NSCAG Youth Delegation to Nicaragua 2010

REPORT

'What impressed me most was the way that the young people have been engaged in the political process and how, through the revolution, even today, they see the need and have the desire to participate.' Fazia Hussain, Unite (North East)

Executive Summary

During April 2010 eight British trade unionists, Judith Wardley, Ben Thompson and Jenny Evans from UNISON, Fazia Hussain and Mel Whitter from Unite, Jerome Saget from NASUWT and Sham Rajyaguru from GMB took part in the second NSCAG Trade Union Youth Delegation to Nicaragua. The delegation exchanged ideas and experiences, strengthening existing solidarity links and making new ones. During the visit they met with Jose Angel Bermudez (Executive Secretary of the FNT), FNT Youth Activists, Adrian Martínez (General Secretary of the Informal Sector Workers Union, CTCP), Domingo Perez (General Secretary of UNE, the Public Sector Workers Union), the Bloque Sindical, Evelyn Umane (Deputy General Secretary of FETSALUD, the health workers union), Armando Cepeda (Executive Secretary of the CST-JBE industrial sector union) as well as with civil society and mass organisations. They also participated in the May Day celebrations. These meetings provided the delegates with an overview of the labour situation, as well as the ways in which unions, government and mass organisations are working together to build a new society in Nicaragua.

Introduction

Nicaragua is the second poorest country in Latin America. Half the population lives on less that $1 a day, and for those in work, low salaries cover only a fraction of the cost of basic needs. Neoliberal reforms and the impact of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA - signed in October 2005 before the Sandinistas were re-elected), have deepened the exploitation of workers and peasant farmers by foreign capital - rolling back many of the gains made by the revolution after 1979. In the 1980s the Sandinista (FSLN) government brought huge advances in health care, education, instituted a land reform and developed the trade union movement, despite attempts by the United States to destroy the Revolution. In 1990, after a decade of US military and economic aggression and much US political interference the FSLN lost the elections. Subsequently, right wing governments imposed privatisation and public sector cuts, reversing the social gains of the Sandinista period. The trade union movement, which flourished in the 1980s, resisted these regressive economic policies, but was badly weakened by mass privatisations. The election of the FSLN government in 2006 has brought improvements in labour rights and social policies and once more given the unions a strong voice in government.

Improvements under the current Sandinista Government:

In meetings with the Nicaraguan trade unions they emphasised the improvements being made under the current government despite the global economic crisis:

  • Wages have increased and unemployment is falling. 150,000 more people have been incorporated into the social security system over the three years since the new government came to power. Under the previous neoliberal government, the salary of agricultural workers was US$45 per month; now they receive $70, as well as a food subsidy. Nurses' salaries have increased from $100 per month to $160. Teachers' salaries have increased from $80 to $160 per month. Small industry and domestic workers (maids, etc.) used to earn $70 per month. Now they earn an average of $110 per month as well as receiving a food subsidy.
  • Improvements in Education. The government has reinstated some of the benefits made by workers in the 1980s. 5,000 workers' children now have scholarships in medicine, agriculture, etc. and there are many young people studying in Cuba and Venezuela. Domestic scholarships have increased too. Just 18 months after the election of Ortega, Nicaragua was declared free of illiteracy, as has been recognized by UNESCO. To achieve this 120,000 young people were mobilized by the government and unions to volunteer for literacy programmes.

Improvements in Healthcare. Under previous governments healthcare was privatised and access to it severely restricted. The Sandinista government has made access to healthcare free for all and has expanded healthcare into remote rural areas where it had disappeared under the neoliberal governments.

Improvements in energy. The Sandinista government has ended energy shortages through agreements with Venezuela and the use of renewable energy sources, including geothermic power. Nicaragua is now is thus less dependent on oil and the economy can rely on a stable supply of energy.

Income redistribution. A tax reform has been carried out to help ensure wealth is redistributed. 150,000 families have also benefited from the 'decent roof' programme (which provides housing). The government has invested heavily in housing, some of which is built and distributed by trade unions. In the last three years the FNT has given 1,500 houses to workers and there are plans to hand over a further 3,000 houses. The Zero Usury (low interest loans) and Zero Hunger (livestock to small farmers) programmes have benefited thousands and are helping to redistribute income. 87,000 people have benefited from the Zero Hunger programme and 90,000 women have received the collective loans.

