issue 186 - August 1988
Doing time in Nicaragua
'These are torturers and multiple murderers,' I kept reminding myself. I was visiting a Nicaraguan open prison, or granja abierta, with a delegation of Canadians from the Uniting Church. All of us were aware that this might be a 'show' institution - no government is keen to show off its worst prisons. But in fact the outline of Nicaragua's reformed penal system is as impressive as any one jail.
All the prisoners at the Granja were once members of Somoza's National Guard, the main arm of repression before the 1979 revolution. I couldn't help but scan the faces of these men as they sat at their sewing machines, played their guitars or chatted to us, looking for signs of brutality, of some physical trait that would betray their capacity to inflict torture. Needless to say, I found no such traces of original sin.
In another country these men would have been long dead: the first act of a revolution is to eliminate its arch-enemies. In Nicaragua the Sandinistas were determined to put their humanitarian principles into practice from the first: the death penalty was abolished and 7,000 National Guard members were either released at the start (many fled to set up the Contras) or else simply imprisoned.
But even in prison they have received markedly different treatment than they once meted out to their victims. Instead of being sentenced to one kind of prison for their term, people move through different phases and conditions according to their behaviour - well-behaved prisoners gain more and more privileges so they have something to work towards. Everyone begins in a maximum security prison but will soon be given the chance to work and to be visited every two weeks instead of every month.
Next is the semi-open phase, where the traditional high walls and heavy doors disappear. According to Deputy Penitentiary System Director Franco Montealegre: 'It is here that security begins to lose ground and the inmate's consciousness begins to take over. The institution still exercises influence and control over the inmate's life, however. Prisoners work where they are sent; there is no self-management' All the same, prisoners can go home for visits in this period.
Finally there is the open phase. Living conditions here are basic but no worse than in the cheap hotels frequented by young Westerners in Managua - and better than in many rural homes. Here there are no armed guards at all and only three staff to deal with the 30 prisoners, who arrange their own rota for guarding the farm at night from Contra attack. The prisoners organize their own work, have their families visit all day on Sundays and go home unguarded for one weekend a month and one week each six months.
Both prisoners and staff (known either as 'educators' or 'co-ordinators' rather than as guards) use only each other's first names and the aim is to treat people as human beings. As the engaging, boyish educator at the Granja said: 'We try to show these men that they were dehumanized by what Somoza required of them. And we cannot do that unless our own system sets a humanitarian example.' In the West we make the punishment fit the crime; in Nicaragua they say they aim to make it fit the offenders' needs.
The Sandinistas' next step is the badly needed reform of the country's legal system - little changed since 1805, and still sending far too many people to prison for minor crimes.
With thanks to Envio, National Commission for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights, Managua.
Behind the riots
When riots and demonstrations broke out in the South-western corner of the Soviet Union earlier this year, it took the international media by surprise. For several days commentators found it difficult to pinpoint the cause of the dispute. Finally they decided it was an ethnic conflict between 'Christian' Armenians and 'Islamic' Azerbaijanis who live in the region.
But this is only part of the story. Pollution and development - or rather the failure of development - are also major factors. And ironically, it was the success of a series of environmental protests that triggered the current disturbances.
Pollution is severe in the region. Local Armenians are particularly angry about foul discharges from chemical plants and the depletion of Lake Sevan - 'the pearl of Armenia' - thanks to poorly planned irrigation and hydroelectric schemes. Their protests were taken seriously by the authorities and closure orders were served on the worst polluters. And when one major chemical plant in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, ignored the orders environmental campaigners demonstrated outside the plant gates with the full backing of local Communist Party officials.
The demonstrations received wide press coverage and set off other demonstrations, this time by campaigners who wanted greater autonomy for the area of Nagorno-Karabakh and its return to Armenia. This political potato was too hot for the authorities to handle and they sent in the police. Further protests ensued leading to violent clashes, deaths - and world press coverage.
By this stage the Armenians had broadened their protest to include development issues. They claimed they were neglected by the authorities. The long-promised infrastructure of piped water, new roads and electricity had failed to materialize and without them neither agriculture nor the industry of the area could expand. Qualified doctors were in short supply and there was only one higher education college to serve the entire region. As a result school leavers were finding it difficult to find jobs.
The response from government has been surprisingly speedy. A crash development programme has been launched, with immediate improvements in the fields of housing, hospitals, schools and cultural facilities. And longer term development plans for the region - up to the year 2005 - are being drawn up by the Soviet Academy of Sciences, the USSR State Committee for Science and Technology and the USSR state planning committee.
