One of the main sources of jobs for people on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua is the cruise line industry. Many families are dependent on the remittances sent back by family members on the ships. But a recent BBC Radio Four programme exposed the super-exploitation that goes on in one of the fastest growest global industries.

 

One cruise line worker, described as from Central America, but with a Bluefields or Corn Island accent, revealed the reality of working conditions. “I had to get up and work, maybe 18 hours sometime, maybe sometime no time to sleep because just time to make money. Ship is money. You go on ship to make money. They have a timesheet, they are giving you from such a hour to such a hour to complete, like, 8 hours, so we can say we only work 8 hours which, that’s a lie. For instance, I go like from 5am and I will stop like 10am, then I will go back again like 2pm, and then I will stop working like, sometime, midnight. We are just supposed to report 8 hours.”

 

The wages are so low that the workers depend on tips: “That’s our salary. Our salary from the company is $50 a month. That’s nothing my friend, so if we don’t get tip, we don’t have any salary.” The crews work every single day for months at a time.

 

The President of the Cruise Lines International Association, Terry Dale, thinks everything is hunkydory. “Creating and fostering a positive work culture is critical to our success. These are highly sought after jobs and our staff will spend years working with us in the cruise industry because they find these jobs very rewarding and lucrative.” Perhaps that’s why some workers can pay up to $2,000 to an intermeidary to get a job.


The extent of the devastation caused by Hurricane Felix is becoming clearer every day. The latest report filed by the National System for Disaster Prevention, Mitigation and Attention paints a sombre picture. 188,000 people have been affected, with 102 dead, 35 unconfirmed dead, and 86 missing.

Whole communities have been blown away, with a total of 10,000 homes completely destroyed in and around Bilwi, and 179 public buildings – including schools and clinics – in ruins.

The relief operation seems to be well co-ordinated, including dozens of medical brigades supplied by the Cubans and Venezuelans, and the Nicaraguans themselves.


The Wales Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign’s sister organisation, NSC, has launched an appeal which the Welsh campaign is supporting (click here to read updates and to make a donation). Felix has left over 100 dead in and around Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas), with 180,000 left homeless, a large percentage of the population in Nicaragua’s North Caribbean region.

Today the Nicaraguan government announced they are to spend $28 million from their budget on immediate humanitarian relief. This follows an appeal by the United Nations on Saturday for $40 million. In contrast to many recent disasters, the response of the international community has been slow.


“Despite a growing consensus that global warming may spawn stronger tropical cyclones, weather experts believe it is too soon to blame climate change for the back-to-back hurricanes.” So said a Reuters report this morning on Hurricane Felix, which has left at least 38 dead, over 200 still missing, and the city of Bilwi and surrounding villages devastated.

How much evidence is needed to make the link with global warming? 2005 was a record year for hurricanes in the Caribbean. This year is the first time ever that two Category 5 hurricanes have made landfall (with another couple of months of the season to go).

Meanwhile the inhabitants of Bilwi are counting the cost, and the bodies, of these is it/isn’t hurricanes. Estimates of up to 80 per cent of houses in the city have lost their roofs, with 5,000 totally demolished. The Wales Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign has visited Bilwi on six occasions, and knows the city well. Flat, with open roads (mostly dirt tracks), with low, wooden buildings, it would offer little defence against the monstrous winds of Hurricane Felix. Bilwi has also lost its hospital, almost unique in that it was based on a locally developed health model which tries to blend the best of conventional and indigenous medicine.

Though many are comparing Felix to Hurricane Mitch (which killed up to 4,000 in Nicaragua), the real comparison is Hurricane Joan, which hit Bluefields in 1988. Thankfully the loss of life was much lower, but Bluefields was left in ruins, with 90 per cent of houses damaged. It has taken Bluefields almost twenty years to recover from its visit by Joan.


Trade agreements have been taking centre stage over the past week in the region. CAFTA (Central America Free Trade Agreement) came under attack by Daniel Ortega in a speech in Sebaco, ironically the site of a maquila, a garment sweatshop. He also praised ALBA, the Bolivarian alternative, which includes Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia.

