His parents fought for the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua four decades ago, but when Lenin Salablanca protested its continued rule, he was imprisoned for ten months. He felt forced to make a decision. "It was never my intention to leave and go into exile," he said.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has continued a crackdown on dissent that began with an uprising in 2018, most recently jailing or placing under house arrest numerous political opponents, including seven potential presidential candidates in the coming November election.
Under the repressive social and political climate, Salablanca felt it was too risky to stay. The 38-year-old street vendor and father of four took off with his wife for the United States, where they intend to apply for asylum.
Thousands of Nicaraguans like them are making the same trek north. Over the past three months, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has recorded more encounters with Nicaraguan migrants than in any 12-month period over at least the past two decades. Since February, the number of Nicaraguans crossing the border has grown by 50 percent or more every month to reach 7,462 in June, more than half of the total in the entire fiscal year 2019.
Nicaraguans fleeing persecution or poverty have historically left for Costa Rica to the south, rather than make the arduous overland trip through Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico to the United States. But the COVID pandemic has hit Costa Rica’s tourism-dependent economy hard, making jobs difficult to find, and now Nicaraguans are tapping the migrant networks used by other Central Americans to get to the United States.
Migrants and experts said in interviews with VICE World News that the Ortega government’s persecution combined with the economic downturn caused by political unrest and the pandemic could lead tens of thousands more to flee north in the coming months.
“There is a severe political crisis that has been going on for three years, and it has sparked the movement of people,” said Manuel Orozco, director of the Center for Migration and Economic Stabilization at Creative Associates International. The situation grew more complicated this year, he said, as repression tightened, the government mismanaged the COVID-19 pandemic, and jobs vanished.
U.S. President Joe Biden's promise to undo many of the restrictions placed on asylum claims by former President Donald Trump, as well as a softening of rhetoric from his administration, appear to be secondary factors.
“There’s a perception among the migrants that there’s an opening with the Biden administration that there wasn’t with the Trump administration,” said Claudia Vargas, a Nicaraguan who emigrated to Costa Rica in 2018 and now works at the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress in the capital San José.
In the wake of the government’s brutal response to protests in 2018, in which security forces and government-sponsored paramilitaries killed more than 300 people, at least 70,000 Nicaraguans, mostly students and young adults, left for Costa Rica. In comparison, CBP recorded fewer than 14,000 encounters—apprehensions and expulsions of Nicaraguans—at U.S. borders in fiscal year 2019.
But now, more Nicaraguans are heading north.
“Word has already spread that the situation in Costa Rica is not good, that it’s an extremely expensive country,” said Vargas.
High unemployment, the worst for 15-to-24-year-olds—40 percent—of any member country of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, adds to the hardship.
Nicaraguans are also choosing to go to the United States because they fear they’d be pursued by Sandinista loyalists in Costa Rica. These paramilitaries are violent gangs that allegedly coordinate with state security forces and were blamed for murders, kidnappings, and beatings during the 2018 uprising.
“[Costa Rica] is full of paramilitaries,” said Salablanca. “There’s a greater possibility that fanatics will cross over to do us harm.”
In some cases, the fear is so great that Nicaraguans have left Costa Rica to head for the United States.
Mariela, 35, whose name has been changed at her request to protect family members still in Nicaragua, led a middle-class life until April 2018. But she got involved in the protest movement , helping to organize makeshift clinics to care for injured protesters who were barred from public hospitals by the government’s orders. That caught the Sandinistas’ attention. “They started to follow me as I was leaving the clinic,” said Mariela. “I said to myself, ‘This can’t be possible, I have to move.’”
She started bouncing between safe houses while continuing to help organize the clinics. But the Sandinistas, who use neighborhood collectives to gather intelligence on opponents, followed her tracks. By July 2018 she received a warning that they were onto her and she fled to Costa Rica.
Then she got a call.
“They told me that there was a list of people they were going to search for in Costa Rica and that I’m on that list,” Mariela said. “At that moment, I realized that I was in trouble and that it extended to Costa Rica.”
When the borders closed by the pandemic began to reopen and flights resumed this spring, she saved money and flew to Guatemala in May. She’s now waiting along with Salablanca and his wife in Tapachula, along Mexico’s southern border, for a humanitarian visa to travel legally through Mexico to the U.S. border and apply for asylum.
The decision to go north comes with its own risks: Migrants are often exploited, kidnapped, and disappeared by corrupt state officials and organized crime.
The rising demand for coyotes, or people smugglers, who guide migrants into the U.S. for thousands of dollars, has also attracted Nicaraguans into the coyote business. In March, a Nicaraguan man tried to organize a migrant caravan, creating Facebook and WhatsApp groups to promote it. Days after the caravan failed to assemble on the scheduled departure date of March 31, he started using the same groups to advertise smuggling services across the U.S. border.
“It was happening before 2018, but since then it’s become a business, and right now it’s a lucrative business and so there has been an increase in Nicaraguan coyotes,” said Carolina Sediles, who works with the all-volunteer Nicaragua-American Human Rights Alliance, which assists Nicaraguan migrants. They’ve also adapted, creating new ways to smuggle Nicaraguans north, including a different kind of caravan.
It’s now commonplace to see migrants leaving Nicaragua in caravans of buses, or even cars, that are arranged by the coyotes themselves. The buses take the migrants to the border with Honduras, where they often disembark to pass through blind spots to avoid detection by the Nicaraguan military, before continuing on another bus to Mexico, explained Sediles.
President Ortega, who is expected to run for a fourth consecutive term, could benefit from the fact that so many people are fleeing. Most of those who are leaving would almost certainly have voted against him and his Sandinista Party in the November election. Pushing many people out of the country "increases their chances of winning the election," said Orozco, "because they're only keeping their own group, their own supporters" at home.
It’s estimated that roughly 40,000 Nicaraguans will emigrate to the U.S. this year and another 60,000 will go to Costa Rica, according to Orozco. That’s on top of some 87,000 Nicaraguans who are already seeking asylum in Costa Rica, a process that can take several years. Combined, that roughly equals five percent of Nicaragua’s electorate.
In a clean election, only a few votes could prove the winning margin because the candidate with the most votes wins the presidency. But the detention of all of the most popular opposition candidates for president has made clear that a clean election is not on the table. In past elections, the Ortega regime tried to secure the largest majority possible, either through fraud or voter suppression, in order to create an illusion of broad popular support.
Ortega’s base represents about a third of the electorate. But as more opponents leave the country, his supporters become a larger percentage of voters.
Nicaraguans who have fled the country over the last three years overwhelmingly want to return home. “One thing that characterizes us as Nicaraguans is love for the homeland,” said Mariela, her voice cracking as she choked back tears. But even if Ortega were to allow a fair election and accept defeat, few would go rushing back.
The country’s long history of repression—both historical and contemporary—is more than enough to give pause to migrants who have fled political persecution. Revitalizing the country’s economy will take time as well, no matter who’s in power.
In the 1980s, during Ortega’s first term as president, emigration from Nicaragua to the United States was about the same as its Central American neighbors to the north. But then it leveled off, while emigration from the other countries—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—continued to rise. This time could be different.
“If it comes to a situation like Venezuela or Cuba, something more permanent, then it will probably start to be a permanent migration,” said Sediles. “We hope that won’t happen.”