Hunger and Poverty Assault Nicaraguans

Within the country as well as in exile, Nicaraguan families face great economic uncertainty.

The increase in prices is already affecting sales at the Managua markets. Photo: Carlos Herrera / Confidencial

Families sell used clothing, run through their savings, eat only two meals a day, or prioritize the kids in order to survive.

By Ivan Olivares (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – The Rodriguez family from Granada, found a way to reduce their mealtimes from three times a day to twice, because they don’t have enough money for food.

The family consists of four people. The father and mother are both in their sixties: he’s retired and she washes, irons and cooks for others in order to contribute to the family economy. Their daughter is a single mother of two young children who cleans houses to support them. The son is a young man who lost his job before the crisis, and who hasn’t been able to find another.

“After the most violent months of the crisis, my sister lost her job. My Dad was working as a waiter in Granada, under the table so as not to lose his retirement pension, but he also lost his job, since he worked exclusively with the foreign tourists, who stopped coming. I couldn’t find another job, so the only one who still has work is my mother,” the young man told us.

Amid the crisis, the sister began buying used clothing in good condition, paying some US 15–30 cents for each item, and offering it for sale to her friends and neighbors. All things considered, the family’s minimal income “makes it very difficult to be able to eat three meals a day, so we’ve gotten used to eating twice a day: once in the morning and another meal around four in the afternoon,” the son states.

Granada

A Saturday afternoon in Granada in October 2018, with no tourists in sight. Photo: Carlos Herrera

In 2017, before the crisis, some 20.4% of Nicaraguans (1.3 million) were considered poor, according to data from the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development.

The recession that followed the violent repression of the April Rebellion added another 200,000 to the army of the poor, who must find a way each day to scrounge enough income to at least feed the family.

The situation of these people is already sad, but it’s even more so given the perspective for further deterioration of the country’s economic situation. This could increase the number of Nicaraguans classifying as poor from the current estimate of 1.5 million to some 2.1 million inhabitants by the end of this year.

The tragedy behind these numbers is the problem of scarce food that repeats itself three times a day, even if there are families like the Rodriguez’ who have reduced themselves to two meals a day.

Luisa and Denisse: mother, daughter, grandchildren, nephews and nieces

Dona Luisa Benevides and her daughter Denisse Ruiz have four school-age children and a toddler in their care.  In talking to Confidencial, Denisse recognizes that “the economic situation in the country is terrible. Jobs are scarce. That doesn’t mean that before there were tons of jobs, but, yes, there were companies that were hiring. Instead, these companies are now leaving the country and laying off their personnel. That makes the conditions in the homes worse.”

She’s put in applications everywhere, “but no one’s hiring.” Her anxiety increases daily, since “I’ve been without work during almost all of 2019.”

Together with her lack of work, Denisse observes with discouragement that “produce is very expensive. Before, things might go up one or two cordobas (US 3 – 6 cents), but now they’re going up 5, 6, and even 7 cordobas (15 – 20 US cents). The little money that you can bring in only buys some three or four items, and if you have a large family like ours, the situation is worse. Before, I was able to stretch my pay to cover food and some household needs, but everything has gone up too much. This is depressing,” she admits.

Despite all this, she and Dona Luisa have managed to keep the children from going hungry. “We haven’t stopped eating, but we owe over US $240 (8,000 cordobas) in water and electricity, because we haven’t been able to pay the bills for a number of months.

That the kids aren’t going hungry, doesn’t mean they’re eating well. “We don’t get any support from the rest of the family, so it’s just my mother and me. Sometimes we only eat rice. Other days, only the children eat, and my mother and I go hungry,” Denisse states.  

From start-up to unemployed

Leon resident Marcos Caldera had a lot of plans before the April Rebellion. Together with a partner, he had begun a small business, elaborating and marketing products made with cacao. They already had a brand name: “Usi Sindiu” which means “Cacao from Subtiava” (a sector of Leon) in the ancient tongue of this indigenous community.

“Sales were still not too strong, but beginnings are always hard,” Marcos understood.

The office of the student movement in Leon was burned during the disturbances last year in that city. Photo: Carlos Herrera / Confidencial.

“The goal was to grow, but that’s hard today. I’ve stopped producing, because it’s too hard to sell something. In reality, there are almost no sales,” Marcos recognizes.

“Economically speaking, the family’s in bad shape. I’m jobless, and the only ones working are my dad and my brother. With their salaries, we manage to pay for food and basic household expenses. I’ve gone out to look for work but there’re almost no jobs open.”  Marcos adds that since the salaries of his father and brother aren’t enough, the family is currently using his parents’ savings, with the hope that the situation improves.

Four stories of exile

The stories of four exiles – Celia, Adriana, Jhoswell and Jairito – begin in very different places, only to converge as cases of forced exile. In each case, their situation has been marked by poverty, hunger and desperation.

