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.






The Nicaraguan Informal Workers Union

IMG_1828Managua           The first day of the Organizers’ Forum dialogue in Nicaragua started inauspiciously, but somehow typically, with confusion. We happened to have arrived in Managua during the celebration of independence from Spain, which is a multi-day affair here with several days of holidays when business has pretty much ground to a halt. We were scheduled to meet the leadership of the Nicaraguan informal workers union and the time for the meeting kept bouncing around from the afternoon at their offices to early morning at our motel, to a call as we sat in the lobby waiting for them that they were waiting for us at their office. In other words a typical Organizers’ Forum adventure, but luckily there is no more adaptable group of fellow travelers in the world than a bunch of organizers, even if it’s herding cats all of the time!

What wasn’t typical was the dozen years of experience and success that Adrian Martinez, the Secretary General of the Confederacion de Trabajadores por Cuenta Propia, and several of his executive board and staff, shared with us. This was a union of informal workers or in a more literal translation, a union of the self-employed.


The vital statistics of the union were impressive. Founded a dozen years ago, the union now boasted 55,000 members throughout cities in the country, organized in 152 local chapters or branches that had been “recognized” by the government. 65% of their membership were younger workers between 16 and 40 years of age. The majority of their general secretaries of the locals are women. We were unable to determine the exact process of “recognition,” though it seem to be a registration system similar to India, though only one system nationally, rather than different thresholds and procedures in each state as we have found in India.

Secretary Martinez was also candid about the internal life of the union. Dues payments averaged about 20 to 30 cordobas per month, which is roughly $1 USD per month. They were lucky to have about two-thirds of their members actually pay dues in any month, so this continued to be a challenge, just as it is for us in India and elsewhere where dues collection is hand to hand. Each of their chapters collects dues themselves. The aristocracy of their union are the money changers, who they have gotten recognized to do money conversion almost competitive with banks, with official name tags they indicate their union affiliation. They pay dues of between $20 and $30 per month! The paid staff of the union, including the officers, like Martinez, number six for the country with four men and two women, and lot of volunteers driving the union.

Our delegation asked a number of very pointed questions of Martinez to try to understand the exact nature of the union’s relationship to the government. They insisted it was completely autonomous. They had several of their officers that had been elected as deputies in the parliament, and they had won appointment of one of their members on a governmental commission that sets the minimum wages in different occupations, but these were things that they had won as they grew stronger. They were supporters of the governing party and President Daniel Ortega, but represented their position as part of the coalition of his support rather than directly connected to the government or the party.

Their victories were along the lines of what I have described elsewhere as the Mumbai Model where they have managed over time to get various groups of informal workers included in the social security system though they are self-employed and set minimum wages for their workers, that they proudly insisted, as true unionists everywhere, were higher than the national minimum wage. A central victory of the union has been increased security for their members who, like informal workers everywhere, were routinely arrested and relocated by the police since they are often working in the street, sidewalks, and other public areas.

In this vein the union was founded in 2002 when a street vendor was accused of shooting the Managua police chief and 360 vendors were arrested and accused of the crime. Martinez had been trying to organize the union for some time before that without getting much traction, but upon the arrests went into action for weeks until he was able to get all of the vendors out of jail, converting them to members, proving the union could deliver, and launching what is now a fascinating union of more than 50,000 members of the 1.2 million informal workers employed throughout the country.

Martinez described the mission of their union as trying to change the world given the growth of the numbers of informal workers. Success in organizing and stabilizing such informal and precarious work, just might do that!


Are Peoples’ Services a Prelude to Peoples’ Empowerment for the Poor?

IMG_1794Managua         The Organizer’s Forum in Nicaragua will start with a bang on its first full day with a meeting with the head of the informal workers’ union followed by a visit with a representative of the Nicaraguan cooperative movement. Waking up early it was still sprinkling after more than a dozen hours of intermittently hard and soft rain, but now at dawn the sun is breaking through the clouds. A hummingbird is buzzing around the birds of paradise blooms, the heat and humidity have not ginned up yet, and for a minute the internet is working. I was able to reach over the bar and make myself so hot water so with my Fair Grinds coffee and chicory blend and a portable French press, I’m having myself a morning before the deluge of the week.

Reading the papers on the internet and thinking about the contradictions of the Nicaraguan revolution and the questions already forming after having read several books to refresh and deepen my memory of those times, including Steven Kinzer’s contemporary classic, Blood of Brothers, Father Joe Mulligan’s The Nicaraguan Church and the Revolution, who we knew from his earlier time in Detroit, and a New Yorker piece on plans for a possible canal to compete with Panama written earlier this year, I found myself conflating both home and abroad. In the standard playbook of government and power to gain and hold the support of the poor, the government has to provide services, but are providing some level of services a prerequisite to being able to create the preconditions for empowerment?

