On November 3rd Nicaraguans celebrated Dia de los muertos, visiting their family gravesites to clean and decorate them. The day before people bought armfuls of bright flowers to lay on the graves. All along the paths of the cemetery vendors sold tamales and buñuelos, balls of fried yucca drenched in molasses.
Monthly Archives: November 2011
I was browsing for sugar at the supermarket in León when I realized I was about to be complicit in the deaths of thousands. Let me explain: I’ve been teaching English to the children of sugar cane workers in a rural community an hour from León. All of the children in my class have lost fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, or grandfathers as a result of their work in the cane fields.
To get to their community I take a bus to the town of Chichigalpa, through flat farm- and ranchland, past bright green cane fields. In Chichigalpa I grab a taxi to the river which separates the communities of Guanacastal Sur from town during the rainy season. (The sugar company removes the gravel “bridge” each year, replacing it when the dry season returns). I cross the broad river on foot and walk a half mile to the school, cinderblock homes with small plots of land on one side, impenetrable cane on the other.
The nickname for one of the communities where my students live is “the island of the widows” because so many men have died. Twenty-five percent of the men are sick with Insuficencia Renal Crónica, Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). Nearly all of them worked for the sugar company, mostly cutting and burning cane, also applying chemicals, driving tractors, and in the mill. Men as young as 16 and as old as 70 get sick from CKD, characterized by the decreased ability of the kidneys to regulate fluids and to excrete waste. Later stages of the disease include complications from heart disease and other illnesses, eventually progressing to death. While in the US people with CKD have access to dialysis and kidney transplants, providing a better quality of life, in rural Nicaragua there is no treatment other than dietary recommendations.
The exact causes of the disease in Nicaragua are still unknown—no full-scale study has ever been undertaken. In developed countries CKD is caused by diabetes and hypertension, and is normally seen in people over the age of 50, where in developing countries it is also seen in high rates in young males without chronic illnesses. In particular, agricultural workers in Central America have a far higher incidence of CKD than the general population. According to figures from the Nicaraguan government, the rate of mortality from CKD in Chichigalpa is 13 times higher than the rate for Nicaragua overall.
One week I visited the family of one of my students to learn more about the widows. Israel is lanky with a sweet smile, and enthusiastically answers my questions in class. We walked fifteen minutes from the school towards the river, until we arrived at a brick home surrounded by a well-swept yard. Israel’s mom, Doña Ursula, was widowed 6 years ago. Israel and his sister Delenia are the youngest of ten children, the only ones still in primary school. When Ursula’s husband died her sons went to work in the fields—now the four oldest are all sick with CKD. She told me she struggles to support her family and would like to start a small business selling tortillas.
Ursula, like many workers and community members, points to harmful working conditions as the cause of CKD: workers have no access to potable water while working in the fields, are given infrequent breaks, and are exposed to a variety of chemicals. They also cite contamination of water and soil in their communities as a result of decades of use of pesticides and herbicides.
The sugar companies, in the case of Chichigalpa the Nicaraguan Sugar Estates, which also produces Flor de Caña rum, deny that working conditions or exposure to agricultural chemicals cause CKD. They claim that CKD is a “public health problem” with multiple causes, including smoking, alcohol abuse, and a potential genetic link. They in turn blame the Nicaraguan government as having failed to address the epidemic of CKD. According to one source, 60 people die from CKD each month in Nicaragua.
Regardless of the cause, the company has refused to take any responsibility for the health of its workers. In fact, cane workers receive only short-term contracts (6 months or less) and are given thorough medical exams before their contracts are renewed. An above-normal level of creatine, a marker of the beginning stages of CKD, disqualifies you from working for the company—ever. In a region where the only large employer is the sugar company, this may be as much of a death sentence as the actual illness. Further, families of sick or deceased former cane workers are often denied disability pensions.
I’ve been able to volunteer with and learn about this community through the La Isla Foundation, an organization dedicated to address the health crisis there. They run a Spanish school in León as well as several projects in the community, including a health clinic and educational programs. The organization has formed partnerships with local universities and hospitals as well as the government to study the disease, and continues to advocate for the community.
