The COVID-19 pandemic arrived, and people looked for someone to blame. In Costa Rica, amid a second wave of cases that is now growing exponentially, one of the parties frequently pointed to as responsible for the problem is the Nicaraguans immigrant community. Xenophobia against them has increased.
In a country of five million inhabitants, of which fewer than half a million are of Nicaraguan origin, expressions of xenophobia are nothing new. However, in the context of the health crisis, many of the comments on social media and in daily conversations point fingers at “the Nicas”, who cross the border at unmarked crossings and bring the virus with them.
Others accuse those living in the tenement rooms of the capital city of San Jose. Living in close quarters, these impoverished immigrants infect each other, causing a cascading increase in the city’s cases. Up until July 13, the total number of cases in Costa Rica had risen to 8,036, of which 2,370, 29.49%, involved foreigners.
La Voz de Guanacaste in Costa Rica and the Interferencia Radio network from the University of Costa Rica, together with the Nicaraguan news site Confidencial, organized a virtual talk on the increase in xenophobia in Costa Rica and how to counteract it. This effort is part of the investigation “A Sketch of the Border”, in which a binational team of journalists visited eleven points along the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica to paint a verbal picture of how the border towns are experiencing the pandemic. Increased xenophobia was one of the recurring topics among the subjects interviewed.
For the internet event, Cynthia Castro, a psychologist specializing in human behavior, and Carlos Sandoval, a researcher specializing in migration and affiliated with the University of Costa Rica, were interviewed by Maria Fernanda Cruz, editor of “La Voz de Guanacaste” and Hulda Miranda, a journalist from the Interferencia program.
We all have biases
Cynthia Castro explained that all of us have biases, be they explicit or implicit. What has changed with the pandemic, she stated, “is social permission to express those biases.”
In Costa Rica, today we see more people “verbalizing their prejudice towards certain populations.”
Prejudice towards immigrants isn’t new, but at this time there’s a social justification for expressing them, she stated. Add to that the fact that virtual spaces like the social networks raise the grade of aggressiveness with which they’re manifested.
Carlos Sandoval spoke of the historical motives behind the rejection of foreigners. The concepts of migration and migrants arose with the decision of different States to create borders to define their sovereignty. Paradoxically, he explained, the border areas themselves is where said concepts have the least importance.
“The spot where the line passes is so arbitrary that – ironically – the border has more relevance in countries’ political centers than in the geographic zones we call border areas,” noted Sandoval.
Interviews of border region inhabitants during the special investigation of the zone revealed this irony. Those who form part of the cross-border communities between Nicaragua and Costa Rica lived and related to each other with no thought given to the border, until the pandemic drew a hard and fast line that interrupted their daily lives.
Rejection of the poor?
In Costa Rica, as in other countries, society establishes “categories” within the foreign populations residing in the county. There are the “ex-pats”, the “investors” and the migrants. The latter are mainly Nicaraguan, and they’re often poor – not all of them, but more than in other groups. That was Sandoval’s response to the question about the relationship between rejection of foreigners to the discrimination against the poor.
Not all foreigners are perceived equally. “Costa Rica, in relative terms, has one of the highest percentages of immigrants from the United States in proportion to the native population,” he exemplified. “But those US residents that live in the North Pacific area (one of the most touristic zones of the country) are called “investors”.
It’s a very selective notion that has to do with social class and skin color. “There are some Nicaraguans that ‘aren’t Nicas’,” he noted. The concept of migrant “is a selective term and has a face of poverty,” he affirmed.
The discourse on pandemic management can feed xenophobia
The conversation also considered the importance of the official discourse from governments and the media regarding management of the pandemic. Cynthia Castro warned of the dangers of speaking about “the war against the Coronavirus”.
“When they speak of a war, there’s a need to find someone to blame. In war, there must be an enemy. But here, we’re facing a virus that’s invisible, and it’s something very abstract. Secondly, war requires action, requires that you struggle against someone. When they tell me to stay at home, to remain passive in the face of a war, on a psychological level that’s very complicated. We fall into situations where, for example, instead of being indignant about social and economic inequalities that lead people to live in conditions like the ones that exist in the tenement rooms, what we do is transform the people who live in those rooms into the enemy,” Castro said.
The psychologist also warned that, in the context of a pandemic, the discourse about protecting the tribe increases our fear of the other and the need to make them responsible for all the problems that occur.
In place of that, she recommended using the metaphor of a journey, seeing the pandemic as a journey that requires teamwork, the opposite of the war metaphor that requires there to be winners and losers.
How can you distinguish between data and xenophobia?
