Costa Rica Nicaragua

How COVID-19 Reignited 150 Years of Border Disputes Between Nicaragua and Costa Rica

On May 18, 2020, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega closed the country’s Northern border and blamed the decision on the neighboring nation of Costa Rica. This decision was a response to a procedure implemented by Costa Rican authorities on May 5th that called for the detention of all vehicles entering the country in order to test their drivers for COVID-19. Specifically, this measure aims to prevent the entry of foreign drivers into the country and to reduce the spread of the virus. When a driver approaches the border, a border patrol officer administers him a RT-PCR test that takes between 24 and 72 hours to process, and the driver must wait at the border until the test results are available. Only those that test negative are granted entry into the country. However, since the measure’s implementation earlier this month, testing has prevented 50 carriers that tested positive for COVID-19 from entering the country. 

Tensions rose on Friday, May 15th, when a new policy was introduced in which foreign truckers transporting goods through Costa Rica that tested positive for COVID-19 were asked to transfer their goods to a Costa Rican driver who would convey the cargo to its destination. This policy incensed President Oretga who in turn closed the Nicaraguan border through Peñas Blancas and held a press conference in which he blamed Costa Rica for the closure. This closure is significant because Peñas Blancas is home to Costa Rica’s Exports Processing Center and facilitates most trade coming from the North.


In a press conference, Ortega revealed that 382 Guatemalan vehicles, 284 vehicles from El Salvador, 62 from Honduras, 93 from Nicaragua, and 103 from Costa Rica have been waiting outside of the border along Peñas Blancas. Ortega also claimed that all of Central America has been affected by Costa Rica’s testing procedures and alleged decision to close the border. 

As of May 22, 2020, Costa Rica has 903 confirmed cases of Coronavirus, 592 of which have made full recoveries, and 10 total deaths. On the other hand, Nicaragua has reported 25 confirmed cases and 8 deaths. However, many health officials suspect that Nicaraguan cases are significantly underreported because Ortega has neglected to implement the social distancing procedures that most other nations have. In addition, many Nicaraguans have recently spoken to the media about how the virus is actually quite prevalent in the country despite the virus’ incidence that is officially reported.


Truck stop in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy, Prensa Libre.


Nicaragua is not the only country that retaliated against Costa Rica’s testing procedures; Costa Rica’s southern neighbor, Panama, closed its shared border with the country as well. However, Panama and Costa Rica reached an agreement shortly after Panama’s border closure that established three options for Panamanian carriers that need to cross through Costa Rica. The first option is that Panamanian transit carriers can have 72 hours to deliver goods as long as they follow a GPS monitored, sanitary route that includes several checkpoints, a police escort, and a pre-designated drop off location. The second option is for these carriers to stop at the Costa Rican border and transfer their cargo into a Costa Rican vehicle for delivery. A third and final option is for Panamanians to circumvent Costa Rica altogether and pursue a route that goes through Nicaragua. After establishing these restrictions with Panama, the Costa Rican Minister of Foreign Trade, Dyalá  Jiménez, urged Nicaragua to reopen its border and accept the same limitations in order to restore regional trade. Jiménez also called for the Secretariat of Central American Economic Integration to mandate a regional trade protocol that facilitates the safe and sanitary movement of goods within the region.

While the pandemic is the root of Costa Rica and Nicaragua’s current border dispute, the two countries have a long history of similar disagreements. The first known contention dates back to 1856 when Nicaragua and Costa Rica were both vying for sovereignty over the San Juan River. Two years later, the Cañas-Jerez Treaty granted Nicaragua dominion over the river while allowing Costa Rica the right to navigate through a specific part of the river for trade purposes. 


Oscar Navarrete / IPS


This debate was reignited in 1998 when Nicaragua forbade the Costa Rican police from using the river as well as decided to tax ships that carried Costa Rican tourists through the San Juan. Nicaragua reasoned that both police and tourists are not items that can be traded, so using the river for such purposes would violate the Cañas-Jerez Treaty. The issue escalated to such an extent that the International Court of Justice settled the matter in 2009 when it expanded Costa Rica’s river rights to include travel for the purpose of commerce. 


Photo, courtesy, Wall Street Journal.


Border disputes are not the only reason that Costa Rica and Nicaragua have had a rocky relationship; the two countries have experienced discord in recent years due to the migration of thousands of Nicarguans to Costa Rica in order to escape Ortega’s dictatorial regime. Ortega has always been a controversial figure in Nicaraguan politics. After being involved in a bank robbery in 1967, Ortega was exiled to Cuba. However, he returned five years later to join the victorious Sandinista military junta of 1979. Due to his integral role in the junta, he was elected president of Nicaragua in 1984. After his first term, he ran for reelection and lost, but he remained an influential figure in Nicaraguan politics by championing the poor and remaining loyal to the Sandinista National Liberation Front. In 2006, he regained the presidency, and he has been in power ever since. However, his reign has been a controversial one for a number of reasons, one of which being his restriction of media coverage and freedom of speech following his assumption of the office in 2007. Ortega also consolidated power by making a congressional amendment to rescind the presidential term limit, making his wife his vice president, and maximizing Sandinista influence in the country.

