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  Number 316 | Noviembre 2007
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Nicaragua

Ticaraguans: Bi-national Identities on the Liquid Border

The nations’ old wineskins can no longer hold the new wine of population dynamics, information flows and social strategies. Those living along borders always have a foot in each country with ties that bind strong and fast on both sides. This is happening on the banks of the Río San Juan, essence of Nicaraguan-ness, object of absurd rivalries, but also the birthplace of bi-national identities and, with more time and volition, a bi-national citizenry.

José Luis Rocha

Feet run across the line. There’s no reason to feart heir murmur. What are they taking, what are they bringing? I don’t know. What’s important is that they take and bring. That they intermix. That they change. That they not stop the world’s movement. It is said to be an old, immovable world. But it’s not blind. Let them mix, and change. That’s what I defended. The right to change. I brought something that couldn’t be gotten on one side of the border or the other, only on both sides. These were hard things to understand on the two sides.
(Carlos Fuentes, The Crystal Frontier*)

* Translated from the original by the envío team with apologies to translator Alfred Mac Adam, whose official version was not available to us.

Patriotic furor rises again

Suddenly this October, Nicaragua ceased being a country fragmented by “every man for himself” to become a compact nation that knows and defends its interests. It was catalyzed by the media-fabricated consensus about the decision of the International Court of The Hague regarding the maritime limits between Honduras and Nicaragua. And it was harvested by three rival Presidents: Alemán, who filed the suit in 1999, Bolaños who stuck with it throughout his wobbly administration, and Ortega who is applauding the verdict with furor. The three set aside their bitter differences to welcome a verdict that culminated eight years of deliberations. The neoliberal Right, the traditional Conservative elite and a Sandinista Left in name only melded into a tress that exhibits the country’s psychedelic hairdo and celebrates the nationalist deed. The talent squandered, the efforts consumed and the taxes drained—all worthy of greater causes—are spared a severe cost-benefit analysis. The homeland, as metaphor for mother, deserves our all.

From their four-color top-of-the-folds and their strident, obsessively repeated “extra,” the media insisted that this was an affair of capital importance for the country. To dissipate any lingering doubts, the political elites spoke with one voice, philharmonic heralds of a national sentiment. Nobody mentioned the real costs of eight years of negotiations in The Hague, or its benefits—beyond finally putting an end to a Byzantine dispute—because they always hide the fact that the elites invent fevers that those below have to sweat out and pay the bill for. With what bewitching sorcery does this imaginary hurdle get five million Nicaraguans to applaud? What if anything does it have to do with migrations, and, finally, what does it say about the possibility or impossibility of building citizenships that transcend borders?

Building nations and borders
in Europe and in America

Those imaginary walls called borders delimit nations, which are themselves nothing more than administrative units. Borders are the form the state takes in so-called modern societies. But they are also spatial substrata used by those who hunger for identity to activate that self-constituting oneself/others relationship. British historian Benedict Anderson looked at the emergence of nations and nationalism in Unimagined Communities, a classic about the personal and cultural sensation of belonging to a nation, i.e., about that device that, according to Anderson, makes the nation conceive itself always as a profound, horizontal brotherhood, independent of the inequality and exploitation that could effectively prevail in each case. In the final analysis, he argues, it is this fraternity that has allowed so many millions of people to kill and, even more impressively, be disposed to die for such limited imaginations over the past two centuries.

Europe’s national communities sank their roots in the semi-fortuitous interaction of different factors: the development of new ideas about how to organize themselves, the emergence of a new system of production, linguistic diversity and new communication technologies. The Enlightenment and its rationalist secularism broke down the feeling of religious community and the basis of dynastic kingdoms, both of which were global in the imagination and local in the daily practical aspects. They were succeeded by territorialized entities that at times coincided with the predominance of certain languages. Adopting some of these as official and excluding others, the state administrations undertook a selection process that meant the triumph of some languages over others: English over Gaelic, French over Breton, Castilian over Catalonian...

Newspapers and books reinforced this process. The newspapers created imaginary communities of readers interested in certain ships, weddings, bishops and prices, so that readers who didn’t know each other directly felt part of a collectivity with a certain range of common interests. And so it was that the press and the state apparatuses created linguistic communities that endowed the political-administrative delimitations with meaning.

In America, and later in Africa and Asia, the colonial administrative units—arbitrary and fortuitous, because they often only marked the spatial limits of particular military conquests—were the germ of realities that acquired firmness over time, influenced by geographic, political and economic factors. The diversity of soils and climates and the communication difficulties in the pre-industrial period laid the groundwork for a growing autonomy that the colonizing powers substantiated by establishing economic norms that buttressed the autonomous nature of the administrative fragments: the administrative entities of the great Spanish Colony in America couldn’t trade with each other, but only with the metropolis.

To this autonomy was added the duality of service to the Crown. The kingdom, the viceroyalty and the captaincy offered the Spanish a professional career with a lot of mobility: they could work first in Peru, then in Guatemala and later in Florida. But constrained to a small region, the colony-born creoles developed a sense of identity reduced to the administrative divisions that demarcated the limits of their own professional horizons. A spatial-group sentiment began to be generated in them that today coincides with nations. The colonial divisions threw a long shadow, as the repeatedly failed attempts at Central American integration have later shown. The only integrationist initiatives that have achieved some duration are those that multiply honorific posts and open the doors to fat paychecks for the elites, such as the Central American Parliament and the Central American Integration System.

