Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Nicaragua Day 9: “From misery to poverty”

This is one of the better factories in the free trade zones.

This is one of the better factories in the free trade zones.

MANAGUA – At 5:30 am the sun is rising over the Las Mercedes industrial park. The walkway into the park is long, at times multiple railings appear as if organizing queues for a theme park. On either side is a tall chain link fence, giving the appearance that those who come this way are being funnelled into the factories beyond. At the very end is a sentry post where workers' bags are inspected by guards before they head into the factories.

Along the walkway market stalls are being set up. It’s an instant mall for the workers, where they can buy anything from toilet paper to prescription drugs – no prescription required. The vendors know what their clientele will need over the course of the day.

We are here to hand out small booklets as part of a campaign organized by Maria Elena Cuadra, a women’s rights organization that is pushing for social change throughout Nicaragua. The booklets describe the contents of a new law about violence against women. This is significant in a country where violence against women, including rape, is not only commonplace, but deeply ingrained in the social culture.

The booklets were produced with funding from Oxfam and CIDA and have a little Canadian flag on the back.

The first few workers arrive and are happy to take the booklets. Soon it turns into a torrent as thousands of workers come down the walkway. We are prepared, the members of our delegation working with the women of MEC to get a booklet to everyone.

One man says he likes to hit women. Another man says he wants copies to give his friends and thinks the work MEC is doing is important.

The security guards do not hassle us, only asking that we shoot our video a little further away from the main gate. The new law is supported by the First Lady of Nicaragua, although the government appears to be doing little itself to advance the issue. The companies inside the gates are supportive and ask for their own copies.

MEC has loudspeakers at the entrance playing music in between ads promoting the campaign. The workers are well aware of who MEC are.

At 7 am it stops abruptly, that last few workers trickling into the zone. When we see the emptied walkway it’s evident that not a single worker discarded the booklet.

On the way back to our bus the music was still playing and a bus driver was dancing on the steps of his vehicle while finishing the last of his breakfast. All around are numerous buses that have brought the workers here.

The free trade zones were begun in Nicaragua to attract investment. In an age of savage capitalism, the government of the day felt it necessary to get into the game. Free trade zones do not play by the same labour rules as the rest of the economy. Today more than 100,000 Nicaraguans work in industrial parks like this for low pay and in often deplorable conditions. Most of these workers will start at 7 am and finish at 7 pm. Many will work longer than that if they have not met their production quota that day.

We are told that while the U.S.-owned factories are the best, it is the Korean factories that raise the ire of the workers. Women who have worked in these factories tell us of the difficulty in receiving the pay they are owed, in getting the factories to honour their state-legislated benefits, of monstrous working conditions including a limit of one visit to the toilet in a day. Another worker is assigned to time these toilet breaks. Some factories do not permit workers to move freely within the factory, insisting that they stay at their post for the full shift.

Factory workers make Levis Dockers at one of the better employers in the free trade zone.

Factory workers make Levis Dockers at one of the better employers in the free trade zone.

Later than morning we visit one of the better U.S. factories. The factory has been in existence for 12 years. For the past nine years the factory’s client has been Levis. Today the workers are making Dockers pants destined for the U.S. and Argentina.

It is unusual for us to be let inside one of these factories, but management here have had a good working relationship with both MEC and the local union.

Workers at the plant work from 7 am to 5:30 pm each day. They receive a 30-minute lunch and a morning break of 15-minutes. Minimum pay in this factory is $50 per week – which is high in the free trade zone. Minimum wage in the zone is $70 per month. An average family needs almost $500 a month to be able to afford the most basic of needs.

On top of the pay the factory employer is required to pay another 50 per cent towards the workers benefits – which includes setting aside enough money to pay a bonus of one-month’s pay in December. The government recognized that when workers are being paid less than subsistence wages, that the Christmas period puts extra pressure on them. While these are the rules, not every factory in the free trade zone obeys them. There is little interest shown by the government in enforcing them.

