The UCU pension strike and geographic literacy

This morning I felt quite inspired by three geographers who’ve posted things on the internet that make me glad that I work in the discipline of geography and proud to be a geographer. I’m grateful to the letter to students and the Twitter thread about the upcoming UCU pensions strike posted by Alice Evans and Jason Dittmer and by Derek Aldermann’s excellent post to the AAG newsetter entitled “Time for a Radical Geographic Literacy in Trump America”. So inspired by Alice’s, Jason’s and Derek’s example, I’m posting this to encourage students to support us in the upcoming strike, not (just) because you care about our wellbeing, but because the whole higher education sector is threatened by this latest neoliberal and inhumane move. The change to our pension arrangements does not only mean that many of us might not be able to afford to retire, it also means the deterioration of our working conditions and therefore your learning conditions. As the always insightful Liz Morrish writes:

“The working conditions of the staff who teach you, are your learning conditions. Whatever justifications or denials are uttered, this remains the case. Lecturers who are made ill through work overload cannot give you the time or energy you deserve.”

The same goes for lecturers who will not be able to afford to retire even when they are very old, infirm or mentally exhausted should this move go through.

Geography teaches us to analyze our environments and the spaces and places in which we and others get to live, work, move and act and in which we experience freedoms and oppressions. I found my niche in geography as a site in which to study dispossession, marginalization, racialization, coloniality, capitalism and sexism, because it helped me understand the spatialities that constitute these processes – that racism and sexism for example always have a geography as well as a history. And so do decolonial, anti-racist, anti-capitalist and feminist struggles. Because places/spaces are contingent as well as structured, by paying close attention to the ways in which oppressions and resistances are embedded in geographies, we can potentially find ways to diminish or enhance their impact. Geography also teaches us that things are connected. There is for example a relationship between the neoliberalization of higher education, the rise of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Brexit insanity, the people who have died crossing the US-Mexican border, in the Mediterranean sea and in the Grenfell Tower, school shootings, and the growing mental health crisis. Doing geography means in part tracing and revealing these connections. We can acknowledge these connections while acknowledging that British academics are of course much better off than those forced into dangerous migrations.

Being exposed through the discipline of geography to critical race theory, feminism, cultural studies and critical development studies have shaped me into the scholar and the person that I am. Thanks to the awesome scholars in geography and cultural studies that I’ve been able to study with, teach with and learn from, in person and through their writing, I feel I’ve developed a set of skills that enable me to analyze the world in which I live far better than I would be able to do without that study. Studying geography enables us to understand the things that disturb or outrage us and do what we can to challenge them. The current crisis is something students can and should learn from, and not just be affected by.

In the now more than three decades that I’ve been either a student or faculty member, I’ve seen dramatic changes in the university, some of these are good, most of them are bad. Universities have become less elitist spaces and that is good. There is still a long way to go to dismantle sexism, racism and Eurocentrism in the academy, but the conversations are at least underway and are becoming connected across institutions. But most of the changes I’ve seen in higher education are overwhelmingly negative and I realize that most of my career has involved attempting to defend public education from the neoliberal onslaught that takes its shape in a whole bunch of neoliberalizing and intellectually impoverishing technologies such as REF and TEF, in the creation of the highly indebted and anxious student subject, in the increasing casualization of academic labour, in the fetishization of large research grants, in the privileging of STEM subjects over humanities and social sciences, in the increase in workplace bullying, in the treatment of so-called Tier 4 students, and in the creation of the abysmally-named Office for Students. These things do not enhance research or learning and I am annoyed that we must spend so much time resisting them in the interests of being able to still do good teaching and good research. It is exhausting. Most of us never wanted to spend our careers fighting rampant neoliberal managerialism and there is a prevailing sense among many of my friends and colleagues that academics succeed in spite of their institutions rather than because of them.