? Other social improvements. Many children formerly worked on the streets alongside their parents because their parents couldn't afford them to go to school. With free education there are now less working children. The majority of children selling at traffic lights today are orphans or those who have been abandoned. Furthermore, government programmes now provide children with a glass of milk and free shoes and school uniforms.

New elections are due in November 2011. The FNT and the Nicaraguan trade union movement strongly back the FSLN to win, to ensure the continuity of these improvements and usher in even more. Within this government the trade unions have a lot of power. If the FSLN is able to win the next elections with an increased majority these social policies can be deepened to create a profound social transformation within which unions can play an important role.

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Meeting with Jose Angel Bermudez, Executive Secretary FNT

Jose Angel Bermudez is Executive Secretary of the FNT, the Nicaraguan equivalent of the TUC.

The FNT represents nine Trade Union Confederations at National Level:

  • FETSALUD - health sector union with 25,000 members
  • ANDEN - teaching union with 28,000 members (of 42,000 teachers)
  • UNE - public sector workers union with 30,000 members. They have recently gained 5,000 new members.
  • CST - JBE is the industrial sector workers union, including those working in the Free Trade Zones (maquila factory workers for example), hotels, construction, etc. They have a membership of 25,000.
  • The CTCP - is the self employed or informal sector workers' union. They have 42,000 members.
  • FEPDES-ATD - (university academic staff)
  • FESITUN - (university administrative staff)
  • The Agroindustrial Workers Federation - includes members working in fruit, oil, peanuts and rice production as well as those companies involved in importing agricultural machinery.
  • The Fishermen's Union has 15,000 members and organizes cooperatives of marine and freshwater fishermen.

According to official statistics there are 2.2 million people of working age in Nicaragua. 60% of Nicaraguans are young people. Nearly half a million people are unable to work and a total of 1.8 million people are working. Large numbers work in the informal sector and are technically unemployed. The FNT use the International Labour Organisation (ILO) definition to decide who is unemployed. This includes those who work but can't afford to buy the basic goods they need to survive. Out of the 1.8 million, only 500,000 are formal sector workers (meaning they pay and have access to social security). 235,000 families work in agriculture. 800,000 are working in small industry.

A glance at some FNT activities:

The FNT has a training system for new leaders. Through this system they learn the history of the trade union movement and about labour laws and how to organise. They learn about labour rights including international labour agreements. The training is carried out by trade union leaders. It includes basic modules such as family and gender, the economy of work and health and safety, tailored by sector. The FNT is also training trade union inspectors to look at health and safety although they lack equipment to measure noise levels. There is also training in collective bargaining, negotiation and lobbying. The FNT also runs specialised courses on strategy.

In addition to courses in trade unionism, the FNT provides formal education for workers and their children - especially those from the informal sector. Over the past two years students have graduated at primary and secondary level. Every Sunday the FNT School runs courses for over 450 workers who work as street sellers and in other areas. The unions also have agreements with universities to provide training for FNT activists.

Meeting with National Workers Front (FNT) youth activists

The group met with youth coordinators and other young people from the trade union federations that make up the FNT. There are 23,000 young people in the FNT. They welcomed us to Nicaragua and emphasised the importance of international solidarity

The young Nicaraguan's told the delegation that they saw themselves as the next generation of trade union leaders. They were proud that the British delegation was there learning about how they organise. As well as defending workers and ensuring that collective bargaining and international agreements are met, trade unions provide training in workers' rights as well as political and recreational activities. They explained that they have the unconditional support of the union leadership and the FNT's Youth Coordinator but that the programmes suffer from a lack of resources. The FNT Youth also seek to ensure that their members provide good quality services in health, education, and the other sectors. They are also working on new ways to support unemployed people.

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Meeting with the informal sector workers union (Confederación de Trabajadores por Cuenta Propia, CTCP)

The delegation met the General Secretary Adrian Martínez and other members of the CTCP National Executive, including youth representatives. The CTCP is a new kind of trade union working in innovative ways in the informal economy. The union currently has a membership of 45,000. The informal sector is characterised by different relations between employer and employee. These workers labour in very difficult conditions, are marginalised, humiliated and persecuted, and are without access to social security, credit or technical support. They are also a large percentage of the work force, comprising 60 to 65% of the economically active population.