The co-founder of the factory tells us that he himself started out in a Korean factory and wanted to do better. Later we run into the general manager who is frank in telling us that he knows the pay is not sustaining. He says his factory at least takes workers “from misery to poverty.”

Treating workers better here, the plant itself is under pressure from other countries that have even lower standards. The company has already lost one client to Bangladesh. The manager says he would like to see an international minimum wage to stop this race to the bottom.

The workers say this is a particularly good factory because workers can go to the washroom whenever they need to, and there is no restrictions on their mobility on the shop floor.
There are 1700 workers in this factory the day we visit. At night there is another 1700 Nicaraguans who come for a second shift. The factory has to bus these workers home at the end of the shift because there is no public transit in Managua at that hour.

Our tour includes a trip to the medical clinic, of which the factory is quite proud. This employer will pay workers while they attend medical appointments, even if it is in the factory. The women of MEC say this has a downside – the company doctors and nurses are far less likely to give women sick time compared to doctors on the outside.

The company also pays wages while workers train. In general it takes 8-10 weeks to train a basic labourer. For more technical work it can take up to two to three years.

The MEC women tell us the Korean factories often turn over workers very quickly, sometimes firing them after three days and denying them pay.

Meeting at Maria Elena Cuadra.

Meeting at Maria Elena Cuadra.

Clearly for this factory, they see the workers as an investment and there are clear benefits to keeping them around.

There is also another reason to treat workers better – the company is subject to unannounced audits to maintain their status in the Better Work Program. Membership in the program is voluntary, but it makes the factory more attractive to companies that are worried about their corporate reputation. Growing public awareness of the Central American sweatshops is prompting some change in the free trade zone. We were told that Levis took some time before they could find a factory in Nicaragua that “they felt comfortable with.”

One of the managers says they need leadership in the factory, but they were trained as bosses.

During the tour of the factory floor we witnessed three workers taking material out of waste bags and transferring them to larger containers. All three workers were visually impaired. The company found it important to include employment for disabled workers.

After the factory we spent time at a mall that resembles any other in North America. The same brands, the same prices despite the much lower workers’ wages. Only the elite of Nicaraguan society can afford to shop here when a pair of pants can be as much as a month’s wages for a factory worker.

When we looked at the labels of the clothes in one department store, most were made in China, not Nicaragua.

Our final stop of the day was at the Managua offices of Maria Elena Cuadra. About 25 women and five men were waiting for us in the auditorium. For two hours they told us about their grievances in the factories and their pride in what MEC is achieving. They also wanted to know what we thought of the early morning distribution of booklets.

Present among the group were a number of journalists eager to interview Patricia Rebolledo from Horizons of Friendship. The last of the interviews took place aboard our bus as we waited to leave.

Nine days in Nicaragua we have seen how the global economy is impacting one of the poorest nations in the continent. It is here that we have seen capitalism’s savage face as it brutally exploits workers to offer us cheap goods in the aisles of our department stores. We have seen incredible degradation of the natural environment too. Every leader told us that climate change posed incredible risks to their nation.

One of many roadside venders in Managua.

One of many roadside vendors in Managua.

We have also seen organizations like Maria Elena Cuadra, AMICA and youth of the Oscar Arnulfo Romero Community Centre do incredible things to bring about positive change to their society.
Seeing a broken fountain sponsored by the Canadian government in Santa Marta, it wasn’t hard to recognize that development is not about bricks and mortar, but working with the communities to build human capacity for the future. This is the work of Cobourg’s Horizons of Friendship. We are grateful to have been taken along on this trip and amazed at the difference a small NGO from rural Ontario is making not only in Nicaragua, but throughout Central America.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Nicaragua Day 8 – Fear of flying

View of Managua from our flight.

View of Managua from our flight.

MANAGUA – Outside the Managua airport we were met by a representative from the Best Western hotel who asked about our flight. The Best Western Las Mercedes is located across the street from the airport, but still a van is required to take us there given the highway is not an easy crossing.