Reading the papers, two items were troubling. One of course centers on the challenges looming with the coming renewal and enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act. The renewal notices are coming soon to offer automatic enrollment, but as easy as it seems, customers won’t necessarily know if the cost will be the same or if their circumstances on wages and income will give them the same deal. How many will renew as a default under this kind of “choice architecture?” A ton, I would imagine, especially given that the 30-day re-enrollment window between November 15 and December 15th doesn’t give anyone the luxury for shopping much less thought and reflection. Plus, we will have the additional 5 million people that are being projected to enroll undoubtedly without much assistance as the limited help available for the first year has been curtailed at both the federal and state level. Another article talked about the 1.2 million loans that would have been approved for potential homebuyers now squeezed out of the market because of credit tightening and the absence of a subprime loan market, if the standards had been those in place in 2001 before everything boiled up and then over.

These are sophisticated issues for people with jobs and income, and they need help. For even poorer families simply trying to navigate certifications, access, and eligibility to get basic assistance, even less exists for many, because real assistance has evaporated. Currently I’ve been reading a couple of histories of the War on Poverty, and service provision was the a priori for many of the advocates of the program, and empowerment was the enemy from President Johnson on down to the local Mayors in most cities. In Nicaragua, the poorest country on the hemisphere for all of the contradictions in how people see this country, the strongest part of the base of support for the government still comes from the urban and rural poor who believe they are receiving services and that they have an ear that will listen, and some voice.

ACORN International and Local 100 United Labor Unions are now trying to patch together what we call Citizen Wealth Centers to provide basic services for lower income and working families across this range of issues at low costs to assure self-sufficiency to find out if we can provide a response to the demand – and distraction of peoples’ needs for services in order to be able to get people to focus on what it takes to build power in communities and workplaces. We’re not sure we can make it work, but we are sure we have to try to see if in fact for poorer families, services are a prelude to empowerment or at least a partner to power. We’ll also see what we can learn in Nicaragua now.

Looking up, I see a rainbow has risen over the roof of the hotel. I’m not superstitious, but I’m going to take that as a good sign from somewhere, so that we can stop there and mull over all of this as we look at today and think about our tomorrows.




Nicaragua Then and Now

IMG_1804Managua         The Organizers’ Forum delegation to Nicaragua rolled in by bus from Honduras and airplane from the US and Canada to the smallish, but surprisingly new and modern airport in Managua.  We picked up the last two of our group after midnight with the streets deserted on a Saturday as we traveled along well paved, smooth highways.  Nicaragua may be the poorest country in Central America, but no one would know it by first impressions.

Our week seems to be marked by a week of Independence celebrations.  Grandstands were being erected near the Revolutionary Plaza.  Giant yellow trees built like 30 foot tall erector sets were described by cabdrivers as public art designed by the President Daniel Ortega, but that’s simply another item on our list of questions in the week that we’ll be meeting with various organizations, unions, and social  movements in the country.

We started our first session together with some stories of interesting coincidences from 1981.  Yes, 1981!  It turned out that Drummond Pike, an Organizing Forum regular and formerly founder and CEO of the Tides Foundation family of organizations, had visited Nicaragua 33 years ago in August 1981, about 18 months after the Revolution, and that Toney Orr, Arkansas state director of Local 100 United Labor Unions, has also been in Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador from March to December 1981, overlapping each other on their visits.

Drummond had visited with some foundation executives and activists interested in learning firsthand how the revolution was creating change.  He remembered the excitement in the wake of the fall of Somoza, his dictatorship, and the National Guard.  They had visited farming areas in this country.  There was constant discussion and enthusiasm then about breaking up some of the large agricultural holdings in vacant land and distributing the land. There was talk of various institutes being organized to develop better practices and organic farming pilots.  Drummond mentioned that this was before the time of the contras.

Toney’s visit was different or as he said, he didn’t come into the country “last time through the airport.”  He came over in a convoy of trucks from Honduras as part of several teams from the U.S. Army’s to “train” civilians in Nicaragua and then later in El Salvador.  The training was in covert operations, sabotage, explosives, and counterintelligence.  They were getting the contras off the ground.

Their time overlapped and vividly described the contradictions that dominated the last generation in Nicaragua from the time of the revolution to the pushback and support of the counterrevolution by the United States, much of which, as Toney indicated, is still being declassified, and the ups and downs to governments from then until now when one of the Sandinista leaders, Daniel Ortega, the off and on president spanning these thirty years, is once again in office for successive terms.

We are looking forward to understanding what has changed and what has stayed the same, both in Managua and the rural areas where we will also be visiting coffee growing areas and sugarcane plantations.  Mainly we want to know as much of  the what’s and why’s as we can from organizers doing the kind of work we understand here in Nicaragua and why we are still visiting the poorest country in the region and what the prospects are for the future.