But the thing about geography and other critical fields in the social sciences and humanities is that we can’t keep our analyses confined to our primary fields of study. I know that my students will be able to apply their geographic skills to many aspects of their personal and professional lives after graduation and that is the strength of a geography degree. So as a geographer I am simply not able to analyze neoliberal processes and gender inequality in Nicaragua and then not apply these analytical skills to my working environment. I can’t learn about modes of governance that are enacted by indigenous peoples and not think how such principles could help us to create a more humane university rather than one built on exploitation, exclusion and hierarchy. I admit that I sometimes spend probably futile time imagining what the university would be like it it were run like a Zapatista caracol, where leadership means not imposing your will but obeying the will of the majority and working from below.  In other words, I can’t keep my work separate from my working conditions.

So striking for me is not just about pensions – although I do want to able to afford to retire and not be forced to work until I drop dead – it is about dignity for academic workers and our students and respect for the pursuit of knowledge geared towards creating a better world. Striking is part of the attempt to transform the ways the university is run and funded for the better.

I am fully aware of the need I and others have to look after ourselves, our families and our financial situations. We have large rents, mortgages and bills to pay and striking will make meeting those financial commitments very hard for many of us. It is even harder for women and single parents too, especially given the gender pay gap in British universities. We are also totally committed to our students and our teaching. We care about you deeply, your learning and your education. We know that most of you have taken on huge debts and are doing too much paid work in order to get your degree.  We know you are worried about your grades and your employment prospects. But know this. Striking is a really tough thing to do. It is a last resort. It puts a lump in our throats and grips us with a sense of anxiety. But strike we must in the interests not just of our pensions but of the sector as a whole and I urge you all to support us.

Some of my colleagues are not going to strike. They will cross picket lines and teach their classes. It is of course their right not to strike just as it is the right of others to strike, but the absence of solidarity makes me feel sad and frustrated. Some students will also cross picket lines and be glad that their classes were not disrupted. I understand that, especially given the excessive fees that you pay that should never have been introduced. But instead of crossing the picket line, you could spend the day improving your geographic literacy in other ways – talk to staff on the picket lines, read a book that will make you think, read something written by one of the four scholars I’ve mentioned here. Your education can continue even if your classes are cancelled. But I’d also like to encourage you to think about the broader conjuncture in which you are seeking to gain your degree and getting into debt. I have a Nicaraguan friend who was an undergraduate student in the 1970s who never finished his degree because he was forced by circumstances and political conviction to abandon his studies and fight against the Somoza dictatorship. Like many others, he risked his life but the revolution triumphed and the brutal dictatorship was brought down. It put the nation on a different course in which many good things became possible and imaginable. He was a part of that revolutionary struggle. It is one of the things that makes him inspirational to me and makes me feel honoured to be his friend. You might argue that things were different in 1970s Nicaragua, Nicaragua was a politically unstable third world country living under dictatorship, and that surely British students living in a first world liberal democracy shouldn’t have to make such sacrifices.  To make such an assertion is to profoundly misunderstand the current conjuncture and the dangers that accompany the present moment.

Right now, we are living through extremely challenging and dangerous times, which one of my favourite decolonial scholars, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, refers to as social fascism and abyssal logics. As I argue in more depth in the introduction to my forthcoming book, we are living in a world in which there is growing indifference to human suffering, in which existing citizenships are removed and borders are constructed, and in which colonial nostalgia is being resurrected with the support of forces that we think of as benign or democratic. The universities are thoroughly enmeshed in and central to these dynamics. They are not impartial observers. The politics that underpin both the Trump presidency and Brexit as well as the rise of colonial apologetics in the academy are as serious as those that underpinned the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s and the Latin American dictatorships that established themselves in the second half of the 20th century. Across the globe, we are witnessing the intensification of modes of racialization, criminalization and stigmatization that produce fear and anxiety and lead to the preventable deaths, deportations or displacement of innocent people.  Not only do we need to be vigilant in the face of these threats, but we also need more than ever to be on the right side of history. Because if we don’t do start to do things differently in the world and put people ahead of profits, private property and the whims of the stock market, your degree or your white skin, or whatever privileges you already possess and are accumulating might not be enough to save you, or indeed any of us. So Derek’s call for geographic literacy in this context is extremely timely. So I’m striking for my pension, because I need it to live off, but I’m also striking for you and the students that follow you, and for a decolonized non-hierarchical academy in which a feminist ethic of care and a high degree of geographic literacy may grow and flourish. We are grateful for your support.