We asked if the hotel representative had ever been to the Atlantic Coast? He said no, that he had never flown in a plane. This is despite the fact that he works to the sound of arrivals and take-offs all day long. Like many who have never flown before, he said he was afraid to fly.
It’s an hour-long flight from Puerto Cabezas to Managua, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The roads across the country are not good, and a bus will take up the better part of a day to undertake the same journey. Some travel through Honduras to reach the Atlantic Coast, but the route is not considered safe.

The day began with a previously unscheduled meeting with the Mayor of Puerto Cabezas. Reynaldo Francis Watson has only been in the job for a month, but he already looks like he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.

The Mayor of Puerto Cabezas addresses the delegation from Horizons of Friendship.

The Mayor of Puerto Cabezas addresses the delegation from Horizons of Friendship.

Puerto Cabezas extends far beyond the immediate urban area. It takes in more than 80 local communities and covers a region with 320,000 citizens. About 40 per cent of the municipality live in the city. More are coming every day.

The Mayor tells us that he has a budget of $1.6 million, about 250 municipal staff, and the city owns one garbage truck. Turns out we had seen it for the first time that morning – more of a dump truck than the garbage trucks we are accustomed to seeing on the streets of our Canadian municipalities.

Garbage is everywhere, often providing food for the wild dogs and cats that wander the city. Along the roadside we encounter smoke as residents burn their garbage in the streets. Passing a creek we noticed that it is full of plastic bags waiting for a torrential rainfall to wash it all out to sea.

The degradation of the environment is a big concern for the Mayor. Puerto Cabezas has a beautiful beach, but you can’t swim there because it is contaminated by sewage. There is no sewage system in the city.

The beach is also considered to be unsafe. We are told it is regularly used as a landing point for drug smugglers.

Not surprisingly, between the burning of plastic and a questionable water system Puerto Cabezas has a problem with cancer. Unfortunately there is no cancer treatment in the city. Citizens have to fly to Managua for that, and most cannot afford the $150 U.S. to do so.

The Mayor says he has all the human resources he needs – labour is cheap here amid an unemployment rate of 60 per cent.

What he lacks is the resources to do anything. For example, Puerto Cabezas has the teachers it needs, but schools lack basics like blackboards or books. The teachers do their best, he says.
At present the city is undergoing an assessment as part of a new 10-year plan. The last 10-year plan made no accommodation for the natural disasters that befell the city, including hurricane Felix (2007) which considerably damaged the city’s infrastructure. As a result, the plan failed to reach its targets.

At present there is no plan for emergencies, which is a big deal in a country that regularly deals in natural disasters. They would like to change that.

The migration from the countryside is only adding to the Mayor’s woes. Between 80-100 people per day show up at the municipal building looking for social assistance.

He said the European Union has offered to build tourism infrastructure, but first they want the city to clean up the place. That’s easier said than done when you’re essentially broke and have little tax base to draw from.

Boarding the plane in Puerto Cabezas to return to Managua.

Boarding the plane in Puerto Cabezas to return to Managua.

In Nicaragua governments rely on agriculture, loans, donations and renegotiations of their debt. In Puerto Cabezas’ case, they are reeling from the recent withdrawal of support from the Japanese government even though every other car on the street is a Toyota. It seems everyone is abandoning the country.

The Mayor made his pitch for help, hoping that some twining agreements with far away municipalities will help. He is also looking to NGOs like Horizons to use their own contacts in the development world.

Cirilo Otero.

Cirilo Otero.

Back in Managua we had a visit at the hotel from Cirilo Otero, an academic and former labour activist. Otero described the labour movement in Nicaragua as strong up until the 1980s when it became co-opted by the Sandinistas. Even under the Somoza regime the construction unions had significant power which was feared by the government. In the late 1970s labour was at the forefront of many social struggles. Otero says now many of the labour leaders are in fact working directly for the government and tolerate little opposition. Given union votes are by show of hands, workers are often intimidated from diverting from the official plan.

