Homes of Hope Update

In 2014, the Quixote Center launched the “Homes of Hope” initiative in partnership with the Institute of John XXIII in Nicaragua. Since that time, we have delivered over $1 million to capitalize housing projects in Nicaragua and the campaign has raised nearly $1.6 million overall. 

The program is delivered through two inter-related initiatives managed by the Institute of John XXIII: The Community Housing Program and the Family Housing Program.

The Community Housing Program works with low-income families. Families are organized into housing cooperatives, typically with construction on larger plots of land serving multiple families. Quixote Center funds are used to cover construction costs. Repayment is based on concessional rates, and the money flows into a revolving loan fund that is used to cover costs of future housing projects.

To date 41 houses have been completed as part of the Community Housing Program: (20 in Leon, 21 in Sebeco) with another 12 nearly complete in San Marcos. Work on an additional 19 homes is underway and there are already plans for more in the pipeline.

The Family Housing Program works with middle-income families, a group often left out of local credit markets. This portion of the program is coordinated with a private bank (Banpro). Quixote Center contributions are used to secure mortgages: at least 20% of the value of homes is deposited with the bank. Banpro pays the full value of the housing construction, including indirect costs and administration up-front. As security for the mortgages is freed up with repayment, it also flows into the revolving loan fund.

To date, 53 houses have been built as part of the Family Housing Program. In 2018, however, this portion of the program has been in stasis, as banks in Nicaragua have ceased all mortgage lending, as a result of the economic crisis.

In March, we visited current construction sites in San Marcos, San Dionisio, and Terrabona.

San Marcos

The Community Housing Program in San Marcos (Department of Carazo) is organized with the Cooperative “Fuentes de Agua Viva.” With support from the municipality, the cooperative secured 1 manzana (1.7 acres) of land which will eventually include 20 houses. The first phase of construction for 12 houses is nearly complete.

View of Housing Site, San Marco

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

San Dionisio

The Community Housing Program in San Dionisio (Department of Matagalpa) is being coordinated with the mayor’s office. The municipality was able to secure a large plot of land with support through the national government’s land initiative. The site will eventually hold 40 houses but the first phase includes plans for 12 homes. At the time of our visit, the entry to the property had been complete, with a communal space to house celebrations and a regular market for local producers. The rest of the site has yet to be cleared. In meeting with the mayor’s office, Institute staff discussed the path of the road through the property, and reached agreement on a modest re-routing. Clearing activities for the rest of the property will begin soon.

Market in San Dionisio

Future site of San Dionisio housing units

Terrabona

In Terrabona (Department of Matagalpa), the municipality has offered participation in the housing initiative to teachers as a benefit for their work. The Institute is coordinating construction of 7 homes for this program. During our time in Terrabona, the Institute began discussions with the mayor’s office about an additional site for a Community Housing Program that will hold 26 houses. As in San Dionisio, the property in Terabono was purchased by the mayor’s office with support from the national government. The mayor’s office is offering the land for sale at concessionary rates to families without permanent housing; repaid funds will then go to purchase additional land for future housing.

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Annual Report 2018

The Quixote Center’s Annual Report for 2018 is now available. If you like the work we are doing, please consider a tax-deductible contribution. You can designate funds to a specific program, or put it toward general funds that support all of our work. 

 

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A New Round of Dialogue Launches in Nicaragua

Representatives of the Nicaraguan government begin meetings with business leaders and other members of the opposition Civic Alliance starting today. Church leaders are present to witness the discussions, but unlike the dialogue attempted last year – where church leaders were “moderators” –  they have no formal role this time.

Last year’s rounds of dialogue were very public affairs, with plenaries held before cameras and smaller working sessions held in private. The new talks are being held completely in private; indeed the location of the talks has not been released. A small group, working together outside the temptation of live camera feeds, may be more likely to reach an agreement. On the other hand, there is also a danger that an agreement reached by this smaller gathering won’t be accepted by the myriad groups cut out of the talks.

Context for Discussions

Since the fighting ended in July, a sustainable peace has been hard to achieve. In July, the government passed an anti-terrorism law which has since been used as the basis for the arrest of hundreds of people involved in demonstrations last year. While there was certainly violence from opposition groups – a point largely ignored outside of Nicaragua – the scale of arrests seems out of proportion to those crimes. In some cases, the sentences handed out have been questionable*, far in excess of the constitutionally mandated maximum 30-year sentence, giving the whole process the feel of show trials meant to bolster Ortega’s authority rather than as an effort to achieve justice. That said, there were crimes committed and families clamoring for justice. Not all of the arrests can be dismissed as political posturing. Even so, the process to date has not inspired confidence and is being used outside of Nicaragua to legitimate further sanctions.

