By John Kotula
One aspect of the current situation in Nicaragua that hasn’t been discussed much is the evacuation of more than 160 Peace Corps volunteers. (Jesuit volunteers and Canadian volunteers have also been pulled out of the country.) Compared with the deaths of dozens of mostly young Nicaraguans, this exit of foreign service providers may seem relatively unimportant. However, it has affected me very strongly and I believe it has significant repercussions for Nicaragua, for The United States, and for the volunteers.
My wife, Deborah Drew, and I came to Nicaragua as Peace Corps volunteers in 2015 and did our two years of service in Chinandega, Chinandega. (Yes! Its reputation as the hottest place in Nicaragua is well deserved.) This was our second time as volunteers. Ten years earlier, 2005-2007, we lived and worked in Sonaguera, Honduras. My claim to fame is that I have been the oldest Peace Corps volunteer in two countries. I turned 60 in Honduras and 70 in Nicaragua. Most people apply right out of college. The average age of volunteers is 28. In contrast, Deb and I have spent a sizable part of our retirement living in Central America through the Peace Corps. We continue to live in Nicaragua, in Managua now, because Deb works for Peace Corps as a nurse in the medical office that takes care of the volunteers. If circumstances allow, we hope to live in Managua for a couple of more years.
Peace Corps also pulled out of Honduras. They left in 2012 when a volunteer got caught in a crossfire on a public bus and got shot in the leg. At the time everyone was aware that the violence in the country was escalating rapidly. It was well on its way to being declared the most dangerous country in the world due to drug violence and political oppression. Of course, things only worsened and the volunteers have never returned. The situation in Nicaragua is really not comparable to what happened in Honduras. The violence there is so endemic to all the institutions of the country that the path to a more peaceful future is hard to envision. In Nicaragua, as tragic as it is, the situation appears to be transitory and there is much hope for the future.
OK… first things first. I am not with the CIA. I kind of like the teasing I get about that, because physically, emotionally and politically I’m the most improbable CIA agent in the world. Further, I’m convinced, there is no truth to those rumors. With that out of the way, I am deeply committed to Peace Corps and believe there is no better use of American tax dollars. I’d put the benefits of the face-to-face diplomacy and neighborliness of the Peace Corps model up against anything the State Department, and certainly the military, is doing. In the two countries where I served there are people who remember the old gringo who…
left his children and grandchildren in the US for two years and lived in our neighborhood,
taught the school student leaders about HIV/ADS, including how to use a condom and supervised us to pass the information on to our school mates,
told me I had talent, gave me materials, and encouraged me to make paintings,
took my little brother for an operation so he could learn to walk when he was 5 years old,
spoke bad Spanish, but wanted to talk about everything,
took me and my friends to the circus for my 12th birthday,
got his accountant in the US to give me a scholarship so I could go to college,
when my brother died of AIDS, painted a mural for our church in his honor,
let me stay in his house when I didn’t have a place to live during college,
was curious about our culture and took classes to learn about it.
I guess there is the chance that this comes off as blowing my own horn. I’m just going to trust that people will know that’s not what it is about. Until April 23, there were 160 people from the US, mostly young, who had stories of their individual contact with Nicaraguans equal to mine. My claim is that the cumulative impact of this goodwill is not to be underestimated. It is my claim that it can do more for the image of the US on foreign soil, at a pittance, than any formal diplomatic mission can achieve. It is not good for the United States to take Peace Corps volunteers out of a country, because it removes the human face of who we are as a people and reduces our presence to what goes on behind the fortress-like walls of the embassy. These are times in which it is particularly important for our country to put our self forward, in the communities, in the schools, in the health centers, on the farms, and say, here is an example of what people from the US are like and we want to be good neighbors. This is the essence of what Peace Corps does.
The conflicts that lead to the evacuation of the Peace Corps volunteers started on Monday, April 16 with the announcement of reductions to social security payments. They escalated and spread into the weekend and that was when the embassy announced that they were sending non-essential personnel and families home. This was quickly followed by a decision that all the volunteers would have to leave the country. They were first told to “stand fast” – Peace Corps lingo for don’t leave your community, then to “consolidate”. Over Monday and Tuesday everyone was transported to Granada and put up at The Hotel Granada. At 4:00 AM Wednesday morning, four Tica buses arrived to transport the volunteers and the staff accompanying them to San Jose, Costa Rica. They were met there by staff from Washington headquarters and Peace Corps Costa Rica and the process began of putting them all on administrative leave and booking their flights back to their home of record in the United States. In a very rapid sequence of events, the volunteers’ lives were completely reshuffled. They were reassured by everyone that the return to the States was temporary and that they’d be back in thirty days. Some took the attitude that this was nothing more than an all-expenses paid vacation and their plans would be resumed quickly, pretty much where they left off. Others were more distressed about all they were leaving behind, including incomplete projects, host families, friends, romantic partners, at least one spouse, and assorted pets. I think it is clear that the evacuation was an emotional rollercoaster ride for everyone and plenty of emotion got expressed; sadness, disappointment, confusion, anger, disbelief, etc. By the first of May, they had all gotten on their flights and gone home. This is a pretty remarkable group of people. To a greater than average degree, they are bright, motivated, adaptable, and well intentioned. In the long run they’ll be fine. They know or will learn that, with a certain amount of privilege, even the most stressful events eventually make a good story. Nonetheless, this disruption to their lives is one more cost of the turmoil in Nicaragua.
