NicaNotes: Unity Through Sports: Nicaragua Participates in ALBA Games

By Becca Renk

(Becca Renk has worked in sustainable community development in Nicaragua since 2001, and organizes study trips to Nicaragua through the Casa Ben Linder in Managua. If you are interested, contact her at <[email protected]>. She lives with her family in Ciudad Sandino.) 

For the past five years, I have told foreigners visiting Nicaragua: “Don’t believe the news about our country, you can see with your own eyes that what they say isn’t true.” Now I am in Caracas as part of the 568-person delegation from Nicaragua to the 5th ALBA Games, and every Venezuelan I speak to over my two-week stay repeats those same words. Both countries have suffered from US-led propaganda and economic coercive measures, and both have resisted.

Nicaragua sent a 568-person delegation to participate in the ALBA Games, including a 14-person Kenpo Karate martial arts team of which the author’s daughter Orla was a member. The Kenpo team won six silver and nine bronze medals.

ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, was initiated nearly 20 years ago by Venezuela and Cuba as an alternative to the so-called free trade proposal by the US [the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) which was ultimately unsuccessful]. Rather than seeking to benefit big business, ALBA trade is based on complementarity, solidarity and cooperation. Members of ALBA currently have expanded to include Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Dominica, Grenada, Nicaragua, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

The first ALBA Games were held in 2005 to unite the peoples of the region through friendship, cooperation and fraternity among athletes. The Games were held with great success every two years through 2011. Since Hugo Chavez’ death in 2013, the Games have been suspended due to increased unilateral coercive measures (sanctions) against Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua and the COVID-19 pandemic.

ALBA Games 2023 in Caracas
This year, the Games are being held again in Caracas with delegations from all ALBA countries and Russia participating in 33 sports disciplines. My family is here as part of the 14-member Kenpo Karate martial arts team – our daughter Orla to compete, my husband and I as technical support.

Our participation in the Games was far from guaranteed – Kenpo is not a well-known sport in Nicaragua – we only have one school at the free municipal gym in Ciudad Sandino, just north of Managua, and our competitive experience has largely been within our own school.

In contrast, Kenpo is a popular discipline in Venezuela, but to be included in the Games, the participation of at least two countries is required. So, with the support of the Nicaraguan Sports Institute (IND), the Nicaraguan Mixed Martial Arts Commission (CONAMMIP), and the municipality of Ciudad Sandino, our instructor or sensei, Pedro Sánchez, was given the opportunity to bring a team to Venezuela to represent Nicaragua and include Kenpo in the Games.

I was 38 years old the first time I stepped into a dojo. I was working with a group of at-risk teenage girls and brought them to the municipal gym in Ciudad Sandino to the Kenpo class to learn basics of self-defense. We weren’t expecting the class to have 50 students, and I could see the girls shrink inside when they saw how full it was. They shook their heads and whispered, “No, Profe, I can’t do this.”

“Nonsense,” I told them, “If I can do this, you can.” With a confidence I didn’t feel, I lined up at the back of the class and the girls followed behind; I’ve been training ever since. I soon put my then 8- and 10-year-old daughters in the class, and we have now earned black belts.

At first, we trained barefoot on concrete tiles – running, kicking and falling on the hard floor – and competed bare-handed and without helmets. Thanks to investment in sports from the mayor’s office, we now have safety equipment and practice on spongy tatami. We’ve seen how important the free classes are – many of our students get athletic scholarships to university and some of the best mixed martial arts (MMA) and kick-boxing fighters in the country come from our school. Now we have the opportunity to take ten of our best young athletes to Venezuela.

In Managua, all the sports teams are put on a direct flight to Caracas on Venezuelan state-owned airline CONVIASA. The plane is a sea of blue and white “Nicaragua” jackets, with everyone wearing our official uniforms and brand-new shoes. For most of our team, it is their first time on an airplane.

Upon arrival, we are greeted with traditional Afro-Caribbean drumming and taken to a five-star hotel – courtesy of the Venezuelan government – in the state of Miranda, a few blocks from the gym where we will compete. The hotel has 18 floors – four more than the tallest building in Nicaragua. Our team stands open-mouthed by the rooftop pool as brilliant blue and yellow parrots fly past at eye level.

“It’s Been a Brutal Attack”
Venezuela flourished under the presidency of Hugo Chavez, who used profits from the country’s oil production – the largest reserves in the world – to significantly improve the lives of the poor majority. Following Chavez’s death and the election of his successor Nicolas Maduro, the U.S. ratcheted up its regime-change efforts against Venezuela, supporting an opposition who attempted to achieve by violence what they could not win at the ballot box.