One nation: One imagined community

Based on his historical investigations, Anderson proposes the following definition of nation: an imagined political community that is inherently limited and sovereign. It is still imagined because while members of even the smallest nation never know the majority of its compatriots, will never see them or even hear them spoken of, the image of their communion lives in the mind of each one. Nations are territorial delimitations that seem to acquire a life of their own. Despite their origins, at times neatly traceable, nations presume to have an immemorial past and look forward to an unlimited future. Nationalism converts chance into destiny. Citizens assume that the fragment of the world in which they were born was reserved for them since the big bang. And not even cosmopolitan skeptics such as Regis Debray step back very far from this position. Even he recognized that “it is entirely accidental that I was born in France, but after all France is eternal.” Conventional administrative divisions become naturalized and are perpetuated because they constitute instruments for the dominant groups.

But how do so many people come to feel themselves part of a unit, to assume that they share certain features and interests? How are events unleashed in a bit of land packaged in such a way that a selection of canonic narratives and heterogeneous groups is produced that embraces certain experiences as life in common?

The construction of history—that past built from the present—as a path made by a clearly identifiable collectivity is arduous work. It is partly done spontaneously, but also has its “official” moments and its priestly caste. Fabrication of the collective memory by historians is a key moment. Certain authors and versions are discarded and only a very select group gets a glimpse at eternity in the national bibles.

National bibles, heroic legends
…and the Río San Juan

La Historia de Nicaragua and La Historia Moderna de Nicaragua by José Dolores Gámez, Obras históricas completas by Jerónimo Pérez, the three volumes of Historia de Nicaragua by Tomás Ayón and the works of Pío Bolaños and Carlos Cuadra Pasos have been consecrated in hardbound publications by financial entities and extensive citations by the authors of textbooks on Nicaragua. The majority of these works were written at the request of Presidents or in favor of them and their nation-building project.

Certain events permitted these authors to pen heroic national legends such the hacienda peon Andrés Castro who brought down a well trained and better armed US mercenary of filibusterer William Walker with a stone, slaps to the nationalist ego such as Walker’s fleeting adventure and presidency, delusions of grandeur such as the Río San Juan as a perfect location for an inter-oceanic canal, and much more. In the relationship with Costa Rica, the loss of the territory of Guanacaste was and still is an open wound that bleeds into the Río San Juan. Disputes with Costa Rica over possession and use of that river are a recurring nightmare in the Nicaraguan collective. Their reappearance are a call to unity that dissolves class differences, breaks down ideological barriers, paves common routes, stitches together dispersed initiatives and, should it come to that, disparages economic considerations and annuls the fraternity between nations. We saw all this in September 2005, when the foreign minister of a government with such little control over the state apparatus and minimum political play as Enrique Bolaños’ achieved surprising consensus for his chauvinist slams against the Costa Rican government.

The treaties, judicial findings and agreements regarding the Río San Juan have been so obsessively annotated in all periods of Nicaraguan history that they could be presented as our own Torah and their commentary as our Talmud. The profusion of decals claiming The Río San Juan is Nica and the re-editions of these treaties show that the umbilical cord of Nicaraguan nationalism is buried in the Río San Juan.

In addition to the avatars of the Río San Juan, other events, routines, habits, texts, rites and traditions also found nationality. La Purísima, the celebration of the Immaculate Conception as the redistributive value of Nicaraguan society, characterizes a certain national ethic: religious, gregarious and hospitable. Teachers have been the most tiresomely faithful organic intellectuals of nationalism, with their determination to turn the independence celebrations and all their nationalist-militarist symbology into the nucleus of their students’ civic education. In a country where improvisation reigns, the patriotic drummers and skinny baton twirlers in miniskirts start training nearly six months before the annually repeated event. The Güegüense—now declared the cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO—is frequently presented as a compendium of Nicaraguans’ virtues and vices: he bamboozles the oppressor and is mischievous and affronting.

We imagined the nation for the first time in 1980

The 1980 National Literacy Crusade was an instrument at the service of an ideological program whose scope transcended the mere lowering of the illiteracy rate and even the consciousness-building process that Paulo Freire’s pedagogy proposed. So Luciano Baracco analyzes it in an article that presents that massive mobilization as a nation-building project.

It was the first time in the country’s history that emissaries of the state apparatus went to the furthest inch of national territory with a mission of public benefit. Generally the police and military corps are the most visible and omnipresent branches of the state, but this mission wasn’t a coercive one even though the 60,000 young volunteers were referred to as an educational army, following the propensity of the time for military metaphors. The experiences of the urban high school and college students who lived for five months with illiterate peasant families often a day’s travel by burro past the last dirt road went well beyond teaching people to read and write. The Crusade made it possible to imagine a nation, not only in terms of a delimited community, but also a political community with a defined identity. If Anderson identified the dissemination of capitalism as an essential mechanism to link together as a national community people who are dispersed over a given territory, Baracco argues that the Literacy Crusade performed this role in a context of a weak state and scant development of capitalist relations because the massive participation generated a sense of at least temporary coincidence that had never before existed.

In 1980 we imagined the nation. In other words, we imagined simultaneous events contained within a territory. Newspapers, radio programs and the Education Ministry’s semi-monthly bulletin La Cruzada en marcha were instruments employed to create that unique time. In a country of illiterates, radio played the role that Anderson attributes to the press in European countries: it created the feeling of belonging to a place. The literacy primers, which taught about national history, generated a new cultural awareness. And in fact, the literacy effort itself laid the basis for newspapers to become a medium for relating the collective experience that founds a nation. The exchange between inhabitants of the countryside and the city and contact between social groups at different income levels cultivated a knowledge of the “others” to create a national community whose hegemonic discourse proclaimed an inclusive society.

