Monday, June 25, 2012

U.S. denies aid, Nicaragua threatens to expel US AID

Last week, the U.S. State Department made a decision that will effectively deny Nicaragua $12 million in aid this year.  Now, Nicaragua and other Latin American countries are considering expelling US AID. What is going on here?

U.S. Ambassador in Nicaragua, Phyllis Powers
Each year, in order to receive bilateral aid from the U.S. and for the U.S. to give the green light for World Bank, IMF and Interamerican Development Bank loans – which make up a large portion of the Nicaraguan budget Nicaragua must be granted two waivers by the U.S. State Department.  These waivers, which indicate that a country has complied with certain conditions, are mandated by U.S. law for aid to continue. One waiver, the one that the U.S. denied Nicaragua last week, indicates that the country has sufficient transparency and governability.  The second waiver has to do with land disputes involving U.S. citizens or companies in Nicaragua: the country must prove to U.S. satisfaction that it is making progress resolving property cases involving U.S. citizens or it will be denied the property waiver and another chunk of bilateral aid.

According to the State Department, the U.S. has denied the first waiver this year due to insufficient transparency of public finances.  In particular, Nicaragua receives money from the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA – member countries include Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador and Bolivia) which is not built-in to the government budget because it is administered by bi-national and private agencies.  These funds are, however, included in Nicaragua’s balance of payment statement, which has satisfied IMF and World Bank oversight.  Though there is discord even within Nicaragua about the accounting of ALBA funds, but this has been the case since 2007, and the waiver has always been granted.  What has changed this year? 

For one, there is growing pressure being exerted in the U.S. by extreme anti-Cuban factions – including the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), and Obama’s recently appointed Latin American policy adviser Ricardo Zúñiga.  Ros-Lehtinen, Zúñiga and others like them are threatened by ALBA’s strong alliance with Cuba – since ALBA is financed mainly by Venezuela, it’s no surprise that they would target ALBA funds in Nicaragua, which continues to have strong ties with Cuba.

Additionally, the U.S. was displeased with last year’s Presidential elections when the opposition was unable to beat Ortega, and with the country heading into municipal elections this year, it’s possible that the State Department is hoping to give the opposition a push in November by denying the waiver.
But the waiver issue is not really about how transparent or how democratic Nicaragua – or any other country – is or is not.  Because international aid is not about helping poor countries improve their situations.  As Nicaraguan economist Carlos Pacheco likes to remind our delegations: It’s about politics.  Conditional aid – from the U.S. or any other country – is the carrot that precedes the stick of military might.  

Here’s an example: In the past four years, a handful of European countries have withdrawn aid, citing Nicaragua’s eroding “democracy” and “institutionality” as the reason.  Some speculate that Europe’s own deteriorating economy is really to blame, but more probably it has to do with who will control the African continent.  Historically, Europe has controlled Africa, first through colonialism, and now through the neo-colonial carrot of conditional aid.  Lately, however, China is pouring money into Africa, and Europe fears that the Chinese will gain control of the giant continent in its own backyard.  In order to better concentrate on keeping a hold on Africa, they are withdrawing from Latin America, Nicaragua included.

From my perspective, if the U.S. wants to influence politics in another country – as all countries do – fine, but don’t call it aid.  Sending aid that is earmarked for healthcare (Nicaragua will lose healthcare funding with the waiver denial) only when a country meets certain political conditions is wrong.    Not only is it wrong, but it also ineffective.  Will the waiver denial push Nicaragua to make better decisions about budget transparency and improve U.S. – Nicaragua relations?  Quite the opposite. 

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega
Nicaraguans of all stripes – even fervent critics of Daniel Ortega and his administration – are absolutely up in arms over what they see as U.S. interference in Nicaragua’s internal affairs.  For hundreds of years, Nicaragua has been at the mercy of the whims of politicians in the U.S., and they are tired of it.  This weekend, President Ortega responded to the waiver denial by saying, “From this moment on, they can forget about Nicaragua making institutional political decisions while being subjected to blackmail and pressure. We’ll make decisions when the people decide.”  His typically anti-imperialist response has drawn criticism from moderate sectors in the country, but it also struck a chord in the region: all ALBA countries are currently considering expelling US AID.  “What lessons of morality and social treatment are the Yankees coming here to teach us?” He asked, “At the end of the day, they see the Nicaraguan people as enemies, because for them if the Nicaraguan people are a dignified people that defend their sovereignty, their self-determination, their independence, then they are enemies.”  -- Becca

Thursday, June 21, 2012

They yanked our eyes open & showed us how to live

Dr. Margaret Cubine with Sarah, 2009

Yesterday as my good friend Marilyn was burying her father, our Seminary theology professor Dr. Dill Allison, we learned that our Bible professor from college had also died.  These two deaths have left a hole in our hearts.

Dr. Margaret Cubine was one of our Bible professors in college.  She was the “odd” one.  She smoked then and she would sit back in her chair and puff on her cigarette and challenge us to really think of the messages in the Bible…not the comfortable ones we had learned in Sunday School growing up, but messages of justice; and she challenged us to think more broadly – or as they like to say now – to think “outside the box.” 

She took many students – including Sarah, Mike, and me – on a “Riches to Poverty Tour” of Atlanta.  We started with the wealthy homes and then in the course of a day worked ourselves to the ghettos of Atlanta where we stayed the weekend learning and having our eyes yanked wide open.