Workers Recycling Electronic Wastes are Handling Hazards, We’re Doing Little or Worse

e-waste-photoHouston      In India,  ACORN organizes and supports recyclers of all descriptions in the informal economy. The most lucrative livelihoods in this field are the workers handling electronic waste, or e-waste as it’s called, from discarded cell phones, televisions, computers, and the like. The exchange in trade there is in the precious metals, including gold and copper. Having watched the sorting after pickup without gloves, aprons, or shoes and the melting process nearby in Dharavi by tens of workers drenched in sweat with maybe a rag over their mouths, I can guarantee there’s nothing safe or sanitary for the workers in this process. It’s a penny earned on a down payment to an early grave. There are an estimated 25,000 workers in Delhi alone handling 20,000 tons of e-waste. This is big business in India

Part of the reason is that countries like the United States, Canada, and Japan, all big producers of e-waste, have not signed the 1989 Basel Convention controlling the export of hazardous wastes from wealthy countries to poorer ones or the 1995 amendment imposing an outright ban on such trade, so a lot of the mess we make gets shipped all over Asia and Africa where health and safety regulations are virtually nonexistent and hardly enforced. According to the EPA’s best guess, and it seems no one really is certain, we are now producing about 9 million tons of e-waste each year, but only processing about 20% of that domestically for recycling and about the same amount depending on the hardware is being recycled at all with most still headed for incinerators, which is to say the atmosphere while heating up the climate change crisis, or buried in landfills with additional scary and sketchy consequences waiting for us as well.

Our recyclers may end up with some copper and gold but according to The Economist they are also likely ending up with about 60 other elements from the periodic table including “flame retardants and other nasty chemicals.” “Apart from heavy metals such as lead and mercury, there are quantities of arsenic, beryllium, cadmium and polyvinyl chloride to be found.”

We’re still at the front end of a flood of expanding e-waste as well.  The EPA estimates e-waste is growing by 8% annually and the 20-50 million tons produced worldwide could double to 100 million tons by 2020, a short five years from now.

Upstream from Asia and Africa, there must be something all of us can do, right? Not much it seems, and the impact will be pretty small. Thinking of my members doing this work in India, I can take old televisions, computers, and whatnot to some reputable recycler and hope for the best, and that might make me feel better than just throwing a broken air conditioner in a garbage can, as I did earlier this week, but, I have to be honest, it’s more hope than a plan. All of the high-tech tools and toys of modernity are great, but if we don’t get a handle on their long afterlife, they may end up taking away as much later as they are giving to our lives now. Our policy can’t simply be to heck with our poor neighbors and the devil take the hindmost.


Please enjoy The Hour is Long by The Distance, an Australian alternative country band. Thanks to KABF!

United Kingdom’s Bedroom Tax Invades America, Hitting New York City First

Maria_Isabel_Housing_787_Wales_Av_149_St_jehNew Orleans    In the year that I have traveled back and forth to England and Scotland, in talking to organizers, advocates, and activists involved in housing, there is no single issue of Prime Minister David Cameron’s brutal austerity program that continues to provoke more outrage and opposition than the so-called “bedroom tax” imposed on social housing in the United Kingdom or what we call public housing in the United States. Having been so thoroughly schooled on this issue, it was a shock to see a piece mildly buried on the 24th page of the New York Times heralding that the bedroom tax has come to New York City housing units in the time of progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio. Worse, the pictures accompanying the article were not of massive protests, but of sad, forlorn tenants. WTF?!? This is a foreign import that has to be stopped on the order of killer bees at the Mexican border, Chinese carp in the Great Lakes, and NAFTA all over North America.

The main difference between New York City and the United Kingdom is that most of the 9000 tenants being slammed in the city are in section 8 housing where their rent is subsidized in privately provided housing units. Otherwise this blunt sword is swung about the same way as the Cameron government imposed it. The only real difference in a subtext to the coming Scottish independence vote is that the Scottish Parliament had resisted and added a number of other delays and exemptions mitigating some of the impact, and allowing some local councils wider discretion. Here we have a local “council” or city government embracing the horror!

The NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development “declared more than 9000 households ‘overhoused.’ Such tenants were told to move to smaller, less expensive apartments or, if they chose to stay put, to be prepared to pay a higher rent in most cases because their subsidy would shrink.” Remember the “higher rent” would have been on top of the 30% of their gross income already being collected. The bedroom tax is the coercive demand that such desperate tenants pay more for what they already have.

This is not a thoughtful public policy or response to fiscal issues, but a blunt instrument in NYC, just as it was in the UK. Two people living in a two bedroom apartment must shoehorn into one bedroom, regardless of gender, relationship, age, or disability. One of the exemptions approved in Scotland considers the problems of live-in home health aides and space for wheelchairs, breathing and other medical equipment, but not New York which is strictly following the Cameron playbook. The new policy in New York seems to affect almost one-third of the units the agency administers.

But, here’s what was even more shocking to me.  This is not even a new policy in New York City, but a rollout of a bedroom tax that NYCHA, the New York City Housing Agency has already been administering in public housing projects, where singles go to studios and two-person households to one-bedroom spaces, come hell or high water.

Now, I’m worried and will have to find some time for some quick calls and research and get back to you ASAP.  Did New York City import the UK’s Conservative Party program or did Cameron shoplift it from New York City on some jaunt abroad?  And, if this was an artifact from Mayor Billionaire’s time, why is Mayor Progressive de Blasio sitting still and silent for this?  Or, horror and shame, what if this huge issue in the United Kingdom in the United States has been just something that we rolled over and allowed to happen?

The Times talks about lawsuits, but, sadly, that seems way too little and way too late, when a humane policy for lower income working families in publicly supported housing should have been a basic human right.