Nationalist “ideological packages”:
xenophobia, rivalry, exclusion...

The contents of nationality can be quite varied. In his indispensable book Otros amenazantes (Threatening Others), Costa Rican researcher Carlos Sandoval states that nationalism and national identities “can assume diverse manifestations: on occasions they can be part of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles, but they can also be a source of exclusion and racial discrimination.”

We can’t apply the same yardstick to the narrative of nationality that presents a nation’s exclusiveness based on being an ecological paradise to one that appeals to a presumed racial purity. I prefer to speak of ideological packages, where the narratives of nationality can be associated with diverse contents not intrinsic to them and can have a greater or lesser profile. As an instrument of nationality, the National Literacy Crusade was an attempt to construct an inclusive nation open to cultural diversity. New men and women were to emerge out of the consciousness-raising process. But not all ideological packages containing instruments and contents of nationality are so socially therapeutic.

The majority of those with strong nationality contents foster rivalry, competitiveness and exclusion of the “others,” deforming reality and stirring up xenophobia. They exclude certain social and ethnic groups—are ethnically totalitarian—and construct a false community of interests that serves as a smoke screen for the oppression of some groups by others. Many instruments of nationalism serve sinister intentions and embody dangers. Finally, the dominant groups are the ones that get the most out of nationalist consensuses.

Nationalism: With the force of religious belief

The myths, rites, practices and texts of nationality make use of certain literary techniques and rhetorical figures, as well as instruments we could consider Freudian mechanisms of that narcissistic national “I.” The use and abuse of these mechanisms become common sense, as Gramsci understood it: traditional grassroots conceptions of the average man, spontaneous philosophy imposed by the environment and configured by the uncritical absorption of residues of multiple cultural currents that came before. It’s the ideology of the masses, configured by cultural conditions and characterized by being ingenuous, disarticulated, dogmatic, conservative and favoring passivity and acceptance of the existing social order. They are perceptions that assume the compact, granite-like, fanatic force of popular beliefs.

Pierre Bourdieu would say that they not only turn into thinking, but are the very categories of what is thinkable. They grab hold like cultural trichinas and are disseminated, reproducing themselves in daily small talk, made sacred in proverbs, fossilizing into labels and vaccinating their carriers against dissent. They become impermeable to autonomous thinking.

Nationalism and its instruments participate in all these characteristics, which is why nationalism has the force of religious belief. Gramsci observed that ideologies that have convinced the masses are like a faith, accepted and reproduced because they reinforce the group’s cohesion and express its experiences.

The most dramatic Central American event that exemplifies such a nationalist smoke screen and had a persuasive power comparable to religion was the so-called Soccer War of 1969 between Honduras and El Salvador, in which the masses assumed the elites’ nationalist interest, seeing it as common sense. The social malaise disguised its true nature, acquiring a nationalist formulation that blew up during a soccer game. The elites of both countries succeeded in giving the social convulsion the identity spin of a foreign “other”—in this case an entire nation—as the scapegoat for all their own complaints. In Honduras, the unavailability of land wasn’t attributed to the extensions of native large landholders, but to the immigrant Salvadoran smallholders. The children of Morazán didn’t distinguish among different classes of Salvadorans. They didn’t see their enemies as the prosperous Salvadoran industrialists who were able to take the best cut of the Central American Common Market for themselves, far outstripping the barely industrialized Honduras. The enemies they pitted themselves against were the Salvadoran peasants who had gone to Honduras in search of land denied them in their own country.

Gramsci concluded that the production of common sense is the job of intellectuals linked to the dominant classes, who assume the task of seeing to it that the ideology of the most powerful becomes a common and evident grassroots cultural artifact, assumed by the masses uncritically and mechanically.

The mechanisms used by
Cuadra’s “Nicaragüense”

The first edition of El costarricense, by Constantino Láscaris, appeared in 1962. The first of many versions of El nicaragüense by Pablo Antonio Cuadra, an intellectual of the Granada aristocracy, was released five years later on the centennial celebration of Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío’s birth—an emblematic date for Nicaraguan nationalism, if there is such a thing. His book was a collection of articles previously published in the pages of the conservative newspaper La Prensa.

Only five years difference between the two: a tacit common cause? Both came out during the apogee of the Central American Common Market, perhaps to elucidate who was putting what into that market. Or to emphasize that neither Costa Rican-ness nor Nicaraguan-ness could be annulled or diluted into Central American-ness. Or possibly even to explain the disagreements, bottlenecks and opportunisms of that market, which had sunk its roots in the unequal development of the national industries as manifest destinies of the cultural heterogeneity contained within such a miniscule region.

These two works, like many others, whether literary, musical, plastic, common sense, etc., are and also make use of national identity-building mechanisms. Pablo Antonio Cuadra’s El nicaragüense is ideal for illustrating the use of certain mechanisms, not because it’s the only or even the most aggressive exponent of our nationality, but because its title, the attractive way its arguments are presented and its author’s prominence in national—and nationalist—literature make it emblematic.