The closure of Brixton’s Latin American community hub embodies everything that is wrong with Tory Britain

Julie Cupples and Tash Oduba-Vine

To its residents and frequent visitors, Brixton is rather an awesome place. Its vibrancy is without doubt rooted in its strong working class and immigrant cultures. Today’s Brixton is largely a result of post-war Afro-Caribbean migrations and settlement; the later Latin American and European waves; and the most recent insidious sweep of white British gentrification. These migrants who made Brixton home, both in the 50s and 60s and in more recent years, have forged strong community networks and engaged in creative and diverse forms of entrepreneurship. Small locally-owned businesses, especially shops, restaurants and market stalls, are at the heart of Brixton’s community ethos. This heart is however being ripped out by a vicious neoliberal onslaught in which the Tory government, Lambeth Council, Network Rail and now billionaire capitalist and owner of Sports Direct, Mike Ashley, are all complicit.

One of our favourite things to do in Brixton is to go and eat Colombian arepas in Las Américas, also known as Casa Brixton, on Pope Road. Run by a diverse group of Latin Americans who started as an arepa business 19 years ago, Las Américas is not just a site where you can get affordable nutritious food from across the continent, food you won’t find in Gregg’s, Starbucks, or MacDonald’s, but it is also a site of affective community interaction and support in which Brixton’s Latin American community gather to eat, talk, and exchange information. The space has grown to fill gaps in the community over the years, encompassing a butcher, a cafe for coffee and snacks all day, and most recently an evening live music venue and bar.

Even for us as Spanish-speaking Latin American-loving Brits, Las Américas is one of our happy places. It is a place where we’ve flexed our Spanish muscles, found out why Cartagena is one of the most amazing places on earth, and heard about of some of the dilemmas facing the community. As one man originally from Medellín noted, he would love to return home now that the war is over but his teenage kids were born in London, they are Londoners of Colombian descent, and so leaving is not so easy.

We learned last week that this wonderful place was forced to close its doors for the last time on Saturday 20 January. Mike Ashley, of Sports Direct infamy, has purchased the entire street, allegedly to build a Sports Direct outlet and warehousing space. As noted in the Brixton Buzz article that broke the news of the closure to us – it was revealed in 2013 that 90% of Sports Direct’s staff are on zero hours contracts, and they have a track record of underpaying staff, and operating warehouse working conditions that have been compared to Victorian times. SDI (Brixton) Limited, a company linked to Sports Direct, reportedly spent close to £12 million to buy up Pope’s Road, showing once again that our communities really are up for sale to the highest bidder.

The staff on closing night were nostalgic, but upbeat. Everyone through the door was greeted with kisses and hugs, the dance floor was full of staff and long time customers, young and old, and every moment of sadness was met with a reassurance that things would go on, and a commitment to enjoy the space this one last time. A live salsa singer kicked off the evening, followed by a DJ playing reggaeton classics. As we left at around midnight, an Argentinian man outside tried to convince us to stay, “the cumbia will start soon” he said “you don’t want to miss the Argentinian cumbia.”

This buy up and community closure is the ugly head of a two-pronged wave of gentrification sweeping across south London. Communities like Brixton are being watered down by chain after chain – most notably the recent opening of Brixton’s first Pret a Manger. Yet it’s relatively easy for the middle class residents of Brixton to moan about yet another Sports Direct, or another garish chain shop. The other prong is a bit prettier, and a bit harder for Brixton’s newer residents to organise against, because for a lot of us, it improves our middle class quality of life. This looks like Jamaican cafes being replaced by sleek co-working spaces. Fruit shops being replaced by upscale barbershops. Hair shops turning into craft beer bars. Carpet stores shuttered by Network Rail’s rent hikes, with the promise of a Boxpark-esque shopping experience to come. Mike Ashley is also said to be among the front runners to purchase Brixton Market, potentially putting in jeopardy the diverse independent businesses that are the backbone of Brixton’s culture.

