Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Embassy

By: Chris Hellwig

The delegation is quickly coming to an end. Today (1/12/11) we had our culminating experience, summing up all that we have seen and learned then turning those experiences into questions that were presented at the United States Embassy here in Managua. We had the opportunity to meet with and question four representatives of the embassy working in four different sectors politics, consular, USAID and economics. 

Consular: this section of the embassy deals with the more familiar side of what we think of when we hear the term embassy. The consular is responsible for issuing visas and dealing with immigration. We learned (or were reminded) that the US issues a limited number of visas and operates on a family based immigration policy. This means that in order for an individual to move to the US legally an immediate family member must petition for that individual. On a side note, most Nicaraguans have a family member in the states. Tourist visas are also limited and because of logistics/costs are out of reach for most Nicaraguans. Tourist visa applications must be completed online and cost $142. Keep in mind that the mean monthly salary in Nicaragua is approximately $60. In addition to visa/immigration the consular also provides American Citizen Services (lost passport, jail visits, basic health services, property management and exportation of remains.) 

this year is an election year in Nicaragua. Exciting right? You bet. In November there will be both presidential and national elections. The section representative noted concerns of due process and electoral sanctity. These concerns stem from the 2008 municipal election that the US determined was fraudulent, resulting in the withholding of the Millennium Development Goal funds, and continue into the current election cycle. Nicaragua maintains four separate but equal branches of government (similar to the US’s 3) executive, judicial, legislative and supreme electoral council. The issue the US has was described as a “creeping executive coup.” Meaning the current administration is gaining control of the different branches of Nicaragua’s government. The current constitution was ruled unconstitutional by the supreme court in October because the presidential term limits were found to violate human rights by not allowing presidents to run as many times as they wish. It is interesting to compare US interest in international elections and to see how displeased our government gets especially considering the elections in the United States are not exactly problem free and as far as term limits go, all we have to do is look across the river at NYC to see how those in power change rules to suit themselves.

USAID (United States Agency for International Development):
is the primary foreign assistance program of the US. Approximately 1% of the US budget goes towards foreign assistance. Here in Nicaragua, USAID has a budget of $34.41 million and has programs areas in strengthening democracy, economic growth, environment, health, education and humanitarian assistance. Specifically some of the programs that USAID is involved with are:
•    Civil society activities
•    Municipal development
•    Election support
•    Trade
•    Agriculture
•    Food security
•    Conservation/Sustainable tourism
•    Health Programs
•    Outreach/behavior change
•    High risk groups
•    Education
•    Testing/counseling
•    Improving policies
o    Family planning
•    Through 2009 74% of contraceptives came through USAID
o    Maternal and child health
o    Standardization of care training
o    Vaccinations
o    Child growth monitoring
o    Nutrition programs
o    Family planning
o    Training of Ministry of Health personnel
o    Safe water
o    Health systems strengthening
•    Trained staff
•    Service quality
•    Education

Economics: the US is Nicaragua’s number one trade partner and Venezuela is second. The described purpose of CAFTA is to increase trade between countries and to have lower taxes on those traded goods. Nicaragua’s trade agreement with the US was the first to have specific labor and environmental chapters included. Nicaragua’s main exports by far are textiles and apparel. Other exports include agricultural goods. The official unemployment rate as of August 2010 stood at 8% but this barely tells half the story. The unemployment rate is calculated by a monthly survey asking individuals simply whether or not they worked in the past month. Here in Nicaragua about 65% of the work force works “informally.” Think street workers, people working out of homes and those working under the table; basically non-taxed income. A more realistic number that helps clarify the current situation is the un and underemployed rate which is about 64%. Creating jobs is a top priority of Nicaragua and one of its biggest “pros” in attracting foreign investments is the availability of cheap labor.

The embassy visit was a great experience. In a way, we ended where we began. United States policies and the effects those policies had.

Below is the list of prepared questions our delegation asked the US Embassy representatives. Please take the time to read through them and if you would like to know the answers we received let us know. Thanks!