Meanwhile the economy has come undone. Nicaragua entered 2018 with economic growth projected at 4-5%. By the end of the year, the economy had actually shrunk; 150,000 jobs were lost (even more in the informal economy), and banks had sharply reduced new lending, creating the potential for a protracted recession. The immediate cause for this is the political crisis. Blockades erected during demonstrations stopped almost all commerce for the months of May to July. Tourism, which had become a major source of foreign exchange and represented 6% of GDP in 2017, collapsed. Over 800,000 reservations into Nicaragua were cancelled in 2018, leading to a 54% decline in revenue and widespread job loss. Foreign direct investment (FDI) took a huge hit as a result of the crisis. FDI fell to $10.7 million in the second quarter of 2018, its lowest level in years. By comparison, FDI in the second quarter of the previous year was $113 million. Capital flight passed the $1 billion mark in August, creating a liquidity crisis for banks. The Central Bank intervened with sales to banks from foreign reserves for a time, but the Central Bank was facing its own liquidity crisis given the falloff in international transactions. By the end of 2018, foreign exchange holdings had fallen to their lowest level in a decade.

On top of the broader economic problems, the threat of sanctions is freezing out investment and raising the costs of borrowing to the government. Nicaragua had already been hit by the secondary effects of new U.S. sanctions against Venezuela announced in August of 2017. Venezuela’s oil company PdVSA holds a 51% stake in Albanisa, a private holding company that uses a portion of proceeds from subsidized oil sales to invest in variety of energy projects. Under threat of sanctions, Albanisa was forced to transfer all of its funds from private banks in Nicaragua to the Banco Corporativo (Bancorp), which is also an Albanisa company. The U.S. congress passed the NICA Act in December, an immediate result of which was that U.S. banks began withdrawing services from Nicaragua for fear of being caught up in sanctions. The long-terms impact of the NICA Act could be devastating. If the U.S. were to veto any new agreement with the International Monetary Fund (as called for in the NICA Act), the ability of the government to borrow funds would be severely hampered.

What’s on the table

As the sides meet today, they will be hammering out an agenda and delineating the process for discussions. The government is clearly looking for a path out of the economic crisis, or at least an agreement that would forestall implementation of further sanctions from the U.S. and avoid sanctions threatened by the European Union. It is doubtful that a formal agreement on new tax policies and social security reform would even be on the table at this point. But positioning for those coming debates will certainly be an undercurrent in the discussions.

The Civic Alliance is coming with demands (as reported in El Nuevo Diario): Release of political prisoners and the restoration of freedoms, rights and guarantees, established by the Political Constitution, as well as electoral reforms that guarantee fair, free and transparent elections; and Justice for the people of Nicaragua. Not on this list is the specific demand for early elections. This may still be a part of the discussion, of course, but there is some light here. The government has committed, on paper at least, to introducing electoral reforms and has met some opposition demands on local election policy already. Last night the government prepared to release 120-150 prisoners to conditions of house arrest. This is far from the freedom being demanded, but might garner the government some small amount of goodwill on this point. As of this afternoon, the government has already begun to follow through and a partial list of those under house arrest has been made public. 

Whatever is decided at the dialogue faces at least two further challenges, a domestic one and an international one.

If the Civic Alliance members are seen as compromising too much to get an agreement, it might well be rejected on the streets. This is particularly true on the questions of prisoners and elections. The hardcore opposition wants Ortega gone, and will demand all prisoners released. The Civic Alliance negotiators are not likely to get either, but they may get a process to review arrests, with some additional people released to house arrest in the intervening period, and they may secure electoral reform that will provide more space for opposition candidates and, possibly, no fourth term for Ortega. Will that be enough?  

Then there is the so-called international community. Throughout the crisis, the U.S. government has been pressing for early elections. National Security Advisor John Bolton recently said that Ortega is on his way out, one way or another. Will this posturing from the sidelines make an agreement impossible to reach? Will the United States accept an agreement even if it does not meet all of their demands?

All of which is to say, I am hopeful that this process is underway again, and even hopeful that an agreement will be reached; but this hope is tempered somewhat knowing that any agreement will face further challenges to be seen as legitimate and to be implemented. Compromise has not been in the air much since last April, but maybe the economic situation, which impacts everyone (if not equally) will force the question. We can only watch from here – and hope Bolton stays out of the way, allowing Nicaraguan negotiators to come to an agreement without putting his thumb on the scale. 

 

 
*This was edited slightly following publication, from “In some cases, the sentences handed out have been laughable…” 
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NICA Act 2.0: It’s back and even worse than before

The Nicaragua Investment Conditionality Act has been floating around congress since 2015. The main idea behind the bill is to direct the U.S. Executive Branch to use its voting power in multilateral lending institutions to block any new loans for Nicaragua until a set of reforms regarding elections and transparency is implemented.

The latest version of the bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in October of 2017. A companion bill was then introduced into the Senate by Ted Cruz (R-TX). This Senate version (S. 2265) was similar to the House version, but added provisions for investigation into the activity of “other regimes” in Nicaragua – principally Venezuela and Russia. This version of the NICA Act was sent to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where it sat with no action until September of this year.

During the last week of September, NICA Act was given new life with a companion bill introduced by Robert Menendez (D-NJ), called the Nicaragua Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Act of 2018 (S. 3233). The new bill was voted out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 26, and is heading for a floor debate some time soon. The twist is that Menendez’s original bill was fused with the NICA Act in this latest version, creating a broad set of sanctions that will impact Nicaragua’s access to international financial institutions while also punishing individuals in Nicaragua.

