After ‘Operation Clean-up’ my Nicaraguan suburb mourns

St Pedro Church, Sutiaba, June 2018 surrounded by barricades. Credit Steve Lewis

St.Pedro Church, in June, surrounded by barricades.

Father Victor Morales was woken at 5 a.m. by the young men on the barricade outside his church. “They’re coming Father, they’re here”. What the community had been afraid of was happening now. When Fr. Morales cautiously looked into the street he saw scores of armed, hooded men flooding into the suburb.

On that day, 5th July, the Nicaraguan police, with masked and armed para-military support, attacked the suburb of Sutiaba in Leon, the ‘barrio‘ where I’ve been living for the last year.

‘Operation Clean-Up’, as the government called it, resulted in three dead among the parishioners of Fr. Morales’ San Pedro church. Since then the community has been living in fear – and nationally the pressure on the Catholic church has also increased.

Roadblock in Leon, built from paving stones, 10 June 18, credit Steve Lewis

Roadblock in Leon, early July, before the paramilitaries came. The lad is armed with a catapalt.


Now, a few weeks after the three deaths, local people are still cautious to tell their story. “I was frightened that day, yes of course, but not surprised”, said Fr. Morales. “Other priests and I had tried to negotiate with the authorities in the preceding days. But they didn’t listen.”

In June local people had put up barricades all over Leon, built from paving stones, as a protest against the FSLN government for the violence they have used since demonstrations begun suddenly in April. The barricades were also a self-defense mechanism, to prevent paramilitaries driving into the suburbs in pick-ups and shooting. But after a month of stalemate the state was forcibly going town by town and taking the barricades down.

“It was very violent that day” said F. Morales. “They had riot-police and paramilitaries in at least 20 pick-ups, and bulldozers. I couldn’t leave the house for a couple of hours, I felt impotent, furious and sad. But later I could walk to the health post and I learnt about the deaths.

Father Victor Morales, parish priest of San Pedro, Leon. 2 Aug 18, Credit Steve Lewis

Father Victor Morales, outside his church

“Sadly, the youngsters didn’t realize that they couldn’t win”, said Fr. Morales.” You can’t hold off heavily armed men with fireworks and catapults”.

Four blocks South of San Pedro church the remains of the barricades litter the streets, and two sad crosses mark the spot when Junior Rojas and his friend Alex Machado were killed. Down a dusty alley-way, and past a large rabbit-hutch, the family of Junior sit outside their two-room house, still seemingly in a state of shock.

“They killed my boy with a single-shot to the head”, said his mother, Aura Rojas. “He was behind the barricade, but the police had flooded the suburb. They were to the North and West – they shot him from a block away.”

Junior, 21, was a builder’s assistant, and studied at night school, in first grade of high school. “He was my support, he looked after us”, said his mother, “I have glaucoma and can’t work, so he supported me and his nine-year old neice. The government have said all sorts of lies about the men on the barricades, that they were delinquents, they sold marijuana, but its not true. Junior was a good lad, he attended mass, he studied, and played football at weekends.”

“They took his corpse and dumped it in the morgue” said Junior’s sister, Cruz Hernandez. “We went to get his body later that day. They would barely speak to us. There was no autopsy, no investigation, they gave us no paperwork. Only one doctor dared look at him that day. They warned us – go home to your family now, or something worse might happen there.”


The family of Junior Rojas, shocked, outside their house.

Junior was killed just yards from a close friend of his, Alex Machado Vazquez (24). Three blocks to the West another young man was killed under the shade of a large Tamarindo tree. Danny Ezekiel Lopez (21) was apparently shot while on a bicycle, passing a barricade. “They shot him 8 times”, said a local barber on the corner, who didn’t want to be named, “they wanted to send a message. And that worked – after that most of the other neighbors around here took down their own barricades.

The governments ‘operation clean-up’ moved on from Leon to other towns during July, with a steady succession of unarmed young men killed by hooded paramilitaries with high-caliber weapons. Since the protests began in April at least 317 people have been killed according to the International Human Rights Commission (IHRC). Thousands of others have been injured, or imprisoned. “Around 90% of those killed have been anti-government protestors” according to the IHRC. In June and July most of these have been killed by para-militaries, who President Ortega has described as ‘voluntary police’.

Aura Marina Rojas, mother of murdered student Junior, shows his photo. Leon, 2 Aug18. Cred Steve Lewis

Aura Rojas, with a photo of son Junior. July 2018

As in Sutiaba, local priests have been called on to mediate in many of the besieged barricades. In the small town of Diriamba on 9 July, Bishop Silvio Baez and other senior clergy were attacked and lightly injured by a mob of FSLN supporters, as they tried to mediate the release of local people. In Managua on 13th July Father Raul Zamora had to take care of dozens of students who took refuge in the Church of Divine Mercy after being attacked at the UNAN University.