Many of the 115,000 workers in the free trade zones are organized, he says, but the negotiated benefits often disappear when it comes time to apply the contract.

Strikes are banned in Nicaragua, and he says the labour movement has agreed not to hold any demonstrations for at least the next three years. This is despite an average minimum wage in the country of $70 per month.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Nicaragua Day 7: Some bumps along the road

Dog chases our bus on the highway to Santa Marta.

Dog chases our bus on the highway to Santa Marta.

SANTA MARTA - We were thankful for the rain. Without it we would have been forced to choose between the dust or the heat on the small Toyota bus as we made our way to Santa Marta. In Puerto Cabezas, none of the available charter  buses have air conditioning and opening the windows would have normally resulted in us choking from the dust rising up from the dirt highway.

The rain meant there was no dust, but it didn’t mean we would be spared the potholes which rattled us for almost two hours on our 60 kilometre journey. The bus itself was a hodge podge of seating cobbled together from other vehicles. The bench at the back of the bus was particularly stiff, sending us slipping both up and down and left and right as the driver swerved to miss the worst of the indentations on the road.

The highway turns into a dirt road before you even emerge from Puerto Cabezas, the landscape softly rolling before emerging onto a flat plain where the trees become fewer in number. You can count on one hand the number of vehicles we pass going in the opposite direction, most comprising of motorcycles or trucks.

At the first village we encounter a rope across the road just before a wooden bridge fording a river. A soldier asks us the purpose of our visit given we are about to enter an area that is controlled by Misk'tu indigenous peoples.

As we arrive a short while later at Santa Marta’s school we can hear singing from the nearby church. It’s Sunday, and we’ve arrived during a time of worship in a deeply religious community.

OPSEU's Rick Janson and Jeff Arbus toast with coconuts.

OPSEU’s Rick Janson and Jeff Arbus toast with coconuts.

It is therefore surprising to see about a dozen community leaders waiting for us. School desks are set up in a sheltered area between two buildings where a gentle cooling breeze exists. Before we have a chance to sit down, a man with a machete is cutting open a hole in the top of green coconuts for us to drink from. When the drink is done, we return and he cuts the coconut in half and makes cutlery from a piece of shell so that you can scoop out the creamy sweet coconut lining inside.

The faded signs of international aid agencies appear next to an infrastructure that has clearly run down. There is a Canada sign on a pair of water fountains that no longer work. It reminds us that one-time development is seldom sustainable. The project we came to hear about will likely have much more lasting effects on the community.

Nicaragua is very much a patriarchal society – or as the locals will tell you, there’s a problem with machismo. Up until recently the local women tell us that they thought it was their role to simply do what the men tell them to do.

The laws in Nicaragua are changing that, but a law is not social change by itself. Groups like AMICA – with support from Cobourg Ontario’s Horizons of Friendship – are looking to breathe life into these laws, educating women in communities like this. They are told they do have rights and are equal to men.

That work includes training community “judges” to interpret the new laws.  These Misk'tu judges are elected by the surrounding communities in a show of hands. Their initial term is for one year, and if they do a good job, can serve a second year. There is no pay for what they do – this is strictly voluntary.

Signs of past development that has run down.

Signs of past development that has run down.

Each community elects a judge and a back-up judge should the first not be able to fill their duties at any one time. They are part police (they can handcuff a suspect), part social worker, and part mediator in disputes. Disputes can involve anything from the ownership of a pig to sexual abuse. After being elected, the Nicaraguan authorities are notified that this person now is acting on behalf of the community.

Eventually the meeting in Santa Marta moves inside after the rain starts blowing into the shelter. Introductions are made, sometimes having to translate three ways from Misk'tu to Spanish to English.

As women become aware of their rights, one judge says it has caused a degree of conflict within his community. Some men have felt isolated by this new solidarity among women, and ironically it has led to the kind of related violence the new laws were intended to overcome. Several spoke of the importance of educating the men along with the women.

Another judge said that while the work is focussed on women, they want to make sure that the men understand. She said that she is undertaking to educate her own husband.

