Managua 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.