Citizen Diplomats, Citizen Reporters

New Orleans      For the second year, we have interns visiting New Orleans from Eastern Europe in order to learn community organizing methodology.  Last year we had a young woman from Sofia, Bulgaria.  This year we will be hosting one woman from Albania and another woman from Bulgaria who is an anthropology professor and activist in Bulgaria.  They are sponsored by the Professional Fellows program which gets funding from the State Department.

The Economist reported that 5000 foreigners visit the US annually who are selected by US embassies in “tailored tours” managed by what the State Department calls “citizen diplomats” in 90 non-profit organizations in 40 states.  The State Department believes there are 40,000 Americans that participate in programming their Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.  More than 500 heads of state in other countries have been part of the program.  The cost is about $18,000 per person, and the piece found that most of that money “went back into American pockets.”  All flights have to be on US-based air carriers like United, Delta, and American for example.

I thought of all of this when I read an email exchange this morning with my long-time veteran organizing companeros, Mike Gallagher and Mark Splain.  Mike has been forwarding us dispatches from a priest he met in Nicaragua, who the Organizers’ Forum also visited in Managua several years ago when we held our international dialogue there.  The reports over the last two months have been horrific as he has detailed the oppression being faced by students, the Church, and others in the callous attempts of Daniel Ortega and his family to continue to hold onto power.  Early during the mass protests, the hope and excitement he expressed were palpable with the belief that change and at least reform was possible.  More recently his letters have become more desperate and urgent as the death count has continued to rise.

Certainly, there have been some reports from Nicaragua of the struggle between the government and its forces and so many of its citizens, but none had captured the terror and magnitude of what is being felt at the grassroots level in the barrios and campos.  In an email this morning, Mark had a suggestion:

What we should do is organize young nonviolent brigades of Americans and other progressives to travel to Nicaragua and bear witness & report.

Meeting with a young progressive yesterday who had seen THE ORGANIZER at the Netroots convening, he asked me a disturbing question:  what happened to the notion of a mass movement for peace in the United States.

Both are important points.  Where is the modern Vincermos brigade that helped get the Cuban sugarcane harvest from the fields years ago?  Where are the men and women – of any age – who would go to Nicaragua in significant numbers to talk to people there about what is really happening on the ground and have their voices heard?  Where are the peace marchers when we are in continual war?  Where are the thousands standing at the border with migrants seeking asylum?

These are not problems for social media, though social media could be key in organizing and issuing the call.  These are the cries for justice that have to break out of their email cages and see and be seen and heard on the ground.

Isn’t this what Americans still stand for in the world as “citizen diplomats?”  Who will step up?

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A Grassroots Report on the Current Protests in Nicaragua

New Orleans   Several years ago the Organizers Forum visited Managua and several other cities in Nicaragua to assess the status of the country and its civil society in the years since the revolution.  Now the government is undergoing fierce street protests led by students.  We received this report forwarded from friends to friends offering a street level view of the protests from the ground up, and I thought it was worth sharing.

Our companero began his email saying, “…the situation [is] changing on a daily basis, and with more time spent in meetings and in the streets and roads than in front of a computer, am just now getting around to send this . . . Since writing on [April] 24th, the death toll (assassinations by the police and paramilitary forces) has risen to more than 60 . . . and rising (lots of “disappeared”) . . . two massive opposition mobilizations (23rd and 28th April), preparations for a national dialogue . . . with the government continuing to put on a public face of “everything is normal” . . . Very similar to the behavior of Somoza in 1978-1979, shortly before he fled the country,. For obvious reasons, I´ve left out many “details” of the uprising.  Just trying to give a general picture of the situation here.

His report followed as an attachment:

For more than a decade Nicaragua has been living in an “Ortega-Murillo Family” dictatorship that centralized all power (and wealth) in the very limited circle that surrounded the presidential couple….Every effort was made to win over youth by downplaying the importance of a good education and offering a steady diet of “bread and circus”.

 

For more than a decade, Nicaraguan youth, in the absence of credible institutional support, have been left, for the most part, to their own resources to grow, mature, and try to take responsibility for their lives.  Many have done this through “social media”, forming circles of friends with whom they can communicate, and become more aware of what is happening.  These “cybernetic relationships” have helped in some way to deal with the alienation, frustration, and isolation they have experienced in a society in which everything is concentrated “above”, with little, if any, space for them.

 

This all changed the night of April 17th of this year.  The previous weekend the presidential couple, with no consultation, announced a series of “reforms” to the Social Security System—a system that has been decimated over the years by governments using the system as a source of petty cash, lending millions to political friends, a bank of “phantom” employees—political party members—who did no work but received a monthly salary (in fact, 14 monthly salaries a year!), and not contributing their share to the ongoing needs of the system.  The imposed reforms raised the monthly quota that workers and employers would have to pay in to the system on a monthly basis, and cut the retirement benefits by 5%.  The reforms basically were an economic blow for just about everybody:  minimum-wage workers, sweatshop workers, teachers, health workers, construction workers, small businesses . . . up to the “big guys”.

 

For 48 hours there were VERBAL protests by business leaders, representatives of retired workers, a few independent unions, and some business representatives.  The night of Tuesday, April 17th, a group of college students gathered in front of the Jesuit university in Managua to protest against the reforms.  Pro-government groups passed by, trying to intimidate the students, but no violence resulted.  The following night, again in front of the Jesuit university, students gathered for another protest.  This time, under cover of darkness, pro-government forces began to attack the students with stones and rocks; result: a few minor injuries and all the glass portion of the entrance to the university destroyed.  Police present did nothing.

 

The following night (Thursday), the student protest moved to the Polytechnic University (UPOLI).  The police attacked the students . . . resulting in three student deaths.  Friday night, there were student mobilizations, marches, and demonstrations around the country.  Police reaction resulted in seven more deaths.  During the weekend, mobilizations increased and became massive.  Police violence also increased.  The death toll rose to 31; that is, in four days, 31 deaths.

 

Monday, April 23, there was an extraordinary mobilization in Managua, in which the business community joined students marching from the center of the city to the gates of Polytechnic University where the police have hundreds of students surrounded within the university.  The estimated number of participants in the mobilization is 500,000 . . . in the history of Nicaragua, only less than the number of participants in the pre-electoral march of February 21, 1990.

 

As a result of the student mobilizations (and the support received by the students from the Catholic hierarchy and business community), Ortega announced Sunday that he was “cancelling” the reforms, and was willing to “dialogue” with the business community.  Instead of offering condolences to the families of the more than thirty students killed, he referred to them as violent law-breakers and students who don’t understand the history of Nicaragua(?) . . . The students, Catholic hierarchy, and business leaders all insist that, in the face of continuing government violence, it is no time for dialogue, and that if there is to be dialogue, it has to be with ALL SECTORS of Nicaragua society, most importantly the students.

 

While this is going on in the cities, Francisca Ramirez, leader of the campesino community organizing against the plans of Ortega to build a canal through the country, is organizing a regional strike throughout the campesino community, in support of the students.

This is one perspective obviously, but what is happening in Nicaragua is worth our attention.  It may be a small country, but it matters.

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