By Becca Renk
(Becca Renk is part of the Jubilee House Community, which works in sustainable development in Ciudad Sandino. The JHC also works to educate visitors to Nicaragua, including through their hospitality and solidarity cultural center at Casa Benjamin Linder.)
When I was in college, I took a class called Methods of Peacemaking. We students from the liberal arts college were assigned to go out into our blue-collar Midwestern town and visit all the major churches, malls, bowling alley – even the Moose Lodge — to engage the locals in conversation. After returning to campus, we were to make vocabulary lists including words that came up repeatedly in conversations, and then analyze our lists to identify themes and to discern what issues were important to the people of the town. After more than two decades of community development work in Nicaragua, I still consider it to be the most useful class I took in college: it taught me how to listen and showed me that language is a reflection of who we are and how we view ourselves.
Based on language alone, it is obvious to me that there has been a sea change in Nicaragua in recent years.
In 1980s Nicaragua, the word compañero was ubiquitous. Roughly translated as “comrade,” the Popular Sandinista Revolution loved the word compañero. It was often shortened to the gender-neutral “compa” which was also a synonym for Sandinista soldiers (as in, the Compas vs the Contras). Compañero was also the term used for life partner – it was uncommon in those days for the popular classes to legally marry their partners. The expense associated with both a legal marriage and a church wedding (the two are separate in Nicaragua) made it impractical, and society did not frown upon unmarried partnerships – “accompañado” or “partnered” is, in fact, still a recognized marital status in Nicaragua.
With the advent of neoliberalism in 1990, however, compañero quickly disappeared and was replaced by a classist hierarchy of titles – Doctor (for medical doctors, PhDs and lawyers), Engineer (anyone with a degree in science or engineering), and Licenciado (anyone with a college degree in other areas) – and anyone with no college education was just referred to by their first name – perhaps with a respectful don or doña thrown in front of it (Sir and Madam). In a country where, at the time, less than 9% of the population had a college degree, the inequality inherent in this language of titles was stark and damaging.
It became more uncommon to use compañero to mean “life partner” as well. The Church began coercing couples to marry by refusing to baptize babies unless the parents had been married in the Church, and over time the term compañero/a was gradually replaced by “esposo/a” (husband/wife), even for those not married in the Church or by law.
With the return of the Sandinistas to power in 2007, however, the language of revolution is returning as well. Compañero is now once again in common use – even those possessing official titles often eschew them for compañero or stick compañero in front of their title, as in compañera Mayor. [Also Vice President Rosarillo Murillo prefers Compañera to Vice President.] There’s an egalitarian feel to it – it’s nice to avoid the social fumbling of getting someone’s title wrong or not knowing their name – everyone is “Compa.”
The reemergence of compañero is not the only language development in Nicaragua in recent years.
Not too long ago I listened to a municipal agronomist explaining how to make organic fertilizers to a group of local farmers. His language was relaxed and he used common terminology. But he repeatedly talked about farming practices that protect “la Madre Tierra” or “Mother Earth.” I tried to envision an equivalent scenario in the U.S. – an Iowa corn farmer talking about Mother Earth – and I admit that it was pretty hard to imagine. But the absolutely unselfconscious way in which this portly middle-aged agronomist was talking about Mother Earth and the matter-of-fact response of the farmers made me realize that the Earth as our Mother is a concept with which they are all familiar and comfortable. I began to ponder, how does it change our relationship to the earth when we call her Mother? Does our language only reflect our attitudes, or can the language we use also influence our attitudes?
Since 2007, the government has created a whole host of programs aimed at improving the lives of the poor, particularly poor women. For example: the Zero Hunger program has given 275,000 women in rural areas pigs, a pregnant cow, chickens, seeds, fertilizers, and building materials. This project has benefitted one sixth of the country and has increased both the participating families’ food security and the nation’s food sovereignty – Nicaragua now produces 90% of the food it consumes.
A number of years ago I began to notice that when speaking about its poverty reduction programs, the government never used the term “beneficiary,” – a passive recipient – but had instead replaced it with the active “protagonist.” At first I heard this term mostly from government workers, but now it is in common use.
Currently the Casa Ben Linder is sponsoring a virtual class with an in-person delegation component called Women in Nicaragua: Power and Protagonism. In a recent session, we discussed the term and its meaning. Since “protagonist” is more commonly used in Spanish than English, the co-host of our series, Camille Landry, gave this helpful explanation, “When we talk about women as protagonists,” she said, “we mean that they are taking the lead in their own lives, making their own decisions to benefit themselves, their families, their communities – instead of being passive, powerless gears in the wheels of capitalism whose only value is to serve and enrich others.”