Nationally the Catholic Church is trying to keep alive the dialogue between government and opposition, in spite of accusations from President Ortega that the church is part of the opposition. Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes has said in weekly mass that the Church “is persecuted” but won’t give up their mediation role. Visiting Leon for the first time on 2nd August, the Papal representative in Nicaragua, Waldemar Sommertag, emphasized that “the National Dialogue is the only route to peace”.  But at the time of writing, president Ortega shows no sign of returning to the dialogue. He doesn’t need to, he is buying his own  version of peace in a different way – through the barrel of a gun, fired by a man in a mask.


Laying flowers at the makeshift cross that marks where Junior was killed.

All photos Steve Lewis

More Nicaragua photos, follow instagram @owstonlewis

Content originally published by Catholic News Service, reproduced here with permission


Keep Calm & Carry On, as Nicaragua closes down

After 50 days of protests against President Ortega, the death toll in Nicaragua has reached 140 dead and over 2000 injured. The country is being steadily closed down by roadblocks on main roads and side-streets all over the country. In spite of the difficulties, some Non-Government Organisations & non-profits are trying to keep working, and community workers are going to enormous lengths to keep services running for their people.


Barricade on the outskirts of Leon

When student protests began on April 18th the peaceful protestors were attacked by police and pro-government gangs, with a death toll of 46 young people in the first week of protests. The month of May was filled by marches and counter-marches from pro and anti-government supporters, with increasing attacks from para-military forces. The period of ‘normal’ protests ended abruptly on May 30th when government forces fired on a mass peaceful Mother’s Day march. Since then protestors have resorted to a new and defensive tactic, setting up roadblocks to impede the arrival of the police and their allies in civilian clothes.

As more and more of these roadblocks are built, it is becoming increasing difficult for daily life to continue. Some cities are experiencing shortages of foodstuffs, whilst others have run out of gasoline. Reliable information is hard to come by and rumours abound. While some cities are close to chaos  others are surprisingly calm. Speaking from the comparatively peaceful city of Leon, one NGO director (who preferred not to be named) described the city as ‘Alice in Wonderland’…. ‘We wake up in the morning to read of deaths in Masaya, and street-fighting in Jinotega – but Leon is still calm, except for the strangeness of being cut off from the world by barricades’.


Student roadblock prevents buses taking a side-road past the main barricade

In many cases however, Nicaraguans are making huge efforts to ‘keep calm and carry on’. This weekend I attended a long-planned training session in Leon, run by Doctors James Saunders and Karen Mojica from Mayflower Medical Outreach (MMO) for three nursing students from Jinotega. Kath Owston, PGL Associate, is a board member of MMO and helped set up the training. ‘We weren’t sure the three young people would be able to arrive’, she said, ‘but they got up at 5a.m. and came down on three buses, a lift and a taxi’.  Jinotega and Leon are about 100 miles apart, and there were three roadblocks in between. At each stoppage the passengers had to get off one bus with their possessions, walk through the roadblock, and then take a lift or another bus on the other side. (the roadblocks stop vehicles at present but allow foot-traffic). The journey which normally takes four hours on the bus took them eight hours.


Dr Saunders & Dr Mojica (centre) show students how to take photos of the ear drum

The training in hearing test technology, which precedes a pilot program to screen 4000 school children in the department of Jinotega, was a great success. However today, Monday, the 3 students were meant to return to Jinotega, but they have not been able to leave Leon as the barricades have become tighter. They will try again tomorrow. Poor Fabiola left her house in Pantasma on Thursday evening, to travel down on Friday, and won’t get back to her house till Tuesday night at best.


Marlene practices the tympanometer on a willing victim.

In a second case last week, staff from sister-city Project Gettysburg-Leon (PGL) also had an odyssey of a journey to carry out a long-delayed technical visit to the isolated village of Talolinga. Normally the journey is a pleasant drive, on a tarmac road, until the last 5 miles which is unpaved, steep and bumpy. PGL Programme Co-ordinator Francisco Diaz drove up last week with two water engineers from another NGO, Nuevas Esperanzas  They had to take tiny back-roads to get around the roadblocks. ‘It was a labyrinth’, said Francisco, and at one point it started raining as well. ‘We had to ford a river and drive on dirt tracks for miles alongside Telica Volcano. After spending the day doing a GPS mapping of the community, so that we can plan a piping service from a new well, we faced the long drive back. Coming home to Leon we had to go a different way again and at one point had to be guided by farmers behind an ox cart! We arrived exhausted’.


Javier & Marvin from Talolinga try to open the capped well-head with Leo, the engineer from Nuevas Esperanzas.                                                                                              (credit Francisco Diaz)

What the future will bring for Nicaragua is unclear. Will the protestors put up more barricades and close down all traffic totally, including food and fuel? Or will the discredited President, Daniel Ortega, continue to sit back and wait? So far, he seems in no hurry to break the barricades, and has not called in the army. In Leon we are looking fearfully at cities like Masaya, which have experienced huge violence, and hoping it will not come here. Tomorrow is apparently a strike-day. In a fog of untruths and false information, it is difficult to know which way the current is flowing in Nicaragua. But we are proud of the efforts that organisations are making, despite the fear and difficulties, to keep serving their communities.


