The pandemic reminds us of our interdependence with Nicaragua
Xenophobia has grown more virulent during the pandemic.
But responsibility for the virus’ spread shouldn’t be laid on
the shoulders of the Nicaraguans who live and work among us.
Those responsible range from Ortega and his erratic policy
to Costa Rica’s own agro-industrial tycoons.
Today more than ever we need to acknowledge that
our two societies are profoundly interdependent thanks to
our shared history, geography, demography, economy and culture
Carlos Sandoval García / Karina Fonseca Vindas
Research into and debate over international migration shows more interest in migration from South to North than in South–South movements, especially when the migrants in question are entering the United States and the European Union. However, migration in the global South accounts for nearly 45% of all international migration, and it is on these routes that people are most vulnerable, running the greatest risks.
Costa Rica is one of the most frequent destinations for South–South migration in Latin America, surpassed only by those countries receiving massive contingents of Venezuelans, Colombians and Haitians. Nicaraguans play a central role in Costa Rican society, in both its reality and its self-image. Today, in the midst of a pandemic, the historical relationship between these two countries—which share 195 miles of border—is taking on new nuances.
Nicaraguans among us
According to Costa Rica’s 2011 Census, the country’s immigrant population represents 9% of our total population. And some 76.4% of that immigrant population was born in Nicaragua. This population s concentrated in the northern zone bordering Nicaragua, and in central parts of the country. The majority are of working age, between 15 and 49 years old. There are sectors of the Costa Rican economy—such as export agriculture, construction, security and domestic work—that depend largely on Nicaraguan men and women.
Thousands of asylum applications
The political, economic and social crisis unleashed in Nicaragua in April 2018 has forced tens of thousands to go into exile. Most of them came to Costa Rica. From April 2018 to February 2020, 74,056 asylum applications were received by our country’s Migration and Foreign Relations Division. This has been a huge challenge for Costa Rican institutionality and for all those organizations and other entities responsible for meeting these people’s needs.
There are problems with exact numbers of asylum seekers, as not everyone applying for asylum in the context of the Ortega regime’s repression entered the country around that time. There are those who were already in Costa Rica but who for years had failed to obtain any type of regularization. There are also those who didn’t leave Nicaragua specifically due to the political crisis, but rather to the more longstanding lack of economic opportunities there, significantly worsened by the political crisis and now by the health crisis.
What is beyond dispute is that Nicaragua’s society and government today are not the same as before April 2018. Two years after the protests began, the final outcome of Nicaragua’s political crisis has been hard to project; it is even harder now, in the midst of a global health crisis to which the Ortega–Murillo regime has responded with such irresponsibility. It is difficult to imagine what they hope to achieve by promoting contagion and denying the seriousness of the pandemic, above all to their own followers.
Beyond its borders, Nicaragua is increasingly seen as the epicenter of the pandemic in Central America. And in Costa Rica, xenophobia is again gaining strength. This crisis proves, however, that we are even more conjoined than we thought, not only geographically and historically, but also economically and, clearly, through families.
Refugees, exiles, migrants…
The political crisis in Nicaragua shows how blurred, and sometimes problematic the distinction between “refugee” and “migrant” can be. And it highlights the challenges hidden within the organizing efforts of people seeking asylum in Costa Rica—displaced by the Ortega regime—and Nicaraguan migrants from further back. Strengthening ties between these two groups is a challenge that’s not always met with success.
More than 350,000 Nicaraguans had migrated to Costa Rica in the last few decades due to lack of work and decent living conditions at home. This is also forced migration, but it is different from that facing those who have sought asylum from political repression. And although they are all from the same population that demands democracy, rights and opportunities in their home country, the labor migrants sometimes look with suspicion on their refugee compatriots. They understand that the latter will have an advantage in receiving support from international humanitarian entities, or better treatment in migration services or the benefits the Costa Rican government provides to asylum seekers and those who have already been recognized as refugees.
