Nicaragua-Costa Rica Border Crisis: Nearly a Thousand Stranded Truckers

Stranded truck drivers near the Nicaragua-Costa Rican border. The line of parked trucks extends for 25 kilometers. Photo: Esta Semana

Costa Rica imposes strict sanitary measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19.  Central America reacts and Ortega closes the border post.

By Ivan Olivares (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – Between the intersection known as La Virgen in the Nicaraguan city of Rivas and the border control post of Penas Blancas on the Costa Rican border, there’s a line of trucks that stretches for 25 kilometers (15.5 miles).

The 942 freight trucks loaded with food, metals, medicine, toilet paper, glass and different equipment and merchandise come from all the Central American countries, including Nicaragua.

“I came in [from Honduras] via El Espino, on Sunday, May 10, and I’ve been in line here since Monday, May 11, says Jesus Antonio Benitez, a Salvadoran driver. Nearby, Sergio Ruiz Fletes, a Nicaraguan truck driver, now marks twelve days stranded at the border together with hundreds of truckers.

The crisis broke out when Costa Rica imposed strict sanitary measures on the transporters to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in their country.

On the Costa Rican side, the independent newspaper “The Voice of Guanacaste” chronicles: “an immense serpent of [northbound] trucks extends from the Costa Rican town of Sonzapote de La Cruz, 13 kilometers (8 miles) from the Penas Blancas border station into Nicaragua… truckers on the border with Nicaragua wait with little access to water, food and bathrooms.”

When dozens of truckers were detected as testing positive for Covid-19, the Costa Rican authorities ordered that all cargo entering their territory should be transported only as far as the border, after which Costa Rican truck drivers would assume the work of getting them to their final destination. This generated an immediate rejection from the region’s governments, while Nicaragua then ordered the closure of the border post on their side.

Business owners question viability

The export companies and the truckers questioned the viability of the Costa Rican measure. “No one is going to turn their truck over to be driven by an unknown person, when you don’t know if they’re going to switch out some part. That decision also isn’t viable for insurance reasons,” explained Guillermo Jacoby, president of the Nicaraguan Association of Producers and Exporters (APEN).

It’s also impractical to consider unhooking the truck trailers and reattaching them to a new cab, a maneuver that requires a large area to perform. Finally, there’s the fact that the truckers reach their destination ready to load up again with a return cargo, which allows them to make their trips profitable.

“If on the return trip, the trailer is empty, that lack of freight can raise the cost of products 70%,” Jacoby asserted.

Given the scope of the crisis that’s been generated, the Costa Rican authorities have met several times with their Nicaraguan and Panamanian colleagues in search of a solution. However, up until now, these negotiations have only been partially successful with the Panamanian authorities.

“A solution was reached between the Panamanian government and that of Costa Rica, but since the truckers themselves weren’t taken into account, and issued a communique on Friday morning saying ‘that if Central America doesn’t make an arrangement, we’re not going forward, and we’ll keep all the exits blocked’,” stated Jacoby, who also serves as president of the Federation of Central American and Caribbean Exporter Chambers and Associations.

To be satisfactory, Jacoby noted, a solution should consider the interests of the four interested parties: the governments, the truckers, the exporters and the importers.

COVID-19 test

Every day that passes without a solution represents millions in losses for reginal commerce, especially for Costa Rican exporters, who depend on the raw materials that right now are deadlocked at the border. Meanwhile, more than 1,600 truck drivers on both sides of the border are living their own crisis.

Confidencial spoke with eight of these Central American truckers, who told of the difficulties they face just to get water to drink or to shower: the lack of sanitary facilities, the boredom, the gnats, the lack of money after ten or twelve days in a place where they hadn’t planned on staying. Some others have been robbed.

The drivers we talked to stated that they didn’t get tested for COVID-19 when they left their countries, nor when they entered Nicaragua, but that they’d be willing to do so in Costa Rica if that’s going to be a new requirement for being allowed to proceed. However, they’d do so under the condition that they also be protected.

“I’d do it if it’s a requirement to enter, but the person who tests me would have to change their gloves in front of me, and I’d need to know that the swab they’re going to put in my nose is new. The person wearing gloves is protecting themselves, but not protecting the other person, because if they touch a lot of people with the same glove, it’s possible that person is infecting others,” asserted Salvadoran Victor Adan Fuentes, who transports products of the Kimberly Clark Company from his country to Panama.

“It’s absurd for them to test everybody, when the individual is in good health. Let them do it to someone who arrives with symptoms, who has a sore throat, high fever, and all the symptoms that they say it gives. They should do it to them, that’s fine. We’re not opposed, but we also don’t want to be guinea pigs,” declared another Salvadoran trucker, Jesus Antonio Benitez, who was carrying toilet paper to the Costa Rican city of Alajuela.

Complaints about Costa Rica’s decision

Many of the foreign truckers suffering in this crisis, and even one Costa Rican transporter, complained about the Costa Rican authorities.

“I can’t enter Costa Rican territory because of the government, the bad government that we have,” affirmed Costa Rican Luis Chacon who was transporting cardboard from San Pedro Sula in Honduras to pack the bananas that Costa Rica exports.

Chacon complained: “They never warned us that they were going to close the borders. They never arranged certain days for the closure…. They closed because, according to them, they have to due to the Coronavirus, but they don’t have the capacity to carry something out the way it should be. Never.”

Salvadoran Jesus Antonio Benitez is clear that “the solution is for the Costa Ricans to understand that we, the other Central Americans – because they say, ‘you, the Central Americans’, maybe they believe they’re Irish – but anyway, we bring them the things that come from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala or Mexico. They need all of this, be it raw materials or finished products.”

“They need to get off their high horses and… be a little humbler, and see that they need what we’re bringing,” he insisted.

Guatemalan Adolfo Chinchilla also feels belittled by the Costa Rican decision to “not let either Costa Rican or those of us that are Central Americans enter.”

Nationalism and nationalities apart, the truckers have bonded over the limitations they’re living with and the risk of getting sick, not only from Covid-19, but from any of the seasonal bugs or ones caused by the poor sanitary conditions they’re living under.

Eduardo Aldana is a Salvadoran carrying medicine to San Jose, on a trip that began 14 days ago but which he still doesn’t know when it will end.

“The difficulties I’m going through are mainly economic, because the expenses have been much greater than what was budgeted,” he said, adding that in his work, “you earn by the trip.  Having this delay of eight, twelve or fifteen days, means time you’re no longer earning anything.” He noted that not everyone is receiving additional expense allotments for the time they’ve spent stranded in this border limbo.

Aldana also complained: “the prices for the food or water they sell us are sky-high. We’re also uncomfortable about our health, because we don’t know if what we’re eating is well prepared… and we’re not at all close to any place where we could look for medical attention.”

Heavy transport trucks parked near the Nicaraguan city of Rivas on Wednesday, May 20, part of a line of trucks stranded on both sides of Penas Blancas, on the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Photo: Jorge Torres / EFE

Hoping for an agreement this Monday

Despite the affronts and the accumulated tension, the truckers and the business owners hope that on Monday, May 25, a solution can be agreed upon for normalizing operations at the Costa Rican borders.

Guatemalan transport worker Adolfo Chinchilla Chacon is awaiting the result of the meeting “to see what solution, what response Costa Rica has.”

For his part, APEN president Guillermo Jacoby is also awaiting the meeting. “The governments are responding to the urgency of the case. However, the most important thing is that the governments also be effective in making the needed consultations, because you can’t simply make an agreement between [two] governments without taking into consideration the points of view of the other three,” Jacoby warned.