Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 352 | Noviembre 2010



The Latest Border Crisis: Bi-national Citizenship Revisited

The solution to the new disagreement between Costa Rica and Nicaragua over the River San Juan, this time due to Nicaragua’s planned dredging operation, is a bi-national dialogue, a bi-national agreement and a bi-national understanding. But we need to look beyond that legal and political proposal. We need to think about and work for a bi-national citizenship. This is what Nicaricans and Ticaraguans are calling for, reaching well beyond border-based nationalism.

José Luis Rocha

The Río San Juan is the sinuous strait discovered with premeditation and treachery by Spanish conquerors dreaming of a broad turquoise band of water that would lead them to India. It is also Nicaragua’s border zone with Costa Rica, a model of how successive Nicaraguan governments have left whole communities and municipalities in the hands of divine providence, not to mention hoards of pirates, filibusters and natural resource pillagers.

2005, 2007, 2009:
Other recent nationalist fervors

The ever-latent tensions between Nicaragua and Costa Rica over the Río San Juan have reactivated again as 2010 draws to an end. It’s the second time this has happened in the last five years, following on from September 2005 when Costa Rica tried to convince the Nicaraguan government to reinterpret the rights established in the old agreements and on failing to do so sought arbitration from the International Court of Justice in The Hague. It’s not clear what moved the Costa Rican government to adopt that measure at that particular moment. Perhaps it was seeking nationalist cohesion at a time when the country was divided by the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States, or maybe it was looking to exploit the permanent quarry of anti-Nicaraguan nationalism to bolster its legitimacy, eroded by economic deterioration and the soft justice meted out to two former Presidents accused of corruption. Or was it acting at the service of businesspeople interested in tourism in the area? Perhaps there were electoral reasons. Each is motivation enough by itself and the different possibilities aren’t mutually exclusive.

But the publicly recognized reason was that Costa Rica was claiming the right to supply its police posts along the bank on its side of the river with uniforms, rain capes, food, ammunition and arms, which can only be done by boat. So supplying the posts implied a revision of the Cañas-Jerez Treaty of April 15, 1858, which established that the river belongs exclusively to Nicaragua and Costa Ricans are only allowed free navigation along it for commercial purposes. Costa Rica was also asking for the concept of “commerce” to include tourism. At the time of both the treaty and the Cleveland Award—the arbitral decision thirty years later that ratified it—tourism was virtually nonexistent in the world. It is a new—and commercial concept—that the Costa Rican government wanted included in the reinterpretation of the Cleveland Award’s phrase “with the objects of commerce.”

Two years later, in October 2007, the International Court ruled on another border dispute and we suddenly stopped being the country we really are—fragmented by an “every man for himself” mentality—to become a compact nation that knew and defended its interests. This was catalyzed by the media-fabricated consensus over the Court’s ruling on the maritime limits between Honduras and Nicaragua.

This consensus was milked by three otherwise rival Presidents: Arnoldo Alemán, who filed the suit in 1999; Enrique Bolaños, who stuck with it throughout his wobbly administration; and Daniel Ortega, who enthusiastically applauded the ruling made after he had been elected President. The three set aside their bitter differences to welcome a verdict that was the culmination of eight years of deliberations. The neo-Somoza Right, the traditional elite and a Sandinista Left in name only melded into a strange tress decorating celebrations of this nationalist deed. The wasted talent, spent efforts and drained taxes—all worthy of greater causes—were spared a severe negative cost-benefit analysis. The “motherland” deserved everything lavished on it.

The media insisted it was a matter of capital importance to the country and the political elites talked in unison about national pride. Nobody mentioned the real costs or benefits of eight years of negotiations in The Hague, concealing the fact that the elites incubate fevers that those below have to sweat out. What bewitching threads were woven into that imaginary maritime barrier to convince five million Nicaraguans to applaud? And what did the ruling say about the possibility or impossibility of building citizenships that transcend borders?

2010: Dredging up a new conflict

In 2009, the revision of the agreements on the Río San Juan in The Hague confirmed Nicaragua’s ownership of the river. “The Río San Juan is Nicaraguan” proclaimed the International Court, echoing the stickers plastered on the walls of bars and corner shops in San Carlos, capital of the department of Río San Juan, located where the river starts, draining out of Lake Cocibolca, also known as Lake Nicaragua.

