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Untold Stories at the Costa Rica/Nicaragua Border at Penas Blancas; The Cuban Crisis

Costa Rica News – Anyone thinking about making that visa run to Nicaragua might want to hold off for a little while until the Cuban Refugee Crisis at the border has been resolved.  This is a story from our own Isabella Foster Villanueva of her experience on her final visa run.

When it’s the week of your wedding and you get stuck in a refugee center

It’s not as simple as “just get married and stay in the country.” First, I’m a romantic and wanted to get married for love and not papers. Second, it takes a lot of paperwork and a lot of processing time before a marriage certificate turns into a cedula. So I found myself on a bus to Nicaragua again, seeking to get what should be the last Costa Rican visa I ever need. I sat there thinking just six more hours and I’ll be at the border. Then just an hour more and I’ll be on my way back, visa in hand. Little did I know that during the week when I am to get married I would get stuck in a refugee center.

costa rica cuban refugee crisis nicaragua border 1How it happened:

I arrived at the window to get my exit stamp and was told in a very calm voice, as if it is normal, that Nicaragua is closed. I ask for a little elaboration and am told that there is a Cuban immigration crisis and Nicaragua has decided that no one can come in or out. I ask what to do and they encourage me to just wait, explaining that if I go to any of the nearby towns I will find that the hotels are full because of the crisis. The best thing to do is wait with everyone because there is power in numbers, they explain, and either Nicaragua will have to open or Costa Rica will have to provide for the basic needs of all those stranded. Waiting will ensure that I have a roof and food. So I wait. Hours of waiting later, we are bused to refugee shelters. They make lists of 50 people and 50 are supposed to get on each bus. 100 or so got on each bus because we all wanted to get out of there. We wait on the bus until getting the ok to go to the shelter. They want to get everyone who is already there settled before accepting us. We get off the bus to get some air before leaving and upon reboarding the bus we find that not everyone who got off can get on. There are people in every crevice of the bus. One man volunteered to wait for the next bus, so the doors could be shut. The shelter provided for the basic needs of the people and I am thankful we didn’t have to sleep outside in the cold. The Cubans of the group are now used to shelter conditions and had learned some tricks to meet more than basic needs, such as creating showers where there are none. They are quite the resourceful group. In the morning I found that the border was still closed. Many people stayed at the border rather than the shelters overnight and they went looking for food in the morning. The one restaurant there ran out of both food and drinks. As that announcement was being made the border reopened but not for the Cubans. I don’t know the rest of their story but I hope they are now on their way north or that they find opportunities here in Costa Rica.

What kind of country…(tribute to Nicaragua’s government)?

Disclosure before the rant: I have met many Nicaraguans and liked them all. They are, in general, kind, hardworking and empathetic. It is the government, not the regular people, that is problematic.

What kind of country shuts its borders to its own people?

What most reporters failed to report was that it wasn’t only Cubans who were shut out of Nicaragua (as if that wasn’t bad enough!). There were people from all over the world with plans to enter Nicaragua and Nicaragua was closed. I met a Nicaraguan lady and I was surprised to find out that not even she was allowed in. It was the last day of her Costa Rican visa’s validity and she planned to do the right thing and leave the country on time, but it wasn’t possible. Nor was it possible for her to go to the shelter because that would require travel in Costa Rica and without a visa valid for the next day she would be turned back. Her own country left her stranded with no option but to sleep outside or enter one of the countries illegally. She followed the laws even though the laws made no sense. She spent the night outside.

What kind of country greets a calm group of LEGAL immigrants with tear gas and turns away hungry children and seniors? What kind of country conveniently ignores international human rights (ok, probably every country…but that doesn’t make it excusable)?

In my opinion, legal or illegal, refugee immigrants should be welcomed and helped in any country. I know there are many facets to consider in any social problem but we must keep in mind that the problems are the reasons people are leaving their countries and the difficulties faced in and by the countries they arrive in. The people are not the social problem. When governments disagree and systems are strained the people are still human and still have needs we are all responsible to meet. I sure was glad to be on the Costa Rican side of the border when this mess went down. A big thanks to the patient border workers and police, the Red Cross, the National and Municipal Committees of Emergencies, the guard that gave me great advice regarding going to the shelter and the lady who woke me up to give me a blanket. There are good people in the world. If only the governments could be like the regular people.

The thankful spirit of Cubans

Cubans are great people. They were nice to me and I wish them well. They just want a chance to live free. They are hard workers, caring, kind and positive in the face of a terrible situation. I’ve never seen such a calm and happy group in a bad situation. They have quite the sense of community and even welcomed those of us from other places who were also stranded, even the Nicaraguans, despite the actions of their government.

Let’s make a movie

Anyone out there want to make a part 2 of the movies The Terminal or Lista de Espera?

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