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DELEGATE ANALYSIS: the Human Faces of Poverty in Nicaragua

September 22nd, 2009
Val and Ed Fillenwarth with their host in the campo

By Val Fillenwarth

Yami Perez is an amazing woman. She has organized the inhabitants of the Managua city dump to help them survive. Two hundred families, 1200 people live inside this huge dump, picking through the 2200 tons of garbage and trash brought in every day. Yami tells us the families here learned planting and harvesting from their parents and grandparents. But with free trade agreements, their products were more expensive than those from the United States, and they could not survive with farming. But through her leadership, the dump has a school called “Hope” and three small kitchens to feed children.

Meeting Yami and her “community” was perhaps the most emotional part of our delegation’s week spent in Managua, bringing home starkly the human reality of Nicaragua’s poverty statistics.

Nicaragua is the second poorest country, after Haiti, in our hemisphere. 79.9% of the people live on less than US $2/day and 45% of those live on less than US $1/day.

63% of people who are employed work in the informal sector, so they have no insurance, sick days, vacation or overtime pay. The average education level is 4.6 years, mostly because schools have been privatized, so most parents cannot afford tuition, uniforms or books. Half of Nicaragua's homes do not have electricity, and 40% don't have safe drinking water.

These realities hit the members of our delegation hard when we were given 40 cordobas at the large city market that is crowded with families trying to sell products that they've grown or raised. With that money, equal to $2 US, we were asked to buy food for our imaginary family of four for the day. We bought 1/2 pound of rice, 1/2 pound of beans, one carrot, one pepper, two onions and six 5" tortillas. That's all. We could not afford milk, cheese or meat for our imaginary children.

The focus of our 10 day August delegation was Nicaragua’s coffee crisis. The Reagan Administration ruined the International Coffee Agreement in the 1980's by flooding the market with coffee from Brazil and Colombia. The damage to Nicaraguan coffee producers was devastating. Its consequences endure to this day.

For three days and two nights, we lived in "the campo" with families who grow coffee. Their community is one of eleven members of a coffee cooperative in the shady mountains near Matagalpa. The warm, friendly men, women and children welcomed us into their homes. Their community went into debt to build a bedroom and working bathroom onto eight homes so they can develop tourism to supplement their meager income from coffee production.

The market price now for a one hundred-pound bag of coffee beans is $117, or $136 for fair trade coffee. We were frustrated for these families that after their expenses, they receive so little profit for each bag. They work for ten months to grow the coffee. Then each family works hard for two months to harvest the beans, which are taken to the co-op to be washed, husked and bagged. Each family's land equals about five acres, which can produce about sixty bags of coffee beans a year. Even with the expertise and solidarity of their co-op, that is not enough for a family to survive.

Like the Reagan administration’s devastation of the coffee market in the 1980s, contemporary trade policies undermine Nicaragua’s economy. Structural adjustments of the World Bank and IMF, endorsed and promoted by our government, limit the money Nicaragua can spend on education, health care and other social programs.

On top of that, DR-CAFTA, the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade agreement, traps Nicaragua in the "race to the bottom" with workers' wages. When we asked if there have been any improvements for men and women who work in the maquilas, or sweat shops, we were told no.  The laws are on the books, but if a company is pushed to raise the minimum wage or provide benefits, the company just leaves the country and goes somewhere else. Then all the workers are out of jobs.

Natural disasters, compounded by corruption, have also hurt Nicaragua over the years. In Managua in 1972, a 6.2 earthquake and strong aftershocks killed 5,000 people, injured 20,000 and left 250,000 others homeless. Most of the city's infrastructure was destroyed. Millions of dollars in aid money was pocketed by the Somoza regime then in power. It was sad to see the once-beautiful Cathedral that hasn't been restored. It's one of only four buildings left standing after the earthquake. When Hurricane Joan caused much destruction in 1988, the United States didn't send any aid money.

Then for ten days in 1998, Hurricane Mitch hit Nicaragua and Honduras with 180 mph winds and heavy rain. Floods and mudslides drowned and buried people. Villages were wiped out and crops were destroyed. A government official said the disaster put the region back fifty years economically. These events are legendary in Nicaragua’s history.

Our own government’s policies, past and present, inflicts harm as well.

The US Marines invaded Nicaragua many times and occupied the country for 21 years, to protect US investments and to insure that Nicaragua's elections would benefit our interests. When our Marines left, we established their National Guard to continue our involvement. In the '70s and early '80s, the Sandinistas tried to return land and extend health, education and other services to poor peasants. Their literacy campaign taught 50% of the people to read.

Reagan's administration labeled these efforts communist and a threat to US interests. Reagan and the CIA secretly armed, trained, directed and financed the Contra War from 1979 to 1990. They also enforced an embargo to cripple the country's economy.

Twenty years later, economic violence, offered up as “free trade” similarly impoverishes Nicaragua, and our government and corporations have been its leading advocates.

Despite this, we Americans were made to feel very welcome by every Nicaraguan person we met.  Moved by such generous spirit and the heroism of people such as Yami, scandalized by the depth of Nicaragua’s poverty, our delegation of 13 people from around the US resolved to ACT for the people of Nicaragua.

We’ll write letters to editors and contact our representatives and senators. We’ll host gatherings, serve fair trade coffee, and tell our guests why they should demand fair trade coffee. We will support the Trade Act, H.R. 3012, to review trade agreements such as NAFTA to make them more just for all involved.