It is hardly surprising that those displaced and those deprived of these places to eat and shop are largely people of colour.  It reveals how little interest there is from the elite political and capitalist class in supporting immigrants who work hard and contribute to their communities. Where is the investment in the cultural integrity of our communities? A new Costa coffee branch, or even an individual Sports Direct store isn’t going to be the death of Brixton’s heart and soul – migrant and working communities are more resilient than that. However, more than anything else, the rising tide of luxury apartments and white washed neighbourhoods is proof that our current Tory government exists to serve those who need it the least, at the expense of those who have earned a living, a following and a community making arepas, telling stories and sharing music.

Julie Cupples is a human geographer at the University of Edinburgh and Tash Oduba-Vine is a Brixton resident and craft brewer. Photographer Oliver Dawe.

New book: Shifting Nicaraguan Mediascapes: Authoritarianism and the Struggle for Social Justice

Happy to announce the publication of our new book, based on research funded by the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

This book explores the mediated struggles for autonomy, land rights and social justice in a context of growing authoritarianism and persistent coloniality in Nicaragua. To do so, it draws on in-depth fieldwork, analysis of media texts, and decolonial and other cultural theories. There are two main threats to the authoritarian rule of the Nicaraguan government led by Daniel Ortega: the first is the Managua-based NGO and civil society sector led largely by educated dissident Sandinistas, and the second is the escalating struggle for autonomy and land rights being fought by Nicaragua’s indigenous and Afro-descended inhabitants on the country’s Caribbean coast. In order to confront these threats and, it seems, secure indefinite political tenure, the government engages in a set of centralizing and anti-democratic political strategies characterized by secrecy, institutional power grabs, highly suspect electoral practices, clientelistic anti-poverty programmes, and the control through purchase or co-optation of much of the nation’s media. The social movements that threaten Ortega’s rule are however operating through dispersed and topological modalities of power and the creative use of emergent spaces for the circulation of counter-discourses and counter-narratives within a rapidly transforming media environment. The primary response to these mediated tactics is a politics of silence and a refusal to acknowledge or respond to the political claims made by social movements. In the current conjuncture, the authors identify a struggle for hegemony whose strategies and tactics include the citizenship-stripping activities of the state and the citizenship-claiming activities of black, indigenous and dissident actors and activists. This struggle plays out in part through the mediated circulation and counter-circulation of discourses and the infrastructural dynamics of media convergence.

academic selves and academic careers

Some nice ideas here on looking after ourselves at work


I visited the wonderful Department of Geography at Maynooth University a couple of weeks ago, and I was kindly invited by the Supporting Women in Geography Ireland group there to a discussion session about developing a career as an academic. I was sent a bunch of questions beforehand, which clearly articulated some of the key issues for this group: how to manage multiple demands to do different kinds of academic work, how to manage caring responsibilities with academic work, how to get on…

I don’t usually post about this sort of thing, though I do retweet about women’s experiences of academic life, on occasion. But the invitation and the questions gave me an opportunity to pull together a few thoughts around these topics, and also to reflect on how lucky I’ve been in my career: I’ve (almost) always had supportive line managers, I’ve never been asked to teach to the exclusion…

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Producing anxiety in the neoliberal university


For this session we discussed “Producing anxiety in the neoliberal university”, a paper by Lawrence D. Berg, Edward H. Huijbens and Henrik Gutzon Larsen which was published in The Canadian Geographer/Le géographe canadien in 2016.

This discussion was particularly interesting as we had a broad sweep of people attending – both in terms of age and job security – all the way from first year PhD to retired lecturer. This was also a particularly engaging session as, sadly, the paper resonated with everyone present.