Over the years, Ortega’s regime has developed into an oppressive dictatorship. According to Human Rights Watch, since Ortega took office in 2007, his “government has aggressively dismantled all institutional checks on presidential power” by removing political parties and opposition lawmakers from the Electoral Council. Nicaraguans who oppose Ortega are regarded as enemies of the state and are actively persecuted by the authorities; Ortega and the Sandinista aim to imprison insurgents or drive them out of the country. These attitudes heightened in April of 2018 when Ortega announced a social security reform that increased taxes and cut benefits. The peaceful protests throughout the nation were met with violence and police brutality that resulted in the deaths of 30 people in 5 days. As a result of this incident, thousands of Nicaraguans have fled to Costa Rica in order to escape Ortega’s persecution and injustice. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees , roughly 55,000 Nicaraguans have sought refuge in Costa Rica since Ortega’s 2018 crackdown.


Photo Courtesy, Javier Bauluz.


With that said, Nicaraguans account for roughly 15% of Costa Rica’s population and about 75% of its foreign population, according to World Population Overview. Nicaraguans play an integral role in Costa Rican society, primarily by contributing to the country’s workforce. Costa Rica is one of the wealthiest nations in Central America and has the third largest GDP; the country’s strong economy is ultimately successful because it relies on the cheap domestic labor that Nicaraguans provide. 

Despite their dependence on Nicaraguan labor, some Costa Ricans have developed xenophobic and racist attitudes towards Nicaraguans. For example, common stereotypes that some Costa Ricans perpetuate are that Nicaraguans are poor, uneducated, and lazy delinquents. There is also a paranoia among some Costa Ricans that Nicaraguans will steal their jobs; in many ways, these beliefs parallel those held by the United States about Mexico. With that said, a significant number of Costa Rican citizens and politicians have called for a crackdown on illegal immigration in order to neutralize the perceived threat to the Costa Rican workforce.

In August of 2018, following the influx of Nicaraguan refugees that occurred earlier that year, Costa Rican xenophobia reached its culmination. After hearing reports that Nicaraguan refugees residing in the Parque de la Merced were preventing tourist activity around the park, the Ministry of Public Security sent the police to raid the park and expel the migrants from it. 78 Nicaraguan refugees that had no place to stay were taken to a detention center after the incident. While the raid was occurring, Costa Ricans gathered around the park to encourage the police and shout racist slurs at the migrants. 


Photo Courtesy, Washington Post (Jeffrey Arguedas//Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock)


Although the xenophobia manifested in the Parque de la Merced incident is prevalent in Costa Rica, not all citizens share the same prejudice. A week after the raid, hundreds of student organizations and human rights activism groups marched in San Jose towards the Plaza of Democracy to establish solidarity with Nicaraguan migrants and refugees. The marchers wanted to let the Nicaraguans know that they appreciate their contributions to Costa Rica and that they oppose the injustice that was displayed eight days prior. While they marched, the crowd chanted phrases such as: “In Costa Rica, solidarity is more” as well as “Ticos and Nicas are brothers.” As they saw the protest, many Nicaraguans joined in and marched through San Jose. In response to the peaceful protest, a Nicaraguan migrant participant said, “Today, we are here to thank Costa Rica for receiving us. We know that there are less people that hate us migrants than there are hands supporting us.”


Photo Courtesy, AFP.


With this said, it is evident that the pandemic has exacerbated an ongoing, multidimensional feud between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Perhaps this shared history accounts for their difficulty to reach an agreement about how to resolve the present border dispute. However, as evidenced in the march against xenophobia, some themes, such as humanitarianism, transcend regional conflict and strained bilateral relationships. Hopefully, a concern for the wellbeing of both populations can lead President Ortega and President Quesada to undertake a collaborative effort to draft a Coronavirus testing and trade route procedure that will be mutually beneficial. This endeavor has the potential to reconcile both countries’ differences and to engender future opportunities for collaboration and diplomacy.



Zenia Grzebin | Wake Forest University
Zenia is a rising Junior at Wake Forest University who is pursuing majors in Politics and International Affairs & Spanish as well as a minor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, Zenia became interested in Latin American and Spanish Studies through her travels to Costa Rica and Spain. In the summer of 2019, she conducted research on international relations and Spanish domestic politics for La Asosiación Profesional de Sociología de Castilla y León. On campus, Zenia is active in organizations such as Project Pumpkin and HerCampus as well as a member of the Sigma Delta Pi Spanish Honor Society. She is looking forward to working with Latina Republic to amplify marginalized voices and learn more about issues affecting Latin America.