Our class then heard directly from women participants in these programs – the protagonists themselves. I listened carefully to their words to hear what they consider the important aspects of their protagonism.
“The truth is that I was a very submissive person, I even used to ask my husband permission to go to the market,” confessed Ángela Galeano of the Zero Hunger program, whose testimony was shared via video from Justa Pérez, the Minister of Family, Associative and Cooperative Economy. “I couldn’t milk a cow, but once I got my own cow in 2008, I learned, and since then I have been breaking that taboo of fear…The message I give to all women is, let’s not be scared; let’s empower ourselves! Because even though our projects might be small, when you are empowered, you feel satisfied and very happy.”
Flor Avellán also spoke. Flor comes from a very humble background. She is a member of the self-employed workers union, a leader of the union’s Women’s Secretariat, and now also a member of the legislature – in Nicaragua, the law requires that 50% of all elected officials be women. “We are not fighting for space anymore,” declared Flor. “Now we have that space and we are empowered every day.”
All the women who spoke showed their pride of ownership over their own projects, continually using the words “we” and “our.” Flor expressed a strong sense of agency not only in her own life, but also in the overall trajectory of the country. “We women exercise our power, we are empowered, and that is why we say el Pueblo Presidente, the people of Nicaragua are President. In previous years I never would have imagined that I would come to have a seat in the National Assembly, Nicaragua’s legislature… but everything is possible thanks to our inclusive model, a model of participation and direct democracy,” she said.
When President Daniel Ortega was inaugurated last January, he was given the Presidential sash and took the oath of office. He then took off his sash, held it out to the crowd, and had the people of Nicaragua swear an oath to help Nicaraguan families and to eradicate poverty – symbolically inviting all Nicaraguans to be take an active lead in their own lives, families, and communities as “the People, President.”
If “the People, President” were simply a slogan, then it would ring hollow, because language is organic – you can’t shoehorn a concept or a term into everyday use by force. When the meaning behind a term is heartfelt, however, then it is truly a reflection of how we see ourselves, and a reflection of who we really are. Today, all around Nicaragua, protagonists are becoming the heroes of their own stories.
Please join us for our next class in the series “Women in Nicaragua: Power and Protagonism!” On Saturday July 9th we will explore “Women Facing Hybrid Warfare.” Nicaraguan women will share their experiences with the violence of 2018 and efforts to counteract disinformation since then. Featuring: journalist Camila Escalante of Kawsachun News; Ima Alfaro, President of Las Diosas coffee processing plant; Yorlis Gabriela Luna, grassroots educator and researcher; and Andrea Michelle Pérez Espinoza, journalist and academic.
Register here: bit.ly/powerandprotagonism
Saturday, July 9, – 9 am PDT / 10 am Central America / 11 am CDT / 12 pm EDT / 5 pm UK
By Nan McCurdy
Tropical Storm Bonnie: Preliminary Assessment of Damages
The government evaluation of damages from Tropical Storm Bonnie, which made landfall on Nicaraguan territory on July 1st, stated that 4,250 people were evacuated and placed in 75 shelters in 21 municipalities. The storm destroyed three homes and flooded 352; 123 homes were partially damaged; 13 schools were partially damaged and the port in El Rama suffered partial structural damages. Dr. Guillermo González, Director of the National System for Disaster Prevention, Mitigation and Attention (SINAPRED) announced that “six people in various parts of the country have died due to the rise in water levels in rivers, flooding and rain. We deeply regret the loss of human lives in Jinotega, Masaya and the Caribbean Coast which are irreplaceable.” (Nicaragua News, 5 July 2022)
Prinzapolka River Floods Houses in Alamikamba
The streets of Alamikamba were completely flooded on July 4th and 5th, due to the rise of the Prinzapolka river as a result of torrential rains. Families had been previously taken to safe solidarity homes and no lives were lost. About 80 homes were affected. See photos: https://radiolaprimerisima.com/noticias-generales/generales/crecida-del-rio-prinzapolka-inunda-casas-en-alamikamba/ (Radio La Primerisima, 5 July 2022)
Government Provides Comprehensive Care to Families in Shelters
Before Tropical Storm Bonnie hit, the government had moved thousands of families to safety in shelters, expecting much flooding. These people have received medical and even psychological attention and recreational activities so that the children can overcome this event without any type of trauma. Food is also guaranteed from the first moment the families came to the shelters. Yenoris Blandón, municipal delegate of the Ministry of the Family, said that the work developed has been done in coordination with various institutions with the purpose of providing accompaniment to strengthen the wellbeing of the children. “It is important in disasters like this one in El Rama to empower parents to know what to do in times like these,” she said. In activities designed for the families the children can show their feelings and even joy in recreational activities. Some 309 families from two neighborhoods of El Rama were provided shelter. In total, some 828 people have been cared for in that shelter. (Radio La Primerisima, 5 July 2022)
