The Nicaraguan Canal and Cry of Culture

IMG_2061Managua          The proposed “grand canal,” as the project is called in Nicaragua is the 72nd proposal in the last 500 years to build a waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean through Lake Nicaragua, the largest freshwater lake in Central America, and the San Juan River. This time it’s a no-bid 100-year concession signed between President Daniel Ortega and a 41-year old Chinese businessman, Wang Jing, for a $40 billion operation that the most optimistic claims believe would be finished by 2019 and according to the government double the economy and create 400,000 jobs. Unions have embraced the project as a jobs creator. Environmentalists are horrified. Mostly locals are keeping quiet about the project.

The engineering obstacles are huge and perhaps daunting. The lake would have to be dredged twice its current depth to 90 feet and the canal would take up almost half its acreage, which is the source of drinking water for Managua. There are concerns that feeder rivers to the lake might have to be dammed to maintain the water level necessary for these huge ocean containers. There are fears about invasive species being allowed between the oceans. An environmental impact statement has been contracted through a professor from George Mason University in Virginia, but there’s no date for completion. One skeptic the Organizers’ Forum delegation met with raised another concern often overlooked that the 100-year concession to Jing would give his operation control and imminent domain rights at prices unilaterally set for half of the land area in the entire country.

Perhaps many are simply adopting a “wait and see” position since Jing’s Hong Kong Nicaragua Development Company was supposed to come up with firm financing by the first of this year, but has thus far said nothing. Jing claims the Chinese government is not behind the project or willing to finance, but it’s unclear to Nicaraguans where else this kind of money could come from.

Before our Friday afternoon meetings some of us caught a couple of cabs to University of Central America, a Jesuit founded university in Managua. We were following the trail to a collection there of “relics” of Augusto Sandino and early Sandinista history housed somewhere on campus. In the serendipity of hidden pleasures found in the risk-and-rewards of international travel, we never found the relics, but we were treated to a tour of the biology collection of flora, fauna, geology, and shells of Nicaragua as well as a semi-diorama of various birds from the area. Finally before our helpful staffers conceded we would not be able to see the relics we were walked over to the large art space where the director gave us a shoulder shrugging tour of the work done by an art collective on the canal. Her diffidence underscored her oft repeated point that this was not a UCA endorsed position but “art, you know,” so you take it or leave it.


What it was in fact was the most sustained protest about the canal plans that we saw anywhere in Nicaragua. One installation after another made it abundantly clear that the artists were stating clearly that the canal project was essentially a Chinese takeover of Nicaraguan sovereignty, and also a potential environmental, and purposeless, disaster. One of the most powerful pieces showed a small lizard crawling out of the canal to a wasteland symbolizing the ruins of Lake Nicaragua. Another piece was a long running video of a loudspeaker truck driving through miles and miles, village after village throughout the country following the potential route of the canal and announcing the news that all of the listeners would need to be relocated. Piece after piece echoed the politically profound cries of culture, searing the protest powerfully, but deeply, in all of us as we walked from one display to another, amazed at this hidden, almost invisible gem, we had stumbled on in Managua.








Nicaragua for My Father

1560550_10101026878658975_1626274147673135687_nNew Orleans       My father, much missed, used to ask me whenever I returned from a country “new” to both of us not to tell him so much about what I had done, but what I had seen that would surprise or interest him.   In many ways, Nicaragua surprised all of us from the Organizers’ Forum.  We knew we were going to Central America and one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and we had read the Lonely Planet notions of the country well enough to know that Managua was not going to be something that classified as a tourist destination, but none of that was really adequate preparation.

            In fact all of us found ourselves surprised and impressed with the urban infrastructure of Managua.  The buildings may have not been the tall towers of other Latin American capitols in the rebuilding from a revolution, boycott, and earthquake disasters, but it was solid.  The airport was amazingly efficient.  I have never been through customs and baggage pickup more quickly anywhere in the world, including the USA.  The airport was modern without being ostentatious, and clean as a whistle, so I had better add this on the front end of these notes, that I cannot remember a cleaner country from the city to the countryside than Nicaragua.  The bustle of Leon, when we visited there, and some trash on the side streets almost came as a relief, that these were people of our same species!


