Community movements in Nicaragua
By Tyrion Perkins
[From June 28 to July 21, 13 people from Australia visited Nicaragua on a work-study brigade. This is the second article based on the brigade's experiences.] While the FSLN prepares for the elections in 1996, the political struggle is more than the struggle to gain seats in parliament. FSLN members around the country are also working with people on a community level to improve their conditions.
Antonieta Rodriguez is a leader of the community movement in one of the poorer barrios of Managua. The people there have come in from rural areas and made houses out of wood and corrugated iron.
They used to organise through their FSLN committee, but to make it open to everyone, they changed the name to the Community Movement. Through this they have organised a meeting hall, their own school and teachers (because they cannot afford school fees), vigilance patrols which have reduced theft and assault, and an organic composting project.
AMNLAE (Nicaraguan Women's Association Amanda Louisa Espinoza) is the women's organisation associated with the FSLN. In 1993 it was relaunched as an autonomous organisation.
AMNLAE in Matagalpa provides legal and health services, and training in gender issues, defence of the environment and economic development. It is starting a campaign against violence. This has two aspects: assault and domestic violence and the institutionalised violence brought about by unemployment and lack of health care, both of which physically and mentally harm women. Projects include training in family rights and setting up a house for pregnant women.
The women's house in Matagalpa deals with people coming in needing help with food pensions, or because of rape, abuse, evictions or divorce. AMNLAE organised a project to put latrines in houses that had none and construct community gardens in a number of barrios around Matagalpa.
Adeli Blindon lives in Apajo de Combatientes, one of the poorest barrios in Matagalpa. It was formed by 74 families that moved there from the country because of the war in the 1980s.
Houses were built by the government as compensation, but the community has had to organise everything else such as water and electricity. They have a community movement, and projects have been organised through AMNLAE.
The problem of unemployment is worse because most of the community are from the country and are unskilled; people die from starvation and malnutrition. They were going to have a community garden to grow vegetables for the children, but the mayor took the land. When they tried to take it back, police were brought in.
They went to the World Health Organisation because the children were dying. But to get aid, they had to have a preschool. So Adeli had 74 children in her house. After a year, they were forced to end it because they were told they needed proper facilities. They have drawn up plans but lack land.
Santo Isobel Tores, one of the few male community activists, last year helped set up a preschool in Barrio Sandino. A lot of households are run by women, who have no-one to look after the children when they go out to earn money. They set up the preschool with the further aims of creating a culture of learning, stopping under-nutrition and socialising girls and boys together before they are segregated at school (this is due to pressure from the church).
The movement is also organising the latrines to be built and a community garden, although they have no land for the latter. They have also organised health brigades made up of 15-to-20 year olds to visit houses and give out health information. They want to start a cultural group for young people and an infant service for younger children. There are lots of people willing to work, but the problem is lack of resources.
The Condega cultural centre has three main aspects: an archaeology museum, a guitar workshop and a range of projects including dance, theatre, painting, cooking, sewing and the environment. With funding from local people, aid organisations and the local council, they have turned what was a command post for the dictator Somoza into a centre that provides work through the guitar workshop, training and cultural activities and which keeps local history accessible. More recently the centre assisted the setting up of a women's pottery workshop which has been highly successful, generating an income for the participants.
An important aspect of the cultural centre is the ecological projects. Many of these are done with younger people, who are more open to change. They have paintings, a poetry competition and brigades that go into a community, analyse the problems there and, through theatre and music, show the community solutions to the problems. Students have even had public debates with campesinos.
Part of the local school's curriculum is reforesting an area. They make sure the trees are not just planted and left, by marking students on how well their trees grow.
The cultural centre has also promoted reconciliation between campesinos who fought for the FSLN and for the contras. They use musical groups and ecology brigades, through which they realise their problems are the same. They also use the Fair of Maize, which is a celebration of the harvest, to unite the people with political and religious differences.
The Australia-Nicaragua brigade stayed in Solingalpa, a community of 1000 houses just outside Matagalpa. The community movement there organises meetings to solve community problems. Most of the people came from rural areas in 1991.
It is a very poor area. Most houses are one to two rooms and hold up to 15 people. There are some taps but water flows only two hours each week, and the river is contaminated with cholera and other disease. To help solve the health problems caused by water contamination, the community organised 25 latrines to be built in houses without toilets. A community garden with vegetables for children is planned.
Besides water, the other main problem is ownership of the land. Originally it was given by a supporter of the FSLN to the people. With the change of government in 1990, the local mayor started to divide it up and sell it. Some have titles but have not paid. Others paid the original owners, yet the mayor still wants payment. They say that if the mayor tries to evict them they will take up machetes to defend themselves.
Future projects the community movement is planning are paving the streets, education on nutrition, establishing tap water and getting light legally (because the connection fee is too expensive, they now make their own illegal connections).
San Ramon is a small town outside Matagalpa where the FSLN has a majority in the town council. There are regular open council meetings at which people can bring up problems. Instead of the mayor appointing the head of the local area, as happens elsewhere, each area elects its own council every two years, made up of a representative each from the church, health commission, education and association of families and parents.
The town council has been working on improving conditions within the town. It has built a health centre and library, paved 12,000 square metres of streets and put in gutters, built a local abattoir, built two rural health centres, rebuilt 20 km of roads, built 17 schools, put latrines in houses without, put water and light on for those without and put on drinkable tap water. The council pays for education costs up to fourth year.
However ,unemployment is as high as in the rest of the country, and the medical centre cannot get medicines. The national problems restrict what they are able to do.