Nicaraguans who lived through it will never forget it. On June 27, 1986, the International Court of Justice found the United States guilty of violating international law for arming, training and funding the Contras, a counterrevolutionary group in Nicaragua. The court ordered the United States to pay reparations. Nicaragua asked for $17 billion, and u.s. officials walked out of the hearing.
Later that year, on Nov. 25, a scandal made headlines. The Reagan administration had secretly sold weapons to Iran and diverted $30 million in profits to the Contras, in violation of Congress’ 1982 ban on using federal money to help overthrow the government of Nicaragua.
This is common knowledge for Nicaraguans, who together lost 30,000 family members and friends, or 2 percent of their population, in the war. These events are less familiar to many North Americans, and although Nicaragua is only a 2.5-hour plane ride from Miami, for most, the small country seems a world away.
To the nearly 100,000 u.s. citizens who traveled to Nicaragua in the 1980s, though, the Reagan administration’s involvement in the war wasn’t news. Working alongside Nicaraguans, these North Americans harvested coffee, taught rural peasants how to read and write, built schools, shipped medical supplies and construction materials, and witnessed firsthand how u.s. taxpayers’ dollars were being used to destroy the country, which u.s. leaders labeled communist.
Today, Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti. Almost 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day. The country’s political relationship with the United States is strained due to Nicaragua’s alliance with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. In November 2011, leftist party leader Daniel Ortega was re-elected by 63 percent of voters. Despite this high voter turnout, in January 2012 u.s. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called Nicaragua’s general elections a “setback to democracy” and said that they “were not conducted in a transparent and impartial manner.” Now, the United States is cutting $3 million in bilateral aid to Nicaragua due to “insufficient transparency in the country’s public finances,” a portion of which comes from Venezuela’s petrodollar profits. For Nicaraguans, political decisions made in Washington, d.c., continue to affect their daily lives.
These days, fewer u.s. citizens are paying attention to Nicaragua. Many think of the country only as a vacation destination. But some are choosing to spend time with Nicaraguans, usually while volunteering in humanitarian projects. They know the daily challenges that many Nicaraguans face because they have witnessed them firsthand. For instance, they have seen that, while the small country is nearly surrounded by water, a lack of infrastructure prevents many Nicaraguans from having access to potable drinking water. They understand that due to high unemployment, most families have at least one family member working in Costa Rica who sends money home so that the others can get by. They know that many youth there do not finish high school because they need to work, in jobs that range from selling food in the street to building concrete blocks used for construction. These North Americans have also learned that despite the country’s material poverty, Nicaraguans are rich in spirit. A popular saying there is, “Somos pobres pero orgullosos,” which means, “We are poor, but proud.”
In the 1980s, there were roughly 100 sister organizations, or hermanamientos, created by activists in the United States who were trying to raise awareness about the cost of the Contra war. These sister organizations established formal relationships between u.s. and Nicaraguan communities. Today about 30 of these organizations remain across the United States, and two of them are located in the Puget Sound area. A third sister organization in Seattle has evolved over the past decade. Though not all of these organizations are political in their orientation, as most were in the 1980s, they all demonstrate a compelling strategy for creating social change.
Each organization supports and works alongside Nicaraguans in community-led development projects. They all emphasize the importance of building relationships through people-to-people exchange. They are multigenerational and largely volunteer-run. By asking the simple question, “What do you need from us?” they promote self-determination and equity.
Bainbridge-Ometepe Sister Islands Association (bosia)
A fundamental principle has guided the Bainbridge-Ometepe Sister Islands Association’s (bosia) work for 25 years.
“We have been insistent from day one that whatever we do on the island be at the behest of the people on the island,” bosia member Don Duprey explained. “We’re not just bringing stuff to them that we think they ought to have for one reason or another. We’re acting to assist them in their own initiatives.”
Like many other u.s. citizens, bosia founder and Bainbridge Island resident Kim Esterberg opposed what the u.s. government was doing in Nicaragua, but he felt that protesting wasn’t enough. “I wanted to start a people-to-people connection, regardless of politics,” Esterberg said.
