Jim Burchell, Presente!

It is difficult to write of a friend in the past tense; to say, “He was a good man”, or “He was a funny guy.” “Was” seems to final. But then death is final and I suppose we need to find ways to accept the passing of friends; putting them in the past is one way we do this. But today, at least for today, I want our friend Jim Burchell to be present. In solidarity circles we have a ceremonial litany of names of people who have died, each name followed by a collective statement, “presente” – you are here with us. Jim, you are here with us – in our hearts, in our minds, in our memories. Jim Burchell, Presente! Jim was recently profiled by an alumni magazine for the University of New Hampshire where he received his bachelor degree in 1980. As a student, Jim was also a state legislator in New Hampshire, and for a time, a member of the Rochester City Council. When Jim moved to Michigan to get a Masters degree in public policy he organized a referendum of opposition to the Reagan administration’s policies in Nicaragua, and also to establish a sister-city relationship with Juigalpa, Nicaragua. The vote was successful. During this time, Jim also worked as a regional organizer for the Quixote Center’s Quest for Peace program, opposing Reagan’s proxy war and sending cargo containers of material aid destined for those most affected by the war. Later, moving to New Jersey, Jim continued working with the Quixote Center as shipping coordinator. He launched his own organization, PeaceWorks, to send humanitarian assistance to community groups in Nicaragua, work he has done for over 30 years now. Jim’s life has been an exercise in effective community service and activism. More recently, he served on the Center’s Board of Directors. Jim you are here with us. Presente! In that same University of New Hampshire alumni profile Jim said, “We’ve made these personal and professional relationships that help to put a human face on global warming, promote fair trade, and focus on the plight of street children. On a micro level we’re able to help people, and on a macro level we inform even more people. It’s not a one-way street when you do this kind of work. It’s not selfless. You gain a lot.” Jim you are here with us. Presente! I knew Jim through his work with the Quixote Center, PeaceWorks, and his passion for gardening. He coordinated our cargo container shipments until 2009 when we stopped them. During my tenure at the Quixote Center from 2001-2008 and again from 2011 to this past January, Jim was a valued advisor and strategist, creative thinker and political analyst. Jim was a brilliant guy, but you had to spend time with him to discover just how brilliant he was. His soft and intentional way of speaking did not hint at the fire burning inside. At least, not at first. But man, get him talking politics from Managua to Jersey City and you’f find out how much he knew, and how deeply he felt it. Jim you are here with us. Presente! My relationship with Jim has mainly been through our work together. That work is serious in many ways, and so to keep going, it is best done with a healthy dose of humor. Jim’s smile and eyes, crinkling a little deeper at the corners each year, were always a welcome part of the discussion, and his jokes, well sometimes weren’t sure it was a joke or where he’s going at first, but once you caught up with him you realized how funny he was. Jim you are here with us. Presente! Jim struck me as a bit of a contradiction at times. He committed his life to others and engaged in many public campaigns, organizing people to get things done. Though living in this very public way, he was a private guy. He didn’t give away much, at least not easily, of his person, in conversation. He didn’t like being the focus of attention (sorry Jim!). Though he helped many, he was reluctant to ask for any help for himself. On the last score, I am much the same way, and know the stubborn refusal to reach out can wear on a person’s heart. Jim you are here with us. Presente! Jim, like many friends, fell in love with Nicaragua, and with the people he worked with there: The glue-sniffing kids and their care givers at Inhijambia; the women at the Masaya Women’s Collective who are pushing back against sexual violence and striving for the economic independence that will allow them to leave abusive relationships; the members of the Federation of Campesinos and the El Porvenir Organic Coffee Cooperative, each struggling to carve out a sustainable future for rural communities. Jim often quoted Thelma Fernandez Solis when talking about this work, “We work shoulder-to-shoulder in the consciousness-raising of our people, so that each day new compañeros become involved in this task of human dignity that unites men and women from far-away lands, of distinct colors and races, of different histories, but with a common denominator– to give true meaning to our lives.” Jim you are here with us. Presente! Jim also liked to quote Joan Dye Gussow, “As long as you have a garden you have hope.” Jim planted many gardens, working shoulder to shoulder with friends and family to create new spaces of liberation and sometimes simply understanding. Jim’s work is the work of hope, work that is so desperately needed in these times. It is the work that will continue, and with it the life that inspired it. Jim you are here with us. Presente!
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Homes of Hope: 2013

Nicaragua faces a severe housing shortage, one that has left families without options for safe and dignified housing. Homes of Hope is our initiative with the Institute of John XXIII to address the challenges faced by the country’s large working poor population, those with incomes below what is needed to support the family. In 2013 the Institute built 50 homes! The project was financed directly by donors to the Quest for Peace, with additional funds provided by the Institute’s housing rollover fund and through a new partnership with CAFOD. In 2013 we built homes in Chaguitillo, a community in the Matagalpa department, to the north of Managua. Prepare

Community engagement is the first step in any successful project.

Homes of Hope begins with an organized and involved community. Initial meetings resulted in over 90 beneficiary applications and a local Housing Committee. The Committee members reviewed applications and selected the families for the 2013 construction season. Those selected for the program are required to participate and contribute in a number of ways: they help with construction, they provide a small down payment on the home, and they commit to monthly payments into the building fund for future participants. This all helps to ensure the process is smooth, and fosters a sense of ownership from the beginning. Local buy-in is key to the success of the program! Build

The construction site in Chaguitillo

Construction began in April of 2013, and the Institute’s team was able to complete the 50 homes by December. Throughout the construction period, beneficiaries received training on home maintenance, family hygiene practices, and safe water techniques. All of these help ensure a smooth transition from previous living arrangements to the new home. The homes are either the 385 square foot model or the 420 foot model. Both have two bedrooms, a kitchen, a shared bathroom, and a living room, with a wash sink on a rear patio. The sizes of lots vary, depending on what is available, but are typically large enough for some storage and a garden. The parcel used in Chaguitillo was open land, covered with a mix of sandy soil and grass. Deliver After the construction is complete, the celebration of new homes can begin! The Institute of John XXIII partnered with the new housing committee to hold a ceremony for transferring ownership to the beneficiary families on January 17, 2014. In less than a year the Institute transformed this section of Chaguitillo.

