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UK-Nicaragua Solidarity: past, present and future

NSC News | Monday, 14 October 2013 |

A shared commitment to Nicaragua spanning three decades brought together over 50 people at a July event organised by the NSC.

Solidarity is mutuality of values that bind us together, common understandings, friendships, learning about life beyond ones’ own reality in a way that provides insights into your own reality.’ NSC twin towns meeting,2011

Participants ranged from 1980s activists who supported the Sandinista Revolution in the cold war days of Thatcher and Reagan, to Raleigh International http://raleighinternational.org/what-we-do/raleigh-ics and Progressio http://www.progressio.org.uk/ICS-Nicaragua volunteers recently returned from ten week community development programmes in rural Nicaragua. What they shared was a passion and commitment to Nicaragua solidarity in some cases going back over 30 years.

The morning session focused on the achievements of the 1980s Sandinista government and the political, military and economic attempts by the Reagan administration to overthrow the Sandinistas: the means, however murky and reprehensible, justified the ends.

The film ‘American Sandinista’ by Jason Blalok http://american-sandinista.com/ was a stark and moving reminder of the reality of the period: the hopes and expectations of a better future combined with the horrors of the US backed contra war. The film tells the story of Ben Linder, one of tens of thousands of international volunteers who went to Nicaragua in the 1980s to support government social programmes. Ben, an engineer working on a rural electrification programme, lost his life in the war along with 30,000 Nicaraguans.

Carmen Barreda, who was a Sandinista student activist in the 1980s, talking about the anguish of the loss of loved ones, the destruction of the war and what international solidarity meant to the Nicaragua people. Particularly important was the political and moral support, the mutual learning, the raising of awareness of what was happening in the rest of the world, and above all, the feeling of not being alone.

Helen Yuill and Stella Embliss who went to Nicaragua on coffee and building brigades in the 1980s, gave an overview of the history of the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, describing what motivated tens of thousands of people in the UK to participate in a global solidarity movement. Sixty- five local solidarity groups were set up around the country; over 100,000 people signed a petition condemning US aggression against Nicaragua; high profile political and cultural events featured politicians, actors, writers, musicians; and over a thousand people went to Nicaragua on brigades, delegations and study tours. The legacy of this period lives on not only in NSC, Wales NSC http://walesnicaragua.wordpress.com/, twin towns http://www.nicaraguasc.org.uk/solidarity/twin-towns/ but also in other organisations such as the Central America Women’s Network (CAWN) http://www.cawn.org/ and the Environmental Network for Central America (ENCA). http://www.enca.org.uk/index.htm

Rita Drobner, a brigadista in 1989, talked about the dramatic contrast between her expectations and the reality of living with an impoverished family of farm labourers on a coffee plantation. The family was very proud of the achievements of the Sandinista revolution and the improvements it had brought to their lives: a new one room hut with piped water, a kitchen garden and a latrine, and membership of a co-operative. However, the children suffered from worms, the crops had been partially destroyed by pests, and the oldest son was in a rehabilitation centre after losing his legs in a land mine explosion. To the outsider, the Revolution that had cost Nicaraguans so dearly appeared to have achieved so little. Yet, from the perspective of Nicaraguans, particularly those living in poverty, there had been major advances in getting organised and making the best use of available resources….in the middle of a war.

Ben Gregory from Wales NSC talked about the solidarity links between Nicaragua and Wales dating back to 1986. Over that period the Campaign has forged political and practical links between trade unions, community groups, churches and educational organisations in the two countries. Since 1994 Wales NSC has developed a special link with the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua based on common interests of autonomy. In February this year Ben participated in a Wales NSC delegation to Nicaragua. In these politically gloomy times the message from the Nicaraguans, who lived through 16 years of austerity after the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in 1990, was ‘don’t give up hope.’ Ben announced a new Wales NSC initiative, the marketing of Tecafe, the fairest coffee in Wales, sourced from the Nicaraguan co-operative SOPPEXCCA. http://walesnicaragua.wordpress.com/

Helen Yuill from NSC and Alix Hughes from Bristol Link with Nicaragua talked about building links between Fairtrade activists and consumers and activists in the UK and Fairtrade producers in Nicaragua, based on common interests and mutual solidarity. One of the legacies of the Sandinista Revolution is a well organised movement that has been at the forefront of the Fairtrade and co-operative movement, changing the way that primary products are traded. This has presented opportunities for us to insert a Nicaraguan perspective into wider networks for social and economic justice in the UK. Speaker tours of the UK and study tours to Nicaragua involving over 80 people have provided opportunities both for exchanging ideas and information between those involved in different parts of the Fairtrade chain, and to advocate for ways to make Fairtrade fairer. http://www.nicaraguasc.org.uk/solidarity/fairtrade/