The English classes I teach are part of an effort to teach skills that will provide greater opportunities for the young people of La Isla. In the case of Israel, bright and enthusiastic, one day of English per week seems a meager offering in the face of such daunting history. Yet I have to have hope for him and for his classmates.
In the end I did buy the sugar, ubiquitous in its bright white packets, its logo a palm-lined road stretching to the mountains on the horizon, not a worker in sight.
On Sunday, the day of the presidential elections, people held their breaths in León, anticipating the violence seen in the 2008 municipal elections, when groups of young men fought in the streets with rocks. You couldn’t buy alcohol anywhere in the country from Saturday night until Monday, and the streets were eerily quiet Sunday, with many shops closed and a noticeable lack of the blaring of campaign songs (the 3 days leading up to the election were officially “days of silence” during which no campaigning was allowed).
I went with Irma, the housekeeper from my house, to vote at the law school a couple blocks away. The blue-uniformed national police at the door barely gave me a second glance as we entered with Carola, the adult daughter of the family, and her ten year-old son, José. After Irma found her name on the lists plastered to the walls we walked to her precinct’s voting room, where they examined her cédula, national identity card.
Despite receiving a text message from the Consejo Suprema Electoral (the national election commission) that read: “your vote is valid with just a signature from the members of the local voting committee” I was, in fact, not allowed to enter the voting room. I asked the member of the Policía Electoral if they would let José enter, “to learn the civic importance of voting,” but he was unconvinced. He listed the prohibitions: no cameras or cell phones, no-one else in the voting booth, no campaigning (the streets around the polling places were devoid of propaganda).
After voting Irma dipped her thumb in permanent ink to mark her as having voted—most citizens went black-thumbed through the city the next 2 days. I was able to take a photo outside the law school looking in, and everyone we encountered inside and out of the polling place was relaxed and friendly, with many neighbors greeting each other.
In search of drama, we walked to another precinct, where Carola volunteered in 2001 as a local election observer. She’d nearly been in a physical fight with someone on the committee when they challenged her signature, threatening to invalidate many ballots, she said. “There’s always problems in that precinct.”
When we arrived at the high school, an unsmiling Policia Electoral manned the gate, only letting people enter with their cédula. A man in glasses in his fifties approached, clutching a worn book. “I want to speak to the representative of the election commission.” A young man wearing a vest emblazoned with “Consejo Supremo Electoral” came out. The man with the glasses pulled a tattered, folded up document from his book and shook it at the younger man. “Why won’t you let me enter? I have proof that I’m a citizen, and you won’t let me enter?” The younger man replied calmly, “Señor, you need a cédula, that’s the law.”
When another older man confronted him, poking him in the chest, the representative of the CSE backed away, saying “Don’t touch me,” then returned to the security of the school. The man in the glasses lifted up his shirt to the crowd outside, saying, “I spent seven years in the mountains for this?!” and revealing a long scar across his belly.
We left soon thereafter, the tension from the scene somewhat dissolved by the calm presence of the bystanders and the bus drivers waiting to drive the ballots to the city center to be counted.
The months-old stencil on the façade of León city hall reads: “Daniel Presidente 2012/2017… Daniel Reeleción ya.” And in the end he was reelected with 62% of the vote, according to figures from the government. Overall the process was mostly calm, with conflicts reported in some parts of the country but without any widespread disturbances. Both national and international organizations (like the EU and Organization of American States) criticized the elections for a lack of transparency and for the failure in some cases to allow members of opposition parties to serve as observers. The leading opposition candidate, Fabio Gadea, who won 30% of the vote, has not accepted defeat, claiming “fraud.”
Yet on Sunday night fireworks crackled through the night, and Monday the students of the Juventud Sandinista paraded through the streets in bright pink t-shirts, waving the red and black flags of the frente. Their campaign song, a catchy cover of “Stand by Me,” boomed: “otra, otra vez…” Again, again…