Violence in Nicaragua – What does ‘solidarity’ mean now?

I was recently asked to write a short article about the word ‘solidarity’. Writing about solidarity with Nicaragua would have been easy until April this year. The narrative in brief would have been – ‘we foreigners came in the 80’s and supported the revolution, we picked coffee or planted trees, we loved the Nicaraguan people…. since then Daniel Ortega and the FSLN have generally done good work, reduced poverty, resisted the USA. We’re proud of our involvement…job done… Que viva el frente!

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But now, writing in May 2018 nothing is as clear. For the last two years, whilst I have lived in Nicaragua,  this has been a calm and peaceful country. Now no longer. Protests against economic reforms to pensions on April 18, by pensioners and students, became violent. The police turned inexplicably to live ammunition, and protesters were attacked by ‘mobs’ known as the Sandinista Youth. Across the country between April 18 and 22nd at least 45 demonstrators were killed, including students, workers, journalists and onlookers. At least one policeman was also killed. In Leon the office of the student union  and an opposition radio station were burnt down. The violence ended, for now at least, when Ortega revoked the economic reforms, and both sides called for a National Dialogue, to be moderated by the Catholic Church.

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One student died in Leon on April 19th when the student union was set on fire

Since then there has been a tense calm. By the time you read this blog that may well have changed. The National Dialogue has not begun and we are seeing marches and counter-marches on the streets every day. It seems like a tinder-box that may again explode. Some people are saying the protestors have been trained, that there is covert support from the USA, that there is more to this than meets the eye. Sitting in my very hot house, in an average street, I don’t know the truth of this. I do know that most of my neighbours don’t like Ortega. But I also know that there is no credible opposition, there is no figure who could take over from Ortega, and if he goes, the gains of the revolution for the poor will be lost. So, protestors – be careful what you wish for.

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Marches and countermarches in the daytime are peaceful, both say No to Violence. But at night-time one faction or the other are burning busses and attacking the other side.

Solidarity groups, the expat community living in Nicaragua, and of course Nicaraguans themselves are now divided, angry, or disillusioned. Information is unclear, but it seems that the Ortega regime has made a major error that they may not survive. Shooting on unarmed protestors, coupled with years of low-lying criticisms (‘undemocratic, corruption, cronyism, rumored sexual abuse, creating a family dynasty, nepotism’) means Ortega’s regime may now be fatally holed, in spite of years of good progress in reducing poverty in Nicaragua.

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Prior to April it was a VERY rare sight in Nicaragua to see any criticism of the government

So what does the word ‘solidarity’ mean now, in the midst of this fast-changing situation? I came to Nicaragua in the 1980’s as part of the solidarity movement. Like thousands of others I was motivated by anti-USA, anti-Imperialism, and support for a small proud country trying to make its own, fairer, way in the world.  (see  Brigadista: An Analysis of British & US volunteers during the contra war in Nicaragua ) We were  impressed by the ideals of the revolution and the progress made by the campaign against illiteracy. We  picked coffee in support of the revolution and helped organize other support and campaigns. After a few decades ‘off’ I came to live in Nicaragua in January 2016. Until this month it has been politically a sleepy country.

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The FSLN are very well organised and effective at getting their supporters to the marches

Solidarity to me means:

  • ‘Accompaniment’- living with the poor and being a friend from another country.
  • Material support – working with NGOs to improve education or health or other services.
  • Being a voice – Using photography, blogs, speaker tours, delegations etc to raise a voice when locally that voice is unable to be heard. For example raising the voice of deaf children in Nicaragua who have virtually no access to education.
  • Advocacy in the centres of power. From campaigning against Thatcher & Reagan in the 1980’s, to today advocating against the NICA Act which is now more likely to be passed in the US senate.

Nicaragua has made vast progress since the early 1980’s. The country then had poor roads, long electricity cuts, terrible transport, limited food, inadequate schools and so on. Until last month we boasted of all the progress Nicaragua has made, under the leadership of the FSLN. By 2017 the country had excellent economic growth, a reduction in poverty, good roads, reliable electricity, improving access to public services and a burgeoning tourist industry.

