For many Nicaraguan immigrants in Costa Rica, memories of the bloody Sandinista revolution and civil war follow them around like desperate street vendors.
“Imagine how many mothers had to take buses off into the hills to look for their sons’ bodies,” said Carmen Contrera, a cook and mother of five who lives in the impoverished neighborhood of La Carpio in west San José.
This week, those memories came clamoring back into the lives of many of the estimated 500,000 Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica.
Daniel Ortega, the former Sandinista guerrilla leader who rose to power on the heels of the revolution two decades ago, was elected President of poverty-stricken Nicaragua.
Reactions from Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica range from jubilation to outrage, though most of the dozen Nicaraguan immigrants The Tico Times talked to this week frowned at Ortega’s return to power.
“It doesn’t look good. We left because we didn’t want communism… There was no freedom to buy what you want or express yourself,” said Elieser Pilarte, a 32-year-old Nicaraguan immigrant who now runs his own recycling business on the outskirts of La Carpio.
Many Nicaraguan immigrants have made a new home in La Carpio, which is perhaps why Ortega’s political comeback is the talk of the town.
Here, Nicaraguans like Contreras smile softly, safely, at the distant sense of change they know their country is bracing itself for, but is a world away now. They can only try to feel it by tuning into Nicaraguan news on television, reading the papers, or talking with friends and family back home.
“I always come home and put on the Nicaraguan news,” said Contreras, 44. Like many Nicaraguan immigrants, she sends remittances back home each month to her children who live there. Her brother, a Sandinista soldier, was killed during the civil war.
As the rain began to play its afternoon drum roll on her tin roof, she reminisced on life in Sandinista Nicaragua under Ortega.
“Light was paid for. Food, paid for.
Everything was paid for,” she said, adding she is making plans to go back to Nicaragua now that the Sandinistas are back in power.
Pilarte, Contrera’s neighbor, doesn’t feel quite as nostalgic about Ortega’s time in office.
“They gave us a card for making purchases. You had to ration everything,” he said. Pilarte said he left Nicaragua two years after Ortega was voted out of office. “We left because of the economic situation,” he said.
The reason most Nicaraguans are in Costa Rica has less to do with politics and more to do with economics, according to political analyst Luis Guillermo Solís.
Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, where nearly half the population live off $1 a day (NT, Aug. 11).
“Some of us are leftists, some are right wing, some are in the middle, but we all came to Costa Rica because here at least you have some chance of making a living,” said Juan José Olivara, who waded across the San Juan River 15 years ago to seek a better life here. He entered the country illegally, like the more than 100,000 estimated illegal Nicaraguans in Costa Rica today.
“I’m a wetback,” admitted the 46-year-old former Sandinista soldier. He now makes a living as a street vendor in San José.
“Just like the rest of them,” he said, his eyes scanning the crowd of Nicaraguan immigrants passing around the Nicaraguan daily La Prensa in Parque La Merced, an unofficial hangout for Nicas in Costa Rica’s capital.
Solís said the continued influx of Nicaraguan immigrants will depend on the economic situation in Nicaragua. Ortega has pledged to attack poverty during his administration.
As for what Ortega’s election will mean for Nicaragua-Costa Rica relations, Solís is “pretty optimistic that it will not mean too much.”
Colleagues Once Again
It appears to be the year of comebacks in Central American politics. Nearly two decades ago, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias brokered a peace treaty with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and others to bring peace to a wartorn Central America. Arias’ efforts earned him the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize.
With this week’s election results, two of Central America’s most famous leaders have taken back their seats on each side of the San Juan River, which runs along part of the border.
Arias, who was on a South American tour this week with Foreign Trade Minister Bruno Stagno, has told local press Ortega’s election isn’t likely to increase risk in Central America.
The Costa Rican President, who took office in May, told reporters in Chile this week that he and Ortega “will go back to working together as we did 20 years ago. But this time it won’t be for peace in Central America… but to move Central America forward.”
Analyst Solís said bilateral bonding has been going on beyond the scope of particular administrations.
Not only have the two countries reconvened the Costa Rican-Nicaragua Binational Commission, which sat dead for seven years due to a lack of initiative (TT, Oct. 27), the governments have also taken the most contentious issue between them – an ongoing dispute regarding each country’s rights to the San Juan River along part of the border –to the International Court of Justice in the Hague (TT, Sept. 30, 2005).
“That has allowed the agenda to start flowing again,” Solís said.
In a radio interview in Chile with radio station Nuestra Voz, Costa Rican Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno celebrated the Nicaraguan elections as “one of the most observed elections in the world.”
The cleanliness of the elections aside, Olivara said he has a hard time trusting any Nicaraguan politician’s promises to turn the country around.
“Like always, they make promises to the people, but then end up forgetting about them,” he said.
The fact that so many Nicaraguans have fled their country is proof that Nicaraguan politics aren’t working, he said.
“What drives a car is its motor, right? Well, what drives a country is employment,” he said.