In the first place, we have the mechanism of “reductionist generalization,” which consists of attributing the features of a specific group to the whole population, pooh-poohing differences of class, ethnicity, gender and religion, among others. Sandoval notes that “the differences among members of the same category are minimized and the differences between categories are exaggerated.” This mechanism serves to distill an average, prototype Nicaraguan. Cuadra confessed that aim of offering a cultural mean: “I am not trying to find Nicaraguans’ physiognomic middle ground, but their cultural type. But it might be advisable to follow an analogous process to that of Frobenius: take x-rays of their collective personality, mount them and see which features of this physiognomy are drawn in all of us who are participating.”

Generalization results in
ethnic totalitarianism

Cuadra’s Nicaraguan is basically masculine and resides in the Pacific, particularly Granada and León. “Nicaragua,” he says, “is geographically and with respect to its population three distinct countries: the country of the Pacific (which has been the lead country, the one that has given our nationality its flavor), the country of the North and the country of the Atlantic.” The country of the Atlantic, today recognized as the Caribbean, is a region whose wealth should be conquered: “We are the nation of America that could put the Atlantic in our pocket. Because it is so enormous, we have forgotten that wealth or let it go to waste. According to Cuadra, the Caribbean isn’t a niche of different cultures with which we should dialogue and with which we’ve had an exchange, most frequently one that has been pernicious for them and very advantageous for the Pacific.

By definition, generalizing reduces; it constrains richness, shrinking regions and groups. Sandoval shows us how nationality narratives expel “from the ideal nation regions of the country that do not coincide with its desired representation.” For Cuadra, León and Granada are the whole package. They are west, east, north and south. The houses he described and the materials they are built of are those of the Pacific, in fact characteristic of certain zones and social classes. For him, Nicaragua is a country of mestizos, and indigenous Nicaragua is relegated to a remote past and made up only of Maribios, Chorotegas, Nahuas and Aztecs. There are no Miskitus, Mayangnas or Garífunas.

He explains class differences as differences of time: Nicaragua is an encounter of distinct ages. If the Caribbean cultures are expelled from the ideal geography, the poor are expelled from the present. The poor aren’t a group or groups struggling in the present against their exploitation; they are people who live in a backward Nicaragua, a cultural yesterday together with portions who live today and “come, according to the depth of their cultural distance, from the time of the Colony, or of the last century.” Exploitation is the inevitable consequence of the encounter between those who are “backward”—ingenuous and trusting, made for a slower rhythm—and those who are “evolved,” skilled in modern commercial aggressiveness.

The builders of homogeneity find it preferable to talk about coexistence with different periods than about divergent interests, leaving the reader to wonder who that Nicaraguan is. The Mayangnas? The Garifunas? The inhabitants of Open 3, now known as Ciudad Sandino?

The architect of nationality disguises the heterogeneity of homogeneity so that what emerges is common and community. But the result is ethnic totalitarianism and much more, because reductionist generalization isn’t just a kind of literary mechanism or rhetorical recourse. It jells into a political and socioeconomic strategy with exclusionary objective concreteness.

Features, geography, history:
We’re “unique,” we’re exclusive

A second mechanism consists of the presumption of a monopoly on certain features: those that the population of a nation often shares with other nations are presented as if they were exclusive. Sandoval observes that images of being “unique” are among the most frequent elements in nationality narratives. Like many other nationophiles, Cuadra starts by laying out the cultural particularities about presumed geographic exceptionalities so they’ll seem solider and more natural: “Nicaragua’s very geological formation already tells us that the future inhabitant of such a place will be a transient man.”

He then notes another unique feature: “Nicaragua is discovered and formed, now not between the two Americas as in prehistoric times, but between the two oceans.” But don’t the other Central American countries, save El Salvador and Belize, share that feature? Feeding the myth of the doubtful strait, the construction of the canal through Panama appears as an unfortunate historical luck of the draw that snatched away Nicaragua’s natural destiny.

The particularities are explained through climate and geography: “We are a country with only two seasons: winter—the realm of mud—and summer—the realm of dust. A dual setting aggravated by a landscape of lakes and volcanoes….” And this, of course, engenders a dual man. The particularities of the surroundings mold character: “The Nicaraguan is born in the angle of a Y, in a mediterranean apex that obliges the incessant enterprise of uniting, fusing and dialoguing.”

After geography, history is the other determinant factor: in Nicaragua two colonizing currents from the north and south united, “producing the quite original phenomenon in America’s history of a country under the bicephalous leadership of two cities.” As Sandoval points out, it is common to present identities as profoundly rooted in the colonial past, but this appeal to the past contains a selection of constituting and founding determinant historical benchmarks of the national essence.

Using lyrical exaggerations

These conditioners are assumed to have given origin to unique features that aren’t that at all: the successive refounding of a city in different locations, our adventurous nature, the Nicaraguan as a man of illegitimate wives, a peasant whose machete is always unsheathed and an “imaginative, conceited type who very often reaches a baroque extravagance of boasting.” Are only Nicaraguans like that? He does it again with his claim that Nicaraguans are called the Chinese of Central America and the Jews of the isthmus, an observation that recalls Roque Dalton’s Love Poem, where Salvadoran migrants, scattered everywhere, are the do-anything, sell-anything, eat-anything...

To highlight what is characteristic of a nation, its own thing, its uniqueness, the narrator of nationality doesn’t hesitate in monopolizing Latin American and even universal features, confiscating characteristics that other nations have deployed with greater notoriety. Can we really compete with the Salvadorans over the epithet of being “the Chinese of Central America,” when in the sixties we already had them picking oranges by the thousands in Nicaragua and passing for Hondurans in Honduras?

