“Costa Ricans must understand that we need Nicaraguans “

They waited at the intersection of two alleyways, as they do late every Monday afternoon. The entire population of the village of Santa Rosa del Peñon, in northern Nicaragua — the old, along with women and children — hoped for news from Costa Rica. When the post office truck raced up in a cloud of dust, there was a rush to grab a letter, an envelope containing banknotes, even perhaps a small refrigerator.
Santa Rosa’s émigrés help their families from across the border. The village survives on remesas (remittances), between $10 and $100 a month to buy food, schoolbooks and medicine, or to repay loans. Since Nicaragua cut its public services, the costs of education and health have weighed heavily on a population unable to afford them. Despite a steady inflow of dollars, Santa Rosa just about survives and is grateful to do so.

Although traditionally dependent on agriculture, the region now produces almost nothing. “We grow enough to feed ourselves,” said Julio Antonio Niño, standing at the centre of his weed-infested fields. “What’s the point of doing any more? I can’t afford to build a well or an irrigation system: credit is too expensive at 40 per cent interest and the banks will only lend to major landowners with solid collateral.” Nicaragua’s small farmers all say the same. The crisis that followed the collapse in 2000 of coffee prices on the international market has made the situation worse.

Half the population lives in rural areas, so the previous government’s official line was that it cared about farmers. In practice its economic policies concentrated on opening frontiers, competing internationally on the agricultural export market and attracting foreign investment in the free zones; outgoing president Enrique Bolaños claimed these created thousands of jobs. Niño’s response to this programme was to say: “Sure, some women from the village went off to work in the textile maquilas [factories carrying out subcontracted work]. It’s better than nothing, but the wages are half what you can earn in Costa Rica.”

It is estimated that one in five from Santa Rosa has emigrated to Costa Rica. Half a million Nicaraguans are thought to be living on the other side of the San Juan, the river that marks the frontier, and another 300,000 are scattered elsewhere, in total some 14 per cent of the population. For destitute campesinos (farmers), Costa Rica is the obvious destination, just a few hours away by bus. Until recently no visa at all was required and even now it costs only $10 to enter the country legally.

Many Nicaraguans have abandoned their original trades to work as peons on Costa Rica’s banana, coffee, pineapple, sugar and orange plantations: Costa Rica has been successful in diversifying its labour-intensive agricultural industry. “Starting in January I pick coffee, then I move on to other crops,” explained Niño who, exhausted by the difficulty of working the land at Santa Rosa, crosses the border illegally every year. “Then, like other people around here, I come back to sow frijol (beans). I make at least twice what I could hope to earn in Nicaragua.”

Historically, Nicaraguans have always used their southern neighbor as a refuge during periods of violence, such as the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza or the war of the 1980s. But since the 1990s migration has been driven by the struggle for economic survival. After the fighting ended, demobilization left thousands of soldiers and counter-revolutionaries on the loose, with no resources or future, in a country whose economy was unable to integrate them. At the time, the Nicaraguan government’s priority was to privatize and reduce public spending. Costa Rica, which has impressive economic growth and a remarkably well-developed welfare state for Central America, seemed an accessible El Dorado.

An accessible Eldorado

“Emigration served the government’s interests,” said Martha Cranshaw of RNSCM, an NGO supporting migrants and their families. “It relieves the pressure created by unemployment. But we are beginning to understand its real impact upon our country.” This analysis is not always popular.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations are banking on remittances to relaunch growth; but investigations on the ground in Nicaragua show that the $900m sent home every year by émigrés, which is more than the country exports, mostly serve to make the day-to-day existence of an exhausted population just bearable .