A videographer gathers material for the local news channel.

A videographer gathers material for the local news channel.

A woman judge said she had just been appointed in January. She held up a black book which serves as her case file. Getting the information around these cases is an important part of the work. These case files are in turn shared with AMICA and the Nicaraguan authorities and can be an important part of the judicial process. One of the requirements to be a judge is an ability to read and write.

Enforcing the new laws, she has been personally attacked 14 times. In Nicaragua getting attacked often means with a machete. She says before AMICA came to her village she had no idea about gender equality. Now she firmly believes in her mission and is resolved not to be intimidated. The judges are also supported by the community, including a growing number of women who want to be part of these changes.

Most women we met feel the new laws are making major improvements in their daily lives and asked Horizons not to abandon the education project.

They say they have seen the results. A judge removed a 14-year old girl from an abusive relationship with her family, sending her out of the community for protection and treatment. The parents initially refused to let her take the child, later threatening the judge. Today the child is studying in the Bluefields Indian Caribbean University at Puerto Cabezas and is doing well. The parents are now proud of their daughter, but realize their actions were inappropriate. They have asked the community for forgiveness.

Walking together to lunch after the meeting.

Walking together to lunch after the meeting.

The work AMICA and Horizons is doing also builds self-esteem. We were told that in one village women seldom raised their heads, keeping their eyes to the ground. All that has changed with new recognition of their rights.

Work in the community extends beyond the issue of violence. AMICA has been active in educating women about their personal health. Santa Marta and the surrounding communities have had an epidemic of uterine and breast cancer. They are encouraging women to be tested in the local health clinic.

The community members said they were amazed that we came from so far away to see them. One woman said it meant we must have “big hearts, pure hearts.” Some dressed their children in their best clothes to see us.

After the meeting we walked down the street to the home of one of the AMICA women who served up a traditional Nicaraguan feast.

A Nicaraguan feast in a Santa Marta home.

A Nicaraguan feast in a Santa Marta home.

Driving back along the bumpy highway we passed back through the first village on our travels. A baseball game was taking place, but all eyes turned to our bus as we made our way back to Puerto Cabezas.

AMICA is bringing about social change at incredible speed. Like the highway, there will be some bumps along the road, but their commitment suggests the journey will be worth it.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Nicaragua Day 6: The Mayor cuts class to greet us

The Mayor of Puerto Cabezas (left) cuts out of class to greet us.

The Mayor of Puerto Cabezas (left) cuts out of class to greet us.

PUERTO CABEZAS - The Mayor of Puerto Cabezas came out of his Saturday law class to greet us in the hallway. As little kids sold us bags of fruit outside the classrooms, arrangements were made for a more formal audience with the Mayor before we left town. Today we were at the local campus of Bluefields Indian Caribbean University where among other things, they are trying to educate local leaders in the law.

The University sees itself as answering the needs of its region accommodating more than 2,500 students in their degree programs. Prior to 1992 no university existed in the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. Those with academic ambition had to travel to the Pacific coast to study. Given these are five-year programs, few professionals ever made their way back to Puerto Cabezas.

One official told us “you could count on your fingers the number of professionals” that worked in the region prior to 1992.

For medical programs, the university specifically admits students based on geography, calculating that someone with a nursing degree is far more likely to eventually work in a remote location like Waspan, Bonanza or Siuna if they originally came from these communities.

The University also makes a point of admitting students from over the border in Honduras. Despite the poverty of Puerto Cabezas, the university insists that young people in nearby Honduras have it even worse.

University officials say they strongly believe that education is a right and do all they can to accommodate students. While the $35/year tuition may not be overwhelming, the cost of not working and living in a town far away from your family can be a daunting challenge.

Classroom in the former hospital.

Classroom in the former hospital.

The Puerto Cabezas campus was a cooperative agreement between Bluefields and the Moravian Church. The church has converted their former hospital in the city into a university after the Nicaraguan government had taken responsibility for health care.

