Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My Week as a Migrant Coffee Picker

[This post comes from our wonderful Volunteer Coordinator Liz Haight as she finishes out her year with us]

The morning cup of coffee is a mindless act – you can brew a pot in your sleep. We don't tend to give much thought to what it took to get that rich brown brew that brings us to life every morning. I recently spent a few days with our friends up at the El Porvenir Coffee Cooperative to gain a better appreciation for my favorite caffeinated concoctionby joining in the process of hand-picking the beans. I also used it as an excuse to spend some more time up there, as I usually only make short visits while herding volunteers.

For 150 years coffee has been essential to Nicaragua’s economy. In the 1980s the coffee crop accounted for 40% of Nicaragua's foreign exchange earnings but thousands of farm workers fled or refused to work in the fields for fear of Contra attacks. The Sandinista government worried that the country would lose part of this valuable crop due to the shortage of coffee pickers and so they ordered a mobilization of high school and college students to join the remaining peasants in the field to pick the coffee. Workers were often accompanied by armed soldiers to guard them as they worked. Working alongside peasants to bring in the coffee crop created a revolutionary consciousness in these young people as they learned about life as a peasant and gained respect for farm labor. In December, I set out to follow in their steps to appreciate the way of life in the countryside and my morning cup of joe.

Up at El Porvenir, everyone joins in the harvest in December and January, which even brings in migrant pickers from outside the community. The coffee beans ripen at different times so one plant will have to be picked more than once. The coffee beans start out as a juicy fruit, often called cherries in English and uvas (grapes) in Spanish. They have a thick grape-like exterior that tastes like a bell pepper. This protects the two green bean halves which are covered by another slippery membrane. All the pickers are assigned to rows of plants and are instructed that all the red berries "van de viaje" (are out of here!) and to leave the green ones on the branch to ripen until the next picking. Wearing a large basket around my waist, I learned to pluck the ripe berries off the branch and drop them into my basket.

I picked until my basket was full (or more likely until I was nervous that I would spill it on the ground for the 3rd time) and then emptied the contents of the basket into my sack. Later they measure the picked coffee in “medios” which is equivalent to 5 gallons.Those berries are then processed to separate the bean inside from the fruit, which means a medio of coffee berries yields only a fraction of that amount in green coffee beans.

I picked 1 medio and 1 quartillo (1.5 medios) each morning that I worked; an unimpressive amount, but I was a beginner! The picking itself is not particularly difficult but some plants are tall and unruly and it takes some finesse to get to the highest berries without hurting the plant. Luckily the plants are fairly flexible so I could grab a tall branch and pull it down to me.

I was shown the ropes by one of the members of the cooperative, nicknamed El Palomo (the pigeon,) who was responsible for assigning the rows to the pickers and keeping an eye on them. Several times El Palomo reviewed the plants I’d picked, pinching off the berries I missed and tossing them into my basket. I later joined a group of teenage boys and we became a picking team. We called ourselves “mara la pana” – the basket gang. They would frequently “gift” me a plant that bore a good amount of ripe fruit to help me fill my basket and break the previous day's haul.

I did not prove myself to be a very helpful farm hand but really enjoyed myself in the fields and in the community. I almost forgot I was doing manual labor and was often distracted by the tropical beauty of my surroundings, Caturra and Bourbon coffee plants growing under a canopy of banana and Guanacaste trees atop a volcano range. The best part was picking side by side members of the community, joking and singing as we worked. Everyone was so kind and encouraging to me, their gringa migrant worker. I gained not only more appreciation for those tiny beans I percolate into my favorite beverage but for the kindness of Nicaraguans I’ve met this past year like the community of El Porvenir.

For those of you still needing a 2012 calendar, our former Volunteer Coordinator Eric Gruen is selling a 2012 calendar of his photography from El Porvenir – which can also be bought with a pound of hand-picked, organically grown, fairly traded El Porvenir Coffee – all proceeds to the CDCA! -- Liz Haight

Winter Solstice: Dreams in This Dark Night

I am writing this at 4:00AM and I can’t sleep…. roosters crowing, mortars going off probably noting a death, and pondering daily chores to do and life in general.