Families officially received their homes at the ceremony in January.

Now we have a suitable roof, a home for our family, it is a dream that we’ve all had and that we have made into reality with our work… we hope that more families are benefited in the future, and that they keep helping people of scarce resources. -Douglas Jose Gonzalez When I found out about the project I applied and I now have my own home. The project gives a lot of hope to those of us who have low salaries and can’t work with big banks. -Meyling Ruiz In 2014 we plan to begin the second round of construction for additional families that qualify for the program. Join our fundraising campaign for the Homes of Hope with the gift to the Quixote Center today!
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Laudable Labor from the Institute of John XXIII

This is a translation of an article that appeared in La Prensa over the weekend. It highlights our work with the Institute of John XXIII as we seek solutions to the housing crisis in Nicaragua. Read the original article here (Sp). The institute of John XXIII was born inspired from the innovative ideas of Pope John XXIII, now beatified and then promoter of Second Vatican Council. Founded on July 22nd, 1961 at the University of Central America by then Jesuit priest Noel Antonio Garcia Castillo. In its first years of work, The Institute was aimed towards the projects that would help in the development of students. Their first project was literacy promotion among laborers through night classes. Since the earthquake in Managua in 1972, attention has been put on natural disasters and national emergencies. In 2011 the Institute celebrated 50 years of work in the human development field and the promotion of social justice. Specifically working in areas fundamental to human rights, facilitating the access to dignified housing and quality health services. The Institute also follows the process of human development in vulnerable sectors of the population. First the Home The Institute of John XXIII facilitates housing for Nicaraguan families of scarce resources, working within their economic capacities. There have been 3,723 homes built in 31 municipalities, benefiting 20,000 people. First the Home offers four services: home construction, remodeling, technical assistance, and legal advice. The program has focused the last few years in the Matagalpa department, in the municipalities of Sebaco, San Isidro and Dario. In Managua, the focus has been on the Sandino municipalities, Tipitapa, Ticuantepe and Villa El Carmen. Health Coverage The Institute of John XXIII also advocates for the promotion of health with the COMSALUD program, providing beneficiaries with access to integral health services. Their principal goals are the supply of medicine, medical attention, professional update of medical personnel and the capacitation to the dispensaries of Social Drug Sales. The program annually serves 300,000 centers of Social Drug Sales and provided 80,000 medical consultations in 55 municipalities in 15 departments and in the RAAN region. Their implementation is possible thanks to the work associated with the Health Network, integrated through 103 centers, among them Parish dispensaries, religious communities, non-profit organizations, and the collaboration of MINSA.
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Housing Deficit in Nicaragua: No End in Sight

The following article originally appeared in El Nuevo Diario, and was translated from Spanish to English by Yancy Rivera.

The housing deficit in Nicaragua has no end. Currently, there is a shortage of 957,000 houses and each year the demand increases by 20,000 units, of which the private and public sector only cover 50%, according to the Chamber of Developers.

Between the private and public sector there are only 10,000 units constructed a year, which is insufficient to meet the demand, announced the president of Cadur, Ricardo Melendez.

The 20,000 homes that correspond with the annual aggregate demand are the result of the formation of new family nucleus’.

We are not yet at the level that we should be constructing annually, that is to say, what the country needs and we are not taking into consideration the deficit which is still untouchable, Melendez mentioned.

Last year, Cadur, through some of their partners, were barely able to place 3,500 homes. For this year– Melendez added– they project to sell 500 more houses, 4,000 total.

For 2005 there was a calculated lag of about 400,000 homes. Starting in 2010 the deficit surpassed half a million houses, and kept increasing until it reached the current levels.

The Response

To satisfy this demand there needs to be 647,805 new houses, according to data from the sector.

Additionally, there is an urgent need to improve 309,176 homes that are in poor condition, Melendez emphasized.

To attack the problem, between 2007 and 2011 38,347 homes were constructed. Of these, 19,526 were built by the government, 11,215 by towns, and 7,606 by the private sector, according to data from the Institute of Urban Living.

Until 2016, there are 77,854 residencies projected to be constructed by the public and private sector.

US$45 million dollars of the funds that the Nicaraguan Institute of Social Security injected in the Finance System to give mortgages created a positive effect to dynamize the sector, however they have run dry.

The capital served to to cover a ceiling of 4,800 houses of social interest.

“The positive effect of dynamizing the sector has been done, we’re with funds from the banks, but if you realize the trend of placing houses has not changed, the projects are still being sold”, Melendez stated.

Reform

Due to this, the developers are not attending the constructions of social interest, and have been in talks with the government for months looking for an alternative to the problem.

Cadur is asking for a reform to Special Act 677, for the development of housing and the access to social housing, approved in 2009, that jump started the construction and sale of social homes.

The law provides a series of fiscal benefits to homes valued at US$20,000 or less. The developers are asking that the ceiling be raised to US$30,000.

70% of the houses that are being offered through the projects have costs less than US$50,000, at the moment.

“Even if we raise the prices of houses, we can increase construction, so that the subsidies will go to more sectors of the population, not limited to social housing. The subsidy would go to families that earn US$600, US$700, not just US$500”, Melendez mentioned.

Financing

Just in 2013 the local financial system allocated US$420 million in mortgage credits, which meant a 15% increase with respect to 2012, signaled Alberto Atha, director of the Chamber of Developers in Nicaragua, Cadur.

