The Masaya Consumer Rights Association (ACODEMA), began its struggle for consumer rights when former President Bolaños traveled to Spain with an aim of privatizing Nicaraguan energy in 2000. Since then, Nicaragua has privatized the distribution of energy, after Bolaños signed a thirty year contract with Unión Fenosa, a Spanish company that has repeatedly violated its contract, Nicaraguan laws, and the rights of the Nicaraguan people. According to ACODEMA, a non-governmental, non-profit organization run by and for the people, the private company Unión Fenosa has not invested much, but they have taken much.
Unión Fenosa has a reputation in Nicaragua for shutting off electricity without warning, and claiming they did so because a community that doesn’t even have street lights did not pay the electric bill for their streetlights, etc.
ACODEMA recently proved that, when Unión Fenosa distributed new electricity use meters, they were rigged. Poor Nicaraguans were charged 50% more than they had before the new meters were installed, though their electricity consumption had not changed. ACODEMA’s public outcry resulted in a recall of the new, “improved” meters.
“This is a new conquest,” ACODEMA staffer Roger Alberto Lacallo says. “It is a conquest of energy. ” And it isn’t just Unión Fenosa, but a team of three transnational private energy companies with Spanish bases that threaten Nicaraguan’s access to electricity and related consumer rights. “We want to call these transnational companies the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.” And they are presently privatizing energy not only in Nicaragua, but in Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia as well.
Counterintuitively, former President Bolaños granted a $30 million subsidy to Unión Fenosa, a private, profit-seeking company from Spain that is inappropriately classified as a non-governmental organization that enjoys all associated rights, such as exemption from all taxes. With the dollars saved from its tax exemption, Unión Fenosa has been lobbying to pass a law that would incarcerate anyone who defaults on their electric bill.
“What happened to the money they promised to put towards Nicaraguan development?” Lacallo asks. “Nicaragua gets poorer everyday. But we are not poor in dignity. We’ve earned our rights. We have the right to live like people. And we know how to fight for our rights.”
And so, ACODEMA used a contribution from a group of American students to establish a radio show in Masaya that informs and educates poor consumers by:
1) Teaching listeners about their consumer rights
2) Teaching listeners how to deal with Unión Fenosa gang members that show up at their homes to repossess their belongings if they default on a payment, or accuse Union Fenosa of overcharging them or rigging their meter
3) How to organize themselves in order to demand basic consumer rights and protections
4) How to overcome frequently encountered organizational problems
5) How to defend themselves, their belongings, their rights, and their families against infinitely more powerful companies.
Lacallo joined the Sandinista Army when he was sixteen years old, and tells stories, choking back tears, of his friends deaths. “We had to take our friends back to their families after they had been dead for five days. We’d pick them up by the hand and their hand would come off. And the smell… the smell stayed in your nostrils for months. After we fought that war we thought the government would protect us… but many Sandinistas have become rich since the revolution, and have abandoned their values. We, on the other hand, still fight for our principles. We go like little ants to say, ‘Yes, you do have rights. This is how you fight for them.’ ”
The one thing about this government that is an improvement, according to Lacallo, is that one is free to express himself. “We have to watch our backs, though… any transnational company could pay someone to knock me off. So if I walk down one street, I walk back on another street. I don’t go out at night… but it’s easy to keep going. Because I know that we’re right.”
The men and women who work for ACODEMA know they’re right because they see between 150 and 200 people who show up at their Masaya office everyday with nothing but tears and cries for help. Microfinance groups, despite their image as bringers of goodwill and opportunity, grant small loans to Nicaraguans, who lose everything they own if they default on a payment. “They take your bed,” Lacallo says. “They take your personal belongings. They sic the police on you, you’ll be arrested.” But ACODEMA’s activism has succeeded in putting an end to illegal arrests associated with microfinance loan defaults. “We shamed them,” he says. “And now the police refuse to take part in this game.”
Their success is not surprising. ACODEMA’s radio show, which broadcasts Monday through Friday from 7-8 am has become Masaya’s #1 radio show since it went on the air in April 2008.
Lacallo says, “Microfinance is a good idea, gone awry. When Internet Cafes receive loans to buy computers, and Unión Fenosa shuts off their electricity for 12 hours everyday without warning, how will they make money? They default on their loan payments. And then the Microfinance groups take everything. The donations that Americans have granted to microfinance institutions have gone towards making the rich richer at the expense of the poor, who have lost everything.”
But it is illegal for the microfinance and Unión Fenosa bogeyman to go into your home and “re”possess your belongings. This practice, however, is so common that the Nicaraguan people do not even know it is illegal. That’s where ACODEMA comes in.
Lacallo explains, “I got involved with the revolutionary war because we were promised that after Somoza was out, all Nicaraguans would have their basic needs and rights. But I see that that is not what happened. So I continue to fight. Before we fought with arms, but now we fight with laws, and the values we gained during the revolution.”
It became clear over the course of our talk that ACODEMA’s radio show was about to be canceled, because they hadn’t the means to pay for another month of air time- which costs less than $200.00. So we all grabbed our wallets and took out between ten and twenty dollars. It took about three minutes for a bunch of unemployed college students to get $195.00 together. And when we gave it to Roger Alberto Lacallo, the man who had lived through the war, and had carried his friends bodies home in pieces, he cried.
To turn these tears of desperation to tears of relief, go to pronica.org/donate and earmark your donation for ACODEMA.