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Students are painting lamp-posts in the national colours, painting over the red & black of FSLN

But, clearly the country has failed on democracy. For years we, the solidarity movement, were satisfied with economic growth and the reduction of poverty. Why did it matter if elections were  a bit dodgy’ if poverty had been halved from 48% to 24%? We did not ask enough questions, we did not join demands for better electoral systems, we lost interest in the complex machinations where Ortega undermined the other political parties. It is now clear that the weakness of the opposition is a hindrance to the country, not a success. Governments need checks and balances, but the FSLN has not had them. And thus after many years of silence the population are now in the streets, and the country is on the brink of a worsening explosion.

The solidarity movement can be proud of supporting a poor country which has stood up to the might of the USA. But we failed to get the balance right as a ‘critical friend’. We have been a good friend to Nicaragua, but we failed to be sufficiently critical of the undemocratic Ortega regime.

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Decayed buildings & internal divisions have characterised the opposition for many years

All pictures by the author. For more photos of Nicaragua follow @owstonlewis on instagram

Feel free to add to my analysis on the Comments Tag below (please be politie). Pueden añadir comentarios abajo usando el Tag ‘Comments’

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Help Stop The Passing of the NICA Act

American intervention is threatening progress in Nicaragua, and American friends & readers can help by contacting your senator. Please ask your them to vote against the NICA Act. Here is a link to find your Senator.

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Continued loans from global lenders are needed to build new school buildings in Nicaragua

 

Most expats living in Nicaragua enjoy the climate, food and culture and are friends with Nicaraguan neighbours and colleagues. We see that the country is slowly but steadily reducing poverty, and we enjoy the peace and stability the country enjoys. The country has problems, of course, like anywhere, but only Nicaraguans themselves can sort those problems out. Although the country is still the poorest in Latin America, the economy is growing at a rate of 4.5% p.a. and the rate of crime is only a fraction of that in neighbouring Honduras and El Salvador. These are important achievements.

But this stability and growth is threatened by interference from the USA. In October the US Congress approved the Nicaragua Investment Conditionality Act, known as the NICA Act. If approved by the Senate the NICA Act could see the US block all major international lending institutions from lending to Nicaragua. Institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and Inter-American Development Bank will be blocked from giving loans that fund improvements in roads, ports, electricity and other infrastructure.

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World Bank loans are used to improve infrastructure, such as these storm drains

 

You can put an end to this interference in Nicaraguan affairs by writing to your senator. Ask him or her to vote against the passing of the NICA Act. If the act is passed it will reverse the progress Nicaragua has made in the last few years and will end the improvements we have seen in roads and infrastructure. Schools and health facilities would become even more run-down – so the effect of choking off loans will make life harder for the poorest.

Just yesterday the World Bank, meeting in Granada, Nicaragua, approved a loan of over $400 million for Nicaragua. Over the last three years loans averaged around $100 million a year, but over the next three years that will increase to about $150 million p.a. The World Bank said that this is because previous loans have been carried out efficiently and on-time, by the government and the private sector working together, and with good accounting.

The NICA Act has met with near unanimous condemnation in Nicaragua from the government, the National Assembly, the Private Sector, almost all political parties, and most religious leaders. The Organisation of American States (OAS) electoral mission that was in Nicaragua for the elections last November described the Act as ‘Counter-productive’.

Mural in Managua. Nicaragua has unhappy memories of USA intervention in the 1980’s

If you are from the USA please email, ring or write to your senator now.  Phone number is (1 202) 224 3121, and using skype or a similar package this will hardly cost you a dime.

If you have never lobbied your representative before you can get good advice from RESULTS, a grassroots advocacy agency. I used to work for RESULTS in the UK, and our representatives were always happy to receive polite emails or phone-calls from constituents. Here is a link to find your Senator.

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Long-term investments from lenders will improve rural transport & reduce poverty

 

And this link gives you excellent advice from RESULTS. about advocacy (in general) in the USA.