            There aren’t that many main thoroughfares in Managua but they were smoothly paved with frequent roundabouts that kept traffic moving briskly even when we were navigating rush hours.  Visiting the barrio of Tipitapa, a lower income, working areas, where we might have expected more rutted and dirt roads, the streets were paved and many were curbed.  Without saying so, many of us were thinking, “if this is a slum, this is better than many of our neighborhoods!”  There were issues, but it was decent.  Our ACORN Honduras organizers marveled continually, as we all did, at the security of the centro and the barrios.  There was one guard at the hotel, but this was not a country where security was everywhere, armed and ready.  Government worked here at that very fundamental, and critical, level.


            We were there during a multi-day Independence Day celebration.  Revolutionary Square though was relatively empty on the Sunday we went by, especially compared to the amusement and food area along the lake.  Government was ubiquitous, but not as suffocating as we found in Vietnam for example.  Though the President Daniel Ortega’s government is currently often labeled a kleptocracy, the party, the FSLN, is more prominently at the forefront than a cult of personality for the president.  They wisely embrace Augusto Sandino and his struggle predating the Sandinistas as their iconic image.


            The food was standard fare, dominated by rice, beans, and plantains, though the pitahaya fruit, which is also called dragon fruit in Nicaragua, and grows from a cactus was a revelation, producing a rich purple drink that was simply delicious.  Excuse me, while I go get an importing license for ACORN International!

Throughout the neighborhoods pedicabs were everywhere, rivaling Indian bicycle rickshaws, but with a totally different design, less a frontloading basket design, than an efficient box with seating, which was very interesting and practical.  And, of course taxis were numerous as well as the kind of repurposed school bus designs called collectivos in Argentina. 




Grenada and Leon were not the colonial cities we expected after Antigua, Guatemala or San Miguel del Allende, Mexico, but on the plus side, none of these were the ex-patriot, tourist centers creating English-speaking islands in those countries.  In fact interestingly, the only major signs of mass foreign tourism we saw were the surf boarders coming and going from the airport.

My grandfather’s name was Erdman, which means “man of the soil” in German, and that had been our family heritage forever in Germany and even in the United States until my father, so what would have interested my father the most would have been our visits to the farms or fincas outside of Matagalpa.  The lemon and orange trees would have reminded him of California, along with the chickens and roosters running in yard, which I remember well from my grandfather’s place in Orange County on our infrequent visits as well.  The rich, wet soil and the rows of well-tended coffee plants interspersed between fences of hibiscus or tall and straight cactus and the huge pride of the cooperative farmers, optimistic even in the grip of the roya epidemic, would have had my dad wondering if it were time to see about buying a hectare for himself, just as I have often debated every time I’ve walked under the shade of tall trees and held the green coffee plants in my hands, while adjusting my feet to the steep incline.




Insiders and Outsiders in Nicaragua: The Isolated Atlantic and the Growing FNT


Organizers Forum crew with Jose Angel Bermudez, head of FNT, a labor federation.

Managua      In our final day of meetings we got a sense of the growing power of organized labor in Nicaragua and the continued, and perhaps increasing, isolation of the population along the Atlantic Coast, as we met Jose Angel Bermudez, the general secretary of the FNT, the Federation Nacional Trabajadores and Jennipher Ellis, a young organizer for an interesting coalition of groups based around Bluefields in the far east of the country.

