Name: Jenna Johnston

Location: Santa Rosa, Costa Rica

Since my time in Costa Rica was cut short, for 3 of my 5 remaining blogs, I’m publishing stories based around the academic research and personal interviews I conducted for my Central American history class.

It is impactful enough to look at Costa Rica’s immigration situation from a demographic and statistical perspective. As of 2014, immigrants made up 9 percent of Costa Rica’s population, the largest percentage of any Latin American country (Arias 2014). Most immigrants in Costa Rica are from Nicaragua, with other significant portions from Panama, the United States, El Salvador, and Venezuela (Migration For Development 2018). Yet behind these numbers, every immigrant in Costa Rica has a story. To understand the refugee situation in Costa Rica and political violence in Venezuela from a personal perspective, I interviewed María* about being a refugee from Venezuela in Costa Rica. We discussed her reasons for leaving, her experience with the immigration system, and her personal dreams for the future.

During the presidencies of Hugo Chavez (from 1999 to 2013) and Nicolás Maduro (from 2013 until now), political repression and economic crisis have been the norm in Venezuela, worsening in the past several years. Hyperinflation, election fraud, shortages of important goods, and persecution of political opposition are just some of the problems Venezuelans have faced since 1999 (Human Rights Watch 2018). After Maduro was reelected in in 2018, Juan Guiadó, a political opposition leader, also declared himself president. Guiadó was formally recognized by many other governments, including the United States. However, most of the military and police forces in Venezuela still back Maduro, so he functionally has presidential power (BBC 2020). Since 2014, approximately 4.8 million Venezuelans have fled the country (BBC 2020). María and her family were among these refugees fleeing Venezuela in 2018.

Unlike other refugees who fled due to generally worsening economic and political circumstances, María and her family left because of a specific event: the assassination of her only brother during the El Junquito massacre of January 15, 2018. The massacre was an official attempt by the Venezuelan government to kill Óscar Pérez, leader of an opposition movement. In a mission called Operación Gedeón, five hundred troops were sent early in the morning to one house in El Junquito where Pérez and some companions were staying (Bellingcat 2018). Pérez and six of his supporters, including María’s brother, were killed, and others were arrested (Romero-Castillo 2018).

Not only was María’s family coping with their own grief, but the massacre made international news, and it was difficult for the families of the dead to get their loved ones’ bodies back from the government. Many of the other involved families also left the country. In María’s case, all three of her sisters and her mom left Venezuela — her mom left first, going to Peru just a few weeks after the massacre, while the rest of her extended family is now scattered elsewhere. During the months following her brother’s assassination, María and her family kept a very low profile. Her family suffered emotional and psychological pain, living in fear and under indirect and direct threats from the government. After several months of planning, María, her husband, and her two young children arrived in Costa Rica on August 3, 2018, a little over one and a half years ago.

Since 1950, Costa Rica’s government has remained stable. As a result, Costa Rica has a growing immigrant and refugee population, especially since crises in Venezuela and Nicaragua have escalated in the last two years. Among all the immigrants in Costa Rica, 100,000 (2% of the country’s population) are asylum seekers like María’s family (UNHCR Global Focus 2020). As of June 2019, Costa Rica hosted 28,870 Venezuelan refugees, including 16,236 asylum seekers and 5,692 people with residency or regular stay permits (UNHCR 2020a). According to Former President Chinchilla, “We are, in our hemisphere, the country that has received the second-highest migrant population, after the United States. We estimate that by the end of this year [2019] we will have about 100,000 Nicaraguans and 30,000 Venezuelans living with us” (Agence France-Presse 2019b).

María’s immigration experiences reflect the problems that have arisen from the surge in asylum seekers over the last few years. María and her family arrived just after the situation in Nicaragua worsened in April 2018. By August, the immigration system was overcrowded, understaffed, and slow. Increasing difficulties with the immigration system has led Costa Rica to ask for international assistance for dealing with the refugee crisis (Agence France-Presse 2019b). At the same time, the United Nations asked the country to expedite their processing of asylum requests for the sake of refugees and to combat rising xenophobia since 2018 (Agence France-Presse 2019a).

According to the UNHCR (or ACNUR in Spanish-speaking countries), there are several steps one must take to apply for refugee status in Costa Rica. After three months of residence in Costa Rica, asylum seekers can apply for a work permit, which takes several more months to process. Later, there is an interview with immigration authorities, and finally a waiting period to see whether the request for refugee status was approved or denied (UNHCR 2020b).

María talked about this process, and said it was frustrating because of how long each step has taken. Her family delayed leaving Venezuela in the first place to could get passports and other documents in order. Upon arrival in Costa Rica, her family received temporary documents that said they were seeking asylum, but this uncommon form of identification was confusing to potential employers and local authorities. Her husband had to wait many months to apply for a work permit, leaving them to rely on the generosity of family, friends, and social services to survive. Her family finally had their refugee application interview in January 2019. Several organizations, including ACNUR, HIAS, and RET, have provided her family with legal, social, and psychological support. At the time of this interview, in late January 2020, her family had still not heard anything about their application. Lawyers and immigration authorities have told them “tranquila,” that it could take years. While her husband has been able to work, it is generally harder to get jobs, and their family cannot leave the country. María said she would have liked to be able to visit her family in the United States and Peru, but she cannot until her refugee status is processed, so she feels a bit stuck. Many other refugees also share her frustration, as evidenced by the protests in Costa Rica led by Nicaraguan immigrants in 2018 and 2019 (Agence France-Presse 2019b).

While our interview focused on María’s reasons for leaving Venezuela and her immigration process in Costa Rica, her life is much more than her legal status and political history. She has two young children that keep her life “busy and crazy, but never boring.” She misses a lot from her home country, including her city, Caracas, and the warmer climate, but most of all “la gente”, the people. María has plenty of dreams and hopes for her future once her kids get older and she has more free time. While she has studied and worked in administration, she has a wide variety of interests in vocal music, theology, social services, and women’s issues. She would love to study theology and become a religious leader, life coach, or nonprofit worker. María views her difficult life experiences as a way to connect with others, particularly women, who have experienced harm, and guide them toward finding their vocation. Venezuela’s political crisis and Costa Rica’s immigration issues are striking enough while looking at the facts and statistics over time. When a personal perspective is brought in, it shines an even brighter light on how compassion and empathy are essential to building effective immigration systems and policies today.


*Name changed to protect privacy.

References cited in this story can be viewed here: