicaraguan—or Costa Rican, English or French—“through and through” can be an extremely slippery concept. An in-depth examination of the contents and forms in which “Nicaraguan-ness” has been elaborated is required, as those who ask emigrants to vote for them are the same ones who have been incapable of formulating a project for society that would have allowed these emigrants not to leave in the first place.

La Carpio: One of “three Costa Ricas”

The third space is also raising questions for Costa Rican society. Although there’s resistance to recognizing it, half of the roughly 20,000 people living in La Carpio are Costa Rican, which means that the poverty was not brought over by migration. La Carpio may be the best example of one of the “three Costa Ricas,” that suggestive and provocative idea launched by the archbishop of San José, Hugo Barrantes. There is the opulent Costa Rica, linked above all to financial capital and export production; the Costa Rica of the middle classes, although maybe less widespread than before; and the impoverished Costa Rica that we refuse to recognize as part of our society and that is manifested in La Carpio.

Following the 21-year reign of Archbishop Román Arrieta, during which the Catholic Church hierarchy had little weight in the country, Barrantes has coined the phrase that perhaps best describes today’s Costa Rica. His criticism and doubts regarding CAFTA have been indispensable in ensuring that the opposition not be reduced to just intellectuals and people from the universities.

“Public works are acts of love…”

As December approached, new slogans reached La Carpio. December 3 is the date of Costa Rica’s mayoral elections. Johnny Araya, the current mayor of the San José canton that includes La Carpio, is running on the ticket of President Arias’ National Liberation Party. Nephew of ex-President Luis Alberto Monge and a member of a family linked to politics for years, Araya’s slogan is “Public works are acts of love...”

As dictated by the manuals of political patronage, many posters bearing this phrase are peppered around La Carpio. Attempts are now being made to milk very modest local improvements for votes. I asked a community leader from La Carpio what public works the mayor had done in the community and she replied that he hadn’t done any. “At least he hasn’t bothered us,” she added resignedly.

Oscar Arias in his labyrinth

While the campaign over here is progressing, people are still surprised by Daniel Ortega’s victory over there. Both Oscar Arias and the newspaper La Nación have said that Ortega’s return will bring a very different reality from 20 years ago. And an editorial in La Nación called on the US government to reconsider its hostility toward Ortega.

This blessing is based above all on the declarations of Nicaragua’s President-elect, who has shown no real intention of modifying the economic model that has been applied for the past decade and a half. Neither has he expressed any reservations about the CAFTA agreement, signed by all Central American governments except Costa Rica and now under discussion by a legislative commission here as well.

Both La Nación and Oscar Arias have made multiple efforts to legitimize the agreement with an important sector of Costa Rican society that has expressed reservations and held important protests against CAFTA. While the controversy continues, Arias just can’t work out why the younger generations have such an adverse opinion of him. During the election campaign they blocked his access to the University of Costa Rica’s television station, and used the e-mail to compare one of his campaign pictures with Homer Simpson’s boss, Mr. Burns.

Will Daniel Ortega come to La Carpio?

It was hard for Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica to imagine that Daniel Ortega had really won. “It doesn’t seem true,” I was told by a Sandinista woman who likes Jarquín, but whose loyalty to Ortega, despite all the mistakes she recognizes he made, would have won the day had she voted in Nicaragua. She said that the best thing about the Nicaraguan elections was that political differences hadn’t stopped the respect between those supporting different candidates. She was happy that the elections hadn’t sparked any violence.

“Now Daniel has to listen to the people,” she told me. It should be added that he also has to listen to the people who emigrate. Of all the candidates, only Daniel Ortega failed to visit Costa Rica. It’s to be hoped that now as President he will visit La Carpio and many other communities many times.

Just before the elections, therapeutic abortion was made illegal in Nicaragua, with Sandinista votes. Let’s hope that those same votes don’t end up forcing Nicaraguan women to cross the border on foot, some of them pregnant and some of them just after having given birth. They come to Costa Rica to look after Costa Rican children not always knowing how their own children are back in Nicaragua. Migration will undoubtedly be an arena in which Daniel Ortega’s rose-colored reconciliation discourse will face one of its most probing examinations.


Carlos Sandoval García is a professor at the University of Costa Rica and an envío collaborator.

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