Fleeing violence, Nicaraguan student finds new life in Costa Rica

TEXT and graphics By Caitlin Fish and Daniel DiNicola

Photo by Rachael Durand

In the corner of the small restaurant Meme Pajarito in Ciudad Colón, Costa Rica, 19-year-old Arjuna Salvatierra plays an original song about the political turmoil in his home country of Nicaragua.

On a borrowed guitar he strums each chord harder than the last. With passion, he keeps his eyes closed to the crowd as he sings. The song ends with a final crescendo and a cry:

“Viva Nicaragua Libre!”

When street protests first broke out last April following controversial changes to social security and reductions in pension benefits, Salvatierra was a student in León, Nicaragua, watching the violence unfold on television with his classmates.

As the daily protests consumed the nation Salvatierra decided to take part in the civil unrest calling for an end to the 11-year regime of President Daniel Ortega.

“I worked with groups of people for months trying to make a difference in my country,” Salvatierra said. “We were in the streets doing whatever we could to help the fight.”

Last November, months into the troubles and with hundreds dead or in custody, Salvatierra had no choice but to leave his home in Nicaragua and migrate to Costa Rica when his friends started to get arrested.

“A lot of my friends were taken by the cops, but we knew the risk we were taking,” Salvatierra said. “After our protest leaders were arrested I knew the cops would come looking for me.”

“Someday, this fight is going to mean something bigger and will create a new kind of freedom.”

Similar to many Nicaraguan students, Salvatierra applied for a student visa in Costa Rica after getting accepted by a music school.  

“My mother didn’t want me to live at home because it was too dangerous after the protests,” Salvatierra said. “If I went home there would have been about an 80 percent chance that I would have been taken by the police.”

Salvatierra said that he was sad to leave Nicaragua because he worked so hard to fight for the country he loves.

“Someday, this fight is going to mean something bigger and will create a new kind of freedom,” Salvatierra said.

Salvatierra is one of the 62,000 Nicaraguans who have fled to neighboring countries and one out of the 55,500 that are seeking asylum in Costa Rica.

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As of March of this year, 29,500 Nicaraguans had formally filed asylum applications. However, as the capacity for the number of applicants begins to overstretch, 26,000 others are waiting to have their claims formalized, according to the Costa Rican Migration Authority.

An extended pause ended when protests broke out again in March, 11 months after the troubles began, as activists in Nicaragua demanded the release of political prisoners. As political unrest continues, Costa Rica can only expect more Nicaraguans to settle in the country.

The United Nations, through its High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is supporting the Costa Rican government to enhance conditions and reduce the time needed to process new arrivals.

“We have provided 30 additional case adjudicators, as well as premises, training and equipment, to increase the capacity of the Government's Refugee Unit, both in the capital, San José, and at our office in Upala, near the border,” a report from the UNHCR states.

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Salvatierra said he believes that the general population of Costa Rica has made it easy for him to transition to life in a new country.

“They do not have the same level of consciousness about the events in Nicaragua as a Nicaraguan does, but the way the general population of Costa Ricans treats us is very nice,” Salvatierra said.

In an interview via Facebook messenger weeks after meeting in person, Salvatierra expressed that he has a good support system around him in Costa Rica. He spends most of his time with a group of artists who are exiles and all under 25 years old.

“I think about 70 percent of the immigrants in this wave are young people, which has been great for us, but not so much for Nicaragua because they have lost the production and the work that us young people can do,” he said.

In one year, Nicaragua has lost a generation of talented students and professionals who saw the need to generate change.

The sole crime committed by Nicaraguans who have been left with no option but to leave was to question those in power. Like many other students, Salvatierra is calling for an end to the destruction of democracy and governmental disregard for humans rights that has defined the country for years.

The price they paid for speaking up was the acceptance of exile, tempered by the unshakeable hope that change may one day sweep Nicaragua.