Specifically, the new bill:

  • Directs the Executive to use the influence of the U.S. government to oppose the extension of new loans or agreements with Nicaragua through the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund;
  • Calls for sanctions under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act – which allows the U.S. executive to seize assets of individuals from other countries it deems responsible for human rights abuse or political corruption, and also employ other sanctions;
  • Calls for restricting visas for travel to the United States to individuals in the Nicaraguan government and their associates;
  • Calls for annual reporting on the state of Nicaragua’s democracy;
  • Directs agencies to create a “civil society” engagement strategy – which in the current context largely means expanding support for groups in opposition to the government;
  • Is enacted until 2023, although provisions can be waived if Nicaragua adopts reforms that satisfy U.S. policy-makers.

If passed, the U.S. government will be committing itself to increased intervention that would do serious harm to Nicaragua’s economy – already reeling from a collapse in investment and capital flight. By incorporating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act the bill leaves the path open for the President to go even further than individual sanctions in punishing Nicaragua.

The Nicaragua Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Act of 2018 (S. 3233) is a bad idea. It goes much further than the original NICA Act, which we have opposed from the beginning. It has the potential of doing grave harm to the people of Nicaragua, and seems intent on deepening the polarization in the country at a time when the United States, if it is to do anything, should be limiting its role to encouraging dialogue (without imposing predetermined outcomes on the dialogue – as the U.S. has done thus far). This new bill will simply make it that much harder for groups to come together and reach a political settlement to the ongoing crisis.

You can call your Senators at the Capitol Hill Switchboard at (202) 224-3121. Tell them “No to sanctions” in S. 3233, and yes to encouraging a return to dialogue unencumbered by U.S. intervention!

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Lessons from Haiti: Another View on the Nicaraguan Crisis

Since April 18, the solidarity movement has been struggling over how to interpret events in Nicaragua and where to push in terms of advocacy and/or speaking out. As with many people following the situation, I have watched and listened to friends take a harsh line towards one another and with me about articles I have written. While the division in the solidarity movement is not in and of itself new, the tensions have boiled over. The gulf between people over how the situation is understood and should be represented is enormous. There are even calls from some to support U.S. sanctions against the government of Nicaragua, and to expand U.S. pressure on Ortega and the FSLN to step down. My sense is that we must resist this push for U.S. intervention; the potential consequences are dire.

For myself, the ghost hovering over my understanding of what is going in Nicaragua, and more to the point, my fear for the future, is not Venezuela or Syria, but Haiti in 2004. At the time, the solidarity community was deeply divided over Aristide’s rule. His effort to craft an institutionalized party (Fanmi Lavalas) from the Lavalas movement had created divisions within that movement; his embrace of some neo-liberal policy reforms, accusations of corruption, and accusations of political violence employed against opponents resulted in many on the left moving into an oppositional position against Aristide. As with Nicaragua today, much of this division was in response to division within Haiti. Groups like Batay Ouvriye and the Plateforme Haïtienne de Plaidoyer pour un Développement Alternatif (PAPDA), all with deep ties to solidarity groups in the U.S., began denouncing Aristide and even calling for his resignation. This sounds all too familiar.

In late 2003 and early 2004, armed groups began moving from the Dominican Republic into Haiti, burning police stations and public facilities. As these groups approached Port-au-Prince, the business community was organized into the “Democratic Convergence” with other sectors of civil society, and stepped up their long-time opposition and expanded protests. On February 29, 2004 Aristide was forced to leave Haiti. Escorted to an airfield by U.S. special forces, he was put on a plane to the Central African Republic. His claim that he was forced out of office at the point of a gun, was dismissed out of hand. There was no investigation. Many on the left accepted this de facto coup. Convinced of Aristide’s failings, they accepted at face value the claim that he resigned freely. What might come next seemed to worry them not at all.

There was no constitutional transfer of power. With the parliament inactive, the United States, Canada and France essentially handed off leadership to a transitional authority under Gerard Latortue, who had worked previously with the United Nations, and was working as a business consultant and talk radio host in Boca Raton, Florida, when appointed as Prime Minister. The U.S. military was dispatched to “stabilize” the situation, eventually handing over occupation to a United Nations peacekeeping mission in the fall of 2004. Though officially ended last year, a smaller “follow-up” mission continues to be a presence in Haiti 14 years later.

Between Aristide’s removal from power and Preval’s re-election in February of 2006, thousands of people died. The international “community” which had denied access to funding to President Preval during his first term, and later Aristide, opened the the aid floodgates for Latortue. Billions of dollars flowed into the country, which, to this day, are largely unaccounted for. Concessions were granted to corporations for large swathes of Haiti’s resources. It was corruption on scale that dwarfed anything Aristide had been accused of (much less proven), all coupled with political violence on a scale that rivaled (and, by some measures, surpassed) the coup regime of 1991-1994.