Overcoming the dichotomy between Nicaraguan migrants and refugees/exiles in Costa Rica is critical for creating more inclusive political projects in Nicaragua. It will likewise be of utmost importance for the opposition to Ortega to ensure
that Nicaraguan election laws include the right for Nicaraguans abroad to vote in the elections to be held in Nicaragua in November 2021.
Forced migration is nothing new
Nicaraguan migration to Costa Rica is age-old. The struggle against the Somoza dictatorship, overthrown in 1979; the armed conflict of the 1980s between the Sandinista government and the Contra; neoliberal politics set in motion by the government of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and sustained ever since; not to mention the devastation left by Hurricane Mitch, have all led thousands of Nicaraguans to abandon their country in different waves. During the war decade of the 1980s, there was significant Nicaraguan migration to the United States, but a large share came to Costa Rica as well.
These constant migratory movements have left in our country a little known and barely recognized generation of Costa Rican children of Nicaraguan parents who usually don’t claim their family origin and may even hide it.
The existence of bi-national families, where one of the parents is Nicaraguan, largely goes unrecognized in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Nonetheless, according to data of Costa Rica’s Statistics and Census Institute, 17% of all births in Costa Rica just in 2018 had a Nicaraguan mother or father, while in only 3.98% were both parents Nicaraguan. That’s a significant first generation of Costa Ricans of bi-national parents to have not generated recognition.
A country in demographic transition
The arrival of migrants to Costa Rica coincides with the demographic transition our society is undergoing. Costa Rica is currently the country with the lowest birth rate in Latin America and a life expectancy of 80 years, slightly higher than that of the United States.
The overall fertility rate dropped from 1.84 in 2012 to 1.67 in 2017. The proportion of older adults will reach 20% of the total population in 2040, a transition that in Mediterranean countries took much longer. Despite its importance, this dramatic demographic doesn’t yet appear to have taken hold in the collective self-image of Costa Rican society and is not even acknowledged outside of some specialized circles, despite the repercussions it will have for employment and health care, among others, before too long.
importance of Nicaraguans
An estimated 11% of Costa Rica’s gross domestic product (GDP) is produced by Nicaraguans residing in our country. The remittances they send to their families in Nicaragua are vital to the Nicaraguan economy: they were estimated in 2017 as equivalent to 27% of the value of Nicaraguan exports and in 2019 they represented 14% of Nicaragua’s GDP.
As happens in so many other countries, however, Costa Ricans commonly associate international migration—in this case Nicaraguan—with deteriorating public health, education or housing services. Just a few years ago, they also associated it with insecurity. Criminal violence in our country is currently more related to turf disputes over illicit substance markets among groups primarily made up of Costa Ricans and thus this prejudice has receded.
Our singularity in the
face of the pandemic
In late June, it was Costa Rica’s turn to face a second wave of the pandemic. At around that time, however, the COVID-19 lethality rate in our country was 0.5% and the general mortality rate for the same period was 2.4%, bested only by Singapore’s rates.
Universal access to public health care (between 90 and 95% coverage), access to drinking water via public waterworks for over 90% of the population, and the leadership of public universities at the disposition of the Health Ministry are just a few of the factors that explain such positive indicators. Others undoubtedly include the capacity to generate timely coordination among ministries and priority institutions, and the very high level of trust Costa Rican citizens place in official information and in the authorities’ management of the health crisis.
If there is one public institution that has been the object of admiration both at home and abroad, it is the Costa Rican Social Security Administration (CCSS). Today more than ever its central importance is recognized. Despite being severely affected by lack of financing, moves to privatize it, corruption and the decline in tax receipts, it nevertheless continues to be one of the strongest and most consolidated institutions in the country.
The CCSS’s capacity to respond adequately to the pandemic has included ensuring the availability of necessary protective equipment for all health personnel and the conversion in record time of a trauma rehabilitation hospital into a specialized hospital for COVID-19 patients.
Strict management of the pandemic has enabled national hospitals to avoid saturation: at the end of June there were 30 people hospitalized and 5 in intensive care units in each national hospital.