For 2014, according to Atha, they expect the mortgage credit to grow 17%.

“We need to construct 7,000 houses a year or 10,000 just in the private sector and we’re barely reaching 4,000.”

-Ricardo Meléndez, President of Cadur

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The Return of the Nicaraguan Revolution

Yesterday we posted an article discussing 5 myths still perpetuated in the media’s myopic coverage of the Nicaraguan Revolution. Here we share David Wilson’s article from Truth Out from earlier this week, that raises many of the same themes, but through the lens of his personal experience as a volunteer with TecNica in 1985 and 1987. A fascinating account that reinforces the need for far more nuance in presenting the Nicaraguan Revolution, the experiences of the people in Nicaragua, and the motivations of solidarity activists.
Nicaragua’s 1979 revolution is back in the news, at least in New York City. On September 23 The New York Times ran a front-page article on the decades-old Nicaragua solidarity activism of Bill de Blasio, now the frontrunner in New York’s November 5 mayoral election. Some two dozen other articles quickly appeared in the local and national press, most of them recycling old perspectives on the thousands of us who, like de Blasio, traveled to Nicaragua in the 1980s to demonstrate our opposition to the Reagan and Bush administrations’ efforts to overthrow that country’s government. Journalists on the right naturally tended to repeat Cold War charges against the solidarity activists: We ignored atrocities allegedly committed by the leftist comandantes of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN); deluded by ideology and our government minders, we failed to hear the “whispered anguish” of Nicaraguans in the streets and the market places. Other writers were more balanced in their articles, but no less patronizing. We were “young,” they insisted; “fresh-faced,” “idealistic” and “more than a touch naïve.” The media consensus was clear: We were credulous communist dupes or else, at best, credulous but idealistic hippies. “Sandalista” was a favorite media putdown back in the 1980s. Young Idealists, Aging Cynics The Nicaraguan reality was far more complex and interesting than the picture the US press presented then and continues to present now. I visited Nicaragua in 1985 and 1987, both times as a volunteer with TecNica, a California-based organization that sponsored tours by North Americans who could provide technical assistance and training in fields like computer programming and machine repair. Some of the volunteers did seem to be young idealists, but at least half of us had reached middle age and many were veterans of the sectarian infighting that accompanied the decay of the 1960s student movement. “Disillusioned” or even “cynical” would describe us better than “naïve.” We were regularly on the lookout for party apparatchiks and Stalinist distortions. It wasn’t hard to find problems: We were free to go where we wanted and to talk to anyone who wanted to talk, as long as we stayed away from army installations and the zones where the US-sponsored “contra” insurgents were carrying out military operations.
Read the rest of the article at Truth Out
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5 Ongoing Media Myths about Nicaragua and Reagan

