Yesterday we spent a good part of the day with Roxanne, the Communications Director of Witness for Peace. This is a really cool organization dedicated to leading delegations that show how U.S. policy affects Latin America, and promoting activism to improve this situation. We met her for breakfast at an excellent vegetarian restaurant called Ananda that had pictures of Hindu Swamis on the wall, and a giant painting of a mandala with an orange in the middle. Also, they had the most delicious fresh fruit juice (we had orange and watermelon). After introducing ourselves, Roxanne jumped right in reviewing Nicaragua´s history from colonization to the present with us. She had us try to place events on a timeline, which despite all the reading I had done on Nicaraguan history before I came, I still found tricky. We talked about colonization as the beginning of a cycle of violence and political unrest, which continued through Nicaraguan history. It was interesting to hear about all the fluctuations between parties, and especially about the U.S. relationship to Nicaraguan politics. The U.S. government, especially beginning with the anti-communist Reagan were desperate to keep the Sandanistas out of power, and spent huge amounts of money funding their electoral opponents. The trend of the U.S. having such a big hand in foreign elections was quite disturbing to me, and really contradicts the United State´s spoken ideals of promoting democracy and self-determination worldwide.
After this history recap, we went on a tour of some Managuan sights, which Michelle will describe in her post. Then, tired from the sun and a bit overwhelmed from all the information we´d been taking in, we headed to the Witness for Peace house for lunch. It was delicious and full of vegetables, and we all appreciated the variety of food since gallo pinto (rice and beans) will no doubt be our staple soon. Roxanne brought out some informative posters and proceeded to give us a whirlwind summary of Neoliberal economic philosophy and how it was failing poor countries like Nicaragua. I was really struck by how the assumption that ¨a rising tide will lift all boats,¨ and ¨wealth will trickle down¨ proved so wrong by the example of Nicaragua. According to Neoliberalism, countries should privatize utilities for cheaper prices and better service, but after Nicaragua sold their national electricity to Union FENOSA, electricity service became both less reliable and vastly more expensive. Nicas call the company ¨union mafiosa.¨ Neoliberalism advocates finding niche products, and specializing in producing these for export. However, when Nicaraguan farmers began growing coffee instead of staple foods, they become vulnerable to international market fluctuation, and end up earning less money from selling coffee than it costs to produce it. And unlike subsistence farmers, they can´t eat coffee and starve if their crops don´t sell. Furthermore, by focusing on cash crops, Nicaragua is dependent on countries like the U.S. for imports of basic foods. Nicaragua´s dependence on foreign economies was a disturbing theme of the economic talk. About 30% of the Nicaraguan budget comes from foreign loans or donations. Loans from the International Monetary fund come with strings attached: Nicaragua must cut social services, and prioritize exports and debt payments. In fact, in 2008, over 50% of the Nicaraguan budget was spent servicing debt. Talking with my group members, we felt that this oppressive system must be the intentional method to let the interests of rich countries win out. I was surprised and disturbed to learn that the U.S. has enough votes to veto any policy of the IMF that it doesn´t like. Even all of Latin America combined doesn´t have this many votes.
We also talked about DR-CAFTA, and its impact on Nicaragua. CAFTA created ¨free trade zones,¨zonas francas en español, and maquilas have sprung up. These are factories where cheap Nicaraguan labor is used to assemble products that are then shipped out. Our taxi driver told us that products assembled there are labeled ¨made in USA." I can´t be sure whether this is true, but it underscores the point that the free trade zones are not really Nicaraguan. Nicaraguan laws don´t apply, and the only benefit Nicaragua gleans are the meager salaries of th workers. However, if the Nicaraguan government tries to create more stringent laws for workers´rights or environmental protection, the companies can sue them for lost profit or just pick up and leave for a country with fewer regulations.
After we had discussed how many ways Neoliberalism was destroying the Nicaraguan economy, I had gotten quite depressed about the whole matter. The system was so oppressive, and yet so entrenched. Roxanne ended the presentation by reminding us that Neoliberalism is not a force like gravity, but a human construct. People made it, so people can change it. We talked about alternative models of development and later went to the Jubilee House (see Marlee´s post), which was really what gave me a more hopeful outlook.
I have to remember that as hard as change may seem, apathy and despair are both bad options. Rather than feeling resigned to the way things are now, we have to have hope that things can change in order to start taking small steps in the right direction. And once we start taking those steps and see that we can in fact make progress, we will be empowered to continue.
Best wishes to all of you.