LGBTQ Nicaraguans in Costa Rica: The Refugees That Ran From President Ortega’s Persecution

None of them have reached the age of 30. All of them have sadness and pain in their faces, but also hints of hope.

More than a hundred Nicaraguans that have entered Costa Rica legally and illegally are LGBTQ, and they are organized into a group called Asociación Hijos del Arcoiris LGBTI (The Children of the Rainbow LGBTI Association). They had to leave their country to save themselves from political, homophobic and transphobic persecution from the government of the current president, Daniel Ortega, after a social and economic crisis broke out in the Central American country on April 18 last year, pushing them to protest in the streets and openly oppose Ortega’s regime.

Today, the LGBTQ Nicaraguans are safe on the other side of the border, most of them in Costa Rica’s capital city of San José. They are struggling to find housing, jobs, education, food, and clothing, but mostly they are trying to heal from the pain of leaving their country, and integrate themselves in a society where the government pushes new policies with the help of international organizations to help and protect them, but where transphobia, homophobia and xenophobia are also at their worst.

Six Months of Protests and Refugees

19,720 Nicaraguans asked the Costa Rican Government for refuge between April and November of 2018, according to official data given by the Immigration Office of Costa Rica. Before that, only 473 Nicaraguans had become refugees; that’s a 4,000 percent increase in only seven months.

Marcela Rodríguez, the Protection Officer leader of all the Protection Programs of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Costa Rica, explained: “Before, three types of Nicaraguans came to the country asking for refuge: farmers who opposed the dredging of their lands for the construction of the interoceanic canal, women fleeing the misogynistic and patriarchal violence of men, mostly of their partners; and people of low income looking for more opportunities and a better life.”

Now, all types of citizens from the Central American country make up that huge number. From cities and from the countryside; young and old; professionals, students and workers; men, women and children; they “all have something in common: they are running from political persecution,” Rodríguez told INTO. But they’re also fleeing persecution based on their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression, as government propaganda has used these aspects of the dissidents to attack and discredit them in a violent and most harmful way, as the Asociación Los Hijos del Arcoíris LGBTI and other LGBTQ Nicaraguan refugees have denounced.

This persecution started in April this year when a tense situation exploded. In a report from Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos (CENIDH) (Nicaraguan Center of Human Rights), titled “Derechos Humanos en Nicaragua 2018” (Human Rights in Nicaragua 2018), the origins of the crisis are explained: the constitutional reform pushed by Ortega that established indefinite reelection and has allowed him to stay in power for eleven years now; the violations of the human rights of anyone that opposed Ortega, such as political participation, a fair trial and freedom of speech; and government corruption. Nicaragua was rated the most corrupt country in Central America by the World Corruption Perception Index of the International Transparency organization. The report also cited the extreme poverty that Nicaraguans suffer: 8.7 percent of them live in poverty, according to a survey from the Fundación Internacional para el Desafío Económico Global (International Foundation for the Global Economic Challenge) this year.

But the spark that ignited the crisis was Ortega’s decision to reform the public pension system on April 18, increasing the contribution the workers must give to face a shortfall of $76 million. The opposition claims this is the result of corruption: their leaders say Ortega’s government has been using the pensions as a fund to finance their parties and trips.

Because of the pension issue, an open and fierce opposition started. Under the leadership of students and other young people, workers, families and pensioners organized and took to the streets to protest. The government’s response was a brutal and violent repression that has escalated, the CENIDH narrates in its report; while the army and the police attacked people, dissolved the protests and incarcerated the dissidents, the president and other entities restrained and violated human rights, from freedom of speech and freedom of assembly to the right to health. And the public health system denied medical assistance to those who were hurt by the armed forces.

According to CENIDH’s report, “The governmental repression and violence has been characterized by the unproportioned use of force and the execution of murders, incarcerations, forced disappearances and torture. This violence has reached almost every social group: during these six months of protests 320 people have been murdered, 22 of them minors, 40 young students, 22 police officers and 1 journalist.”

In December of 2018, Ortega outlawed non-governmental organizations, including the CENIDH, and expelled the Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes (Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts), and the Mecanismo de Seguimiento para Nicaragua (Follow Up Mechanism of Nicaragua) of the Inter American Commission of Human Rights. Both groups were in Nicaragua looking to stop the violation of human rights, and to promote a dialogue between the government and its opposition through a “Table of National Dialogue” that failed multiple times over months.  