The solidarity community in the United States with ties to Haiti was deeply divided – a division that, whatever else was on the table, constantly came back to the question of Aristide’s rule and his future. It is hard to know what might have been achieved otherwise, but ultimately there was no effective voice to push back against the United States’ propping up of Latortue amidst widespread violence and intensified neo-liberalization. People allied in the anti-Aristide camp, would point to violence by armed groups nominally aligned with Lavalas to justify and ignore the broader destruction taking place.

Since April 18 of this year, I have had a strong feeling of deja vu. Obviously there are enormous differences between Haiti and Nicaragua. The FSLN is deeply entrenched in the economic, social and political life of Nicaragua, in a way that Fanmi Lavalas was never able to achieve in Haiti. Nicaragua’s democratic institutions are more deeply embedded, and even if one accepts the worst about Ortega’s machinations, there is a baseline of stability in Nicaragua that Haiti, under constant intervention from the United States, has not been able to achieve.

On the one hand, this means that Nicaragua is able to resist intervention to a greater degree. This is evident whether one accepts the “coup has been defeated” narrative, or the “government remains intransigent” narrative, as both interpretations speak to the resilience of the state in the face of external pressure.

On the other hand, if Ortega is ultimately forced from power, what comes next could be accompanied by even greater bloodshed, given the embeddedness of the FSLN. I am convinced that there is no way Ortega’s resignation, or even early elections, will satisfy the United States and those in the opposition who have aligned with U.S. policy-makers in the long-term. Why? Because the FSLN will remain the largest, most stable party in Nicaragua even without Ortega. Indeed, even if Ortega were to resign, unless the constitution is simply thrown out the window, a Sandinista will replace him, as his replacement would be left to the National Assembly to choose. If early elections are held, the FSLN will very likely win a large portion of seats in the assembly, if not a majority – and possibly the presidency – depending on who runs. None of this will be acceptable to the United States and allied forces in Nicaragua.

What happened in Haiti is also instructive about the future of the FSLN under U.S.-brokered regime change. In the wake of Aristide’s “resignation,” the United States transformed the political arena, defended the pillaging of the economy, and practically destroyed Fanmi Lavalas (ironically by trying to take it over in an absurd effort to clear the way for Marc Bazan – a long-time opponent of Lavalas – to run as the Fanmi Lavalas candidate in 2006). Preval’s return to power at the head of the Lespwa coalition in 2006, despite all of the U.S.’s efforts, would mark the last “free” election in Haiti. In 2010, amidst the aftershocks of the earthquake, the vote was simply discarded. The U.S.-supported candidate, Martelly, was put into a runoff in place of the Lespwa candidate who had actually received more votes in the first round. With this decision made under unrelenting pressure and threats of sanctions from the U.S. government, Martelly would go on to win, amidst widespread abstention. Lavalas was excluded entirely from the election.

For those of us in the solidarity community, I suggest we take seriously the hard-earned lessons of the Haitian example in 2004. Calling for accountability regarding the violence in Nicaragua, both from state forces and armed groups aligned with the opposition, is important; but I would emphasize that this accountability should come through domestic channels or the multilateral forums that Nicaragua participates in. This week, the government has invited the United Nations, the Vatican and members of the European Human Rights community to help mediate a new, expanded round of national dialogue. This has the potential for achieving an accounting of what has transpired, and creating a path toward resolution and reconciliation.

Continuing to call for Ortega’s removal from power, and inviting further intervention from the United States in the form of sanctions that would only further destabilize and polarize the situation in Nicaragua, seems like a really bad idea. Marco Rubio, who has led the right-wing charge against the FSLN in the Senate, has even spoken of the possibility of war in Nicaragua, and has tried to recast the crisis as a national security issue for the United States. Rubio and his partners in Congress make strange allies for those on the left, and they are certainly not the allies of the majority of people in Nicaragua. Those with such a policy orientation have no track record of bringing democracy to any part of the world. Nor, clearly, is that their intention.

As the violence on the ground in Nicaragua has subsided dramatically over the last two weeks, there is space for a conversation about long-term political solutions. We should welcome and support this opening. But inviting alliances with those on the political right in the United States, which has long sought to dismantle the Sandinista government, is about the worst thing that could be done for Nicaragua.

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Inspirational and Influential Women of the World: Dolly Pomerleau Part III