A third mechanism, closely linked to the second, is his use of hyperbole: certain features are exaggerated to the point of producing a super-endowed caricature of a national prototype. Cuadra praises Nicaraguans’ profuse eloquence to the extreme: “If he is given the floor or gets close to a microphone, he will bathe us in flowery and exuberant oratory.”

He celebrates the Nicaraguan’s handicraft genius without restraint: “The artisans are admirable for their ability to solve any problem or repair any damaged artifact with the most unexpected resources.” And he eulogizes the national cuisine with disproportionate praise: “We reviewed the number of plates Nicaraguans prepare based on maize and discover that just in this category our cuisine is as broad and vain as Mexico’s.” (I personally love indio viejo, but it will never have the gourmet sophistication or the pictorial exuberance of a good mole poblano). Not even when he wants to underscore the sobriety of the Nicaraguan household does he paint a Spartan image: “Its kitchen is little more than three Paleolithic stones used to rest cooking pots on. Its chair is a stool, a box or a chicken foot: schemes of a chair.” At the same time he declares that Nicaragua has the best and most natural ports in Central America. There are no limits to his effort to construct a unique type that stands out in the Central and Latin American surroundings. The maker of the nation’s self-identity allows himself to be swept away by his own disproportionate lyrical paroxysm.

The Costa Rican:
Antipode of the Nicaraguan

Finally, we have the mechanism of ostracism and projection of the abject, which consists of expelling undesired features and projecting them onto the “other.” Cuadra talks about the introvertedness of Costa Ricans in contrast with Nicaraguan sociability. He characterizes the introvert as “a reserved type, amorous with or rooted in his world environment; a type who builds to last and whose character is usually moody toward the outsider, localist, tending to impermeability and not very communicative by nature.” He then states that the Nicaraguan is the opposite type, “extroverted, communicative, effusive, who builds and lives on the wing or like a transient, who easily reacts with sullenness toward what is his own. The Costa Rican says ‘Pure life’ while the Nicaraguan exclaims ‘this shitty country!’”

With the Costa Ricans the eternal antipodes of the Nicaraguan, Cuadra ensures that the latter exalts sobriety and rejects adornment: “In Costa Rica, a few steps from us, the floor is painted with lime when it’s made of dirt, the straw hut or wood shack is painted, the home adorned to the point of artificiality. The Nicaraguan, in contrast, maintains his house or his shack—I’m speaking of the majority—with its original structural nudity.”

All these mechanisms produce meanings, as Sandoval comments, that “are not natural, but can be socially ‘naturalized’ and assumed as givens, as they are imagined by specific social groups of diverse practices.” They are meanings that stir up the feeling of exceptionality for building community.

In a country where parties and politics don’t espouse programs with any substantial differences, nationalist ideology plays the role of a hegemonic cultural factor, the only vertex to which everything flows and everything appeals to unify the popular will. Nationalism is the only secular ideology of monumental appeal that has been dressed in various garbs and continues to play a very pernicious role in relations between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, aborting interesting, mutually beneficial initiatives.

Along the Río San Juan:
National umbilical, liquid frontier

The Nicaraguan population that lives along the Río San Juan among otters and an array of other local forest and river animals, far from all the nationalist fever, resolves its daily issues in a very different way. These people live in a liquid frontier, a demarcation that establishes a legal and political limit, but not so much a socio-cultural one. What do the people living along that limit say? How do they envision their country? What does it mean for those living on the geographic periphery of nationality to be Nicaraguan and relate to Costa Rica? Sandoval insists that the history of limits is a key component in geopolitical imaginations. There’s no doubt that it is for the inhabitants of the Pacific and center of the country, but is it to the same degree for the border populations?

Coexistence and daily conversations with the populations on the border are a continual exercise of what Sandoval calls altercations over the nationality narratives. Border Nicaraguans live in contact with border Costa Ricans, which leads to two experiences. On the one side, as Sandoval states about the coexistence of Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans in San José neighborhoods, “proximity seems to be a source of positive representations or, at least tends to neutralize negative images.” And on the other, given that the two border populations have many interests in common, they articulate their identity not based on belonging to a nation, but on any other identification-making device: gender, religion, social class, cultural affinities and, frequently, ethnic group.

Nicaraguans of Bartola
and San Juan del Norte

The altercation over nationalism is fed by a particular history. The people now living in Bartola, a district of the municipality of El Castillo, located in the western buffer zone of the Indio-Maiz Reserve, left Nueva Guinea during the war of the eighties and lived between six and nine years as refugees in Costa Rica.

Many of their children and grandchildren were born there, acquiring a residency they now carefully renew every year to keep their access to Costa Rica’s excellent health services. Their children study there and they themselves go there to work, some for three months, others for six and some only return to Nicaragua once in a while to keep an eye on their farm here. During the months of certain harvests—oranges, bananas, coffee—Bartola is nearly deserted. No one from Bartola speaks ill of Costa Rica much less of its inhabitants.

On the eastern extreme of the Indio-Maíz lies San Juan del Norte, which President Arnoldo Alemán rebaptized with its colonial name but whose inhabitants prefer to call by its other historical name, Greytown, given it by a Miskitu king to honor Sir Charles Edgard Grey, the British governor of Jamaica between 1847 and 1853. The original San Juan del Norte was actually located a bit further north along the coast, at the mouth of the Río Indio, and was first destroyed on July 13, 1854, by US Marines then given the coup de grace a couple of decades ago by the confrontation between Sandinistas and contras. All that remains of that old site are some pivots of the ancient houses and four historical cemeteries: those of the Spanish, the British, the natives and the freemasons.