The CTCP began life in 2002 as the Association of Traffic Light Workers. In 2004 the first conference of informal workers was held adopting the name CTCP. It was recognised by the ILO in 2005. The organisation is constructing its own history, and, by developing a concept of socio-political trade unionism, they are making a break with traditional trade unionism. Following the electoral triumph of the FSLN in 2007 they were able to reach an agreement that they would not be evicted by police from the places where they work. They have also started to be incorporated into the social security system. They now have agreements with the police and local government and are working with the INSS (social security department) and other government institutions.

In order to survive in an environment of ruthless capitalism their organisation is based on values of solidarity and cooperation. After eight years of active organising they are prepared for a new stage of development. They are developing a market based on solidarity and social responsibility through small businesses. To be able to get this far they had to create their own support system, including mutual health organisations which sell medicines at a subsidised price. With the support from the government's Institute of Education, 135 union members are studying, including twenty members who are in higher education and six who are studying in Cuba.

Women are the majority of informal sector workers and the CTCP encourages women's participation. There is a female officer within the Youth Committee and 46% of the Executive are women. Under neoliberalism women were the hardest hit since they were the most vulnerable sector of society. There was a severe disintegration of family life, which contributed to forcing women to work in the informal sector.

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Meeting with Domingo Pérez (General Secretary of UNE public sector workers union), members of the UNE Youth Committee, and the Bloque Sindical (Trade Union Bloc) in Cuidad Sandino

The UNE has traditionally had good links with the unions in the UK and with the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign. Since 1982, and throughout the time of the revolution, UNE worked with NALGO, which is now part of UNISON. UNE was founded in 1978, under the dictatorship of Somoza. They became part of the Sandinista movement and fought against Somoza. After the revolutionary victory women's committee's flourished and young people started to join the movement. They also began working with trade unions abroad.

After the defeat of the FSLN and the election of Violeta Chamorro in 1990, the new government cut public sector jobs by 75,000. This was the beginning of neoliberalism in Nicaragua. UNE was hit the hardest: 65,000 members lost their jobs, leaving only 7,000 members - 10% of the original membership. They also lost 215 experienced trade union leaders. Today UNE has 30,000 members. On the 10th November 2006, before the current president came to power, there was a mass meeting in the main square attended by all the trade unions. They presented a petition to ask incoming governments not to fire public sector workers and to respect the laws. This was agreed [by the National Assembly] and now workers have greater job security.

Young people are organising in UNE at all levels. Every branch has its own youth secretary and they have formed committees to strengthen the youth sections within the union. Young members, in particular trade union leaders, receive training in labour law. They also work with the Sandinista Youth in the neighbourhoods, carrying out social and political activities and going to remote areas of the country to help with education and sport, and participating in ecological brigades.

The delegation also met with members of Ciudad Sandino's Trade Union Bloc at the Community Pharmacy which is part of the mutual clinic set up by the CTCP to provide medicines at reduced cost. Gathered together were formal and informal sector workers who work in the Free Trade Zones. They told us about their working conditions and the work they are doing in the community. The Ciudad Sandino Trade Union Bloc has been organising since 2003. The maquila (free trade zone factories) workers and formal sector workers were organised first. The unions gave them legal assistance but it was hard to organise in workplaces. They therefore organised in the community first, and then they began to look at organisational issues in the workplace and with the informal sector.

Those members who were organised established a coordinating body, meeting with the CTCP and FNT. Twelve separate trade unions decided to form as a local coalition for improved benefits. They had a socio-political approach, working not only on trade union issues but also on community problems such as health, working with the authorities to bring benefits to workers. They got some support from Catalonia in Spain as well as obtaining recognition from the FNT and the government. One advantage of working with informal workers is that many of them received trade union training when they were working in the maquilas. When they are fired they stay within the same structure and use the skills they have developed, promoting trade unionism.

