By Becca Renk
[Becca Renk is originally from the U.S. but has lived and worked in Nicaragua since 2001 with the Jubilee House Community and its project the Center for Development in Central America. She and her husband Paul have two daughters who have studied in Nicaraguan public schools for 15 years.]
The day I crossed the gymnasium stage in to receive my high school diploma, I was surrounded by the ghosts of my childhood friends who didn’t graduate with me. My public school in North Idaho was big – there were nearly 300 of us graduating – but a lot of my friends had dropped out. Many were already parents, others were working full time jobs, some had quit school after repeated run-ins with the principal and police. In some cases, they didn’t have the support of their families, but in all cases they didn’t have the support of the American public school system.
Today I am proud to know that my daughters and their generation of Nicaraguan young people have the full support of the public school system and the Nicaraguan government.
This week our 17-year-old daughter Eibhlín was one of two graduating honor roll students to speak at the Graduation Bonus ceremony at her high school, where the Ministry of Education gave each student a check for C$1,000 córdobas, nearly US $30. For more than a decade, the Sandinista government has distributed this special bonus to high school graduates. The checks are made out to the students – they must have their identification card (issued at 16 in Nicaragua) to sign for the check. It is a day of “adulting” – for many, this is the first time they will sign a document that has to match the signature on their ID card. For most, it is the first time they will cash a check in their own name.
“Everyone, please practice your signatures!” calls out the Ministry of Education official who is overseeing the process at Eibhlin’s school. “You have to sign inside the box, so please sign carefully.” All the adults are kind, helping the kids practice, explaining the process to them.
“There’s no rush, take a deep breath and don’t be nervous.”
“If you have trouble endorsing the check at the bank, please come into the office, and we will issue you another check.”
Listening to everyone chiming in, crowding around to take photos, hugging…I get a clear picture of Nicaragua collectively supporting its youth and lovingly lifting them up.
The Graduation Bonus may sound like a small program, but it is decidedly not: this year some 63,000 young people are graduating from secondary school. Just the logistics of issuing and delivering that many checks to all corners of the country boggles the mind – but this Bonus also represents an investment in Nicaragua’s youth of US$1.75 million, and it’s just one program of the plethora that have been supporting youth since the Sandinista party came back into power in 2007. In fact, these programs have been so effective that there is now a noticeable lack of gang activity and delinquency in the streets.
The difference in Ciudad Sandino and Managua’s urban barrios now from just five years ago is noticeable enough that it has become a regular topic of conversation among Nicaraguans living in neighborhoods that used to see frequent gang fights. According to the United Nations, Nicaragua is the safest country in Central America and has not had problems with international gangs and drug cartels like its neighboring countries. Even prior to 2007, Nicaragua’s gangs were small neighborhood gangs and it was common for gang members to “age out;” if they weren’t killed or imprisoned, eventually they would leave the gang to settle down and have families. The difference now seems to be that there is no longer a new generation of neighborhood delinquents to take the place of the aging gang members; as a result, the gangs themselves are fizzling out of existence. In the barrios, the consensus is that this change is due to the Sandinista government’s programs directed at youth for the past 15 years:
-Free public education starting in preschool
-Free lunch for 1.2 million school children daily
-Secondary schools on Saturday, allowing rural and non-traditional students to attend classes only one day a week and graduate in the same amount of time as students who attend school every weekday
-Accelerated weekend high school programs for non-traditional students who dropped out of regular classes
-Thousands of free vocational training programs available around the country
-Free university – the percentage of Nicaraguans with university degrees has risen from 9% to 19% in just 15 years
-Public parks – 772 parks built since 2006
-Internet access – 207 free Wifi zones in parks plus fiber optic cable installed everywhere there is electrical grid access (now 99% of the country)
-1,340 sports facilities built
-153 cultural centers with free art, dance, music and sports classes in every municipality
-Community policing prevention and intervention programs for at-risk youth including family counseling, addiction counseling, violence prevention, high school classes, sports and business training which includes police direct investment in businesses started by youth
-Free family planning through Nicaragua’s universal free health care system
Simply put, there are so many opportunities afforded to youth now that being in a gang is neither necessary nor an attractive option for Nicaragua’s young men.
Similarly, early motherhood is no longer the best option for most Nicaraguan girls, as it was for generations. Until recently, Nicaragua had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the region. Now most Nicaraguan women are having their first child at 27 years old, and Nicaragua ranks number one in the world for educational attainment for women and girls. Those young women who do get pregnant now have many options for continuing their education while also raising their child.
Young people in Nicaragua still face plenty of challenges – just like in my high school, not all of Eibhlín’s friends have the support of their families – some live on their own and have to work, some have parents with addiction problems or care for family members with serious illness. For these students, the range of options open to them helps make it possible to continue studying despite difficulties, and the Graduation Bonus helps encourage them to get their diploma. Some students will use the money to help with their graduation costs – at Eibhlin’s school they are renting gowns, sharing the cost of decorating the auditorium and buying cake and soda to celebrate. Some students will use the money to pay for transportation, copies, and extra classes to help pass university entrance exams and get accepted into university.