All photos by the author unless stated. For more, follow @owstonlewis on instagram

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PHOTO GALLERY Marcha para la Paz … Rally for Peace & Justice, Leon, Nicaragua

Some photos of the huge, and peaceful, opposition march in Leon on May 19th.


This was a national march, held in Leon, to urge Daniel Ortega to resign


It was peaceful … Fue todo pacifico


Families and children … Familias con sus niños

IMG_4484 (2)


The mothers of some of the students killed were present … Los madres de los muertos, presente!


Wow! What a photo!



They came by bus, by moto, and by horse & cart … Hasta que vinieron en caballos!


The people won’t forgive the government for the 65 deaths of the last month


Being Leon, there had to be a dancing Gigantona


Passing the CUUN student union that was burnt on April 19th. The murals show four students who were murdered by the government in 1959, History repeats itself …                               Pasando el edificio quemado del CUUN, quemado en los primeros dias


They wanted to bury us…they didn’t realise that we were seeds


Dusk, arriving in Sutiaba …. Llegando a la iglesia de Sutiaba


Sutiaba residents waiting outside their houses …


Interesting! Que vivan las religiosas comprometidas con su gente


OK maybe time to go home!  Los jovenes si les gustan los morteros!

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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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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How your travel can benefit Nicaraguan social organisations

After two years living and travelling in Nicaragua I have seen that just by staying at certain hotels you support the education of needy children. And by eating in some restaurants you can provide jobs for adults with special needs. A number of tourist ventures in Nicaragua are now ‘social-enterprises’ which dedicate their profits to charities, or programmes that benefit the local community. But many of these ventures are not well publicized, and some towns seem to be missing out. I wonder if we could make a ‘portal’ or site where Nicaraguan social enterprises can easily be found?

You kayaking trip can benefit children’s education on Ometepe island

I work for a ‘‘Sister City’ programme  that regularly brings delegations of visitors to Nicaragua. There are many organisations who bring groups of visitors to this wonderful country, from  ‘Global Glimpse’ to brigades of deaf teachers, or Church Mission groups. Not forgetting  normal groups of tourists enjoying what the country has to offer. If each of these groups stayed in hotels which are Social Enterprises then we could bring large amounts of new income towards school and social programmes. I try to take my groups to one of these Five Favourite Places, but I also try to spend our hotel and restaurant budget in Social-enterprises.

A Social Enterprise is a company, like a hotel or a café or shop, which channels its profits to a non-profit or Non-Government Organisation (NGO). Across Nicaragua Social Enterprises are now raising large amounts of funding for poor communities and local charities. Let me give some examples…

I stayed at Hacienda Merida on Ometepe which was a great place to relax and  watch the sunset views. But the best thing was knowing that the profits go towards building a primary school for the local community. The hostal income allows them to build a new classroom each year. (the classrooms are built partly out of recycled bottles which is also beneficial). The owner, Alvaro Molina, began years ago with a dream. Now this self-supporting project has allowed the building of four well-equipped classrooms and dozens of children receiving a bilngual education. All paid for by the profits from happy travellers.

The lovely primary school supported by Hacienda Merida

Esteli is the town in Nicaragua that is best served by Social Enterprise hotels. Casa Vinculos is a lovely hotel that directly supports Fundacion Vinculos, which promotes Early Childhood Education. When I take delegations to Esteli we take over all nine rooms in Casa Vinculos and enjoy their good food and crafts shop whilst knowing that our funds benefit local children. Esteli also has the more upmarket Hotel Los Arcos, which supports a health centre, plus SONATI, and Hostal Luna which cater for the backpacker market and support environmental work and a mobile library.

Granada has Hotel Con Corazon  which supports education programmes. Hotel Con Coraon is interesting because its publicity positively emphasizes the social benefits supported and its name reflects this. Unfortunately since it is always booked up well in advance I have never stayed there, and so far I have not heard of a second similar hotel in the town. Since Granada is the heartland of tourism in Nicaragua, with over 100 hotels, I believe there is plenty of scope for more hotels that could be added to Hotel Con Corazon and take up more of this market segment.

NGOs and non-profits aim to encourage a love of reading for pleasure. Nicaraguan schools and homes have a major shortage of books

By contrast, in terms of social-profit hotels, Leon and Managua are disappointing. In Leon the SONATI hostal does good work with the backpacker crowd, raising awareness on environmental work. But in terms of a hotel, for better off clients, I don’t know of a single hotel in Leon or Las Peñitas or Poneloya that dedicates all its profits to social programmes.  Of course there are some hotels that will give a donation now and then to a charity. But I am talking about hotels that exist to raise funds for the social good. If you exist, then let the world know. I bring groups to Leon 4 times a year and would love to place visitors in a hotel on the model of Casa Vinculos or Casa con Corazon.

In Managua there are hundreds of hotels. Like Leon, if one exists like the examples above, then you don’t advertise widely enough. Hotel Europeo does support a foundation but it is not clear from the website what % of the profits goes to the charitable work. I would also love to know if a hotel with social benefit exists in San Juan del Sur or other towns.

