Josef Auguste, Pablo Larousse and Jackson Beaubrun dress sharply in crisp shirts, pressed slacks and shiny black shoes as they wait to meet for an interview in downtown San José’s Parque Morazán. It’s Saturday, and they’ve just gotten out of their classes at universities nearby. Like many other Haitians who have migrated to San José, they spend most of the week as ambulatory vendors of potato chips and bolis, tubes of frozen fruit-flavored gelatin. But Saturdays are for the classroom, and they dress accordingly.
These three young men, ages 27, 23 and 24, respectively, are a few of the Haitians who have left their impoverished Caribbean homeland to seek a new life in Costa Rica.
The Immigration Administration registers 83 Haitians residing here legally, but there are no official counts of those here illegally, according to Immigration spokeswoman Heidy Bonilla.
Comparing statistics between the two countries, the differences are vast. According to the United Nations’ human development index published last year, Costa Rica registered a 78.3-year average life expectancy, compared to Haiti’s 52. On average, 94.9% of Costa Rican adults are literate, almost double Haiti’s 52%, and in terms of gross domestic product per-capita, Costa Rica’s $9,481 ranks far above Haiti’s $1,892.
Despite offering a better economy and quality of life, Costa Rica also holds struggles for Haitian immigrants trying to get ahead, these three amiable young men recently told The Tico Times.However, here they’ve found safety and freedom that contrasts the violence and political instability they experienced in Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, according to the World Bank’s Web site.
“Peace and the love of democracy” are what Beaubrun says he’s learned to like best about Costa Rica during the few years he’s lived here. Along with Larousse, he is studying at the EvangelicalUniversity of the Americas (UNELA).
“When I watched the last election here, I saw how well it went, so far from violence,” he said, showing a solid command of Spanish softened by intonations of his native French and Haitian Creole.
Like many Haitian migrants, Beaubrun and his friends left Haiti as political tension boiled, leading up to the overthrow of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in February 2004.
Auguste, the most talkative of the three and a student of administration at San MarcosUniversity, said that at the time, “the life of students was difficult … the government always says students are the ones doing bad; they always have their eyes on us.”
Armed civilians were sent by the government to threaten dissident students, and although Auguste and his friends had no political ties, it was still unsafe for them to attend university in the capital city of Portau-Prince, he said.
These three traveled to Panama by plane, using connections made through their families’ businesses importing clothes and other goods from that country. There, other Haitians they met convinced them Costa Rica held more opportunities.
So they crossed the border and applied for refugee status, which they said they were later denied. They decided to stay anyway and are now applying for residency.
Because Haiti is on a list of countries where humanitarian conflicts make life dangerous, its inhabitants can enter Costa Rica without a visa and apply for refugee status, though it is not granted to all applicants, Immigration’s Bonilla explained.
In the meantime, a paper from Immigration showing that they’re in the process of trying to get residency keeps these three from being illegal, but doesn’t always stop suspicious police from questioning them, or even arresting them.
“The police sometimes arrest us and take us to jail for nothing … It bothers me because I haven’t done anything,” Beaubrun said, his characteristic smile never leaving his ebony face. These and other setbacks are taken in stride.
The other downside to being en trámite for residency is not being able to get a formal job, hence the food vending.
Many Haitians here make this their occupation, as evidenced by the clutter of vendors who congregate outside a small Haitian-owned warehouse on Avenida 8, where long plastic bags of potato chips and gelatin tubes are distributed and half-empty ones are stored overnight.
The work is tiring and far from lucrative. On a good day, one can earn ¢3,500 (about $7); a bad day brings in only ¢2,000 (about $4).
“It’s just a common job. You have to walk a lot to sell a lot and I don’t like to walk very much,” Auguste said.
Still, food vendors can earn enough to cover basic costs of living. Along with a few others, these three rent an apartment in Plaza Víquez. Money sent from family members living in Miami, Florida, pays for them to attend university and also made their trip to Panama possible.
“A lot of people see us in the street here and they think we’re illiterate or uneducated or they think we’re illegal,” Auguste said, explaining that in fact, the opposite is true.
Getting out of Haiti requires resources most Haitians don’t have; those that make the trip are well off financially or receive help from foreign remittances, he said.
“In our country, we see these people too in the streets selling things, but we would never do it, this isn’t our job,” Auguste said.
Tall, quieter Larousse laughs and adds, “I have to work to pay to get my residency, and I have to live. I can’t rob. That’s not my profession.”
Despite some Costa Ricans’ misperceptions of Haitian snack vendors, Auguste said Ticos are “good people”who treat them well.
“A lot of Ticos come up and say, ‘thank you for how you are behaving in my country and for what you are doing,’” Beaubrun added.
Eventually, these three young men plan to return to Haiti, where most of their families remain. But for now, they trudge on through the days of selling and studying, with camaraderie and good natures to help them along.