I first met Dolly in January of 1996. I had just moved to Washington, D.C. and was looking for a job. I had contacted the Quixote Center a few months prior about the possibility of setting up a small project to donate funds to a clinic in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. The clinic served the neighborhood of the Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs, where I stayed in July of 1995 with a Witness for Peace delegation. This had been my first trip to Nicaragua, and the group I was with was eager to help out the community in a meaningful way. Friends directed me to “check out the Quixote Center” to see if they could help. I did. Bill Callahan helped direct some of our funds to the clinic, but a long standing project wasn’t in the works. It was my first experience of what I would come to love about the Quixote Center. The whole celebrating dreams bit is real – laced with enough realism to keep people from wasting time and money. When I came to Washington, D.C., I was reaching out to everyone I had come into contact with doing work in Nicaragua and solidarity with Central America more generally – asking if they needed help. Some of these cold calls would lead to lifelong friendships, with Chuck Kaufman and Kathy Hoyt of the Nicaragua Network, members of the Witness for Peace community (where I actually did get a job!), and, of course, the Quixote Center. I dropped by the Quixote Center that January. Bill was warm and welcoming. Dolly was equally inviting and funny. They took me to lunch and took a lot of time, it seemed to me, with a young guy who knew nothing, but had recently been to Nicaragua. If you’ve spent time with Dolly you know, she asks questions. She takes an interest in people. She can make you feel like you are interesting, like your story matters. Later, when I started working at the Quixote Center, I discovered she was also very honest. Never “brutally” honest, but she had high expectations about the work we did, and especially how we communicated that work to our “constituency.” She was always clear when she thought I (or anyone) could do better. And she was always generous with praise when warranted. On this first meeting, I did not land a job. But I got a few names and a much appreciated explanation for how the D.C. street grid worked. I went on to work for Witness for Peace that year and then I was off to grad school. But I kept running into Bill and Dolly. At Witness for Peace, I was part of organizing a fast on the capitol steps as one of the early SOAWatch actions. I invited Bill and Dolly to lead one of our evening reflections. I later would run into them at street festivals selling artwork and t-shirts for the Nicaraguan Cultural Alliance. Dolly was always cheerful and warm. In the Fall of 2001, I was finishing grad school and completing a semester teaching assignment at the University of Maryland. I found out the Quixote Center was hiring a policy coordinator for the Quest for Peace program and I applied. At the time, I was simply looking for a bridge between grad school and a full-time teaching assignment, but I ended up staying and staying, and then leaving only to return. Since that first meeting in 1996, there has been a gravitational pull of sorts that has kept me in the Center’s orbit and Dolly has been at the center of it. When I first started working at the Quixote Center, I established this rough schema about the relationship between Bill and Dolly and their respective roles. Bill was the charismatic leader. Always with the grand smile, unforgettable laugh, mischievous eyes that could pull you. He was the weaver of dreams, with his writing and his speaking. Dolly was the transactional leader. She was, in brief, the one who made sure things got done. Dolly has charisma to spare, and Bill could certainly finish a project, but their strengths I do believe lined up this way and reinforced each other, and through them, the Center.   For the years I have worked with Dolly she has been both a colleague and a mentor. Even now, I learn from her far more than I return. From my perspective, her greatest strength is her ability to mobilize people. She looks for ways to include others and does not hesitate to ask someone to take on a task. And though she can be a tough critic – a reputation she relishes I think – the result is that the end product is always better. With any other organizer all of this might sound a bit controlling, but Dolly’s genius is her ability to magnify her own expectations while making space for other people’s creativity. Dolly doesn’t want things done her way – she just wants whatever is being planned to actually get done and to be done well. In my time with the Quixote Center Dolly has handed me grant proposals to write, fundraising letters to layout, or the name of a donor to call. She has asked me to write poems and songs and to draw pictures for different programs. She’s been my strongest ally in encouraging me to try new, sometimes wacky tactics and she has also been the first person to say, bluntly, “that won’t work” (though she is willing to be convinced otherwise, provided you bring your best game to the conversation). She, more than anyone else, has taught me about the transactional part of organizing work. And not just me. From the current mayor of New York City, to heads of national organizations, to the current staff at the Quixote Center, Dolly has helped a generation of activists be better at the work they do. It is hard to imagine the Quixote Center without Dolly. Her wealth of experience, her insistence that our work make a difference, but also be interesting, even fun where it can be, and her enormous wit and energy will all be missed. I also fear our staff meetings will be longer now – Dolly had little patience for a lot of talking that seemed to lack direction. We all do, but she would actually stop it! I know that for Dolly retiring from the Quixote Center means passing along the legacy to a new cohort to carry the work forward. I don’t expect she will retire from the work of making this world more justly loving. She’ll continue to put her energies into new projects, enjoy her garden and travel. The Quixote Center will be fine though. She has implanted in all of us her passion for making impossible dreams possible. Dolly is one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. She made me a better organizer and has shown more confidence in me at times than I have felt myself. Mostly, she has been a great friend. I will cherish all of the times I have worked with her at the Quixote Center, and I look forward to future adventures with her.  
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Inspirational and Influential Women of the World: Dolly Pomerleau Part II

Dolly Pomerleau was one of the pioneers who founded the Quixote Center in 1975. She and Bill Callahan launched this justice work with a strong commitment to social justice in both civil society and within the Catholic Church. In both arenas, that justice included changing structures to establish the equality of women and men. Dolly was utterly committed to that and all the other projects and ideals to which the Center committed itself over the years. 

She was a Co-Director of the Center from the start… shaping the vision and helping launch many different projects. From the beginning, she advocated feminist ideals and full gender equality, making sure these values were a part of every aspect of life at the Center. 

And in 1975, she was one of the pioneering women who founded the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC), the organization that has been a leader in the quest for women’s equality in the Roman Catholic Church for more than 40 years. The Quixote Center has long worked in coalition with WOC.  