Over the last few weeks the revolution in Nicaragua has been back in the news as a backdrop to the mayoral race in New York City. The New York Times initiated the new found interest in the revolution in an article about Bill de Blasio’s activism during the late 1980s in solidarity with the people of Nicaragua, and in opposition to the Reagan administration’s efforts to cripple the Sandinista government through financing the Contras and other means. Because the story has been more about defining de Blasio’s political leanings rather than a retelling of events from the 1980s, the history that seeps into these articles has been incomplete, often false, and consistently misleading. Here are five things the media continue to get wrong The FSLN and the revolution are one and the same The most common mistake in my mind is to conflate the revolutionary process in Nicaragua and the Frente Sandinista (Sandinista Front for National Liberation, or Sandinista Party) as one and the same. Clearly the Frente was crucially important to the successful insurrection against Somoza (1977-79). The Frente would also become the dominant force in the interim government prior to winning elections in 1984, and then remained in power until losing elections in 1990. Given this, the Frente and its leadership, like Daniel Ortega, and Thomas Borge, understandably became the face of the revolution to many in the U.S. However, the agencies underlying the transformation of Nicaraguan society during the 1980s were much greater than the Frente. There is a vast scholarship on the popular organizations (OPs) that made up the revolution. The OPs were the principal vehicles for democracy, many of which, like the ecclesiastical base communities of the popular church, and the rural workers union, existed prior to the insurrection that began in 1977 and were always independent of the Frente. The OPs made the revolution – not just the Frente – and while many shared the Sandinista name and varying degrees of party affiliation, they were never simply tools of the party. Indeed, one of the important stories of the 1980s is the increasing independence that many of the popular organizations sought from the Frente’s leadership – a process that was structurally determined in many ways, and not surprising. As the country adopted more traditional liberal democratic institutions, the Frente also became more traditionally an electoral vehicle and institutionalized party. This created conflict between the party leadership and the base, which found itself increasingly marginalized (more on this below). The irony to me is that the more the Frente adopted western style democratic practices, the less democratic the country actually became. This sort of flips the right wing narrative on its head, but certainly worth considering if one aspires to a democracy that is more deeply rooted in society than four or five-year election cycles. There is a context for this process of institutionalization, chiefly the Contra War, that needs to be understood, but the important point is that the FLSN was ONE agent of the revolution, and while in many ways dominant, maybe not the most effective one. What people from around the world were acting in solidarity with was the popular revolution – they were not simply, or even mostly, defending the FSLN. Nicaragua was governed by a Marxist totalitarian regime during the 1980s So even if solidarity was not principally about defending the FSLN, it is important to point out that continuing to paint the government under the FSLN – a government that oversaw elections, established a liberal democratic constitutional order, and transferred power peacefully – as totalitarian is just transparently stupid. They made mistakes, and like any government anywhere, especially during war time, tread on civil liberties. But never was the FSLN “totalitarian” by any meaningful sense of the word. (Of course, people in the U.S. often speak of tax increases or new EPA emission standards as totalitarian actions,..) When Somoza fled the country in July of 1979, governance was initially in the hands of the Governing Junta for National Reconstruction (JGRN). The original JGRN was composed of 5 members, three of whom were Sandinistas: Moises Hassan and Daniel Ortega, FLSN militants, and Sergio Ramirez, a member of the Group of Twelve – which was a Frente organized group of establishment leaders who stood in opposition to Somoza. The non-Sandinista members were business leaders Violeta Chamorro and Alfonso Robelo. The JGRN ruled by decree until May of 1980 when the Council of State was formed to act as a legislative body. Membership in the Council was composed of organizational, not party, leaders drawn from the various groups that opposed the Somoza government and had taken part in the insurrection. The Sandinista members of the JGRN would add seats for Frente affiliated OPs assuring a majority for the revolutionary process; a move the led Chamorro and Robelo to resign in June of 1980. Early on the Sandinista leadership clearly maneuvered to secure a leadership role in the new society being constructed. But they did not then lead the country down a path of totalitarian rule. Indeed, it was quite the opposite. The JGRN and Council of State organized elections in 1984 for a presidency and National Assembly. The newly elected institutions then organized a series of popular consultations in order to draft a constitution. That constitution drew from many sources, but was modeled principally on Costa Rica’s through the establishment of a fourth branch of government, a Supreme Electoral Council. The constitution went into effect in 1987. The Electoral Council would oversee the 1990 elections – which the Sandinista’s lost and then peacefully transferred power to a coalition financed by the U.S. government and led by Violeta Chamorro, former member of the JGRN. These are hardly the actions of a totalitarian regime. But what of the economy? The reality is that Nicaragua throughout the 1980s was a mixed economy in which the majority of productive resources remained in private hands, operating within a tightly regulated market. The much discussed property seizures that took place have mostly been mischaracterized. Initial expropriations, perhaps more accurately nationalizations, were of the property and businesses of the Somoza family and members of that regime, most of whom fled the country in 1979. Further expropriations took place in the context of the Contra War chiefly the taking of idle lands or unproductive lands held by opponents of the revolution, many, but not all, of whom had left the country. These policies were clearly controversial, set the Frente at odds with many in the business community, and were in cases abusive. They never rose to the level of Marxist totalitarianism, whatever that even means. Further these policies must be considered within the context of the Contra War, which thanks to the Reagan administration, the people of Nicaragua were forced to fight from 1981 to 1990. The context of the Contra War is irrelevant to discussing alleged violations of civil liberties Whenever U.S. pundits seek to defame the revolution in Nicaragua, the Frente in particular, and the people in the U.S. that worked in solidarity with them, they will rattle off a list of abuses of civil liberties. The big alleged violations include: forced resettlement of indigenous communities on the Atlantic Coast (true), property seizures (exaggerated), limitations on press freedom and political organizing (exaggerated), occasionally one hears accusations of torture, and when going for the kitchen sink, right-wing pundits in particular, will slip in anti-semitism and vague Nazi references (B.S.). The New York Daily News, the New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal have each published articles recently that collectively include the kitchen sink level of criticism about the Sandinista’s civil liberties record during the 1980s. The whole point of these diatribes is to discredit de Blasio, and so it is not surprising that none of them mentions the Contra War and are largely devoid of nuance. The first point to make is that the comparisons of the Sandinista’s Ministry of the Interior with the East German Stasi, or a Nazi totalitarian, anti-semitic state, is ridiculous. Accusations involving widespread political assassinations, mass incarcerations, and torture are unfounded. Were some political opponents arrested? Yes. Might some have been tortured? Very possible. Were regime opponents killed? Almost certainly – though in all the discussions recently only one name, business leader Jorge Salazar, has been raised as a “political assassination” and the circumstances surrounding his death are far from clear. Were such violations committed on a consistent, mass based, level of state terror consummate with what was happening in El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras? Not even close, and no one, even the Frente’s harshest critics, have ever been able to say that. More than anything, it is important to point out that Nicaragua was at war. And it was a war forced upon the country by the United States. Within the context of a war, in which domestic political opponents were involved in funding an armed resistance, it is hardly surprising that the Frente arrested people (who broke the law), limited some forms of political expression (when people used political fronts to finance armed rebellion), and intervened in the media from time to time. And yet within this context, the Frente’s record is actually pretty impressive.
