Politics among the garden plots

Fourteen years after a civil war Nicaragua is strong but its history is never far from view

Jennifer MacMillan (centre right) spent 10 weeks this summer working on community garden projects in Nicaragua. The experience gave her insight into Nicaragua’s colourful political history, which continues to be evident in public spaces; the mural at right shows national hero Augusto Sandino crushing American occupying forces.
Jennifer MacMillan (centre right) spent 10 weeks this summer working on community garden projects in Nicaragua. The experience gave her insight into Nicaragua’s colourful political history, which continues to be evident in public spaces; the mural at right shows national hero Augusto Sandino crushing American occupying forces.
Boats like these are the only way to travel between towns in many areas of Nicaragua. Jennifer used them to travel from San Carlos to her placement.
Boats like these are the only way to travel between towns in many areas of Nicaragua. Jennifer used them to travel from San Carlos to her placement.

The other morning I was lazily flipping through the channels, as I put off going to class. It was the typical weekday morning television fare: kids’ shows, morning news programs, infomercials and all other types of programs geared towards stay-at-home moms and seniors. Suddenly, a random word on one program caught my attention: Nicaragua. I paused in my channel surfing.

To most people of our generation, the word “Nicaragua” conjures up an idea of a distant country somewhere in the Third World—one of my university-educated friends asked me where it was in Africa. Alas, the country is actually located in Central America, sandwiched between Honduras and Costa Rica.

Those of our generation who are a bit better versed in geography might know it as a peaceful, Spanish-speaking democracy that was badly hit by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. As Mitch dumped an entire year’s worth of rainfall in only three days, he wiped out entire towns and helped to entrench Nicaragua in its status as the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti.

To our parents’ generation, the name of this small country would have very different connotations. Dan Beaver-Seitz, an American Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua, told me his parents’ friends begged them not to let their son go there. Images of rifle-toting guerrillas and dead farmers danced through their heads, from Nicaragua’s time as a Cold War hotspot.

Throughout the 1980s, scenes of Nicaraguan militias, armed and funded on the sly by the Reagan administration fighting the Sandinistas (socialist government forces) were regularly beamed into living rooms around the world via the evening news. These remain many people’s default images of the country, even though the war in Nicaragua ended in 1990.

But, when I saw the word “Nicaragua” on television the other day, my mind flashed back to this past summer.

In May, I arrived in Nicaragua as part of a team of six volunteers from Queen’s Project on International Development (QPID). Each summer for the past 15 years, QPID has sent students to different spots around the world, including Bolivia, Guyana, India and Nunavut. The mandate of each student volunteer is to participate in small-scale development projects initiated by groups within the country.

My QPID partner and I arrived in the town of San Carlos after a nine-hour bus ride south from Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. There, we met up with our supervisor from the Nicaraguan NGO we were working with called Fundacion Amigos del Rio San Juan (www.FUNDAR.org.ni). We and several dozen other people boarded a long wooden boat fitted with an outboard motor and sat back for the three-hour journey to the heart of the rainforest.

As we cruised across Lake Nicaragua, I caught sight of the vivid green of the rainforest for the first time. The boat approached the mouth of the river and the jungle closed in around us. It felt like a scene out of Heart of Darkness, but as the months went by our surroundings began to feel less exotic. We got used to heading to bed when the sun went down and getting up whenever the monkeys outside our window got rowdy in the morning.

We stayed at FUNDAR’s ecological centre, which hosts both tourists and development workers seeking to improve the quality of life in the eight surrounding communities. The communities were typically small, no more than a grouping of about 15 families carved out of the dense jungle. No electricity, no running water, no roads—no problem.

As I came to discover over the 10 weeks I was there, many of the things we take as “necessities” in life aren’t really as vital as we imagine. People regularly walked two hours or more to get to the next village or to the nearest town for supplies. The rainforest is rarely short on water, to the point that most people can dig wells by hand a few feet from their homes and have an abundant supply. They use clay filters or a few drops of bleach to safely sanitize the water for drinking.

I learned that what I took to be the typical indicators for poverty, such as poor roads and a lack of electricity and running water, didn’t apply here. The people I spoke to—albeit in my broken SPAN 205 Spanish—didn’t clamour for these things, even though they are things most other Nicaraguans in less remote areas do have. So what was in need of improvement in these communities? In the past, QPID volunteers have worked on projects that obviously match up with their skills: engineers have designed rainwater catchment tanks; Con-Ed students have taught in rural schools; rehabilitation students have worked with patients. But where did I, your average ArtSci student, fit in?

We worked on a malnutrition project, helping to develop community vegetable gardens with donated supplies. Most of the people we met were subsistence farmers, meaning they farmed their plot of land for beans, rice and plantains that made up the bulk of their diet. These staples might be filling sources of carbs and protein, but not vitamins; as a result, many children have nutritional deficiencies that can be corrected by making vegetables available.