Others in the Seattle area were already taking action. Melissa Young, a cabinetmaker and woodworking teacher at Seattle Central Community College, organized the Seattle Construction Brigade, a group of tradespeople who wanted to help reconstruct Nicaragua. In collaboration with Seattle-based organization El Centro de la Raza, and at the request of Nicaraguan priest and community organizer Father Ignacio González, the Construction Brigade gathered materials and shipped them through Canada to avoid the u.s. embargo. In Nicaragua, they helped local workers build a school in a rural town called Tierra Blanca, located just outside the town of Santo Tomás in central Nicaragua.
Inspired by this, Esterberg traveled to Nicaragua in search of a “sister” to the island community on which he lived and found Ometepe, an island located in Lake Nicaragua.
Esterberg’s initial visit to Ometepe became the catalyst for the bosia. Today Bainbridge Island residents support Ometepe by funding college scholarships for high school students, constructing libraries, strengthening health clinic operations, setting up computers, buying and selling fair-trade coffee produced by Ometepino growers and helping teachers provide resources for special needs students. Sometimes Ometepe has specific project requests. For instance, they needed a hinged truck ramp to more easily transport crops from farmers’ truck beds to local markets, water filters to purify contaminated drinking water, and money to be put toward school uniforms and bus fare for students from poorer families who live in the countryside and therefore cannot easily attend school. bosia also pays the salaries of two part-time staff members on Ometepe, one who works as an office manager and another who runs the college scholarship program for youth. Aside from these two paid staff, the entire organization is made up of volunteers.
Duprey explained that while the projects are important, the greatest benefit is gained through forming relationships with people: “What we want to do, above all, is encourage exchange and friendship between people on Ometepe and people on Bainbridge.”
Delegations help accomplish this goal. They bring groups of Bainbridge Islanders and Ometepinos to visit each other’s homes and communities, and people of all ages take part. High school delegations take 24 Bainbridge Island students to Ometepe for two weeks each summer, where they live with host families and volunteer in community projects. Community delegations take members of the various Bainbridge-based project committees — the health committee, the coffee committee, the special needs committee — to Ometepe. Finally, delegations from Ometepe to Bainbridge, which take place every two or three years, offer Ometepinos the chance to visit their sister island and share their knowledge and experience with members of their sister community.
The long-lasting relationships formed between residents of Bainbridge Island and Ometepe compel Bainbridge residents, who may otherwise feel distant from the daily struggles of life in Nicaragua, to stay actively involved in the work. Student delegates share their experiences with friends and family, and some return to volunteer on Ometepe. Seniors volunteer their time to bag fair-trade coffee, which is imported from Ometepe, roasted on Bainbridge, and then sold in Bainbridge Island grocery stores. bosia imports 15,000 pounds of coffee each year, and all the profits from coffee sales go directly back into the Ometepe-based projects. For $960 per year, a family can sponsor a student to attend college. There are 50 Bainbridge Island families now sponsoring 50 high school students on Ometepe to attend college in Nicaragua so they can return to work on their island as engineers, doctors, agronomists, nurses and teachers.
“One of the things that makes this model so powerful is that it’s sustainable,” Esterberg explained. “And the reason it’s sustainable is because it’s not a charity, it’s a relationship.”
Thurston-Santo Tomás Sister County Association (tstsca)
Olympia-based tstsca was founded on the premise of solidarity. Organization founder Jean Eberhardt first went to Nicaragua in 1986 with the Seattle Construction Brigade to a town called Tierra Blanca, located just outside Santo Tomás, to help build a school. Not long after returning from that trip, she learned that Tierra Blanca had been attacked by the Contras. The father of her host family was stabbed in the throat with a machete and barely survived. Around the same time, Ben Linder, a young mechanical engineer from the Northwest, was assassinated along with two other Nicaraguans while measuring a stream for a micro-hydro project that would have provided light and electrical power to rural families.
These events galvanized the Olympia community to action. In February 1988, 14 Olympia volunteers went to Santo Tomás as part of the Olympia to Nicaragua Construction Brigade. They formed tstsca and dedicated themselves to raising the public’s awareness of what the Reagan administration was doing in Nicaragua.
