Tag Archives: Horizons of Friendship

Video: Inside the Nicaraguan Maquilas

OPSEU is engaged in solidarity work that extends well beyond our borders. In February we travelled with Cobourg’s Horizons of Friendship to look at development projects in Nicaragua. Our 9-part BLOG has been well received, and there is a possibility of an unexpected future development partnership arising from it. Meanwhile, after catching our breath, and with the help of OPSEU’s Anna Jover, we have edited some of our material into a short video that focuses mostly on our day in the Nicaraguan Maquilas — the free trade sweatshops. Seldom do activists get inside these factories — we were fortunate that this factory happened to have a good working relationship with the local garment union and the Horizon’s sponsored women’s organization, Maria Elena Cuadra. As such, it is considered a good employer compared to some of the other free trade factories despite its long shifts and $50 a week pay. As the general manager freely admitted on camera, he was only able to take his workers from “misery to poverty” and raised the necessity of an international minimum wage. Maybe the time has come. To watch our video, click on the box below.

Nicaragua Day 9: “From misery to poverty”

This is one of the better factories in the free trade zones.

This is one of the better factories in the free trade zones.

MANAGUA – At 5:30 am the sun is rising over the Las Mercedes industrial park. The walkway into the park is long, at times multiple railings appear as if organizing queues for a theme park. On either side is a tall chain link fence, giving the appearance that those who come this way are being funnelled into the factories beyond. At the very end is a sentry post where workers bags are inspected by guards before they head into the factories.

Along the walkway market stalls are being set up. It’s an instant mall for the workers, where they can buy anything from toilet paper to prescription drugs – no prescription required. The vendors know what their clientele will need over the course of the day.

We are here to hand out small booklets as part of a campaign organized by Maria Elena Cuadra, a women’s rights organization that is pushing for social change throughout Nicaragua. The booklets describe the contents of a new law about violence against women. This is significant in a country where violence against women, including rape, is not only commonplace, but deeply ingrained in the social culture.

The booklets were produced with funding from Oxfam and CIDA and have a little Canadian flag on the back.

The first few workers arrive and are happy to take the booklets. Soon it turns into a torrent as thousands of workers come down the walkway. We are prepared, the members of our delegation working with the women of MEC to get a booklet to everyone.

One man says he likes to hit women. Another man says he wants copies to give his friends and thinks the work MEC is doing in important.

The security guards do not hassle us, only asking that we shoot our video a little further away from the main gate. The new law is supported by the First Lady of Nicaragua, although the government appears to be doing little itself to advance the issue. The companies inside the gates are supportive and ask for their own copies.

MEC has loudspeakers at the entrance playing music in between ads promoting MEC’s campaign. The workers are well aware of who MEC are.

At 7 pm it stops abruptly, that last few workers trickling into the zone. When we see the emptied walkway it’s evident that not a single worker discarded the booklet.

On the way back to our bus the music was still playing and a bus driver was dancing on the steps of his vehicle while finishing the last of his breakfast. All around are numerous buses that have brought the workers here.

The free trade zones were begun in Nicaragua to attract investment. In an age of savage capitalism, the government of the day felt it necessary to get into the game. Free trade zones do not play by the same labour rules as the rest of the economy. Today more than 100,000 Nicaraguans work here for low pay and in often deplorable conditions. Most of these workers will start at 7 am and finish at 7 pm. Many will work longer than that if they have not met their production quota that day.

We are told that while the U.S.-owned factories are the best, it is the Korean factories that raise the ire of the workers. Women who have worked in these factories tell us of the difficulty in receiving the pay they are owed, in getting the factories to honour their state-legislated benefits, of monstrous working conditions including a limit of one visit to the toilet all day long. Another worker is assigned to time these toilet breaks. Some factories do not permit workers to move freely within the factory, insisting that they stay at their post for the full shift.

Factory workers make Levis Dockers at one of the better employers in the free trade zone.

Factory workers make Levis Dockers at one of the better employers in the free trade zone.

Later than morning we visit one of the better U.S. factories. The factory has been in existence for 12 years. For the past nine years the factory’s client has been Levis. Today the workers are making Dockers pants destined for the U.S. and Argentina.

It is unusual for us to be let inside one of these factories, but management here have had a good working relationship with both MEC and the local union.

Workers at the plant work from 7 am to 5:30 pm each day. They receive a 30-minute lunch and a morning break of 15-minutes. Minimum pay in this factory is $50 per week – which is high in the free trade zone. Minimum wage in the zone is $70 per month. Keep in mind an average family needs almost $500 a month to be able to afford the most basic of needs.

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Nicaragua Day 8 – Fear of flying

View of Managua from our flight.

View of Managua from our flight.

MANAGUA – Outside the Managua airport we were met by a representative from the Best Western hotel who asked about our flight. The Best Western Las Mercedes is located across the street from the airport, but still a van is required to take us there given the highway is not an easy crossing.

We asked if the hotel representative had ever been to the Atlantic Coast? He said no, that he had never flown in a plane. This is despite the fact that he worked to the sound of arrivals and take offs all day long. Like many who have never flown before, he said he was afraid to fly.

It’s an hour-long flight from Puerto Cabezas to Managua, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The roads across the country are not good, and a bus will take up the better part of a day to undertake the same journey. Some travel through Honduras to reach the Atlantic Coast, but the route is not considered safe.

The day began with a previously unscheduled meeting with the Mayor of Puerto Cabezas. Reynaldo Francis Watson has only been in the job for a month, but he already looks like he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.

The Mayor of Puerto Cabezas addresses the delegation from Horizons of Friendship.

