How Big An Issue Is Xenophobia In Costa Rica?

I’ll go right out on a limb and say this. Costa Rica is a xenophobic country and I have a serious issue with that.

It’s not the only xenophobic country by a long shot. All countries are xenophobic to some extent or another. One can encounter xenophobia all over the place, and Lord knows my country of birth isn’t perfect. Neither is yours.

But for a country priding itself on “pura vida”, when xenophobia rears its ugly head, the optics appear worse. In fact, they appear downright hypocritical. When you have a country that relies on tourism and is always talking about how peaceful and happy it is, hating on foreigners is a tad ridiculous.

Even if those foreigners are from Nicaragua.

There have always been lots of Nicaraguans in Costa Rica, at least since I showed up here back in 2000.

And since then, there have always been tensions over this. One of my initials culture shocks in Costa Rica was the casual, wanton xenophobia displayed towards Nicaraguans on an everyday basis.

I recall my shock at watching a crowd of grown men shouting “fuera Nicas” (get out Nicas) at a woman and her daughter while I was waiting for a bus in San Jose in 2002 or 2003. I remember this so well because I was – and still am – ashamed I did nothing to help that poor woman. Neither did anyone else, but that doesn’t excuse my inaction.

Then there was the time, a year or two later when police dogs mauled a Nicaraguan to death while the handlers stood around and watched, doing nothing.  

As appalling as that was, I remember being more appalled by the jokes about it. People laughed about dog food quality.

Anyone who remembers this incident will say the Nicaraguan was breaking into a property, which was true. But does that justify the Ramsay Bolton treatment?

I’m positive if it were a Costa Rican thief, there would have been far greater outrage.

Except there are no Costa Rican thieves in the mind of the Costa Rican xenophobe. All criminals here are foreigners and all Costa Ricans are precious innocent flowers. Even the press pushes this narrative every chance it gets.

Over the years, I guess I’ve become numb to this narrative.

I’ve heard it from countless people. Taxi drivers (taxi drivers are always the most bigoted assholes in any city in the world) and shop assistants and colleagues and social media and personal friends. All talking smack about Nicaraguans. Hating on Nicas is as normal in Costa Rica as gallo pinto.

If I had not spent so much time in Nicaragua – more time than most xenophobic Ticos, for sure – I might even have believed the narrative myself.

Let’s not give the Nicas all the hate, though. They get most of it, sure, but the Colombians come second. All Colombians are narcos, obviously. Costa Rica has no Tico drug dealers. The Costa Rican youth is a noble species corrupted by evil Colombians and now the Mexicans and Venezuelans as well.

Before you tell me it’s the same in the US or wherever, it’s worth repeating that the US (or wherever) doesn’t claim to be the Happiest Country In The World with a pura vida lifestyle every chance it gets. That’s a major difference right there. It’s about walking the walk not talking the talk. It’s about the hypocrisy.

So now we come to this weekend and some of the most disgraceful scenes I’ve observed in my almost two decades in Costa Rica.    

The center of San Jose was taken over by a bunch of bigots shouting “fuera Nicas” at Nicaraguan refugees who’d fled from the brutal regime of Daniel Ortega.

The same two words a previous, but a smaller bunch of bigots yelled at a mother and daughter all those years ago while I watched in disgust doing nothing.

I guess the more things change the more they stay the same, right?

Anyway, these latest bigots, in a display reminiscent of Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, went nuts in the center of town.  

It was more insults and chants than physical violence but so what? It was the most shameful thing I’ve ever heard of here.

There was nothing spontaneous about this incident. It was a planned action fueled by lies and rabble-rousers on social media. There were arrests and police found knives, baseball bats, and Molotov cocktails.

More shameful still is the support these people are getting.      

I already mentioned xenophobia against Nicaraguans is normal in Costa Rica so I guess it’s natural many people tacitly support them.

Social media is calling them “patriots” and “heroes”. There is a denial of xenophobia and a robust defense that these protests are against crime, nada mas. Which is xenophobic in itself. Because all Nicaraguans are criminals, even those who have escaped from Ortega’s death squads in search of refuge and safety.

Costa Rican president Carlos Alvarado called for peace over the weekend, saying most immigrants into Costa Rica are good people.    

I wish he’d apologized on behalf of all decent people who live in Costa Rica for what happened. I would have done. And yes, there are many decent people here who abhor what is going on.

But Carlos Alvarado is about the last person many of these people would listen to. Another audible chant this weekend from the xenophobes was “fuera Alvarado”. It’s safe to say if you’re in a march to intimidate and make refugees unwelcome you won’t like Carlos Alvarado much.  You’ll probably like Fabricio Alvarado more.

Since Daniel Ortega started murdering his people in April, over twenty thousand Nicaraguans have sought asylum in Costa Rica.  

I admit that’s a lot, especially when added to those already here doing the jobs many Ticos think is beneath them.

But if Costa Rica is truly the Happiest Country In The World or the Switzerland Of Central America or the Land Of Eternal Pura Vida like it sells itself to the world to be, then surely part of that is compassion and a welcoming spirit?

Surely it’s wrong to see displays of aggression and hatred in our capital city against those less fortunate? Where is the pura vida in that?

Many people saw Carlos Alvarado’s election victory as proof positive that Costa Rica is a tolerant, progressive society. Alvarado beat a bigoted religious fanatic in Fabricio whose only platform was his hatred of the LGBT community.

Carlos prevailed because people realized Fabricio was a one-trick pony with nothing other than same-sex marriage to talk about. He was a joke.

But the joke is on us if we think Fabricio’s defeat proved Costa Rica’s tolerance.    

This weekend is proof of that.

People are still as homophobic and xenophobic as ever before. Having a nice guy as the president doesn’t mean the dark side has gone, and you’re naïve if you think so. All it means is that the sane person won the election. This time.

Next time, the bigots and the xenophobes might well put up someone smarter and better prepared than Fabricio Alvarado. Someone who’s comfortable across all the talking points. And after the scenes this weekend, it’s possible that candidate might well win.

Pura vida.

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James Dyde is the editor of CentralAmerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.