Cafes and restaurants can also be Social Enterprises, such as the wonderful Cafe de Las Sonrisas in Granada, which employs deaf staff

The tourism sector can support more Social Enterprises – not only hotels but also restaurants, language schools and other services. Esteli has Café Luz which raises funds for the mobile library.  Granada has the wonderful Café de la Sonrisa  where deaf young people work. Also of course there are shops and crafts. In Granada there is a Hammock workshop next door to Café de la Sonrisa which provides  employment opportunities for differently-able young people. In Leon or Managua, is there anything similar?

To learn Spanish you can visit the Mariposa Language School. To climb  a volcano from Leon then go with  Quetzaltrekkers which raises funds through providing tours and guides. Quetaltrekkers provide funding for a range of Leon NGOs such as  Las Tias and NECAT, to pay the salaries of teachers and social workers in deprived areas of town.

If you want to climb a volcano, go with Quetsaltrekkers, who devote their profits to support NGOs such in Leon

So these tourist-orientated ventures are providing a great service. But they could be better known and there could be more of them. How could tourist-orientated social enterprises in Nicaragua be better publicized? I would love to find a one-stop shop where you could easily find information for every town in the country. How could this be set up?

My dream is to be able to always stay in social enterprise hotels when I bring groups here.  To spend most of our budget with services like Quetaltrekkers and mainly eat in cafes or restaurants like Café de las Sonrisas. Do you think that will be possible? And how could it be set up?


Photos by Steve Lewis. Follow Steve on instagram at @owstonlewis

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.


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.


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.


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.


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


Deaf in North and South

For the second of my blogs about deaf children in Nicaragua, I interviewed two North American deaf activists who came here recently to visit deaf programmes. Even thirty years after the Sandinista revolution, there is a still some solidarity with Nicaragua from the USA and Europe. Brigades visit the country to see the reality here. Kath and I helped organise a brigade of interpreters for the deaf, who visited the Special School in Estelí for a week. It was a great chance to see the lives of deaf people in Nicaragua through the eyes of people in the deaf world in the USA.

Learning Nicaraguan Sign Language with local instructor Heydi

The brigade came from Oregon Western University, and was supported by the deaf education charity Manos Unidas. I interviewed Professor Patrick Graham, the coordinator of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing programme, and Erin Maue, a student in the interpreting programme who aims to work as a teacher of the deaf. Both are deaf and use American Sign Language as their preferred method of communication.



I asked about their impressions of the deaf community in Nicaragua from this brief visit. ‘It’s very different to anything I’m used to’, said Erin. ‘There is a huge lack of resources here, the students deserve a lot better. Most of the children are really language-deprived – it’s a shock to see 15 year olds so far behind’.

An activity in the Special School run by the brigade from Oregon

The Special School, where the brigade worked for a week, (painting murals and making educational materials), is a school for children with all types of disabilities – deaf, blind, cerebral palsy, autistic spectrum, and other behavioural problems. Patrick remarked ‘I get the idea of inclusion, but so much time is lost to teaching. We saw that some of the deaf children can read or can recognise colours, but there are so many interruptions. And there are so few materials. Deaf children depend a lot on visuals, on touch, movement, even smell. Chairs and desks are less important than resources are, to play with, and learn from. I don’t get the impression the teachers take the kids out to explore the world around them. There could be much better training of the teachers’.

We talked about priorities. This is partly because Nicaragua is the poorest country in Latin America. But it’s also a perennial discussion topic for the deaf community in any country. Signing, or hearing aids? Deaf culture or integration? These are polemical questions in the North and also discussed here in the South. ‘The top priority for me would be teach deaf people here to sign’, said Patrick. The health service in Nicaragua is free, but doesn’t provide hearing aids. ‘Even if you have aids, the batteries can run out, or the aids can break – but you always have your hands’.

Erin painting with one of the school students

‘Children should have both opportunities’ agreed Erin, ‘to be taught to sign, but also to have hearing aids’. But for deaf schools there are many more costs and demands. There will be problems of sound-proofing and more equipment. Patrick said ‘I’d love to come back and be able to build a school with sound-proofing, with aids and signs, and an outside area where the children could learn…and where the deaf community can see role models… successful deaf people …. It’s all connected.’

The other crying-need is an early identification programme for the deaf. Hearing babies are learning language from the day they are born. The first four years of life are the most crucial for learning a language. But in Nicaragua most children don’t start school until age 5 or 6. Depending where you live, there is either no system for identifying deaf children, or the system is extremely weak and haphazard. Yet if you can identify a child with hearing loss when they are young, it’s possible to provide language (either through signing or with hearing aids, or both). ‘Early intervention is the bread and butter of deaf education … the early years are much more important than age five to 18’. But sadly it barely exists here.

Patrick & Kath building rapport with Shoskey through sign language

‘We saw one young child in the school who was identified at age three and is now being helped’, said Patrick. ‘That’s fantastic, early ID is working for him. He is learning to sign, he wants to come to school because that’s the only place where he can communicate… He could be a leader of the deaf-community in the future. But only if his mum brings him to school and encourages him’.