Alix talked about the very successful experience of the Bristol Link with Nicaragua working with the Bristol Fairtrade Network inviting Nicaraguan women Fairtrade coffee and honey producers to Bristol. Their programmes have included talking to thousands of school children during Fairtrade Fortnight, taking the message to a whole new generation of Fairtrade consumers and potential activists. http://bristolnicaragua.wordpress.com/2013/03/12/fair-trade-fortnight/

Rita Drobner talked about the ethos of internationalism that is fundamental to trade unionism globally. UK trade unions have a long history of solidarity with Nicaragua from support for the Sandinista Revolution of the 1980s to present day solidarity focus on union to union links. Nicaraguan trade unions have lived through three distinct periods: the Sandinista government of the 1980s, the austerity and dramatic assault on employment and trade union rights of the neoliberal period that lasted for 17 years from 1990, and, since 2007, the return to power of the Sandinista government and the expansion of trade union membership and employment rights. Nicaragua trade unions provide an inspiration to UK unions - everything has had to be fought for, and when lost, struggled to be regained! The relationship of mutual solidarity between Unison and the Nicaraguan public sector union UNE is particularly exemplary. Thanks to Unison funding UNE has an office in Managua that provides legal support and training, - representing its members, interpreting law and lobbying, and training activists in their rights. http://www.nscag.org

Fiammetta Wegner and Emma Blakey described their experiences working on a volunteer programme in Nicaragua. They took part in a programme for 18 – 25 year olds called International Citizen Service (ICS) funded by the Department for International Development. Through this initiative, over 14,000 young people – half from the UK and half national volunteers - will take part in volunteer programmes in countries of the South on projects designed to fight poverty. The programme that Fiammetta and Emma took part in was organised by Progressio and involved a ten week stay in Nicaragua, living with local families and working with local Nicaraguan youth volunteers on community development projects. http://www.progressio.org.uk/ICS-Nicaragua

Helen Yuill gave an overview of UK twinning links with towns, communities, schools and universities in Nicaragua Many of the thousands of people who visited Nicaragua in the 1980s in solidarity with the Revolution returned to their towns and communities deeply affected by the experience and committed to ongoing solidarity. Some chose to work locally by setting up twinning links with the towns and communities they had visited. UK twinning links with Nicaragua take many forms ranging from formal twinnings between local councils, to small informal groups raising funds for a particular community or project. Activities include raising awareness and funds to support projects related to community development, health, education, and protecting the environment; coordinating exchange visits and volunteer programmes; and facilitating links, particularly between schools and universities. http://www.nicaraguasc.org.uk/solidarity/twin-towns/

Claire Plumb gave an overview of the work of the Leicester Masaya Link Group LMLG) and described the Group’s Food for Thought developed for primary schools in the West Midlands. Claire described the LMLG Food for Thought project, an interactive programme for primary school children that uses Leicester’s twinning link with Nicaragua and the world renowned plant collection at the University of Leicester Botanic Garden to explore the journey of crops from plant to product, from the farmer’s field to the local and international market place. The programme starts with a visit to the botanical gardens to find out what plants grow in Nicaragua’s tropical climate and how these plants are used in food, drinks, medicine and crafts. Finally the students take on the roles of local Nicaraguan farmers, millers, cooks, craftspeople, herbalists and turn the plants into products they can sell making sure that they not only cover their costs but also make a small profit to reinvest or to buy luxuries. The day finishes with a fiesta using the products they have made to decorate the room, to eat and to drink. http://www.chloeplumb.co.uk/index.php?/olas-art--yot/leicester-masaya-link-group-/

Katharine Hoskyns from the Maria Zunilda Perez Brigade described their long term link with the Juan Francisco Paz Silva co-operative in the northern town of Achuapa. In particular she talked about a new initiative that looks at ways in which the unpaid work traditionally done by women is, for the first time, being included in the pricing of coffee and sesame. http://upsidedownworld.org/main/nicaragua-archives-62/4418-value-us-fair-pay-for-domestic-work-in-nicaragua

Gabriela Urrutia from the Nicaraguan Embassy talked about a government programme called Vivir Bien (Live well) involving thousands of people in programmes to take care of ‘Mother Earth,’ particularly young people. These programmes, based on commitment and solidarity, include disaster prevention and environmental awareness raising and clean up programmes of neighbourhoods, beaches and rivers.

Comments from participants

‘I would like to thank you for giving me the chance to participate to the Nicaragua solidarity Day. It was very nice opportunity to get a lot of historical information, know a bit more about the work of NSC and meet a lot of nice people. I’ve been on a “want to go back” mood since the event! ‘

‘… an interesting mix of speakers, enjoyed chatting with people who were involved in the past, there's a lot of fascinating history in the organization’s past which was what I took most from the day.’