Nicaragua Implements Strategies that Strengthen Sustainability
The World Food Program (WFP) representative for Mesoamerica stated that “Nicaragua is an example of food and nutritional security due to its application of best practices in the management of community seed banks and the implementation of national participatory plant breeding strategies.” The Director General of the Mesoamerica Integration and Development Project, Gloria Sandoval Salas, noted that “we are pleased to support the Nicaragua Government in the implementation of projects and strategies that continue to strengthen and make the agri-food systems and production processes of farmers more sustainable.” A delegation from the Mexican Agency for International Cooperation for Development (AMEXCID) and the WFP visited Nicaragua to evaluate advances and results of the “Mesoamerica Hunger Free Program AMEXCID-FAO.” (Nicaragua News, 1 July 2022)
First “Smart” Maternal-Fetal Operating Room in Central America
The first “smart” maternal-fetal operating room in the Central American region will be built at the Bertha Calderón Women’s Hospital in Managua, with an investment of about US$3 million to continue doing surgeries in the mother’s womb. Dr. Carolina Dávila, presidential advisor for SILAIS Managua, highlighted that the work also includes the installation of four “smart” screens, a balcony for other doctors to watch the surgery, and will also include the ability to communicate with the neonatal area and the labor and delivery areas of the hospital. “We will have surgical tables, ventilators, thermal cradles, among other high technology equipment, to continue the development of maternal health in the country. We have been doing in-uterus surgeries for 18 months and we were the first country in the Central American region to do so,” said Davila. Some 15,000 women will benefit from the mega project. The director of the Maternal-Fetal Surgery Unit of MINSA, Dr. Néstor Pavón, highlighted that the construction of the first “smart” operating room will make it possible to train up to 10 types of specialists with surgeries in real time. It will be so high-tech that it will allow specialists in training to observe a surgery in real time without being inside the operating room. “Currently, we perform 15 types of surgeries free of charge, the most frequent being for hydrocephalus, lung alterations, spinal column and abdominal wall defects and, most frequently, placental separation in twin pregnancies, with 22 procedures.” Pavón said. Each surgery is valued at around US$25,000, in addition to US$12,000 in hospital expenses; however, at the Bertha Calderón Hospital, it is completely free of charge. (Radio La Primerisima, 5 July 2022)
Police Provide Counseling for Addiction to Youth and Families
The National Police presented its Report of the Inter-institutional Program for Comprehensive Care and Development of Adolescents and Youth, corresponding to the first six months of 2022. 6,074 families received psychological care on prevention, identification, and treatment for addiction and participated in workshops. Community counseling programs were attended by 172,603 youths and 391 adolescents were reintegrated into schools. 28,533 police-community encounters for prevention of situations of violence and highly dangerous crimes were carried out. The Program seeks to establish a relationship of trust between the Police and the community that helps with public safety. (Nicaragua News, 29 June 2022)
Bilwi Regional Hospital to Be Complete in 2023
The Ministry of Health reported that construction of the “Nuevo Amanecer” Regional Hospital in Bilwi, Northern Caribbean Autonomous Region, is 46% completed and will become fully operational in 2023 benefiting 600,000 inhabitants. At a cost of US$82 million the project is financed through the General Budget with support from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration. (Nicaragua News, 29 June 2022)
Agreement Signed to Improve Potable Water System in Jinotepe
The Nicaragua Water and Sewage Company and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration signed an agreement for US$17 million for the “Project to Improve and Expand the Jinotepe Potable Water System.” The project, which includes construction of four storage tanks as well as installation of equipment and materials to reduce system leakage and improve energy efficiency, will be completed by July 2023, benefitting 58,320 inhabitants. (Nicaragua News, 1 July 2022)
Car Sales Increase 30% in First Half of 2022
From January to June of this year, car sales increased 30% compared to the same period in 2021. Small cars and vans led the sales. According to car dealers, producers and professionals are the main buyers. Private banks have reactivated credit for car purchases. (Informe Pastran, 5 July 2022)
Maradiaga Sentenced to 13 Years on Appeal
On July 2, at the Judicial Complex of Managua, Felix Maradiaga Blandon was sentenced to 13 years in prison for the crime of undermining national integrity to the detriment of the State of Nicaragua and the Nicaraguan Society. This sentence of the Court of Appeals of Managua confirms the conviction sentence of the criminal district judge. Maradiaga was head of a US-funded NGO and was fully involved in the violence of the coup attempt of 2018. (19Digital, 2 July 2022)