I finished by asking what impressions they would take back to their lives in the USA. Erin said she would use her phone less, try to be more patient with people, and walk more. ‘I realised that if the school is a mile away, then you can just walk there…. It’s not the end of the world.’

Patrick emphasised the disparity in wealth and resources: ‘Maybe in the North we have too many materials…. we could be more inventive? The teachers here do so much with so little. There are no educational toys in the school – if the teacher buys one she has to buy it out of her own salary. In Oregon University we just built a new state-of-the-art building and apparently it has 11,000 feet of cables. Here they can’t even afford to photocopy worksheets. All they can do is write on the board, and the children copy it down, whether they understand it or not. When the board is full the teacher rubs it out so she can continue.

The Oregon brigade met American ambassador Laura Dogu (back row in blue top) who is supportive of deaf education in Nicaragua

‘But it’s not only about resources’, said Patrick, ‘it’s about identity. At the moment in Nicaragua adults are ashamed to have a disabled child. Many hide them away. We need more role models like some of the deaf adults we met here, to go knocking on doors and bring the deaf children to school. The state shouldn’t look at deaf people as disabled, but as a cultural minority with their own language. Deaf children need to learn their identity first as being deaf, and then as being Nicaraguan. Proud deaf people here are the ones who can take the community forward’.


Education for Deaf Children in Nicaragua

Last month I met Laura Dogu, the American Ambassador for Nicaragua. In the past I would have wanted to ask her about 50 years of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, but instead we discussed Nicaraguan Sign Language! My wife is a volunteer here, trying to support the deaf community in Estelí and Jinotega, while taking a career break from her work in the UK as an Implant Teacher of the Deaf at St Thomas’ Hospital. We spend a lot of time visiting the ‘Special School’ (i.e. school for the disabled) and accompanying some small NGO’s that work with deaf children.

Young leaders of the deaf community in Esteli speak with the American ambassador at the beginning of the school year.

The Ambassador was in Estelí to inaugurate the new school year for ETAVS,  an Arts and Media project for the deaf.  The founder, Famnuel Ubeda, welcomed us all to his mother’s house, where two small dark rooms are used to run Sign Language classes at weekends. They teach both deaf people and hearing students (teachers, parents, medics) to sign. The house is in a poor barrio of Estelí, with mud floors and a pit latrine.

Audiology testing service in Jinotega. Few children in Nicaragua have their hearing tested, and even fewer can be provided with hearing aids.

Sign Language is the mode of communication for the deaf here because Nicaragua cannot afford to provide hearing aids to children. And the quality of education, even for hearing children, is sadly poor. In the UK all deaf children can be provided with hearing aids or cochlear implants on the NHS. In Nicaragua the basic health care system is free, but it is basic provision, and does not include hearing aids for the deaf. The hospitals in Estelí and Jinotega can provide a basic audiological assessment, with technical support from a U.S.-based NGO, Mayflower Medical Outreach. But without a hearing aid, a child with only a moderate hearing loss will not be able to access the sounds of speech to learn an oral language.

The first four years of life are crucial, when a child’s brain is geared for language learning. At that age a child can soak up learning like a sponge, and could learn either an oral language or a sign language. But in Nicaragua there is no mechanism to identify babies with hearing difficulties. (In the UK there is a Newborn Hearing Screening programme. Parents can be told at only ten days that their baby has a hearing loss; and the NHS will fit hearing aids on babies at only 2 months).

Children do far better in school if they have learnt language while young.

Outreach services rarely reach isolated areas, such as this village in Miraflor, outside Esteli.

Academic provision for the deaf is very weak in state schools across Nicaragua. Most deaf children are included in mainstream classes with no extra support or help. We met ‘Prof Julio’, a teacher in a primary school in rural Miraflor, who told us that he teaches a deaf child in third grade. “She doesn’t speak and I have no idea if she understands the curriculum. She copies down what I write on the board, but I have no way of assessing if she knows what it is about”.


Unfortunately, the truth is that she probably doesn’t understand, she just copies the words letter by letter, having no knowledge of Spanish language. However, she causes no problems and enjoys the social interaction of being in school. So, Prof Julio says he is not too worried about her.  We are – because the girl will go through school and come out having learned very little and have almost no communication skills at all.

Nicaraguan Sign Language dictionary

Nicaragua has put its’ focus for the deaf entirely into developing sign language.  The good news is that Nicaragua’s deaf community is remarkably developed, considering the level of poverty in the country. This is largely due to the emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) following the 1979 Sandinista revolution. With NSL, deaf people in towns are now far less isolated and have a recognised language, if they manage to access it. However, in rural areas, deaf children are still very isolated, with very few opportunities to develop a language. For example, we know Gerald, who came to live with a cousin in Estelí at the age of fifteen. He had spent all of his life until then in the countryside with his direct family, hidden away. He had never been to school and had spent every day in the fields doing manual work. He is now attending the class for deaf students in the special school in Estelí, where he is growing in confidence and beginning to use NSL with his deaf peers. This story is a common one.

