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Costa Rica Ranks as Latin America’s Happiest Country. But There’s Trouble in Paradise | Opinion

Costa Rica ranked as Latin America’s happiest country in the 2023 World Happiness Report. But a record influx of refugees from Nicaragua, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Haiti, Russia and Ukraine is creating trouble in paradise.

President Rodrigo Chaves, a former World Bank economist who has just completed his first year in office, conceded to me in an interview this week that, “The situation is getting out of hand.”

Costa Rica already has about 1 million immigrants, which amounts to about 20% of its 5.1 million population. And new exiles from Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba are arriving daily.

“We have been an open country. [But] we give these migrants free education, health and social security,” Chaves said, noting that immigrants receive the same social benefits as all Costa Ricans. “That’s costing us a lot of money.”

Chaves said, “Costa Rica wants to continue being a good global citizen. But this is a global problem, and we can’t be the only ones paying the bill.” The United States and Canada, the final destinations of most recently arrived migrants in Costa Rica, “should help us more,” he noted.

If you have ever visited Costa Rica, you probably know why it has ranks so high in international happiness rankings.

It has long been an oasis of democracy on a violence-ridden continent and prides itself on having abolished its army in 1948, and of being one of the most eco-friendly counties on earth. Its laid-back citizens greet you saying, “Pura vida,” which means “Pure life” but can also be translated as “simple life” or “take it easy.”

Still, the economy has been stagnant in recent years, and Costa Rica’s homicide rate reached a historic record last year, mostly because of drug gang wars in the coastal city of Limon.

And the influx of refugees from nearby dictatorships is straining Costa Rica’s resources. Paying for refugees’ free healthcare, education and other services is costing the country between $200 and 300 million a year, Chaves told me.

While the United States has provided $800 million to Colombia to help it cope with the deluge of Venezuelan refugees, Costa Rica has not received much refugee aid from Washington, Chaves said. His government is trying to get a $20 million loan from the World Bank for refugee assistance.

President Biden’s recent toughening of asylum regulations, demanding that asylum seekers apply for U.S. entry in third countries, will make the situation much worse, Chaves said.

“People will have to wait for their U.S. visas in Costa Rica or other countries, and that puts additional pressure on us,” he said.

Manuel Orozco, a Central American analyst with the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank and a frequent critic of Chaves on domestic issues, says Costa Rica’s president is right about the negative impact of the new U.S. asylum rules on the country.

“Over the next six months, the buildup of refugees in Costa Rica is going to be a disaster,” Orozco told me. “And the Biden administration has given Costa Rica only fraction of what it has given other countries in the region for refugee assistance.”

Orozco says that, in addition to giving more refugee aid to Costa Rica, the U.S. government should impose escalating economic sanctions on Nicaragua’s dictatorship. Nicaragua is the biggest source of migrants to Costa Rica, and a country in which Washington still has significant economic leverage.

Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega recently stripped 94 of the country’s leading members of the opposition of their citizenship and sent them into exile. He had re-elected himself fraudulently in 2021, after his death squads killed more than 300 mostly peaceful protesters in 2018 street demonstrations.

Despite all of that, Nicaragua’s exports to the United States soared from $3.2 billion in 2017 to $5.7 billion in 2022, according to U.S. Census data. A recent Inter-American Dialogue study by Orozco calls for gradual sanctions on Nicaragua’s government-allied industrialists in the textile and mining sectors for not complying with the CAFTA free-trade agreement’s labor provisions.

I agree that it’s time to escalate sanctions against Nicaragua’s dictator and his business cronies. It’s no longer just a question of the Ortega regime’s brutal repression of its own people, but a refugee crisis that is spilling over to Nicaragua’s neighbors, and to the United States.

Even Costa Rica’s happiness is at risk.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show on Sundays at 8 pm E.T. on CNN en Español. Blog: www.andresoppenheimer.com

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