Monday, March 23, 2009

Presenting at Montclair State University

"Hope & Global HIV" presentation at the 3rd annual Peace Conference at Montclair State University

I would like to invite you to the 3rd annual Peace Conference at Montclair State University. I will be presenting "Hope & Global HIV" in the 4 -5:15pm time slot. It is free and open to the public. There are several presentations throughout the day ranging from the global water crisis (11:30am), the power of acupuncture (1pm), and a 2006 grammy nominated musician/yoga professor(6pm). There will also be workshops as well for free sample acupuncture and magnet treatment. (View Schedule Here)

Through photos, videos, stats, and stories I will seek to challenge, inform, and inspire. I will be focusing on my research in Rwanda - a country that has come from the depths of despair to a fragile state of hope.

Please consider yourself personally invited.

Marco Ambrosio

(This post will remain until Tuesday to promote the event)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

PBS World Focus Report on Nicaragua

“Anti-Americanism fades and business booms in Nicaragua”

Please view the World Focus clip here

This is indeed an interesting piece by World Focus. Instead of writing a blog I’d rather let some of the people I know comment on the piece…

Some of the points that stood out to me were:

1. Grenada
Historically Grenada is the hub of the Conservative Party (the title comes from the rich that favored direct trade with Spain and opposed “liberal” trade policies) and the city has long rumored to have greatly benefited from the Conservative governments that ran the country from 1990-2006 (particularly post Violetta Chomorro). Any pair of eyes that has been to other cities besides Grenada can easily note the differences. There are a host of US franchises, brightly painted walls, cropped landscapes, and a sheer focus on “looking the part” for tourists. These are characteristics generally not found in other cities/towns. Grenada is old wealth and lots of US ties – a mixture that affords its pristine picturesque central plaza.

2. Violence
Nicaragua is said to be the safest of the Central American countries. A strong reason is the lack of gangs and drug cartels that plague countries like Mexico, El Salvador, & Guatemala. However time and time again I have been told how crime has increased dramatically, particularly in Managua. Life has become even harder since the rise in gasoline prices and the global recession. Burglary has come to the point where taxi drivers in Managua will not go off the main roads when entering certain districts of the city. In Leon, people in the market to rent or buy a house will look first at the houses with a bank on the block (banks have an overnight watchman). Others streets have programs with each house on the block putting 100 Cordobas a month ($5) for a security man to ride his bike slowly through the streets overnight. His calling card is the whistle he blows every time he passes the street that pays (at least once per hour).

3. Business Friendly at what Cost?
Many of these corporations in the Tax Free Zone simply adopt a new name or leave before their 10-15 year tax break is finished – so the country seldomly collects on the business tax end. A larger, more complex question (which will be the focus of another blog) that comes forth in all countries is whether it is better to produce one job at a “just” wage or two jobs at a lower wage.

4. Tourism
Tourism has steadily risen because Nicaragua has many things going for it. It is culturally rich with friendly people and great music. It is naturally blessed with beaches, volcanoes, fine rum, and famous cigars (although these seeds come from Cuba). Lastly, it is practical – very cheap and three hours from Miami and Houston. One can understand the spending on tourism, but it is important to note the malls, restaurants, and hotels that have been built in the country are used only by the forgienors and the wealthiest of Nicaraguans. When 75% of the country makes less than $2.50 a day, when there are 4 doctors per 10,000 people, one would hope more funding would be placed in health clinics, schools, and food production over elaborate malls and resorts (which by now are numerous).

Monday, March 16, 2009

Central American Presidents

Two Leftist Presidents Starting Off with Opposite Foot Forward

The revolutionary parties of the 1970s and 1980s have taken their fight to the polls in Central America and after over a decade of heavily conservative pro-USA governments the left is winning. It took 16 years but Nicaragua's FSLN party was voted back into power in 2006 and as of last night the FMLN party of El Salvador is getting its first chance at assuming the reins since the 1992 peace accords that ended its bitter civil war. Nicaragua and El Salvador share a difficult road toward development and a similar history of US intervention, but a brief examination of the two men elected as president depicts an importance lesson in international politics.