In the dark we ponder…fears raise their heads, dreams of what could be are imagined, and we reflect on the state of our days, years, lives, and world. In the dark anything is possible.

In the Northern Hemisphere our days shorten this time of year, in fact, today is the shortest day of the year. It is a good time to reflect.

We, as a culture, worship the light…artificial lights dim our night skies. “Progressive” nations show up on the space satellites at night as bright beacons while nations like Nicaragua show a dim point of light - if any at all. In our home and at the Center we have outside lights on for the night watchmen and this time of year we don our home with Christmas light. After supper last night we lit the first Chanukah candle.

Good is light. Evil is dark. And yet…it is the light that distracts us. We move through our days and nights almost blindly. It is in the dark we open up ourselves to unspeakable dreams and hopes – and yes, fears…fears we need to acknowledge and address.

So in this dark hour on this shortest day of the year I am going to share with you my fears and then my dreams. I fear:

· that we will never reverse the damage to our world that is making it uninhabitable for us and other species;

· that we will never stop exploiting and consuming resources that keeps almost one seventh of the world’s population living in hunger (;

· that we will never rise up as a global movement and scream “no more war…no more bombings…no more terror…no more big nations invading, occupying, and dictating to smaller nations…ENOUGH!”;

· that we will never look at the corporations, the top 1%, the top 10%, the wealthy and say “You are the problem not my brown brothers and sisters”…and mean it;

· that we will never understand that until we are all free we all have chains,

· that until injustice is righted we are all in danger,

· and that freedom, justice and peace come with sacrifices and I’m not talking about sending our sons and daughters to fight ridiculous wars…I’m talking about the sacrifices of giving up the greed for wealth, power, and fear.

My hopes and dreams in this dark night? That we will. That maybe in the darkness prayers will be said, conversions will happen and

· we will one-by-one firmly cry “ENOUGH”

· we will one-by-one change

· we will one-by-one heal this gorgeous world, love its beautiful life, and reach out to each other.

The sun is up. The day has started. The struggle continues.

Happy Winter Solstice from all of us.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

80% Turnout for Nicaragua's Elections Followed by Controversy

On the 6th of November, Nicaraguans went to the polls to choose their next President. Official election results show that between 75 and 80% of registered voters turned out, and that Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) candidate and current President Daniel Ortega won in a landslide with 62.66% of the vote. Of the five parties on the ballot, the closest opposition was the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), trailing behind with just 31.13% of the vote. More than a week later, the leaders of Europe and North America have yet to call Ortega to congratulate him.

The PLI is alleging “monstrous fraud,” saying that they should have gotten more than 50% of the vote. In the past week, their supporters have caravanned and blocked roads in protests that have mostly been confined to the wealthy neighborhoods of Managua. In northern Nicaragua there have been 3 incidences of politically-related violence, resulting in 4 deaths and dozens of injuries, including the hospitalization of 7 police officers.

While they maintain that 20% of the vote was stolen from them, 10 days later the PLI continue to speak in general terms without specifying in which precincts the fraud was carried out nor have they produced any corroboration for their claims. The European Union, with the largest observer group participating in the elections, appears to vacillate, saying that while there were many “imperfections” in last Sunday’s elections, Daniel Ortega won.

What is going on here? Last Thursday I had the opportunity to talk to Adolfo Pastran, a well-respected Nicaraguan journalist, about the elections.

According to Pastran, it’s clear that Daniel Ortega won the elections. All the polls in months, weeks and days before the elections showed very similar results to the official vote tally. “The opposition was divided,” Pastran points out. “It’s very difficult to beat an incumbent with a divided opposition.” Many people who had never voted for the FSLN before voted for Ortega in what Pastran is calling an overwhelming vote of confidence.

“This doesn’t mean that these people are no longer Liberales or Independents,” he says, “but they are saying ‘I like your programs, I’ll give you another chance.’”