The new San Juan del Norte was born in 1990, when 30 families settled 15 minutes by outboard motorboat southeast of its original setting. The majority of its residents, especially those founders, had lived for several years in Costa Rica and have close and active links with many of their relatives who remained there. Barely 1,307 people live in the 1,762 square kilometers belonging to San Juan del Norte, giving it the lowest population and the lowest population density of any municipality in Nicaragua. But its cultural diversity is impressive, a not always discernible mix of Costa Ricans, Nicaraguan mestizos, Creoles and Miskitus, and even a relatively sizable group of Ramas.

The customs, words and
currency are Costa Rican

These people’s life and discourse are an ongoing rebuttal to the nationality narratives, in the first place because of their spontaneous adoption of customs, words, food and currency. Between San Juan del Norte and a little past Boca de Sábalos, over three quarters of the length of the Río San Juan, Costa Rica’s colón circulates more commonly than Nicaragua’s córdoba. All prices are in colons because it makes more sense: the most vigorous trade is with Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí and Barra del Colorado and with some shops along the riverfront, all on Costa Rica’s side of the river.

Getting from San Juan del Norte over to these towns can take an hour or so, whereas traveling upriver to San Carlos, the closest Nicaraguan city, takes twelve hours and a lot of money, because it is against the current and fuel is upwards of $4 a gallon now. In fact, it’s easier to get from Managua to San Juan del Norte via Costa Rica than through Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan route is complex: one hour by road to Granada then twelve by boat across Lake Nicaragua to San Carlos—or nine around the lake by vehicle—and finally the twelve downriver in an outboard motorboat. This time can be cut considerably taking a small plane. It’s only an hour from Managua to San Carlos, but then there’s a one-night layover before setting out on the inescapable day-long trip downriver. The Costa Rican route by land is seven hours from Managua to San José, two to Sarapiquí and one more to San Juan del Norte, and all in the same day.

A minister’s patriotic shock in El Zapotal

That national isolation is a symptom of how grotesque it is to speak of national sovereignty in Nicaragua. How can you claim sovereignty over an area you can barely get to? Or over something you barely know anything about? In a recent conference offered at Managua’s Central American University, environmental expert Jaime Incer Barquero observed how little we know about our country’s geological structure, its soils, its biodiversity and the potential of its lakes and other bodies of water.

The most scandalous example of this micro-sapience was the “discovery” of the Somoto canyon by a team of Czech geologists in 2004. This canyon is less than 15 kilometers from the city of Somoto and has presumably been there for millions of years! Nonetheless, some foreign geologists had to cross half the planet in the 21st century to discover a marvel that is a little hard to miss being only 15 kilometers from the local office of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment and 230 kilometers from the headquarters of the scholars in the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies. I guess they were too busy fighting with Honduras over steerage-ways in the ocean!

The use of expressions and words considered strictly Costa Rican also disputes the notion of nationalism—a salacious and unfair wound, in the view of many. The walkways of San Juan del Norte ring with the latest Costa Rican slang, such as “Pure life” to denote that things are going well. They order patacones not tostones when they want fried plantain rounds, and refer to coconuts as pipas. They listen to Costa Rican radio stations and watch Costa Rican TV channels, in part because they can’t get Nicaraguan ones. The customs of these supposed “others” penetrate on all flanks, but especially in the institution that officially transmits culture: the students of many border towns attend Costa Rican schools and their mothers are very proud of the bilingual Spanish-English education they receive there.

The school at El Zapotal is fairly new, and its ribbon-cutting was done by a high-level official of the Nicaraguan government. They aren’t sure whether he was the minister of education or defense, and don’t much care. As God and the nation require, the event opened with the patriotic notes of the national anthem, and the children had been instructed that they should sing. The minister’s jaw gaped when the children opened their mouths and out came the words to the Costa Rican anthem in perfect unison!

These cross-river neighbors and their customs aren’t “other” to the people of San Juan del Norte. Their children had been attending classes in the Costa Rican school of El Jobo and to boot were awakened every morning to the radio program “Panorama,” which kicks off with the Costa Rican anthem. Singing it at the inauguration of their new school was one of the most natural, spontaneous and consistent ways to give the lie to the nationalist hypocrisy of those Nicaraguan elites who reserve control of the state for themselves.

“My mother is Nicaragua and
my adoptive mother is Costa Rica”

They answer back to the narratives of nationality with their own narratives, rationalizations and mechanisms. Outstanding among them is the construction of a duality, a kind of compromise solution formulated succinctly by a member of the Rama community in a play on nationalism’s favorite metaphor, “Nicaragua is our mother,” by adding, “and Costa Rica is our adoptive mother.”