President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua is a polarizer that brings a great deal of experience (or baggage) to the political table. He is often said to be a shoot first personality that praises the limelight over deft diplomacy. Ortega wears his politics on his sleeve. A speech seldom goes by that Ortega does not denounce the imperial United States and praise Hugo Chavez as the second coming – a comparison used by Ortega in several speeches. The staunchest of Sandinistas support Ortega, but many also understand that he will do anything to remain in power (see recent interview with David Frost). Historically Ortega has ostracized all contenders or challengers within the FSLN. Even the closest of political allies and highest officials are labeled traitors if they attempt to contest his leadership (see Herty 2006).

Take a short boat right across the Gulf of Fonseca and you will find the opposite of a military man – a CNN journalist. That is the personal story of Mauricio Funes the new President of El Salvador. Perhaps his past work in the media lends itself better to being politically savvy, but it can not be lost that the FMLN chose as its figure head a candidate that did not partake in the civil war. The decision displayed an air of progression. Instead of a guerilla commando like Ortega, Funes appears to understand the importance of nuanced and subtle statements. Yes Funes is “Left” but he understands that to be successful he will have to blur the line. Yes he will re-open trade with Cuba and engage with Chavez, Ortega, and Morales. Yes he will look to run socialist programs and with massive levels of poor housing, poor wages, and poor healthcare the programs are needed. Although fresh faced and new to the political game Funes has proven to start on the right footing - he welcomes relations with the US, he wishes to remain business friendly (but with more strict tax rules), and he has openly stated that his objective is to follow in the footsteps of Latin America’s most respected politician – President Lula of Brazil.

When Ortega won the election it automatically brought forth a sense of “here we go again” among many Nicaraguan locals and the international community. The Bush administration quickly released statements questioning the validity of the election win and strongly made suggestions as to what path Ortega should follow. Instead, the Obama administration has congratulated Funes on his victory and started the way for an open dialogue. The Left clearly won the election but it will remain to be seen if Funes will have the political capital to govern Center-Left a la Lula (a move President Obama is familiar with).

After reading through the NY Times, CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, and a few Spanish news outlets, I believe this article from the AP on NPR does the best job highlighting several important issues of the Funes win.

Friday, March 13, 2009

CISAS HIV Awareness Clown Troupe

This past Monday the CISAS HIV Awareness Clown Troupe put on an awareness show in the central plaza of Leon. They put on the show as a personal favor and unfortunately given the short notice only a third of the Troupe was able to attend. Furthermore, I only had a limited amount of memory left on my video camera so the Troupe did their best to squeeze the normal 45 minute show into 20 minutes. I promised to put this video up ASAP because the clowns have very very few videos of them "at work".

The show is in spanish, but much of it is self explanatory given the props. The Troupe consists of young adults who have been recipients of CISAS' education and environmental programs for over eight years. It has proven to be a great method to create strong advocates within the youthful population. In my previous trip to Nicaragua I spent a good amount of time with the Troupe and helping with shows. No matter where the Troupe starts by the end they are ringed with people. More importantly, people leave with a basic understanding of how HIV transmits, how it doesn't, and how to properly use a condom.

Without further ado I present a fraction of the CISAS HIV Awareness Clown Troupe...

I added this clip from last year of a typical show by the clowns... note the microphone, drum set, speakers, and the number of clowns

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Conversations and Headlines

This is a list of a few interesting tidbits I have come across in recent conversations and newspaper headlines in Nicaragua

1. Gov'ts Christmas Lights cause a Stir

This link tells of the political christmas trees that dot the capital. The interesting part is the government is paying (US$12 a day) and feeding people (three meals) to camp out, show support, and wave the flag. An article in one of the two national newspapers blasted the government's spending on the christmas lights and "the prayer-ers" calling it a waste of spending and a political ploy that only benefits Sandinistas. Articles highlighting wasted or political spending and the recent fraud in local elections is creating a rift in the country. From taxi drivers, to social workers, and Nicaraguan friends President Ortega is increasing seen as no longer exuding the principles of the Sandinistas and some have begun to call his supporters Danielistas instead.

