By Tina Snell, Staff Writer
Larry Fisk just returned from his fourth trip to Nicaragua. The Fort Ripley resident is drawn to the country that has befriended him in so many ways.
In 1988, when Fisk and his wife Gayle Nielsen lived in Tucson, Ariz., they started a sister city program with Santo Domingo, Nicaragua. In 1990, Fisk led a six-person electoral delegation team to the Central American country to observe the elections in Santo Domingo.
“I took my three children, Abra, Golden and Lad, there in 2008,” said Fisk. “We drove all the way to visit friends I had made in previous trips and to see how things had changed.”
But it was the most recent trip in 2011, that Fisk and his daughter Abra spent 30 days touring the country.
“Again, we viewed the national elections and visited friends,” said Fisk. “The country has definitely changed for the better since we were last there.”
Nicaragua is a presidential representative democratic republic and in 2011, the national elections included both the president and the national assembly, similar to the United States legislature.
“It was an exciting time for the country,” said Fisk. “There were five parties in contention for the president, but the incumbent Daniel Ortega retained his presidency.”
Fisk said there were all-night celebrations in the streets after the results were in.
Ortega, a member of the Sandinista National Liberation Front party, received 62 percent of the votes. He was elected president in 1985 for a five-year term, but lost to Violeta Chamorro in 1990. He ran again in 2008, and has become an extremely popular president.
Fisk said that under Ortega, the country grew 5 percent last year. People are optimistic about their futures.
“Social programs have been implemented to fight poverty, education and health care is free for everyone,” said Fisk. “Vaccinations are free and the government has mobile eye clinics that do cataract surgery, a big program in the tropical country.”
Abra said that women are the backbone of the family, and in many cases, the most stable person since she takes care of the home and the children. They have risen in status over the past several decades.
The poorer Nicaraguan women are given a pregnant cow or sow to help both her and her family financially.
“It has been determined the woman will best use the gift for the betterment of the family and the community,” Abra said. The animal may be bred or used to supply milk. The offspring may be sold to help the family.
For women who would like to start a business, or expand one, there are micro-loan programs which help them to do so. For the average person, Abra said it is a big plus.
Fisk said higher education facilities charge students around $80 per year. There are about 48 universities and 113 colleges and technical institutes throughout the country. The problem for the poorer students is getting to the universities, finding a place to live nearby or finding travel expenses. It’s not feasible for many young people to attend the universities.
“The government has been increasing scholarships and giving emphasis on getting rural students into the system,” said Fisk.
The free education for elementary students is paid for through taxes and is mandatory. But, many children in the more rural areas don’t have a local schools to attend.
“The goal of the government is to have everyone educated through the sixth grade, no matter their age,” said Fisk.
It’s working, for the United Nations recently declared Nicaragua illiterate-free, said Fisk.
The women’s status in Nicaragua has changed dramatically over the past several decades. They hold 34 of the 90 seats in the National Assembly. The positions of the ministers of health; environment; education; labor; defense; the interior; and family, adolescence and childhood are held by women. The chief justice of the Nicaraguan supreme court is a woman, as is the mayor of Managua, the capital of the country.
Youth organizations have become very popular. The groups work on environmental issues; assist younger children in sports to promote healthier lifestyles; repair dilapidated schools; distribute food and blankets to the poor and the elderly; and assist the government with vaccinations.
“Poverty has been cut in half in five years,” said Fisk. “Food production is up and prices are stable.”
Fisk also said that seed loans for farmers are deferred if the crop is lost due to extreme weather conditions.
“When we visited in 2008, the electricity went out all the time. Now, it’s more constant,” said Fisk. “Two-thirds of the population has electricity and it’s expected 90 percent will have it in two years.”
The government is accelerating its use of power from wind, geothermal from the country’s volcanoes, solar, hydro and biomass to produce its electricity. It is estimated it is saving $200 million per year by not burning petroleum.
The Fisks did not just study the country, its people and politics, but traveled to several tourist areas during their 30 days there.
“It’s so beautiful,” said Abra, who speaks fluent Spanish. “The beaches, the volcanoes, the lush tropics are wonderful. And, the country is full of incredibly colored butterflies..”
Nicaragua has two National Reserves: Bosawas Biosphere in the north and Indio-Maiz Biological Reserve in the south. The government is working toward making the country a refuge for forest life, said Fisk.
The two traveled from the west to east coast, then back again, by vehicle and by boat. They visited the towns and departments (states) of Esteli, Managua, Masaya, Rivas and Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua and Corn Island in the Caribbean. They also spent time in Chinandega and Santo Domingo.
“The roads were fairly impassible in 2008, but today they are great. Most have been improved or new ones added,” said Abra. “It’s a safe country to visit. There is no fear of criminals, robbers or violent crime. Tourism is up because of the safe environment.”
Fisk said there is zero tolerance for any organized crime or drug running and the waters on both coasts are patrolled by boats looking for drug runners.
“Seventy-three percent of the people expect the next years to be even better than they are now. There is confidence in the economy and everyone is much happier,” said Fisk. “It was so much fun to be there this time. The people are upbeat; it’s an infectious feeling.”
Nicaragua is bordered by Honduras on the north and Costa Rica on the south. It’s the largest country in Central America with the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Caribbean on the east. There are approximately six million people in the country, a little more than the population of Minnesota. It is a little larger than Mississippi in square miles. The official language is Spanish and coffee, cotton and beef are its main exports.