The Washington Post
Monday, August 27, 2001

Nicaraguans Suffer Under Coffee Glut

By Niko Price
Associated Press Writer

LOS MILAGROS, Nicaragua Even when they lost their jobs and their bosses destroyed the only food they had, the peasants stayed in the homes their families
had occupied for generations.

But when the babies began to get sick and the adults were weak with hunger, they finally left, setting out on foot through mountains so high they were gazing down at
the clouds.

They walked for three days. And when they reached the nearest city, Matagalpa, the tattered group set up camp in a municipal park, many sleeping in the open
without so much as a blanket for protection. There they waited for someone anyone to help.

"It's not easy to grab your sick children and get on the move," said Jose Angel Perez, 35. "But when the kids start clinging to you and saying, 'Daddy, I want food,'
you have to do something."

The events that sparked the hunger and homelessness of the people of Los Milagros "the miracles" in Spanish were unwittingly set off more than a decade ago by
bankers in Washington and politicians in Paris.

In an effort to help Vietnamese peasants develop a new cash crop, both the World Bank and the French government invested heavily in the Asian country's coffee
industry.

The industry flourished, and Vietnam is now the world's second-largest coffee producer, after Brazil. But Vietnam's success has come at the expense of the world's
coffee industry, sending prices plummeting from Congo to Colombia, Ethiopia to Ecuador, Indonesia to the Ivory Coast.

And coffee farms that had been profitable for generations began to fail. One of those was Los Milagros, a 500-acre estate of lush coffee fields perched high atop a
mountain in central Nicaragua.

In August 2000, the company that owned Los Milagros stopped paying workers their daily wages $1.48 for men, $1.11 for women and 55 cents for children
saying it simply had no money.

Many of the peasants came from families that had worked the fields of Los Milagros for three generations or more and had nowhere to go. They kept working in
exchange for a daily meal of rice and beans and the promise of pay when things got better.

"We ate little and took the rest home for our children," said Justo Cesar Mendoza, 28.

But in November, the company defaulted on the mortgage, and Nicaragua's private Finance Bank repossessed the plantation just as workers were harvesting the last
of the 2000 crop.

The bank sent in administrators with a new mission: to spend only 42 cents on the production of each pound of coffee. The onsite administrator, Jaime Ortiz, said
even that would be operating at a loss, but stopping production would lower the value of the plantation the bank was trying to sell.

As the workers tell it, Ortiz rounded them up one morning and told 15 of them they would remain on the job. The rest, he said 480 people, between the workers
and their families would have to leave.

"They lined up all the men and chose the ones closest to them," Mendoza said. "They told the rest of us to leave. They said they didn't have money to support us."

Ortiz denied firing anybody. When asked about Perez, he conceded Perez had been fired for disobeying orders, he said but insisted nobody else had gone.

Then Mendoza, who returned to Los Milagros with a reporter, walked up and Ortiz froze. He adjusted the machete on his belt, then calmly looked Mendoza in the
eye.

"I've never seen you before in my life," he said.

Mendoza looked forlornly at a reporter. "Jaime was my boss," he said.

"No," Ortiz said. "I've never seen him."

When Ortiz was distracted, the other workers quietly greeted Mendoza with handshakes. "Hey, neighbor," they said.

Back in Matagalpa, others told the same story as Mendoza. All knew key facts about the plantation for example, the name of a resident's wife or a description of
Ortiz that proved they had lived there. Workers who remained at Los Milagros also confirmed the firings, though they became quiet when Ortiz showed up.

Eduardo Fernandez, legal adviser to the repossession branch of the Finance Bank, also denied the homeless group came from Los Milagros.

"We haven't fired anyone, not in the sense that we told them to leave," he said in a telephone interview. "The bank isn't interested in bad publicity, so if we can give
work to the people we do it with pleasure."

Asked about the workers' version of events, Fernandez said: "I know the idiosyncrasies of Nicaraguans. People like to feel like victims, and if a foreigner shows up,
they invent anything to tell them."

It would have been hard for Mendoza to invent his story. His father and grandfather both worked and lived in Los Milagros, and he has worked the fields since age
11. Except for a few years fighting along the Honduras border for the U.S.-funded Contra rebels in the 1980s, he had never known anything else.

So after he was laid off, he and the others stayed in the crumbling wood-plank stables that they had called home for generations, surviving off a patch of plantains that
grew in the coffee fields.

After a few weeks, Mendoza and others said, Ortiz ordered the plantains chopped down, figuring starvation would drive them off his land. Ortiz denied there were
ever plantains on the farm, but Mendoza took a reporter straight to a patch, the trees hacked to the ground.

With nothing to eat, the group hit the road.

Thousands more Nicaraguans from coffee plantations across the country have made similar exoduses, and the highways of the countryside are lined with black tarps
strung up by the new homeless.

In many of the camps, there is talk of moving to the park in front of the presidential palace in Managua, to pressure President Arnoldo Aleman to help them.

Aleman responded last month by offering to bus the people back to their homes, where he said he would give them jobs building roads and bridges. Few jobs have
been created.

He also pushed a law through Congress creating a 300-day grace period before banks can foreclose on the homes of debt-ridden coffee workers, but that is little
consolation to the people of Los Milagros, who live in a litter-strewn park in Matagalpa and beg for rotten vegetables from merchants at the central market.

A few charitable groups have given donations of rice, beans or crackers, but during a recent visit, nobody had brought anything in five days.

Mendoza's 2-year-old daughter, Reina Epifania, sat on the ground atop a dirty, empty burlap sack, crying and coughing in weak spurts. Mendoza took her to a
public clinic, where a doctor said she had parasites and anemia, but Mendoza can't afford to buy the medicine the doctor prescribed.

"What can I do with a prescription if it's only paper?" he said. "She can't eat paper."

                                                   © 2001 The Associated Press