Key Points of Discussion

  • We began by tackling the question ‘so what?’ Partly this is a question of timing (we have known this process of neoliberalisation within the academy has been going on for years now) but also one of politics (is this just a reiteration of the university “bubble”, of attending to ourselves when we should be looking outwards?). As the conversation developed, we forgave…

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Puerto Cabezas, RACCN, 15-17 Agosto 2017







Nosotras y nosotros, mujeres y hombres que representamos a varias organizaciones de los pueblos afrodescendientes de Colombia, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panamá, Brasil y Nicaragua, a través de la organización Afro’s Voices Center of Nicaragua (AVOCENIC) y con el acompañamiento de la Universidad de las Regiones Autónomas de las Costa Caribe Nicaragüense (URACCAN), la Universidad de Edimburgo del Reino Unido y el Instituto Nicaragüense de Cultura (INC), nos hemos dado cita en la Ciudad de Bilwi, Municipio de Puerto Cabezas, de la Región Autónoma Costa Caribe Norte, Nicaragua, para celebrar el Primer Foro Centroamericano y del Caribe: Retos y Desafíos que enfrenta la Población Afrodescendiente, para reflexionar sobre nuestras realidades y la búsqueda de alternativas que conlleven a mejorar nuestra situación como culturas ancestrales, para lo cual partimos de las siguientes consideraciones:


Los Pueblos Afrodescendientes somos herederos y portadores de los conocimientos, saberes y cultura de la civilización milenaria que le dio vida a la humanidad.


Desde que se inició el proceso de conquista, dominio y colonización de los nuevos territorios en América y el Caribe, 173 reinos de África fueron destruidos y sus habitantes fueron convertidos en esclavos y tratados de manera inhumana y dispersos por el mundo.


Nuestros ancestros ayer, nosotros hoy, después de más de 525 años de maltrato, humillaciones, despojos, invisibilización y discriminación; hemos resistido a todas las formas de violencia sobre nuestros derechos como seres humanos; pese a estas realidades adversas, nuestros pueblos continuaron sus luchas logrando el reconocimiento de su existencia, palpable en las reformas de las constituciones de los países, aperturando con esto otras formas de luchas para materializar los derechos negados.


Las naciones del mundo, a través de la Declaración de Durban, Sudáfrica, en Conferencia Mundial Contra el Racismo, Xenofobia y todas formas de discriminación y conexos en el 2001, la Declaratoria del 2011 como el Año Internacional de los Pueblos Afrodescendientes por parte de las Naciones Unidas, así como el Convenio Internacional de la OIT (No. 169) ratificadas por los países, han sido instrumentos y espacios para iniciar el debate sobre la eliminación de todas las viejas y nuevas formas de discriminación y racismo contra la población descendiente de la África Milenaria.


Tomando en consideración que el cumplimiento de los acuerdos y plan de acción de Durban son temas pendientes en nuestros países, los participantes consideran que el plan de acción son herramientas para el fortalecimiento de los derechos históricamente negados a los Pueblos Afrodescendientes por tal se constituye en una necesidad de retomar en cada país la materialización de dicho plan con una visión de acción conjunta.


La Declaración de las Naciones Unidas sobre el Decenio Internacional de la Población Afrodescendiente en el período 2015-2024, con los temas de Reconocimiento, Justicia y Desarrollo, se constituye en la llave que debemos usar para abrir las puertas de nuestro desarrollo con identidad, el collective wellbeing y la construcción de ciudadanías interculturales.

A la luz de los Considerandos arriba planteados, los/as participante del primer foro Centroamericano y el Caribe sobre Pueblos Afrodescendientes, instamos a los Estados Centroamericanos y del Caribe iniciar acciones para el cumplimiento de las siguientes peticiones:


Por la deuda histórica existente para con nuestros pueblos, los Estados deben de reparar a los Pueblos Afrodescendientes los derechos negados en políticas públicas que mejoren las condiciones de vida de las y los afrodescendientes en términos de educación y salud propia de calidad, vivienda, trabajo digno, tierra- territorio y sistemas productivos, emprendimientos socio-económicos y culturales que cuente con el espíritu y la participación activa de los pueblos afros.