Over the years, Dolly worked on a variety of projects at the Quixote Center, including Catholics Speak Out, which emphasized the crying need for gender equality and an expanded role for lay decision-making in the Church.

Photo from The Catholic Connection, October 1976.

She is a strong advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and was one of several women who chained themselves to the front door of the Republican National Committee when that party took the ERA out of its platform. The group was there for a full day in the hot sun, attracting a wide range of onlookers, including Republican women inside the building, many of whom were at their windows, pointedly expressing support for the action with hand signals, flag waving, and the like. 

Dolly is also committed to rectifying injustices of any kind where her actions might make a difference. She protested US attempts to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua in the 1980’s, helping to establish the Quest for Peace project, which raised hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid for Nicaragua over the years. This meant filling many cargo containers of aid that were shipped to that country regularly and sent to the Center’s partner organization, the Institute of John XXIII in Managua. The Institute then distributed the aid to the neediest parts of Nicaragua.  

Several times, Dolly visited that country and travelled with Ketxu Amezua of the Institute to see the many and impressive projects that were underway as a result of help from the Quixote Center. Her fluency in Spanish was an enormous help in all this work. 

In the United States, Dolly was never shy about protesting US policy in Nicaragua, and one time was arrested in the rotunda of the US Capitol as part of a group that was kneeling to pray for an end to US actions against the Nicaraguan government. 

She also advocated for justice in Haiti when Aristide was the duly elected President, and she helped establish a new project at the Center called Haiti Reborn. 

Her values were broad. When some new staff people at the Quixote Center – Jane Henderson and Shari Silberstein – suggested a project aimed at ending the death penalty, Dolly (and the staff) endorsed it heartily. This project eventually spun off from the Center to become Equal Justice USA. 

And oh yes… Dolly is a native of the state of Maine – northern Maine near the Canadian border. Thus she is tri-lingual: English, French, and Spanish.   

Dolly has been a strong and fearless advocate for justice in both church and civil society. She may be retiring from the Quixote Center, but her words and her spirit will never retire! She will always be there! 

Maureen Fiedler

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Inspirational and Influential Women of the World: Dolly Pomerleau

Part VII of the Inspirational and Influential Women of the World Blog Series

“The only thing that has limited us in the past was our own fears.” – Dolly Pomerleau

We are ending the Inspirational and Influential Women of the World Blog Series with several installments honoring our fearless leader and co-founder, Dolly Pomerleau. I had the immense pleasure of working with and learning from Dolly this past year. I will forever admire her spunk, endless passion and conviction, as well as her ability to surround herself with people who want to make the world a better place.

In order to convey the inspiration and influence of Dolly Pomerleau, we must start with the story of the Quixote Center. In the mid 70’s, co-founder Bill Callahan worked at the Center of Concern, another justice-centered organization that took hold after Vatican II. Together, Dolly and Bill realized that none of the new and shiny nonprofits in promoting justice and social change in this vein were autonomous from the Church, which greatly limited their ability to work on the various problems within the Church and on issues that it opposed. It was then, in 1975, that these two radically progressive Catholics began hatching an idea to create their own social justice organization – the Quixote Center.

When discussing how the name ‘Quixote Center’ came to be, she recalls, “our goal was to work on issues of justice regardless of what people thought of us. Don Quixote did what he believed in and suffered the consequences. Quixote is someone with a lot of imagination, a little zaniness, sometimes not having good judgment in terms of societal standards, and willing to be called crazy. One of the hallmarks is laughter and a strong sense of community.”

In 1976, the Quixote Center officially opened with the goal of ruffling some feathers within the Catholic church, promoting equality, and fighting for the overlooked of society. Unsurprisingly, the Center sought out one of the most taboo issues they could find: women’s ordination. While working on women’s ordination Dolly became one of the founders of the Women’s Ordination Conference and a leader within the movement.

The Center continued to expand. As things began to erupt in Central America during the late 1970s, the Center turned its focus to the injustice and violence in the region. Dolly recalls, “We didn’t know what it would involve, but we knew it was a revolutionary time.” In 1980, the Center held a vigil for Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran Archbishop who was assassinated, and thus their work in Central America began. Dolly and Maureen Fiedler journeyed to Nicaragua, intrigued by Pope John Paul II’s disastrous visit, only to see the devastation and returned to the States thinking, “What can we do?”

In the hopes of educating the American public, Dolly and Maureen decided to publish a tabloid entitled Nicaragua: A Look at Reality, answering the basic questions about the Sandinista’s revolution and U.S. intervention. Within a year, the Center’s involvement grew and they began regularly shipping millions of dollars of humanitarian aid to the country, thanks in part to the fundraising work of Dolly.

Dolly transformed monotonous fundraising into community-building. She stated, “Turn people into constituents by giving them something to do – organize them politically, have them call legislators, organize cargo containers, etc. People were materially and physically invested in the Center’s programs.” Dolly invited people into the fold, creating not just supporters but friends – a Quixote family called by the Quixote spirit to enact radical social change and promote peace.