What we are most proud of
Our country can take great pride in three innovations during this health crisis. One is the ability for the University of Costa Rica’s Clodomiro Picado Institute to produce a treatment for critically ill COVID-19 patients out of plasma from recovering and recovered patients. The second is the creation at the university of the first non-invasive ventilator with isolation incorporated to treat patients who test positive. And the third is the sequencing of the genome of the virus strain circulating in Costa Rica.
All this is proof of solid institutionality, as well as professionals who have the capacity to respond appropriately to the pandemic. The country’s long-term investment in public health facilities is undoubtedly the secret to Costa Rica’s very good response to the emergency.
Other institutional aspects must also be highlighted in the successful specialized and timely technical management of the pandemic. President Carlos Alvarado doesn’t monopolize media outlets as an expert or even spokesperson announcing news or measures in the subject. He has ceded all focus and leadership to the health authorities. The health minister, the president of the Costa Rican Social Security Administration, the executive president of the National Emergency Commission, the public safety minister and the ministers of foreign trade, planning and labor are a few of those who have left the largest media footprint during this entire phase, exhibiting transparency and clarity in all their public appearances.
Social policies for the pandemic
Social policy in response to the pandemic has been a focus of scrutiny and criticism. Tourism stands out as one of Costa Rica’s most affected sectors, representing around 8% of the GDP. Estimates are that more than 100,000 jobs will be lost just in this area by the end of the year.
By late June, 450,000 jobs had already been lost in the country. There is undoubtedly significant underreporting of informal labor, where many people, including migrants, earn their living.
The relief measures established by the government include the “Protective Bonus,” which went out to over 500,000 people, providing three months of roughly US$300 per family per month, and the municipality plan titled “We can do it with your help,” through which the National Emergency Commission provides food and cleaning products to families.
As the first three months after adopting these measures have come to an end, doubt remains whether sufficient financial means are available to continue providing this support, which even in the first round failed to reach all the foreigners who need it.
Unfortunately, when the pandemic hit, the Central American governments had no long-term regional perspective that could have helped them jointly address the structural exclusion that is at the base of their respective health systems’ varying degrees of fragility. Ours is at the better end of the spectrum.
The PAC is back in office
The 2018 crisis in Nicaragua coincided with hard-fought general elections in Costa Rica, followed by a tax reform bill that triggered significant tension among many sectors of Costa Rican society.
The neo-Conservative Christian Right’s National Restoration Party won the first round of elections with 25% of the vote
but fell well short of the 40% needed to claim victory. In the second round, Carlos Alvarado Quesada, the Citizen Action Party (PAC) candidate won the presidency for the 2018–2022 period.
With Alvarado, the PAC achieved a second consecutive presidential term, but only won 9 of the 57 parliamentary seats. While Costa Rica is governed by a strong presidential system, the increased number of political parties in the Legislative Assembly has led in practice to a kind of parliamentary system in which the different benches have to work arduously to get the majority of votes required to pass legislation.
The tax reform challenge
Alvarado inherited a fiscal deficit of approximately 5.57% of the GDP. The executive branch sent the legislature a tax reform bill, necessary but perennially postponed over the last 20 years. Its main proposals included replacing the sales tax with a value added tax (VAT); increasing taxes on businesses and high net worth individuals; and greater control of tax evasion. Not all that was approved and many policies necessary for preventing tax evasion and avoidance remain unaddressed.
The issue of how regressive or progressive the adjustments to the reform proposal were has been the object of political controversy. The fact that the PAC as governing party is weakly represented in the Legislative Assembly and the Left has just one elected representative perhaps prevented the approval of policies intended to avoid tax evasion and increase the progressive nature of the tax system.
During the tax reform debates, some right wing and extremist opposition sectors argued that the government would use the increased income to fund social programs for recently arrived Nicaraguans. With that, xenophobia was added to the homophobic discourse that characterized the electoral campaign on the social media to paint the PAC as a “permissive” party supporting abortion and marriage equality, the main bugbears of neo-Conservative politicians and analysts.