Nicaragua is the poorest country in Latin America, and there is a crying need for more resources for deaf education (and indeed for most education). Some NGOs, such as Manos Unidas fund small programmes and also recently brought down a delegation from Oregon Western University*. Mayflower, mentioned above, have a very good Hostel for Deaf Children in Jinotega. Granada has a café that provides work experience for deaf youngsters coming out of education. But all of these, at present, reach only small numbers of young people.

Rural school in Jinotega. Few of these children will ever have had their hearing tested

Nicaragua urgently needs support to establish or strengthen its Early Identification Programme, to take advantage of those magical early years when children can learn so quickly. If hearing-impaired children can be identified young, then they can be helped. Even if the identified children have little chance of getting a hearing aid, they and their parents could then be taught to sign.  If you have any ideas for how an Early Identification Programme could be supported, please write on the comments below.





*Next month on this blog we will interview some members of the brigade from Oregon Western University, and ask how deaf people from the USA see the issue of deaf education and deaf identify in Nicaragua.

Top Ten Latin American Films

Latin America is a big, colourful, complex continent – a movie-makers dream.  A long history of coups and revolutions is interspersed with passionate love-affairs, magical realism and fantastic countryside – much of it under threat. Children are often the first victims of violence, and for many of the poor, an answer is illegal migration to ‘El Norte’, the North. There have been many great films about Latin America and below are ten I have seen recently.

I recently did some volunteering with a café in Estelí, which takes tourists to community tourism in rural Nicaragua. One of our activities was a weekly Movie-Night, showing films about Latin America. If tourism is one of the growth industries in Nicaragua, and an important source of income for many people, then it would be good if the tourists would understand something about the countries they are travelling through. So this is the list of ten films we have shown recently, roughly in my order of favourites. You can probably watch most of these from the internet, and all the ones we showed have sub-titles. For more info on each film click on the name of the film

1/The Motorcycle Diaries

This is a great film, and has been popular with our tourists. Based on the travels of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado, on a motorbike in the 1950’s. It’s funny, profound and moving, as the friends travel through Argentina, Chile and Peru. As they spend time with poverty-struck miners in the Chilean desert, you can sense the seeds of Che’s social consciousness growing. Their time volunteering for a while in an isolated leprosy station in the Amazon, will be of interest to the thousands of current travellers who are looking for a ‘volunteering experience’. The film stars the extremely ‘guapo’ Mexican Gael García Bernal, and we watched it in Spanish with English subtitles.

2/ Tambien la lluvia or Even_the_Rain

This is a powerful and fast-moving film set in Bolivia today. When a Spanish film-crew arrive in Cochambamba they coincide with a growing protest movement, challenging the privatisation of water. As the police violently protect the rights of multi-national companies to privatise basic services, the poor are fired upon and the film crew have to decide which side they are on. Tambien La Lluvia also cleverly reflects the conflict between Spanish and Indigenous people from the time of the conquest 500 years ago.

3/  Carla’s_Song

Living in Nicaragua we have to show this great film, and especially living in Estelí, where some of it was filmed. Made by the committed British director Ken Loach, it is set in 1987 at the height of the US-backed  Contra war against the FSLN government. The film doesn’t pull its punches. It was a strong impact to be watching the scenes of war and destruction in places like Miraflor, a rural area an hour outside Estelí, that I have often visited. If you live in the UK, Carla’s Song is one of the many good films you can buy on the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign website.

4/ Frida

Delving into Latin America’s cultural past, this is another beautiful and moving film – a real Hollywood production, high budget and with many stars. It is a bio-pic of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter in the 1920’s and 30’s, and the inter-twined lives of Diego Rivera, the great muralist, and Leon Trotsky in exile in Mexico. Frida overcomes a lifetime of pain to be a free-thinking, sexually liberated, forceful and independent woman. A feel good movie, highly recommended.

5/ La Misma Luna – Under The Same Moon

Migration is a key escape route for millions of the poorest families in Central America (when I visited villages in rural El Salvador recently I was shocked by how many young men and women had migrated illegally to the USA). Under the Same Moon is a moving, real-life depiction of reality, featuring tension, humour, male redemption and a twist at the end. It’s a well-made film that will keep you gripped. Known in Spanish as ‘La Misma Luna’, in many ways it’s an updated version of a 1983 film about migration, aptly named El Norte (The North).  El Norte (film) featured two indigenous Guatemalan Indians escaping the violence and repression of the military dictatorships. La Misma Luna though, is a more cheerful film, and you could (and should) watch it with your children.


6/ 180 Degrees South

This 2010 film brings battles for conservation in Chile to the big screen, or at least in our case, the big white sheet taped to the wall. It’s a U.S. film / documentary – very U.S. I would say, and also male-dominated. But it’s a moving film about the importance of preserving the worlds remaining natural spaces. Very relevant to Nicaragua, where the government needs to do more to protect the good system of national parks, and where the tourism industry can support rural communities by promoting eco-tourism. And if you think 70 year-old men can’t scale mountains, watch this film, it should inspire you in your older age.