One soon discovers what hides behind the maternal dualism of these builders of bi-nationality. Enrique Gutiérrez, proprietor of a pleasant hotel in San Juan, unpacks the Rama’s statement for me: “Our mother is Nicaragua and thus lays down the rules. But she only tells us what we can’t do, without giving us a way to live. One government minister even said that helping San Juan would be like helping drug trafficking. They pay no attention to our mayor in Managua. They say, ‘Why bother if it’s for San Juan?’ Nothing’s being developed here. It’s Costa Rica that helps us survive. Everything comes from there. It’s our adoptive mother because that’s where we get meat, sausages, coffee, milk, rice, beans and all the tourists who manage to get here. Everything I have comes from there. This town’s entire life depends on Costa Rica.” In the next breath he tells me that the set of lounge chairs we’re sitting in cost him the equivalent of 5,600 córdobas in Costa Rica. “In Nicaragua they were asking 14,000 córdobas and 4,000 for this television, which I bought for less than 2,000 in Costa Rica.”

The altercations over nationality endow its resources and concepts with new and defiant contents. Along these lines, Gutiérrez repeated what he had been told by a member of the river transport commission: “National sovereignty? The sovereignty of a people isn’t defended with the army, but by fomenting the economy of these sites that are so remote to you all. Remote from what? From whom? We’re only remote from Managua’s point of view.”

The final game point is won by simply dissolving Costa Ricans’ “otherness”: “My cousin, my aunt and uncle and my grandmother live in La Barra del Colorado. We’re all the same. We don’t have those tiffs here. Here we say “Long live Nicaragua and Costa Rica! or I’m pure tico-nica! Here it’s as if people first think in Costa Rican and then translate it into Nicaraguan.” Enrique Gutiérrez thus moves beyond the omnipresent nationalist temptation to draw a map with statistical differences. The border identity embraces its bi-national identity, without complexes or guilt trips.

Ticaraguans, children of Nica Ricans

It couldn’t be any other way, and it never will be. The next generation will be even more bi-national, with papers and everything. The children in San Juan del Norte have to be born in the hospital in Guápiles, since the closest Nicaraguan hospital is in San Carlos, and we’ve already described what that trip entails.

The Ticaraguan children of San Juan Nicaraguans are born in Guápiles. These infants are vaccinated against the most outrageous and pernicious collective narcissism: nationalism. And thus the daily mechanisms that dispute orthodox nationalism and its xenophobic stereotypes start to engage: the grandmother proud of her grandson who learned English thanks to Costa Rica’s public bilingual school system, the migrants who have been in Costa Rica and value their experience, breaking the lenses of stereotypes into smithereens, and the border residents who live their Ticaraguan-ness and conclude, as did Marta Obregón, recognized as the best cook in the whole department of Río San Juan: “Everything here from soup to nuts is Tica. Even the currency that circulates is the colón. The day Costa Rica doesn’t let us in, we’ll die of hunger.”

The bi-nationals’ mission is to bond;
nation-states are a thing of the past

In his book In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf refers to border people—those with bi-national or transnational, bicultural or multicultural identities—as crisscrossed by ethnic, religious or other fracture lines. Due precisely to that situation, he explains, such people have a mission: to weave bonds of union, dissipate misunderstandings, get some people to see reason, others to moderate their views, to make peace, to reconcile… Their vocation is to be liaisons, bridges, mediators among the diverse communities and diverse cultures. For that reason their dilemma is laden with significance: if these people aren’t allowed to embrace their multiple belonging, but are continually urged to choose one side or the other, threatened to rejoin the ranks of their tribe, then, Maalouf argues, it is proper that we become concerned for the functioning of their world.

Perhaps this healthy view of border people is the start of a reconfiguring process that will modernize the way our countries, fruit of ethnic mixing, religious syncretism and other jumbles, were formed. In other regions transnational identities are being rebuilt. The kind of Spanglish in which enchilada has become an English word and software a Spanish one, in which the lyrics of a song go Today you tell me something y mañana otra cosa, is one of hundreds of proofs of the mixtures that strain the national wineskins and announce a world in which the political formation called the nation-state isn’t up to dealing with globalization. The old wineskins of nationalism are about to burst, unable to contain the new wine of bi-national or transnational identities, global self-identities, corporate macro-mergers and much more evidence of transnationality.

Indian anthropologist Arjun Appadurai holds that the script for the nation-state is deteriorating and that the nation-state as a political form of modernity is on its way out. Nation-states make sense as parts of a system. This system—including when seen as a system of differences because there is a huge gap between the state of Sri Lanka and that of Great Britain—appears poorly equipped to deal with the interlinked diaspora of people and images that marks the here and now. Nation-states as units of a complex interactive system will very probably not be long-term arbiters of the relationship between globality and modernity. Modernity is at its limit, as Appadurai’s famous title suggests.

Could bi-national citizenries be a utopia?

In the case of those living on the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border, we’re talking about bi-nationalism, a phenomenon that still travels in the channels of nationalism, though it splits up its dogmas, pulverizes its certainties and mutes its choruses. The next step would be to construct a bi-national citizenship that corresponds to that bi-national identity. Policies can give these bi-national identities a formal expression in bi-national citizenship.

German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote that the border isn’t a matter of space with sociological effects, but a sociological fact formed in the space. Given that the experience of being bi-national is now a sociological fact—even if not a right—in San Juan del Norte and other border towns, we might ask whether the inhabitants of the border can make the cultural, social and economic transformations of their small society influence the political conception of space to the point of relativizing the border and gaining recognition from the nation-states of Costa Rica and Nicaragua of that role of bonders and peacemakers that Maalouf grants them?

It’s hard to imagine a dual citizenship when referring to Nicaraguans within one country but outside of both nations, who live from contraband in the Nicaraguan nation and enter as contraband into the Costa Rican one and haven’t been able to exercise their Nicaraguan citizenship—for example, they don’t pay into social security or ever make use of the Ministry of Labor. Conditions in Nicaragua have accustomed them not to exercise their rights.