But thrusting a thorn into the heart of national sovereignty, the revision granted Costa Rica the right to navigation along a stretch of the river. The celebrations weren’t as resounding this time, nor did anyone ask about the effects of the judgment on the living conditions of Nicaraguans, Costa Ricans, Nicaricans and Ticaraguans who live and co-exist on the river’s two banks.

With the exception of occasional and unfortunate skirmishes, the post-2009 situation remained peaceful until the Nicaraguan government finally decided to dredge the river, choosing to put in charge of that necessary cleaning operation Edén Pastora Gómez, a legendary Sandinista guerrilla fighter who later turned against the FSLN government of the eighties, heading up the ARDE counterrevolutionary group based on Costa Rican soil. Now allied again with those he betrayed, this colorful operetta character—a permanent misfit in national history with aspirations of being a presidential possibility, the new Ché Guevara, a businessman involved in shark fishing and mysterious light aircraft—has built up many enemies both in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

It would have been hard for the Nicaraguan government to have chosen an individual with fewer diplomatic, technical and community credentials. He displays no tact at all when dealing with the Costa Ricans and his capacity to direct the complicated dredging operations is based on pure improvisation and posturing. And he is the visitor least appreciated by the inhabitants of San Juan del Norte, where the river flows out into the sea and he has a small quarters and two motorboats.

When the Costa Ricans protested about the dredging operations, alarmed by the inevitable consequences of a reduction in the great flow of the Costa Rican and very tourist-oriented Río Colorado, Nicaraguan officials accused the Costa Rican farmers along the border of being involved in drug trafficking, which was the move that most irritated those local inhabitants, both Nicaraguan and Costa Rican. As one lady from the area put it, “The people in Managua don’t concern themselves with us people from San Juan del Norte. All they say over there is that we sell drugs; they have no idea of how we live or what we want.”

The Río San Juan
is liquid history

All Nicaraguan voices are again sounding in unison with the same refrain: the river is ours. It’s obvious what Daniel Ortega has to win from this, somewhat increasing his depleted legitimacy at least on this point, this watery line, by cultivating the kind of cohesion he hasn’t obtained in any other area. But why is everyone joining in the chorus, with no dissident voices heard from either the right or the left of the political spectrum, not among extremists or moderates, fanatics or skeptics? Why do conflicts over the limits of our waters with Honduras and Colombia, or over San Andrés Island, not provoke nearly as much rending of garments?

For one thing, the Río San Juan is more important, in part because it has acquired a mythical nature, meaning that many nerves connect the river to our self-image as Nicaraguans. Different events have made the San Juan permanently present in Nicaraguans’ sense of self. It’s like a national nerve-river. Many countries and regions have nerve-rivers, their mystic river, their river of history. Examples include the Masacre between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the Volga in Russia, the Ganges in India, the Mississippi in the United States, the Nile in Egypt, the Mekong in Indochina, the Congo in Africa, the Thames in England...

The Río San Juan is Nicaragua’s legendary river. It is, as poet John Burns once said of the Thames, “liquid history.” It first appears—dreamed of, but not yet seen—at the beginning of the Spanish conquest in the colonial chronicles, according to which Christopher Columbus was the first to think of seeking the “doubtful strait” that would lead to India, believing himself to be between Malaya and Sumatra. Just after being crowned, Charles V ordered all of his governors to explore mainland bays and rivers to find that dreamed of passage between two oceans. In 1523, seven years after his coronation, he urged Hernán Cortés to seek the passage connecting the two seas in order to cut the route to Cathay (China). Cortés answered that “Whoever possesses the passage between the two oceans can consider himself owner of the world.” His words would turn out to be prophetic centuries later when the United States became owner of both the Panama Canal and the world.

Nicaragua-Costa Rica:
A record 35 bilateral treaties

With those preambles lodged in the collective imagination, the river has repeatedly proved to be the perfect excuse to cultivate nationalism. An aquatic frontier demarcating territory and identity, the Río San Juan expresses with undeniable breadth the construction of an “us” as opposed to “the others” on the opposite bank. It separates Costa Ricans (Ticos) from Nicaraguans (Nicas). The conflicts over the use and possession of the Río San Juan have been settled through treaties, but marked by historical scars, like Nicaragua’s cession of the territories of Guanacaste and Nicoya, that are always prone to open back up into raw wounds. As of the middle of the last decade, Nicaragua and Costa Rica had signed 35 bilateral treaties, an uncommonly high number for such young states.

