Friday, October 21, 2011

Rains and Floods

For more than a week now, all of Central America has been smacked by tropical storms dumping heavy rainfall and causing dangerous flooding in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.  Where we are in Managua we haven't seen too many strong downpours but it does seem like it's been raining for days. This post from Global Voices rounds up a bunch of videos of raging rivers and flooded houses from all around Central America.

We've heard news from several Misión Cristiana churches outside of Managua who have seen serious flooding and other problems.  The past two weekends, we had planned to visit churches in San Juan de Limay and El Sauce, but both trips were canceled because washed out bridges and surging rivers made the roads impassable.  There have been some deaths reported, as well as many displaced families and a lot of damage.  Even more worrisome is the risk of families losing their fall bean harvest.

Nicaragua, of course, has a long history with extreme weather.  Hurricanes Mitch (1998) and Felix (2007) are still fresh in people's memory.  Mitch had an especially tragic impact, leading to 3,800 deaths in Nicaragua alone -- 2,000 from a enormous mudslide that basically buried several villages.  These rain storms are nowhere near as catastrophic, but it makes you think...  A recent study ranked Nicaragua 4th on the list of countries most at risk from climate change, mostly due to the risk of extreme weather events.

In Managua, the main danger is the rising level of Lake Xolotlán.  Much of the northwestern part of the country drains into the lake, so torrential downpours in faraway mountain towns end up doing double damage as rising waters flood the Managua neighborhoods along the lake's edge.  La Prensa has some video of the encroaching water in the Acahualinca neighborhood, where the First Church of la Misión Cristiana is located and does its work.  Last year, a similar rise in the level of the lake displaced hundreds of families, and some predict that this year may set a record for highest recorded lake level.

Disaster response has long been one of la Misión's ministries and folks are already talking about how the church should respond to the pastoral needs of its members and their communities, once the problems are known.  If the crop losses turn out to be bad, the food security project may need to be re-tooled and expanded.  But for now, we're waiting to hear news and keeping our umbrellas ready.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Streetcorner Lawyers

Since Maya was born, we've spent quite a few hours at various government agencies getting all her papers in order so that we can travel to the U.S. next week.  For example:
  1. We had to go to the Managua city government to get her Nicaraguan birth certificate.
  2. With that in hand, we went to the U.S. Embassy to apply for her U.S. passport and Consular Report of Birth Abroad.
  3. Following that we went to the Nica immigration office to apply for her Nica passport.
  4. And finally we returned today to apply for her exit visa, which is required for all children leaving the country (except tourists) as an anti-child trafficking measure.
Good times, good times!  Every time we go to the Nica immigration office there is always a big group of people at the gates shouting abogado! abogado! -- which is Spanish for "lawyer."  Until today we hadn't needed the services of these streetcorner lawyers, and had been kind of hoping to avoid such complications.  But for the exit visa we had to submit a lawyer-signed and notarized letter from Maya's parents (i.e. us) with the details about her trip out of the country.  So... across the street we went to a little sidewalk tent where a real live lawyer had set up shop with a copy machine and three old manual typewriters.
Ten minutes later we had our official document to submit in exchange for Maya's exit visa.  Just another little example of how things are done a little differently down here.  Bureaucracies, it seems, are kind of universal all around the world and the main difference we've seen here in Nicaragua is that you often have to go to 3 or 4 different buildings to collect all the various pieces of paper you need.  No one-stop shopping.  In such a situation, you can imagine suddenly feeling the need to have an abogado on your side.

When we return to Nicaragua we'll likely be spending more time in the immigration office as we apply for residency, but for now, we seem to have emerged unscathed with all the needed stamps and papers.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Thoughts on the November Elections

Next month, Nicaraguans will go to the polls for their national elections.  I thought I should write a little something about current Nica politics, although be warned that this is just one gringo's opinion and I am nowhere near an expert on this topic.  Like in the U.S., Nicaraguan politics is highly polarized, so I'm going to try to set the scene without prejudicing one side over the other.  And it's pretty complicated no matter how you slice it.  If I screw something up, let me know.