In the case of LGBTQ people and opposition leaders, the persecution and attacks are more personal. While the Immigration Office of Costa Rica says only seven people have self-identified as LGBTQ at the moment they asked for refuge, there are more than a hundred members of Asociación Los Hijos del Arcoíris LGBTI. Their founder and spokesman, Ulises Rivas, explains that “There are more that are too afraid to self-identify as part of this community or are in precarious situations: depressed, without money, food, documents or clothes, and even living on the streets.”

At a December event in San Jose called “Ya Ni Sé” (I Don’t Even Know Anymore), Beyardo Siles, a spokesman from the National LGBT Dialogue Table of Nicaragua, presented a preliminary report about the violence and repression leaders of the opposition that are LGBTQ have faced. Siles explained that Ortega’s government started a hate campaign against them, looking to diminish and discredit the young men and women that became the face of the opposition, calling them Maricones (faggots) y Lesbianas (lesbians) with images that went viral on social media. There were also physical attacks and persecution because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

A presentation at Ya Ni Sé, an LGBTQ refugee speakout in Costa Rica in December 2018. Photo by Jess Marquez Gaspar.
A presentation at Ya Ni Sé, an LGBTQ refugee speakout in Costa Rica in December 2018. Photo by Jess Marquez Gaspar.

“From April to July we received reports of 45 LGBTQ leaders affected, 44% of which are Human Rights Activists, 15 leaders of different types of organizations and 5 LGBTQ activists,” said Siles.  

The LGBTQ leaders reported  144 incidents: the worst ones were 3 murders and 1 sexual assault, Siles explained. He added that: “there also have been 41 death and physical harm threats and 7 physical attacks”, and said they have yet to process dozens of new reports they have received since August.

Fleeing to Costa Rica and becoming an LGBTQ Refugee

Running from the attacks and the persecution, and even to save their lives, the members of “Asociación Los Hijos del Arcoiris LGBTI” went to Costa Rica. In a meeting, around 20 young LGBT men and women from the group told their stories. With ages ranging between 18 and 30 years old, they came from different regions in Nicaragua: some from Managua (where the capital is located), Carazo and León. They have different backgrounds: a group of them are college students looking to be engineers, pharmacists and social workers; others had occupations as bakers, barbers, Zumba instructors and paramedics; there are some who are professionals like Ulises, who is a journalist, and others who are political leaders. They identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual and faced day to day discrimination for their sexual orientation, even before the crisis.

When the protests and persecutions started, most of them had to hide or  travel to another city of the country, and keep moving for months until the only option was, ultimately, to flee to Costa Rica. Some took buses and crossed the border legally, but the majority had to walk for days. “I had to cross plantation fields, under the sun and the rain, with only a backpack and very little food,” Ulises Rivas told INTO. When asked why, Rivas said: “I had to leave behind—and they took them—most of my legal papers, even my passport. I didn’t have a legal way to cross the border.” Finally, Rivas reached San José as more than 19,000 other Nicaraguans have.

Most of the LGBTQ refugees had to sleep in parks and other public places, and some were lucky enough to be received by other Nicaraguans, or by Costa Ricans that took them in. They had to walk the city seeking for help, and found the Costa Rican Immigration Office, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and local and Nicaraguan LGBTQ organizations and activists that helped them ask for asylum and helped them build a new life in Costa Rica.

That’s why three months ago, Rivas and 5 other young men decided to come together and start the Arcoiris organization. They started looking for other LGBTQ Nicaraguans, and collected donations that helped them rent and furnish two houses in the city—where they now house more than 30 people.

Members of the Nicaraguan refugee group Asociación Hijos del Arcoiris LGBTI at a home in Costa Rica. Photo by Jess Marquez Gaspar.
Members of the Nicaraguan refugee group Asociación Hijos del Arcoiris LGBTI at a home in Costa Rica. Photo by Jess Marquez Gaspar.

They have learned how to work the system created to receive and support refugees in Costa Rica. The Costa Rican office of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Association (HIAS) has given them free legal advice on how to ask the Costa Rican Immigration Office for asylum; while the organization that helps refugees, RET International, offers them psychological and medical attention, and helps them find and pay for permanent housing and food. FundaMujer, an organization that works for human rights with a gender perspective, offers them education opportunities such as technical studies; and the UNHCR helps them find jobs through their corporate responsibility program “Living the Integration.” Also, the Center of Social Rights of Migrants (CENDEROS) gives temporary housing to the ones that have been victims of sexual and gender-based violence.