For those readers who are not from the USA you can still help by signing the petition on the link at Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign and Change.Org

So –  Use your vote, use your voice, tell your senator you live here and have an opinion. Please let us know how you got on, using the Comments Box below.

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Mural shows that Nicaragua doesn’t want interference in their affairs from the USA (or others)

 

A good news story: Improved health in El Salvador

img_3049Let’s start 2017 with some good news. I will introduce you to my friend Graciela. Graciela’s story shows us that life is getting better in most developing countries, that foreign aid works, and that most people in most poor countries are healthier now than they used to be. They are taking control of their lives.

From 1991 to 1994 I lived in a village in rural El Salvador with my wife Kath. Avelares was one of the villages we visited often, trying to support a primary health service in a very poor area. It’s a small community high in the hills, and in 1991 was in territory controlled by FMLN guerrillas. Local people were trying to provide a very rudimentary health and education system with young volunteers from each community. In Avelares back then, Graciela was the volunteer providing primary health services. She had just a few weeks of training and some medicines and bandages provided by the Catholic diocese and an excellent NGO named Concern America.

In November 2016 Kath and I visited the villages again and were thrilled to meet Graciela, who remarkably is still the provider of health care in Avelares and three surrounding villages. Twenty five years on she is looking a little older now – but then again so are we! She still lives in the same house and works in the same one room clinic made from mud bricks. But what has changed significantly are the health statistics. Graciela told us with great pride that no child has died in her community in the last eleven years. We were astonished.

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Graciela in her health post

In the 1990’s in El Salvador the Under Five Infant Mortality Rate was 60 deaths per 1000 live births. Today it has fallen to 16. But in rural areas deaths of children were much more common. Kath and I probably saw one child death every couple of months, when we were living and working there. There was little antenatal care, very poor nutrition, and no access to hospital, due to the war and the very poor road to the lowland areas. All babies were born at home, with no electricity, with only a local midwife to help. At a rough estimate I’d say one child in ten died before the age of five in the area around Avelares. And maternal mortality rates in the 1990’s were also very high.

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Our neighbour Adan in 1993, holds his deceased newborn twins before their funeral. They were born a month premature. Reina,the mother, gave birth at home with no professional health attendance.

Last month Graciela explained to us with pride the improvements made now by the ministry of health. ‘All children are born in hospital now’ she explained. ‘It is my job to deliver antenatal advice, and take weight and health measurements. But two weeks before the birth date the mother-to-be is taken down to the town in the lowlands, to wait in the ‘Casa Materna’, the maternity home. I learnt to my amazement that in the last dozen years only one child had been born in the village. ‘That time I couldn’t get transport in time’ she explained.

Having once been supported by the Church and NGOs, Graciela is now employed by the Ministry of Health under their Primary Health Care system. This has been a very positive move by the state, to retain the rural experience of the community health workers (CHWs). In some provinces ex-CHWs make up the majority of the paid primary health workforce. One of Graciela’s old colleagues, Dagoberto Menjivar is now a senior doctor and administrator. Yet he started as a CHW with fifteen days training on the ‘Curso basico’. A real success story.

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The room on the left-hand side is the Avelares health post. On the right-hand side is a community centre

Graciela told us that the Ministry is very demanding. She has to visit every house in her communities on a regular timetable and carry out a series of controls and vaccinations in every house. ‘Once the mother has returned to the village after giving birth, I have to visit the house every day for the first week, then once a week for a month, then once a fortnight etc. If a child were to die in my area, I would be taken before a tribunal and can be held responsible. If a child dies of a preventable early-years illness I could go to jail…”

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All babies now are born in hospital. Graciela arranges an ambulance for them two weeks ahead of their due-date.