Facebook is host to a series of profiles for initiatives on the hard Right, such as Alt Right Costa Rica, which imitates Steve Bannon and the Breitbart News site. This tendency argues that homosexuality and foreigners threaten Costa Rican national identity.
The health risk in Nicaragua
On May 27, in the middle of the pandemic, Costa Rican Health Minister Daniel Salas stated in a press conference that “the main health risk facing Costa Rica right now with the COVID-19 pandemic is the virus’ high level of circulation in Nicaragua. This risk exists and we have tried to address it in the best way possible. You’ve seen the deployment undertaken by Security and know the health-related movements we have made along the two borders; but Nicaragua has already been identified by the World Health Organization as a country with Level 4 community transmission risk. We must be careful of all activity within our society and follow the protocols.”
The topic was already on the agenda of media outlets and social networks. Despite the evident increase in border control in northern Costa Rica to contain the irregular entry of Nicaraguans and the highly dubious handling of situations denounced by various organizations involving undocumented persons or asylum-seekers, the government had avoided focusing undue attention on contagion among foreigners.
How can we tell
numbers from xenophobia?
At the start of the pandemic, cases among foreigners remained stable at 6–7% of the total. By mid-June, however, the percentage had grown to nearly 25% of all cases, and by the end of the month had climbed to 40% of those recorded daily.
Despite pressure brought by the media, the Health Ministry does not break out infections in foreigners by nationality. Nonetheless, there are multiple narratives associating the increase in cases during May with migrants, and Nicaraguans in particular.
How can we distinguish xenophobia from the fact that the foreign population is overrepresented among those diagnosed nationally and evidence of greater recorded numbers of positive cases among foreigners? This is probably one of the most pressing challenges of this health crisis.
The voracity of agroindustry
Little by little an open secret has become public news: agro-businesses—especially those related to pineapple and cassava—were hiring Nicaraguans who lacked social security and housing them in overcrowded conditions, feeling the rise in COVID-19 cases.
First came the news that 69 Nicaraguans entered Costa Rica at unauthorized point, piled up in a cattle truck. Then it was revealed that they had been recruited by businesses that grow pineapples and urgently require manual laborers. These businesses keep the workers in precarious, clandestine conditions to make their single-crop farming more profitable.
The Health Ministry issued a reminder that companies hiring undocumented immigrants would be fined, as defined in migration legislation. But going on the experience of organizations that defend the human rights of migrant workers, this type of punishment usually never comes to pass. Would something change now due to the health crisis?
“It’s easy to find scapegoats”
We copy here the words of the Broad Front’s representative José María Villalta, who made this statement in the Legislative Assembly when he found out what was happening to these workers: “ A pandemic is affecting our country and all of humanity, and has even affected us long before the coronavirus arrived. I’m referring to the pandemic of hate, of discrimination, of racism and xenophobia.
“This pandemic is also afflicting Costa Rica; in this time of crisis, we see how it is unleashed. A time of crisis in which we are affected by a microscopic virus that we cannot see. It’s very easy to want to find scapegoats among the most vulnerable people in our country. And this is what is happening in Costa Rica today, when on social networks you hear hate speeches, xenophobia toward the Nicaraguan population working in our country. I have seen heated rhetoric denouncing racism in other countries. This must be denounced vehemently but let us not forget that here in Costa Rica we have not been vaccinated against this hate speech.
“The Nicaraguan people who come to work here are fleeing an irresponsible government we have denounced in this very legislative hall; an irresponsible government that has exposed its people and failed to take measures to adequately deal with this pandemic.
“The migrant population comes to Costa Rica to work. And let us not deceive ourselves, let’s not be hypocrites! There are many productive activities that would be unsustainable without the manual labor of Nicaraguan workers. This is what’s happening with farming activity in the northern zone. And it stands out when I hear hate speeches against workers who are laboring without social security, without regulated migratory status, but are working in Costa Rica and are or could be sick. But not one word is uttered against these irresponsible exploiters, slaveholders who exploit these workers and have historically get rich off of them on their plantations in the northern zone of our country and in many other regions.
