Costa Rica has by far the largest immigrant population of any Central American country. While the majority of Costa Ricans are accepting of immigration from most parts of the world, Nicaraguan immigration specifically is an incredibly polarizing topic that all Costa Ricans seem to have strong opinions about. Unfortunately, a large percentage of the population is starkly against Nicaraguan immigration.

The relationship between Costa Rica and Nicaragua has always been a contentious one. While Costa Rica is known for having remarkably peaceful and positive relationships with most countries, it has a less-than-friendly rivalry with its neighbor Nicaragua. The two countries have been arguing for nearly 100 years over who invented Gallo Pinto (a traditional dish that consists primarily of rice and beans) and who makes it better. They’ve even gone back and forth setting the world record for the largest quantity of Gallo Pinto.

A map of the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica that highlights the disputed San Juan river territory and the Costa Rican province of Guanacaste.

There is also an ongoing border dispute between the two countries regarding the navigation rights to the San Juan River, which separates Nicaragua from Costa Rica on the Caribbean side. Costa Rica’s 1824 annexation of the Nicaraguan province of Guanacaste also continues to be a source of tension.

Despite these regional tensions, Nicaraguans have been emigrating to Costa Rica in search of jobs and a better life ever since the 1972 Managua earthquake. In 2016, Nicaraguans made up 77% of Costa Rica’s immigrant population. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Somoza dictatorship and the US-backed Contra War in Nicaragua made Costa Rica a more politically stable option for Nicaraguan refugees.

Costa Rica’s economy is also much more stable than Nicaragua’s, so for many Nicaraguans, Costa Rica presents a better opportunity for financial security. Most Nicaraguan immigrants work as maids, guards, construction workers, or in agriculture. Similar to the reaction of many Americans to Mexican immigration, many Costa Ricans believe that Nicaraguans are stealing their jobs and don’t belong in their country. However, Nicaraguan immigrants typically work more hours per week than Costa Rican laborers while earning significantly less money. As Costa Rica’s population growth rate has been steadily declining, immigrants also represent an important opportunity to maintain the population size.     

The relationship between the two countries is especially tense now due to a huge increase in Nicaraguan immigration sparked by the current political unrest in Nicaragua. A popular uprising against current Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega began in April and has since turned incredibly violent. Ortega first came into power in the 1980s as the leader of the revolutionary Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and has served as president since 2007. Protesters accuse him of corruption and election rigging. Ortega’s administration has mercilessly repressed the opposition movement, resulting in more than 350 deaths and thousands of injuries. Many of the victims have been student protestors and unarmed civilians.

This political violence and unrest has produced a huge number of Nicaraguan refugees, and many of them are seeking a new life in Costa Rica. I arrived here in July, a record-breaking month for immigration. Local news sources report that 15,000 Nicaraguans applied for refugee status that month. Since then the numbers have dropped a bit but are still significant: 9,000 in August and around 4,500 in September.  By early November the total number of Nicaraguan immigrants that had arrived in Costa Rica since April was around 30,000.

While a sizeable portion of the general population is not comfortable with this huge influx of Nicaraguan refugees, there are also many Costa Rican citizens who have gone above and beyond to help out their neighbors. This August 2018 article from The Tico Times tells the stories of a few Nicaraguan refugees who were taken in by complete strangers after crossing the border.   

The past summer saw a series of protests and counter-protests organized by both opponents of Nicaraguan immigration and anti-xenophobia groups. Some of these events have turned violent. It all began on August 18, when an incredibly xenophobic protest spiraled out of control.  

On August 18, a large group of Costa Ricans gathered in La Merced Park to protest the growing rate of Nicaraguan immigration. La Merced Park is located in downtown San José and is a well known meeting place for Nicaraguan immigrants. The protest was sparked by a slew of false information that spread rapidly after being posted on social media sites. These fabrications included claims of refugees receiving full scholarships to the University of Costa Rica, a story regarding a Nicaraguan military invasion, and an allegation that Nicaraguan trans women were receiving official assistance from the federal government.

