During the Reagan administration’s Contra War against Sandinista-run Nicaragua, sympathetic foreigners flooded the country with material aid, support and solidarity for the left-leaning government. Quite a few of these visitors were from Vermont, operating through Burlington’s sister city program with Puerto Cabezas, a city on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua.
The relationship developed in 1984 when Burlington residents decided to create a positive person-to-person impact in the country as an alternative to the war. The program is running strong to this day through cultural exchanges, media and construction projects, and plans for a micro-credit lending plan.
The Contra War and U.S. trade embargo against Nicaragua lasted throughout the 1980s. During this time, much of the Vermont-based solidarity work involved sending material aid – medical equipment, bicycles, wheel chairs, beans, rice, powdered milk, and other supplies. One shipment included 570 tons of aid sent to Nicaragua via Canada on a freighter. Another load of supplies filled two 18 wheel trucks, which departed for the Central American country from Williston, VT.
"The sister city program is an umbrella under which many things happen," explained Dan Higgins, a retired University of Vermont art professor who has been involved in the program since the 1980s. "When the war in Nicaragua ended in 1989, the Burlington sister city group tried to help people there develop a sustainable economy." As part of this new focus, a tree nursery was created, drug counselors brought Nicaraguans to Vermont for counseling, and numerous cultural exchanges took place between the two countries.
"Charlie Delaney, an Abnaki Indian and stone mason from Vermont, goes down to Nicaragua regularly with a bag of tools and hires a couple of Mosquito [indigenous] boys to train them and fix roofs and so on. Afterward, he leaves the tools with them," Higgins explained. Delaney is now developing a technical school in Puerto Cabezas. He has been trying to get building supplies and tools from Vermont contractors and suppliers.
Since 2000, Higgins has been shepherding a video project to help Puerto Cabezas residents document what they believe is important about life there. CCTV, the Burlington area’s public access TV producer, donated much of the video and editing equipment that has been used in the project. Higgins started the project in part to provide alternatives to the foreign programs that came to the country with cable TV. Local news, cultural and historical shows, as well as regular reports from rural Mosquito villages, make up the daily hour-long program which Higgins helped create.
Micro-credit on the horizon
Burlington resident Richard Kemp has been involved in solidarity work with Puerto Cabezas since the late 1980s. Currently, Kemp is spearheading a project to start a micro-credit lending program there. Most of his work so far has focused on fundraising. Of the $5,000 needed to start the project; so far $1,100 has been raised. Once the goal is reached, the lending program will be organized on the ground in Puerto Cabezas by Village Banking, a micro-credit organization based in Washington, DC.
Launched in 1984, Village Banking currently has programs in 22 countries around the world, providing small, low interest loans primarily to women in poor communities to help them finance small businesses. Diane Jones, the public relations manager at Village Banking, explained how its works: "We’ll have the credit officer find a leading woman in the community that everyone trusts and talk with her about starting the credit program. Then 10-30 people will formalize into a village bank."
The local group discusses repayment procedures and takes out a loan for approximately $2,500. Each week, it meets to pay back part of the loan and discuss how their respective businesses are doing. As the process continues, larger loans become possible.
Before becoming a part of the group, prospective members must give a verbal proposal about what they plan to do with the money. "Many of the people we work with are illiterate," Jones explained. "These women know each other very well because their community may only be a couple of blocks large. So they are aware of what their problems are and what their talents are, too If one person doesn’t pay, the other women will pay so there is a lot of pride and peer pressure." As a result, Village Banking has a 97 percent pay back rate.
Village Banking interest rates vary from 2 to 6 percent, depending on the commercial lending rates in each country. "Often, the only other option for the women is to go to a loan shark," Jones noted. "Commercial banks don’t want to lend to clients [such as ours] because it is very costly to administer thousands of tiny loans."
Ninety percent of the loans go to women. "We focus on women because in poor societies women tend to be poorer than men, and women tend to have the responsibility of the family," Jones said. "They always put the welfare of the children first. There are increasing numbers of women-led households in the world. Women are also usually more apt to create a social structure that’s supportive of one another."
Village Banking currently has 29,621 clients in Nicaragua, mostly small business owners who sell such products as vegetables, fruits and tortillas.
Higgins said the Burlington sister city board is highly enthusiastic about the micro-credit program. But since community impact remains a high priority, it also "wants to make sure the target is actually going to be community in Puerto Cabezas," he added, "and that it’s something that will stay in the community."
In addition to helping Nicaraguans economically, Higgins explained that, for many people, traveling between the two countries has helped break down stereotypes. "There’s always so much in common with people in other countries regardless of what our governments are doing," he said.
For more information on the sister city program, or to get involved, go to: http://www.uvm.edu/sistercity/
Photo by Dan Higgins