One of the most sensible was the Martínez-Mora Peace, Friendship, Alliance and Commerce Treaty, signed on April 30, 1858. Article 10 of that agreement recognizes that the republics of Costa Rica and Nicaragua cannot be rigorously considered foreign nations because they are naturally united by fraternal links and interests of common utility. A decade later, another peace and friendship treaty reaffirmed this vision, adding other reasons such as their common origin due to territorial connections and interests. Some agreements have demonstrated Costa Rica’s good will, such as the Rivas-Esquivel Convention of December 21, 1868: “The Costa Rican government concedes to that of Nicaragua the waters of the Río Colorado, as diverting them into the Río San Juan could lead to the reestablishment or improvement of the port of San Juan de Nicaragua.”

Where’s the border
between being Nica and Tico?

The most crucial agreement is the 1858 Cañas-Jerez Treaty, rejected by Nicaragua for 30 years. The Nicaraguan signatory, Máximo Jerez, was blamed for making excessive concessions to Costa Rica. Thirty years later, the dispute was submitted for arbitration to US President Grover Cleveland, who delegated responsibility to Undersecretary of State George L. Rives. The first article of the Cleveland Award recognizes the Cañas-Jerez boundary treaty as valid. The second states that “The Republic of Costa Rica under said Treaty and the stipulations contained in the sixth article thereof, has not the right of navigation of the River San Juan with vessels of war, but she may navigate said river with such vessels of revenue service as may be related to and connected with her enjoyment of the ‘purposes of commerce’ accorded to her in said articles, or as may be necessary to the protection of said enjoyments.”

Clause 9 of the Award’s third article also stipulates that “The Republic of Costa Rica can deny to the Republic of Nicaragua the right of deviating the waters of the River San Juan, in case such deviation will result in the destruction or serious impairment of the navigation of the said river, or any of its branches, at any point where Costa Rica is entitled to navigate the same.”

Later came the Matus-Pacheco Treaty, signed for Nicaragua by Manuel Coronel Matus, father of the poet José Coronel Urtecho. This treaty agreed that an engineer requested from the US government would draw the definitive dividing line between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, but one of the first conclusions of E.P. Alexander, the engineer contracted for this task, was that there could be no such definitive line.

Referring to the stretch of border delimited by the Costa Rican bank of the Río San Juan, Alexander stated that all of the river’s waters were under Nicaraguan jurisdiction, and all of the land on the right margin was under Costa Rican jurisdiction, but the dividing line at those points did not run in a straight line. It is rather determined by the borders of the waters in their navigable state, thus marking a curving line with innumerable irregularities. Furthermore, the varying levels of the water altered the positioning of the dividing line.

Nicaragua therefore has a mobile border and a variable territorial area. In a situation mirroring the historical as opposed to natural nature of nations, one can say that we know where the border is now, but not where it will be in the future. Nor do we know where the dividing line between being Nicaraguan and being Costa Rican will be in future, if it still exists then.

“It should be negotiated”

It would make sense to appeal to nationalism to refuse to slavishly follow the IMF’s dictates, rejecting the docility of the last four Nicaraguan governments, the current one included. Nationalism and its ideology of national fraternity would serve more fertile passions if invoked to support the demands and relieve the suffering of our brothers and sisters affected by Nemagon, or those dying of hunger in communities of the Río Coco on our northeastern border.

Luis Pasos Argüello, a jurist who has dedicated a great deal of time to studying border conflicts between Nicaragua and Costa Rica and their use of the Río San Juan, came to the following conclusion in 1994, with a sense and vision we can only dream of infusing into our politicians: “I assume the risk that this bombshell about navigation along the whole of the Río San Juan and in the two Nicaraguan lakes might startle many Nicaraguans. The absolute truth is that both the river and the two lakes are deserted and we Nicaraguans are not using them for any production that might benefit us; they are sterile and for this reason it should be negotiated in a gesture of fraternity.”