2. President Ortega the next Putin or Chavez?

Al Jazeera's David Frost (from the famous Frost/Nixon interviews) recently interviewed President Daniel Ortega. Frost is the first person to get Ortega to speak on his personal political future. The answer is disheartening considering the democratic values the Sandinista founders professed and depicts Ortega's goal of holding on to power as long as he possibly can. There are two possible paths that have already been paved as examples - Russian's Putin who hand picked a successor and rules as the prime minister and Venezuela's Chavez who on his second attempt with in a year's time was able to remove term limits by amending the constitution through referendum vote. (According to wikipedia - the resolution passed with 54% voting in favor after 94% of the votes have been counted)

3. Walmart International

There are two supermarkets in Leon. The bigger and more popular one is called El Union. It was brought to my attention that it is owned and run by Walmart International. Some foreign items are produced in country and have a low cost compared to the average US 7-11 store - for instance Powerade is 50 cents and a large Gatorade is a dollar. Fruits are seasonal and many signs, particularly for fruit and the various coffees, promote the item as "export quality" or the name of the exporter (such as Avocados "exported by Hess").

Friday, March 6, 2009

Life after the Storm

Video Journal Focuses on the Rural Community of Goyena and Education

In the aftermath of Hurrican Mitch many Nicaraguans found themselves without posessions, villages, or a place to go called home. Landslides and torrential downpours pummeled the country for ten days. One displaced community was transplanted and created the South district of Goyena. The village is nearly surrounded by cash crops and has rock and powdered dirt roads that cause traveling into the city to be a slow, arduous commute. Here in this video journal I touch upon some of the realities of Nicaraguan life and try to relate it to the three focal points of development - education, healthcare, and jobs.

This time of year is known for dust storms (as you can hear the wind gusting in the audio). Talking to the mother of the baby in the video coughing spells, asthma, and respiratory infections are recurring problems in the community. There is a health clinic in Goyena that serves both north and south districts and it is generally considered accessible (I was unable to visit). Access to education has been an enduring struggle for north Goyena, one that has been slowly addressed by the combined efforts of several players including the addition of south goyena, the women of the community and the Leon-New Haven Sister City Project

When I asked why I saw so few men the answer struck at one of the hearts of development - jobs. The only jobs are the back breaking and grueling work of the sugar cane fields. Four buses come every morning at 3am and then drop the men back at 3pm. The second largest group of men are in Costa Rica working odd jobs or construction and come home once every 2-3 months to leave money and see their families. (previous blogs have touched on migrant labor being a transporter of HIV back into the home community)

Transportation has long been a barrier to secondary education and university. Before the high school was started in February 2009, the only option was to take a bus to the city - a $3 cost not including lunch money. (This is still the case for university) The difficulty of getting into the city is more realized when we look at the numbers. The community leader, Maria Eugenia, said each houshold brings in an average of US$75 a month. However, each household has 12 people on average so per capita income per houshould is roughly 20 cents a day per person - a mind boggling figure.

The key to Nicaraguan education is that public school education is free, but students have to pass a test to get to the next level and also pay small fees along the way (blog to come on education fees soon). Besides the schools themselves the women of the community are most proud of the success rates of their students. I was repeatedly told they are passing at a much higher rate than the country - especially for rural communities. Much of this success stems from the "education reinforcement" program run by the sister city project.

After the Fairfield University students finished doing their research, I was again reminded of the welcoming and giving nature Nicaraguans posess. This time it was embodied in a thank you production the south Goyena community put on for the group visiting with the sister city project. It consisted of three folklores dances and then a play on women's rights and domestic violence. I will end with the traditional folklore dancing by four young girls of the community.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Murals of León

The murals of León are famous throughout the country and much of Central America. The murals express the political, historical, social, and cultural voice of the nation. Here I explain the largest section in the country and focus particularly on one of the most famous murals in the country (pictured below) at the end of the video.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The American Dream?

