The Nicaragua Photo/Testimony Project
Paul Dix and Pam Fitzpatrick
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The letter below is one of a series written by Pam Fitzpatrick and Paul Dix during multiple journeys they took to Nicaragua between 2002 and 2010 to locate people who were the subjects of photos taken by Paul in the 1980s (during the U.S.-sponsored Contra War). Pam and Paul's goal was to document and share with the people of the U.S.—through photographs and testimonies in Nicaraguans' own voices—the horrific long-term effects of the Contra War and ongoing U.S. international policy on the lives of ordinary Nicaraguans.  To see a list of all of the letters and their topics, visit the Letters page.  To learn more about the Nicaragua Photo/Testimony Project, see About the Book and About the Authors.

In 2011 Pam and Paul published a beautiful 220-page book of photographs and testimonies, NICARAGUA: Surviving the Legacy of U.S. Policy. Order it here!

April 13, 2005   Yali, CAFTA

Including stories about: Santana, Cristina, banana plantation workers.

Note: The photos in this letter are Pam's casual digital photos. To see some of Paul's professional photos taken for the Photo/Testimony project, visit the Photos and Stories page.

Do we need to think differently in order to live in a way that leads to a more sustainable, just, and humane world, or do we first have to live differently in order to be able to think and act in ways that lead to a more sustainable, just and humane world?  A question that has been going through our heads.

In Nicaragua, Easter Week is more important than Christmas; transportation stops, stores close, people head to the beach, but for many the week does center around activities at their church.  The unfortunate current reality, however, is that it has also become a week of heavy drinking, robbery, and violence.  With the hopes of avoiding some of this Paul and I chose to spend the major part of the week in the small northern town of Yali, an excellent choice! Beautiful processions and very little violence.  

Yali procession
Easter Week procession in Yali.

Perhaps you remember Maria Auxiliadora from our January 8, 2005 newsletter. She still works in a Managua maquila, as does her youngest brother, Nicholas.  But Santana, her oldest brother, lives in Yali and has fond memories of the orphanage that helped them with food and enrichment activities after their father was killed in the contra war.  Because of his good grades and good behavior he was chosen, along with 30 other children from different orphanages, to go to the Soviet Union for a month when he was 15. What a great memory for him! But when he returned, life got hard; it was time to start supporting his family with what he called the "sad" work of the machete.  At least he wasn't taken by the contra and was too young to be drafted by the Sandinistas.

Santana serves shaved ice from his cart.
After several years of the hard machete work he began the somewhat easier work of selling cups of flavored shaved ice around the streets of Yali.  After 5 years of selling someone else's ice for a percentage of the profits, he had enough saved to build and stock his own cart and be independent. Yali has a good number of chilly, rainy months when I'm sure the flavored ice doesn't sell well, but during the hot vacation days of Easter Week Santana did well. It was heart-warming to see his success!

One evening we visited with Santana and his mother, Cristina, at their house. Santana talked about how life had been much better before the revolution or the contra war. Before the war the family didn't have their own land but they worked for a big land owner, lived on the owner's land, had plenty of food and felt they were well treated. Then the contra war started; living in the countryside became too dangerous and they moved into town.

Cristina talked about how hard it was when her husband was killed, leaving her with a young family, including an 18 day old baby. Then 7 months later her oldest son was killed. On top of all this she has had constant pain, swelling, and oozing in her lower right leg for more than twenty years and now has major heart pain. Everyday survival activities have been a painful struggle for years. We visited with Cristina several times on our last trip to Nicaragua and several times this year, but I don't believe I've ever seen her smile.

In spite of their hardships they both expressed no anger toward the contra forces and the U.S. government that assisted the contra.  They were just glad the war was over.

Sitting in their tiny, dirt-floor house, lit with one small kerosene lamp I knew I was exactly where I wanted to be for this week of Easter reflections. As we started to leave, Cristina did get a twinkle in her eye and asked if we wouldn't like to take some tamales with us.  We left with a generous gift of three banana-leaf wrapped tamales (corn meal mush).  I pictured Cristina scraping the dried corn off the cob, washing the corn, soaking it, grinding it, working the corn dough with her hands, then cutting banana leaves and wrapping a leaf-segment around a fist full of dough.  With a small strip of another type leaf she tied up each tamal.  Then she chopped some wood and got the fire started, hauled some water, and started cooking the tamales. Each step done with care and with physical pain.   We were warmed by the gift of the twinkle as well as the gift of the tamales.
Cristina in front of her house.
Santana walked us out of his community back toward our motel and very much wanted to buy us a fruit drink along the way.  Such joy and dignity in giving.  This joy warmed and humbled us and led us into deeper reflections.
Exactly how much wealth does the U.S. need? Why can't the Santanas, and the Maria Auxiliadoras and the Cristinas of the world have more of their basic needs met? Why can't our government support proposals that focus on the well-being of the poor majority of the world rather than the rich-being of the stockholders? Why aren't we bombarded with hourly reports on the change in the buying power of the poorest half of the world, the percentage increase or decrease in people with access to potable drinking water, the changes in the percentages that have access to essential medical care, the percentages that have access to sufficient calories much less essential vitamins and minerals, the percentages that have access to free schooling? Why aren't these figures every bit as important as the ups and downs of the stock market or each country's gross national product? Maybe, just maybe, we would be more nudged to work on changing this system if we heard these figures along with the stock market quotes every day. I do believe it would call us to live differently.