Celia is a woman who up until a short time ago was yelling slogans in favor of the Comandante; she was always ready to take on the tasks that “the revolution” entrusted her with. Jhoswell, on the other hand, was a social and environmental activist and an artist, who began to accompany the citizen protests as a first aid auxiliary and a human rights advocate accredited by the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANPDH). The stories of Jairo and Adriana are similar to each other, as both were students at the Nicaraguan Polytechnic University. He was in his third year of business administration and helped his parents with their small family businesses; she was in her fourth year of marketing and was working for a private company in the area of trademarks.

Like many thousands of Nicaraguans, Jairo and Adriana were outraged when they learned that the elderly people who were protesting the Social Security reforms were being attacked (by Ortega-allied mobs).  Adriana witnessed this first hand. Jairo and his friends were told by the local leader of the student union to go help the aggressors, but they refused.

Young students rebelling in the area around the Polytechnic University (UPOLI) in Managua on April 21, 2018. Photo: Carlos Herrera / Confidencial

From that moment on, they were marked, and came up against the raw reality that the only thing left for them was exile. After seeing some of her classmates die and having her boyfriend jailed briefly, they both left: he, overland to evade the Nicaraguan authorities; she, in an airplane just one day before an arrest warrant was issued in her name.

Jairo left for Costa Rica, where he remains. He’s run into neighbors, relatives and classmates from the struggle, and they support each other in dealing with the difficulties of not being in their own land.

Jairo tell us: “I’m paying the expenses with a little job I got.  It’s not permanent or every day, but it’s enough to survive. It also helps that my aunts in the United States send me money for half the rent and some of my food.”

Difficulties here, dangers there

Adriana went further away, to Panama. She says that when she got there, “every night was bitter, desperate, depressing”, especially when she relived the trauma of being trapped under a hail of bullets in the university.

“I don’t have anyone here. I began working cleaning a house. Nothing was easy. There are jobs offered in the web pages and in the newspapers, but they’re nothing but facades, illusions. I almost fell into the hands of human traffickers. If I hadn’t found out at that moment, I don’t know where I’d be today.”

“From there, an angel came to my rescue and got me my current job at a car wash. This has allowed me to give jobs to other Nicaraguans.” There are people there who’ve been savagely tortured by the police that should have protected them; farmers that had to leave their prosperous farms with the little they could take with them, because their properties had been invaded and taken over. They now live in very poor conditions.

Amid all these limitations, the group understands the importance of solidarity and of caring for each other as Nicaraguans.

Celia, a “normal citizen”

Although Celia claims, “in Nicaragua, I was just another citizen,” she underestimates herself when she says this. She was once part of the upper leadership of a government-allied union and also worked for the Nicaraguan-Venezuelan Albanisa company, classifying restricted documents.

She never imagined that her former party “colleagues” would come to threaten her with death. Surely, it’s for that reason that she dared to say in front of them: “if we already threw out a dictator once, why would we want to maintain another?”

When one of the friends who still remained within the party organization told her that they’d be coming for her the next day, she didn’t stop to investigate whether the warning was well-founded. She borrowed money from some friends and left for Costa Rica, not without first facing the trauma of not knowing what might be waiting for her when she crossed out of Nicaragua through the border immigration office. “I sweat more at that moment than I did when I was a kid and Somoza’s National Guard detained me,” she recalls.

Protest of the Nicaraguans exiled in Costa Rica in mid-January. Courtesy photo.

In Costa Rica, Celia stayed with some of her ex-husband’s family members. Seven days later, she got a call from a girl who told her they had a job for her, taking care of an elderly couple. She’s still working there.

“They pay me just under US $390 and I pay around US $165 for a tiny apartment, but I’m okay because I can walk freely down the street without fear that someone’s following me,” she says.

“In the last few weeks, my situation has become more difficult, since several family members are coming here, and that same salary now has to feed ever more mouths. But they’re my children and I’m not going to abandon them,” she declares.

Helping others

Jhoswell got involved in the April struggle “to save lives, treat the wounded, free the prisoners”, until the work of defending others became extremely risky and the entire ANPDH board had to leave the country. He never imagined that this would propel him out of the comfort zone he’d lived in up until that point, in order to become one more exile in Costa Rica.

Jhoswell got involved in the struggle to aid the wounded. Courtesy photo / Confidencial

Even though he’s still involved with his advocacy work, Jhoswell has also had to find a way to generate resources to cover his expenses. Up until now, he’s been able to manage, thanks to the fact that he receives some family remittances, but also because he’s willing to do the hard jobs that he’s been able to find in that country.

All that, “without abandoning my humanitarian actions, even out of my own pocket, giving aid to other refugees who can’t support themselves or do anything to resolve their extreme situation. I’m talking about food, clothing, shoes, mattresses and cash to pay rent on the rooms they live in, even when many of them are places considered completely uninhabitable,” he concludes.  

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