As part of that agreement the university agreed to offer a Bachelor’s degree in theology. Many of the programs the school operates would not be out-of-place in a Canadian College setting, the emphasis on economic development.

That includes educating teachers for the region’s high schools. The university realizes that their future is tied up with a strong primary and secondary school system in their feeder communities.

The school particularly wants to address the high rate of violence in the region, picking up on the discussions we had with AMICA the day before. Given the violence is deeply ingrained in the community, the university is sensitive about addressing the issue while remaining respectful to the community.

As a relatively young institution — Bluefields Indian Caribbean University was only established in Puerto Cabeza in 1995 – the university would like to set up relationships with other academic institutions internationally, including the possibility of working on exchange programs.

Visiting a nearby museum to learn more about indigenous peoples.

Visiting a nearby museum to learn more about indigenous peoples.

Earlier in the day we visited a partner agency of AMICA. While AMICA focuses on the legal side of violence against women and children, it is the Nidia White Shelter that takes in AMICA’s clients when they have no place to go.

That morning the shelter was full of children, many who had suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of a family member. While the offices face onto the street in behind a tall chain link fence topped with barbed wire, the shelter itself is in a newer building at the back of the property.

The shelter is fortunate to have a psychologist on staff given the trauma women and children face before arriving on their doorstep. Victims often have difficulty with their self-esteem – childen often feel their body has no value after being sexually abused.

In Nicaragua mental illness gets little attention and the shelter can be called upon to support the hospital by sharing their professional resources.

Given the economic plight of women in the region, the shelter must also prepare women who are likely to return to the same circumstance in which they or their children were abused. The shelter advises them to keep their legal documents close at hand, to always have a suitcase packed and know which window they can easily get out of should the situation arise again. Few women are able to economically go out on their own, although some escape an abusive situation by moving in with relatives.

They also tell them to find someone they can talk to whether that be a family member, a local pastor, or someone else they can trust.

Alvolino Cox Molina shares his knowledge of Nicaraguan history.

Late afternoon it was back to AMICA, where two historians were waiting for us. The Misk'tu indigenous people were here long before others arrived in Nicaragua. At one point there were 33 different indigenous peoples living in the region. Today there are three.

Despite 500 years of colonialism, the Misk'tu are proud of maintaining their language and cultural identity. They see the present model of autonomous government as one other indigenous groups may want to emulate, including the Zapatistas in Mexico.

The historians say the Misk'tu needs more than cultural autonomy, they need meaningful economic autonomy too.

Day 5: The other Nicaragua

GAme day at the Puerto Carvaza ball park.

Game day at the Puerto Cabazas ball park.

The lobster fisherman of Puerto Cabezas don’t take boats out and cast traps in into the sea. Instead they take groups of men out in boats to dive into the sea to catch the lobsters by hand. It may be less efficient than their counterparts in Atlantic Canada, but it employs nearly 5,000 in this municipality of 320,000.

The problem is there are too many divers and the lobsters in the shallow waters have become less bountiful. That has pushed the divers into deeper waters. We were told that 1,400 divers have experienced decompression illness. Some have died.

At the offices of the regional government we were told they need to change the way fishers gather lobster, but setting traps would employ many fewer in a region that already suffers from high unemployment. Like all Nicaraguan problems, this is one that will have to be solved over time. A new form of employment is needed for those that would be displaced by a changing fishery.

Puerto Cabezas is on the northern end of the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. The colonial powers that have come and gone have left the residents speaking both Spanish and a Creole English in addition to the Misk'tu language. It has also influenced the housing, a mix of Caribbean and Spanish styles, that is when the four walls aren’t made up of scrap wood and the roof a hunk of tin. Many of the homes here are up on stilts to avoid the flooding from hurricanes that sweep in from the Caribbean.

Like the other cities we visited, there is smoke in the air as residents burn their garbage in the streets and dogs are either in sly observance or deep in siesta in every street. At night when the temperature cools they begin to bark and snarl at each other.

The Horizons delegation walks through smokey streets.

