Barbara Larcom, Nica Notes, August 4th 2022
At the time of Hurricane Eta, SINAPRED was able to move 60,000 people
to safety in just one day, because people understood the importance
of doing their part in saving their own lives. Photo: SINAPRED.
My government in the United States has called Nicaragua a dictatorship. My observations over the past year, and before, tell me that this claim is ridiculous. It’s a strange kind of dictatorship in which there is a call for everyone to get involved in building their country. I will cite three examples of the high level of citizen participation I have seen – in the areas of elections, confronting natural disasters, and healthcare.
Elections: In November 2021, I was in Nicaragua to accompany the national elections, with over 250 other international delegation members. Each of the election accompaniers, dispersed across the country, visited four different voting centers. In most cases, the voting centers were in schools, with each school room used as a separate polling station, similar to a voting precinct in the US.
I visited four voting centers in Bilwi, the capital of the North Caribbean Autonomous Region. As an election accompanier, I was permitted to walk freely into the various school rooms used as polling stations. I could easily confirm that there were representatives of the competing political parties, monitoring the voting process in those rooms. At the end of the day, those representatives together counted the votes from the paper ballots in each room. They totaled the votes for each candidate and made copies of the results. Each party representative got one copy; and a copy was posted on site. The voting center totaled the votes for all the voting stations in their school – and then each level of government got a copy of the voting totals, for the municipality, the region, and the national level.
So, you can see that many eyes were watching the results, at each level, to make sure the election was carried out smoothly, transparently, and fairly. It would have been nearly impossible to cheat this system, so much better than ours in the US.
That transparent and fair system could only function because of the level of participation by many people – at each voting station, in each voting center, in each municipality and region of Nicaragua. There were 3,106 voting centers across the country, made up of 13,459 polling stations. There was a volunteer policeperson in each polling station, or 13.459 total, to address problems or conflicts that might arise. There were three board members managing each polling station, or 40,377 people. There was one coordinator for each voting center, or 3,106 more people. Each of the six national political parties or alliances could have a poll watcher in each polling station – as many as 80,754 more people.
In addition to all that, there were the members of the municipal, departmental and regional Electoral Councils. Altogether, there were at least 140,000 Nicaraguans participating to make the elections happen, on behalf of a registered electorate of over 4.4 million, of whom more than 2.9 million voted in November.
Of course, there have been claims by the US government and other entities that these elections were a “sham,” because opposition “candidates” were prevented from participating. These claims have been dealt with elsewhere, repeatedly, and are not the main topic of this article. I’ll just note that five other key political parties did vie for votes against the FSLN alliance, and these parties did not choose those so-called “candidates” to represent them. In several cases, the “candidates” in fact had been accused of serious crimes.
Confronting natural disasters: My second example of citizen involvement is found in Nicaragua’s prevention and mitigation of natural disasters, and in the care provided during them. The government agency which addresses disasters is called SINAPRED. In July 2022, I joined a delegation of internationals who met with SINAPRED’s Minister Director, Dr. Guillermo González. He strongly emphasized that, even if the government has all the equipment and materials needed for a disaster, it’s not enough unless communities and families participate in preparation, and act on their own behalf.
Nicaragua has six active volcanoes, as well as rather frequent earthquakes. For example, Managua, the national capital, has had two serious earthquakes, and it lies on ten faults. In addition, hurricanes and tropical storms often assault the country with high winds and ensuing floods and mudslides. Therefore, it is important for Nicaragua to be very well prepared for disasters.
Over time, people have grown to trust the predictions and requests of SINAPRED, because of its track record. For example, there were two hurricanes on the North Caribbean Coast in late 2020, only two weeks apart. SINAPRED was able to move 60,000 people to safety in just one day, because people understood the importance of doing their part in saving their own lives. They readily complied with SINAPRED requests to evacuate to the shelters prepared for them.
SINAPRED has worked hard to enlist the involvement of communities and families. The slogan of their current campaign is: “I have my plan; do you have yours?” Workers and volunteers (brigadistas) began by approaching communities, family by family, especially in vulnerable areas, to help people to develop their plans for how they would respond in the event of a given disaster. There were many specific questions and suggestions given during plan development, to stimulate people’s thinking.