7/ House of the Spirits

Isabel Allende is one of the great authors in Latin America and helped put magical realism on the map. House of the Spirits is her first novel, and is a grand sweep through 100 years of Chilean history – (for which you can read Latin American history). From feudal oppression of the peasants in the 19th Century, to the first electoral success of a socialist government (Salvador Allende)  and the crushing response of the CIA-backed military coup.

House of the Spirits felt rather long and a bit dated. If you want a melodramatic two hour introduction to Latin American history, then it’s good value. If you want to see a Latin American ‘Magical Realism’ film with less bombast then you might enjoy Like Water for Chocolate more. Set in Mexico it tells the story of a cook who can change people’s emotions through the ingredients she puts in her cooking. Funny and sexy too and with a big happy ending.

8/ Y Tu Mama Tambien

Talking of sexy, this highly successful Mexican drama, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is a coming-of-age film about two teenage boys on a road-trip with an older woman. No need to say more. It’s one of Mexico’s highest-earning films ever, and is poignant, funny (and sexy). If you are a Nicaraguan tourist café or hotel, considering following our example, and showing some of these films to your guests, you might want to avoid showing this one. It’s a great film, but maybe one to watch in privacy at home on a DVD.

9/ La Casa de Mi Padre

Tastes differ, and sometimes the tourists like Hollywood films or ones with ‘big names’. This film is made by and stars Will Farrell, so we got a few more visitors than some times. It’s a weird film, a spoof comedy mocking Mexican dramas. In the UK we would call it a ‘piss-take’. It is funny in parts, but would be better if you knew from the beginning it was a take-off. I would like to know what Mexicans think of it, I imagine they either hate it or think it’s hilarious.

10/ Pablo Escobar: Paradise Lost

We tried to show films from different countries – Frida from Mexico, Carla’s Song from Nicaragua, Tambien La Lluvia – Bolivia etc. Wanting to show a film about Colombia, we chose this film, again U.S. made, but modern, from 2015. About the life of the violent Colombian drug-lord Pablo Escobar, the film uses the typical approach of a North American young man who falls in love with Escobar’s daughter, and gets caught up in the violent family empire. Of the ten films here it was my least favourite, but if you want to learn about the cocaine trade in Colombia, it is a place to start.

I have enjoyed watching all these films and think it’s great if tourists in Latin America can learn a bit about the continent they are travelling in. Not to mention the numerous expats who live here now. I have been interested in Latin America since about 1979, and cut my political teeth on films like Missing about the 1973 CIA-organised coup in Chile (by Costa-Gavras, starring Jack Lemmon) and  The Mission about the ruthless greed of the Spanish conquistadores (with Jeremy Irons). Another I remember from my formative years was the Kiss of the Spiderwoman  (1985) about the dictatorship in Argentina. Fortunately now in Latin America the dictatorships have ended – but the struggles for justice and peace remain. Of all the films shown here, Even the Rain (Tambien la Lluvia) is the best modern film about the continuing struggles of poor people across the continent.

Which films have you seen that you’ve enjoyed? Which key films have I left out? Please use the comments box below to tell me what I should be watching, and why the ten (13) films above are the right or wrong ones. Gracias.

Buenas noticias: salud mejorada en El Salvador

Iniciemos el año 2017 con algunas buenas noticias. Te presentaré a mi amiga Graciela. La historia de Graciela nos muestra que la vida está mejorando en la mayoría de los países en desarrollo, que la ayuda externa funciona, y que la mayoría de la gente en los países pobres están más saludables ahora de lo que solían estar. Ellos están tomando control sobre sus vidas.


Graciela, en campaña de vacunacion

Desde 1991 a 1994 viví en una villa rural en El Salvador con mi esposa Catalina. Avelares fue una de las villas que visité varias veces, tratando de apoyar el servicio de atención primaria de salud en un lugar muy pobre. Es una pequeña comunidad en lo alto de los cerros, y en 1991 el territorio estaba controlado por la guerrilla del FMLN. La gente local estuvo tratando de proveer un sistema de educación y salud muy rudimentaria, con jóvenes voluntarios de cada comunidad. En esa época en Avelares, Graciela trabajaba como voluntaria en atención primaria de salud. Ella solo recibió unas pocas semanas de capacitación y algunas medicinas otorgadas por la diócesis católica y una excelente organización no gubernamental (ONG) llamada Concern America.

En noviembre de 2016, Catalina y yo visitamos las comunidades nuevamente y estuvimos encantados de encontrar a Graciela, quien todavía ofrece cuidados de salud en Avelares y en tres villas de los alrededores. Después de veinticinco años ella se ve un poquito más vieja—pero para decir verdad, ¡nosotros también! Ella aún vive en la misma casa y trabaja en la misma clínica de un solo cuarto hecha de bloques de adobe. Pero lo que ha cambiado significativamente son los indicadores de salud. Graciela nos contó con gran orgullo que ningún niño ha muerto en su comunidad en los últimos once años. Estuvimos muy asombrados.