In 2014 the Venezuelans suffered guarimbas which were violent road blocks run by thugs, along with looting, scarcity, and even deaths. The U.S. also began moving toward a full economic blockade; there are currently more than 920 unilateral coercive measures (sanctions) against Venezuela by the U.S. and other countries.

One evening we talk to members of the PSUV Youth. We lean in with interest as they speak, because we know U.S. regime-change efforts in Nicaragua have been copied from what has been used in Venezuela. The violent road blocks that paralyzed Nicaragua during the U.S.-led attempted coup in 2018 were similar to the guarimbas in Venezuela. As one man we met on the street said to us, “The U.S. gave you a dose of the same medicine they gave us here.”

While there are U.S. sanctions against Nicaragua currently, they have been less draconian than those that Venezuela has suffered in recent years.

“It’s been a brutal attack,” says Daniel Rivas of PSUV Youth. “It’s been impossible to import medicines, people have died as a direct result of the sanctions. During the pandemic we weren’t allowed to purchase the vaccines. These sanctions are a massive violation of basic human rights.”

Refinement and sale of Venezuela’s rich oil production has been severely limited by sanctions, strangling the economy. “We have oil, but we can’t export it,” explains Daniel. “It’s like I’ve got a huge store full of clothing, but I can’t sell any of it because you’re blocking my doorway.”

The minimum wage in Venezuela is low, but costs of goods are similar to Nicaragua. To offset effects of inflation, the government has invented new ways to help its people:

–Venezuelans receive free or discounted gas at government outlets.
–Families receive a basic food basket.
–Water, electricity, public education through third level and public health care are all free.
–The government’s Patria system credits coupons or bonos which can be used to make purchases on a phone app. Bonos are assigned based on a family’s needs (children, people with disabilities and elderly receive bonos) and for volunteer work carried out. For example, the nurses and doctors caring for our delegation are paid in bonos. Most Venezuelans get several bonos per month, some worth up to $45 each.

Thanks to these programs, Venezuelan families have most of their basic needs met. But as Venezuelans told us, they continue to struggle. As a result, much like in Nicaragua, Venezuelans take on other jobs to make ends meet. “We all do whatever we can,” one teacher tells us, “We make jewelry, tortillas, resell clothing.”

Competition and Cable Cars
The day of our competition is tough. Everyone is nervous, including me. The Venezuelan teams are well prepared and have the home court advantage. Orla does well with her form in weapons, but comes in third. Her fight is a close one, she lands good punches and solid kicks to her much older opponent, but she loses the fight by three points.

By the end of the competition, we haven’t won a gold medal, but our ten athletes receive fifteen medals: six silver and nine bronze, including Orla with two bronze medals. During the awards ceremony, the gold medal winner in her combat category chats with Orla, and they follow each other on Instagram. She invites Orla and the silver medalist up onto the first-place platform with her. Orla is thrilled with this treatment and says she’ll remember it for when she wins a gold medal.

The gold medal winner (center) in the Kenpo Karate combat category invites the silver medalist and the bronze medalist (Orla) up to the gold medal platform with her.

Once we’ve competed, we’re rewarded with an outing by cable car to the top of the Warairarepano Mountain that looms over our hotel. Built in the 1950s, the cable car system was abandoned until the Chavez government nationalized and rebuilt it to benefit the public in 2007. Our group rides the cable cars on a free day for the community, and there are groups of school children. There is an incredible view of Latin America’s most densely populated city on the way up, and at the top there is an ice rink, the best hot chocolate (basically warm pudding) and something called cachapas.

The hotel staff have recommended cachapas to us, so we eagerly gather around the stand. The owner is a young woman named Saileth, who explains to us that cachapas are tortillas made with fresh corn and filled with farmers cheese and pork. While we wait for our delicious cachapas, we chat with Saileth. She tells us she speaks four languages and has dual Spanish citizenship, but after a brief stint waiting tables in Perú, she says she doesn’t see any benefit to leaving Venezuela.

“Here we have opportunities: we already have a motorcycle, soon we’ll buy a car, and with what we can save over two years, we can buy an apartment that will be ours. In Spain, owning a home is an impossible dream.”

What We Take with Us
After our competition is over, one afternoon we go to the gym nearby to train with the local sensei and his students. He puts us through the paces running drills, showing us techniques to get past an opponent with a high guard or who constantly kicks. Our team is thrilled; it’s always invigorating to see different fighting styles.