For many of the protesters, one of the most outrageous posts was an image that appeared to show Nicaraguan immigrants burning a Costa Rican flag. In reality, someone intentionally paired two entirely unrelated photos together to give the illusion of Nicaraguans burning the flag. The first photo was taken in La Merced Park, and depicts a peaceful gathering of Nicaraguan immigrants. The second photo, which was actually taken about two years ago, depicts a group of young Costa Ricans burning their own flag at a punk rock concert. When paired together, these images successfully convinced many patriotic Costa Ricans that ungrateful Nicaraguan immigrants had recently gathered in La Merced Park to burn the Costa Rican flag.  

An image that was instrumental in sparking the xenophobic protest on August 18th. The top image depicts a peaceful gathering of Nicaraguan immigrants in La Merced Park, while the bottom image depicts a group of young Costa Ricans burning their own flag at a punk rock concert two years ago. While these photos are entirely unrelated, they were paired together and posted on a social media sight in a successful attempt to convince Costa Ricans that a mob of Nicaraguan immigrants burned the Costa Rican flag. (Photo: The Tico Times)

The resultant protest on August 18 was aggressively xenophobic, with some protesters even using Nazi slogans. When police arrived to break up the protest, they confiscated eight molotov cocktails and thirteen daggers and knives. They also arrested 44 people. While 38 of those arrested were Costa Rican and only six were Nicaraguan, many Costa Ricans discuss this story as if the Nicaraguans were fully responsible for the weapons being in the park. La Merced Park was closed and guarded by police for two days following the protest as a preventative measure.              

This protest sparked a series of further protests, some supporting Nicaraguan immigration and others rejecting it. On August 20, xenophobic groups led a follow-up protest to the one staged just two days earlier in La Merced Park, again looking to demonstrate their disapproval of the recent increase in Nicaraguan immigration.

Five days later, religious groups, human rights organizations, and student activists staged an anti-xenophobia protest across San José. Protesters gathered both in La Merced Park and on the University of Costa Rica campus to march to Plaza de la Democracia, which is located between the two gathering points. Plaza de la Democracia is a major symbol of peace for Costa Rica, as it is directly in front of what used to be the country’s armory but was converted into the National Museum and a butterfly garden after President José Figueres Ferrer abolished the military in 1948.

Street art found near the University of Costa Rica campus in San Pedro, San José that reads “xenophobia stinks.” (Photo: Torri Lonergan)

1,000 people participated in the August 25 protest, double the number of protesters that had gathered for the original demonstration in La Merced Park on August 18. A mix of Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans participated in the protest, all looking to denounce the events of August 18 and express their support for Nicaraguan refugees.        

Yet another protest was held on September 2, this time to call upon the Costa Rican government to bring an end to Nicaraguan immigration. La Merced Park and Plaza de la Democracia once again represented key gathering points for protesters. Hundreds of people participated, but the protest failed to reach the size of the August 25 anti-xenophobia march. At the time of this protest, roughly 23,000 Nicaraguans had applied for refugee status in Costa Rica.  

Things appear to be calming down a bit in Nicaragua and significantly fewer refugees are entering the country now than in recent months. On October 5, Nicaraguan immigrants gathered in front of the Nicaraguan embassy in San José to protest Daniel Ortega’s administration. Participants took the time to remember the hundreds of people who have been killed during attempts to repress protests, show their support for political prisoners, and demand justice for all victims of Ortega’s regime. No xenophobic backlash of any kind was reported during the protest and no anti-Nicaraguan immigration protests have taken place since.

Last month Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado urged other world leaders to come to Nicaragua’s aid during a speech at the Paris Peace Forum.  Alvarado argued that American and European nations must help bring peace to Nicaragua, both to stop human rights violations and to prevent the crisis from negatively affecting Central America as a whole. This appears to be a good sign for the future of the relationship between the two countries. However, tensions between Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans have existed for hundreds of years and are expected to continue.

Banner image: Street art found in San Pedro, San José that reads “no one is illegal.” (Photo: Torri Lonergan)