Graciela en su puesto de salud

En los años 90 en El Salvador la taza de mortalidad infantil fue 60 muertos por 1000 nacidos vivos. Hoy ha caído a 16. Pero en áreas rurales los muertos de infantes era aun mas común. Catalina y yo vimos, probablemente, un muerto en la comunidad cada dos meses. Hubo poco cuidado prenatal, mucha desnutricion y mal acceso al hospital, debido a la guerra y la pesima condicion de la carretera. Todos nos bebes nacieron en la casa, sin electricidad, y con solamente una partera tradicional para ayudar al parto. Como una estimación aproximada, yo diria que un niño en diez murio antes de la edad de cinco años en las comunidades de Avelares. La taza de mortalidad maternal tambien fue muy alta en la década de los 90.


Nuestro vecino, Adan en 1993. Sus gemelos nacieron en la casa, pero murieron adentro de 24 horas. Reina, la mama, no tuvo ningun apoyo profesional.

El mes pasado, Graciela nos explicó con orgullo sobre las mejoras hechas ahora por el Ministerio de Salud. Nos explicó — Ahora todos los niños nacen en el hospital. Es mi trabajo dar asesoría prenatal, tomar el peso y medidas de salud. Pero dos semanas antes de la fecha prevista para el parto, se lleva a la parturienta al pueblo en las tierras bajas, para esperar en la “Casa Materna”.  Para mi asombro, aprendí que en los últimos doce años solo un niño había nacido en la villa. — Esa vez no pude encontrar transporte oportunamente, explicó ella.

Habiendo sido apoyada anteriormente por la iglesia y ONGs, hoy en día Graciela está empleada por el Ministerio de Salud bajo el sistema de Atención Primaria en Salud (APS). Esto ha sido una iniciativa muy positiva por parte del Estado para retener la experiencia rural de los promotores de salud. En algunos departamentos, los ex-promotores de salud constituyen la mayoría de la fuerza de trabajo pagada en salud comunitaria. Uno de los viejos colegas de Graciela, Dagoberto Menjívar, es ahora médico y administrador. Sin embargo, comenzó como promotor de salud con quince días de formación en el “Curso Básico”. Una verdadera historia de éxito.


El centro de salud en Avelares (a la izquierda de este edificio)

Graciela nos dijo que el Ministerio es muy exigente. Ella tiene que visitar cada hogar en sus comunidades según un cronograma y llevar a cabo una serie de controles y vacunas en cada casa. – Una vez la madre ha regresado a la villa después de dar a luz, tengo que visitar el hogar cada día por la primera semana, luego una vez por semana por un mes, luego cada quince días, etc. Si un niño muriera en mi área de trabajo, yo podría ser llevada ante un tribunal y poder ser detenida como responsable. Si un niño muere de una enfermedad prevenible en la infancia, yo podría ir a la cárcel.


Todos los bebes hoy nacen el un hospital

No solo se ha reducido rápidamente la tasa de muerte de bebés y madres en los últimos 25 años. En El Salvador y casi en todos los países latinoamericanos, ha habido progreso constante en la esperanza de vida y en otros indicadores de salud. Ya más seguros que sus hijos tendrán una vida saludable, las familias han estado tomando más control sobre su fertilidad. Cuando vivíamos en la región, la mayoría de las parejas tenían 6, 8 o incluso más hijos. Conocimos a una vecina quien nos dijo tristemente que ella había dado a luz a 18 niños “pero solo cinco están vivos ahora”. En 1990, únicamente la mitad de las mujeres a nivel nacional usaban la planificación familiar y en nuestra área rural el porcentaje fue pequeñísimo. Hoy en día en El Salvador cerca del 75% de las mujeres en edad fértil usan algún método anticonceptivo. Graciela explica los beneficios de hasta seis métodos y puede entregar la mayoría de ellos por sí misma.

En 1990, en nuestra zona, calculo que las mujeres locales tuvieron un promedio de seis partos. A nivel nacional en El Salvador tuvieron un promedio de 3.8 partos. Ahora la cifra ha caído a un poco menos que dos. Esto es un buen presagio para la futura salud de la familia. Desde que asumió el poder el FMLN por la vez en 2009, los servicios de salud materno-infantil bajo el sistema estatal son gratuitos, lo que fomenta su uso, especialmente en las zonas rurales. Los países donantes en las décadas de los noventa y los 2000 que apoyaron a El Salvador pueden sentirse orgullosos de este progreso.


El paisaje alrededor de Avelares. Graciela camina por todas las casas en sus campañas de vaccinacion

Hay muchos problemas en El Salvador todavía, como la violencia las pandillas, y estos problemas reciben atención en los medios de comunicación mundialmente. Pero el país es una democracia (y el actual Presidente es un ex-guerrillero del FMLN). Países como el Reino Unido, y donantes como Estados Unidos y el Banco Mundial apoyaron a El Salvador para recuperarse de la guerra civil y construir capacidad en el sistema de salud. Ahora El Salvador cuenta con un servicio de atención primaria en salud activo y efectivo, con personal local como Graciela y Dagoberto, que conocen sus comunidades. Me complace mucho saber esto. Detrás de los titulares en los periódicos, los indicadores de salud en América Latina están mejorando constantemente.

Traduccion: Con agradecimiento a Fidel Campos.

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