In Costa Rica, Nicaragua’s Southern neighbour, CAFTA is dominating the political agenda. Whilst the Nicaraguan Parliament ratified CAFTA over a year ago, in Costa Rica ratification depends on an October referendum. The pros and antis are neck and neck, with the momentum seemingly running in favour of the rejection campaign. The arguments of both sides, and some of the implications, is nicely summed up in the Council on Hemispheric Affairs CAFTA’s October Referendum: A death sentence for Costa Rican foreign investment.

Meanwhile Nicaragua’s Northerly neighbours have started talking about son of NAFTA (which could turn out to be much nastier than its dad – now who does that remind you of?). The Presidents of Canada, Mexico and the US met over the weekend to kick off discussions on what is being called NAFTA plus, or as they like to describe it, the Security and Prosperity Partnership (see the Americas Program NAFTA plus – migration and the future of North America by Ted Lewis). Presumably the Prezs were talking about the Prosperity of their big business mates, and the Security for them to keep their loot.


Abortion has again hit the news in Nicaragua. Revelations appeared over the past week in El Nuevo Diario concerning Rosita. She became famous when she became pregnant aged nine, raped by her neighbour whilst living in Costa Rica with her mother and step-father, who were migrant workers. She was dramatically whisked out of Costa Rica, to receive a therapeutic abortion in Nicaragua. The gruelling tale was captured by a documentary crew, whose film Rosita was shown around the world. Envio, Nicaragua’s leading journal, devoted several articles to the issues – political, ethical and religious – in a sensitive and serious manner.

When therapeutic abortion was banned by the Nicaraguan government in October, shortly before the elections, the case of Rosita was held up as one of the cases in favour of maintaining access to abortion. The campaign for putting it back on the statute books has received a blow with the recent articles, which says that Rosita was raped not by her Costa Rican neighbour but by her step-father; that she was eleven when the rape happened and not nine; and that she has now, in her teens, had a baby by the step-father. He is now on the run, and it is claimed that Rosita’s whereabouts are known by the Nicaraguan Network of Women against Violence (a number of pro-life websites have carried the story – see lifesite as an example).

Why exactly being attacked by your step-father instead of a neighbour, at the age of eleven instead of nine, should undermine the case for therapeutic abortion is hard to fathom. Nicaragua has a high level of young pregnancies and abuse against girls and young women. The case for limited access to abortion is made on the reproductive health reality check blog, which outlines the current situation in Latin America.

The case against therapeutic abortion has been led by the heirarchy of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua (in alliance with the newer evangelical churches), who would head anyone’s list of ultra-reactionaries, both before, during and since the Revolution. Some Catholic organisations have already said they will leave Amnesty International, after its historic decision in Mexico over the weekend to support limited access to abortion as a human right. AI takes the view that if a woman’s health is threatened, either physically or psychologically, there should be access to limited abortion, a viewpoint which is shared by medical professional associations in Central America.


A new report out this weekend details the effects of climate change on Latin America and the Caribbean. “A Conversation on Conservation: Contemplating the Impact of Climate Change in the Latin America-Caribbean Region” by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs is a good summary of the devastation global warming will cause in the poorest countries, though it doesn’t contain anything radically new.

 

It does, though, contain examples of countries which are striving to do something about global warming, instead of talking about it, and highlights how rich countries are using the World Bank’s Clean Development Mechanism to avoid stopping their growth driven madness.

 

The impacts of climate change on Nicaragua have become apparent by now: a likely increase in the cycle of El Nino, which causes drought on the Pacific Coast and effects agriculture; a general raised temperature which will dry out the rainforests on the Caribbean Coast, decreasing bio-diversity and making them vulnerable to destruction by forest fires; and an increase of the danger of catastrophic hurricanes, which are increasing in strength and frequency.

 

This last conclusion was further enforced by a report out last week from the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research. It says that the average number of storms that develop in the Atlantic has doubled since 1905, and they make the link between this and the increase in sea surface temperature caused by global warming. The devastation of storms like Hurricane Mitch might increase from being a once in a lifetime event, to being once in a generation or even more frequently, with unthinkable consequences for the poorest in Nicaragua.


You wouldn’t think that water would be an age discriminaton issue, but it is, according to a new report. According to the BBC (Latin American Young Lack Water) a third of young people in Latin America have not got access to clean water, compared to a quarter of adults. The report, co-written by the UN’s Economic Commission for latin america and the Caribbean and UNICEF, says the problem is a threat to nearly 21 million children. The worst countries are the poorest, Honduras, Bolivia and, surprise, surprise, Nicaragua. Within these countries the black and indigenous communities suffer most.

