Thursday, April 24, 2008

An Update on Life and the Current Crises in Nicaragua

Dear Family and Friends,

While I have been active in updating the blog often with news from the community, I haven't taken the time recently to update you on what I have been doing and how things are going here!

March was a wonderful time, and we were excited for the visit of Friends of Batahola, the Boston College Arrupe group, George School, and others, and to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Centro Cultural Batahola Norte.

My work most recently has focused on a research project looking at international volunteer programs. I have had the chance to interview various organizations in Nicaragua to learn about their experiences with international volunteers. This has helped tremendously in setting up Friends of Batahola Volunteers and creating a network of support. Results of the study, which will look at aspects of volunteer programs such as structure, finances, orientations, volunteer work, etc., will be distributed to participating organizations to aid them in improving their own programs.

I have been coordinating with St. Andrews Episcopal Church in my hometown of Yardley, PA about the possibility of a delegation coming to Nicaragua next winter, and I hope that it happens! I am very excited about the possibility of a group from my church coming to learn about Nicaragua and the Centro Cultural Batahola Norte.

Christine and I are also continuing work with the women's group, and will focus the next meeting on self-esteem in a workshop led by two of the Center's scholarship students, who are psychology majors at the university. We are excited to continue working with the group to provide a space for women to come together to have fun, learn, and reflect.

Plans After Nicaragua!
I recently found out that I was awarded a scholarship to attend the Harvard Divinity School to study Theologies of Liberation and will start in the Fall of 2009. I also plan to purse a joint degree possibly at Tufts in International Relations which I will apply to when I return to Boston.

As part of my studies I will enroll in HDS's Field Education program, and am looking into a a position with the American Friends Service Committe's "Project Voice" that is focused on immigrant rights.

I am also excited about reuniting with many friends who will be in the area studying programs such as social work, public policy, or theology, and working with non-profit organizations!

Hopefully my time in Boston will better prepare me to contribute in a meaningful way to addressing issues of poverty and injustice and build upon my experiences in Nicaragua.

The National Transportation Strike, the Food Crisis, and the pullout of Maquilas

We are now entering the second week of the national transportation strike in Nicaragua. Taxi and bus drivers are demanding a freeze on the price of gas and are in negotiations with the government. As a result, many schools, universities, workplaces have been shut down. As tensions mount in the negotiations, two trucks have been burned and one person killed. We hope a resolution will be reached as soon as possible to end the strike.

Rising prices of food and gas are putting a lot of pressure on the most vulnerable sectors of Nicaraguan society and making it harder for families to feed their children. For an interesting perspective on the global food crisis see:
"Capitalism, Agribusiness, and the Food Sovereignty Alternative"- Centre for Research on Globalization

"Making a Killing From the Food Crisis" - Real News Network

Exacerbating the situation is the fact that nine maquilas have announced their pullout of Nicaragua in the last three months, which will leave over 12,000 people jobless. Maquilas (factories where imported goods are assembled for exports, also commonly referred to as "sweat shops") are controversial for their human rights abuses and dumping of toxic wastes, etc. Nicaragua recently lost it's comparative advantage of attracting foreign direct investment when the government, against the advice of the International Monetary Fund, raised the minimum wage by 33.5% to $102 per month to help families cover the increasing cost of living.

For a single mother with two children, this salary would provide only $0.85 a day per person, barely enough to survive. To supplement family income, many children are put to work in the streets selling candies, prostituting themselves, or collecting tin cans and plastic.

Poor countries like Nicaragua are often locked in what is termed a "race to the bottom" with other countries who, desperate for jobs, will make great concessions in worker's wages and human rights, environmental standards, etc. as well as grant tax holidays and other benefits in order to attract foreign businesses. While such neoliberal strategies are theoretically supposed to help jump-start economies in poor countries, they actually allow for the exploitation of already vulnerable populations and leave economies further dilapidated when maquilas leave to find another poor country to operate in.

The Taiwanese-owned maquilas that are leaving Nicaragua will move to Vietnam, where there are no organized unions (as there are in Nicaragua), and the minimum wage is only $35/month as opposed to $102/month in Nicaragua. The Vietnamese government is awarding free land an other benefits to foreign companies as well.

With gas prices rising, all of Central America facing a food crisis, and Nicaragua still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Felix, the loss of 12,000 jobs in Managua is a devastating blow that will leave many more families hungry.

I hope that in the short-term, the Nicaraguan government will respond with measures to protect the most vulnerable sectors of society and develop a long-term plan for sustainable economic development that includes serious protections for the environment and human rights.

Especially in the context of this reality, I am grateful to be working at the Centro Cultural Batahola Norte. The micro-enterprise course opened a few weeks ago, aimed at helping people in the community to start their own small businesses selling cakes and other foods, natural medicines, handicrafts, and other goods to supplement their income. There are 16 people in the course mostly women, who have opened bank accounts to start saving money to open their small business. At the end of the 6-month course, the Center will then match whatever the students have saved to aid them in starting their business. The course will also help students access micro-loans and manage their money.

The course is one example of a program at the Center that helps people to provide for their families in ways that are more sustainable than maquila jobs. I am proud to be working in a place that is, as one friend recently described, "a breath of fresh oxygen" in an environment polluted by the bleak realities of corruption, poverty, and continued exploitation.

La paz,

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