When Eibhlín and her classmates walk across the stage to receive their diplomas next week, they won’t be surrounded by the ghosts of dropped out classmates like I was. It is gratifying for me to know that whichever path they choose to take, they will be supported not just by their loved ones, but also by their country’s institutions and public policies.
By Nan McCurdy
2023 Budget: Poverty Reduction a Priority
The National Assembly approved the 2023 General Budget of the Republic which, for the first time in history, will be fully financed with government revenues. The chair of the Economic Committee of the National Assembly, Deputy Wálmaro Gutiérrez said; “For the first time, far from lamenting that our expenses are greater than our income, today we are talking about a fully financed Budget without deficit. Tell me a single government administration other than the FSLN government that can say that.” Deputy José Figueroa, vice-chair of the Economic Committee explained that the 2023 Budget is 20% larger than 2022. “Tax revenues are projected to be 19.9% more; income tax revenue is expected to be 23% more.” Deputy Carlos Emilio López emphasized that the 2023 Budget guarantees the restauration of rights to children, adolescents and young people and ensures access to free, quality and specialized justice. Social spending will be very strong with 56.4% with the education sector at 21.7%, health 21%, social protection 3.5%, housing and community services 9%. Defense spending is at 3.3% of budget, transportation and communication 11.1%, public order and security 9.8%, general public services 13.1% and other spending is 6.4%. This budget guarantees many social and productive programs, such as the school lunch, school backpack, high school graduation bonus, teachers’ bonuses, construction of hospitals, health centers, new schools and maintenance, transportation fare subsidies, the subsidy to consumers of less than 150 kilowatts of electricity per month, construction of 201 new kilometers of roads and road and bridge maintenance, agricultural programs, drinking water and sanitation projects. Renewable energy generation projects will continue with increasing electricity coverage expected to exceed the current 99.2%. Likewise, this budget law allocates resources to strengthen citizen security and the fight against organized crime, as well as construction of new housing by INVUR in coordination with local governments. (Radio La Primerisima, 22 Nov. 2022)
Lowest Femicide Rate in Central America
On Nov. 25 the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) and the Latin America and Caribbean Gender Equality Observatory presented the conclusions of the Regional Report on Femicides in the continent, “Bringing an end to violence against women and girls: A key challenge for building a care society.” The report states that with 0.4, Nicaragua registered the lowest rate of femicides per 100,000 inhabitants in the Region in 2021, followed by Costa Rica (0.7); Panama (1.0); Guatemala (1.6); El Salvador (2.4); Dominican Republic (2.7); and Honduras (4.6). (Nicaragua News, 28 Nov. 2022)
List Published of Those Elected in Municipal Elections
On Nov. 25 the Supreme Electoral Council published in La Gaceta, the definitive list of those elected as mayors, vice mayors, councilpersons and their respective alternates in the municipal elections held last November 6 “so that they may exercise their functions in accordance with the provisions of the Political Constitution of the Republic and the Electoral Law,” the publication states. For the list: https://radiolaprimerisima.com/noticias-generales/destacado/poder-electoral-publica-lista-de-los-electos-en-comicios-municipales/ (Radio La Primerisima, 25 Nov. 2022)
Nicaragua with Highest Percentage of Fully Vaccinated
The Pan American Health Organization reported on Nov. 22 that with 91.2% of the population fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Nicaragua is the country in the region with the highest percentage of fully vaccinated people, followed by Costa Rica (82.5%); Panama (72.1%); El Salvador (67.2%); Honduras (56.8%); Guatemala (38.4%). (Nicaragua News, 23 Nov. 2022)
Nicaragua with the Highest Electricity Coverage in the Region
Nicaragua occupies, together with Costa Rica, first place in the Central American region with the highest electricity coverage in their nations, highlighted in last week’s Forbes Magazine. Costa Rica has 99.4% and Nicaragua 99.2% of electrification index. Costa Rica has taken 60 years to achieve this and Nicaragua in only 15 years went from 54% of families with electricity to 99.2%. Between 2007 and 2022, the Nicaraguan Government, through ENATREL, executed 9,720 projects and electrified 685,757 homes, benefiting 3,607,820 Nicaraguans. By the end of 2022, 7,273 more homes will have electricity, with an investment of US$20.6 million financed by CABEI and the national government. (Radio La Primerisima, 28 Nov. 2022)
Military Hospital with New Chemotherapy Unit
The authorities of the Military Hospital in Managua [one of the largest in Central America that attends the general population], inaugurated a chemotherapy delivery unit that will improve attention to cancer patients. Currently, the Military Hospital attends some 7,500 cancer patients, 14.5% of them with breast cancer, 13.3% with prostate cancer, and 9% with cervical-uterine cancer. “We saw that as we grew, despite multiple prevention campaigns, we have a significant number of patients who need to receive chemotherapy. In this unit approximately 60 chemotherapy treatments are delivered in a day. (Radio La Primerisima, 28 Nov. 2022)
