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The challenge of the new government: a more inclusive Costa Rica that integrates its migrant population

I’m a journalist and also a Nicaraguan immigrant. I’ve lived in Costa Rica for the last seven years, and I’m grateful to that country for giving me the opportunity to grow as a person, enriching both my personal and my professional experiences.

I’ve been able to observe and admire all the exemplary things this great Central American nation has accomplished: their environmental protection policies; their visionary abolition of an army; their identity as one of the most solid and longstanding democracies on the continent. On April 3, Costa Ricans once more went to the polls to elect a new president, amid an atmosphere of serenity in which a result that no one questioned was rapidly announced. This is all thanks to a robust and credible electoral system, and a citizenry that respects and understands the functioning of the democratic system.

During this time, I’ve also been able to note things that provoke discomfort and indignation in the population, things that can and should improve. One of the issues that needs urgent attention is the lack of decent conditions for a significant portion of the population. In recent years, Costa Rica has become one of the most unequal economies in the world, according to data from the World Bank. The United Nations has noted with concern some important socioeconomic reverses in the population’s well-being. Unemployment is rife, with some 330,000 people still unemployed in the first trimester of 2022, and 26.2% of households live in poverty.

As political analyst Daniel Zovatto expressed so well in his article “Chaves and Costa Rican democracy are put to the test” [appearing in the Costa Rican newspaper La Nacion: April 16, 2022]: “The country needs to review its model of development and sustainability, improve the efficacy of the government and its public policies, the qualities of the goods and services it offers citizens, and generate greater inclusion and social cohesion.”

That poverty, inequality and unemployment also has a face that often passes unnoticed in local political conversations: the face of the Nicaraguan immigrant. Up until 2019, Costa Rica was the country in the Americas with the highest index of immigrants as a percentage of the total population. That year, 10.5% of Costa Rican inhabitants were immigrants, 80% of them native Nicaraguans. In a country of five million, there are approximately half a million of us, including those of us who are lawful immigrants, those who are undocumented, asylum seekers and refugees. We Nicaraguans have been arriving there for decades.

It’s enough to tour the slums of the country’s urban areas, or the coastal and rural zones along the border – as I’ve been able to do thanks to my work as a journalist – to realize that Nicaraguans in Costa Rica are a segment of the population that the system has left behind.

That reality of the Nicaraguan immigrant population was also reflected in a study published in February, entitled “Nicaraguan immigrants in Costa Rica, vulnerability and implications of their integration”. The study was sponsored by Confidencial and headed by Manuel Orozco, Migration specialist with the InterAmerican Dialogue.

This investigation revealed that 75% of Nicaraguans in Costa Rica have monthly incomes under US $670 [450,000 Costa Rican colones], and nearly 90% are earning less than the country’s average per capita income of around $8,000 per year. It also demonstrates that the immigrants’ occupations have changed little over time: construction, domestic labors, services, etc. – all jobs that command low salaries.

Examining three criteria for stability or integration – having legal status, earning over 450,000 colones a month, and having a bank account – we see that less than 15% of the surveyed immigrant population meets these criteria, as Orozco points out. Lack of employment and problems with “papers” are the greatest difficulties Nicaraguan immigrants face, the investigation confirms, whether they arrived previously or due to the crisis that exploded in Nicaragua in 2018.

These findings are very similar to those from studies done one or more decades ago by academics and local and international organizations. There doesn’t appear to be any significant social mobility among Nicaraguans who emigrate to Costa Rica.

During the presentation of the current study in San Jose, Costa Rica, Professor Alberto Cortes Ramos shared his hypothesis regarding one of the causes of that lack of integration of the immigrant Nicaraguan population into general Costa Rican society. To Cortes, Costa Rica defines its citizens in terms of people’s nationality, not in terms of those inhabiting its territory. “It’s a country of immigrants, but it doesn’t assume the fact of being a society with an important immigrant component,” he stated.

Along these lines, during the first-round presidential election, now president-elect Rodrigo Chaves told Confidencial that in his platform “the first element in foreign and immigration policy is to seek the welfare of Costa Rican citizens.” In addition, he affirmed, if he were elected president, he’d offer “a benefit to Nicaraguan immigrants, so that they legalize their situation.”

A mechanism for facilitating the legalization of the Nicaraguan population, especially the recent and significant flow of asylum seekers, could prove crucial in propitiating a better integration of this population. Let’s hope it becomes reality and is the first of other measures that Chaves and his cabinet consider within their goal of making Costa Rica a more equitable and fair country.

It’s important that this search for well-being that Chaves speaks of, not be limited only to Costa Rican citizens, but also include all the country’s inhabitants. It means a process of transverse integration of the immigrant population – in theory and in practice – in the different public policies the authorities design. It means integrating surveys and studies into government practices, to obtain data specific to this population, in order to better understand the obstacles they face for the mere fact of being immigrants. It implies proposing solutions based on a sensitized and aware vision of the particular needs of this population. Previous governments have made important efforts in that direction, but it’s clear that there are still gaps that need to be filled in order to succeed in helping this population overcome their major lag in achieving equal status.

The immigrant population loves, respects, admires, and thanks this country: for having opened its door to them in an unconditional and uninterrupted way; for have taken them sin; for having given them opportunities and refuge. At the same time, Nicaraguans have added to and enriched the country with their work – providing an essential labor force to the agrarian or construction sectors, among others – as well as with their culture and diversity.

The immigrant population belongs. We’re part of Costa Rica, and as such we wish the best for the new authorities, as do Costa Ricans, and hope the country gets ahead. For this to happen, it’s necessary that all those who live here be taken into account by the future government. A better and greater integration of the immigrant population will make this a country that’s not only more prosperous, but also more democratic.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times

Cindy Regidor

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