Informal workers may also get work in the formal sector and organise there. They provide training and an established methodology, materials and the mutual clinic, health care for members. The mutual clinic was established with support from trade unions in Belgium and the FNT helped establish contacts.

The maquilas (factories) in the Free Trade Zones (FTZs) produce clothing and car parts. They are the only workplaces paying the minimum wage of $110-$120 per month. The factories are mostly Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean or US-owned. These sweatshops did not allow trade unions to organise in the past. Workers didn't used to be able to go to the toilet during work time, pregnant women were sacked and no overtime was paid.

The training provided by the Trade Union Bloc consists of four modules with a focus on personal development and self esteem. The first module is about recognising one's own importance, what rights exist with regard to violence, gender, empowerment, sex education and communication. The second module teaches workers to see themselves as citizens, developing awareness of themselves as a community with a constitution protecting their rights. It also looks at their role in society, at labour and human rights. The third module is more specifically about trade unionism: rights to holidays, salary, working hours, rights to organise as a trade union and social benefits. The fourth module is trade union organisation, explaining the steps workers should take to organise trade unions and practical ways of doing so.

The organisation is partly self-funded but they also have support from Belgian and Catalonian trade unions through the FNT. Not all members can pay a subscription but there are the same rights for those who pay and those who don't. Formal sector workers pay ten cordobas a month. If members can't afford it then everyone fundraises to help pay for the running of the union and activities. There is a small profit from the sales of low cost medicines in the pharmacy. The CTCP sometimes gives resources to run workshops and they also have a local radio programme, funded through Belgian support and from the UGT, a Spanish trade union. They use the radio station to talk about trade union issues and to inform people about activities, such as the mutual health clinics, as well as to reinforce training topics.

Young people meet to train on issues such as sex education, domestic violence, STDs, gender and self esteem and also to play sports. They go on to run training for other young members, meaning there is a multiplier effect. They also work with the churches to talk to young people about some of these issues. Young people have also been involved in the literacy campaign.

The initial funding for the Mutual Health Clinics came from Belgium and the one we visited has existed for two years, providing a service to members and the unions. Prices for medicine are half the normal price so people save money and can enjoy better health. They have a nurse at the clinic. They are trying to get a doctor who would be able to provide consultations and free health care.

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Meeting with Evelyn Umana, Deputy General Secretary of FETSALUD (Health Sector Union)

Evelyn Umana is the Deputy General Secretary of FETSALUD. The union organises doctors, nurses, administrative staff, auxiliary workers and others in the health sector. The trade union was set up in 1974 under the Somoza dictatorship. The experiences of struggle under the dictatorship gave the union a strong legacy that helps it today.

After the 1990 elections there was a radical change. The neoliberal government implemented mass sackings. During the 1980s there had been 35,000 health workers but many of them lost their jobs. Following these huge job cuts those who'd been made redundant went to private businesses, or the Free Trade Zones. Through the resistance of health service workers they the full privatisation of health care was avoided. The neoliberal governments were only able to part-privatise the health service. The union fought for all those paying taxes to have free services. This was a great struggle with many strikes.

Gains made under the current government:

With the election of the FSLN government the workforce has increased so there are now 26,000 health workers and they are building community health facilities so that there is access to primary care with at least one doctor and one nurse in each community. The government is transforming the way the health service works which requires a change of mentality. FETSALUD wants to ensure quality, solidarity and efficiency in their workers, changing the way they think. The union therefore has a dual role. They defend their workers and also defend the public's right to good quality, free health care. For 35 years FETSALUD has been a strong union, in solidarity with the people. The main achievement in health is the gradual change from a capitalist model of healthcare to one based on solidarity. A solidarity health system is being developed including the Hospital Solidaridad (Solidarity Hospital). Which is being built for people paying social security.

The relationship with Cuba and Venezuela has been key in helping to develop this new model of healthcare in Nicaragua. There are different brigades carrying out a health survey neighbourhood by neighbourhood, and treating people with cataracts through Operation Miracle. There are Cuban doctors in many different hospitals and clinics, working on community health projects and the relationship with them is excellent. Three hundred Nicaraguan students have gone to study in Cuba, among them medical students. UNISON has also helped with capacity building through supporting training in self esteem and trade union organising.