The bi-national progress
we’re putting at risk

The disputes and conflicts that lead to rousing nationalism put the bi-national policy for development of the border zones at risk. Steps were taken in that direction several years ago through a five-year Border Development Program between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The main objective of that program, which includes 28 bi-national initiatives, $174 million and an active role for the local governments, is to promote productive, economic, social and institutional opportunities between the two countries in the border zone, as well as attract private investment that sustainably exploits the area’s natural and tourist resources.

Also compromised by the conflicts and nationalist rhetoric is the possibility of a bi-national biosphere, which was moved forward with the declaration on the Maquenque Mixed Wildlife Refuge. And what will happen to the agreement financed by the Pan-American Health Organization to strengthen epidemiological surveillance in both countries’ border communities? Or bi-national watershed protection? Or the possibility of asking the Costa Rican government for an amnesty for undocumented Nicaraguans residing in that country?

President Ortega mentioned none of this in his speech to the nation, providing just one indicator of the less than marginal importance attributed to the “collateral damage” of nationalism and the situation of hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguan migrants who sought to improve their living conditions and are sustaining the Nicaraguan economy through the remittances they send home, while at the same time sustaining the competitiveness of Costa Rican agro-exports through their cheap labor.

This conflict could end up throwing overboard many other possibilities, including the proposal of a bi-national association of municipalities in the not too distant future, which is quite feasible with those Costa Rican municipalities demonstrating good will towards our Nicaraguan migrants.

The thoughts of those who
live on the liquid border

The nationalist fever is not necessarily shared by either the migrants or the inhabitants of the border zone, the ones who could be most directly, immediately and severely affected by such conflicts. Nationalism is an ideology that frequently shirks daily and concrete realities. The reaction of Nicaraguan migrants living in Costa Rica has been very different from that of their compatriots back home on Nicaraguan soil.

The Nicaraguan population living along the Río San Juan with an array of local forest and river animals, far from all the fervor, resolves its daily issues in a very different way. These people live on a liquid frontier, a demarcation that establishes a legal and political limit, but not a socio-cultural one. What do the people living along that limit say? How do they envision their country? What does it mean for those on the geographic periphery of nationality to be Nicaraguan and relate to Costa Rica?

Costa Rican researcher and university lecturer Carlos Sandoval, an active defender of Nicaraguan migrants in his country, insists that the history of limits is a key component in geopolitical imaginations. There’s no doubt that this is case for the inhabitants of Nicaragua’s Pacific and central regions, but is it true for the border populations to the same extent?

Coexistence and everyday conversations with the border populations reveal what Sandoval terms “opposition to the nationality narratives.” Border Nicaraguans live in contact with border Costa Ricans, which leads to two experiences. On the one hand, as Sandoval points out when documenting the coexistence of Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans in San José neighborhoods, “proximity seems to be a source of positive representations or, at least tends to neutralize negative images.” And on the other, given that the two border populations have many common interests, they don’t base the articulation of their identity on belonging to a nation, but rather on any other identity-building device: gender, religion, social class, cultural affinities and, frequently, ethnic group.

Identity in Bartola and
San Juan del Norte

The opposition to nationalism is fed by a particular history. The people now living in Bartola, a district of the municipality of El Castillo, located in the Indio-Maiz Reserve’s buffer zone, left Nueva Guinea during the war of the eighties and lived for six to nine years as refugees in Costa Rica. During that time many of their children and grandchildren were born there and they acquired a residency they now carefully renew every year to keep their access to Costa Rica’s excellent health services. Some of their children study there and they themselves go there to work, some for three months, others for six, while yet others only return to Nicaragua once in a while to check up on their farms. During the months of certain harvests—oranges, bananas, coffee—Bartola is nearly deserted. No one from Bartola speaks ill of Costa Rica much less of its people.