For more than two decades tstsca has supported community-based projects in Santo Tomás and has helped build relationships between Olympians and Tomasinos. tstsca’s partner organization, the Comité para Desarrollo Comunal (Committee for Community Development) is an umbrella organization with programs in Santo Tomás that include a children’s free lunch program, an organic farm, a public library, a health clinic, college scholarships, an elementary school, a night school, a program for special needs students and a public laundry. The committee also has a microlending program to assist rural family farmers in the surrounding countryside.
Supporting the projects is a grassroots effort. To send supplies, Olympia volunteers pack requested items into suitcases and send them on the plane with each visiting delegation along with handwritten letters and gifts. At packing parties, community members of all ages gather to pack supplies from pencils to farm tools that have been requested by the Santo Tomás-based projects and donated by tstsca members. It would not be uncommon for one suitcase to be packed, for example, with enough shin guards and balls to equip an entire women’s soccer team. Others suitcases will contain medical supplies like bandages and disposable gloves, or markers, crayons, scissors and rulers for elementary school students. Once packed, each suitcase is carefully weighed to ensure it doesn’t go over the maximum weight limit for checked luggage, an added cost that would fall outside the organization’s operating budget.
“One lesson that we have learned from folks organizing in Nicaragua is that it is possible to get a lot done with relatively few resources,” Eberhardt explained. “It’s not easy, but it’s possible, because organizing is a door-to-door activity.”
For an all-volunteer organization with relatively limited resources, tstsca accomplishes quite a bit. An annual garage sale with items donated by community members helps raise money for college scholarships. A partnership with neighboring Evergreen State College gives students the opportunity to participate in a study abroad program in which they volunteer and live with host families. Delegations take Olympians to Santo Tomás and bring Tomasinos to Olympia. The relationships built through these exchanges help drive support for the projects and serve as the foundation for the organization.
“I’m certain that this relationship wouldn’t exist anymore if it weren’t for the deep connections that people have built over many years,” Eberhardt said.
One way this exchange has taken place is through the establishment and maintenance of a sister-school relationship. Two elementary schools, Lincoln Elementary School in Olympia and Escuela Rubén Darío in Santo Tomás, have had a relationship for 14 years. Students and teachers exchange handwritten letters in Spanish, which are sent in suitcases with each delegation; the Nicaraguan students and teachers have limited access to computers and the Internet. Families, teachers and administrators participate in delegation visits. Lincoln provides financial support to help students at its sister school purchase school uniforms. And each year, Lincoln families gather school supplies to send to teachers and students at Escuela Rubén Darío.
“It’s a two-way relationship,” Lincoln teacher and tstsca member Michi Thacker said. “The kids write letters and learn about a culture that is other than their own. We write letters down there, in Spanish, and they write back to us.”
Writing and receiving letters motivates her students to learn Spanish and makes it real, she said. It also raises their awareness about the privilege they have relative to their pen-pal friends in Nicaragua, she said, which inspires them to act. One concrete way that the students and their families can help is to donate materials to the supply drive or to the annual garage sale fundraiser, which raises money for the sister school and other projects in Santo Tomás, including a children’s free lunch program. For some of the kids, the free lunch might be the only substantial meal they receive each day.
“The supplies are limited down there, and the conditions are difficult,” Thacker said. “So we do what we can to offer support.”
Balgüe-Beacon Hill Sister Schools
It started a decade ago with a basic idea: Write out the rules of tetherball in Spanish and send tetherball equipment — a ball and a string. That was what led a Spanish immersion classroom at Beacon Hill International School to start a connection with Balgüe Primaria, an elementary school located in the village of Balgüe, on the island of Ometepe. The teachers and kids in Balgüe loved it. They sent back instructions for how to make maracas: how to choose the right gourd, boil it and take out the seeds. The Beacon Hill kids continued: how to make a salad. Then, Balgüe: how to make a musical instrument from things you can find in the road. The exchange began informally at first, but it soon evolved into an ongoing relationship.
bosia founder Kim Esterberg helped start the connection while volunteering as a tutor at the Beacon Hill school. He shared stories with staff and teachers about his experiences in Nicaragua, and they wanted to be involved. Soon after, in 2002, principal Susie Murphy wrote a letter to the principal of Balgüe Primaria and the sister-school relationship became formal. For Murphy, it was a natural connection.
