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Nicaragua’s Rocky Relationship with Costa Rica

A rusty barbed wire fence, overgrown with plants, marks the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border on the Rio Frio outside of Los Chiles, Costa Rica.
Barbed wire marks the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border on the Rio Frio outside of Los Chiles, Costa Rica. Photo © Steven Depolo, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Costa Rica is a wealthier, more politically stable country than Nicaragua. To keep it that way, the Costa Rican economy is wholly dependent on low-cost Nicaraguan laborers for harvesting their sugarcane and coffee and filling the ranks of the construction workforce in urban centers.

In an effort to control immigration, Costa Rican officials conduct regular roundups of illegal aliens, returning as many as 150 to Nicaragua daily. If you travel south into Costa Rica, expect patrols to stop and search your bus several times for undocumented travelers. Some estimates put the number of Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica at more than a million, but with the constant flux and large percentage of undocumented Nicas, no one knows for sure.

The tense relationship between these incongruous Central American neighbors loosely parallels the relationship between the United States and Mexico. Namely, a massive flood of immigrants crosses the border (pushed by neoliberal trade policies) into a more prosperous and stable nation and is subsequently accused of driving down wages, taking all the jobs, and straining social services without paying taxes. As Nicas are darker skinned and easy to distinguish, they’re easy to scapegoat. Ask most Ticos (as Costa Ricans call themselves) about the issue and you’ll likely get an earful of racist comments about Nicaraguans being “lazy, no-good, poor, and dirty.” Nicaraguans, for their part, generally mistrust Ticos and don’t appreciate their arrogance.

Costa Rica continues to press for a resolution to Nicaraguan immigration issues. Too much blustery rhetoric from Managua regarding other issues, like the sovereignty of the Río San Juan, may tempt the Ticos to crack down even more on illegal immigrants, something Managua would very much like to avoid. Even today, Nicaraguan immigrants have reported irregular and inhumane incarceration by Tico authorities, often for weeks at a time without formal charges (and sometimes without daylight, toilets, and food).

Rhetoric aside, the two neighbors desperately need each other. Perhaps pragmatism will win out over politics in the end.

Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.