Nicaragua

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After attending a conference on the construction of the Interoceanic Canal while studying abroad in Nicaragua, Abby Pew decided to take a semester off to help the indigenous population that would be affected in that area. 

Pew, who was a Latin American studies and anthropology sophomore when she left the University, said supervisors have threatened to remove the indigenous population, or Rama, from the land in order to make way for the entrance to the canal. Pew is currently in Bluefields, Nicaragua, working with community leaders to protest, fundraise and organize against the Nicaraguan government. 

The Rama people have populated the Atlantic coastline of Nicaragua for thousands of years and lived off the land by fishing, hunting and farming for their food. Pew said their environment is vital to their way of life.

“The coastal area should be its own nation, and the [Rama] are literally being colonized,” Pew said. 

Pew has been working with the community leader of the Rama to seek legal assistance in fighting the Nicaraguan government. She said she is also raising money to provide the community leader with travel fees for driving to national meetings in order to make the Rama’s voices heard.

In 2012, Nicaragua passed a law giving the Hong Kong Nicaragua Development group, the company in charge of the canal, legal grounds to start building. According to International Business Times, the 172-mile canal, which HKND and the Nicaraguan government unveiled in July, stretches from the mouth of the Brito River on the Pacific Ocean, through Lake Nicaragua and east to Punta Gorda on the Caribbean coast.

Pew said government officials informed residents of Bluefields that the government would be paying for the replacement of their homes. 

“They had no right to do that,” Pew said. “They had no right to make those promises as if they were helping them.” 

Pew said this legislation undermines the Nicaraguan Constitution as well as the indigenous laws of the land. Starting this October, Pew visited with the community of Bluefields to interview the residents.

“I will stay and fight to the last,” said Tyrone Presida, a resident of Bluefields. “We have been through war already, and we are still living. If we have to have to have another war, we will throw it against them.”

The Nicaraguan government hails the project as a economical success, but Pew said it would be at high “human costs.”

“People sounded like they were willing to die and go to war for their land,” Pew said. “Which is a really brave thing considering the population is so minimal.”

Dennis Rodgers challenged current perceptions of safety in Nicaragua in a talk Tuesday at Richardson Hall.

Photo Credit: Mike McGraw | Daily Texan Staff

Dennis Rodgers, urban studies professor at the University of Glasgow, challenged prominent narratives about the leftist Nicaraguan government at a talk on campus Tuesday.

Rodgers, who spoke at Richardson Hall, said politicians, mainstream media, academics and non-governmental organizations have stated Nicaragua is one of the safest countries in Latin America. He said the claim seems true when compared to other Central American countries, such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, which have some of the highest homicide rates in the Western Hemisphere.

“All I want to say is they are all wrong and to debunk this dominant perception of contemporary Nicaragua,” Rodgers said.

Rodgers said Nicaragua has become a narco-state, in which the government facilitates drug trafficking through its partnership with drug cartels. Nicaragua is an example of what Mexico and Honduras could become, according to Rodgers.

Leftist guerillas, such as the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua, sprung up in several Central American countries in the 1980s, Rodgers said. The situation in Nicaragua was different from that in Honduras and El Salvador because the Sandinistas gained mainstream political power, and, in 2006, Nicaraguans elected Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega as president.

Rodgers said the latest wave of the Sandinista movement has shifted dramatically from its original positions.

“What we might term Sandinismo 2.0 has very little comparison with the inspiring, transformative version of the 1980s,” Rodgers said.

He said the Nicaraguan government had manipulated the statistical figures on  homicide rates, as Nicaragua’s homicide rate was most likely closer to 25 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants, which the World Health Organization considers to be at epidemic levels.

According to Rodgers, drug-trafficking routes in Nicaragua increased in the early 2000s after the government improved highway infrastructure, and the government has since conspired with drug traffickers. He said government judges routinely mitigate sentences for convicted drug traffickers, and, while the weight in drugs seized by the government has declined, it could be because of government corruption rather than effective police efforts.

Mariana Morante, global policy studies and Latin American studies graduate student, said she appreciated Rodgers’ deconstruction of governmental statistics.

“Statistics present one story, but, once you’re there, you can see a whole different reality,” Morante said.

Yoalli Rodriguez, Latin American studies graduate student, researches feminist movements in Mexico. She said she attended the talk to make connections between the states of violence and government repression in Nicaragua and Mexico as well as other Central American countries. 

“A lot of the subjects talked about here, like drugs and the narco-state and violence, are not particular to Nicaragua,” Rodriguez said. “It’s something that, in Latin America, we live in our everyday lives.”

Campus Character Study

Educational administration graduate student Julie Westerman flips through albums with photos from her stay in Nicaragua from 2010-2012. Westerman has traveled and worked in six different countries around the world including UK, Thailand, Mexico and Costa Rica. 

Photo Credit: Mengwen Cao | Daily Texan Staff

Brightly colored posters, paintings and photos from around the world cover the white walls of educational administration graduate student Julie Westerman’s South Austin apartment. Her shelves are filled with trinkets, small toys, photo albums, a Sprite bottle stuffed with trash and letters from the many friends she has made during her travels. On her table is a plastic bag filled with some coffee her Nicaraguan house mother gave her to take back to the States.  

“I feel so bad I don’t have coffee and snacks for you,” Westerman repeatedly apologized. 

Her desire to have food ready for guests whenever they come over is one that she picked up during her two-year stay in Nicaragua from 2010-2012, where the hosts always go out of their way to prepare strong coffee and treats for guests. 

