In cold, rainy November, a battle-worn Nicaraguan activist comes to Canada. She speaks of the withdrawal of international cooperation and its human consequences. In a darkening era of austerity, she searches for signs of a rebirth of the solidarity she once felt from the North.
This week concluded the Canadian visit of Sandra Ramos, founding member and director of Nicaragua’s “Maria Elena Cuadra” Working and Unemployed Women’s Movement (MEC).
The tour was hosted by Horizons of Friendship—a Canadian agency that supports MEC, along with a number of other civil society organizations in Central America. Ramos’s visit, while intended to address social-economic challenges in Nicaragua, was perhaps as revealing of the situation in Canada and other G8 countries. The visit came in the shadow of large cuts in Canada’s international cooperation budget and the withdrawal of a number of European aid organizations from Central America. As civil society partnerships and development assistance vanish, private investment and free-trade agreements increase. Ramos refers to this as the privatization of international cooperation, with the “austerity agenda” used as a pretext to dismantle social services and advance special interests.
The MEC women’s movement was born in 1994 out of a crisis within the Sandinista Workers’ Council (CST). The recently privatized textile—or “maquiladora”—industries recruited a workforce of mostly young women who were subject to labor and human-rights violations with no recourse from the traditional trade union movement. The workers went on strike and formed the “Maria Elena Cuadra” movement named in honor of a labor rights advocate who had recently died in a car accident. With the future of their cause uncertain, they turned to international agencies for support, including Horizons of Friendship of Canada.
The MEC movement was founded in response to foreign companies that came to Nicaragua’s then newly formed “Zona Franca” (Free Trade Zones) under the false dawn of neo-liberalism. This ideology was sold to cash-strapped governments around the world, and Nicaragua simply entered the global market. But when workers faced 12-hour shifts, a $5/week wage, and chain-locked factory doors, it had nothing to do with ideology; it was a fight for their very bodies and dignity.
Two decades later, these women have a lot to be proud of. The movement has reached thousands and brought gender and labour rights issues to international attention. Earlier this year, MEC and other organizations were successful in getting the new Integral Law Against Violence Against Women passed in the National Assembly—a landmark achievement for the feminist movement in the whole region.
“All these changes took place on the streets, through protest,” Ramos said. “No government, no one in power ever gave us anything.”
People in many other parts of the world—Canada included—are now getting a taste of what the struggle of these women means. This mutual understanding may be precisely what is necessary to revive international cooperation among civil society.
The “dark, satanic mills” of the industrialized world are now global. Wealth has become ever more concentrated and public services diminished. The fallout of short sighted industrial policies can now be seen on the streets, with massive protests in Argentina, Southern Europe, or the Occupy movement in North America. Canada, the U.S., Spain, Italy, etc. have all created a “lost generation” with high unemployed and underemployment rates among young people.
The MEC slogan “Work yes, but with dignity” reigns true well beyond Managua’s “Zona Franca.”
The need for change in the economic order is becoming clear. What is not clear is where the leadership and organization will come from. As was apparent during Ramos’ visit to Canada, the traditional means of social reform (unions, media, arts, academia, etc.) have largely been dismantled and privatized; much of the public has become insulated.
“I first came to this country [Canada] as a young women,” Ramos told an attentive crowd in Toronto; “but this time, I notice a difference—where’s the solidarity, where’s the sense of urgency?”
November in Canada can be as forgiving as it is austere. While traveling between cities, Ramos remarked on the beauty when sunlight broke through the gray sky, reflecting off the frosted landscape. As public funding is cut, the future of MEC and other civil society organizations in Central America is uncertain. What is certain is that “no government, no one in power” will easily give anything, and it will depend on the creativity and struggle of those most affected, whether in Nicaragua, Canada or elsewhere.