In the case of Nicaragua around a half of the population do not have access to clean drinking water, rising to 90 per cent on the Caribbean Coast. Given the continuing disaster of Nicaragua’s electricity company, Union Fenosa, which has led to a summer of power cuts throughout the country, water seems safe from privatisation (see our latest newsletter, posted earlier this month). In fact, in a meeting of Central American Vice Presidents in December, the privatisation of water seemed to be ruled out in all the region’s countries.

There are two qualifications. Firstly, there’s privatisation and then there’s management contracts, which are privatisations by the back door. Though government’s deny these are privatising services, handing over management contracts to foreign companies is a well known stepping stone to them getting their hands on public assets. Indeed, Union Fenosa first came to Nicaragua in the 1980s during the Sandinista government, when they were supposedly giving ‘technical advice’. Now, at a municipal level, British company Bi-water is doing the same thing in the North of Nicaragua.

Secondly, it is one thing to keep the assets public. It is another to widen the access to the population. Fortunately many good examples exist in Latin America, particularly at a local government level, where access to water is almost universal because of careful public stewardship. For a rich source of information about opposition to water privatisation and examples of successful public services, see the Transnational Institute’s Water Justice section.


After the emerging disaster of CAFTA, Central American countries recently launched into a new round of trade negotiations, this time with the European Union. The one surprise in the announcement is that it is scheduled to take place over two and half years, and not the one year that some were predicted.

Though some in Nicaragua think an agreement with the EU will ‘counter-balance’ CAFTA, the starting point for the EU’s Agreement of Association with Central America is WTO-plus – taking de-regulation beyond even that allowed by the World Trade Organisation.

A good history of the official relations between the EU and Central America was summarised in an article in the Jerusalem Post (EU and Central America community negotiate new Agreement) . It contains useful figures about trade, and the previous agreements between the regions. One organisation which has been gearing up for the negotiations is the Central American Women’s Network. The April edition of their newsletter Agenda contains several articles on the likely impact of an agreement, particularly on women, though their focus is on the involvement of civil society, rather than outright rejection of an agreement.

Besides the agreement with Central American, the European Union is in the middle of negotiating a sackful of bilateral agreements with former colonies. Many organisations are keeping their eyes on these dubious deals. One of the best is bilaterals.org, which does what it says on the tin – it has several pieces on the European Partnership Agreements, which are meant to be concluded next year. The World Development Movement are currently asking individuals to contact the Douglas Alexander, the new Secretary of State for International Development, to say the UK must take steps now to stop unfair EU trade deals.


Whilst it might still be too early to assess the impact of the Central America Free Trade Agreement on Nicaragua, some of the predictions before its signature look like they are coming true. In two recent articles, a pair of regular commentators on Nicaragua highlight the affect of the Agreement.

In the first, Ben Beachy, a Witness for Peace worker, writes that CAFTA is beginning to take its toll on Nicaragua’s textile sector. In the first six months of this year 4,000 jobs were lost in the textile sector, whilst only 2,000 were created in other, non-textile, maquila jobs. The fall in textile jobs was widely predicted, as the Multi Fibre Agreement expired in 2005, and jobs started to migrate from Central America to China. It was thought Nicaragua was immune, having the lowest wages in the region, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.

The second article by Toni Solo, Americanism vs ALBA, is a wide ranging article on how US policy is sharpening its focus on the Bolivarian Alternative. It also includes the startling news that since CAFTA came into operation, Nicaragua’s exports to the US, meant to increase because of the lifting of trade barriers, have actually fallen. A report by Nicaragua’s Ministry of Development, Industry and Commerce reckons the Central American Free Trade Agreement has so far resulted in a 0.1% net decline in Nicaragua’s exports to the United States while tax exempt maquila exports increased 16%. This doesn’t necessarily contradict Beachy’s conclusions, as the nature of maquila exports seems to be changing, and an increase in production (and profits) on the back of falling job numbers is hardly unknown. it was also thought that whilst maquila production might benefit from CAFTA, other sectors would be badly hit.