Tag Archives: FSLN

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

 

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Nicaragua: Travels in hyperreality

I first visited Nicaragua on a solidarity brigade in support of the revolution and the FSLN, just after Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas had lost the elections to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in 1990. Like many people around the world, in the 1980s I was inspired by Nicaragua’s revolutionary struggle against Somocismo and US imperialism and by the political possibilities that the Nicaraguan Revolution enabled us to imagine. It turned out to be a long-term commitment.  For the next twenty years, I came back to Nicaragua many times to do research.  I loved working here for many reasons, but mainly because Nicaragua was a country that had had a revolution, and that collective historical experience made Nicaragua an intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving place to work. I’ve been here for the past month doing fieldwork, my first visit since 2009. Today, politically speaking, Nicaragua is a bizarre and frustrating place. Daniel Ortega and the FSLN have been back in power since 2006, but within the government currently in power there is nothing left of that inspirational revolution.  Since 2012, centre right newspaper La Prensa repeatedly refers to Ortega as ‘el presidente inconstitucional’ because he was re-elected in 2011, in spite of the fact that the Nicaraguan Constitution did not permit re-election. In the early 1980s, Sandinista Nicaragua aspired to be a participatory democracy. The National Assembly passed constitutional reforms this week that not only do nothing to strengthen participatory democracy, but weaken and undermine representative democracy. The reforms have several dimensions to them, but essentially they allow for indefinite re-election, which means that the current president (who has now spent a total of 18 years, 1979-1990 and 2006 to date as president) can continue to be president for ever. The reforms also eliminate the threshold required to be elected and therefore the second round of voting. An inadequate and restrictive electoral law has just become more inadequate and more restrictive.

In 1990, the Sandinista defeat was totally unexpected, but it was clear that the Sandinista leadership had made a lot of serious mistakes during their time in power. Tens of thousands of people, many of them still teenagers, had died on both slides of the conflict and daily social reproduction in the face of chronic shortages and hyperinflation was tremendously difficult. Economic and emotional exhaustion generated by the war, the military draft and the US trade embargo had clearly contributed to the electoral defeat but they were compounded by FSLN verticalism and abuses of power.  Internal and external critics were calling for greater internal democracy and better engagement with ordinary people.  The party needed to appoint new leaders, new faces. But they didn’t do that, instead they purged the party of dissidents, many of whom were prominent Sandinistas, pushing people with integrity and political experience, people who had made enormous sacrifices to create a better world, into civil society organizations, NGOs and into a rival Sandinista party, the MRS.  And throughout all this time, Daniel has clung onto power, fighting off any challenges to his leadership and refusing to pay attention to any criticism. At the end of the 1990s, the FSLN did dodgy deals with the liberals to make it electorally possible for them to return to power.  I was here in 2006 when the FSLN returned to power after 16 years in opposition, winning the elections with fewer votes than they had lost with in 2001.  There were serious concerns about the integrity of that election, many people were disenfranchised for example as they had been unable to receive their cédulas or voter identity documents in time. Despite these worrying trends, I still felt quite optimistic about the state of democratization in Nicaragua at that time (see Cupples 2009). I no longer feel that sense of optimism although Nicaragua triumphed over Somoza and a brutal National Guard against the odds and can probably do so again.

Since 2007, the Nicaraguan government has received millions of dollars in aid from Venezuela, a flow of petrodollars that is now coming to an end, given the death of Hugo Chávez and the severe economic crisis in Venezuela. This money has been partially privatized through a bi-national company, ALBANISA, which keeps it out of the national budget (for a good overview of ALBANISA, see Riley 2010).  Many low-income Nicaraguans feel the government is more present and responsive to their needs. The neoliberal governments that were in power from 1990 to 2006 were truly horrible, depriving people of economic opportunities and hope. The current FSLN is however a party of image rather than substance, indulging in a clientelistic, paternalistic, and authoritarian populism.  They promised a new oil Venezuelan refinery that would bring jobs, and Chávez even came to lay down the first brick. Beyond that first brick, it has never materialized.

The current FSLN leadership describes Nicaragua as ‘cristiana, socialista, solidaria’, – Christian, socialist and in solidarity, it talks about ‘vivir bonito’ or living nicely and Daniel’s face is all over billboards along the highways, as if we were in the middle of an election campaign. The latest ones announce that in 2014 the government will be “haciendo patria” or making the nation whatever that means (see Figure 1). This past week, the president sacked the head of the Nicaraguan Central Bank without saying why, and the vice-minister of education.  The police also opened fire on a group of protestors in Chichigalpa and Juan de Dios Cortés, a 48 year old man was killed. The protestors are workers of the Ingenio San Antonio which produces the sugar for Nicaragua’s famous Flor de Caña rum who are suffering from kidney failure as a result of the pesticides to which they have been exposed. Thousands of them have already died (see Figure 2). The Ingenio is owned by one of Nicaragua’s wealthiest capitalist families, the Pellas.  There has been no official government response to the plight of these workers. In an article in Spanish newspaper El País, Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Salinas Maldonado (2014) recently asked Comandante Ortega why he remains silent. Salinas wonders why Daniel as a self-professed Christian and socialist is not speaking out in favour of workers harmed, exploited and seriously unwell as a result of ‘savage capitalism’.