It is not only infant and maternal deaths that have diminished rapidly in the last 25 years. In El Salvador and nearly all Latin American countries there has been steady progress in life expectancy and other health statistics. With more certainty over the health of their children, families have been taking more control over their fertility. When we lived in the region most parents had 6, 8 or even more children. We knew one neighbour who told us sadly that she had given birth to 18 children “but only five are alive today”. In 1990 nationally only half of women used family planning and in our rural area the percentage was miniscule. Today in El Salvador nearly 75% of women of a relevant age are using contraception. Graciela explains the benefits of up to six methods and can administer most of them herself.

In 1990, in our zone, I estimate local women had on average six births. Nationally in El Salvador women had an average of 3.8 births. Today the figure has fallen to just under two. This bodes well for future health of the family. Child and maternal health services under the state system are free – which encourages take-up, especially from rural areas. Donor countries in the 1990’s and 2000’s which supported El Salvador can feel proud of this progress.

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Graciela outside her health post. She provides all routine vaccinations as well as family planning and all preventative child and maternal health services.

There are still many problems in El Salvador, such as ongoing violence from youth gangs, and these problems get covered in the global media. But the country is a democracy (and the current president is a former guerrilla leader from the FMLN). Countries like the UK, and donors such as the EU and the World Bank supported Salvador to recover from the civil war and build capacity in the health service. Now El Salvador has a working and effective primary health care service, staffed by local people like Graciela and Dagoberto, who know their communities. To me that is a pleasure to hear. Behind the headlines, the health of poor people in Latin America is steadily getting better.

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The hills above Avelares. Graciela walks from village to village up these slopes. Throughout Latin America Community Health Workers provide the health service in remote rural areas.

Brigadistas & volunteers – the same but different?

How much is there in common between young volunteers who come to Nicaragua today, and the anti-war work brigades who came here in the 1980’s? I have just read two fascinating accounts of the 1980s coffee brigades, one from the USA and one from the UK.

Warehouse destroyed by contra near Somoto 1984

Warehouse near Somoto, destroyed by U.S.backed ‘contra’rebels, 1984. 

Brigadista, Harvest and War in Nicaragua is a moving book written in 1986 by Jeff Jones. Jeff interviewed dozens of American citizens who came to Nicaragua in the early 1980’s, when the Sandinista revolution was young and optimistic, and US president Ronald Reagan was funding the contras to destroy the revolution in its infancy.

While the counter-revolution burnt down health posts and attacked rural farms, brigades of U.S. volunteers came on work brigades to pick cotton or coffee, to accompany the revolution, and then return to their country to lobby against an invasion of the country. Jeff Jones estimates that around 650 U.S. volunteers came to work here in 1984, including some who were veterans of the anti-war struggle, and others newly politicised by the gross injustice of the war against the Sandinistas.

Brigadista Harvest & War book cover

From the UK a shorter but more scholarly work was recently published by David Lewis. Brigadista: An Analysis of British and US volunteers during the contra war in Nicaragua. http://nicaraguasc.org.uk/news/article/182/sandinistas-and-solidarity:-the-contribution-of-1980s-brigadistas

Based at Leeds University, David interviewed British ex-brigadistas. The paper is able to assess the long term impact of those visits on the lives of the volunteers. Most said the experience in Nicaragua had affected their lives hugely, the way they would vote, the way they would shop, their lifelong involvement in community activities and campaigns. Many later supported Anti-Apartheid Movement or other similar struggles, or campaigns in their home towns or the Labour Party.

I can associate strongly with these 2 accounts, since I picked coffee for three months in 1984/85 with an international brigade. When my sister and I returned to the UK in 1985 we helped organise the first British brigades with the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign (NSC). Over the following decades the NSC organised dozens of brigades, study tours, and trade union exchanges, and to their credit they are still active today.

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Armed coffee-pickers guarded the international brigades. 1984

Today many developing countries receive huge numbers of young people looking to volunteer on dozens of different schemes and brigades. Very many of these are short-term, private sector, ‘voluntourism’ schemes, that contribute little, if anything to the host country. Nicaragua also receives dozens of religious missions a year, mainly from US evangelical churches, intent more on evangelizing the poor than in helping them climb out of poverty.