Bermudez is the kind of labor leader that it is almost impossible not to respect. He founded the union of informal workers and then later was a key founder of the FNT, the AFL-CIO of Nicaragua, and has presided over its growth to over 200,000 members and a 15% density and what he claimed is the largest federation in Central America. He isn’t finished and wants to see 500,000 members in the federation. The constitution of Nicaragua gives him a good shot at these goals since now the right to organize and the right to strike are both enshrined there and the union is given what he calls “a seat at the table” at almost all levels of commerce and government. He enjoyed telling us that the IMF in a report said that the business climate was bad in Nicaragua because labor unions were too strong. When he saw their report, he had it copied and circulated throughout their member unions.

A union can be formed and engage in bargaining with a company once it has 20 members, so this is a multi-union rather than exclusive representation system. Every union in a workplace is around the table during bargaining with the company, and the government is there in a tripartite system, he says as a mediator. Strikes have dropped from almost 500 during the 16 years when the Sandinistas were out of power to only 3 in the last 7 years under Ortega. Unions are allowed to observe ministerial meetings of the government and are consulted on business development. As expected, the FNT is a huge supporter of the proposed grand canal joining the oceans because of the massive employment promised by both the construction and the attendant development. At the same time consistent with his experience as an organizer, he sees the largest growth in the FNT’s future ability to organize agricultural workers and other workers where they are still weaker. Unions affiliated with the FNT hold 80% of the union membership in Nicaragua.

In the way that FNT is at the table everywhere, Jennipher Ellis after a 24 hour bus ride from her Bluff community around Bluefields, a 40,000 population municipality on the Atlantic Coast, told us her very multi-cultural, diverse, and environmentally rich area is isolated and ignored. When asked about the impact of many of the hiring quotas and new laws, her response was largely that they hadn’t “reached” Bluefields. Jobs were scare. Many of the 50 members of her 5-year old organization were young, educated professionals, virtually all of whom were unemployed. Bluefields is a port city and has been since it was a favored haven of pirates centuries ago. Its beauty attracts cruise ships and tourism from around the world and its port is a magnet for oil tankers and exploration rigs and the workers looking for shore leave and the issues associated with any port of call. Just to be heard would be a revolution of sorts on the Atlantic Coast, and the notion of a seat at the table seemed laughable to her.


Organizer Forum Crew with Jennipher Ellis, a young organizer for an interesting coalition of groups based around Bluefields in the far east of the country.

The canal plans were unsettling to them, partly because they were skeptical of the benefits and fearful of the impacts both in terms of the environment and land acquisition. She was confident even with the southern exit of the canal considerably below Bluefields that the beauty of their area would sustain it as it had in the past, but she was doubtful the benefits would expand throughout the autonomous Atlantic.

When I asked what might happen if they demanded jobs and tried to protect the land? Sister Ellis responded that they would finally see “what autonomy really means” for their department. ACORN promised to follow up with her and support development of their organization to their 500 members’ goal through an affiliation and assistance on their campaigns as well.

In the final meeting of this year’s Organizing Forum international dialogue we were all intrigued whether there was a way to help see the promises of the government on paper brought in reality to all of the population. Bluefields seemed like a good test of that question.




Seeing Roya Firsthand In the Coffee Fincas of Matagalpa with COOMPROCOM

IMG_1947Managua          We rolled out at dawn for Matagalpa with Managua stirring all around us as the city waited on corners for buses to work. In two and a half hours ,we were rolling up the narrow streets and steep hills looking for the gas station near the Centro, which was our landmark, in a journey that took twice as long in 1981 and included some dirt roads in patches. We were meeting Ervin Calixto Miranda, the secretary general of the COOMPROCOM coffee cooperative. We wanted to see the impact of the roya or coffee rust epidemic firsthand, as well as understanding more about the challenges faced by cooperatives in contemporary Nicaragua.

If you ever want to fully understand from nuts to bolts how a coffee cooperative works, and the immense challenges they face, particularly financial, find Ervin! Before we left to scale the mountain and visit several farms (fincas), Senor Calixto gave us a master class in the financial struggles of a cooperative and its individual farmers. Ervin had been raised on a farm, as had all of his staff, and managed to go to university and a career in finance, before coming home to the cooperative, so he could break it down for us.