Today, as for the last 32 years, the central figure in Nicaraguan politics is President Daniel Ortega.  The former guerrilla leader led Nicaragua during the 1980s, along with a number of other Sandinista comandantes, before losing the 1990 elections to Violeta Chamorro.  After 16 years of neoliberal administrations, Ortega was again elected president in 2006.  His party, the FSLN or the Sandinista National Liberation Front, remains the largest single party in Nicaragua although they no longer have majority support.  Ortega was elected in 2006 with 38% of the vote, with the remainder split between a number of opposition candidates.  That victory resulted from a controversial pact with the opposition PLC (Constitutional Liberal Party), which lowered the threshold for avoiding a run-off from 45% to 35%.

My guess is that most Americans' views of Ortega anti-correlate with their views of his 1980s nemesis, Ronald Reagan. I'm going to leave discussion of the 1979 revolution, the Contra War and U.S. intervention for another post, but the Ortega of today is not really the same guy as he was back then.  The FSLN platform is still nominally socialist but it seems to have made its peace with private enterprise and has turned its focus to poverty reduction programs instead.  (For example, this article on Nicaragua's free trade zones.)  The FSLN has hopped on the micro-credit bandwagon, (a big about-face from their disastrous agriculture programs of the '80s) and even manages to play well with the U.S. on anti-drug trafficking initiatives.

Ortega has also made a show of reaching out to former enemies, including former Contra leaders.  His fiercest internal critic from the 1980s, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, is now a supporter.  (This may have something to do with Ortega's much publicized return to the Catholic Church.)  He's also changed his personal style.  No longer the mini-Fidel in army fatigues and giant glasses, he now appears clean-shaven and pink-shirted in all the re-election propaganda.  The campaign is relentlessly cheerful, talking about "love", "people power" and "the common good."  The main slogan is "Christian, Socialist, in Solidarity."  Their most popular bumper sticker is a play on Messi's iconic Barcelona jersey which can be seen plastered on the back of virtually every taxi and bus in Managua.  They also have a really catchy theme song and video.

The opposition case against Ortega is that he's corrupt and dragging the country into a dictatorship.  Ortega maintains close relationships with Castro, Qaddafi (until quite recently, I guess) and most especially Hugo Chavez, from whom Nicaragua receives millions in foreign aid.  For a defender of the poor, Ortega lives pretty high on the hog, a fact that has led to harsh criticism from former Sandinistas, many of whom bolted the party to form the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).

What's more, the current constitution explicitly forbids the re-election of a sitting president, although the Ortega-appointed Supreme Court invalidated that section, clearing the way for his candidacy.  The 2008 municipal elections were also widely seen to have been stolen by the FSLN, leading to fears that this election will be as well.  This shows that even the fear of potential corruption can be corrupting, as Sandinista supporters will turn out to vote, but opposition supporters may not bother. The main daily newspaper, La Prensa, presses these arguments against Ortega daily.

Right now it seems likely that Ortega will win, perhaps with as much as 45% of the vote.  Part of this is that the numerous opposition parties were unable to coalesce around a single candidate.  One of those candidates is Arnoldo Alemán (PLC) -- himself a former president who was jailed for corruption and embezzlement and later freed (some estimate that he stole as much as $100 million from the government coffers).  Alemán retains some support but is seen as unelectable, which has led many to rally around Fabio Gadea (PLI) as the best option for beating Ortega.  But Alemán has refused calls to drop out and may end up taking enough of the liberal vote to sink Gadea's chances.

In a lot of ways, Ortega seems to have the wind at his back.  Nicaragua has avoided the drugs and violence that have plagued other Central American countries and has weathered the global recession better than most (although it is still a poor country, everything is relative).  And I've heard more than one die-hard opposition supporter actually praise his anti-poverty programs. But we shall see in November how it all plays out.