“There are networks trafficking migrants that operate with impunity in this country, represented at the highest levels by an irresponsible business elite that panders to them. These networks not only violate the human rights of these workers; today they are threatening the health of the entire population. I would like to see more vehement rhetoric, more decisive action from the Health Ministry, which has been quick to close public parks, but why doesn’t it come down with the full force of the law against these irresponsible parties?
“The solution will never be to deny health care to these workers. That would only exacerbate the pandemic. It is not by violating human rights that we will face this crisis. It’s with responsibility, solidarity and the contribution of all sectors.”
The tipping point of xenophobia
The COVID-19 pandemic this year provided language to discuss xenophobia without naming it directly. “Inferential racism,” as it is called by Stuart Hall, is very persuasive since those who use derogatory terms speak in the name of public health and thus are not recognized as “racists.” Inferential racism empowers manifest racism, which in turn openly turns to hate.
For example, in the context of COVID-19 a Rottweiler reappeared on the Costa Rican flag. This hearkened back to a 2005 event where several Rottweilers attacked and killed the Nicaraguan Natividad Canda, as Costa Rican police and civilians looked on apathetically. A surfeit of social network messages now suggest Rottweilers are needed on the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica to halt the virus’ spread.
To inferential and manifest racism we should add the large number of fake news items circulating profusely, especially on WhatsApp, highlighting the existence of a conscious effort to generate fear and hate.
“There is no excuse
Over the past two years (2018–2020), there has been a very important flip side to the increased xenophobia. This description of current events would be incomplete if it didn’t include the solidarity and defense of human rights displayed by many individuals and organizations.
Xenophobia has become a familiar term outside academic circles, as people push back against comments that could be read as xenophobic. Voices hostile to Nicaraguans are seeking to distance themselves from xenophobia, and one even frequently sees statements that start off like this: “I’m not xenophobic, but....” It seems to confirm that criticism of hostility and racism is getting under the skin of those who call for hate.
It isn’t easy today to distinguish between the risks of community spread of the pandemic due to Ortega’s irresponsibility and agroindustry vs. xenophobia unrelated to the pandemic.
Despite this confusion, Costa Rica’s institutional efforts to rebut the association between risk of contagion and xenophobia are notable. Such is the case of the campaign by the Ministry of Justice and Peace in which xenophobia is presented as a virus that must be avoided just as much as we avoid SARS-CoV-2. The campaign features phrases like: “Don’t let fear make room for xenophobia; may this pandemic serve to make us better people”; “Neither COVID-19 nor anything else can be an excuse for discrimination” ; “The planet is in crisis... and we are all citizens of this one planet.”
We have migrants, too
Costa Ricans also emigrate, although in lower numbers than the other Central American countries. Our migration represents approximately 3% of the total population.
Costa Ricans have also lost their lives to the coronavirus abroad. By late June, 25 Costa Ricans had died in the United States due to the pandemic. A significant number of Costa Ricans in that country live in New Jersey and New York, two states where COVID-19 has been especially lethal. In comparison only 12 people had died of the virus in Costa Rica, by the same June dates.
The death of Costa Rican emigrants as victims of the pandemic is mentioned in the media, but there is no narrative about the elements associated with the loss of their lives: irregular migratory status, limited or nonexistent access to health services, precarious jobs with elevated exposure to illness, etc.
Weak Costa Rican public opinion seems to be unprepared to view Costa Ricans as “Latinos” or “migrants.” This would mean recognizing that Costa Ricans in the United States are “others,” which could help them reflect on the ways “others”—in this case Nicaraguans—are represented in Costa Rica.
“We are one family”
The literature on migration and exclusion shows that those who are rejected are at the same time indispensable. This paradox becomes even more difficult to recognize during pandemics, when threats of contagion increase and, simultaneously, there is a need for migrants to harvest crops, care for our children or build our country’s infrastructure.