COOMPROCOM started in 2002 with 52 members and now has grown to 250. In the beginning they were 100% organic, but are only 40% now, and roya is no small part of the problem, though economics are also challenging as well. For their organic and fairtrade coffee some of their farmers have a series of certifications, all of which cost them money and make them money. Organic certification gives the producer 30 cents more per pound, and costs 5 cents per pound of coffee to achieve. Fairtrade certification from FLO, the Fairtrade Licensing Organization in Bonn, Germany gives them another 20 cents/pound and costs 3 cents, and those that have the additional Rainforest Action Network certification make another 15 cents/pound at a cost of 5 cents/pound. It all adds up and for those farmers growing conventional Arabica beans, they can get almost as much per quintal, without the costs and the years of work to achieve the number. A farmer gets $160 per quintal for conventional and about $180 with the certifications.

A quintal is a classic weight measurement that is the standard for Central American coffee and equals a hundred kilograms or roughly 220 pounds. Ervin broke out the rest of the costs per quintal for us as well. Processing would cost $10, taxes $5, and they were rising, exporting would be another $6.00, the Cooperative fees were 5 cents per pound or about $10, if I followed him correctly. The farmer is lucky to have $154 from the $180 quintal, which is part of the short term tension between conventional and the whole package. You have to believe that the savings on different pesticides will be offset over time.

All of which is challenged by the roya epidemic which we saw firsthand up the mountain. One small farm we visited had lost 90% of his production. The last two years saw the roya reduce 25% of production across the coop for the first attack, and then 13% more in the second attack in the second year for an average decline of 38%. Organic plants are hit worse. Ervin and some of the farmers showed us their work in pruning to strengthen the plant as well as the new plants being put into production for the next three year growing cycle. They were experimenting with a more resistant form of coffee plant, but couldn’t tell if it would match the quality standard. Part of the roya problem is that it reduces the quality by weakening the bean and a cup rating of 82 won’t sell, while there will be a line for an 86 cup. We saw some plants with the roya spots still on them that were now resistant. One small farm with loans from the coop was going through the whole process of rebuilding his crop to top certifications. Where we visited at 2100 meters or almost 6900 feet on the climatic edge of the rain forest, the coffee plants were luxuriant. This was a well-run cooperative, and it seemed that the right steps were being taken, and they would make it.


Drummond Pike, who had visited 30 years ago, when cooperatives were a dream, saw real hope here, as all of us did, but they were doing it on their own. The financing was tenuous and based on contracts and long standing relationships with their broker in England and their markets there and in the USA, so there was no government assistance, credit was thin, and growth past 300 members seemed untenable in their view for protecting quality standards.

Meanwhile fewer children were staying on the farms. The roya was pushing them into other crops while they regenerated the farms. Worse, the math was precarious. Producers getting less than a dollar a pound at the ground level for coffee selling at least that and often double and triple for the consumer, is a market efficiency that continues to leave the farmer in perilous shape in rough living conditions and hard work, and those of us supporting fairtrade coffee wondering if all of this is sustainable either at the back end or the frontend.









Father Rob Currie in Arenal, Nicaragua Has Organized in the “Vineyards”

10482266_720714671309204_689784141884698548_oManagua          Mike Gallagher, veteran organizer and longtime friend and comrade, told me after his stay in Nicaragua earlier this year that Bob Currie was worth a visit. On the calendar for the Organizers’ Forum I had marked “small village case study.” I’m not sure if Father Currie had suggested that topic or someone else, but when we opened the sessions for our dialogue we were each greeted by a warm abrazos and a huge smile, each of us must have sensed we were in for something special and there wasn’t going to be anything small about this case study.