Thanks to an agreement negotiated by FETSALUD workers now get a free uniform annually. There is a special trust for women, and pregnant women have the right to time off before and after the birth. Children now have free healthcare until they are 18. When women are breastfeeding they can leave work for three hours to feed the baby. Another benefit is access to housing for pregnant women before and after the birth, which is especially important for rural women.

Insurance payments and annual salaries have also improved. The minimum wage for healthcare workers has been increased to US$160 per month and a specialist doctor is paid $1,100 a month. The biggest priorities for health workers are negotiating an increase in salaries and improving the health service for the population. Better technology and training will lead to a better quality of healthcare services and in this technology donated by Venezuela has been very helpful.

FETSALUD has joined PSI (Public Services International). They hope to train more members and this is the area in which they need the most support. There is also an issue with a shortage of medicines. A law was passed by the neoliberal governments of the 1990s forcing the Nicaraguan government to buy medicine from multi-national pharmaceutical companies through the private sector. Using branded medicine is expensive and the people need access to generic medical products. The FSLN has put forward a proposal to try to change this, but the opposition-dominated parliament is not interested.

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Meeting with CST- JBE (industrial workers union) workers at their factory

Armando Zepeda, Executive Secretary of CST-JBE, accompanied our group during our tour of the premises. The factory's Manager welcomed us and the General Secretary of the factory's trade union branch showed us around. From the moment we got into the main factory area we were shocked by the heat and the noise of machinery, only partly drowned out by salsa music on the speakers. It is a huge, mostly open plan space but at times the atmosphere was overwhelming and it was hard to imagine working the long hours of the maquila workers in such an environment. Apart from the noise and the heat, the air is full of fibres and the shop floor is lit by strip lights. Walking down the narrow aisles amidst all the activity was dizzying.

At the start of our tour we saw workers in the cutting area, cutting the raw materials into shape from patterns. There are no guards on the cutters. However, our guide told us conditions have improved. According to the General Law of Health and Safety the employer has responsibility for providing a good working environment.

There are 720 workers in the factory and around half of these are union members, a high number for a maquila. They can be asked to do up to nine hours overtime, which is supposedly voluntary. However, they do get paid double time for this. Companies such as this in the Free Trade Zones have special rules. Health and safety is monitored by the government under General Health and Safety Law 618. However, they don't want to upset the companies and companies use this to deflect government pressure. Some people do have problems because of the fibres in the air. However, very few were wearing masks. Workers are paid $160 per month and normally work a 48 hour week although the company asks them to work overtime on a weekly basis. The hours are from 7 am to 6 pm but they are they often asked to do more.

After being shown round, we met with some union members. Juan, the General Secretary of the maquila's trade union branch, told us the branch is named Ernesto Guevara Lynch, after Che Guevara. Celia, another union member, explained they were a relatively new branch and very open to sharing experiences. Rebecca, the Women's Secretary and Luis, responsible for health and safety, also thanked us for coming.

Claris, General Secretary of the 8th March confederation, which brings together trade unions working in the maquila, joined us accompanied the group on the tour around the factory and joined our discussion. The confederation is made up of 12 unions and these have branches throughout the country. There are 8000 members but they would like more as there are 75 companies working in the maquila sector. They want to make sure there are unions in all of them but this is a struggle because people have found that when they try to organise as trade unions things become very difficult. For the past 16 years it has been hard to organise as a trade unionists. Often workers were offered money to leave the union. They have survived despite these offers but they were seen as 'black trade unions' meaning no employer wants them to operate. They called them industrial terrorists and say that their goal is to stop foreign investment.

In the last two years things have been better. Before there were only four trade unions but with the new government eight more have been set up. Members of the branch committee of two of these unions were fired and they are now going through the legal process. Coincidentally, the decision was made on the day of our visit and the court had ruled in one case that they must be reinstated. This has been very difficult as they have no economic resources and no international finance. They work with the support of their members, providing basic food and medicine to those who have been fired.

