Thursday, November 27, 2008


Now that I´m one-third of the way through writing my exam, I feel it´s time for a break. So what follows is a quick, completely non-exhaustive list of things for which I am thankful (in no particular order).

-family: near, far, old, new
-the chance to talk to a good chunk of dad´s side of the fam this afternoon
-all of the people who have welcomed me into their homes over the last months, despite my broken Spanish (as Doña Santos, my most recent host mom in the campo said, ¨Ahora tienes muchas mamás!¨-- ¨Now you have a lot of moms!¨)
-the other people on the program -- in a way, this is a subpoint to giving thanks for family
-the communities we have lived in and visited, the stories we have heard, the opportunity to learn about the impact that US foreign and economic policy has had in this region that is never covered in the news
-the home-places that are waiting for me when I get back to the States and my community, which I am anxious to re-acclamate to (in particular I´m thinking here Seward/South Minneapolis, HTLC, the U of M and all that these encompass)
-the knowledge that, with courage and practice, I won´t ever fully re-acclamate
-a presidential inauguration that I actually WANT to attend (this is big)
-(because I´m really missing her right now) my bicycle, Maude

Again, far from complete. The idea is simply that I have a whole lot to be thankful for. And, as is usually the case, only one of them is really a ¨thing¨ at all.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

post-elections and the campo

The last two weeks (since the elections on the 9th) have been a bit intense in Managua. Most of the days between the election and yesterday, there has been some level of destruction (and in a few cases, violence) in varying places in town. The gist is that, only weeks before the mayoral elections (thoughout the country), the Frente Sandista banned two of the major parties, one of which looked like it had a chance of winning the Managua mayorship, which is in turn seen as a first step toward the future presidency. So these parties joined with an already-existing coalition of parties (under the banner of ¨Todos Contra Ortega¨ -- everyone against Ortega, the current president).

When the initial results of the Managua race came through -- with the Sandinista candidate winning at 51% -- there was an immediate outcry from PLC supporters that every vote be counted. Thus began a recount that lasted until last night, when Alexis Arguello, the FSLN candidate, was confirmed as the winner. [So even though I´m not in Minnesota, I´ve gotten to go through the recount experience. Actually, the two races seem rather similar -- very polarized with plenty of people who don´t want either major party candidate.]

Last night there was a gigantic victory rally with Ortega, his wife, Arguello, plenty of music, the whole works. And meanwhile, our part of Managua had lost power for most of the afternoon (but you can bet the rally had all the electricity it needed).

Thus, we hope, the election drama is over. But it did come with a cost: many (so many) cars were burned or smashed, other property was destroyed, and two people (a man and an 8-year-old girl) were shot and killed on the first day following the elections.

One really bright spot in the midst of all of this was our trip to the campo this past Monday through Thursday. We went to a town north of Estelí (about four hours north of Managua) that runs a coffee cooperative through the Union of Agricultural Cooperatives Miraflor Nature Reserve.

We stayed in host families scattered throughout the community. El Sontule itself is tucked into the mountainside, which meant lots of wind and cool, brisk weather. It was excellent (if a bit chilly) for those of us who missed ¨crisp¨ fall days back home. There is so much to say about the community, it is difficult to summarize. After two weeks living in Managua, relatively cooped up due to the tense situation, the 15-minute walk to the bus each morning was heavenly. The ability to be outside at night, even just walking to the latrine, was amazing.

Aesthetically, it was a magnificent place. But the people we lived and spoke with surpassed all of that. Rebekah and my mom, Doña Santos, is a member of the women´s cooperative. Twenty-one women own two manzanas (about 3.5 acres) of land, on which they grow coffee collectively. It has been an incredible way for the women to gain a measure of financial independence and bring additional income into the families. The cooperatives (there is also a mixed-gender coop project) run workshops and trainings on organic fertilizing, self esteem, reforestation, solar panels, etc.

All in all, it was a very impressive, dynamic community. All of the homestays (from what I heard) were different but all wonderful.

Classes are getting to be a bit overwhelming, as we are wrapping up our final three weeks here. We are essentially at the mid-term point of our six-week classes (of which we have two right now), but since it is such a short time, we have also already turned in our proposals for final projects. Such condensed class periods makes for one assignment right on top of another! But the further we get into the two classes, the more they integrate and overlap. That is the way I prefer semesters -- lots of overlap and interaction between the course material. I feel that I get a more holistic view of what I am studying this way.

So in the midst of the city, in the midst of exams and projects, in the midst of stubmling Spanish conversations and mixed emotions about going home versus leaving here (two very different concepts in my mind), I try to come back to Julian of Norwich:

All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.


Sunday, November 9, 2008

A bit more on Nica

It´s election day again, this time municipal elections in Nicaragua. Seems simple, right? Wrong. We´ve been advised either 1) to stay at home with our host families or, if we need to work on homework, 2) go straight to the CGE house, using only taxis from the cooperative based in our homestay barrio.

Today´s FSLN (Sandinista Front for National Liberation) are not the Sandinistas of the 70s and 80s and, I will wager based on what little I know of him, the party of Sandino himself. Criminalization of political parties, concentration of power in the hands of the FSLN and the opposition party (in such a way, though, that the FSLN has the PLC party in its pocket through control of the legal status of their former president), more and more steps toward authoritarian control of the country.

The women´s movement, so integral to the victories in the 70s/80s, has been shunned for supporting the accusations of sexual abuse brought on by Ortega´s step daughter.