The Horizons delegation walks through smokey streets.

As we arrived crowds were wandering past our hotel to the baseball stadium where the local coastal team was to take on visitors from Managua. Outside the stadium stood crowds of mostly men peeking through chain link fences and openings in the stadium wall to avoid paying for a ticket.

As we had lunch at our host organization, you could hear the cheers as the home team took the lead in a game they went on to win.

AMICA is an indigenous women’s group that has high ambitions and a heartfelt commitment to make things better in the region’s communities.

A big part of that mission is changing values around violence against women, including rape. Rape is a big problem here. One woman spoke about coming to the AMICA-linked shelter after her husband tried to sexually assault their two oldest daughters.

The Nicaraguan government passed a landmark law last year dealing with rights of women to be free of violence, including sexual violence, but enforcement is not a priority in a country of many problems.

Meeting with officials at Government House.

Meeting with officials at Government House.

AMICA began in the aftermath of the Contra war. This is, after all, mostly Contra country. The people here feel they have very significant differences from their counterparts on the Pacific side of the nation. Most are Misk'tu, although there other indigenous people here too. Puerto Cabezas is also home to a concentration of Nicaraguans of African descent.

Initially formed to repatriate those who had fled north into Honduras during the fighting, AMICA sees itself in the context of society building, including educating the community on sexual and reproductive health, advocating for sustainable development and offering legal and support services to women and children who are the victims of violence.

To become effective, AMICA has developed a network of Alliances to get its voice heard and to gather support for its mission.

Cobourg Ontario’s Horizons of Friendship has been involved with AMICA for four years, providing funding to a series of projects, most around the issue of community violence. That includes having workers go out into the community and educate both men and women on the implications of law 779.

Children participate in a "cultural presentation" at AMICA.

Children participate in a “cultural presentation” at AMICA.

Demand for AMICA’s help is on the rise by women in crisis. While the new law is a major step forward, it also poses risks as the local men become frightened by the implications. Much work needs to be done in preparing civil society in Nicaragua for the new law.

Like community agencies back home, AMICA is always wondering where the next round of funding will come from. Many of the international development organizations have pulled out of this region. It’s why it’s so important that Horizons remains.

In mid-afternoon we met with several technical advisors at Government House to talk about the region’s troubles. They are not shy about bring forward their complaints about the government in Managua. While the region has about 10 per cent of Nicaragua’s population, they get one per cent of the government’s budget. This, they say, is a sign of discrimination because of who lives here.

They agreed that law 779 needs to have the justice infrastructure to go with it, although for now AMICA is making sure that women pursue their rights so that the law is enforced.

They know that the local economy has to change, although the distance from any major population center is significant. The roads to the Pacific coast are in poor shape, and one can expect to drive all day to get there. That has an impact on both goods coming in and those going out.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Nicaragua Day 4: Love and friendship on Valentine’s Day

A youth dance troupe performs for us at the Oscar Arnulfo Romero Community Centre in Nanaime.

A youth dance troupe performs for us at the Community Centre in Nandaime

NANDAIME – Valentine’s Day in Nicaragua is as much about friendship as it is love. Before the day was out, we would be finding both.

Nandaime is a quiet town of 40,000 residents – 20,000 in the so-called “urban area” – located south of Masaya. It fits the form of many other Spanish colonial towns built around an open square with the municipal building on one side and a church on the other.

In a country where people are continually in the streets, there were few people about town until the local high school emptied of the first shift on the day at about 11:30 am.

Education is a challenge in Nicaragua, and the local high school accommodates the local population by teaching three different groups per day in consecutive shifts.

You also notice that water runs through the streets of the town, turning into a significant flow on the street where the Oscar Arnulfo Romero Community Centre is located. Nandaime cannot afford a sewage system.

Navigating anywhere in Nicaragua involves having the bus driver stop from time to time to ask for directions. There are no street signs in Nicaragua, so the instructions usually involve driving a certain distance until you hit a landmark, like a gas station or a children’s library. The tourist map of Managua is mostly marked by landmarks to help the uninitiated find their way around. Our first guide suggested that there was a time when the metal on the street signs was put to better use by the locals.