Workers are all on low salaries. The basic food basket costs 9,000 colones but they are paid only 2,860 so every member of a family must work so they can pool their resources. Young people aged between 18- 30 often have to leave school or university in order to survive. To improve their pay they have to do overtime as this is the only source of employment. Young people all end up working in the Free Trade Zones. Some young people do graduate but to get a job you need a lot of qualifications. Even if you are aged 18-30 and well presented, looking like Miss or Mr Nicaragua, speak lots of languages-you end up working here. Workers can't be over 30 as they are not as agile.

The union foresees a problem in getting factory owners to adhere to health and safety laws to make sure they don't get ill, for example providing health and safety equipment. This would be like the example of the situation for the sugar and banana workers. In the textiles factories the materials contain lots of chemical preservatives, provoking allergies and rashes or respiratory problems. The union believes it is wrong that young people are seen as disposable. They want the next generation to live longer.

Armando Zepeda explained that they train workers in labour and health issues and encourage people to take part to increase their experience. There have also been some regional exchanges of maquila workers in Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala. They carry out organisational campaigns. The union also provides legal advice. There are sometimes problems for trade unionists from their companies. They receive threats. Companies fire workers when they hit thirty for being inefficient. A few who have worked for the company all their lives might be kept on as they are seen as the companies' personal property. The union at the maquila we visited had just started operating again as the previous owners had stopped it. There is a very high staff turnover. Following a campaign the staff can now go to the toilet at this factory without having to ask permission. This was a big step. They also fought for legal recognition for the union. At first, trade unions organise around small but very important issues and this has been the best way to start. Then they can go on to bigger things.

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Meeting with members of the Maria Elena Cuadra Women's movement (MEC)

The organisation was founded in 1994 by trade unionists. Their aim is to promote the rights of working people and to campaign for labour rights from a feminist perspective, trying to reduce the gender gap. A new area work focuses on domestic workers and human rights violations. They run courses lasting from three to six months in leadership training, legal training and legal aid, for example in cases of domestic violence or to help with demands for fathers not paying benefits. They also provide psychological support for victims of violence.

MEC has a microfinancing programme of revolving funds in six places. The organisation brings out a report every year scrutinising businesses, looking at their human rights, wage equality and recruitment policies. MEC is also looking at what impact the economic crisis has had on women. There are cases of businesses closing down and leaving the workers stranded with no severance pay. Much of this work is supported by funds from Canada, as are the micro credit lines.

The campaign against the abortion ban is part of the wider women's movement and MEC are against the ban. Women's and human rights organisations and medical associations are trying to oppose it through the courts but this is being resisted by the Catholic Church. There has been an impact on women with backstreet abortions. This isn't an issue to be taken lightly. Backstreet abortion is not an option. There are no records of how many desperate women have resorted to this and how many die. The government needs to have gender focus as part of their policies and to learn about this at school so they have more of an understanding of their rights.

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Meeting with La Concha section of the Movimiento Comunal Nicaraguense (Nicaraguan Community Movement, MCN)

Nationwide, the MCN is the largest community based organisation. The MCN has functioned as an autonomous organisation since the late 1980s. Most members support the FSLN. We joined a large public meeting with representatives of most of the local community MCNs in La Concha, a town close to Managua, twinned with Leeds.

Pablo Calero, Coordinator of the MCN in La Concha, talked about the situation facing local communities, and how, through the MCN, they have been making improvements. They passed through a critical time when there was no running water for four years. A community member explained how they organised committees of local people to deal with the water problem so that today they have a well.

The MCN implemented different campaigns, such as vaccinations and cleaning, and working with the local government who agreed to pave the streets which was a real achievement. The situation in Barrio Sandino is their greatest concern. There are many needs and it's hard to deal with all of them. The greatest need is that many poor people don't have adequate roofs on their houses. They have also agreed with local governments on improvements to be made to the roads.

The private sector is trying to turn public housing into a business, which the MCN disagrees with. Legally, beneficiaries should receive a bonus from the government of $1,800 to $2000 which they give to the bank and the bank is then supposed to provide a loan. However, to get a loan from the bank they expect you to earn more than $300 per month and almost no one in La Concha earns that much. The MCN at national level is planning to organise a demonstration against this in front of the National Assembly and hope that 10,000 people will attend.