The Center has collected a wide array of issues and continues to pick up new ones up along the way. When speaking with Dolly she told me, “The Center hasn’t tended to rush to the popular issues,” instead taking on the passion of the employees, ranging from the elimination of the death penalty to inclusive citizenship.

As I sit and talk to Dolly she has a smile on her face. She reminiscences, “The most creative and productive time was in the ‘80s, and the work of Quest for Peace. There was national organizing, lobbying against Congress, aid sent to Nicaragua – just an incredible era. They were the best years of the Center for me.” Dolly’s hope for the Center is that it will continue to grow in size and allow the current programs to thrive.

After 42 years, Dolly is retiring (for real this time) next week. Without her we would not have the Quixote Center, and for that we are ever grateful.

 

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Tell Congress to Support Dialogue in Nicaragua, not Impose More Sanctions

House Resolution 981 calls on the U.S. government to more aggressively employ the Magnitsky Act as a means to sanction individual members of the Nicaraguan government, while also condemning violence in Nicaragua. The stated goal is to support democracy, but the text of the resolution is not based on a balanced accounting of what has transpired in the country over the last three months. If serious about supporting democracy in Nicaragua, Congress should support the process of dialogue and join with other international organizations in calling for “all political actors” to halt the violence and work toward a negotiated solution.

Contact your member of Congress and tell them to vote against H. Res 981, support the dialogue, and allow the people of Nicaragua to determine their future without the further intervention of the United States.

You can call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224- 3121, or send an email directly to your representative using the Alliance for Global Justice’s email platform here.

Background

The House International Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere voted the Resolution out of Committee on July 12. It will be taken up by the full committee in the coming days before going to the House floor for a vote.

The Magnitsky Act is a mechanism that allows the Trump administration to level sanctions against individuals in other countries that it determines have violated human rights or have been involved in corruption. The Magnitsky Act was first employed in Nicaragua to apply sanctions against Roberto Rivas, head of the Supreme Electoral Council last year (he has since resigned). Last week further sanctions were announced against Francisco Diaz, deputy chief of the national police, Antonio Moreno Briones, secretary of the Managua mayor’s office, and Francisco Lopez, vice president of Albanisa (a joint venture between Nicaragua and Venezuela). The individuals sanctioned seem to have been targeted for the perception that they are close to Ortega – not because of specific incidents they are directly responsible for during the last three months of turmoil.

For the past three months, Nicaragua has been in the throes of a political crisis unlike anything witnessed since the 1980s. While the spark for protests in April was an announced reform of the social security system, violence over the next several days led to the deaths of nearly 50 people. Though investigations of the violence make clear that police were not acting unilaterally – as opposition groups burned buildings throughout the country and fired upon police (one of the first deaths was a police officer killed by a shotgun blast), the media has continued to present all of the deaths as the result of state forces firing on peaceful demonstrations. The government annulled the reforms and launched a process of national dialogue, mediated by the Episcopal Conference of Bishops.

As the weeks have gone by, the dialogue has moved forward in fits and starts, with opposition groups blockading major roads and eventually building smaller blockades within cities throughout the country to impede travel and disrupt commerce. The blockades have become the sight of further violence. In international media, accounts all of the violence has been blamed on the police and parapolice forces. However, it is clear that opposition forces have utilized extreme force as well. At least 20 police officers have been killed and hundreds wounded. A Sandinista student representative from the Polytechnic University who was taking part in the dialogue was beaten, shot, and left for dead in a ditch in Managua. Independent analysis of reported deaths over the past three months indicates that many are not related to the demonstrations at all, that opposition forces are responsible for dozens of killings, and that many people have died for simply being near skirmishes between the opposition and pro-government groups. 

Against this backdrop, the dialogue has made some progress. Agreements have been reached to allow investigators from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, UN High Commission for Human Rights, and the European Union to work alongside domestic investigators to document the violence. An agreement was reached to organize the dialogue around three tables of discussion – human rights, security, and democratization. While there are clearly major differences between groups at these tables about how to proceed, working through the process for as long as possible to reach an agreement is the only way out of the crisis. The United States should not be adding to the polarization at this time by taking a hardline position on the outcome.

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Read more of our coverage on Nicaragua here.

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Update on Nicaragua: The National Dialogue is back on…for now

Following fighting between the Nicaraguan government and protestors in mid-April during which nearly 50 people were killed in four days, the National Dialogue was set up as a means to discuss the conflict and work toward justice for the victims of the violence. At the table are the government, representatives of the national university system, labor unions, and the opposition Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, composed of students from the April 19th Movement, the Superior Council of Private Enterprises, and representatives of “civil society” organizations. Catholic Bishops from the National Episcopal Conference are working as mediators in the talks – they have largely sided with the Civic Alliance in setting the agenda for discussions. The Dialogue was launched on May 16 – but then suspended on May 23, as the opposition refused to remove blockades throughout the country, and the government refused to talk until they did.