With U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name” ringing in our heads, we arrived to a warm reception at the Romero Community Centre.

OPSEU's Jeff Arbus learns how to make a hammock.

OPSEU’s Jeff Arbus learns how to make a hammock.

Founded in 1989 by a Quebec Missionary who goes by the nickname “Santiago,” the Centre serves the children and youth of the region. The centerpiece of the operation is a community radio station operated by the youth. Each day it broadcasts from 6 am to 6 pm – the hours recently shortened due to the high cost of electricity.

On this day the station is undergoing renovations – a second floor is being built so the youth of Nandaime can branch out into video production. The funding is coming from another development agency in Canada.

Radio Nandaime is run by the community for the community and often out in the community as they set up for remote broadcasts. News is broadcast twice a day – at 6:30 am and at noon. The youth are quick to point out that they focus on issues of importance and avoid “bloody” news – stories that involve violence.

All the music played on the radio is Nicaraguan – you won’t find Bono wailing about the lack of street signs here. However, the community does get the opportunity to choose which music is played during a regular call-in program.

Another show, “Youth Ready To Jump” deals with news and issues specific to youth. The idea is to spark discussion among young people to promote solutions for the problems they identify.
Today we heard a campaign ad urging people not to throw their garbage outside when it rains.
The show “Maracas” showcases talents in Nandaime from interviews with artisans ranging from painters to dancers.

A veteran of the Contra War tells his story.

A veteran of the Contra War tells his story.

When we emerged from the station, a number of youth were in the centre’s open air theatre waiting for us. One by one they presented us with our own maracas, each carved with our names. Like the show, they view maracas as a symbol: the instrument carries a variety of seeds inside, much like the talents in their own community.

The Centre is much more than the radio station. There is a theatre group that produces plays about pressing social issues. There is a dance troupe. Young people learn skills such as hammock-making – a source of stable income for many in the region.

Lately students have been learning about the value of citizenship. That includes becoming better informed about their own rights and responsibilities toward their community. It is also about capacity building – starting with the importance of self-esteem in a region where losing hope is all too easy. One student told us that after the citizenship program he decided that he wanted to become part of the national police to be able to help people.

Young people are encouraged to come up with a life plan, including a strategy to accomplish their own projects, whether that be at the centre, among family, or by pressing for change at the municipal level.

During the day we attended lectures about the economic life and history of Nicaragua. We heard a veteran of the Contra war talk about the battles he engaged in, including the one where he stepped on a mine and lost his leg.

While the day needed no finale, we got one anyway as we joined an audience of community members for a special performance of theatre and dance.

Horizons of Friendship has been the only development organization to make a long-term commitment to the Centre. When Horizon’s Patricia Rebolledo gets off the bus, she is hugged by young people who are bursting to see her. Many of the individuals who presently run the Centre started there as young children. They have come of age under this partnership with Horizons. It’s hard to imagine what the youth of Nandaime would do without it.

Patricia Rebolledo receives a ceramic plate and a certficate recognizing Horizon's 40th year.

Patricia Rebolledo receives recognition of Horizons' 40th year.

Nicaragua has difficulty retaining the involvement of the international development community. The government has set its own terms on how involvement is supposed to work, which brought it into conflict with numerous international non-governmental agencies. Many European NGOs have decided that they want to focus closer at hand in Africa rather than Central America.

After a surprise presentation by the children and youth celebrating Horizons' 40 years, Patricia vows that Horizons will continue to be there for the children and youth of Nandaime. She then thanked those present who have supported Horizons, including members of the labour movement.

The fate of these children and youth has been forever changed by the work done at this centre. We were truly impressed by the thoughtfulness and caring of the young people we met there.
With the Harper government increasingly cutting its ties to groups like Horizons, it may be time for progressive organizations in Canada to realize they too have responsibilities outside our own borders.