Las y los afrodescendientes, de manera unida, consensuando nuestros pensamientos, conocimientos, saberes y voces, instamos a los Estados crear las condiciones para que los pueblos Afrodescendientes sean los artífices en la reconstrucción, conservación y diseminación de nuestras historias como pueblos, para salir de los procesos de invisibilización, racismo y discriminación a los que nos hemos visto sujetos.


Pedimos que nuestro desarrollo con identidad afro y collective wellbeing, sea del concurso de todos los Afrodescendientes y de la sociedad en general, a los que deben de sumarse el acompañamiento de instituciones académicas, culturales y de gobiernos y sus estructuras institucionales que buscan en el horizonte coadyuvar a la de-colonización del ser y del pensamiento del Pueblo Afrodescendiente, rompiendo las barreras fronterizas.


Exhortamos a los Estados Nacionales la apertura de procesos de diálogo franco y reflexivo que se constituya en mecanismo de comunicación, información y coordinación entre las instancias que atienden asuntos de Afrodescendientes junto a las organizaciones afros, a fin de posicionar las temáticas de desarrollo en las agendas políticas, económicas, sociales, culturales, medioambientales, entre otros.


Pedimos a los Estados respetar el ejercicio del derecho consuetudinario como una práctica ancestral en la aplicación de la justicia comunitaria del pueblo Afrodescendiente y el respeto de las manifestaciones de nuestra espiritualidad.

Dado en la Ciudad de Bilwi, Puerto Cabezas, Región Autónoma Costa Caribe Norte, Nicaragua, Centro América a los 17 días del mes de Agosto del año 2017.


Liza Lindo

Eleanor Woods

Yuri Zapata W.

Salomón Ramírez M.

Neyda Dixon

Charlotte Cruz Bush

Yilda Vanessa López G.

Ramón E. Perea Lemos

George Henriquez Cayasso

Omara Gutiérrez Thomas

Kendall Cayasso Dixon

Michael McGregor Joseph

Raquel Ribeiro

Julie Cupples

Charlotte Gleghorn

Diandra Daniels

Betsy González

Daisy George

Dolene Miller

Nora Newball

Cecilia Moreno Rojas

Zulma C. Valencia

Shira Miguel Downs

Carol Amy Forbes Medina

Karen Salomon Sinclair

Deborah Bush­­

Dixie Lee S


Puerto Cabezas-Managua: The most gruelling bus journey on the planet?

Puerto Cabezas-Managua. A 12 hour journey in a private vehicle takes 19 hours by bus

Last week thanks to the support of an AHRC networking grant to develop initiatives around the UN Decade for People of African Descent, scholars and activists from the University of Edinburgh, URACCAN, African Voices of Nicaragua (AVOCENIC) and the Nicaraguan Institute of Culture held a forum in Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas) on the North Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua to debate the challenges facing Afro-descendant Central Americans and to explore the opportunities that the Decade might offer. Participants travelled to the event from Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia and Scotland, as well as from Bluefields in the South Caribbean and joined a large contingent of local Bilwi-based Black Creole leaders and activists. It was an extremely productive event that proved to be a much needed space for knowledge exchange and reflection, that was well covered by several local media operations and that led to the signing of the Bilwi Declaration – more on all this to follow.

Such an event was necessary because in Nicaragua and other parts of Central America, Afro-descendant populations have been forced to resist epistemic, cultural and political exclusion by mestizo-dominated governments and institutional and everyday racisms. The Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, where the majority of Nicaraguans who identify as Black, Creole and Afro-descendant live, was never colonized by Spain but was violently annexed by the state of Nicaragua in 1894. Since then, Afro-descendant and indigenous peoples of the Caribbean Coast, collectively known as Costeños, have been fighting for their rights to land, language, and culture as well as for the material outcomes of development, including clean water, electricity, education, healthcare, employment, and housing. In all these dimensions, the Costeños are worse off than the Pacific-based mestizo-identified population. There is an urgency to the demands of Afro-descendants, a sense that their culture and continued collective existence as people are threatened by the growing dominance of Spanish-speaking mestizo culture as well as by persistent racism and socio-economic exclusion. Our forthcoming book documents the state-led attempts to stifle the struggle for autonomy and land rights. It discusses how the current Nicaraguan government led by Daniel Ortega implements a strategy of ignoring some of the country’s most serious problems, especially those that affect the people on the Caribbean Coast that disrupt the ideology of mestizaje on which the Nicaraguan nation-state is built.