The Mayor of Puerto Cabezas addresses the delegation from Horizons of Friendship.

Puerto Cabezas extends far beyond the immediate urban area. It takes in more than 80 local communities and covers a region with 320,000 citizens. About 40 per cent of the municipality live in the city. More are coming every day.


The Mayor tells us that he has a budget of $1.6 million, about 250 municipal staff, and the city owns one garbage truck. Turns out we had seen it for the first time that morning – more of a dump truck than the garbage trucks we are accustomed to seeing on the streets of our Canadian municipalities.

Garbage is everywhere, often providing food for the wild dogs and cats that wander the city. Along the roadside we encounter smoke as residents burn their garbage in the streets. Passing a creek we noticed that it is full of plastic bags waiting for a torrential rainfall to wash it all out to sea.

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Nicaragua Day 7: Some bumps along the road

Dog chases our bus on the highway to Santa Marta.

Dog chases our bus on the highway to Santa Marta.

SANTA MARTA – We were thankful for the rain. Without it we would have been forced to choose between the dust or the heat on the small Toyota bus as we made our way to Santa Marta. In Puerto Cabezas, none of the buses have air conditioning and opening the windows would have normally resulted in us choking from the dust rising up from the dirt highway.

The rain meant there was no dust, but it didn’t mean we would be spared the potholes which rattled us for almost two hours on our 60 kilometre journey. The bus itself was a hodge podge of seating cobbled together from other vehicles. The bench at the back of the bus was particularly stiff, sending us slipping both up and down and left and right as the driver swerved to miss the worst of the indentations on the road.

The highway turns into a dirt road before you even emerge from Puerto Cabezas, the landscape softly rolling before emerging onto a flat plain where the trees become fewer in number. You can count on one hand the number of vehicles we pass going in the opposite direction, most comprising motorcycles or trucks.

At the first village we encounter a rope across the road just before a wooden bridge fording a river. A soldier asks us the purpose of our visit given we are about to enter an area that is controlled by Miskitu indigenous peoples.

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Day 5: The other Nicaragua

GAme day at the Puerto Carvaza ball park.

Game day at the Puerto Cabezas ball park.

PUERTO CABEZAS – The lobster fisherman of Puerto Cabezas don’t take boats out and cast traps in into the sea. Instead they take groups of men out in boats to dive into the sea to catch the lobsters by hand. It may be less efficient than their counterparts in Atlantic Canada, but it employs nearly 5,000 in this municipality of 320,000.

The problem is there are too many divers and the lobsters in the shallow waters have become less bountiful. That has pushed the divers into deeper waters. We were told that 1,400 divers have become ill from decompression illness. Some have died.

At the offices of the regional government we were told they were like to change the way fisherman gather lobster, but setting traps would employ many fewer in a region that already suffers from high unemployment. Like all Nicaraguan problems, this is one that will have to be solved over time. A new form of employment is needed for those that would be displaced by changing the nature of the fishery.


Puerto Cabezas is on the northern end of the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. The colonial powers that have come and gone have left the residents speaking both Spanish and a Creole English in addition to the Miskitu language. It has also influenced the housing, a mix of Caribbean and Spanish styles, that is when the four walls aren’t made up of scrap wood and the roof a hunk of tin. Many of the homes here are up on stilts to avoid the flooding from hurricanes that sweep in from the Caribbean.

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Nicaragua Day 4: Love and friendship on Valentine’s Day

A youth dance troupe performs for us at the Oscar Arnulfo Romero Community Centre in Nanaime.

A youth dance troupe performs for us at the Oscar Arnulfo Romero Community Centre in Nandaime.

NANDAIME – Valentine’s Day in Nicaragua is as much about friendship as it is love. Before the day was out, we would be finding both.

Nandaime is a quiet town of 40,000 residents – 20,000 in the so-called “urban area” – located south of Masaya. It fits the form of many other Spanish colonial towns built around an open square with the municipal building on one side and a church on the other.

In a country where people are continually in the streets, there were few people about town until the local high school emptied at about 11:30 am of the first shift of the day.


Education is a challenge in Nicaragua, and the local high school accommodates the local population by teaching three different groups per day in consecutive shifts.

You also notice that water runs through the streets of the town, turning into a significant flow on the street where the Oscar Arnulfo Romero Community Centre is located. Nandaime cannot afford a sewage system.

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Nicaragua Day 1: In the flash of this moment

“In the flash of this moment / you’re the best of what we are / don’t let them stop you now / Nicaragua.” – Bruce Cockburn (1984)

MANAGUA – Nearly 30 years ago I had lunch with Bruce Cockburn as preparation for a feature I was to write about the singer-songwriter’s tour of Guatemala and Nicaragua. Having lunch in the old Hotel Nova Scotian, I asked Bruce about his trip, and it was more than an hour before I got to ask the second question, not that I needed to ask any more.

While I did my best to tell his story of witnessing the early days of the Sandinista revolution and the horrors he learned of in Guatemala, he said it best himself with the album Stealing Fire. One minute he’s angrily pounding out “If I Had A Rocket Launcher,” the next stirring hope with “Nicaragua” or “Dust and Diesel.”


Cockburn was not the only pop culture artist to get swept up the aftermath of the Sandinista revolution. Rolling Stone magazine still considers the Clash’s “Sandinista” to be among the top 500 albums of all time. It seemed everyone was watching Nicaragua.

Thirty years on you don’t hear as much about this Central American nation wedged between Costa Rica to the south, El Salvador and Honduras to the north, bordered east and west by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As part of my preparations to come here I spoke with someone at my bank, who wanted to know how one spelled ‘Nicaragua’ and where it was.

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