The sensei has everyone gear up to spar. Orla spars for more than an hour with Venezuelan youth while the senseis show her how to best them using her long legs to reach and land a kick. At the end of the training, the kids crowd around, excitedly exchanging phone numbers so they can WhatsApp each other.

Even with 15 medals weighing down our bags, the most valuable thing we take home with us is the friendships – the nurse who gave me a bracelet made by her daughter, the youth representative who sends me links to Bolivarian Revolution videos, and the connections that the kids on our team make in Venezuela. In just two weeks, their world has expanded exponentially; their lives will never be the same again.

I will treasure the image of the two senseis, one Nicaraguan and one Venezuelan, sitting side by side on the mat; sweating and exhilarated from training, with matching glints in their eyes as together they coach my daughter sparring. For me, these two warriors passing their battle experience on to a new generation exemplifies the 5th ALBA Games. Ten years after his death, we are fulfilling Chavez’s dream of a Latin America united.

By Nan McCurdy

PAHO: Nicaragua and St. Kitts & Nevis Have Highest Vaccination Coverage
During the official launch of the Pan American Health Organization “Vaccination Week in the Americas” on April 24 in Chile, PAHO Director Jarbas Barbosa stated that the initiative is taking place as the risk of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease is at a 30-year high, with one in five children under the age of one not fully protected against multiple vaccine-preventable diseases. “We note with concern that immunization programs in Latin America and the Caribbean have failed to maintain routine coverage … due to inadequate funding and misinformation. On the other hand, the efforts of Nicaragua and [the two-island country of] Saint Kitts and Nevis that have the highest levels of vaccination coverage in the region must be recognized.” (Nicaragua News, 26 April 2023)

CABEI and Nicaragua Expand Water and Sanitation in 7 Cities
The Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) presented a report last week on advances in the Project to Expand Potable Water and Sanitation Systems in seven cities benefitting 265,000 people with safe and continuous access to potable water. CABEI President Dante Mossi stated that “CABEI supports Nicaragua in its work towards fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goal Six, which establishes guaranteeing availability and sustainable management of potable water. It is very satisfying to see how these projects completely change people’s lives, especially in those cities that for the first time have access to these services.” (Nicaragua News, 26 April 2023)

Nicaragua at Forefront of Fetal Surgeries
In 2021 Nicaragua made history in maternal-fetal medicine, becoming the first country in Central America to perform fetal surgeries at the Bertha Calderón Hospital. The director, Dr. Carmen Marina Cruz, said that this project was born out of the need to provide care to patients who were diagnosed with some type of fetal anomalies. Cruz said that the first surgery performed marked a milestone in the history of perinatal medicine and a new era in this type of surgical intervention in Nicaragua. She added, “The first intrauterine fetal surgery was performed in March 2021, since then we have performed 168 intrauterine fetal procedures and performed 94 surgeries on the newborn immediately after birth.” Nicaragua is the only country that follows up the pregnancy with corrective surgery immediately after the baby is born, within two to four hours maximum. (Radio La Primerisima, 2 Mayo 2023)

Increase in Social Security Affiliates
On April 27 the Central Bank published the “State of the Economy and Economic Outlook Report” corresponding to the period between January and March 2023. The report states that the Social Security Institute (INSS) incorporated 16,337 new affiliates in the first quarter, 0.7% higher than the same quarter in 2022, reaching a total of 799,721 affiliates. The economic activities with the highest increase in INSS affiliations were community, social and personal services (5,500); agriculture, forestry, hunting, and fishing (3,800), and commerce (3,300). (Nicaragua News, 28 April 2023)

President to Deliver 150 Russian Buses to Cooperatives
Over the coming days President Daniel Ortega will be delivering 150 new buses from Russia to different cooperatives around the nation. Vice President Rosario Murillo said that the arrival of the buses is good news, adding, “Today 150 bus units are driving through Chinandega and Leon to arrive in Managua to be delivered by our President in the coming days.” Murrillo also announced the inauguration of the second section of the Rosita-Bonanza highway, in the North Caribbean. It is a 30-kilometer hydraulic concrete road which provides a safe, stable, fast and comfortable connection between the development towns of the Mining Triangle and the Pacific. “More than 70,000 brothers and sisters celebrate this new work of progress,” she said. (Radio La Primerisima, 27 April 2023)