  • Consider that the principal opposition candidate in the 1984 election was a Contra leader, who withdrew from the race, at the insistence of U.S. handlers, at the last minute when his loss was certain, but who was otherwise free to run.
  • The principal opposition candidate in 1990, who won, was the publisher of La Prensa, an opposition newspaper, and thus one can hardly say the press was “muzzled” as O’Grady claimed in the WSJ.
  • The 1987 Constitution formally banned the use of the death penalty, and established a maximum prison sentence.
Perhaps the biggest mistake made by the Frente was the forced resettlement of indigenous communities on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast. Governments going back years had sought to integrate, and exploit the natural resources of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast. The JGRN did as well. And it was a mistake, one I’m not interested in defending. But it should be pointed out that the Frente was criticized widely for this, within and without Nicaragua, and that they backed off. The sign of a government sensitive to public pressure – not one committed to silencing it. It is also worth noting that in the 1987 constitution, the Atlantic Coast was given autonomous status, guaranteeing (in theory) indigenous control over distribution and access to resources. In fact, neo-liberal governments have done far more damage to the lives and livelihoods of the people of the Atlantic Coast since 1990 by side-stepping autonomy provisions than ever happened under the Frente in the 1980s. Within the context of war then, violations of human rights did occur, but on a scale many times smaller than what was happening in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Argentina (until 1983), Chile (until 1989) – all U.S. allies who were suppressing domestic opposition, not confronting a foreign intervention as was the case in Nicaragua. He said/they said So why was the Reagan administration hell bent on destroying the revolution in Nicaragua? The argument was essentially that Nicaragua would become a foothold for Soviet expansion in Central America. If the revolution was allowed to succeed in Nicaragua, it would spread to El Salvador, and Guatemala, and from there even Mexico. It was an argument that neglected some important facts – there is little evidence of direct Soviet involvement in Nicaragua until the mid-1980s, for example, and then it was limited to military support at the height of the contra war. And it completely dismisses the domestic roots of the revolution in Nicaragua (as well as the insurrections in El Salvador and Guatemala, all against brutal, U.S. backed regimes). [Indeed, since the 1850s the biggest obstacle to democracy in Central America had been, and in some sense remains, the United States. But then, one would hardly expect Reagan to make that case.] Whatever the motivations, the historical record is very clear on what was done, and it was bad: the Reagan administration funded and directly engaged in terrorism, and broke numerous international and U.S. laws in its effort to cripple the Sandinista revolution. A few uncontested low-lights based on numerous investigations, official documents and the testimony of Reagan’s own minions before Congress:
  • The CIA worked with the Argentine military of “Dirty War” fame, and former Somocista’s to train the Contras, who began operations in 1981, crossing the border from Honduras into Nicaragua assassinating civilian political leaders, murdering doctors and educators, and blowing up infrastructure.
  • The CIA blew up a Nicaraguan port at Corinto, a civilian target, for the sole purpose of creating economic hardship for Nicaraguans as part of the broader campaign to undermine Sandinista legitimacy.
  • The CIA placed mines in Nicaragua’s harbors putting civilian shipping at risk.
  • When Congress found out about these activities and suspended appropriations for the purpose of “overthrowing the Nicaraguan government,” the National Security Council over saw a secret operation, selling weapons to Iran in violation of U.S. law and then diverting the proceeds to fund Contra operations.
  • The State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy was directed by the NSC during the 1980s and worked to plant false stories and misinformation in the U.S. media about Nicaragua in order to discredit the Sandinista government and generate support for Contra aid.
  • The NSC oversaw the creation of slush funds used to discredit Contra aid opponents in Congressional elections.
  • The Reagan administration ignored World Court rulings citing numerous breaches of international law and a finding to pay reparations to the government of Nicaragua.
Along the way the Reagan administration invaded Grenada to topple a government – in violation of international law. It undermined democratic institutions in Honduras to keep it a safe haven for U.S. bases and Contra operations. Reagan supported the military of El Salvador’s brutal counter-insurgency campaign that left 70,000 people dead, and found ways to keep funding the Guatemalan military’s genocidal campaign against first nations. Reagan thought Rios-Montt was a great guy, given a bad rap by human rights campaigners. Montt was recently convicted of genocide. One is hard pressed to find these details in any recent story about Nicaragua. And yet, the primary motivation for solidarity activists in the 1980s was stopping these policies. If you are going to evaluate one’s political motivations, and base your “analysis” on events in Nicaragua in 1980s, how do you not address the vast record of crimes committed by the U.S. government? Most of these crimes were known in the 1980s, but after 25 years of research and archival work, it is all confirmed. Activists may have been well meaning, but were naïve. While most of the de Blasio/Nicaragua coverage has tried to paint de Blasio as a radical by association, there have been a few articles attempting to defend de Blasio and the peace movement, but sadly, as naïve folks whose good intentions blinded them to some of the Sandinistas’ “authoritarian impulses.” My own experience in Nicaragua dates back only to 1995. But in the course of nearly 20 years of doing work in Central America I have met, worked with, and interviewed dozens of people who were active in the Nicaragua solidarity movement. I have met very few people who struck me as the least bit naïve about the FSLN, the revolution, or U.S. politics. Quite the opposite, some of these folks are actually among the most astute political analysts I know. To repeat a point I started with, people were engaged in solidarity with a popular revolution, and in that role, were trying to press the U.S. government to stop funding terrorism against said popular revolution. The vast majority of the organizations doing this work were very clear that they were not simply defending the FSLN. Some of the biggest groups organized in solidarity with Nicaragua like Witness for Peace, Quixote Center, Pledge of Resistance, were formally unaligned viz Nicaragua’s domestic politics, making clear that their work was to change U.S. policy. Many who worked in solidarity were clearly sympathetic to the FSLN – but folks were generally not there, or doing work here, simply for the Frente. The revolution was bigger than that, and so were the motivations to defend it against U.S. aggression. Lest this sounds defensive though, we need to ask, so what if folks were defending the FSLN? The ubiquitous use of the phrase “authoritarian tendencies” always goes unspecified, and let’s be real: What government does not have authoritarian tendencies? This is why we have constitutions, and why they are constantly tested. One could simply google the NSA for recent articles to get a sense of this, no? The FSLN along with other agents of the revolution took over the government from a U.S. backed dictator whose rule was rooted in terror and systematic abuse of power. They created a liberal democratic, constitutional order, that for a time was far more progressive than anything most U.S. Americans have experienced. They did all of this while fighting off aggression from the most powerful country on the globe. There is no reason to apologize for solidarity in this context.
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Quixote Center: Hewing Marxist Agendas and Forging Mayors Since 1976

