* Michelle Thoughts, Other Travels, Videos

Nicaragua Service-Learning Trip: Recap Video

The following video is a recap of my (Michelle’s) Nicaragua Immersion in May, in which I had the opportunity to accompany a group of 18 university students and one other staff member on a 3-week service-learning program. The video shows just a glimpse of all that is involved in the process of our Center’s service-learning programs, which are coordinated by student leaders, and require a sizable commitment of preparation and fundraising from students for the entire academic year. Once in Nicaragua, you can see what a range of issues we encountered and how students were changed from the experience. This is one of the most powerful, educational experiences I’ve ever participated in; I hope you can tell from the students’ testimonies in this video how much it impacted them as well.

* Michelle Thoughts, Other Travels

U.S. Goes Bananas in Nicaragua

On the Nicaragua Immersion this past May, two of our site visits really stood out to me. One, the factory where we saw North Face jackets manufactured (read about that visit here) and two, the tent camp where former banana workers have been protesting for four years (read more here). Combined, these brought to light much of what has gone horribly wrong with the U.S. trade policies we thought were supposed to be fair and helpful. To make a long story short, we heard straight from the source that big fruit companies like Dole have used a harmful fertilizer, Nemagon (which had been banned in the States twenty years earlier), on its Central American plantations. The unknowing banana workers now suffer from sterility, cancers, and many other diseases. One thousand have died and 16,500 were harmed in some way. Hundreds have left their families to protest in the capital, living in a tent camp until something is done. Meanwhile, Dole refuses to acknowledge its wrongdoing. It turns out, we aren’t the only ones who think the story of the banana workers should be heard. In fact, it was so scandalous that a documentary filmmaker covered the trial the banana workers brought against Dole in a new film titled “Bananas“, and companies

around the globe were watching carefully as the case “would open the US courts to other global victims of US-based multinationals.” Dole even tried to sue the filmmaker for screening the movie in the U.S.! While it hasn’t been released yet, the premiere in L.A. happens this week, as does the filmmaker’s court day to win back lawyer fees for having been inappropriately sued. Please visit www.bananasthemovie.com to learn more!

BANANAS!* trailer

from WG Film on Vimeo.

Educate Yo’self: The Background Info (Source: http://witnessforpeace.org/article.php?id=225)

Free Trade opens up markets by eliminating all taxes and tariffs on products being imported and exported, creating one large economy in which everyone competes. It encourages countries to produce for export rather than for their own consumption. Under this prescription, impoverished countries like Nicaragua have been obligated to offer cheap labor to the global economy. In the apparel industry, the cheapest countries will succeed in attracting foreign-owned garment assembly factories (maquilas).This system has spawned the notorious “race to the bottom:” a race of developing countries to be the cheapest option for the multinational corporations that produce and sell our jeans and t-shirts. So Nicaragua offers maquila investors the lowest wages in Central America, governmental tax breaks, and unenforced labor laws.

Such cost savings for U.S. corporations have taken their toll on Nicaragua’s workers. Foreign-owned maquilas routinely violate and disregard Nicaragua’s worker-friendly labor laws. The Ministry of Labor does little to enforce the law, knowing that the companies may balk at increased production costs and abandon Nicaragua for a country offering more lax laws. As a result, thousands of Nicaraguan workers are regularly insulted and harassed by superiors, forced to work late into the evenings, fired for pregnancy or illness, and denied legally-entitled pay and benefits.Unions that attempt to halt such exploitation are summarily dismantled by managements’ blatant acts of union-busting.

Under CAFTA, sold to the Nicaraguan public with the promise that a surge in maquila jobs will replace lost agricultural jobs, the country is becoming even more dependent on the maquila system. Given CAFTA’s failure to establish a realistic mechanism for labor law enforcement, more maquilas likely mean more exploitation. Many also question how long these maquila jobs will last. With the recent entrance of bigger and cheaper contenders like China, Nicaragua now faces grim competition in the global race to the bottom. To win, Nicaragua may need to allow for escalated erosion of workers’ rights.

* Michelle Thoughts, Other Travels

Nicaragua the Wise

As many of you know, I (Michelle) had the great opportunity to travel to Nicaragua for almost three weeks with a student service-learning trip. The experience was amazing and I can honestly say I’ve never learned so much in such a short period of time. This collage of pictures depicts just a few snapshots of our trip, but what it doesn’t show are the profound stories of hardship, wisdom, and resilience we heard from the Nicaraguan people nor the deep, complex issues we encountered in the country. The one request we got over and over from people while we were down there was to share their stories and to remember their communities. Please, you can help me do this. I’ll do my best in the coming blog posts to recount some of the stories, but never hesitate to ask me more about it. (And if you ever have the chance to participate in a “delegation” with the organization Witness for Peace, I can’t recommend it enough.)

We packed our days learning about the culture, the economy, the political history, labor rights issues, health care, coffee and organic farming, fair trade, human rights violations, street children, and more. For example: after a crash course in trade policy and labor rights, we toured a big factory making North Face jackets, then saw a fair trade cooperative factory for comparison, and later sat down for a talk with union organizers who are standing up for labor laws to be enforced in their workplace. I think one of the most shocking themes we saw throughout the trip was how much the United States’ policies, trade agreements, and influence throughout history have impacted Nicaragua to its detriment. As a result, we also came to discover that our role in Nicaragua was not to make changes while we were there (the Nicaraguans should be empowered to change their own country from within) but rather to wield our power and influence upon returning home, where our decisions, purchases, votes, and voice still have a huge impact on Latin American countries. All of this is something I’ll attempt to explain in my next post.

Until then, see our 2010 Nicaragua Immersion blog for more stories from the students.