From the beginning Father Currie offered us a choice of going right to questions and answers about Nicaragua or hearing about work as an organizer, and fortunately I chose the long road, and it was well worth it. Currie had begun his time as a Jesuit with an assignment to Bihar, India in 1966 at 26 years old and found himself in the poorest state in that country working in rural areas where he was almost overwhelmed by the oppression everywhere around him. Originally from Philadelphia, he had to go home due to his father’s illness, and found himself in Chicago searching for tools he could use in India, and ended up working as an organizer with Tom Gaudette, Shel Trapp, and others in building the famous Organization for a Better Austin, OBA. The turning point for him was having a landlord his group had targeted come looking for him in the office, ranting and raving, and then seeing the landlord eviscerated by his leaders later the same evening at the meeting as they went from anger to power. Back in India he started organizing around land reform and practices, and found himself expelled during the time of troubles with Indira Gandhi.

Back in the United States he ended up in West Virginia, and once again it didn’t take long for him to realize that land was the issue there as well, along with the coal companies that controlled it. Once pushed out of West Virginia by church hierarchy, he ended up working in Kentucky and then at the Highlander Center on seminal research being done by John Gaventa on land control and taxes throughout Appalachia. In the wake of the Nicaraguan revolution,  he went to see how to help and in 1988 ended up assigned to work in a cooperative in Arenal, a rural community of 700 families and a combination of five villages with 7000 residents, where he watched and waited, endured the hurricane, and in his words, “farmed for 8 years.” When the cooperative asked him to expand his organizing the result was the creation of a network of education, youth, and other groups that called themselves GRUDESA (Go de Solidaridad-Arenal, the Arenal Solidarity Group).

He counts his work in measured specifics. In working with young people from the area, 90 have now gone to universities and 50 have graduated. In the one piece I could find that Currie had written he described his early work:

It was during this time that three young women of Arenal became our first three university students. We also initiated an alternative reading program for little ones in the community, introducing them to the wonders of reading. We tried to improve the local health center, organizing to ensure the presence of a doctor two or three days a week, and pressuring the government to provide more medicines. We worked to defend the community cooperative against former landlords who were trying to take back the lands of the cooperative by force; likewise, through the cooperative we initiated a nutrition program for children in the community.


Change has involved conflict. He noted that the emergence of women’s leadership in so many of their efforts has upset and disoriented many of the older men unused to this, especially now that they have also organized a cooperative pharmacy to supply generic drugs and many other programs. Controversy is easy to stir up as well. A small Sunday morning discussion on the pros and cons of the proposal by a Chinese businessman and President Daniel Ortega about building a second canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific led to a meeting called of all the party militants in the FLSN in his area to tamp down opposition.

Father Currie was able to shed light on many issues for us that were larger than Arenal from the canal to the new Law 779 on sexual abuse. That law which Currie felt as written was perhaps the strongest “on the continent,” and had been so much of the focus of our earlier meeting with the women’s groups, Currie told us was gutted in many ways by a series of regulations unilaterally issued by Ortega pushing the process back to mediation and private remedies further ostracizing and isolating the women, rather than the judicial process with criminal charges as written.

Currie’s work “in the vineyards” as an organizer and a Jesuit also gave us some ground testing for many claims and contradictions from our meetings, but even when he offered a critique of certain programs and policies, it was with boundless good well and amazing optimism. The strongest groups in the country for change he felt were various national and local women’s organizations and he waxed eloquently on the prospects for women leading changes in the country. No matter how strong the government or how ubiquitous the party, local organizing worked, produced results, change, and power, and was the way forward, and while doing the work, he would always advise, “keep an eye on who is controlling the land.”

I asked him how ACORN should respond to requests to provide help and assistance to local efforts to organize in the barrios and along the Atlantic Coast where people feared relocation by the canal. Were we crazy to even consider it? He pointed to the north and the issues with mining and waved his arms everywhere about the issues with the canal. He again professed how much of a supporter and admirer he had always been of ACORN.

There was work to be done, and he would be doing it in his own inspiring and ebullient way. Father Rob Currie was a good reminder, as he walked away to return the Jesuits’ truck on time, how hard it is for any of us to do anything less than everything possible we can also do, wherever and whenever we are called to do it.