[Original post, September 24, 2013, Updated September 26, 2013 – see below]   Okay. Not really. However, Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate for mayor of New York City, did work at the Quixote Center in 1987-88. I’ve never met him (I did not start at the Center until 2001) but it is certainly interesting to see an alum from a place I cherish making headlines. Of course, the Quixote Center is not the same place it was in 1988, and de Blasio is not the same person – we all grow and change. Does this matter for New York City in 2013? The New York Times decided it was important, and well, that is certainly okay with us. Yesterday the New York Timesreleased an article on Bill de Blasio’s early days as a “leftist” activist working in solidarity with the people of Nicaragua. It was fascinating to read. Javier Hernandez presents his case that
a review of hundreds of pages of records and more than two dozen interviews suggest [de Blasio’s] time as a young activist was more influential in shaping his ideology than previously known, and far more political than typical humanitarian work.
So, de Blasio encountered “democratic socialism” as a young man and apparently inhaled. O.M.G. This may be true, of course. Having worked in the solidarity movement for over twenty years now, I can say that everybody I’ve met who travelled to Nicaragua during the 1980s was impacted deeply by the experience. If this was an op-ed presenting this claim, I’d have little to disagree with. But this was a “news” piece, based on “hundreds of pages” of reading, and yet, sadly flawed for all the space it gives to innuendo and unidentified source material. Alex Pareene at Salon.com covers much if the silliness in an insightful articlehe posted yesterday. There is no need for me to repeat all of that here. But there is a clarification to be made about the Quixote Center’s history presented in the piece. In addition to “hewing Marxist agendas” (according to unnamed critics) the Quixote Center was also investigated for smuggling guns. Gasp!! Only, not true. [see Update] The Quixote Center delivered humanitarian aid to Nicaragua, as the article notes. However the full story is that the campaign de Blasio worked on was one of many of the Center’s. It was called the Quest for Peace, and it had a specific aim: to match or exceed the amount of money the Reagan administration spent trying to topple the Sandinista government with an equivalent amount of donated humanitarian supplies and volunteer labor used to help keep people alive, while also working in Congress to stop the policy. In 1985 the United States declared an embargo against the government of Nicaragua; the Quixote Center’s shipments were in possible violation of the embargo. We did it anyway. The importance of this history leads to me to the point of misinformation in the article. Hernandez writes:
In the mid-1980s, the Treasury Department investigated whether the center had helped smuggle guns, but the claim was never substantiated, and the group’s leaders said the inquiry was politically motivated.
There is not a source for this claim, and for the people who were at the Quixote Center during the mid-1980s, the NY Times article yesterday was the first they had heard about an investigation into “gun-smuggling.” Because the Center was shipping humanitarian aid in possible violation of the embargo, we were investigated. Federal agents knocked on the door one day, asking for our records, including donor lists and financial information. We did not provide the information. The investigation was called off after we contacted members of Congress in Maryland, and also consulted with the Center for Constitutional Rights. The Quixote Center shipped hundreds of cargo containers of aid, and never had a single shipment seized by customs. The “investigation” was a harassment, but we were lucky. At least they knocked. Other solidarity groups had their offices broken into, files and hard drives taken by Federal agents in the 1980s. CISPES was a particularly popular target of these 1980s COINTELPRO-style operations. In any event, within the grand narrative being woven in the article, this seems a small point – though I doubt de Blasio appreciates the Times suggesting he worked at a place once investigated for gun running. Perhaps someone Hernandez interviewed suggested that the investigation involved an accusation of gun smuggling and he ran with it. Maybe he has a document from Treasury that indicates there was such an investigation (I’d love to see it if that is the case) and the Quixote Center staff was simply never aware. It is hard to know since he makes no reference to any source. I know he did not talk to any of the “leaders” of the organization about a gun smuggling investigation. Certainly it is fascinating to see how people become politicized. These stories, when truthfully told can even be inspiring. The Times, however, went for the partisan snipe, whereby someone’s youthful idealism is selectively tested and reinterpreted through the lens of an election twenty-five years removed from the events being discussed. Lhota is already trying to capitalize on the article, claiming that de Blasio is playing with a “Marxist playbook.” Really? On the upside, we had a lot more traffic on our website yesterday, and I guess we can thank the New York Times for that. However, we would encourage the editorial staff to be a bit more careful with the details. UPDATE: September 26, 2013 After posting the original article, I decided to do a bit more digging. I wasn’t really sure why this one vignette was chosen among all of the stories about the Quixote Center that could have been told, good or bad, but it was hard to believe it was just made up. Yesterday, I received copies of files related to the Custom’s inquiry from the Quixote Center archive which resides at Marquette University and reviewed them. It would seem that Hernandez’s characterization of an investigation about gun smuggling is not really wrong – but is, absent context, a bit misleading. Here we go: On December 12 two Customs agents delivered a subpoena to the Quixote Center (with the wrong address and back dated). The subpoena required the Quixote Center to turn over all records relating to cargo containers shipped to Nicaragua or Costa Rica since the U.S. embargo had been put into place the previous May. The subpoena makes no reference to guns and does not specify any violation of any kind. One of the Customs agents did inform a staff member that they were looking for “munitions.” Counsel felt like this was a fishing expedition, using the Custom Agency’s authority to review all documents related to exported items from the United States – and seemed politically motivated. There was never any formal accusation from the Treasury Department or from Customs I could find that the Quixote Center was shipping weapons, just a comment from the one agent among many other things said. The Center was never even searched. All of the shipping documents were turned over to the Customs office in Baltimore (the Center staff refused to hand over information on donors and other non-shipping information requested by the agents, but not included in the subpoena). By February of 1987 the inquiry was closed, Customs found that shipments complied with the humanitarian exemptions in the embargo legislation. The Treasury Department would make additional requests for documents for transport of “unlicensed” items later in 1987, again simply requesting shipping documents. Counsel referred them to the Customs investigator for the relevant documents. What about the guns??? In a February 1, 1987 Quest for Peace newsletter, Quixote Center staff did highlight the agent’s comment about looking for munitions:
On December 12, 1986 two customs agents, outdated subpoena in hand, knocked on the Quixote Center door. Saying that they were looking for arms, they demanded all shipping records, correspondence, financial records, transportation records and personnel files pertaining to the Quest for Peace. They wanted to move quickly and “wrap things up by Christmas. We received the subpoena and turned them away.
The Quest newsletter was an “emergency appeal” and was encouraging people to step up the collections efforts; to expand the work, rather than be intimidated. There was also a concern that the document request was a step toward shutting humanitarian shipments down by reading the exemptions in the legislation in the most restrictive way. For example, Oxfam and Catholic Relief Services had recently been hassled by Customs and with shipments of agricultural supplies to Nicaragua blocked. The Quixote Center had even had a shipment containing pencils questioned in Costa Rica customs because pencils did not qualify as humanitarian aid. The shipment made it through. It is worth reporting here that the Quixote Center and other groups participating in the Quest for Peace National Tally surpassed $100 million in humanitarian assistance collected and delivered between July 1986 and September 1987. Back to guns: In a follow up newsletter from June 1987, Quixote Staff also discussed the Custom “hassle” in a bit more of a mocking tone, now that it was over:
The Customs Service, after barreling in just before Christmas looking for “gun shipments to Nicaragua” closed its review of our humanitarian shipments in February, finding no fault.
So, it seems that the gun smuggling characterization came from the agent’s comment, and staff reference to that comment, snarky or otherwise, in newsletters. Probably, the real goal was simply to get access to as many files as possible, and as Custom’s authority to review would be limited to transportation documents, the agents talked about munitions in to get more information than what was contained in the subpoena. Once the Center for Constitutional Rights and a member of Congress inquired the matter was dropped. Was the Quixote Center investigated for smuggling guns? It is certainly one way to characterize what happened. And if you are summarizing in a sentence I can’t really say it is wrong. So, my apologies to Javier Hernandez for suggesting otherwise. However, I do wonder why of all the things that could have been mentioned about the Center ($100 million in humanitarian aid collected and delivered in one year is a pretty good tidbit as well) this was the item chosen. Indeed, it was so marginal in the Center’s history that, as noted above, none of the co-directors from back in the day that I talked to even remembered the agent talking about guns.  
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February Delegation: Community Development in Northern Nicaragua