After several intense weeks of conflict in the streets, the National Dialogue reconvened on Friday, June 15 with the intention of addressing two broad themes: 1. Human rights and justice for victims of the violence and 2. Democracy. The discussions held in a plenary session in front of cameras did not yield an agreement. However, behind closed doors on Friday and into Saturday agreements were reached on the first theme, including:

  1. Formal invitations to the Interamerican Human Rights Commission, the Organization of American States, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, and representatives of the European Union to participate in investigating the violence that began in April, leaving 170+ people dead and over 2,000 wounded.
  2. Creation of a Commission for Verification and Security, represented by members of the government and the opposition Civic Alliance, to participate in the investigation.
  3. Creation of a second commission, also represented by members of the government and the opposition Civic Alliance, to work to guarantee the security and human rights of all the people of NIcaragua.
  4. Beginning the process of taking down the blockades that have been erected around the country (though the opposition later recanted on this point – clearly seeing the blockades as an important bargaining chip. It is also not clear that the people at the table actually have control over the blockades).

On Monday, the Dialogue broke down again, when the opposition Civic Alliance walked out on the discussions, citing the government’s unwillingness to share official letters of invitation to the international organizations mentioned above, while also refusing to address the ongoing issue of the blockades. The government later made the content of the letters public and international organizations have since verified receipt and acceptance of the invitations.  As of Thursday, June 21, the Dialogue is scheduled to resume.

When the Dialogue gets back underway, the discussion will focus on proposals to end to the political crisis. From the opposition side, members of the Civic Alliance have indicated they will simply demand that Ortega resign, and that an interim council be established to oversee new elections – the council drawn from the ranks of the opposition. Breaking with members of the Civic Alliance, the Superior Council of Private Enterprises (COSEP) joined with the Bishops, who are acting as “mediators” in discussions, to propose that elections be moved up to March of 2019 for all levels of government; the new government then taking office in April. Finally, the government has countered that it is already in the process of reforming the electoral system with the Organization of American States, and that a package of reforms will be ready in January. Elections should be held as scheduled (2021 for national elections), not moved up.

It is hard to read where this will all go at the moment. If the Civic Alliance withdraws its demands that Ortega resign and joins in the call for early elections (their original position), it will put a lot of pressure on the government to agree. However, it will also split the opposition. Some student leaders, for example, have indicated that they want Ortega out and may well continue protests regardless of what the people at the table decide. The resignation scenario – at least as proposed – would be a direct violation of Nicaragua’s constitution. The president can, of course, resign, but the National Assembly has the constitutional responsibility for selecting an interim president, and he or she would certainly come from the ranks of the Sandinista Party. Which is to say, the opposition is essentially arguing for the government to bypass the constitution, and in essence, agree to a coup d’etat. This seems unlikely.

The early elections proposal seems to be where the momentum is heading. This has its own pitfalls. Again, presumably the National Assembly would need to affirm a new elections calendar. If the government agrees to this at the Dialogue, the vote in the Assembly would likely follow suit. However, left out of the discussion at this point are representatives of other political parties in the county, who are not officially represented at the National Dialogue. For example it is not clear where the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC), Nicaragua’s second largest party, stands on this process. They currently control 15% of the seats in the National Assembly and several municipalities. Perhaps they will see a chance to gain more seats, but they may also view the Civic Alliance as a threat to their position if the Alliance runs its own slate of candidates. Of course, there is also a strong chance that if early elections are held, the Sandinistas will win again. They remain the largest political party in the country, facing an opposition with no clear ideological framework or cohesion.

The United States government has now begun pressing for early elections as well. Florida Senator, Marco Rubio called for a referendum on Ortega’s government, to be followed by new elections next year. The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent a “transitions” expert, who advised the opposition to press for early elections. The State Department joined in the call and on Tuesday dispatched the U.S. Ambassador to the OAS, Carlos Trujillo, to Nicaragua to meet with Ortega and opposition leaders separately, where he also indicated that early elections were the way out of the crisis.

As the United States has not been invited to play any kind of mediating role, taking sides in the Dialogue strikes me as an inappropriate (if far from surprising) intervention. Indeed, whatever other role the U.S. may have played in the current unrest behind the scenes, out in the open it has steadily distorted the electoral process in Nicaragua through financing opposition organizations for over 30 years. It is hard to imagine that this has not contributed to the polarization we are seeing today. And of course, the U.S. has most recently been helping opposition voices build an online messaging machine for which the international media has adopted the role of stenographer since the conflict began in April.  

As the National Dialogue continues, we remain hopeful. The Quixote Center is not advocating for a particular outcome, but we do believe the process should be determined by the people in Nicaragua – not Washington, D.C.  

 

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Contact Us

  • Quixote Center
    7307 Baltimore Ave.
    Ste 214
    College Park, MD 20740
  • Office: 301-699-0042
    Email: info@quixote.org

Direction to office:

For driving: From Baltimore Ave (Route 1) towards University of Maryland, turn right onto Hartwick Rd. Turn immediate right in the office complex.

Look for building 7307. We are located on the 2nd floor.

For public transportation: We are located near the College Park metro station (green line)