Embassy Questions

  1. During our stay here, we had the opportunity to visit a women’s pubic hospital and were very surprised by the lack of equipment. They locked many of the essential amenities for proper maternal health care, such as an ultrasound machine that had broken two years ago. The United States gives $34.41 million dollars to Nicaragua through the USAID program, $10 million are allocated to people, which include maternal and child health. Our questions are how is this aid allocated? Is any of that specifically allocated toward medical equipment? How does USAID in Nicaragua decide what programs to implement? 
  2.  Historically the United States government has shown interest in Nicaraguan politics.  For example in the 2008 municipal elections in Nicaragua, the United States claimed fraud and has since frozen the millennium challenge funds.  Our question is, what are the concerns of the United States government regarding the upcoming national elections in Nicaragua, specifically Ortega’s attempt to change the constitution so he can run for a third term and, how might the outcome of the election effect United States interests in Nicaragua?
  3. Recently, the United States has put stricter policies in place regarding illegal immigration. Unfortunately people in developing countries, such as Nicaragua, do not have many job opportunities. According to the Nation Institute of development and information of Nicaragua, 65% of the Nicaraguan population is un-and-under employed. We learned that many Nicaraguans rely on remittances for their survival. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, in 2007 remittances reached 990 million dollars. Consequently, this money is being removed form the United States economic circulation. Our question is how can the United States instill development programs and job creation in Nicaragua to help put an end to illegal immigration into the United States
  4. The United States controls 17% of the IMF, as you know a country only needs 16% to hold veto power. Based on these percentages any IMF policy is a United States policy. Being that Nicaragua owes 10.175 Billion dollars to the IMF which is 7 times the county’s GDP and are requested to pay back 30% of their GDP. While the United States owes 14 trillion dollars, 99.3% of the country’s GDP, and only pays back 9.6% of this annually. How does the IMF and the United States rationalize the lack of a standard debt payment percentages between countries?
  5. We have been learning about CAFTA during our time here. We understand that according to some CAFTA regulations many goods, such as textiles and shoes manufactured in Nicaragua cannot be sold directly to the Nicaraguan market. They must first be exported to the US (for example) and then imported back into Nicaragua. This increases the price of products and expends natural resources, which could be prevented. Our question is – What is the reasoning behind this practice and how does it benefit Nicaraguans. In addition – we would like to know when CAFTA comes up for renegotiation – what are the possibilities of the Nicaraguan market receiving direct access to goods manufactured here, which would lower the cost and be more environmentally friendly.
  6. In regards to structural adjustment/privatization of public entities; how are the realities of the lack of interest from foreign investments in developing countries, like Nicaragua, being dealt with? For example, the public electric company here in Nicaragua had only one bidder. What is being done to increase or ensure competition?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Viva Nueva Vida!

By: Caitlin Byrne

    A few days ago, I was struck by a quote I saw on the wall of the public hospital, which exclaimed in the beautiful language of Spanish, “No existen puertas que el amor no abra.” Translation: “There are no doors that love can not open.” Today I discovered that these eloquently phrased words embody the inspiring women who have quite literally put their blood, sweat, and tears into creating Nueva Vida (New Life).  Nueva Vida is a Fair Trade Women’s Sewing Cooperative located in a Free Trade Zone in the neighborhood La Cuidad Sandino in Managua.

    Nueva Vida began with 50 women standing under the shade of mango tree. These survivors were thanking God that they were blessed and had withstood the devastation of Hurricane Mitch. Although they had lost all of their material possessions they had not lost their lives and instead of cursing the heavens they were grateful.  In 1998, more than 11,000 Nicaraguans and Hondurans lost their lives as a result of the horrific hurricane.  According to Dealia, the eldest owner of Nueva Vida, “We had the strength to work and keep moving forward.” All the women needed was a helping hand. The hand that was extended to them belonged to Senor Miguel of Jubilee House; a faith based Non-Governmental Organization based in the United States. Senor Miguel offered the soon to be cooperative owners revolving funds with a plan of repayment.  The catch? The women had to build the sewing cooperative themselves and would not be receiving any profit until their business was up and running. After hearing that they would not be receiving payment for their labor many women became discouraged. The group decreased their number from 50 to 11.

The remaining 11 women triumphed after putting in 360 hours of labor that was social capital they willingly invested in the sewing cooperative. These beautiful and strong women mixed the cement to construct the walls of the building among other labor-intensive work.  Quickly the women of Nueva Vida became united as a family relying for strength on their constant faith. They were approached by many women who were not willing to build the cooperative yet were quite desperate to work there. The 11 cooperative members did not turn them away but embraced them as members of their family whom they treat with love and respect. Young ladies who were struggling with drug addiction issues were offered employment at Nueva Vida. This heartfelt gesture towards the group of lost girls was life changing.  Kind-heartedness is just one of the fair practices that makes Nueva Vida such a wonderful work environment for these survivalist Nicaraguan women. Nueva Vida’s values include: sensibility, responsibility to their workers and the environment, honor, honesty, company mentality, communication, and availability. The situation today exemplified the women’s sensibility and fair treatment. Half of the electricity was out in the sewing cooperative so the women were sent home to spend time with their families.