Then SINAPRED began working in coordination with the schools – principals and teaching staff – as well as technical staff in the municipalities and different institutions. As of July 11, about two-thirds of all families in the country had updated their disaster preparation plans – over 836,000 out of 1.3 million. More than 700,000 of these plans were developed through the educational system, with each school preparing its students to help develop a plan for their families. Over 55,000 teachers took part in training over 400,000 students in plan development, and 70,000 student leaders in coordination of plan updates. The schools also do disaster exercises every two months to stay prepared.
Believing that the government must set an example for others, SINAPRED also pressed government functionaries to actualize their own disaster plans; as of July 21, about 89% had their plans in place (125,612 out of 141,166).
SINAPRED has also held meetings with churches and religious leaders between May and July 2022, to enlist their participation; and they are now approaching the private sector via factories and shops.
The day after we met with Dr. González, SINAPRED was scheduled to begin Phase Two of its campaign. This was to continue increasing the number of disaster preparedness plans, between now and November 30, and thus to prepare for possible storms, flooding, and mudslides during the hurricane season.
In summary, Dr. González emphasized, one of the most important factors in disaster preparedness is “protagonism,” or involvement of individuals, families, and communities as key actors in their own lives. “Every Nicaraguan has to work to build their own safety,” he stated, noting that in Nicaragua, safety is regarded as a human right, but also as a responsibility shared between each individual and family and the state.
Healthcare: A third example of citizen involvement is in healthcare. Our July 2022 delegation was also privileged to meet with the Minister of Health, Dr. Martha Reyes, and several of her medical colleagues. She noted that the right to healthcare was included in the constitution of the country. Nicaragua’s health model emphasizes the concept of Participación Protagónica Ciudadana, i.e., citizens participating as protagonists (key actors) in their own health.
Nicaragua has greatly increased the number of hospitals (24 new, since 2007). There are also many more clinics and health posts across the country. But just as notable is the emphasis on citizen participation in healthcare. For example, across the country there are 5,523 Casas Base, homes made available by local families for community health activities.
There are also 54,000 volunteer health promoters in the national community network. They visit people in their neighborhoods to educate them on prevention of disease and improvement of their health, through diet and exercise as well as alternative medicine like massage and tai chi. They also fumigate homes, when necessary, and check for stagnant water with mosquito larvae. During natural disasters, they distribute prophylactic medicines as needed for a disease outbreak.
Nicaragua has significantly reduced maternal mortality in recent years, from 92.8 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2006 (the last year of the previous government) to 31.6 in 2021. Neonatal mortality went down from 18 to 9 deaths per 1,000 live births in the same time period. These results were achieved by encouraging women to give birth in hospitals. In the past, most women, especially those in rural Nicaragua, gave birth at home with the assistance of midwives.
Now the rural midwives work with the Ministry of Health (MINSA), but in a new role: They attend women throughout their pregnancies and also help them to develop a birth plan – for example, deciding who will look after the other children while their mother is away. Midwives make sure expectant mothers reach one of the 181 Casas Maternas, homes where rural and other at-risk women can stay just before their expected delivery date; they also make sure they arrive safely at the hospital for the childbirth.
Health fairs are another way that Nicaragua is bringing healthcare to the communities. Each week, about 950 health fairs are carried out in rural areas and on the edge of urban areas. People’s participation in the health fairs is viewed as crucial; they help spread the word, and they volunteer on the day of the health fair.
In summary, families and communities in Nicaragua are strongly encouraged to be protagonists in their own health, and also in health programs. Dr. Reyes noted that there are regular opportunities to evaluate health programs, as well as to suggest new programs addressing areas of need. She added: “All the good policies in the world cannot be implemented without community participation.”
Closing statement: I encourage you to come to come to Nicaragua to see for yourself the impressive level of participation by everyday people across the country in building their nation, their revolution, in their own way. The Nicaraguan government has a slogan: El Pueblo, Presidente – the people are presiding, the people are the president. I believe that is what a true democracy is all about. It’s the kind of democracy that inspires me.
* Barbara Larcom is the coordinator of Casa Baltimore Limay, a Baltimore, MD-based friendship project linked with San Juan de Limay, in the Esteli Department of Nicaragua. With Nan McCurdy, she is also the co-organizer of the monthly Nicaragua Webinars series. She has visited Nicaragua regularly since 1989.