Local Government in Nicaragua: Post-Revolution or Advanced Neo-Liberalism?

IMG_1883Managua            We cut a deal with the hotel van driver for a lift to Casa de Mujer in the Tipitapa barrio, a large low and moderate income community on the outskirts of Managua. We were going there to meet with representatives of two groups, the first were the women who worked as promotoras, or volunteer health workers working with other women and families, from the center, and the other was a representative from Juventud Sandinista. We received an education in the importance attached to increased empowerment of women and their roles since the revolution, but we also stumbled through a crash course in the role of the municipal and state government apparatus in a poor country like Nicaragua.

The center was named after legendary women, critical in the Sandinista revolution, and from the Casa de Mujer’s director we got a passionate report on the work of the promotoras as well as the challenges women continued to face. The 30 women working from the center were barely paid given the scarce municipal resources and often not fully recognized for their work, which was largely educational. The director was careful to emphasize that this was not because of the government, because the laws were in place, but what she called the sistema, but which she defined more pointedly as the continued pervasive culture of machismo. Women were represented in her words, but they were not heard or empowered, and this was a continuing struggle. Her promotoras had organized health fairs attended by 30,000 and watched men get the recognition for their work. After all her years running the program in Tipitapa and the region, she still did not have an office in the municipal headquarters of the mayor.



The representative of the Juventud Sandinista was a younger woman, in fact to be a volunteer member of the group you had to be between 18 and 34 years old. She was one of the dozen directors, and there were a host of other volunteers. Their roles were expansive in communicating citizen needs to governmental authorities and in turn delivering government response and services back to people. When we walked through the neighborhood, an open and leaking sewer drain, that was one of the most obvious issues we encountered, she explained that it was someone else’s job on the committee to report. This was the system in place for people to interact with municipal government, not directly, but through these committees at various levels until a response was received. When asked what might happen if community residents organized independently, everyone agreed that there had never been such a situation where people organized on their own “to demand more.” Any mention of the word “autonomous” was a flash point provoking extensive response.


This committee was also responsible for determining which families received the bono, as welfare is called in many Latin American countries. The bono in Nicaragua is not money. Tipitapa has an allocation of 2000 food “packets” that they can distribute to families every three or four months, and if they run out they can request more. As she explained it to us, the young people evaluate the formal requests to determine whether the family qualifies or deserves the bono. Our delegation asked a number of questions about how they were trained and the standards they used for determining eligibility, but the answers all seemed highly discretionary. In asking about the problems of cash assistance the responses indicated that there was a small microfinance program that could loan up to 5000 cordobas to women for small businesses, paid back at no interest over three or four months.


We were in the high weeds as our friends detailed proudly the laws in Nicaragua for dealing with absentee fathers. One question from our delegation concerned the fact that historically 60% of more of families were unmarried. Our friends said it was perhaps 40% now, but a woman could require the alleged father to be tested, and, if tested positive, he had to take full and financial responsibility for the child, and if unable, he would be jailed. Other than the required testing, the system seemed to track the USA laws. When asked how the children were supported if the father was in jail for child support, it turned out that the grandparents were held legally responsible, and the extended family was the system in place.

If we had not been in Tipitapa outside of Managua, many of the responses to our questions would have felt comfortable coming out of a radical Tea Party spokesperson’s mouth in the United States: have the families and community handle the issues privately with the government having no role or responsibility. Too many of the responses also seemed like the neo-liberalism continually critiqued by Latin American governments and leaders as well, since neo-liberalism is a basically a reduced definition of the role of government.  In Nicaragua we were hearing some confusing and contradictory messages of a government and a party synonymous with much of the government that was ubiquitous down to the level of each house on the block, so to speak, but somehow not responsible or without the capacity to provide for many of its citizens.

We were learning a lot and our questions were multiplying as we searched for more answers and understanding.