Our forum was held during a difficult time for Bilwi residents. The town is currently suffering both water and electricity shortages and the municipal council, led by regional and indigenous political party Yatama, is struggling to keep up with garbage collection. One of the main reasons for these challenges according to the municipal government is that the central government has only transferred just over 10 per cent of the funds – 3.8 million córdobas instead of $30 million – it is supposed to have transferred. This failure is compromising the council’s ability to carry out ongoing public works, maintain infrastructure and deliver social services. One can speculate why the funds have not been transferred but it might well be an attempt by the central government to wrest control of the municipal council of Bilwi off Yatama in the coming municipal elections in November. A lack of funds will prevent projects being executed and might therefore make the Yatama-led council look like a failure in the eyes of the electorate. Yet most Nicaraguans are now familiar with the efforts of the FSLN to maintain and extend their grip on power by any possible means. The municipal elections of 2012 and last presidential elections of 2016 were widely seen as fraudulent. The 2016 elections produced substantial protests and confrontations in Bilwi.

On Friday 18 August, our forum concluded, those of us who had travelled to Bilwi from other countries and other parts of Nicaragua were leaving. It was our attempt to leave and the manner in which we left that really captured both the current crisis and the long-term neglect of the Caribbean Coast by central government, both this one and the preceding ones. I have been working on the Coast for the past decade and I have always travelled there from Managua by plane on La Costeña. The flight takes a little more than an hour and costs about $80 each way. There are also flights three times a week from Bilwi to Bluefields that also take around an hour.

One of our party had managed to leave for Managua on the first flight in the early morning. The rest of us (12 people in total) were travelling on the midday flights to Bluefields and Managua or the late afternoon flight to Managua. Five of us had international connections from Managua to Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama and the UK later that day or early on Saturday. When the second group left for the airport at around 10am they found the airport had been occupied by Yatama protestors. The protest was organized by workers of the municipal council and led by the mayor, Reynaldo Francis, and its main demand was the immediate transfer of funds from the central government. All flights to and from Puerto Cabezas were therefore suspended.

We had to change our international connections before travel or lose them. In the hope that the protest would be over the following day and we could get to Managua on Saturday, we changed them to Sunday. It cost almost $600 to do so. We got up early on Saturday morning to get to the airport by 6am but learned that it was still occupied and that no flights would be leaving that day. So we had to take a decision; stay put indefinitely while incurring huge costs for accommodation and flight changes or try and leave by bus. We opted for the latter, in part because I couldn’t get any advice from La Costeña, my employer, my insurance company or the British embassy, and also because it was likely the protest would not only last but escalate, involving also road blockades. Another factor was that at that time tropical storm Harvey, which has just hit Texas, was making its way up the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast. (It later changed course and Bilwi was not affected). In the end the airport remained closed for an entire week, endorsing our decision to leave overland.

The bus station in Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas)

The state of the road to Managua

We took a bus that departed from Bilwi at 10am and was scheduled to arrive in Managua around 5am. The road is mostly unpaved and in extremely poor condition so it takes around 19 hours to travel 500km! We needed to be at the airport by 5.30am to make the first rescheduled international flight. Those travelling to Bluefields had to take another bus and a boat as there is no land transport between the North and South Caribbean.

We travelled on one of the discarded US school buses, ubiquitous in Nicaragua and which aren’t too bad if you’re on a short daytime journey between Managua and Leon but are not suitable for long distance travel. Furthermore, this bus was in a truly appalling condition. There was of course no bathroom so we had to limit the amount of water we drank. It was bumpy, dusty, and frequently required the need to hold on. Passengers often let out screams when it felt like the bus was about to topple over on the uneven surface. Some passengers bumped their heads on the metal luggage racks above or were hit by items that fell down from them. The bus also broke down several times. The first time the drivers got out spanners and cables and got it going after about 20 minutes. Another stop involved jump leads to get the battery going again. In Rosita, we had to wait while they found someone who could weld a bit of the engine. Twice in the remote darkness the lights failed and we had to wait again for the battery to power the lights sufficiently, provoking fears we might have to wait until daybreak to continue our journey. The back door kept opening by itself, risking the lives of those sitting at the back of the bus. I don’t know much about bus standards but I feel certain that that bus would have long been condemned anywhere else in Latin America, deemed not safe for public or private transport.