“People take it as a big sign of respect when you go to visit them at their house,” Westerman said. “It’s almost the opposite here, where we invite each other over, but there it’s really common to just show up at someone’s house.” 

This one trip to Nicaragua doesn’t even scratch the surface of Westerman’s work abroad. At 31 years old, she has traveled and worked in six different countries around the world.

The desire to travel began when Westerman visited her sister in London when she was 17 and then again as an undergraduate, when she interned at a homeless shelter. 

This trip inspired Westerman to visit other countries. She became certified to teach English in Mexico in 2004, but she didn’t stop there.

“I tried to come home and stay home, and I realized very quickly that I wasn’t ready for that yet,” Westerman said. “I left to go to Costa Rica with my very best childhood friend, and we volunteered on a farm, and we took one-on-one Spanish classes, and we lived with a host family. It was different than anything else that I had done until that point.” 

The Costa Rica trip in 2006 was volunteer work that left Westerman with little money to continue traveling. To save up for her next adventure abroad, Westerman did odd jobs around the Austin area. Westerman also met her husband, Matt Reid, during that time at home.

Together, Westerman and Reid have worked in Denali National Park in Alaska, Bangkok and Quilali, Nicaragua, where they were stationed for two years with the Peace Corps. The couple was there primarily to teach English but also to engage in health education projects, train farmers and build a classroom.

“I’m a really curious person, and I just can’t imagine not wanting to see as much of the world as possible,” Westerman said. 

Westerman’s older sister, Avril Westerman, described Julie as humble and said she admires her sister’s determination to go abroad despite all the challenges that come with it. 

“I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that she is extremely organized and has had to do so much work and planning to accomplish the things she has done and go all of those places,” Avril Westerman said.

Julie Westerman said that she and her husband have done everything somewhat backwards, but she doesn’t regret it. 

“Instead of saving our whole lives to go somewhere when we are retired, we got to [travel] while we are young,” Westerman said. “I wouldn’t change the way we did that.”  

Westerman is currently working with the nonprofit group Cama Fina to provide a sustainable economic solution to funding a women’s clinic in Nicaragua and is working in UT’s international department while pursuing her graduate degree in higher education administration. One of her many jobs will be to accompany a group of students on their trip to Nicaragua over the summer. 

“Her role is to help them with the trip’s cultural aspects,” said Lindsey Engelman, a program coordinator in the international office. “So, making sure communication is clear, making sure that they understand how to be culturally appropriate, and working with them on any emotions that come up.”

At least for a little while, Westerman hopes to stay in Austin and make the transition from traveling to helping other students explore the world like she has. 

“When a student is getting really excited about a trip they’re going on, or when they get back and have all these stories they want to share, that’s what makes it all worth it to me,” Westerman said. “I just want to help people have their own adventures.” 

Dale Smith admires a mirror decorated with magazine pages from Indonesia in the window of 10,000 Villages on South Congress Tuesday afternoon.

Photo Credit: Thomas Allison | Daily Texan Staff

With a one-way ticket to Nicaragua, Paul Rice left the U.S. fresh out of college with the mentality that he could change the world. Now 29 years later, he is the founder and CEO of Fair Trade USA.

Fair Trade USA is a nonprofit organization with a mission to alleviate poverty and promote sustainable development around the world through partnership with businesses and more direct trade. Rice presented an overview of the company and its goals at the Global Civil Society Speaker Series, an event hosted by assistant public affairs professor Joshua Busby of the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service.

Rice said his 11 years in Nicaragua working alongside farmers led him to discover the idea of a fair trade market.

“I worked on several projects funded by well-intentioned aid agencies,” Rice said. “Out of that experience I came to believe aid doesn't help farming communities develop their own capacity to solve their own problems.”

After adopting a fair trade philosophy in 1990, Rice organized Nicaragua's first fair trade coffee co-op. Rice founded Fair Trade USA in 1998.

“Fair trade was big in Europe, so it was my calling to come back here and plant the seed and see if I can get fair trade going in the States,” he said.

Rice said the company initiated a program last year, Fair Trade for All, which is estimated to double the impact of the company's mission by 2015.

“We want to deepen the meaning of fair trade,” Rice said. “In the past, fair trade was about transaction and the price. We want to enhance that core value proposition we offer to farmers with an array of other services and support to make sure farming communities thrive.”

In 2011, Fair Trade USA began Fair Trade Universities where students form committees to initiate the selling of fair trade products on campuses. UT-Austin is not on the map yet as a fair trade campus but should be because of the large number of students that can make a difference, Rice said.

“A school this big goes through so much coffee, tea, chocolate and other products that the impact would be huge,” he said.

Austin's fair trade market includes the South Congress Avenue shop Ten Thousand Villages, which carries handmade artisan-crafted products — a proponent for inspiring Austinites to support fair trade, said the store’s volunteer coordinator Alice May Berthelsen.

In addition to Ten Thousand Villages, Austin has several other locations that are fair trade product carriers, including the Austin-based Fortune 500 supermarket chain Whole Foods Market, which is the top retailer of Fair Trade products in the country, Rice said.

In 2009, Fair Trade USA started Fair Trade Towns USA where ordinary people in their communities began spreading the word about fair trade products to the businesses in town, he said.

There are currently 26 declared Fair Trade Towns in the country and Austin is one of the 100 cities that are in the process of becoming one, Rice said.

In order for the city to be an active Fair Trade town, Austin needs one more step, said William Goldsmith, the national coordinator for Fair Trade Towns USA.

“The final item is to pass a Fair Trade Resolution that should reflect an intention of the municipality to use and serve Fair Trade products by city government and for city functions,” Goldsmith said.