Caribbean Coast Celebrates Rain, Fertility and Heritage
With a colorful carnival and the rhythm of the May pole, the Palo de Mayo celebration began this May 1st, welcoming the month of fertility and African heritage in Bilwi. The troupes and rhythmic bands toured the main streets of the city of Bilwi, ending at the Plaza de Ferias, where a cultural event was held. The Palo de Mayo is a traditional celebration of the Afro-descendants to welcome the first rains of the season that bring fertility for the crops. The celebration on May 1 includes a presentation of a tree decorated with fruits and colorful ribbons while dances are performed around it celebrating the rainy season and new life. But it isn’t until the end of the month that the traditional, massive parade with floats from the city’s neighborhoods takes place. The Palo de Mayo in Bilwi is a custom that dates back to the beginning of the 19th century. It is an adaptation of the English custom of a celebration on the first day of May with additions from African traditions. This month sees special music, dances and food, and the melodies that are enjoyed coming from the drums of each cultural group. The cultural encounter in Bilwi is a sample of the permanence of the customs that the Caribbean people still preserve. See photos: (TN8TV, 1 May 2023)

El Bijague Health Post Expanded and Remodeled
The Ministry of Health has completed the expansion and remodeling of the health post in the village of El Bijagüe, in the Municipality of San Francisco Libre, which will be inaugurated on April 28. Conditions have been greatly improved to serve 300 families in this comarca (a group of 3 to 5 villages) The center has two consulting rooms, a vaccination area, a nebulization area, waiting room and bathroom. The investment amounts to about US$38,000. [Editor’s note: I worked in this municipality for many years and these are very remote villages. Previous health posts there or in other areas were generally just one small room where once in a while a doctor or nurse would attend patients – I’m describing pre-2007. So I find this little news item astounding!] See photos: (Radio La Primerisima, 27 April 2023)

Youth Remember Comandante Tomás Borge
On April 30, members of the Sandinista Youth came to the Mausoleum of the Commanders, in the Plaza of the Revolution, to pay tribute to Comandante Tomás Borge Martínez on the 11th anniversary of his death. “Comandante Tomás, this morning the Nicaraguan youth are here to be present a tribute with humility and respect for a Nicaraguan who was known for his immense love for Nicaragua,” said Aldo Almanza, of the Sandinista Youth. The young people carried flowers which they placed in the mausoleum dedicated to the Sandinista leader. See photos: (Radio La Primerisima, 30 April 2023)

Music Group in International Festival of Anti-Fascist Music in Moscow
On April 30 the Nicaraguan music group “Liberarte,” arrived in Moscow, Russia, and was welcomed to participate in the International Festival of Anti-Fascist Music. From May 1 to 6 “Liberarte” will be present at the event held in the city of Samara, with other groups from Latin America, Europe and Africa. The festival will conclude on May 9, the historic date celebrating the 78th anniversary of the Victory against Fascism. See photos: (Radio La Primerisima), 30 April 2023

Nicaragua Participates in Brazil Meeting to Grow Friendship in America
Members of the Committees of Friendship and Unity with the Nicaraguan people, held a meeting in Brazil to grow American friendship from their historical ties of struggles for the common good. Gadiel Arce Zepeda, Ambassador of Nicaragua in Brazil, met with leaders of social organizations, workers, leaders of youth movements, labor, cultural, communicators, who work for justice, development, equity and the right of the people to live in peace, security and tranquility. See photos: (Radio La Primerisima, 30 April 2023)

Ordinance Regulating Noise to Be Enforced
The Managua Mayor’s Office will enforce the law and begin to fine bar owners and individuals who play loud music at unauthorized hours, according to Article 11 of Ordinance No. 01-2013. The fines will be applied to natural and legal persons for noise pollution, including “those who, using sound equipment, loudspeakers, amplifiers, jukeboxes, among others, produce noise pollution with levels outside the established standards of the World Health Organization and disturb the tranquility and rest of citizens. Violators will be charged a fine of C$2,000 (US$55) for individuals and C$35,000 (US$972) for a business. The Mayor’s Office asks the population to make complaints of this type through the Facebook page “Yo Quiero Vivir Bonito,” or through the WhatsApp number 8525-5188. (Radio La Primerisima, 27 April, 2023)

Visit Nicaragua
“Eight Things that Shocked me About Visiting Nicaragua for the First Time” is a new article by Marci Rivera on the web page Travel Off Path. The author says she was “so glad I didn’t listen to the misguided warnings” about travel to Nicaragua and talks about how safe the country is and about the spectacular scenery, inexpensive lodging and food, ease of transportation, the poems of Rubén Darío, and other positives from her visit to the country. One thing she did not study up on was Nicaragua’s health care system as she says the country has “limited healthcare availability” which any reader of NicaNotes knows is not true. But, all in all, a good article with great photographs!