In Nicaragua we also receive about 500 young English volunteers a year from a UK-government funded scheme (International Citizen Service). This is a much more formal scheme than the private volunteerism projects. Conditions are quite tough, some stay for up to ten weeks in rural communities with little electricity or running water. While some of the projects could be better designed, many of the volunteers contribute a lot and go home changed in many ways.

The big difference between the 1980’s and today is that in the 1980’s nearly all the brigadistas had a political analysis. People knew why they were coming to Nicaragua specifically, because they admired the achievements of the Sandinistas, and opposed U.S. intervention. One young American – Benjamin Linder paid with his life, murdered by the contra, and his grave is still well-tended today.

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Grave of Benjamin Linder, Matagalpa, 2016

Today I believe that most young people want to volunteer, often anywhere, often as part of gap-year, and don’t mind very much where they go or what they do.  Volunteers today are rarely ‘in solidarity’, and some have a very poor knowledge of the country they have come to visit. To be fair, in the 1980s we were very clear that we were in solidarity with the Sandinistas, achieving great strides forward on behalf of the poor. Today few people would see themselves in solidarity with the FSLN.

If we are optimistic, we can hope that the young people who visit Nicaragua and Costa Rica will go back to the UK at least with a greater environmental awareness, and hopefully with a desire to support the UK’s commendable programme of international aid. But it is difficult to see the current wave of volunteers around the world going back home with a heightened political consciousness.  Is there more that could be done in the countries that send volunteers, to move these young people into lifelong activists for social justice?

El Significado Que Nos Dejo Monseñor Romero

Blog por José Fidel Campos Sorto

“Yo conoci por primera vez a Mons. Romero en 1975. Yo tenía 16 años, él llegó en visita pastoral a mi pueblo Sesori en donde mi papá era el sacristán. Me dio la impresión de un Obispo piadoso; luego constaté su actitud solidaria en visitas que mi padre le hizo a Santiago de María. En 1979, en San Salvador volví a constatar esa cualidad incrementada de su persona hacia los necesitados.

Romero mural1La conversión de Mons. Romero fue un proceso gradual que para él significó ser abierto a conocer la realidad, y su sensibilidad al sufrimiento de la gente. En 1977 fue nombrado Arzobispo y tomó posesión ante la algarabía de los ricos y la desilusión de los pobres. Pero los cuerpos de seguridad del gobierno generalizaron la represión al grado que solamente poco después le asesinaron a su mejor amigo, el padre Rutilio Grande. De ahí en adelante, se fue produciendo un giro en monseñor Romero; pues ya no se trataba solo del padre Rutilio; sino de catequistas, sacerdotes, obreros, campesinos que aparecían descuartizados por los cuerpos represivos.

Los Escuadrones de la Muerte, amparados en el Ejército del gobierno, sacaban de sus casas a las víctimas en presencia de sus familiares u otros testigos que luego daban testimonio al Socorro Jurídico, institución creada por el Arzobispo para velar por los derechos humanos.

Para los diferentes sectores populares, víctimas de la despiadada represión, monseñor Romero llego a ser la única Voz de los que no la tenían. Cada misa dominical era escuchada con devoción, porque además de ser una catequesis de formación cristiana, él denunciaba los hechos represivos de ambos bandos, y especialmente de la Fuerza Armada. Para nuestro pueblo, monseñor fue un dignificador de la persona humana. Para las mayorías populares, monseñor fue el único referente calificado que daba esperanzas al pueblo desde la palabra de Dios.

Romero in villageVimos monseñor com la persona que privilegió el diálogo como salida a la crisis del país. Para nuestro pueblo, Mons. Romero fue un modelo de hombre verdaderamente libre para decir la verdad oportunamente, sin odio y con respeto. Cuanto necesitamos eso en nuestros días!. Monseñor Romero trascendió nuestras leyes jurídicas cuando afirmó que éstas deben estar al servicio de las personas y no al revés. De ahí que, ante la brutal represión desatada por las Fuerzas Armadas en contra del pueblo, Monseñor Romero les dijo:

“Yo quisiera hacer un llamamiento muy especial a los hombres del ejército…. Hermanos, son de nuestro mismo pueblo, matan a sus mismos hermanos campesinos. Ante una orden de matar que dé un hombre, debe prevalecer la ley de Dios que dice: no matar. Ningún soldado está obligado a obedecer una orden contra la Ley de Dios. Ya es tiempo de que recuperen su conciencia y obedezcan antes a su conciencia que a la orden del pecado. La Iglesia, defensora de la Ley de Dios y de la dignidad humana, no puede quedarse callada ante tanta abominación”.

romeroshotEstas fueron las palabras de monseñor Romero que tocaron las fibras de la fuerza Armada y de sus Escuadrones de la Muerte, quienes le asesinaron al siguiente día lunes, 24 de marzo de 1980.

Este hecho significó para nosotros como pueblo, una inmensa pérdida de nuestro defensor y guía espiritual. De ahí en adelante monseñor Romero ha sido considerado y venerado como un Santo. Luego de su asesinato, nos sobrevino un estado de indefensión generalizado que nos obligó a muchos a salir del país, otros nos incorporamos a la guerra, y otros a sobrevivir en medio de la misma guerra.

A 36 años de aquel magnicidio, constato que el mensaje del profeta  Oscar Romero trascendió a su espacio y a su tiempo. Hoy es un salvadoreño universal, que con su mensaje siempre nuevo sigue iluminándonos los problemas sociales que nos aquejan en El Salvador – y yo digo que en todo el mundo. Por ejemplo cuando él mismo lo dijo: “Yo denuncio, sobre todo, la absolutización de la riqueza. Este es el gran mal de El Salvador: la riqueza, la propiedad privada como un absoluto intocable y ¡hay del que toque ese alambre de alta tensión, se quema!”(1979).

Cafod posterLas palabras de Romero tienen mucha relevancia hoy. Por ejemplo, sobre el tema de migración, tan presente hoy en nuestro tiempo, Romero dijo: “Es triste tener que dejar la patria porque en la patria no hay un orden justo donde puedan encontrar trabajo”(1978).

El mensaje de Monseñor Romero me interpela, tiene aplicación actual, por eso creo que el pueblo no lo ha olvidado, y sigue estudiando sus homilías para renovar fuerzas y seguir luchando por la justicia social de nuestros pueblos.

 

Para finalizar, me uno al llamado que monseñor hizo en su momento (1977): “No teman los conservadores, sobre todo aquellos que no quisieran que se hablara de la cuestión social, de los temas espinosos, que hoy necesita el mundo. No teman que los que hablamos de estas cosas nos hayamos hecho comunistas o subversivos. No somos más que cristianos, sacándole al Evangelio las consecuencias que hoy, en esta hora, necesita la humanidad, nuestro pueblo”.

Romero-mural

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Por José Fidel Campos Sorto

Este link es una canción de Mejía Godoy sobre Monseñor Romero:

Chronicle of a death foretold

In my first couple of months in Nicaragua I have spent time in the Northern hills. To the North I could see rolling mountains in neighbouring Honduras. But while Nicaragua today is peaceful, our next-door country is sadly wracked by violence, some of which comes from efforts to protect the land and the environment. Today’s blog is a Guest Blog by my friend Mary Durran.

CHRONICAL OF A DEATH FORETOLD

Funeral of Berta Caceres

Funeral of Berta Caceres

 

Berta Cáceres had received so many death threats, due to her opposition to the Agua Zarca dam, that she knew it was only a matter of time.  Her security routine was elaborate, rotating around the houses of friends.  Not even her father knew her whereabouts. But it was not enough. Berta was murdered on 3rd March by unknown assassins.

 

 

I met Bertha at a conference in Tegucigalpa in 2013.  She spoke with passion.  Reeling from the murder of Rigoberto Hernandez, a grassroots leader who had opposed an iron ore mine in western Honduras, and whose body was found with his tongue ripped out, Berta said then that she was prepared to fight until the end.