On the eastern extreme of the Indio-Maíz Reserve lies San Juan del Norte, which President Arnoldo Alemán re-baptized San Juan de Nicaragua, although its inhabitants prefer to call it Greytown, the name bestowed on it by a Miskitu king in honor of Sir Charles Edward Grey, the British governor of Jamaica between 1847 and 1853. The original San Juan del Norte was actually located a bit further north along the coast, at the mouth of the Río Indio, and was first destroyed on July 13, 1854, by US Marines, then given the coup de grace a couple of decades ago by the armed conflict between Sandinistas and contras. All that remains of that old site are some pivots of the ancient houses and four historical cemeteries: those of the Spanish, the British, people of Spanish descent born in Nicaragua and freemasons.

The new San Juan del Norte was born in 1990, when 30 families settled 15 minutes by outboard motorboat southeast of its original setting. The majority of its residents, especially its founders, had lived for several years in Costa Rica and have close and active links with many of their relatives who remained there. Barely 1,307 people live in the 1,762 square kilometers belonging to San Juan del Norte, giving it the smallest population and lowest population density of any municipality in Nicaragua. But its cultural diversity is impressive, a not always discernible mix of Costa Ricans, Nicaraguan mestizos, Creoles and Miskitus, and even a relatively sizable group of Ramas.

How can one demand sovereignty
over something one hardly knows?

These people’s life and discourse are an ongoing rebuttal of the nationality narratives, in the first place because of their spontaneous adoption of customs in the form of words, food and currency. From just past Boca de Sábalos all the way down to San Juan del Norte, over three quarters of the length of the Río San Juan, Costa Rica’s currency, the colón, circulates more than Nicaragua’s córdoba. All prices are in colóns because it makes more sense: the most vigorous trade is with Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, Barra del Colorado and certain border shops, all on Costa Rica’s side of the river.

Getting from San Juan del Norte over to those towns takes an hour or so, whereas traveling upriver to San Carlos, the closest Nicaraguan city, takes twelve hours and a lot of money. In fact, it’s easier to get from Managua to San Juan del Norte via Costa Rica than across Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan route is complex: one hour by road to Granada then twelve by boat across Lake Nicaragua to San Carlos—or nine around the lake by vehicle—and finally another twelve downriver in an outboard motorboat. This time can be cut considerably by taking a small plane. It’s only an hour from Managua to San Carlos, but then there’s a one-night layover before setting out on the inescapable day-long trip downriver. The Costa Rican land route is seven hours from Managua to San José, two to Sarapiquí and one more to San Juan del Norte, all in the same day.

That national isolation is a symptom of how grotesque it is to speak of national sovereignty in Nicaragua. How can you claim sovereignty over an area you can barely get to? Or over something you hardly know about?

The use of expressions and words considered typically Costa Rican also disputes the notion of nationalism, although many view this as a salacious and disloyal wound. The walkways of San Juan del Norte ring with Costa Rican slang, such as “Pure life” to denote that things are going well. They order patacones not tostones when they want fried plantain rounds, and refer to coconuts as pipas. They tune in to Costa Rican radio stations and watch Costa Rican TV channels, in part because they can’t get Nicaraguan ones. The customs of these supposed “others” penetrate on all flanks, but especially in the institution officially responsible for transmitting culture, as the students of many border towns attend Costa Rican schools.

“Nicaragua is our mother,
Costa Rica our adoptive mother”

The retort to the narratives of nationality and nationalism has its own narratives, rationalizations and mechanisms. Notable among them is the construction of a duality, a kind of compromise solution succinctly formulated by one member of the indigenous Rama community. In a play on nationalism’s favorite metaphor, “Nicaragua is our mother,” he added “and Costa Rica is our adoptive mother.”

One soon discovers what is hidden behind the maternal dualism of these builders of bi-nationality. Enrique Gutiérrez, proprietor of a pleasant hotel in San Juan, unpacks the Rama’s statement for me: “Our mother is Nicaragua and thus lays down the rules. But she only tells us what we can’t do, without giving us what we need to live. One government minister even said that helping San Juan would be like helping drug trafficking. They pay no attention to our mayor in Managua. They say, ‘Why bother if he’s from San Juan?’ Nothing’s being developed here. It’s Costa Rica that helps us survive. Everything comes from there. It’s our adoptive mother because that’s where we get meat, sausages, coffee, milk, rice, beans and all the tourists who manage to get here. Everything I have comes from there. This town’s entire life has depended on Costa Rica.” In the next breath he tells me that the set of lounge chairs we’re sitting in cost him the equivalent of 5,600 córdobas in Costa Rica. “In Nicaragua they were asking 14,000 córdobas and 4,000 for this television, which I bought for less than 2,000 in Costa Rica.”

