(Part III in Fusion’s special series on Cubans’ 5,000-mile trek to freedom. Full series at the bottom)
PEÑAS BLANCAS, Costa Rica—Nicaragua’s southern border has become an unusually crowded place in recent days.
Thousands of road-weary Cubans of all ages congregate under malinche trees, compete for the limited shade of awnings, and hang their hand-washed clothes on the fence to catch some afternoon sunrays before the evening brings another tropical downpour that turns everything to soup.
It looks like a refugee tent city, only without the tents.
Since Nicaragua militarized its border last Sunday to prevent Cubans from continuing their 5,000-mile journey to the United States, the frontier along northern Costa Rica has become a bizarro “Little Havana.”
And similar to its namesake, it’s a place Cubans aren’t allowed to leave.
The standoff on the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border started on Sunday when Sandinista riot police and soldiers fired tear gas and swung bone-crunching truncheons to repel a wave of some 2,000 Cubans “defectors” who were trying to cross the border from Costa Rica. Since then, the Sandinistas have maintained a 24-hour military patrol on their border, while the number of Cubans has swelled to nearly 3,000. Many of the sick and elderly have been moved to Costa Rican shelters as frustrations flare on the border.
“They are communists, just like in Cuba! This is Cuba by another name!” yells Celia Sanchez, waving an angry hand towards the stone-faced Sandinista soldiers. “We were the ones who sent doctors and teachers to Nicaragua to help the revolution. We taught them how to read and write because they were illiterate. Now they’re biting the hand that fed them.”
The scene here is almost comically lopsided. On the north side of the fenceline, Sandinista police and soldiers dressed in jungle camo hold the line with riot shields and AK-47s. Facing them, close enough to make eye-contact, is an unintimidating group of Costa Rican police officers carrying water bottles and wearing neon-striped Kevlar vests that make them look like crossing guards.
The Costa Rican cops are woefully out-gunned and out-muscled. But ultimately they might be better dressed for the occasion.
“We just want to cross. This problem could be resolved in 24 hours if they just let us through,” a Cuban man named Hector tells me. “No one wants to stay in Nicaragua, we just want to continue on. We don’t want problems; we’re willing to pay for transit visas to cross legally, but there’s no turning back for us.”
The Cubans can’t go home, they can’t stay on the border, and they can’t advance— at least not legally. Some have tried to hire local smugglers to sneak them across the border and on to Honduras. A group of 15 Cubans was caught by Nicaraguan soldiers and returned to Costa Rica on Tuesday morning after their coyote abandoned them in southern Nicaragua.
The border bottleneck is turning the Cuban emigration problem into a legitimate refugee crisis. And it’s one that’s threatening to destabilize Central America.
The Sandinista government has blamed Costa Rica of violating its sovereignty and causing a “serious crisis” at the border by “forcing” undocumented Cubans into their territory, even though some 20,000 Cubans have already crossed through Nicaragua this year. That’s a conservative estimate based on the fact that 18,397 Cubans arrived in Texas during the first nine month of 2015, meaning more have crossed through Nicaragua because hundreds were deported along points further north in Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.
But Nicaragua is acting like this is a new thing. The Sandinista government is taking its gripe before The Central American Integration System (SICA), a toothless regional bureaucracy that farts about and has failed to resolve other regional crises in the past.
Costa Rica, meanwhile, is trying to organize a special summit of foreign ministers from all the countries between Ecuador and Mexico to develop a common safe-passage policy for the growing wave of Cubans hiking to the U.S. In the meantime, Tico authorities are struggling to attend to the basic needs of the Cubans piling up on the border.
Younger Cubans are chomping at the bit. Those calling for calm are having an increasingly hard time getting their voices heard over the din of those demanding action. (No subtitles are needed to understand this scene of frustration.)
“In the end we’re going to be the ones who lose if we try to force this situation or block the border for other people trying to cross, because we’re hurting the only people who have helped us [the Costa Ricans],” said David, the man in the yellow shirt, after managing to quiet the crowd long enough to hear him out. “We have to wait for the authorities to give us an answer, because Nicaragua is a military country, and we come from a military country so we know how these things work.”
After David managed to defuse the small crowd at the border fence, I pulled him aside and asked how long he gives the situation before the pot boils over. Three days, he said.
“There has to be a solution, right?! We can’t remain here forever,” he said.
So why is Nicaragua doing this now?
Nicaragua’s beef with the Cuban emigrants may seem curious to those who remember that the Sandinista revolution was aided by Cuban solidarity. But for the Sandinista government, which insists on calling itself “Christian, Socialist and in-Solidarity,” the Cubans who left the island for the U.S. are traitors who are unworthy of Nicaragua’s self-styled Christian solidarity.
“The Nicaraguan police called us counterrevolutionaries against Castro,” said Daniel Torres, who was part of the initial wave of Cubans who got pushed back into Costa Rica by Sandinista riot shields.
Some of the Cubans on the border suspect that Sandinista President Daniel Ortega closed the Nicaraguan border to islanders on the orders of Cuban President Raul Castro (so much for sovereignty). But as is often the case in Nicaragua, there’s no way of knowing what’s really going on behind the Sandinista curtain.
What does seem clear is that Nicaragua, which is in a long-standing border tiff with Costa Rica, has taken a martial delight in sending troops and guns to the frontier as a show of force. A Costa Rican border guard told me that the Nicaraguan soldiers conduct marching drills at certain times during the day, just to remind the Ticos which side has the army.
“I think this whole thing has more to do with problems between Costa Rica and Nicaragua than it does with us,” says Cuban emigrant Alain Carmona, 28.
Others think the Sandinistas closed their border because they’re afraid that the Cubans—as they did in the last ’70s—will give Nicaragua’s brow-beaten opposition the encouragement it needs to rise up against a repressive regime.
“The Nicaraguan government is afraid of us. We penetrated eight kilometers inside the country before they turned us back. The Nicaraguan people we met along the way are afraid of their government, but they came out of their homes to support us and bring food,” says Roberto, an outspoken young Cuban man. “The government is afraid that if the Nicaraguan people see us challenging the police, they’ll become more likely to rebel as well.”
Full Cuba Series:
- Exodus of Cubans walking to the US is quickly becoming the America’s own refugee crisis
- How Ecuador became the bizarre trailhead for Cubans hiking to the U.S.
- Can Nicaraguan soldiers stop the surge of Cubans heading to the U.S.
- Cubans flood Panamanian jungle in desperate overland push to the United States
- Texas welcomes Cubans finishing 5,000 mile hike through the Americas
- Nicaragua’s intransigence prevents regional solution to Cuban migrant crisis on Costa Rican border
- Ecuador imposes new visa requirements in attempt to stop flood tide of Cuban migrants
- Secret deal hatched to airlift 8,000 Cubans out of Costa Rica
- Stranded Cubans must pay $555 for airlift out of Central America
- Cuban traffic jam in Costa Rica has started to flow again