Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

COSTA RICA: Nicaraguan Immigrants, Scapegoats for Local Woes

Néfer Muñoz

SAN JOSE, Oct 28 2002 (IPS) - Nicaraguans suffer heavy discrimination in Costa Rica, where xenophobic sentiments are worsening as locals blame immigrants for rising unemployment, deterioration of the social fabric, and the weakening of what has historically been a strong welfare state, warn researchers.

Academics at the public University of Costa Rica expressed concern over the mistreatment experienced on a daily basis by Nicaraguans, most of whom take low-paying jobs.

The greatest shows of xenophobia come from the lower middle class, who often blame immigrants from the neighbouring country for the social decline. There are an estimated 300,000 Nicaraguan immigrants in Costa Rica, a country of four million.

”Costa Ricans are intolerant of and disrespectful towards Nicaraguans because we have found ourselves without a well-defined blueprint for the future of our nation,” university Professor Carlos Sandoval, an expert in communications, told IPS.

”We could say immigrants have become the ‘communists’ of the 21st century, a group of people who are demonised by the public and the media,” said Sandoval, who showed in a recently published study that Nicaraguan immigrants have become the scapegoats for Costa Rica’s social woes.

In much of Central America, the Cold War fear of ”communists” led to suppression of dissent and bloody civil wars in the 1970s and 1980s.

The research Sandoval carried out for his doctoral thesis at the University of Birmingham in Britain, which was published in the book Otros Amenazantes (”Threatening Others”) was based on statistics from 1997 to 2001, surveys of school children, and testimony from Nicaraguans who described their lives in Costa Rica.

This country is considered the most politically and economically stable in Central America. Costa Ricans enjoy the highest standard of living in the sub-region, and the extremes between rich and poor are not as marked as in neighbouring countries like Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in Latin America.

However, the social welfare system that helped earn the country the nickname of ”the Switzerland of Central America” has gradually weakened.

For example, the country’s health system, which won international praise in the past, has suffered a decline, and there are now 1.9 beds per 1,000 inhabitants, compared to 2.9 twenty years ago.

”We have lost one-third of our hospital bed capacity in the past two decades, and we often directly blame Nicaraguans for that” and other problems, said Sandoval.

He added that societies must understand that people who are different, like immigrants, should not be blamed for the problems in one’s own country.

”Even within our nation, there are differences. Some of us were born in the countryside, others in the city. Some of us are heterosexuals, others are homosexuals, some are middle-class, others are poor. The differences lie in ourselves,” he pointed out.

In the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report 2002, released in July, Costa Rica was the only one of the seven countries of Central America included in the category of nations with a high level of human development.

The UNDP report ranked Costa Rica 43rd out of 173 countries in terms of human development, and fourth in Latin America, after Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

Nicaragua, on the other hand, ranked 118th in the report, which is based on statistics from 2001, gathered before the current economic and social crisis broke out in Argentina and Uruguay.

The slump in coffee prices, drought conditions that have repeated themselves year after year, and political and economic problems are only several of the factors that push Nicaraguans to seek a better life in Costa Rica.

But although Costa Rica ranks high on United Nations lists, analysts say this nation is suffering difficult social conditions with no solutions in sight.

Costa Rica’s traditional political stability has begun to be questioned, after no candidate won the presidency in the first round of elections in February, and elections had to go to a runoff for the first time in history.

In addition, no headway has been made against poverty. The proportion of the population living below the poverty line, 20 percent, has remained virtually unchanged for two decades.

”We are realizing that Nicaraguans are not that ‘other social being’ that Costa Ricans believed,” Cyska Raventós, director of the Institute of Social Research at the University of Costa Rica, commented to IPS.

Raventós said Sandoval’s study highlighted the fact that the stereotypes of immigrants, many of whom are darker-skinned than the average Costa Rican, often differ from reality.

”I was 20 years old when I came to Costa Rica, not because of the (civil) war in my country, since that wasn’t a problem at that time. The problem was the lack of work, and of opportunities for studying,” said Manuel, one of the Nicaraguan immigrants featured in Sandoval’s book.

Manuel narrated how he became a radio announcer, after overcoming discrimination and making his way out of low-paying jobs as a coffee-picker and street vendor.

Academics and activists are trying to raise awareness among Costa Ricans to keep them from channeling their frustration about the country’s problems against Nicaraguan immigrants.

A successful play that is now showing, ”El Nica” – which has a derogatory term for Nicaraguans – sympathetically portrays a humble immigrant who overcomes humiliations, abuse and sacrifices made by his family to work and live in Costa Rica.

 
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Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

COSTA RICA: Nicaraguan Immigrants, Scapegoats for Local Woes

Néfer Muñoz

SAN JOSE, Oct 28 2002 (IPS) - Nicaraguans suffer heavy discrimination in Costa Rica, where xenophobic sentiments are worsening as locals blame immigrants for rising unemployment, deterioration of the social fabric, and the weakening of what has historically been a strong welfare state, warn researchers.
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