“Something that makes Beacon Hill so wonderful is its diversity,” she said.
With families coming from countries such as Vietnam, China, Laos, the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Ethiopia and Somalia, Beacon Hill International School reflects the rich diversity of its South Seattle neighborhood. Over 86 percent are students of color, and 32 percent speak English as their second language. PTA meetings are translated into multiple languages, and the school hosts language immersion programs in Spanish and Mandarin as part of its curriculum.
Each year since 2003, teachers and administrators from Beacon Hill International School have visited Balgüe. Teachers from Balgüe have also visited Beacon Hill. These delegations have helped build the connection between the schools and have benefited both students and teachers alike. Andy Pickard, a teacher at Beacon Hill and a delegate, said it’s a learning experience for him, too.
“My relationship with the teachers is really important because we can learn from each other and share ideas,” he explained. “I’ve experienced the world in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to without them.”
Other teachers have also been delegates. Heather Graves Chavez helped facilitate the joint production of a calendar featuring artwork by students in her own fifth-grade class and a fifth-grade class in Balgüe. Through sales of the calendar, they raised more than $1,000 to support the sister school. The Spanish immersion classrooms have continued the pen-pal relationship, sending handwritten letters and scanned drawings from classroom to classroom; a technology grant helped set up computers and access to the Internet in Balgüe, which has made this process much easier. Now, teachers and students can send emails regularly.
“I think the exchange is particularly strong for the Spanish immersion program because it gives them a real outlet for practicing their Spanish literacy with something that is pretty authentic,” Pickard said.
The exchange is the priority, but Beacon Hill International School has also helped supply their sister school in Balgüe. Many families at the Beacon Hill school are new immigrants to the United States, and more than two-thirds of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch programs. Despite a relative lack of material resources, they have raised funds for their sister school and have also found creative ways of sending materials. For example, rather than purchasing books written in Spanish to stock the library at Balgüe Primaria, which would be expensive, Spanish-speaking parents have volunteered their time to translate extra donated books by hand using Sharpie markers. The donated books are then carried in suitcases to Balgüe, where they are used in the classrooms at the sister school. “We can put a lot of books in their library this way because it’s free,” Esterberg explained.
Another teacher who helped build the connection is Chilo Granizo, a teacher at Beacon Hill who is originally from Nicaragua. She knows firsthand the importance of education, and for her, the sister-school relationship is very personal as well as political. At the age of 17, she went into the countryside in Nicaragua to teach farmers (campesinos) how to read and write as part of a national campaign called the Literacy Brigades, which was launched one year after her country’s revolution. The Literacy Brigades helped reduce illiteracy by 38 percent and bridged the gap between rural and urban Nicaraguans. That experience changed her life, she said, and inspired her to become an educator.
“The sister-school and immersion program isn’t only about learning a language,” Granizo explained. “It’s also about building a conscience. With language, you can make a change in the world. My dream is that one day there will be a change in Nicaragua, so everyone can read and have a book in their home. My dream is that children everywhere will fall in love with reading. If children can’t read or speak, they can’t fight for their rights, or for the rights of their family, against exploitation.”
Three decades ago, the u.s.-Nicaragua sister movement emerged as a practical way to provide support to Nicaraguans while also raising awareness and taking action in the United States to end the Contra war. Today it reflects a desire to achieve greater equity in the world, so that all children can grow up to be healthy and free from poverty. Nicaragua is still in the process of healing, and like its community leaders in the 1980s understood when they invited North Americans to assist with their country’s reconstruction efforts, they still need all the help they can get. But they are looking for help without strings attached, the kind that stems from love and an authentic desire to do what’s right. In the Puget Sound area, they have made some friends willing to do just that.