**Update** Due to the snow storm that has crippled the Southeastern United States (especially the airports), the delegation has been postponed, new dates TBD. This is an unfortunate turn of events, and we hope to complete the trip as soon as possible. More to come.

February 16-23, 2014

You are invited to join the Quixote Center as we visit communities in Northern Nicaragua with the Federation of Campesinos (FEDICAMP). We will also stop by Chaguatillo and visit a new housing initiative we are doing with the Institute of John XXIII.

The price for the delegation is $950 dollars, and includes all transportation, meals, translation, and housing while in Nicaragua. You are responsible for your own travel to Nicaragua. Below are more details. Contact Andrew Hochhalter for more information and to get your application [andrew@quixote.org or 301-699-0042]. Download and complete application here.

Community Development in Nicaragua

The mountainous northern region of Nicaragua is home to many small agricultural communities. The effects of global

The delegation will focus primarily on the northern regions of Esteli, Jinotega, and Madriz.

climate change are altering the landscapes and lifestyles of these communities. The intensity and pace of these effects is projected to increase in the coming years. The towns and villages of the North are also at the forefront of the country’s increasing global and trade liberalization brought about by CAFTA and increased foreign corporate investment.

Witness first hand how rural communities in Northern Nicaragua are organizing to preserve their ecological integrity, food security, and community strength in this dynamic environment. Delegates will have the opportunity to meet with Quixote Center partners at the Federation of Campesinos (FEDICAMP), an organization with local affiliates in eighteen rural communities across Nicaragua. The itinerary for this delegation (subject to change) includes:

  • Community visits with local leaders in 3 member associations of FEDICAMP, including an in-depth look at the methods employed by FEDICAMP.

  • Education sessions with local experts on agricultural methods and challenges, food security, and family nutrition.

  • Meetings with beneficiary families, including demonstrations, presentations, and home-cooked meals!

This trip will be an excellent way to quickly become familiar with the issues ‘on the ground’ in Nicaragua as well as with the larger solidarity network here in the United States.

After the delegation, participants will be equipped to educate and inform their networks and community groups about the conditions in Nicaragua, the challenges facing the local population, and the work of our partners at FEDICAMP to empower Nicaraguans to overcome those challenges.

The trip will give delegates the tools they need to be reliable witnesses to the situation in Nicaragua, and to advocate in solidarity at home. We hope that knowledge from the trip will be turned into action at home, and Quixote Center staff will be available to assist delegates who wish to organize their friends, community associations, and faith institutions for social justice in Nicaragua.

Please contact Andrew Hochhalter (andrew@quixote.org or 301-699-0042) for more information and to complete the application to reserve a space.
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August Cookout and Visit with Edwin Novoa

On Saturday August 14 we had a party to celebrate a visit from Edwin Novoa, Director of our long time partner organization, the Institute of John XXIII in Managua, Nicaragua. It was great to see some familiar faces and meet new Quixoteites who share a belief in impossible dreams. Check out some photos here: [flickrpress type=”sets” api_key=”6a30dc63ba6038304d2b6204787efc6c” account=”73817897@N00″ count=”7″ view=”squares” sets=”August Visit” lightbox=”true”]   In addition to good food and good people, it was also an opportunity to learn more about the ‘Homes of Hope’ the Quixote Center donors have supported in Nicaragua for over a decade. Quixote Center donors support the Institute’s efforts to alleviate the severe housing shortage in Nicaragua. Those efforts, which began as emergency home-building in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, have evolved into the Affordable Housing Alliance. The program is both simple and comprehensive:
  • Quixote Center donors fund the construction of sound and dignified homes for the ‘working poor’ in Nicaragua each year.
  • Beneficiary families help with construction and make affordable repayments for the cost of materials over eight to ten years
  • These repayments go directly into a revolving fund which is used to supplement donor dollars in future years
  • In the coming years the revolving fund will become sufficient to finance all new construction
You can find more information here, and donate to the Housing Alliance here.
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Two Weeks in Nicaragua: FEDICAMP

On Monday morning I woke up around five to catch the earliest bus from Leon to Esteli. The ride takes approximately two hours on one of the smaller InterLocal buses, and I was fortunate enough to catch one with a mid day arrival. My bus arrived at the terminal around 12:30. I texted Miguel Marin from FEDICAMP, and he came to pick me up about fifteen minutes later in his compact pickup. In the back was Felix, one of the community organizers/trainers/agronomists working with the communities affiliated with FEDICAMP.

