A city of barricades

A city of barricades

As some of you know, I’ve been living in Nicaragua with my girlfriend Beth since October last year. We came here to learn Spanish, work with farmers co-operatives (like UCA Miraflor!) and get to know a country that I’d fallen in love with on a previous visit in 2013. Over the last 2 months Nicaragua has seen some of the worst violence for 30 years. I thought it would be good to share our experience with friends of Twin Cafe to help raise awareness of what is happening to the country where our coffee comes from. 

On April 18th this year, protests began in Nicaragua over reforms to social security. In the weeks since then the protests have escalated and become focussed on removing the current president Daniel Ortega from power. Since April, Nicaragua has born witness to desperately sad violence. Initial clashes between police and students left dozens dead. Protests spread to major cities across the country and the death toll has continued to increase. The figures being quoted as of June 13th vary between 100 and 150 deaths. Their deaths and the injuries of hundreds more are desperately sad. I’ve, thankfully, never seen violence like this before and the thing that strikes me most about it is how senseless it feels. The terrible videos of young people being shot and killed repeat over and over again each time you scroll through your Facebook feed and you just can’t comprehend how it’s still happening… Weeks have gone past and every day brings new deaths.

The truth is that I don’t feel like I understand what has happened. I won’t pretend to be an expert on Nicaragua. I don’t think that I can provide you with the political or social analysis that will explain the situation here but I can describe to you what I’ve seen and what it’s felt like.

Up until April, Nicaragua had one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America and was an increasingly popular tourist destination. Our very own Princess Eugenie (no, I hadn’t heard of her either!!) even got engaged here in January. I suspect she won’t be coming back in a hurry.

We’re based in Leon, a colonial city in the West of the country. Forbes named it in their list of ‘the 10 coolest cities around the world to visit in 2018’. I don’t think many of my Nicaraguan neighbours took much notice but the city was packed with tourists.  Local universities and colleges were churning out young graduates with degrees in sustainable tourism, hospitality and English. Leon’s streets were full of hostels aimed at back-packers, fancy hotels for families, bars, restaurants and one club where everybody ended up on a Thursday. Many of these small businesses were set up by foreigners who had spotted an opportunity and invested in the country. The businesses owned by foreigners were employing Nicaraguans in service and managerial roles, and a whole industry of Salsa instructors, Spanish teachers and tour guides was growing at a pace. It honestly felt like you were in the middle of a boom. When you visited beaches along Nicaragua’s beautiful coastline, which has long been a magnet for surfers, construction work was happening constantly. Each week you’d have a conversation with a traveller who was debating buying land here and opening their own business. Sometimes this economy felt far removed from the lives of the average Nicaraguan but it was certainly bringing bucket loads of bright green dollars into the country.

Since the crisis began the number of tourists entering the country has, unsurprisingly, fallen off a cliff. It doesn’t take many international news headlines to destroy the image of a country that had slowly been rebuilt after the revolution and subsequent civil war during the 1970s and 1980s. As the tourists vanished, hostels, bars and restaurants began to close. On top of this, Nicaraguans in Leon have mostly stayed at home and the city has been pretty deserted once the sun sets. The ripple effects are more far reaching than I imagined. I visited a local private clinic two weeks ago and the doctor that I saw said that she had previously treated 3 or 4 tourists every day but since the crisis began that number had dropped to 1 every 3 or 4 days. I doubt she’s treating anyforeigners now. This, sadly, will quickly have an effect on the employment of many people at her clinic. Needless to say Spanish lessons, Salsa lessons and guided tours simply aren’t happening. These are real jobs, putting food on the table for local people and their families.

The tense atmosphere in Leon was bizarrely offset by a visit to one of the country’s rural communities. On the 1st of June we went to Achuapa, a small town in the North of Nicaragua, and it may as well have been a different country. Everyone seemed relaxed and life was completely normal. People were in the street and shops looked like they were doing fine business wise. We saw a small group of protestors with flags who were having casual conversations with local policemen. We visited the co-operative Juan Francisco Paz Silva where they were holding Mother’s Day celebrations, an hour long event recognising the mothers in the co-operative with presents, games and music. It was an important reminder of the vast differences within Nicaragua between the urban and the rural communities. In brief chats with people from Miraflor (where Twin Cafe’s coffee is grown!) it seems like everything is calm there too and that they are continuing to work. Life goes on and they will be producing coffee which they hope there will still be a market for once this crisis is over.

Now one thing you have to understand about Nicaragua is that this is a country of earthquakes, hurricanes and volcanos. People here are equally vivacious, passionate and brave. They don’t do things by half measures and when they protest they don’t mess around. Young people here have grown up listening to the stories of the revolution that their parents waged to overthrow the vicious Somoza dictatorship. Students carry morteros, makeshift pipes used as mortars to fire explosives from. Nicaragua’s streets are paved with concrete blocks called adoquines which have, over the years, often been pulled up to create barricades. During this crisis these barricades have slowly spread across the country and have been a focal point for violence. Initially they appeared on the country’s major roads cutting the flow of goods and people between cities. They are a pretty damn effective way of applying political and economic pressure. For agricultural co-operatives this means that their products can’t reach ports and can’t be shipped out of the country to expectant buyers. For the average person it has meant it’s very difficult to leave the where you are based and for some people its hard to even get to work.

Since Tuesday 12th June these barricades have appeared on every street corner in Leon. Our road has a barricade at either end, one of which is about a foot thick and 5 feet high with a gap for a mortero (which looks more like a cannon) to fire through.

As the barricades have sprung up and violence has continued in the city, everything has shut down. The only forms of transport are motorbikes whose riders drive on the pavements to avoid the broken glass scattered across the roads. The city which I have always associated with bustling roads and honking car horns is now an almost completely pedestrianised zone. Normal activities like doing a food shop or paying your internet bill have become surreal and sometimes scary adventures. On Wednesday, with the threat of National Strike the next day, people rushed around trying to buy last minute supplies. We walked 4 blocks to our local supermarket passing at least 10 barricades. Outside the supermarket we waited in a queue of a hundred or so people as the security guards let in one group at a time to prevent over-crowding. The unfortunate guard opened the gate as we neared the front and immediately the crowd surged forward barging him out the way as he desperately called for back up over his radio.

It’s an uncertain time here. I imagine that sadly the people who will be suffer the most from this situation will be those who are already vulnerable. People who live hand to mouth and can only afford to buy food for that day will be hit hardest by the damaged economy. I really hope a peaceful, democratic solution is found quickly. Once one is found there will be a long road for Nicaragua to get back to its feet. Whatever happens Twin Cafe will, in our small way, continue trying to support Nicaraguan farmers. We’ll buy coffee from their latest harvest and we’ll buy coffee from them again next year. I’ve got complete confidence in Nicaragua’s ability to chart its own course and can’t help but marvel at the irrepressible spirit of the Nicaraguan people.

If you want to help consider buying some of our coffee. We’re entirely run by volunteers and our aim is just to help bring some of Nicaragua’s finest coffee to the UK. As we get to better understand how we can help we’ll do our best to provide suggestions for organisations or causes you can donate to. In the mean time please send your solidarity to the people of Nicaragua. 

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