Figure 1:  The latest billboardsFigure 2: A banner in Managua protesting sugar cane workers with chronic renal insufficiency

Given just how much Venezuelan aid has flowed into Nicaragua, things really should be a lot better for ordinary people. But in this ‘Christian and socialist’ country, there are still children begging at the traffic lights in the capital.  Half of the population still lives below the poverty line. There are high levels of urban insecurity.  A few days ago, I was in a store while the two women in the clothing boutique next door were held at gunpoint and forced to hand over their cell phones and the day’s takings.  Wherever there is affluence, there is privatized armed security, so that the rich can be protected from the poor. Managua remains a city built for cars. It is virtually impossible to walk around Managua because of heavy traffic, roads that are almost impossible to get across and the risk of being mugged. But getting a taxi isn’t necessarily a safer option, because taxis routinely take additional passengers, and then you run the (admittedly small but terrifying) risk of the driver picking up an accomplice and being hijacked.

Despite the urgent need for some urban planning (regulation of the taxi industry, some decent footpaths and some more pedestrian crossings would be an excellent start), instead the government has invested in large amounts of decorative lights. There are Christmas lights in central Managua, lots and lots of them.  Although the time for Christmas lights has now passed in most of the world, much of the city in early February is still ablaze with electric Christmas trees, angels and reindeers. The government has also created large permanent electrified metallic structures called “árboles de la vida” or “trees of life”, estimated to cost US$20,000 each.  They stand tall over much of Managua but they are concentred in particular along the Avenida Simón Bolívar. There is also a large electrified tribute to Hugo Chávez here too (see Figures 3 and 4).  When I arrived in early January, there were also lots of state-sponsored nativity scenes – not just a few but lots and lots and lots. It is a very strange use of public money in a country with so much poverty. Especially as there are communities in the eastern part of the country that still don’t have electricity in their homes. People who do have electricity struggle to pay the bills.

arbolesFigure 4: An electrified tribute to late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez

Not far from here is the redeveloped Puerto de Salvador Allende or El Malecón on the edge of the lake. This is one clear visible improvement to the urban landscape. There are new bars and restaurants but there are also picnic tables and playgrounds for kids. It’s a nice place in the central city where you can go whether or not you have money to spend (although there is an entry fee if you go in by car).  But the Sandinista hyperreality is here too, the brightly coloured painted benches announce things like “Yo vivo bonito” “I live nice” or “Yo hago patria” “I make nation” (see Figures 5 and 6).

Figure 5: Yo vivo bonitoYo hago patria

Of course, Nicaragua’s most important hyperreality is the imminent or possibly not so imminent interoceanic canal. The government has awarded a 50 year concession to Chinese company, Jing Wang, to build a canal across Nicaragua which would rival the Panama Canal.  If built, the project promises to create economic growth and half a million jobs.  But there are huge concerns about the project. There is no publicly available environmental impact assessment and there are justifiable fears that such a project would devastate Nicaragua’s environment and natural beauty, its forests, flora and fauna, and could seriously pollute or drain the beautiful Lake Cocibolca, the largest freshwater lake in Central America, of water.  While many Nicaraguans are concerned, many others are not because they don’t believe it will ever be built.

Control of the  media has been central to the Sandinista strategy of simulating a prosperous nation. Sadly, critical and independent media are shrinking in Nicaragua. Most of the country’s radio stations, television channels and newspapers are either owned by the government, owned by the family of Daniel Ortega, or owned by business interests that have no interest in criticizing the government and probably benefit because they don’t.  The government is able to starve those that remain of state advertising as well as of some private advertising.  In an age of media convergence and media democratization however, the attempt to control the political economy of the media will only get so far. El Nuevo Diario has been purchased by Ban-Pro so has lost its critical edge but La Prensa remains a critical if conservative source of news. For the minority of Nicaraguans that have access to the Internet, the critical voices of opposition to Orteguismo are very loud, both in online journalism and in social media, especially Twitter. Here people repeatedly say that Nicaragua is becoming a dictatorship and note the many similarities between Somocismo and Orteguismo. There are many differences of course, there are no political prisoners, assassinations or people being forced in exile like there were under Somoza. There is no state-sponspored torture. But for León Nuñez (2014), dictatorship is when legislative, judicial and electoral power is subject to the will of the ruler, there can be dictatorship “without killing, imprisoning or sending people into exile”. The FSLN knows that if it did go down that route, it would all be over for them very quickly. Hence the investments in creating a hyperreality through officialized media, billboards, painted benches and urban electrification. In other words, if you keep telling people how much progress the country is making, and if you see pretty lights all over the capital, maybe they will start to believe it, even if everyday life continues to be characterized by multiple forms of precarity.  Of course, in Gramscian terms, the people’s good sense can never be extinguished by the hyperreal and manufactured common sense. The government knows that people are organizing, the opposition is becoming more coherent, even though how it will change is not all clear at this stage. What is clear is that Nicaragua and Nicaraguans deserve something so much better than this.

References

Cupples J (2009) Rethinking electoral geography: Spaces and practices of democracy in Nicaragua. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34(1): 110-124

Nuñez L (2014) La dictadura. La Prensa. 27 January http://www-ni.laprensa.com.ni/2014/01/27/voces/179990-dictadura

Riley B (2010) Nicaragua and Albanisa: The privatization of Venezuelan aid. COHA 13 August http://www.coha.org/nicaragua-albanisa-the-privatization-of-venezuelan-aid/

Salinas Maldonado C (2013) El nuevo símbolo del poder en Nicaragua. El País Internacional 18 December http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2013/12/17/actualidad/1387303716_871550.html

Salinas Maldonado C (2014) ¿Por qué se calla, Comandante Ortega? El País Internacional 22 January http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2014/01/22/actualidad/1390352905_814181.html