These migration narratives are framed as costs and almost never as contributions. In general, the private sector doesn’t recognize that Nicaraguans are vital to key sectors of the Costa Rican economy. There was a beautiful exception at the end of the march against xenophobia in August 2018, when a large construction company hung a billboard in which the Nicaraguan and Costa Rican flags appeared together, accompanied by the phrase: “We are one family.”
Since the private sector barely recognizes the interdependence characterizing the labor market in our country, it was an exceptionally promising symbol, confirming that the private sector could make a large contribution to obtaining greater recognition of migrants. This recognition tends to be lacking on both sides of the border in that the Nicaraguan government doesn’t recognize its migrants’ contributions either.
that unites us
This pandemic is reminding us of how much interdependence is at the center of our agro-exports and other industries, and is demanding its place. Borders are closed but migrants are needed to cross them, while companies barely admit in public that they depend on migrant labor. The June 22 edition of Costa Rica’s La Nación newspaper featured this headline: “Agro requires assistance of 74,000 migrants to harvest crops.” Cristian Vargas, a coffee farmer from Tarrazú, stated: “These workers are of utmost importance. Without them, this area would have no coffee picked. Without them, up to half of the harvest could be lost. In my case, I would lose up to 75% of my crops.”
The experience of so many mixed families and of the first generation of Costa Ricans whose parents are Nicaraguan, together with the reality of our economy, is a broad scene of that interdependence.
Beyond nationalist rhetoric, the challenge will be to share the experiences of those forced to leave Nicaragua with those Costa Ricans who have fewer opportunities in this society they are entering. Both experience exclusion and face inequalities, poverty and a lack of opportunities. They share class, nationality, race and gender, to mention just a few social conditions. This sharing could offer alternate routes for overcoming the “divide and conquer” narratives under which “foreigners and locals” are viewed as different.
Despite the economic, demographic and social analysis that provides clues for thinking about interdependence and feeling it,, the narratives that adopt this analysis are still not very common. Experience must be turned into a pedagogical and political process. The mere existence of diversity and interculturality don’t guarantee their recognition. Rather, in certain contexts and situations, such as those created by this pandemic, the voices of hate seem to be the prevailing majority.
Those responsible are Ortega
and Costa Rican businesses
Although this coronavirus recognizes no borders, its representations are highly nationalized. While this hides one of the greatest difficulties for migrants, it could also mean a great opportunity, using data and evidence to confront and reverse
the retrograde criminalizing rhetoric that has become more virulent during the pandemic.
Responsibility for propagating the virus should not be laid on the shoulders of the poor who live and work in overcrowded conditions, who cannot follow health measures or fear seeking medical care because they are undocumented. Overcrowding is one of the clearest expressions of social exclusion.
Those responsible for propagating the virus range from an evasive, dysfunctional Ortega in Nicaragua to agroindustry businesspeople in Costa Rica who today have been exposed along with their timeworn practices based on merciless exploitation of the most vulnerable workers.
Awaiting a new time
Today more than ever it is time to recognize that Costa Rican and Nicaraguan societies are profoundly reliant on each other, not only due to history and territory, but also to demographic, economic and cultural processes. However, yet more narratives continue to reproduce xenophobia and seek to prevail over those that highlight diversity and mutual recognition.
Identifying timely narratives to shine a light on interdependence, giving priority to the creation of pedagogical resources in formal early education, is one path to explore.
Cultural platforms, literature, music, visual arts and digital media could be very helpful, and many promising actions are underway. Of utmost importance are people who are willing to make their voices heard, based on their experiences of interrelationships. Even more necessary, perhaps, are societies more willingness to listen, to overcome stigma, misinformation and fear.
A period of excessive pain and uncertainty is underway. We can only hope a new time will soon come, allowing the best ways of being human to emerge and leaving behind the hate that seeks scapegoats where only brothers and sisters should be found.
Carlos Sandoval García is a lecturer at the University of Costa Rica (UCR). Karina Fonseca Vindas is the director of Jesuit Migrant Services (SJM).