Microfinancing - an Opportunity and a Chance

Sunday I witnessed the American Dream. A young family – a couple with a very young toddler – operating a growing small business in their recently built house. Their recent past would show a struggling family with lower quality of life and living conditions. In a few years they have come a long way. Yet, I am in San Juan Oriente a small town near Mayasa roughly 25 minutes from the capital of Nicaragua. On my first field visit to Nicaragua I learned quickly not to label myself as an “American”. The response from my Nicaraguan friend said it all “I am American too” - perhaps it was not the only title that could easily be blurred. If we are to believe that the “American Dream” is based on the United State’s reign as the “Land of Opporunity”, then perhaps its borders are not confined to land approaching Mexico and Canda.

My travel and research has taught me that the beauty of the United States rests in its equal protection under the law, its system of checks and balances, and the sturdy foundations created in the Bill of Rights. However, if you ask Nicaraguans (and other Latin Americans) many will answer the American Dream is a combination of employment and opportunity. Nicaragua, like many developing nations, suffers from underemployment and lack of opportunity for the masses. 75% make less than $2 dollars a day. Of the children that enter primary school one-third graduate and take an average of 10 years to finish the 6 required. Jobs and education (two of the three key factors of development) have struggled for over a generation.

During the presidential elections both candidates stressed the entreprenurial spirit of the everyday American as the backbone of the country – we have heard even more given the slow flow of credit from the large banks that have hurt small business, entreprenuers, and indidividuals seeking loans. In Nicaragua, like countries all over the world, microfinance is providing the ability to reach the American Dream. Small loans to small business, start up funds for an idea, and access to capital that previously was unavailble or non existant. This young family has prospered (in relative turns) in the past two years given their work with Nitlapan - a microfinance organization started at the Universidad de Centroamerica ( Jesuit run).

The work of Nitlapan and it’s effect on a a group of artisan families in the Mayasa state has been documented and aided by the consulting of Fairfield Unversity – mainly through the efforts of Professor Winston Tellis and student projects. Recently Tellis, a information system professor and development guru, had a group from Fairfield University shoot a short documentary that captures the who, why, and how, but most importantly it captures the what is happening and how it has affected the individuals seeking the credit. (view video clip here)

Microfinance initatives have sky rocketed in the last five years. Websites like have created portals and channels for individuals to make a direct difference in the lives of others. It must be stated that microfinance organizations are not all cut from the same cloth (think average Joe vs a top flight athelete). Some charge high fees to make up for capped interest rates (remember it is a business not charity) and there are even examples of unethical methods of collecting debts owed. However, when run properly microfinance has the ability to provide captial, opportunity, and what many people in the Western Hermisphere believe is the “American Dream”.

Sunday I witnessed the American Dream and I was in San Juan Oriente, Nicaragua.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Field Notes from Nicaragua

(I have not had time to properly put together an entry but these are some of my field notes. I will have a blog on a microfinance initiative up tomorrow with photos)

1. Gas has not lowered like in the United Sates - the price is around $3 a gallon. (considering 75% of the country makes less than $2 a day - it is quite high)

2. Many people are scared that the recession in the United States is going to greatly affect the flow of remittances (family members sending money home) flowing into the country (a figure that is estimated as 12% of the GDP)

3. The group of college students doing research had a presentation from a former Maryknoll priest who highlighted the current political climate in the country and the current events. It appears that the latest rounds of municipal elections were widely fraudulent and caused quite the stir in the population. The votes (which are done through tabling under the watch of an elected official from each party are supposed to be posted in public via the internet and voting cites) were called after reporting from the major Sandinista regions were in. However, other parties have amassed the carbon copies (signed by each of party observer) and with 97% reporting they show different results for certain seats.

4. Crime, already a problem, has sharply risen in the capital. I spoke with taxi drivers who do not drive into the poorer districts of the city for fear of robbery. Others will pay to take a taxi for short rides as to not be walking after the sun goes down in Managua.

5. Every Nicaraguan mentioned how over the last year things have gotten slowly worse – less work and high prices are leading to even more difficult living conditions.

6. People have a very positive view of President Obama – the most common responses are - intelligent, honest, and ¨not Bush¨. It seems many people in my circle (friends and social workers) know about the difficult situation occurring in the United States. The news and newspapers (widely read) have been running stories of the recessions and banking troubles.