The donation from London Region UNISON to help with roofs is really welcomed. Local government gives some support but there is little money available. Other communities told of their needs: ramps for the very steep roads, housing, roofs, land on which to build and legal titles; more work so that local people are better able to feed their children. An NGO has designed the houses that will be built when funding is available. However, rather than asking for anything, they wanted us to know what they are doing and to explain their situation.

The MCN has set up a housing cooperative that provides collateral for members who need housing loans. Pablo and the community members have been tireless in their work to try to improve the situation for local people and in finding external help to enable them to do this. They have established links with many organisations, working in partnership. Without sufficient economic resources they organise as this is the only way to deal with their problems: 'if you are organised you can work in favour of your interests'. The MCN provides small loans to women to buy livestock and to set up or expand small businesses, making and selling tortillas or selling groceries. These loans of $50- $100 make a big difference, enabling them to improve their businesses since they have more things to sell. They repay the loans in small monthly instalments at a low rate of interest. The group in Leeds has been supporting this initiative.

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Visit to Literacy Museum and meeting with the Carlos Fonseca Amador Educational Association

During the 1980s the Sandinistas carried out a UNESCO award winning literacy programme. With the 1990 election this ended. The Carlos Fonseca Amador Educational Association was established to continue the literacy work carried out during the revolution. The Association has now been in existence for 20 years. Over 150,000 young people were involved in the first Literacy Crusade and 58 were killed.

The literacy materials used by the Sandinista government during this time were burned by the neoliberal government in the 1990s. After the election there was a need to find other ways to carry on the literacy programme. Following the elections on 26th February 1990, they founded the Carlos Fonseca Association which continued the literacy work. Between 1990 and 2005 they continued to use the same materials as during the 1980s. Exercise and text books were focused on specific topics and it took learners six months to become literate.

However, for the 25th anniversary of the literacy campaign in 2005 they carried out a pilot project to introduce the new, 'Yo, sí puedo!' method. This audiovisual method was adapted from the Cuban model to achieve quicker results than the earlier method. Instead of having one teacher for every five students, with the new method there are two facilitators for twenty students. They can become literate in ten weeks so it takes only half the time.

After 2007 the programme was taken over by the Ministry of Education. The Association is working with indigenous communities on the Atlantic Coast who speak Miskito and Mayangna. They live along 600 kilometers of the Río Coco which flows along the Honduran border. The Association keeps delivering their service in isolated areas. University brigades have just come back from these remote areas and it was a huge learning experience for them. However, literacy doesn't end with someone learning to read and write. There are levels of greater proficiency and learners can attend further classes: Yo, sí puedo seguir (Yes, I can continue).

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Managua's Municipal Adult Literacy Classes

The Adult Education Centre really impressed me... This programme has done fantastic work and Managua was declared free of illiteracy last year.

Judith Wardley young UNISON member (Derbyshire)

There are two kinds of literacy programme being run by the local government: one is the Yo Sí Puedo (Yes I can!) literacy campaign, which is an audiovisual programme following a Cuban-developed method, and the other is an education programme to enable adults to complete an accelerated primary education in two years. They gave a big thanks to the Unite-Amicus fund for providing a donation to buy paper which was really appreciated.

The literacy programmes work through the municipalities. Managua has five districts and there are groups of technicians in each who give support to the programmes. This programme began in 2005, before the Sandinistas won the national elections but after they had won the local elections in Managua in 2000. The FSLN asked the municipal government to implement the adult literacy and education programme as it was sorely needed. Between 2005 and 2010 they have been running these programmes and were able to announce that Managua was free of illiteracy on July 19th last year.

Adults teach the classes but there are difficulties caused by lack of infrastructure. They run classes in the houses of local people or in schools, and they receive help from churches in some neighbourhoods. The first group of people are now graduating from the two year programme. Managua is the first municipality to do this. Students study Spanish, maths, social studies and ethics, amongst other subjects. There are people with disabilities taking part both as students and teachers. At the end all students are presented with a certificate at a ceremony. The organisation is now working with the national technical institute, to enable people to undertake training for skilled technical work.


Judith Wardley, Ben Thompson and Jenny Evans (UNISON), Fazia Hussain and Mel Whitter (Unite), Jerome Saget (NASUWT) and Sham Rajyaguru (GMB). Photos: Fazia Hussain and Sham Rajyaguru.



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