Nueva Vida creates organic clothing using cotton fabric from Costa Rica. When the smiling Nicaraguan women opened their doors in 2001 they began a working relationship with Maggie’s Fair Trade Organic Clothing located in the United States. When the relationship was cutoff in 2005 the women did not despair. Social pressure resulted in the 11 members of Nueva Vida buying into a Free Trade Zone for a total of $10,000. Nueva Vida is allowed to be members of the Free Trade Zone for a total of 10 years. In 4 years the doors of Nueva Vida may close due to lack of clientele but not if the women’s voices are heard around the world. Delia stated, “We are struggling to survive more or less.” The women of Nueva Vida struggle with grace, love, faith, hope and most importantly spirit.

You can spread the word about the story of Nueva Vida through this brief documentary: Ants that Move Mountains! YouTube - Ants That Move Mountains. You can also get a closer look at this incredible grassroots organization at  Equipo Esperanza was empowered today through this unique and beautiful experience. PAY IT FORWARD! ☺

Love to all!

Words about La Chureca ....

By: Michelle Fleury

 After a riveting talk with environmentalist Julio Sanchez we were left with our thoughts of the day to come.  We fiend with anticipation about what we would hear from our next speaker, Yamileth Perez about La Chureca.  La Chureca, is not only the largest trash dump in Central America, but also the home and welfare of thousands of Nicaraguans.


However, for the night our work was not done.  Thanks to the amazing efforts of team member Andrea DiMarco we had tons of school supplies to sift through.  Everything from pencils and scissors to notebooks backpacks and clothes; Andrea found it all.  These generous donations would go towards the people we were going to meet the following day…

As we awoke to our group discussion everyone could not wait to hear Yamileth speak.  As she entered our hostel, CEPAD at 9am, we were immediately intrigued by her calming nature and warm smile. She began to speak and soon I could feel the goose bumps pass through the room.

   Yamileth Perez has been a voluntary promoter of human rights in her community for over 20 years.  Her community lives off of La Chureca, the trash dump of Managua.  Yamileth informed us that over 1,000 families both work and eat off of the waste in the dump.  70% of which base their entire livelihood off of La Chureca.

    One may wonder how it is even possible for one person, let alone a family to live off a trash dump.  Yamileth thoroughly informed us of the harsh reality that many families face on a daily basis.  The families spend their days frantically searching through the trash for anything to sell or eat.  If they are lucky, from the dump they can find pieces of copper, plastics and other metals to sell.  Some are able to make as much at 15 cuards a day; the equilvilant of 75 US cents.  However, most families are not that lucky, as the average family is only able to make 9.25 cuards a day; which is less than 50 US cents.  When compared to the average size of the Nicaraguan family six how would you survive with 50 cents a day to feed your children?

  The majority of our delegation had to fight back tears as Yamileth accounted her own stories about her battle with hunger on La Chureca for her deathly ill daughter and her family.  She bravely told us of a specific time in which a large quantity of rice was thrown into La Chureca. This specific quantity of rice was contaminated as it was in a building that was fumigated.  The trash dump knew that the local families in desperate hunger would still try to take the rice.  To ensure that no one would take the rice, the dump officials poured used motor oil over the entire supply of contaminated rice.

    With tears falling from her eyes Yamileth explained the tiring process that she underwent to wash the contaminated rice that she chose to bring home for her starving family, and deathly ill daughter.  After hours of scrubbing, she explained that she could still not get the brownish color of the motor oil off of the rice.  The acidic taste was so bitter upon consumption that it pained Yamileth and her family to consume it.  Soon eating the rice (their only source of food) became an excruciating process, which involved Yamileth and her daughters starving themselves all day, in order to be hungry enough to have the strength for each bite.  This is just one of the many struggles that Yamileth and the thousands of families that live off of La Chureca face every day.

