Ivan Garcia, Costa Rica, 2 December 2015 — Just after 5:30 in the afternoon, night falls on the Costa Rican village of La Cruz, some 12 miles from the Nicaraguan border.
It is a neighborhood of gentle slopes, clean streets and an agreeable climate. Architecturally there’s not much that stands out. One or two-story houses and a central park right in the heart of the settlement.
Just to see the spectacular view from the restaurant-viewpoint of La Cruz is worth the 160 mile trip from San Jose, the capital, to a town where the news is the coming of more than 2,000 Cubans since the beginning of November; Cubans who are camping out in half a dozen shelters, hostels and private homes that rent their rooms to the recently arrived.
“There is no doubt that it has revitalized the local economy. Now we sell more bread, beer, food and cellphone lines. In addition, it has enormously increased the Western Union bank transfers,” says Sergio Morales, who works at La Cruz town hall.
Starting at ten in the morning the Cubans wander through the park and the shops. Or they line up at the tiny Western Union office to receive remittances from their relatives in the United States.
The policy of the American financial company is paradoxical. In some cities in Costa Rica they don’t allow the Cubans to take out money. A measure, Western Union in San Jose says by phone, that preceded the current immigration crisis of 4,000 Cubans stranded in Costa Rica after the decision by Daniel Ortega’s government to close the border at Penas Blancas.
In places like Paso Canoas, the Cuban “land rafters” cross into Panama to collect the money transfers. In Liberia, the Western Union offices pay in colones, the Costa Rican currency. Meanwhile, in other branches they can only take out 100 dollars.
“It’s a racist measure. If I get to the United States I’m going to sue them. What differentiates a Cuban from another citizen of the world,” says Yusdel Cueto, notably angry.
The inability to collect the transfers has created a network made up of Cubans and Costa Ricans. Every morning, a venerable looking man who says he’s a lawyer puts his laptop on the table at the El Descanso hostel to offer his services to Cubans in the Paso Canoas village, a stone’s throw from the border with Panama.
They call him ’the acceptance agent.’ “For a 10% commission the man takes care of paying the transfers,” says Ruben, a Cuban who has spent two weeks stranded in Costa Rica.
Consistent with the testimonies of the island’s migrants, some villages and towns with tiny economies have seen their businesses revive thanks to money from Cubans trying to get to the United States.
“Puerto Obaldia, in Panama, is a miserable hamlet of fishermen where the people are making money from the Cubans. The hotels in Paso Canoas, La Cruz and Penas Blancas are 90% occupied by Cubans. Including charging us higher prices, taking advantage of the moment and our needs,” says Ridel, a civil engineer who arrived in Costa Rica on 21 November.
While most Cubans count their pennies and anxiously await remittances from the United States, others have sufficient capital to rent rooms, pay for food, and live a dissipated life.
A hostel near the border can cost between 10 and 50 dollars a night. A breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and black beans), scrambled eggs and slices of bread, about two dollars. And the cheapest lunch is more than three dollars.
However, in El Mirador restaurant, in La Cruz, a dozen Cubans are drinking Costa Rican Imperial beer and paying for a dinner that costs about 45 dollars.
“Aren’t they worried about spending so much money in the midst of the current immigration crisis?” asks Gregorio Justiz, a Cuban who is drinking a double whiskey in a hostel, while watching the European Champion League play soccer.
“Not all the Cubans here are paying for the trip with money from their relatives in Florida. Some 60% to 70% have gotten the money by their own efforts. There are those who sold their houses for 30,000 or 40,000 dollars. I, for example, had 5 cars and 2 jeeps that I rented as taxis in Cuba. WIth the money from selling them I am paying for the trip, Although as a precaution I gave the money to a cousin in New York and he is sending it to me as I ask for it,” he said.
After noon, while Costa Rican volunteers serve lunch in the crowded shelters, a group of Cubans make a la carte food or rent cars to visit nearby beaches.
When night falls, a bar glows dimly on one side of La Cruz village park, and Cubans with ample wallets come to drink beer or rum with ice and flirt with the girls. Cuban or Costa Rican. It’s all the same.