17th January 2011
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by Rachel Gittinger
Today, we honor Martin Luther King Jr., a man who stood for justice and equality in face of great adversity. We are reminded that despite progress since the civil rights movement, both the USA and the world continue to face xenophobia and other divisive forces. Fundación Mujer demonstrates that microcredit can be one tool that effectively counters these challenges and offers opportunity to the oppressed.
Costa Rica is a country known for keeping the peace. In fact, they are often referred to as the “Switzerland of the Americas”. In 1948 the army was abolished and military spending was directed into social programs such as education. Today, Costa Rica has one of the highest literacy rates in Central America, at 94.9% (CIA World Factbook). This, among other historical characteristics, has allowed Costa Rica a development unique to that of its Central American neighbors. For example, as peace-loving social democracy, Costa Rica was spared some of the bitter wars and American involvement that plagued many other countries in Central America during the 70s and 80s. However, the news is not all positive. Costa Rica’s black population still faces discrimination. In fact, they were not bestowed citizenship until 1948. Limón, the Caribbean province where the black population is concentrated, remains the poorest province in Costa Rica. Racial slurs and xenophobia are still quite common, both towards the blacks and other minority populations, such as Nicaraguan immigrants.
In 2010 Costa Rica had a GDP per capita of $11,400 compared to a mere $2,900 in Nicaragua. (CIA World Factbook) This economic disparity has created a transnational migration. Currently, there are an estimated 300,000-500,000 Nicaraguans, both legal and illegal, working in Costa Rica. (CIA) Nicaraguans continue to arrive in search of work, hope, and opportunity in Costa Rica. Some come for seasonal work such as produce harvesting, while others are here to stay. This seems to be the limit to Costa Rica’s tolerance. These workers, legal or not, are often abused, forced to take jobs paying well below the minimum wage, and work under conditions that no Costa Rican would consider accepting. They were once welcomed, but recent economic struggles have prompted Costa Ricans to accuse Nicaraguans of stealing jobs and over-burdening the welfare system in search of health and education services. Sound familiar? Nicaraguans face the same issues that plague the Latino immigrants crossing the border into the United States.
Microcredit institutions in both countries can help to level the playing field. Here in Costa Rica, Fundación Mujer does not discriminate based on nationality, and many of their clients are hard-working Nicaraguan immigrants. One success story in particular is that of Doña Emelina. In 1987 she arrived in Costa Rica, desperate for a doctor capable of diagnosing and curing the illness that plagued her 4 year old son. Emelina arrived in Costa Rica with nothing and she began working as a seamstress to provide for her two children and pay the medical bills. She eventually solicited a loan from Fundación Mujer to expand her business. She has received 5 micro-loans. Today, her son is healthy and designs clothing for the business. She recently received an international contract to produce the uniforms for a Central American department store and employs between 7 and 10 workers. She hopes that the training and work that she provides will allow each of her employees with both the means and inspiration to reach their own life goals.
Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to advocating for a social climate that allowed each individual the opportunity to pursue their dreams. Neither politics nor personal attack changed his convictions about the dignity of humanity, and the rights of each individual to be treated with respect. Costa Rica currently faces the same challenge. Since November, an ongoing border dispute with Nicaragua has threatened the peace, and caused a surge in racism towards Nicaraguan immigrants. It is leadership of just individuals and institutions, such as Fundacion Mujer, that counters this racism and continues to treat these immigrants with the respect, dignity, and opportunity that they deserve.