They could have a bi-national citizenship, but are developing their Costa Rican citizenship more than their Nicaraguan one. Their incipient bi-national citizenship—as contraband in both countries—is hindered in Nicaragua. The Supreme Electoral Council is innately lazy about issuing identity cards and thus keeps many Nicaraguans in legal limbo. Moreover, the Nicaraguan government has put the brake on interesting initiatives, as a livewire resident of San Juan del Norte recalls: “We were going to hook into the electricity grid with Costa Rica,” she laments; “the ISE had offered it, but the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry said no. We would now have light, good light, instead of spending so much gas on individual generators. We’d be better off annexing ourselves to Costa Rica. What’s so bad about that idea? Nicaragua’s politicians never remember this forgotten place. They only come to eat and spend money, and never solve anything.”

“We want to belong to Costa Rica”

Many residents of Papaturro say: “We want to belong to Costa Rica. The mayor’s office doesn’t do anything through Nicaragua. If they can’t get anything here, they make agreements with the other side to get it there, because the poor people here don’t have anything.” The near sister relations with the Costa Rican municipality of Upala saved the students from losing this school year; Upala wants to connect them to its electricity grid; and it sends them dentists with free medications. This makes it very understandable when a mother in Papaturro protests: “How can we believe they consider us part of the country if they take away our doctor and teacher, who in any event passed the time in San Carlos. Now our children are going to Costa Rica and we’re never going to enroll in a Nicaraguan school again. They only use us when there’s an electoral campaign do they use us; the rest of the time we’re out of sight and mind.”

It’s quite possible that a referendum in the area would choose to leave the entire department of Río San Juan and other extensive areas of Nicaraguan territory on the Costa Rican side. In these areas Daniel Ortega is nothing more than a face smiling from a poster taped to a post without electricity. The President even suddenly postponed his only visit to San Carlos, programmed for Saturday, October 13.

The new world citizenship

German philosopher Jurgen Habermas has been arguing for more encompassing citizenships for the past 10 years: only a democratic citizenship that doesn’t close off in particularist terms can prepare the way for what he calls “world citizenship status” or “cosmo-citizenship,” which is now beginning to take shape in political communications of a world scope. The cosmopolitan state, he adds, is no longer pure fantasy, although we are still far away from it. Being a citizen of a state and being a citizen of the world is a “continuum” whose outline is beginning to be drawn.

Nicaragua has the legal figure of an association of municipalities. It’s not farfetched to think about establishing some sort of association between the border municipalities of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, or even among municipalities that send and receive migrants, based on diverse areas of common interest: environmental protection, establishment of a bi-national development zone with a cross-border labor market, etc. In this regard, the municipalities of both countries could be a valuable point of support for their Labor Ministries in implementing and monitoring temporary labor migration programs. One elementary task that crops up is to supply useful information about consequences, risks and rights of migrants and about institutions to which they can turn if their rights are trampled. What future lies in store for Greytown, Papaturro and El Zapotal? Will they move in this direction?

The frontier is crystal

Benedict Anderson explained how he imagines national communities. In these pages I’ve tried to explain how people on the border imagine their bi-national community or bi-national identity. They have many elements to help them. The flows of mixed families and people are what Appadurai calls an ethnic landscape, which in this case is markedly bi-national. Currency, merchandise and language are weaving together a bi-national daily life, while radio and television are portraying bi-national media landscapes.

But it is a conflictive bi-nationality, bristling with obstacles and lashed by tensions. The possibility of substituting the energy that doesn’t come from INE with that which would come from ISE reveals the crisis of the nation-state. Obtaining identity documents in both countries involves a dual nationality denied by law but contrabanded by necessity. Life lived with a foot in each country exhibits their condition as liaison, as people who have something that can only be gotten on both sides of the border. All this shows that the nations’ old wineskins aren’t up to the task of containing the new wine of population dynamics, information flows and social strategies.

The bi-national narratives have a collective troubadour who isn’t as conspicuous as Pablo Antonio Cuadra but is more spare, realistic and effective; a disturbing, iconoclastic troubadour of nationalism who doesn’t hesitate in taking up its classic images and evaluating them in the light of subversive personal experiences and who encourages us to think bi-nationally, which for now still means thinking with the nation as a political frame of reference. Thinking post-nationally takes it a step further, but that’s for another day.

Given that we very probably still don’t have the right concepts to explain what’s happening, I turn to literature, to a text by Carlos Fuentes from The Crystal Frontier, which is so full of meaning about the reification of the border: “I see a line at my feet. A luminous line, painted a phosphorescent color. It shines at night. It’s the only thing that shines. What is it? What does it separate? What does it divide? I have no other signs to guide me than that line. Yet I don’t know what it means. The florescent line laughs at me. It stops the land from being land. Land has no divisions. The line says it does. The line says the land has been divided. The line makes the land into some other thing. What thing? It became world. I was taken out of the land and put in the world. The world summoned me. The world wanted me. But now it rejects me. It is abandoning me, forgetting me. It hurls me back to the land. But the land doesn’t want me either. Instead of opening into a protective abyss, it plants me on a line. At least the abyss would embrace me. I would enter into genuine, total darkness, with no beginning or end. Now I look at the land and an indecent line divides it. The line has its own light, a painted, obscene light. Totally indifferent to my presence…”


José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council.

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