    Hunger is not the only challenge they face because of the dump.  The constant presence of skin, resperitory, and gastro-intestinal infections plagues the community.  HIV is also an epidemic in the community.  Over time thankfully conditions at La Chureca are finally starting to improve, and the community. In fact, in February the community will be instituting sexed classes for young people to inform them of the dangerous around them.

    Also, thanks to the efforts of the Vice President of Spain, the Spanish government has given 70 million dollars towards the project to clean up La Chureca.  To date 80% of La Chureca has been cleaned.  Furthermore, the 200 original families that reside in La Chureca will receive homes and an energy plant will be created on site to supply electricity for the homes; which will then be members of a secure gated community.

    Throughout Yamileth’s efforts she has spoken with gangs of children about what things they wanted from their community in order to stay out of trouble.  From her findings she has gone on to create various soccer teams and dance groups.  These outlets for children have proven to be just what they needed.

    Yamileth’s efforts can been felt throughout the entire community and the surrounding area.   Her humility shines through for as she says, “I’m obligated to serve,” and “el no vive para servir, no servir para vivir.”  “He who does not live to serve does not serve to live.”  Which is the goal of our delegation, to “vivir para servir” (to live to serve).  We urge you all to do that same, to evaluate your own lives, and remember those who are less fortunate then you.  For please remember as you view our pictures from La Chureca, 80% of the dump has already been cleaned up and collected, it is hard to even imagine what this land that many people call home, used to look like just a year ago.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


It is Sunday morning, we are readying ourselves for a 4 hour van ride to the mountain area of Nicaragua.  This region is known for its coffee production, it is also the location where we will be having our home stays and a visit with Nicaragua's Dalai Lama ... Vicente.  Vicente is not only a farmer but a peace maker.

Because the region where we will be until Tuesday has no internet services we will not be able to blog until Tuesday evening.

Everyone is safe and going through their own incredible journey.

Thank you for your support and love.

Jhon Henry

Palabras no pueden describir ....

Our day at La Chureca, Central America's largest garbage dump where over 2,000 people live off the garbage.

Sometimes words are not enough

Our day with Los Quinchos

Friday, January 7, 2011

Free Trade Agreements

By Jess McCabe

It’s not even time for dinner and my brain is about to explode trying to process everything I’ve heard and seen so far. This morning, we discussed Free Trade Agreements such as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and CAFTA (Caribbean American Free Trade Agreement) and what those agreements like those mean to the people who are affected by it. In this case, Nicaraguans are inevitably affected by CAFTA of which they are a part.

We visited a factory, called Muebletex,  that is located in one of the Free Trade Zones. We met with Robert, one of the administrators of the factory who showed us the ins and outs of the operation. It was really interesting to see how an American-owned corporation operates in Nicaragua. This factory that we visited is considered one of the “better” factories to work for in the country in that the workers have more rights, better wages, and work in decent conditions. To be honest, I was expecting to have a completely different experience.

Robert walked us through the factory, showing us the different operations and different fabrics that the men and women work with. About 300 workers are currently employed at the factory. They work 48 hours a week, Monday thru Friday, most of them making minimum wage. On average, each worker takes home about 3,920 cordobas, or $148 per month. Employees who produce more are paid more for their work and can sometimes make 3 or 4 times the minimum wage. But those who can’t produce the work as quickly? Well, they’re still making only $148 per month. That still seems like unfair wages to me, especially when those who are in charge of the factory are wealthy Americans who profit off of cheap Nicaraguan labor.

After visiting Muebletex, we visited a female-run fair trade sewing cooperative that was formed by displaced women after Hurricane Mitch. This factory produces all types of clothing and is completely owned and operated by women. It was such a different experience because at Nueva Vida, no one is working for anyone else’s profit. They receive fair wages for the work that they do and have formed their own family through the struggles that they have endured. What was so amazing to me was that these people were women. They were told that they could never run their own factory and employ themselves but they did everything they could to achieve their goal. Those that doubted their abilities later came asking for jobs. What’s even more amazing is that they gave it to them.

Today has been probably the most tiring day we’ve had so far. I’m learning so much from every lecture we have and every person we meet. I really enjoyed meeting the women of Nueva Vida and seeing how powerful they are. It was a completely inspiring moment for me and I’m so grateful we got the chance to support their business. I’m also happy that we’re missing the snow that’s happening back home. I’d take sunny and 70-80 degrees any day.