Subsistence farmers often make about $30 CDN a month from selling their produce. Considering a pair of shoes costs about $6 and the yearly cost of school supplies for a child is $28, the monthly income doesn’t go far. It’s hard to walk to school if you don’t have shoes, although most kids do it anyway, and even harder to learn if you don’t have pencils or paper.

There are one-room primary schools for the children, although they are often an hour’s walk away. The children who do attend have to compete for the teacher’s attention with the other 40 or so students from grades one to six. Those who pass grade six can travel even further away to secondary school, but only a small minority do so. The rest remain with only the most basic of education, to become another generation of subsistence farmers. We found that besides material poverty, there was poverty of opportunity: perhaps some children were happy to follow in their parents’ footsteps and become farmers, but there was little alternative for those who didn’t.

Besides our nutrition project, we tutored children in the community in math and reading. I had always taken books for granted beforehand. But to many Nicaraguans who have never had books at their disposal, reading for enjoyment is a foreign concept. Reading is solely a practical skill that many Nicaraguan adults lack. As a result, the children we tutored could read the words on a page with ease, but could only tell you what the words were, not what they meant. Some Nicaraguans told me it was in the current liberal government’s interests to underfund the education system, since a less literate population is a de-politicized one.

If that is the government’s agenda, they have a big task on their hands—during the 1980s, the Sandinistas did the opposite. They sent university students and other educated members of society out to remote parts of the country to educate the poor.

Although the Sandinistas gained worldwide support for their efforts, a project seemingly so well-intentioned does have its downsides. Practice texts used to teach often had propagandistic messages on the benefits of joining the army.

Although illiteracy may be rising and the polarizing civil war is more than a decade old, Nicaragua’s citizens will not be de-politicized so easily. Everywhere we went, people spoke freely and openly about the politics of the day, of corruption, of what needs to change with the Sandinistas. Everyone from the taxi driver to the wealthy businessman had an opinion, often divergent or unexpected.

One of my fellow volunteers told me she was surprised to find that many people fought in the war not because of their political orientation but because of their circumstances. They didn’t necessarily agree with the Sandinistas or the Contra militias, but joined one side solely because their brother had been killed by the other or because they disagreed with a specific opposition policy. Nearly everyone we met in Nicaragua had lived through a brutal war, which was sometimes hard for us to fathom. It was visible in the buildings still riddled with bullet holes in the poverty that, for more than 10 years, has never been truly dealt with. The deaf man wandering the streets, the amputee directing traffic, the mother with faded photos of her lost son—all are living testaments to a violent past.

But, it was hard for us to see the pain and fear that was inherent in everyone we met who lived through that time. The kindness, generosity and humour Nicaraguans shared with us overshadowed their dark memories. The Nicaragua of today, with its free market economy and democratically elected government, doesn’t have to fear foreign military intervention anymore. Rather, the thing they now have to fear from the Western world is apathy.

As our generation of Canadians grows up with only the most obscure awareness of the problems of Nicaragua and other Third World countries, it becomes easy to forget the impact our decisions as First World consumers have on others. We consume electricity and fossil fuels as though it is our right, while others live full lives without these “necessities.”

Nicaragua backgrounder

1927-33—Guerrillas led by Augusto Sandino campaign against US military occupation. When US forces leave the country, they leave their translator Anastasio Somoza Garcia in charge of the Nicaraguan army.

1934—Sandino is killed by Somoza’s men, and immortalized as a national hero.

1937—Somoza becomes president; for the next 44 years he and his sons rule as dictators.

1961—Inspired by the Cuban revolution, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) is founded.

1979—The Sandinistas force Somoza into exile and form a leftist government.

1981—The US cuts off aid to Nicaragua, accusing the government of supplying arms to rebels in El Salvador and of Soviet connections.

1982—US-sponsored attacks by counter-revolutionaries (Contras) based in Honduras begin. The CIA plays a key role in organizing and funding the Contras, both before and after the US senate outlaws such activities.

1984—The US mines Nicaraguan harbours and is condemned by the World Court for doing so. Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega is elected president in elections certified as fair by international observers.

1986—The Iran-Contra scandal breaks in the U.S. when the public finds out Reagan officials have covertly been selling arms to Iran and giving the proceeds to the Contra rebels.

1990—US-backed centre-right National Opposition Union defeats FSLN in elections. The U.S. spends the equivalent of $8 US per voter on the election campaign. It is estimated that between 1970 and 1990, 50,000 Nicaraguans were killed in civil conflict.

1998—3,000 people are killed and hundreds of thousands are left homeless when Hurricane Mitch strikes the country.

Sources: bbc.co.uk, nationmaster.com

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