The opposition to nationality imbues its resources and concepts with new and defiant contents. Along these lines, Gutiérrez said the following to a commission that started to organize a tourist water route: “National sovereignty? A people’s sovereignty isn’t defended by the army, but by developing the economy of these sites that are so remote to you all. Remote from what? From whom? We’re only remote from Managua’s point of view.”

And he rams his point home by dissolving the idea of Costa Rican “otherness”: “My cousin, uncle, aunt and grandmother live in La Barra del Colorado. We’re all the same. We don’t have those tiffs here. Here we say ‘Long live Nicaragua and Costa Rica!’ or “I’m pure Tico-Nica!” Here it’s as if people first think in Costa Rican and then translate it into Nicaraguan.” Enrique Gutiérrez thus moves beyond the omnipresent nationalist temptation to draw a map with static differences. The border identity unfurls into bi-national identity, without complexes or guilt trips.

The bi-national Ticaraguan
children of Nicaricans

It couldn’t—and never will—be any other way. The next generation will be even more bi-national, complete with official papers. Children in San Juan del Norte have to be born in the hospital in Guápiles, since the closest Nicaraguan hospital is in San Carlos, and we’ve already described what that trip entails.

The Ticaraguan children of San Juan Nicaricans are born in Guápiles. These infants are automatically vaccinated against nationalism, that most colossal and pernicious collective narcissism. And in this way the daily mechanisms that dispute orthodox nationalism and its xenophobic stereotypes start to develop: the grandmother proud of her grandson who learned English thanks to Costa Rica’s bilingual public school system; migrants who have been in Costa Rica and value their experience, breaking the lenses of stereotypes into smithereens; and border residents who are permanently enacting their Ticaraguan-ness. In the words of Marta Obregón, considered the best cook in the department of Río San Juan, “Everything here from a needle to a metal bar is Costa Rican. Even the currency that circulates is the colón. The day Costa Rica doesn’t let us in, we’ll die of hunger.”

The bi-national mission of
being links, bridges, mediators

In his book In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf refers to border people—those with bi-national or transnational, bicultural or multicultural identities—as “crossed by lines of ethnic, religious or other fractures. Because of this situation, which I do not dare call ‘privileged,’ these people have a special role to play: building bonds, resolving misunderstandings, reasoning with some, moderating others, smoothing and mending conflicts. Their inherent vocation is to be links, bridges, mediators between different communities and different cultures. This is why their dilemma is full of significance. If these people cannot live their multiple belongings, if they constantly have to choose between one side or the other, if they are ordered to get back to their tribe, we have the right to be worried about the basic way the world functions.”

Perhaps this healthy view of border people could be the start of a reconfiguring process that will modernize the way our countries were formed as the result of ethnic mixing, religious syncretism and other jumbles. In other regions transnational identities are being rebuilt. Spanglish—in which “enchilada” has become an English word and “software” a Spanish one, and a song can lament that “Today you tell me something y mañana otra cosa’’—is just one of hundreds of examples of the mixtures straining the national wineskins and announcing a world in which globalization is too much for the political formation called the nation-state to deal with. The old wineskins of nationalism are about to burst, unable to contain the new wine of bi-national or transnational identities, global imaginations, corporate macro-mergers and many more examples of transnationality.

A bi-national citizenship corresponding
to the bi-national experience

In the case of inhabitants of the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border, bi-nationalism is still channeled through nationalism, though it splits up its dogmas, pulverizes its certainties and mutes its choruses. The next step would be to construct a bi-national citizenship corresponding to that bi-national identity, which can be given a formal expression through policies.

German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote that the border isn’t a spatial fact with sociological effects, but a sociological fact spatially expressed. Given that the experience of being bi-national is already a sociological fact—though still not a right—in San Juan del Norte and other border towns, we might ask whether the border inhabitants can make the cultural, social and economic transformations of their small society influence the political conception of space to the point of relativizing the border and gaining recognition from the nation-states of Costa Rica and Nicaragua of that role of liaisons and network weavers that Maalouf attributes to them.