I'm reminded of Ecuador, which began their oil boom in the 1970s. Since then their official level of poverty has increased from 50% to 70%, under or unemployment has increased from 15% to 70%, public debt increased from $240 million to $26 billion and the share of the national resources allocated to the poorest segments of the population declined from 20% to 6% (from CONFESSIONS OF AN ECONOMIC HIT MAN by John Perkins; Read it!). It's great for helping us understand how it is no accident that loans to poor countries help U.S. based multi-nationals and hurt the poor of the country). You can be sure the gross national product of Ecuador increased, a figure that generally has absolutely no relationship to the well-being of the poor majority!

It's clear that structural changes are needed. I'm hoping that in the next few days you will feel motivated to take a few minutes to make a phone call to congress to state your opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA.since it includes the Domincan Republic).  This agreement needs to be passed in each country, but if it passes in the U.S. it is basically a done deal. It supposedly is in the Senate Finance Committee today and is scheduled to be in the House Ways and Means Committee April 21st. If either committee decides to send the trade pact to the floor rules call for a yes or no vote within 15 days.  Your call could help make a difference in the lives of the majority of the people in Central America.  If you are living in Montana please call Max Baucus, in Oregon call RonWyden, both are on the Senate Finance Committee.  Ask for their trade staffer, chief of staff or legislative director.  Ask how the Senator is leaning towards voting and thank them for a no vote.  If it's a yes, please urge them to reconsider. Remember this trade pact is on the "fast track" in the U.S., which means it cannot be altered; only voted up or down.   Last I heard, Max Baucus was considering voting "no" since he is opposed to the small increase in the sugar quota which he feels will reduce the profitability of Montana beet growers.

OXFAM just released an excellent study showing the dangers of CAFTA.  They use some great examples!  Rice, the basic food for 3 billion people world wide (half the population), is subsidized in the U.S. at $1.3 billion, or 72% of the cost of production. How can small farmers in developing countries compete with U.S. subsidized agribusiness, small farmers in the U.S. couldn't! Just exactly what will these small farmers now do for a living?  Work in maquilas?  Is this how we want our tax dollars spent?

For more information visit

Since our last letter we've been in Yali, Jinotega, Matagalpa, Juigalpa, and Nueva Guinea. So many rich experiences and stories!  But for this letter, we wanted to take more space to encourage you to act on CAFTA, it would be your direct way of helping the people we visit. Thank you!  Soon we'll be heading to Ocotal, Jalapa, Quilali, Costa Rica (to find some of the people we've been searching for that have moved there to work), and, hopefully, Bluefields.  We're approaching the end of our stay here and feeling the crunch to get more done.

Gasoline is now over $3 a gallon; the Managua city bus cooperatives are demanding the right to charge a higher fee and have had bus stoppages; taxi drivers are demanding that gas be subsidized and have had stoppages with those who stopped driving throwing objects at taxis that continued; students are demanding that bus fees NOT be increased and are demonstrating in the streets, burning tires. Electricity, mainly generated by gasoline, will be getting more expensive and there's talk of electricity being turned off periodically in different areas of town.  Nicaragua just last week went on day light savings time to somehow save a little electricity; seems silly in a country that pretty much has 12 hours of day light and 12 hours of night all year.

It's hot, dry and dusty and we don't expect rain for at least another month. While in Boaco last week our motel had water for half an hour each day while our friend in a poorer neighborhood hadn't had water for three days; Ocotal is now rationing water with the Dipilto River at an all-time low. The manager of the local water system suspects that some large agribusinesses upstream are illegally taking water for irrigation, but he indicates he doesn't have the staff to investigate.

The banana plantation workers suffering from Nemegon poisoning that I mentioned in our last letter did finally get some new promises of help from the Nicaraguan government. In addition to medical help, assistance with food and other necessities, the Nicaragua government agreed to help some of the workers get Nicaraguan passports and US visas to go to the US and to provide legal support for their cases against the companies that used Nemegon (such as Dole and Chiquita) and the chemical companies that produced and sold Nemegon well past the time it was outlawed in the US (Shell, Dow Chemical, and others), but today's news is that the US Embassy denied these 80 their visas.  In addition, soon after this agreement, a story was carried on BBC that Dole had met with the Nicaraguan government and offered to invest in Nicaragua and increase employment if Nicaragua agreed to NOT assist with the cases against them.  The big guys didn't have to threaten mass suicide to obtain a meeting with the Nicaraguan government!  

Thanks for taking the time to make that phone call.  We do believe we need to make structural changes in the ways we live and work in order to be able to organize for the significant structural changes that are needed, but in the meantime, let's make some phone calls!

Again, thanks for traveling with us! We always enjoy hearing from people at

Pam Fitzpatrick and Paul Dix