Dr. Allison taught Mike and me theology.  We argued with him over many of Calvin’s ideas…John Calvin, the one on whom Dill wrote his dissertation.  We argued predestination and what that means.  I remember writing a paper claiming that maybe we were predestined to live lives in service, but God would not predestine souls to hell.  Dill cleared his throat and shoved his glasses up on his nose and said, “Well, maybe Calvin went too far there.” 

Dr. Dill Allison teaching class
With our eyes opened – thanks to Margaret – Dill encouraged us to work for change through a course on liberation theology…in the 1970s…in South Carolina, no less!  We read Rosemary Reuther, Mary Daley, James Cone, and Gustavo Gutierrez.  We were challenged to not only look at poverty and recognize the pain and injustice there, but see that because of our faith it is imperative to address poverty and injustice and work to change them.

And look where we ended up.  Taking our youngest son to school, we leave poverty to go to an area of wealthy homes up on the ridge surrounding Managua, and then back to the poverty of Ciudad Sandino.  We live in the only country where liberation theology strongly influenced government policies in the 1980s…though its influence on policy is now seldom seen.  The challenges Margaret and Dill set before us are still in our hearts.  They showed us sides of the Divine and sides of humanity that in turn showed us how to live.

We would be different people…lesser people without them.

Here, many call on the presence of those fallen in times of death by saying:
Margaret Cubine 
Dill Allison   

And we thank you, our dear teachers. – Kathleen

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Breathing Room

As someone who has asthma, let me assure you that breathing is NOT over rated!  It is frightening to gasp for breath.  On Easter I ended up in the hospital because my breathing was horribly difficult.  The harder I tried to breathe, the more afraid I became, which makes breathing that much harder.

When I went to the hospital we just got in a car and drove for 40 minutes…THAT was frightening enough for me.   In Nueva Vida, when a child has a severe asthma attack, the father most often has to put the child on a bike and ride to the hospital in Ciudad Sandino.  This is dangerous.  Nueva Vida has five gangs and they come out like vampires after the sun goes down.  In February, they beat Pedro’s son to death and last week stabbed to death a friend of our clinic staff.  It is extremely dangerous.

We have identified over 400 children in Nueva Vida with asthma.

Our asthma program has expanded due to a grant through Boston College.  We have place nebulizers in homes of health promoters so that parents can try to manage the crisis within the community; therefore, not have to leave the dangerous barrio to go to the hospital.  Through this program we have four support groups for parents to share with each other and learn from our nurse. 

We have an excellent brochure to teach parents about when to use inhalers and when to go to the hospital.  It also shows pictures of what triggers asthma, thanks to a student at BC.  AND we have cortisone inhalers to prevent or reduce greatly asthma attacks.  We are the ONLY clinic that offers these inhalers in Nueva Vida.  Prevention is what is needed.

We work with parents to help them change or cope with their environment as they can to reduce asthma attacks…there are so many triggers: smoking in the home (47% of the adult population smokes!); poorly ventilated wood burning cook stoves (many older women suffer from emphysema but have never smoked a cigarette!); burning of trash outside every home once or twice a day; dust in the dry season; mold in the rainy season; and the neighboring city dump that burns its trash including toxic plastics (the smokes billows through Nueva Vida).  It is no wonder even a 3-week-old baby came to the clinic having problems breathing!  

Can you imagine having a child grasping for breath?

Now add:  needing to grab your bike or walk 2 miles to the hospital?  
Now add:  having to first leave your home and hope that a gang of young men who are on drugs will not decide to take your bike or rob you or knife you?  It is unthinkable…yet, so very, very real.

This Father’s Day, give the fathers of Nueva Vida peace of mind by preventing their children from having an asthma attack…give a gift in honor of your father to our asthma program…for $25 we can buy preventive inhalers to aid a child for 6 months.  For $40 we can buy a nebulizer to put in the home of a child who is affected with asthma.   Go to 

Friday, June 1, 2012

1 Billion Children

Today is International Day of the Child.  It is a day to learn about, remember, and encourage people to act on behalf of children worldwide…especially poor children.

I have fond memories of my early years when my parents lived in government housing and struggled to make ends meet as my father went back to school to be a minister.  I played.  I ate.  My parents tucked me in at night and I was safe.  I went to school.  But this is not the life of so many children globally and right here in Nicaragua.

The world has approximately 2.2 billion children.  Of those, 1 billion children live in poverty.  That is almost 1 out of every 2 children that are living in poverty. 

100 million children live on the streets. 

1 out of every 8 children from the ages of 5-14 years old work to bring income into the home or to feed themselves…and that includes prostitution.  In Latin America it is 1 out of every 10 children work.  Globally, most workers are boys, but 90% of the girls work domestically: cleaning, cooking, caring for children in others’ homes…and these homes are often the settings for rape.

1.2 million children are trafficked.   Sold.   Slaves.  Many, many are sold as sex workers.

Eibhlín and Orla play here with volunteers and with their parents, Paul and Becca.  They go to school and learn.  They see the world as a safe place as they run from one house to another in their village. 

My sons grew up enjoying school and relishing in the love from all those around them.  They had some unfortunate experiences as children, some we would not wish on others, but they have developed, they have a good intellect that comes from their experiences, from growing up in an environment that fosters learning. These 1 billion children who live in poverty…they, for the most part, do not have this luxury…not “luxury” but basic human right.  Now in Nicaragua more poor children are going to school - thanks to the current government-  but many still work, sell, take care of brothers and sisters, and yes, too many are sex workers.

The children are our future…they are humankind’s future.  We need to give them what they need to learn, develop, and grow to love peace and justice….for all our sakes…not just theirs. – Kathleen