It’s hard to imagine a dual citizenship when referring to Nicaraguans living within one country but outside of both nations, who live from contraband in the Nicaraguan nation and enter as contraband into the Costa Rican one. They haven’t been able to exercise their Nicaraguan citizenship—for example, they don’t pay into Nicaragua’s social security or ever make use of its Ministry of Labor—and the lamentable conditions in Nicaragua have accustomed them not to exercise their rights. They could have a bi-national citizenship, but are developing their Costa Rican one more than their Nicaraguan one.

“We want to be from Costa Rica”

Many residents of Papaturro say: “We want to be from Costa Rica. The mayor’s office doesn’t do anything through Nicaragua. If they’re not capable here, they should make agreements with the other side, because the poor people here have nothing.” The near-sister relations with the Costa Rican municipality of Upala saved the students from missing a school year. Upala also wants to connect them to its electricity grid and sends them dentists with free medications. So it’s very understandable when a mother in Papaturro protests: “How are we going to believe they consider us part of the country if they take away our doctor and our teacher, who in any event spent his time in San Carlos? Now our children are going to Costa Rica and we’re never going to enroll in a Nicaraguan school again. They only use us when there’s an electoral campaign; the rest of the time we’re out of sight and mind.”

It’s quite possible that a referendum in the area would leave the entire department of Río San Juan and other extensive areas of Nicaraguan territory on the Costa Rican side. In those areas Daniel Ortega is nothing more than a smiling face on a poster taped to a pole without electricity.

The old wineskins of nations
and the world’s new citizenship

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has been arguing for more encompassing citizenships for the past 10 years. He states that only a democratic citizenship that doesn’t close itself off in a particularistic fashion can pave the way for a world citizenship, or a cosmo-citizenship, which is already taking shape today in worldwide political communications. He goes on to say that the cosmopolitan condition is no longer merely a mirage, even though we’re still a long way from it. State citizenship and world citizenship form a continuum whose contours, at least, are already becoming visible.

Benedict Anderson explained how national communities are imagined. How do the people from the border areas defined by the Río San Juan imagine their bi-national community or identity? They have many elements to help them. The flows of mixed families and people are what Appadurai calls an ethnic landscape, which in this case is markedly bi-national. Currency, merchandise and language are all weaving together a bi-national daily life, while radio and television are portraying bi-national media landscapes.

But it’s a conflictive bi-nationality, bristling with obstacles and lashed by tensions. The possibility of replacing the electricity that doesn’t come from Nicaragua with Costa Rican electricity reveals the crisis of the nation-state. Obtaining identity documents in both countries involves a dual nationality denied by law but contrabanded by necessity. Life lived with a foot in each country demonstrates their condition as liaison, as people who have something that can only be gotten on both sides of the border. All this shows that the nations’ old wineskins aren’t up to containing the new wine of population dynamics, information flows and social strategies.

“That line that rejects me...”

The bi-national narratives have a disturbing troubadour, iconoclast of nationalism, who doesn’t hesitate to take up its classic images and evaluate them in the light of devastating personal experiences. He encourages us to think bi-nationally, which for now still means thinking with the nation as a political frame of reference. Thinking post-nationally is taking it a step further.

As it’s very probable that we still don’t have the right concepts to explain what’s happening, I turn to literature, to an excerpt from Carlos Fuentes’ The Crystal Frontier, which is so full of meaning about the sense of the border: “I see a line at my feet. A luminous line, painted a phosphorescent color. It shines at night. It’s the only thing that shines. What is it? What does it separate? What does it divide? I have no other signs to guide me other than that line. Yet I don’t know what it means. The florescent line laughs at me. It stops the land from being land. Land has no divisions. The line says it does. The line says the land has been divided. The line makes the land into some other thing. What thing? It became world. I was taken from the land and put in the world. The world summoned me. The world wanted me. But now it rejects me. It abandons me, forgets me. It hurls me back to the land. But the land doesn’t want me either. Instead of opening into a protective abyss, it plants me on a line. At least the abyss would embrace me. I would enter into genuine, total darkness, with no beginning or end. Now I look at the land and an indecent line divides it. The line has its own light, a painted, obscene light. Totally indifferent to my presence…”

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council.

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