Berta was a leader of the Lenca indigenous people of Honduras, who make up about 8% of the Honduran population. The Lenca mainly live in poverty, and those who do not have land have to work precarious odd-jobs for dollar-a-day wages.  They need land to grow food and preserve their lifestyle and dignity.

Funeral of Berta CaceresBerta was a pioneer in the movement to defend the ancestral lands of the Lenca from mega projects funded by international capital.  Her murder has been interpreted as a sombre warning for other defenders.

“Her murder shows the vulnerability of people and organizations struggling for human rights and the defence of natural resources, and against the handover of our national sovereignty,” said Fr. Ismael Moreno, director of the Fundacion ERIC.

Honduras was identified as the most dangerous country in the world to be an environmental defender, with the highest murder rate of environmental activists, by Global Witness last year.   Since 1998 Honduras has opened up to international mining companies, introducing legislation that puts the interests of the investor before those of communities and the state.  Such policies intensified after the 2009 coup d’etat and the subsequent government which came to power in fraudulent elections.

Indigenous woman at funeralHonduras has also received funds from international climate funds which seek to promote clean energy.  Investments include hydro-electric projects, often on the lands of indigenous peoples, or poor peasant communities.  But in most cases, the Honduran government has failed to consult the indigenous before launching projects on their lands.  Neither does the government offer any relocation packages to those whose lands are grabbed, or those who water supplies are ruined by the dams.

 

The life and struggle of Berta Caceres will not be in vain. In death, she is even bigger than she was in life.  The Dutch FMO bank that was funding the Agua Zarca dam has suspended operations.  Berta has already become an icon for women leaders and those who struggle to protect the environment.  As Honduran protesters chanted at her funeral,  Berta vive!  La lucha sigue!. Berta lives, the struggle continues!

Women w flag, at funeral

 

Guest Blog by Mary Durran. Mary and I worked in the 1980’s for the Central America Human Rights Committees. See https://durranmary.wordpress.com/ for more news on Latin American issues.

Informacion en español – https://www.oxfam.org/es/sala-de-prensa/notas-de-prensa/2016-03-04/oxfam-rinde-homenaje-la-defensora-de-los-derechos-humanos?utm_source=oxf.am&utm_medium=Zh7j&utm_content=redirect

http://www.internationalrivers.org/blogs/433-16

Photos from Radio Progreso, Honduras

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.960106777376574.1073741925.178801698840423&type=3

Coffee & Contras, 30 years on

In 1984, at an intense and violent time of the Sandinista revolution, I picked coffee with a voluntary brigade in Northern Nicaragua. So now I am back working in Nicaragua, one of my first trips was to go back to the farm, to try and find out what had changed.

 

The early 1980’s were a time of optimism in Nicaragua with the early enthusiasm of the Sandinista revolution. One symbol of this was our brigade of students and workers from Managua who picked coffee to help bring in essential foreign currency. Seventy of us slept on two long bunks in a wooden barn, and we queued up three times a day to eat a diet of beans and rice served on ‘plate’ of a banana leaf.

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1984 coffee brigade in Matagalpa, Nicaraguans & European volunteers

 

 

I have had the old black and white photos since then. A column of pickers, every sixth one armed, winds up the slopes. Women pick coffee under the rain. European volunteers fumble with rifles when asked to do sentry duty. Last weekend I went back to Matagalpa to see if I could find the village. And to see how Nicaragua has changed in the last 30 years.

Coffee brigade on slopes 1984

1984, volunteer brigadistas set off towards coffee fields 

 

 

 

Driving up the winding road towards La Dalia, green coffee bushes on each side, brought back memories. In 1984 we drove in a convoy of trucks – red bandanas, khaki rucksacks, students singing revolutionary songs. A few weeks later a similar truckload of students was ambushed by the U.S. backed contra rebels and 14 young students killed. The road today is empty and peaceful, though with many more houses than I remembered. Arriving in roughly the area I remembered I began to ask around, if anyone remembered the co-operative where we worked.