The old and the new in Nicaragua: historic churches and cell phone towers dominate the skyline.

Esteli is in the northern mountains, and the elevation means a slight reprieve from the lowland heat. The final weeks of April and the first weeks of May are the most unpleasant time of the year in Nicaragua (at least in many minds). The dry season, although coming to a close, still has not broken, and the heat is generally unbearable in the flat southern region of the country. During this time of the year, the few degrees of difference in Esteli is almost a miracle for a tired foreigner used to idyllic Maryland Aprils. The city proper is constructed on a hill that rises from the highway and runs parallel to it. The central street is built across the spine of this hill, with residential neighborhoods sprawling out to the east to fill the next valley. FEDICAMP’s office is located near the center of the city in a small building with five small offices, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a courtyard filled with plant life. During the heat of the day, the trees in the courtyard give some shade, and there is a slight breeze from time to time. The entryway is home to a few of the FEDICAMP dirtbikes that the staff use to go from community to community, often over rugged terrain. The coffee pot is always brewing, and I grabbed a cup while we chatted and I shook off the bus ride. Palacagüina Since I arrived early, Miguel suggested that we visit the community of Palacaguina in the afternoon. During the past year the Quixote Center has had a growing relationship with the community of Palacaguina. Baseball is an important part of life in Palacaguina, and working with the children is an opportunity to engage them in other aspects of the human development projects from a young age. I spoke to the coach and learned about the team’s recent successes in various tournaments all around the country. The team even traveled to the Atlantic Coast, and for the players the journey was nearly as exciting as the tournament itself. He also told me that the team is a way for the community to come together: as parents with children playing together and as a town rooting for the home team. In the middle of April, our donors responded to an urgent request for support when a young boy, Jose, needed emergency surgery for a detached retina. Because of the fast response, his eyesight was saved. I visited with Jose and his mother briefly, and they both send their thanks to the Quixote Center network. The community association of Palacaguina has been involved in FEDICAMP since the federation began. Much of their work, like many FEDICAMP communities, sprung from the foundations laid by John XXIII a decade ago. In Palacaguina, the community pharmacy that Quixote Center donors help start still provides essential medicine at a discounted cost to those who need it. The women who lead the association received their training in organizing directly from John XXIII. Everywhere in the community are traces of that groundbreaking human development work undertaken by the Quixote Center and John XXIII. It was amazing to learn about the transformation that the Institute’s emphasis on capacity building has enabled.

The renovated building now serves as a gathering place for the community.

The women who run the community association in Palacagüina have big plans for the future. They have renovated their building to house cultural tourists, begun building a stage for presentations, and forged partnerships with other local associations. Their works are of steady persistence, and the fruits of their labor are enjoyed by the entire community.   Water in Pueblo Nuevo The following day, we visited a community in Pueblo Nuevo. Miguel and I left together from Estelí and met with Harold, FEDICAMP’s lead agronomist/organizer at the turn-off for Pueblo Nuevo. After a short trip over some bumpy roads, we came to a farm where several community members had gathered for our meeting. The community members were all representatives of the local water committee, tasked by FEDICAMP with organizing for solutions to the water problems that plague the area. As the population has grown, more latrines are dug, and this higher concentration has contaminated many of the water sources. Wells built by various charity groups are now useless, and the people must sometimes choose between purchasing expensive water or taking a chance on the local sources. In the case of a subsistence farmer, there isn’t really a choice there.

Water Committee members discuss the possibilities for this still-potable water source.

We spent the day with the water committee. They explained the contamination problem, as well as issues they face in distributing water, paying for electricity to run some of the pumps, and the general inertia of local government in providing a workable solution. As with John XXIII, FEDICAMP increases the capacity of individuals and communities to solve their own problems. The water committee (established and trained by FEDICAMP) has been operational for over three years now. Because of this accrued capacity, they have a plan:

The committee wants to purchase and install a solar panel to power one of the remaining good wells. This will eliminate the (very high rural) electricity fees that they must currently pay. They also want to purchase and install a large cistern on one of the highest points in the community. This cistern will then feed water, using only gravity, to the surrounding community.

The plan is simple. It makes sense. It would eliminate the hardship of having to choose between manually pumping and porting water or taking a risk with groundwater nearby. This is a choice that nobody should have to make. In the coming weeks we will send details on how you can help Pueblo Nuevo realize their goal of a clean and sustainable water source for their community. These are only two of the eighteen communities of FEDICAMP. They are small examples of the diverse human development work being undertaken by Miguel and the others leading the federation. As always, we rely on your generosity and solidarity in making this work possible. Support our work of peace and friendship in Nicaragua.
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Contact Us

  • Quixote Center
    7307 Baltimore Ave.
    Ste 214
    College Park, MD 20740
  • Office: 301-699-0042
    Email: info@quixote.org

Direction to office:

For driving: From Baltimore Ave (Route 1) towards University of Maryland, turn right onto Hartwick Rd. Turn immediate right in the office complex.

Look for building 7307. We are located on the 2nd floor.

For public transportation: We are located near the College Park metro station (green line)