As Cranshaw pointed out, the RNSCM has also noticed another, less immediately quantifiable, story: “We are becoming aware of the thousands of individual tragedies represented by the emigration of a family’s father or mother. Collectively, this phenomenon is having a huge impact upon Nicaraguan society.” Fragmented families, children brought up by sometimes-absent grandparents, missing father and mother figures, children dropping out of school: what sort of society is Nicaragua creating?
In Santa Rosa, a grandfather whose son and daughter-in-law have left but did not take their children said: “My wife and I are bringing our grandchildren up, but there’s often a lot of tension with them and we worry a great deal about our son, who is in Costa Rica illegally. Sometimes I think there has to be another way. It’s too risky, for us and for them.”
It is easy to spot the Nicaraguans in the Costa Rican capital, San José. Their skin and hair seem darker and they always carry a rucksack containing overalls or a change of clothes. The men work in construction or as security guards, the women as domestic servants. Most of the seasonal workers, and many of those who have been here for several years, have no papers. Only half the “Nicas” in Costa Rica are there legally. Almost all have experienced the harsh working conditions on plantations. Most of the 4.3 million “Ticas” (Costa Ricans) regard the Nicas primarily as an unwanted 10 per cent of the population.

“Costa Ricans see Nicaraguans as a negative value,” said Carlos Sandoval, a sociologist at San José university. He argued that Costa Ricans construct their identity around powerful ideas: the paleness of their skin, which is unusual in Central America (and is the result of the fact that there were only a few indigenous inhabitants when the conquistadores arrived); the stability of a democracy that has experienced little violence; and the success of an economy and a welfare state unique in the region. Its ecotourist-friendly beaches and jungles, its relaxed way of life attract prosperous foreign tourists in numbers its neighbors can only dream about.

From this perspective, Nicaragua, with its wars and chronic instability, seems an immature country condemned to poverty. In Costa Rica, the dark-skinned immigrants are often described as violent, ignorant and untrustworthy, as thieves and alcoholics. “No seas Nica” (“don’t be an idiot”) is a common insult. This xenophobia, and correspondingly strong anti-Costa Rican feelings in Nicaragua, rises to the surface each time the perennial conflict over navigation rights on the San Juan river turns nasty. But the countries manage to get along, or at least they used to.

Relations have deteriorated since the end of 2005 when Costa Rica responded to the flood of immigrants by passing new legislation in imitation of the United States. Costa Rica’s new president, the 1987 Nobel peace prizewinner Oscar Arias, is not a member of the party that introduced the new law. He described it as draconian and suggested that it could transform the immigration police into a Gestapo.

The legislation, like that currently being debated in the US, would create new barriers to legal immigration and declare open season on illegal immigrants and those who house or employ them. To be genuinely effective, these measures require human and financial resources that Costa Rica does not possess.

It is possible to see this legislation as a token response to the anger of Costa Ricans, which has reached fever pitch. One night in November 2005 the owner of a workshop 30km outside San José set his two rottweiler dogs on a young Nicaraguan who was thought to be breaking in. The police were called, but just watched as the dogs killed the man. Film of the incident led the television news, and Costa Rica’s first hate crime worsened tension between the countries. Several months later, amid the bright flowerbeds of La Merced park, where San José’s Nicaraguans meet every day, a young immigrant told me: “What happened that day really scared us. We were used to racism, but to die like that, it’s too horrible. People in Nicaragua are afraid too. One of my cousins has decided to go to El Salvador instead: it’s less dangerous and she doesn’t need a visa.”