 

At first people were quite suspicious, and didn’t want to talk. It was also a challenge to find anyone over 40 – most of the Nicaraguan population is young. But when I pulled out the old photos they became interested. Older people came over and studied grainy pictures of children, recognising some of the adults of today.

 

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2016, community leaders study photos of the Coop 30 years earlier

 

 

Little remains from the photos of old. The wooden barn we slept in has long ago been knocked down. But I found the old kitchen we ate in. The waterfall, where one brigadista drowned, remains of course. And I half-recognised the sweep of the hills where we walked and slipped in the mud of the coffee fields. The foreman from those days came up and reminisced. He was the one who shouted at us every day, ‘stay in your own row’, and ‘Only pick red!’

 

The foreman was unsure I had really been on the brigade in 1984, until we both remembered the worst incident of that time, when one drunken campesino blew his brains out playing Russian roulette. Apart from that unhappy memory they were pleased to see me. “You’ve not changed a bit” said the foreman, “except now you are fat!” What a cheek!

 

So what has changed? Sadly the co-op. itself no longer exists. Coffee is still grown, but now by private producers. It’s every family for itself. The Sandinista cooperative did not survive the economic turmoil of the end of the contra war and the hyper-inflation that followed. The river now runs drier in summer and floods with torrential rain in winter. The biggest trees on the hills have been cut down. My memory of little wooden shacks with few amenities, has now been replaced by little brick shacks with few amenities.

 

The biggest difference is that there were 25 families there in 1984 – now there are 200. But, the road is very good and transport around the area is much better. The farm is no longer ‘remote’ and isolated from the world. There is a technical college in the area. I thought the local school was (comparatively) good and well equipped.

 

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2016

In the end, there is one overwhelming difference between today and the 1980s. I came here various times in the 1980’s and yes there was optimism, a spirit, an enthusiasm to build a new future. But it was a war-torn country. That was the fundamental description. The shops were empty, transport was appalling, electricity unreliable, teenagers were drafted into the army, and the steady succession of funerals sapped the energy of a population who were undernourished and tired of war. Today the country is at peace. Things are not perfect of course, but roads are good, shops are full, tourists hang out, people are cynical about the government like anywhere else, most kids go to school. People go to work if they have any, sit in the sun in the evenings, and life goes on. The country is at peace. That is a huge difference.

Arrival…

In 1984 I picked coffee for three months with a voluntary brigade in Northern Nicaragua. We lived the Sandinista revolution while the American-backed ‘contra-revolution’ swirled around the surrounding hills. Central America was aflame in the 1980’s, with the successful revolution in Nicaragua, and violent civil war in neighbouring El Salvador and Guatemala.

Three decades later I have a new job, and am based in Nicaragua again. It will be fascinating to find out what has changed and what remains of that Sandinista spirit.

I was offered the post three months ago, and spent the UK winter in a flurry of leaving one job while preparing for another, packing up a house, and trying to arrange a hundred things. I arrived in the capital exhausted after a 20 hour journey, lugging my luggage into the darkness of a Managua suburb. I slept fitfully, jetlagged, head spinning – why had I come, would I be able to cope, what was this journey about?

And then the first morning…. Sunshine! After the English winter that alone makes you feel better. My first breakfast, sitting on a balcony watching as Managua shook itself awake. Rice and beans, with cream and tortillas. No pretensions. Chatting with the waitress, friendly, joking, remembering my Spanish.IMG_4321 - Copy

On the road opposite, a good housewife sweeps the dust off her yard, as she has probably done 1000 times before. Another neighbour throws water on the mud outside his house, trying to keep the dust down for half an hour. The sun is up and it’s already hot. In the distance the sound of salsa music echoes around the suburb. And on a telephone wire in front of me, two green parrots sit on the wire, chirping and cooing as I finish my gritty black coffee.

Memories and feelings come flooding back. This is why I came…. I love Central America. The sunshine, the sounds, the smells, the people, the friendliness, the struggle, the commitment. Maybe in a few weeks I will look back on this as foolish. But for now, this first morning, sitting on a balcony in the sun, I remember why I’ve come….