None of this is to say that the Frente isn´t doing good things in people´s lives at the individual level. For example, Amy and Arpita´s host mother was talking a couple days ago about the direct support her family has received in dealing with her husband´s health problems. Thousands of families, at least to some degree, have received food assistance as part of the ¨Zero Hunger¨ campaign. These are all very real, tangible impacts. And I know that it is easy for someone (me) whose daily needs are being met to say that the tangible benefits can often mask systemic abuses -- or even systemic contributions to the very poverty and hunger being addressed by the (highly-publicized) programs. But the fact remains that if you´re confined to a hospital bed, you won´t be going to the polls today, even if your party of choice IS one of the two legal parties in the elections. And if the Frente can get you the medicine to get out of that bed, that´s not be brushed aside.

(What makes the two party situation so disheartening is that one of the four pillars of Sandinism was its comitment to a multi-party system that would allow contributions and participation from people all over the political map. The fact that the FSLN has been so integral in removing that possibility is pretty hard to hear about. But, of course, they didn´t act alone. More on that in a minute.)

Yet, just as is the case for me with Chavez and Castro, I´m not willing to give special passes to authoritarian (or borderline-so) leaders just because they are on the left. If I want my leaders to be both progressive and transparent, then Nicaraguans have every right to expect that from theirs as well. (Not, of course, to say that if I don´t, they don´t. You all get my drift.)

But this would ultimately be too easy if the assumption was just that Ortega, Castro, Chavez, and others went in with hopes of becoming dictators. I honestly don´t think that is the case. There is another common theme that tends to run between people who take up leadership (especially in the Americas) at the head of popular or leftists movements: They immediately become targets for US opposition. In Cuba and Nicaragua, the theme was Communism during two major ¨hot¨ periods of the Cold War -- we need to keep the communist threat out of our back yard.

[And a side note: Central America is not unaware that US foreign policy considers CA the US back yard. Some people plant flowers in their back yards; some let their dogs poop in them. What´s been our approach?]

What I´m getting at is this: In Nica, after the Triumph of the Revolution (in 1979) the FSLN was never given the opportunity to really establish a successful government before the Contra war began. Obviously, that was the point, from Reagan´s perspective. But in the initial phase of the revolutionary government, Ortega (yep, he was president then, too) went all over the country holding listening sessions where he would set up a microphone, invite the community, and ask what they needed from the government. Now I don´t know how much of that information made its way into policy. But Somoza´s (the previous dictator and end of a dynastic line that began in 1934) way of interacting with the people was shooting them or cutting off their hands. Seems like a step or two up to me.

Also, there were immensely successful literacy and health campaigns in the first few years. Tens of thousands of youth were released from school for a year to go out into the campo, where literacy rates were sometimes in the single digits, and teach both children and adults. By the end of the 10-month cycle, illiteracy on the national level (previously 56%) had been reduced to 12%. The majority of the adults, who had not been able to read before, were reading at a third grade level -- after 10 months! Similarly, youth were sent out into the campo with materials for vaccinations and polio was irradicated from Nicaragua.

By the time these gains had been made, the Contra war had also started. Thus a government that had begun to be successful in really reaching the people in both urban and rural areas suddenly had an exterior force against which to rally and consolidate power. Speculation thirty years after the fact doesn´t bring change, so I won´t dwell in it long. But I can only imagine that without the presence of US intervention so common in Central America, the Sandinista government might have felt a bit more freedom not to move toward a more authoritarian model.

(Then also important are the 1990 elections when the majority of the people knew that voting FSLN would continue the US aid to the Contras, ie, continue the violence. That defeat for the Sandinistas also plays a huge role in where they are today. Imagine this: during the 1980s, 30,000 Nicaraguans were killed in the Contra war. This is after 70,000 were killed under the three Somoza regimes. In 1990, Nica had a population of about 3.9 million. Contrast that to the US during Vietnam, where 57,000 US soldiers died in a population of about 150 million. Who in the US didn´t know someone killed or injured in Vietnam? There are essentially no families in Nicaragua that weren´t touched by death in the 80s.)

This has become an incredible stream-of-thought entry. It wasn´t intended to be a Nica history lesson! I didn´t develop my thoughts on US influence on CA dictatorships (of the left or right) as much as I had intended. But I would love to hear people´s thoughts on what I did get out there!

Pray for a peaceful election time here.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Elections and elation

There are no words to describe the anticipation that built up over the course of yesterday afternoon and evening or the excited energy that exploded when the words ¨Breaking News: Obama Elected President¨ flashed onto the TV screen.

We are living in our Managua house now and have been for the last week. It is interesting -- growing up in the Community of St. Martin, I remember hearing every once in a while a homily preached that included stories of when Jack and Sara NP lived in Nicaragua. I had no idea at the time what they did there (or where it was, really). Turns out the room I stayed in my first night in Managua used to be their home. Fancy that. I´m a huge dork about historical connections to people I know in the present, so needless to say I am enjoying not only the house but the link to home.

The last three days have been a whirlwind. We are in a new country, which comes with the necessary tours around town to get a sense for historial places and to put visuals to some of the locations which we will be talking about over our time here. We also have started two new classes, a history/women´s studies course and a political science course. Both are very interesting, although right now I tend to favor the history.

Tomorrow we move in with our host families for a four-week stay. All of the families live in the same neighborhood and all have some connection to a community cultural center. When we were talking about who is going where this afternoon, Joe gave a little description of each family and they all sound AMAZING. I am immensely excited for this homestay.

Alright. This was brief and scattered, but it´s an update. I hope all is well wherever this finds you. For those of us from the US, may we sleep (and walk through the day) with our heads just a bit higher. Not because things will be perfect or because injustice has been ¨fixed,¨ but because we have one more reason to hold hope.