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Borders, Commerce, and COVID-19: The Tense Relations between Costa Rica and Nicaragua

For this week’s #GLOVicariously webinar, we were joined by Javier Argueda, site co-director for GESI Costa Rica. Argueda was introduced by GESI 2019 Costa Rica alum, Safal Dumre. Dumre emphasized that in addition to being very accomplished, Argueda was an excellent host to show the richness of Tican cuisine, landscape and culture.

Argueda explained that in order to understand the reactions to COVID-19 by the Costa Rican and Nicaraguan governments, it’s imperative to first understand the history of the existing tense relationship, escalated by the ongoing pandemic. When COVID-19 started growing in Costa Rica in May 2019, Nicaraguan truck drivers were subject to the government of Costa Rica’s restriction on land cargo. The borders were blocked for nine days, and lines of trucks formed for over 10 miles on both sides of the border. With 20% of goods in Central America transported by land, this restriction resulted in huge economic losses. The biggest problem though, was that drivers were bringing COVID-19 with them across the border. “Nicaragua had not taken the required health measures to contain COVID-19, and therefore almost every truck driver was indeed infected. They continued doing their work. Upon arriving to Costa Rica, they were tested,” explains Argueda.

How can such close neighbors encounter such drastically different realities? The answer lies in the past 50 years of societal and governmental priorities. “Costa Rica became the first country in the world to abolish the army, a situation the transformed the role of the state. That money instead was used for social investment, like healthcare and infrastructure,” says Argueda.  “I always say I am the result of this situation. My grandfather was one of the poorest guys in Costa Rica. But the state provided ways to live better. My grandfather lived better than his father, my father lived better than his father, and I have lived better than them all.”

However, in this time period of exciting social growth for Costa Rica, Nicaragua was experiencing a harshly different reality. While Costa Rica was investing in society, Nicaragua was ruled by one family- the Samozas. Argueda highlighted the five key cornerstones of the Samoza family that contributed to the contrasting situation in Nicaragua:

  • Authoritarian government: “The Samoza family had political prisoners in the basement cells of their presidential palace. These were just regular people- social workers, professors- who did not agree with the regime.”
  • Social exclusion: “For 50 years, this family ruled Nicaragua, and they were very violent. This situation produced social exclusion. There was the rich family, and the rest of Nicaragua lived in poverty,” continues Argueda.
  • Military hierocracy: Political and economic control
  • Alliance of the US: This recent history was during the Cold War. “In this cold war, the US was very interested in maintaining control of the region, the “backyard” as many people say. The US supported this situation,” says Argueda.
  • Violation of Human Rights: Living among egregious violations of human rights, Nicaraguans look to neighboring countries to search for a better life.  

Within Costa Rica,10% of the population are immigrants. Of that 10% immigrate population, 97% are Nicaraguans. COVID-19 cases in Costa Rica are 27% attributed to foreigners, giving way to increased xenophobia. Many outbreaks have been among the most vulnerable populations, living in dire conditions or poor working conditions. “The finger is pointed at Nicaraguans- not the Costa Rican owners who are actually responsible for the poor living conditions that keep vulnerable populations vulnerable,” implores Argueda. “The problem is NOT Nicaraguans- it’s the conditions they are forced to live in. It brings up xenophobia we already had.”

After laying out the historical context, Arguedas summarized by drawing parallels between Costa Rica and the United States. “The populations that have been historically marginalized in the US and in Costa Rica are the most affected. COVID brings out the best and worst of humankind. On one hand, it shows the solidarity of the communities towards those most in need. On the other hand, it reaffirms how our current economic system is a system based on social exclusion.”


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About #GLOVicariously Webinar Series:

Amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing anti-racism protests, global engagement across difference and development of intercultural skills are critically needed to build a more just and peaceful world. We want to continue fostering global learning opportunities for students throughout this summer 2020 through our virtual webinar series, #GLOVicariously. #GLOVicariously webinars feature speakers involved in GLO programs who have expertise on a variety of critical global issues. View upcoming #GLOVicariously webinars.