The speaker was 28 and has been in Costa Rica illegally for five years. He does building work in the provinces and comes to see his wife and son in San José every weekend. Like many others, he is happy to have a son born here: “That way, he has Costa Rican nationality.”
The other Nicas ate national dishes they had prepared and explained their anxieties: “Given the law, we’d all like to have legal status. Until now, it didn’t worry us that much. We don’t have any papers in Nicaragua and it suits everyone here for us to work off the books.”
Costa Rica’s major employers have recently become concerned that the economic climate and a shortage of manpower in El Salvador have reduced the flow of immigration from Nicaragua. In August 2006 the Costa Rican Exporters’ Chamber complained that the labor shortage could reduce national exports by 15 per cent, even 25 per cent in the agricultural sector.
Unusually for Central America, the Costa Rican economy has developed secondary and tertiary sectors and has been particularly successful in ecotourism. But it continues to rely significantly upon agriculture; it is the world’s second exporter of bananas and is a major coffee producer. It has also developed niche markets including flowers and melons. Nicaraguan workers are essential, and in the banana region of Sarapiqui are more than 40 per cent of the workforce.
Many economists argue that they are, and will continue to be, a crucial adjustment variable as the economy is seriously transformed. Nicaraguan workers have benefited Costa Rica’s leading agricultural exporters in international markets, by keeping production costs down. Although less qualified, they have displaced Costa Ricans in agriculture and construction. By providing an army of domestic workers they have allowed Costa Rican women to enter the labor market.
Oscar Alfaro created a transport company that now operates throughout Central America and is a member of a leading employers’ organization. He said: “Costa Ricans must understand that we need Nicaraguans. Our immigration policy is based more upon a philosophy of security than upon economic realism, to say nothing of the fact that it goes against the most basic principles of solidarity. There will always be a close relationship between our countries.” He recalled that after Hurricane Mitch tore through Nicaragua in October 1998, Costa Rica granted legal status to 152,000 immigrants, but echoed an opinion widely shared in Costa Rica: “This relationship must be controlled. We must keep out illegal immigrants who are exploiting our health and education systems without making any financial contribution.” He did not mention that businesses who employ illegal workers also fail to contribute.
The government has outlined the social costs of this flood of immigration into a small country. Costa Rica, accused by Nicaragua of xenophobia before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights , insisted its health insurance system met the cost of emergencies, pregnancies and births whatever the nationality of the patient. It also pointed out that primary education was free to all. “All this in a developing country with an immigration rate higher than that of developed countries: 110 per 1,000 head of population, almost the same as Luxembourg, which has the highest per capita gross domestic product in the world.”
According to Sandoval, Costa Rica suffers from a contradiction: it needs immigration to sustain its economy and population, but is unable to deal with the social consequences. “Cultural differences are part of the problem, but it is significant that resentment of Nicas intensified during the crisis of the 1990s, especially among the most seriously affected sectors of the population.”

Mutual mistrust

Costa Rica has attempted to emulate the European social model, with its emphasis on redistribution and public investment. But during the 1980s it embraced neoliberalism and cut public investment in education, health and social housing. The lower middle classes suffered most from falling living standards. “The most xenophobic section of the population is the one that has lost most,” said Sandoval. “We like to think of ourselves as an exception, but we feel that things are getting worse and we blame immigrants without looking at the way in which our social model has been weakened by economic policies.”
In 1999 universal public funding to educate the poorest was questioned when some authorities excluded foreigners. Costa Rica, worried about its future like some developed countries, has gradually learned to distinguish nationals from aliens.
Guarariri, a shantytown on the edge of San José, is overshadowed by a gleaming shopping centre from which a stream of waste water flows between houses crammed on top of each other. Several thousand immigrants live here. At first glance it looks like part of Nicaragua, but most of its inhabitants have a job and every house has water and electricity. Life is better here than back home. Guarariri is poor and filthy, and drug dealers sometimes use it as a hideout, yet despite its bad reputation, hundreds of Costa Rican families that have fallen on hard times choose to live here. Most of its inhabitants insist that since they all find themselves in the same situation, racism is not a problem. Costa Rica’s most disadvantaged areas have developed schemes for Nicas and Ticas to live better side by side. “These are useful initiatives,” Sandoval said, “because they disprove the myths about Nicaraguans, for example the idea that they steal jobs. The truth is that they are prepared to do work that Costa Ricans refuse.”

Information campaigns to promote intercommunity relations can only do so much. Although unemployment remains at the acceptable level of 6.5 per cent, observers are concerned about the possible effects of any increase. Could this developing country maintain its fragile equilibrium if nationals and foreigners had to compete more fiercely for jobs? The already tense situation in Guarariri, La Merced park and the plantations along the East coast could get out of control.

This article appears in the January edition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch will feature one or two articles from LMD every month. AC/JSC