We spent 19 hours in this space

The first of several breakdowns

The bus had two drivers who took it in turns to drive. They do the 19-hour journey twice a week: from Bilwi to Managua leaving Saturday and arriving Sunday, and from Managua to Bilwi leaving Wednesday arriving Thursday. Tickets cost around $20 for the entire journey and the bus has about 40 seats. They pick up a few standing passengers too who are just travelling parts of the journey. They stop very briefly for lunch and dinner and the passengers can use the bathroom in these two comedores en route. They were polite, serious and conscientious and I wished for more dignified employment for them both.

Arriving in Wawa Boom

The distance from Bilwi to Managua is not much further than the distance from Managua to San José where there is a decent road and a comfortable air conditioned bus in which you can sleep, read, and watch movies. You can get there in around seven hours including a border crossing. The whole thing makes you wonder why the Coast and indeed the people of the Coast are not deemed worthy of this much-needed social investment? Costeños need to travel the capital to do all kinds of thing and the plane is too expensive. I chatted to a Miskito woman sitting behind me who told me she had frequently made that journey as she was suffering from a heart condition and had to visit the hospital in Managua for treatment. I could not imagine putting myself through that journey more than once in my life but there are Costeños who routinely need to make this journey. This seasoned passenger knew the names of all the villages and small towns we passed through; Wawa Boom, Cuarenta y Tres, Mani Watla, Las Breñas and so on.

The ferry at Wawa Boom that took us and our bus across the River Wawa

During the interminable journey, it occurred to me that this might well be the most gruelling bus journey on the entire planet. It is not just very uncomfortable, it is very dangerous. It amply captures and illustrates the on-going neglect of the Coast by the government. As one of the Creole members of the forum wrote on my Facebook timeline:

We are so invisible …so only with those type of protest…maybe it will be on news papers but only in Spanish language. Sorry Julie you had to live the hard experience. ..the electricity, the lack of water…, the airport.. …

I felt like I had put everyone’s life at risk and feel so relieved we arrived safely. It shouldn’t have to be like this. So I really want to know the following:

Where is the paved road from Puerto Cabezas to Managua? Why has the building of this road still not commenced? It has been 30 years since the passing of the autonomy law and 27 years since the end of the war? There has been plenty of time to do this, but seemingly no political will.

Why is it deemed acceptable to the authorities that Costeños who need to travel to Managua for medical treatment, to visit relatives, apply for a visa, access a legal service, or do an exam must risk their lives?

Where is the government scheme to lease buses that would meet international safety standards to entrepreneurs? Why can’t the two young men who run this service access any kind of state support to replace their bus with something reliable and comfortable?

Why has the existing government spent more than $3 million on metallic trees in Managua before investing in essential public transport to and from the Coast?

Why does the government not send the funds to the municipal council that it is legally required to send?

Where on the road from Puerto Cabezas to Managua is the socialist, Christian and solidarity government?

I’ve just heard that the occupation of the airport has ended. I’m not sure whether the Yatama demands for the immediate transfer of funds have been met and am still trying to find out. The journey has however had a profound effect on my psyche. It has provided me with indisputable evidence that the Nicaraguan government values the lives of low-income Black and indigenous Nicaraguans less than those of mestizo Nicaraguans. I’m immensely grateful to all my travelling companions – all of them dedicated in a range of ways to courageous anti-racist struggle and Afro-descendant liberation – for their ethic of care, solidarity and friendship and for their collective approach to the situation in which we found ourselves.

The 12 people who were stranded by La Costeña after Yatama occupied the airport