Interview with Domingo Francisco Perez, General Secretary of the National Union of Public Employees comprised of public sector workers in government ministries, the Autonomous Regional bodies and 128 of Nicaragua’s 153 municipal authorities
Tortilla con Sal :How important is the proposed Interoceanic Canal from the point of view of the labor movement in Nicaragua, especially the public sector workers’ unions?
Domingo Perez: In the first place, from the point of view of the labor unions, this new Great Interoceanic Canal project is a big opportunity for people in Nicaragua. We’re talking about generating employment. We’re looking at direct and indirect employment, because the Canal will absorb approximately between 500,000 and 600.000 from the large number of unemployed and sub-employed that we have now. The era of the neoliberal governments left us with an accumulated total of 1.7 million unemployed. This current government has steadily reduced that level of unemployment via its social and economic policies. So the mega project of the Great Canal Canal will in fact help us reduce by between 500,000 and 600,000 the number of unemployed and sub-employed people still left over from the years of the neoliberal governments. From the point of vew of the labor unions, the Canal is very important because it will promote the generation of employment
TcS: How do you assess the aproach of the government and the HKND company with the Canal concession in terms of consulting people and sharing information relevant to the Canal’s development?
Domingo Perez : To start with, all sectors were consulted. We took part in open meetings, in forums. We took part in parliamentary consultations about the legislation. The labor unions of the National Workers Federation (FNT), our organization, all the confederations members of the FNT, were consulted. Also consulted were the NGOs, the private business sector, the Army, the Police, really everyone was consulted about this project, abut the impact it may have for our economy, for our country’s economic development, about the opportunities this mega-project opens up. And on that basis the government created the Canal Commission to carry out the Canal along with the Chinese HKND company that has the Canal concession.
TcS : What do you think of the criticisms by opponents of the Canal who allege the establishment of the Canal’s legal framework was unconstitutional?
Domingo Perez : Firstly, we are in a democracy and so I think every objection, every argument from whatever point of view, is the right we all have in Nicaragua, precisely because we live in a democracy. There is a minority here that is indeed opposed to the Canal, a minority that argue the Canal will bring environmental problems. This is a minority who say they were not consulted and say furthermore that the Law facilitating the Canal was not passed in accordance with constitutional procedures, in accordance with our laws and with the procedures of the National Assembly. That is what this minority says. But there is a huge majority of six million Nicaraguans who really want the Canal to go ahead and for it to be built because it will bring us competitive advantages vis-a-vis the region and the world.
Our country was impoverished. We were made impoverished by big capital and we have this chance now with the Canal to really develop our economy, our macro-economy, a chance that will generate a much bigger gross national product and permit us to really generate employment and permit us to lift our people out of poverty. From the labor union point of view, from the social point of view, we consider that we were indeed consulted and that the preparation and approval of the Law on the Great Canal project followed the procedures of Nicaragua’s constitution.
TcS : Do you think the accusations made by protestors against the Canal of human rights abuses are legitimate?
Domingo Perez : Like I said, many people feel their human rights may have suffered, but also many people want to emerge from poverty. The three previous neoliberal governments left us with levels of poverty of around 80% of the population. If we are talking about 6.5 million people in Nicaragua, then that’s more than 4 million people in poverty. This government has social policies that have really improved conditions for people in Nicaragua, but it is necessary for the economy to improve more and that requires the Canal project so we can realize the country’s economic potential so as to lift our people out of poverty and give them real opportunities. Because it’s not just a question of the Canal, with it will come a cascade of other businesses that will also generate employment.
So that minority has rights, but the majority of Nicaragua’s people have rights too. That minority here, let’s say they’re 100,000 or even 200,000 people opposed to the Canal. That’s their right. But there are 6 million Nicaraguans here that really support all our government has done to carry forward the Canal and bring it to fruition so we can improve conditions for people in Nicaragua.
TcS : How do you see the future development of Nicaragua and its ability to defend its environement (for example,the Guatuzo wetlands, Indio Maíz and Lake Cocibolca) wihtout the Canal?
Domingo Perez : When you look down from a plane on the land beyond the Great Lake, there is a huge empty space there. That’s what we have there and I think it’s a great opportunity for us if the government can implement this mega-project. It will give us a competitive advantage because with the Canal we’ll be able to reforest. Here in Nicaragua we remember how the Somoza dictatorship displaced landowners and ordinary rural families from Chinandega and León so as to produce cotton. They were moved to Nueva Guinea and once in Nueva Guinea began extending the agricultural frontier, reducing woodland with deforestation.
Now we have the chance to reforest the water sources of the Great Lake so as to improve Nicaragua’s natural environment. So the Canal is an opportunity and the government has really been very responsible on the issue of protecting the environment. This government is convinced that we have to defend the environment because, for all Nicaraguans, it is the future. There are no anti-environmental policies here. To the contrary, there are policies to defend the environment and all Nicaraguans are part of that government policy initiative to improve the environment and have a healthy country generating oxygen for the Earth.
TcS : What’s your opinion of the way the attacks on the government always pose as being representative of civil society?
Domingo Perez : Here the self-styled civil society have arrogated to themselves the right to speak for all Nicaraguans, even to the point of demonizing the labor movement, when in fact the labor unions are composed of the country’s workers. The National Workers’ Federation has 755,000 members organized in nine labor organizations covering different sectors, the public sector, the private sector, the maquila sector, the university sector…That’s who we represent. But instead the self-styled civil society has said that we are not, after all, members of Nicaragua’s civil society, while, for our part, we demand recognition because we represent people who are organized.
So in that sense, we too have the right to argue for the government to promote this Canal project so as to improve conditions for people in Nicaragua. One thing our country really needs is more employment because our economy is growing at 5% a year but our gross domestic product is small compared to our regional neighbors so we need to grow annually by more; eight, nine, ten per cent more, so as to really improve Nicaragua’s economy and macro-economy.
Just with agriculture we are not going to emerge from poverty, much less so with an agriculture that is not adding value. If we can manage to add value to our agricultural and fisheries production, in those sectors things will improve, but without improving the overall economy significantly without this major opportunity with the Canal. So this project is necessary so as to improve conditions for people in Nicaragua and, with the support of the labor movement, with the support of many environmentalists, with the support of the overwhelming majority of Nicaraguans, it will happen and this great project of the Interoceanic Canal will become a reality.