Right now, the situation is complicated for most of them. Of the 19,720 Nicaraguans that have asked Costa Rica for asylum since April 2018, none have received an answer. The immigration office has a year-long backlog of cases to process, according to Marcela Rodríguez from the UNHCR. Because of the delays the UNHCR has been working with the immigration office to make the system more efficient.

Over 30 percent of the Nicaraguans have applied for asylum under two types of persecution recognized by the 1951 Refugee Convention: political opinion, as they have been attacked and chased down for being against Daniel Ortega’s government; and for sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and persecution associated with LGBTQ and human rights activism. While they wait for a resolution, they have temporary visas, which allows them to find jobs.

Only a few of them have jobs, only 10 percent have enrolled in educational programs, and most of them spend their days looking for ways to make money or find food and clothes; participating in LGBTQ activities and activism; and trying to overcome what has happened to them.

A calendar of activities for residents at one of the Hijos de Arcoirís homes in Costa Rica. Photo by Jess Marquez Gaspar.
A calendar of activities for residents at one of the Hijos de Arcoirís homes in Costa Rica. Photo by Jess Marquez Gaspar.

As the director of the RET International Office in Costa Rica, Christine Eppelin Ugarte reveals that the LGBTQ refugees to whom they provided psychological attention all suffer from post-traumatic stress from the sexual and gender-based violence they have received for being LGBTQ in Nicaragua, but also in Costa Rica. Their symptoms are usually anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, insomnia, eating and sleeping disorders, and a state of constant alert.

LGBTQ Nicaraguans go through a “migratory mourning” that comes from multiple struggles.

Eppelin Ugarte explains what those struggles are: “First, the impact of having to leave their country by force; the difficulties of coming to Costa Rica and being attacked or robbed; second, once they get to Costa Rica, the disappointment they suffer when they realize being an immigrant doesn’t match the high expectations they had about the life they imagined in their new home; and third, the difficulties and unrooted feeling that comes from losing their homeland as a concept and as a place, and having to integrate in a society they don’t know or understand.”

The young women and men of “Asociación Los Hijos del Arcoíris LGBTI” say they feel frustrated, angry, and sad. At the Ya Ni Sé event, Nicaraguan artist Eyla Sinvergüenza explained the feeling: “I feel lost, without a country, hurting, as the place I called my homeland is dead, it no longer exists.”

José David Moya, coordinator of case management at RET, explains that most refugees come with wounds and dehydration from the trip to Costa Rica, malnutrition because of the crisis, and multiple diseases and conditions—such as HIV, anxiety, depression, and STIs.

Also, Moya thinks “Xenophobia and LGBTQ-phobia has increased in Costa Rica during 2018 like never before.” While the Costa Rican government took steps to protect LGBTQ immigrants—including the Global Migratory Pact, pushing an executive order to prevent and sanction LGBTQ-phobic discrimination among public workers, and two other executive orders— a demonstration against Nicaraguans took over the streets of San José in August, resulting in 44 detentions for xenophobic attacks, and there were 25 verbal and physical assaults against LGBTQ people, according to the Frente por los Derechos Igualitarios (Front for Equalitarian Rights), a coalition of nonprofit organizations.

The members of the “Asociación Los Hijos del Arcoíris LGBTI” have felt this. One of them, a young woman named Ángeles, says, “It’s been hard, we don’t receive much acceptance because we are Nicaraguans and because we are refugees. But also, Costa Ricans, and even other Nicaraguans, discriminate [against] us because we are LGBTQ.”

That is why, in the middle of this hard situation, the work they have done is inspirational, and so is their attitude.  “We have hope,” said Andrey, one of the young men.

“We see this as an opportunity to grow, to learn from the things the LGBTQ movement has conquered here and [in] the Costa Rican democracy, and then come back to our country to make a change,” says Dave, another member of the group.

Rossi, one of the young women, states: “We are not alone. We have each other and we are united by one cause.” When asked what that cause is, at least 10 of them yell at the same time: “¡Nicaragua Libre!”


Jess Márquez Gaspar 

Jess Márquez Gaspar is a Venezuelan journalist based in San José, Costa Rica. As a trans queer man, he focuses on human rights of the LGBT+ community in that country. He has a degree in Communications from the University of Costa Rica. Currently, Jess works as a college professor, and also as a consultant in Digital Marketing, Human Rights and Political Communications. 

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