Overall, says Pastran, people feel that the situation in Nicaragua has improved – just one week before the elections polls showed that 70.4% of the populace thought the country was on the right track. “Economically, things are better,” says Pastran. “There are new taxis, new buses, transport and electrical subsidies, fewer people are emigrating…things are visibly better.”

The polls support this: one week before the election, the Ortega administration had an exceptionally high approval rating of 65.2%. Additionally, 72.9% said Ortega’s government gives them hope, 70.4% said health care had improved, 71.7% said education had improved, and 45.3% said poverty was down. It’s hard to compete with those numbers.

In the past, the FSLN’s opposition has run its campaigns based on fear: in 2001 television ads showed images of Saddam Hussein, Gadhafi, Fidel Castro, Osama bin Laden and then Daniel Ortega in military uniform. The standard campaign involved threats that if Ortega were elected, the country would return to war, and impose the draft again along with property confiscations and supply shortages. “Those empty threats don’t work anymore,” says Pastran, “because everyone can see that in the past 5 years we haven’t gone back to the 1980s.” This year, says Pastran, the opposition had absolutely nothing to offer. “They basically said ‘we’re going to keep on all of the current social policies, but we’ll do it better.’”

The PLI claims that on election day, their designated party observers were not allowed into 20% of the polling places. “If that’s so,” says Pastran, “then why did they wait until after the results were known to say so? Why were their observers not clamoring at the polling stations and calling the media?”

Pastran has also called for those who did independent quick counts of the vote – including the the European Union (EU), and the Council of Private Business in Nicaragua – to make those results known so they can be compared with the official results. “If they did rapid counts, why are they not making those public?” Yesterday the Organization of American States (OAS) finally made their count public, saying it matched with official results. The National Council of Universities, which was accredited as a Nicaraguan observer group with 20,000 participants all over the country, reported early on that its quick count was within a few percentage points of the official tally for all parties.

What about the observers? Of the national and international observers present for these elections, some observers from the OAS had trouble getting into polling places but once these difficulties were reported, the situation was remedied. In its official communiqué, the OAS said “In Nicaragua yesterday democracy and peace advanced.” In its final report the OAS cited “inconveniences” which included difficulties in obtaining voter cards prior to elections and access to voting places for some official party observers. In the report the OAS made recommendations for reform of electoral law in those areas, while backing up the official results that Daniel Ortega won. The Latin American Council of Election Experts (CEELA) said the electoral process proceeded positively with “agility in the voting process and effective organization with tranquility and peace.” As to the irregularities alleged by the opposition, CEELA said that members of their group did not find evidence of them. The EU continues to seed doubt, the head of the observer mission said, “The total of irregularities shows many imperfections but as to whether or not Daniel Ortega won, he won. Beyond that I won’t say.”

After remaining quiet during the campaign and refusing to back a particular candidate for the first time since the Somoza years, the United States has now come out to say that the elections were not free and fair. Yesterday the Voice of America, the U.S. government’s official media outlet, called for the OAS to sanction Nicaragua and to annul these elections.

What’s behind all this? Pastran’s analysis of the situation is that Ortega’s policies have managed to please the people of Nicaragua as well as national and international business, and because of that, the current claims of fraud are posturing and will die down soon to avoid creating instability. They know the elections were good, but the opposition is starting now to try to erode Ortega’s power for the 2016 elections.”

Other analysts have speculated that with the current economic climate in Europe and the United States, these countries may be looking for a pretext to discontinue aid to Nicaragua, and declaring these elections fraudulent will provide them with the excuse they need.

Pastran maintains that the Nicaraguan elections were free and fair. “Except for a few isolated incidence of violence things are generally calm here. The people know how they voted.”

Pastran cites Ortega’s social programs as the reason he won the election by such a wide margin, and tells the story of a woman in rural Nicaragua who received a sack of food from Ortega’s campaign. She told the media “Thank God that Daniel Ortega remembered me. No government has ever remembered me. I have a son who died fighting with the contra and no government ever remembered me until Daniel Ortega.” -- Becca