The Ministry of Health issues a daily epidemiological report of the Coronavirus situation in Costa Rica. In that report, a distinction is made between cases occurring in those of national origin and of foreign descent. Carlos Sandoval explained that from an epidemiological point of view, there’s a logic of traceability, to be able to find the outbreaks, or the public health point of view, that requires identifying the cases to understand the phenomenon.
Nonetheless, that distinction also has a “deliberately derogative, hostile and aggressive” use. Although the percentage of the Nicaraguan population living in Costa Rica is less than 10%, the percentage of foreigners infected with the Coronavirus is up to 30%. Sandoval noted: “that’s a reality that merits explanation. However, behind that 30% is an enormous inequality that we can’t name. Since we don’t have the narrative to speak of inequality, the replacement is the talk about foreigners. The real question is – Why have they had so many positive results?”
Among several answers, Sandoval pointed out, is “the enormous irresponsibility” of Daniel Ortega’s government in Nicaragua, which hasn’t adopted any measures of physical distancing, and has even promoted crowd events.
On the other hand, he also brought to the table the “irresponsibility of some of the agricultural export companies who have concentrated on their need for workers and given no importance to the human beings working, The container going to Brussels, Amsterdam, must be filled, and the fruit is there, the fruit: the pineapple that Costa Rica is now famous for, together with the coffee and the bananas.. And the rest doesn’t interest them.”
How can xenophobia be cured?
We’re lacking a positive narrative that combats xenophobia, such as the notion of the interdependence of our geography, history and economy,” theorized Carlos Sandoval. “Nicaraguans produce eleven percent of our gross national product. With the coffee harvest, the realization that we need those we reject is going to come to light.” Sandoval here was referring to the more than 70,000 foreign pickers that Costa Rica is soon going to need to collect their harvests.
Breaking through prejudices when there’s no opening to listen to the data is complicated, Cynthia Castro noted. People don’t follow the data as much as the stories. “It only takes one story of a migrant committing a crime to make a generalization.”
“There are a lot of myths about the Nicas that have been debunked, but there are people who don’t want to listen. We consume information based on the biases we have, and that only confirms our biases,” she added.
Humanizing and telling the stories of these people that many times are stereotyped and stop being people [in our minds] can be a way to question those prejudices, she felt.
“We’re not as rational as we think. The invitation is for all people to be aware that we have biases.”
Nicaraguan migrants in the Costa Rican imagination
Sandoval feels that there hasn’t been enough discussion about migration, and that it should be made more visible in social circles and not just in academic ones. “It intrigues me that we still don’t have a novel about migration, for example, the kind that an eighth-grade student would read.”
Support for this should be coming from different sectors. “We need different language from the private sector, from the churches.” Sandoval regretted the removed and distant position of the Catholic Church about these topics; in conservative neo-Christian groups, there are those who are very concerned for life “at conception” (…) “but once that life is born, they worry little or not at all about that life.”
Castro coincided about the need to humanize the migrant community. It’s important that the media generate contacts, make them visible, touch people’s emotions.
“How many of the foreign-born population are right now working in the hospitals, for example, or guaranteeing the country’s food security? That’s what most promotes changes in our unconscious biases, more than data or training sessions,” she pointed out.
Critical reflection from Costa Rican society
To eliminate xenophobia, Sandoval also believes that it’s important for Costa Rican society to recognize that this hostility dates way back. Costa Rican xenophobia “increased after the Sandinista Revolution of 1979. That was forty years ago… There was a discussion 25 years ago about whether the Nicaraguans could be spreading cholera in Costa Rica…”
“One irony of Costa Rican society is that we call ourselves a peaceful society, but there’s a great potential for it to be authoritarian and aggressive. It’s a trait that we should be paying a lot of attention to,” he warned.
“We need to reinvent our sense of nationality. We have this idea that we’re homogeneous and we’re exceptional… It’s taught to us unconsciously, by not speaking about those of Nicaraguan origin. There are so many binational families going many years back, but those stories aren’t spoken of. The idea that we’re homogenous is reinforced, when in reality we’re a society that has changed a lot,” he argued.
What can the Nicas do?
For both specialists, this was one of the most difficult questions to answer.
Cynthia Castro pointed out that the Nicaraguan community in Costa Rica has a right to feel indignant when there’s a xenophobic attack, but she invited them to take a step back. “It would be good if those people could be the ones building bridges and not contributing to the conflict. They don’t have an obligation to educate the other person, but the best thing would be to take a more distant perspective.”
Carlos Sandoval advised constructing the story of our brother and sisterhood. “It’s not a matter of reclaiming Nicaraguan nationalism, the way Arnoldo Aleman used to say: “the San Juan river is Nicaraguan”, but of recognizing what we have in common,” he concluded.