More than 282,000 Trees Planted in Areas Affected by Hurricane Julia
From October 31 to November 25th, 282,457 trees of different forest and fruit species have been planted in the municipalities of Central Zelaya, Costa Caribe Sur, Boaco and Chontales, through the “Verde, que te quiero Verde” (Green, I love you Green) national reforestation campaign in areas affected by hurricane Julia. During this period 135 community nurseries have been installed in 24 municipalities in these Departments. 2,963 farm families have been trained in the management of forest tree production systems in association with fruit plants and other crops. 2,564 people participated in the reforestation activities that took place in 240 communities in the municipalities. From November 28 to December 4th, 150,000 more trees will be planted, and 200 more community nurseries will be installed in those same regions. Also, 1,500 families in the communities where the nurseries will be installed will be trained in planting, irrigation and plant management. In addition, producers will be encouraged to establish 250 manzanas [1 manzana equals 1.7 acres] of plantations with forest trees, fruit trees and various crops. See photos: https://radiolaprimerisima.com/noticias-generales/destacado/mas-de-282-mil-arboles-plantados-en-zonas-afectadas-por-julia/ (Radio La Primerisima, 26 Nov. 2022)
Liquid Nitrogen Plant Inaugurated
A liquid nitrogen processing plant was inaugurated on Nov. 28 in the Concepción Palacios Health Complex of MINSA, with an investment of US$400,000. Dr. Carlos Saenz, Secretary General of the Ministry of Health, explained that liquid nitrogen has the quality of maintaining ultra-low temperatures, which allows lab technicians to conserve and preserve cells, tissues, viruses, bacteria and parasites for storage in the biobank, for later studies and epidemiological research. The center performs the diagnostics for epidemiology laboratories nationally, as well as studies of dengue, leptospirosis, Chikungunya and different types of viruses that can be diagnosed. (Radio La Primerisima, 28 Nov. 2022)
Thousands of Children to Receive Toys
The Presidential Advisor on Educational Issues, Salvador Vanegas announced this Tuesday that coordination is being carried out in all departments to begin the distribution of hundreds of thousands of toys for children. “With much affection, with much love, for months we have been working on the purchase and importation of toys, which today a team of the Ministry of Education is classifying by different ages, different types of toys, packing them for the entire territory,” he said. Starting on December 9, the first toy caravans will be leaving for the most remote areas of the country, so that on December 13 the delivery to children at elementary schools and kindergartens will begin. (Radio La Primerisima, 29 Nov. 2022)
Evangelicals Now Main Faith Group
According to the most recent survey by the M&R polling firm, Evangelicals are the main faith group in Nicaragua. According to the opinion poll presented Nov. 22, 36.9% of Nicaraguans declare themselves Protestant, the majority, 35.7% of the total surveyed, are Evangelicals, while only 33.1% say they are Catholic. The opinion poll was conducted throughout Central America and, at the regional level, Protestants are the main faith group with 37%. Honduras has the highest percentage with 43.7% Protestants; 42.6% are Evangelicals, while Catholics represent only 27.8%. (TN8.tv, 22 Nov. 2022)
Strengthening Cooperation in Cyber Security
The Governments of Nicaragua and the Russian Federation signed the “2022-2026 Russia-Nicaragua Collaboration in International Information Security Guarantees.” The agreement seeks to strengthen bilateral cooperation in the development of initiatives that provide cyber security guarantees for both countries. Nicaraguan Minister of Foreign Affairs Denis Moncada stated that “the Agreement will strengthen cooperation between Nicaragua and Russia and provides a formal framework for joint work on cyber security issues that prioritizes the defense of peace and tranquility for our citizens.” (Nicaragua News, 23 Nov. 2022)
Prosecutor Requests Preventive Detention for Oscar René Vargas
The Public Prosecutor’s Office requested before a judge preventive detention for Óscar René Vargas Escobar for conspiracy and undermining national integrity. The request for a special hearing to ask for the extension of the period of investigation and judicial detention was submitted to the Tenth Criminal District Court of Managua under Judge Gloria Corrales. Vargas was arrested on Nov. 23 in a house located in Bolonia, a neighborhood of Managua, after entering the country irregularly from Costa Rica. [In 2018 on 100% Noticias television station, Vargas said “the second option that can happen, is that the people, in one of these marches in which we participate, say ‘let’s go to El Carmen (the president’s house),’ and even if there are 200, 300, 400 deaths, it resolves the situation.… [T]hey grab him [Ortega] and hang him, like what happened with Mussolini.” In the early 90’s Vargas allegedly abused his wife, poet Daisy Zamora, and she had to leave the country surreptitiously with her two sons. One of those sons works at Canal 8 with Juan Carlos Ortega.] (Radio La Primerisima, 24 Nov. 2022)