I live in Reparto San Juan in Managua. The Peace Corps office is barely two blocks from my house. It is a moderately upscale neighborhood, close to the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) de Nicaragua and the Masaya highway, two centers of the protests. There are several small hotels and hostels in the area and a strip of popular bars and restaurants. All around me I can see the economic impact of the unrest and the volunteers leaving. Peace Corps probably constitute half the business of the hotels, taxi drivers, restaurants and bars around here. Now, these establishments are pretty much empty. In the communities where they live and work Peace Corps volunteers get and spend a monthly stipend of about $300. Many supplement this with savings and money from home. They pay rent, buy food and clothes, travel, and consume more than their share of Toñas. Often family and friends come to visit and spend more. Just in terms of what the volunteers spend out of their pockets, I think it is a safe to estimate that their evacuation is going to cost the Nicaraguan economy more than $50,000.00 dollars for every month they are gone. A couple of weeks age, NicaNotes reported, “Economist Nestor Avendaño predicts that the economic impact of the protests with their violence, deaths, injuries and property damage will begin to be felt in the latter half of the year but will hit hardest in 2019. He said the perception of greater risk and uncertainty will lower growth in the Gross National Product from the projected 4.7% to 3.2% and will affect every sector of the economy except mining. The exit of Peace Corps is one small example of how this economic impact will come about.
The situation in Nicaragua is very complicated. However, there is a tendency to try and avoid the complexity and reduce the narrative to “I’m right and you’re wrong” or “We are the good guys and you are the bad guys.” In this polarization, people choose their side and try to shape the narrative. They only put forward information that supports their point of view and disregard anything that could possibly support a different perspective. They also vilify people who disagree with them and declare that everything they say is lies. People from the US recognize this, right? It is exactly what is happening in our country.
It is worth asking if the US has chosen a side and is it acting to shape the narrative into a single story. While we can differ on how important or how nefarious the US role in this process has been, I think it is incontestable that the US is anti-Sandinista and anti-Ortegista. Therefore, you have got to wonder if there is some way in which the exit of Peace Corps is part of the shaping of the narrative. Certainly the image of Nicaragua as a place that is too dangerous for idealistic, young North Americans to do humanitarian work is more consistent with the State Department’s hostile and aggressive policies than is the image of 160 volunteers invited by the government of Nicaragua to live and work throughout the country augmenting efforts to improve the schools and health care system, protect the environment, and promote bilingualism. I know the people on the ground in Peace Corps Nicaragua and I’m totally convinced of their sincerity when they say they want the volunteers back as soon as possible and they want the program up and running. I do not know the people in Washington, DC. It is not out of the question, or even unlikely, that Senator Ted Cruz, Republican from Texas, will call whoever he calls in the Trump administration and say, “This is our chance to pass the NicaAct! The worse things look, the better the chance. Starting up Peace Corps again sends the wrong message.” Then that person calls up Jody Olsen, the director of Peace Corps. Jody is by all reports a really good person, but she is a Trump appointee. On the phone from the Trump administration she hears, “Yeah. We are going to take our time on returning volunteers to Nicaragua. Better safe than sorry, you know!”
As always, it is important for people from the US to give their attention to the ways the crisis is being used and shaped, to justify US intervention, specifically passage of the NICA Act. Nicaraguans are perfectly capable, even in crises, of resolving their own problems. The last thing they need is intervention from the US.
Back to those rumors about Peace Corps volunteers being CIA agents, not true! However, when the movie is made I’d like to be played by Tom Cruise… or maybe The Rock… no Tom Cruise.
- The representatives of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC) who have been on an mission in Nicaragua to investigate the current crisis released their preliminary report on May 21st. [You can read the report in Spanish here: http://www.oas.org/es/cidh/prensa/comunicados/2018/113.asp]They said that there had been 76 deaths in the recent protests; 438 people were detained by the authorities with three remaining in jail. The national dialogue chaired by the Catholic Bishops Conference released a communique at the end of yesterday’s meeting which stated that the participants agreed to accept the 15 recommendations made by the IAHRC. Dialogue participants agreed to the appointment of a commission to follow up on the recommendations and on a second visit by the IAHRC. However, there was no agreement on a proposal made by the representatives of small and medium businesses (CONIMIPYME) that all road blocks be lifted to permit free movement of vehicles. After long debates, opposition members continued to insist on the resignation of the entire government and the appointment of a transition junta. (Informe Pastran, May 21)
- Central Bank President Ovidio Reyes said that expectations for the growth of Nicaragua’s economy this year have been lowered from between 4.5% and 5% to between 3% and 3.5%. Leonardo Torres, president of the Nicaraguan Council of Micro, Small, and Medium Businesses (CONIMIPYME), said that the government had had a “honeymoon” with big businesses and should now change its policy for similar model of dialogue and consensus with small and medium businesses which, he noted “are 80% of the economy, those who truly move the economy” and which have not received the same benefits. (Informe Pastran, May 21)
- Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, said that in Nicaragua there is a climate of negotiation, with the participation of the OAS, that has made concrete advances for the next presidential elections which will have all the guarantees that the opposition and civil society have demanded. He added that OAS representatives are in permanent contact with the government, the Church, businesspeople, and representatives of the opposition. At a forum on democracy at George Washington University in Washington, DC, he said to representatives of civil society who accused him of being an accomplice of dictatorship that he was an accomplice in seeking a transparent and just electoral process and that there were opposition members who did not respect democratic process. A high-level mission of the OAS that has worked with the government on election reform arrived in Nicaragua on May 22. (Informe Pastran, May 21, 22)