In Gorbachev's USSR, it seems, protest can be effective.
Vera Rich / Panos
Indians open door
Convincing India that it needs Western junk has not been easy. But the giant US soft-drinks company Pepsi Cola is on the verge of clinching a $17 million deal with the Government that will enable it to start producing not only cola but also 'convenience' foods in the country - 10 years after arch-rivals Coca Cola were booted out in a flush of patriotic fervour.
Using a series of patiently worked out seduction tactics, the multinational is awaiting the official go-ahead for a deal which has already won the recommendation of the Government's Projects Approval Board. Strong opposition has come from local soft-drinks companies as well as pressure groups spotlighting Pepsi's alleged role in subverting Salvador Allende's government in Chile.
But Pepsi have added a sweetener to their Indian proposals which Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi apparently finds hard to resist. It has offered to set up an agricultural research unit and facilities for processing fruit and vegetables in the trouble-torn border state of Punjab. This will create jobs for unemployed youths who are drifting into Sikh terrorism or drug-peddling. As the major partner in a newly formed consortium Pepsi will co-operate with the Government-owned Punjab Agro Industries Corporation.
Supporters of the scheme say it will create 50,000 jobs (20,000 of them in Punjab) and boost export earnings. But critics argue that a transnational should not be allowed into a non-priority area like soft drinks and that the proposal is incompatible with the country's foreign trade rules - departing radically from the Gandhi Government's proclaimed socialism. The offer of agricultural technology is seen as a mere front for Pepsi's intention of penetrating the enormous soft-drink market offered by India's 750 million population. Currently the country's per capita consumption of soft drinks is just three bottles a year, compared with 13 in Pakistan, 38 in Thailand and 63 in Egypt.
D K Joshi / Gemini
Here is Pig No. 6707 - billed to be a breakthrough in genetic engineering. Scientists at the US Department of Agriculture had incorporated the human growth gene in his genetic make up. This, they believed would make him super fast-growing, super meat-making. He turned out a super-mess. Excessively hairy, lethargic, riddled with arthritis and apparently impotent, he rarely tries to get up but languishes in the straw, a wretched victim of science without ethics.
Agscene May '88 / Compassion in World Farming
Most computer systems were originally designed with military applications in mind. And much high-tech investment still goes into weaponry. But nowadays there are ways of putting such systems to better use.
GreenNet in the UK and PeaceNet in North America have come together to form a computerized global network of peace and environmental activists. During the Chernobyl disaster if you wanted to find out quickly what was happening this was the service to tune in to. Concerned about Central America? Here you can read a rapid up-to-the minute commentary on the latest events. Want a list of companies with investments in South Africa? Take a look at the running 'conference' on ethical investment.
The PeaceNet computer in San Francisco and the GreenNet computer in London are constantly exchanging messages. To confuse matters slightly there is what seems like another network - EcoNet. But to all intents and purposes it is identical with PeaceNet run by the same people on the same computer. The North American system has two names to appeal to different constituencies. Some of the less political US environmentalists, it seems, might have reservations about joining something with the word 'peace' in the title.
At its most basic, PeaceNet/ GreenNet is an electronic mail system. The NI uses it, for example, to send articles and messages between its offices in Canada and the UK. For alternative groups, who need rapid international communication this is much cheaper than the telephone - and cheaper than commercial electronic mail systems like Dailcom and Telecom Gold.
But as well as offering direct communication between users there is also a series (166 at the latest count) of electronic 'conferences' on topics ranging from food irradiation to the Irangate hearings to which anyone can contribute.
Groups like Survival International use GreenNet to distribute information about the pressures on native peoples. 'It has been particularly important,' says Survival's Lucy Cawthorn, 'because of the need for a fast response to the threats to tribal groups'.
GreenPeace use GreenNet to distribute information to other environmental groups. They also make use of the facility to monitor the international news services like Associated Press and United Press International. Says Brian Fitzgerald: 'When we're battling the multi-million dollar publicity machines of government or big business, this kind of capability is priceless.'
The combination of PeaceNet and GreenNet now has about 2,000 subscribers with about 1,000 organizations represented. By joining one you can communicate freely with people in both systems.
And through the magic of international data lines you can connect with either network from many countries. All you need is a personal computer and the modem and software to connect it to the telephone system. Both networks offer technical advice to anyone interested.
For further Information: NORTH AMERICA PeaceNet, 3228 Sacramento Street, San Francisco, CA94115. (415) 923 0900. UK/AUSTRALIA/AOTEAROA: GreenNet, 28 Underwood Street, London N1 7JQ. (01) 490 1500.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.