Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 10 | Marzo 1982



Castillo Norte

The agricultural worker plays a decisive role in the Nicaraguan agro-export economy. This social group will grow in number and significance to the extent that Nicaragua develops in this regard.

Envío team


The agricultural laborer plays a critical role in Nicaragua’s agro-exporting economy. This social group will grow both in number and significance as Nicaragua develops its agro-exporting economy. How does the agricultural laborer live, and how is the revolution affecting his/her life? What are some of the limitations, promises and challenges of the revolution when seen from this group’s position in the economy and society?

To look at some of these questions, we visited Castillo Norte, a coffee farm in the department of Jinotega. Located in the central northern regions of Nicaragua, Jinotega is the second largest department in Nicaragua. Its population is 132,800 persons, of whom 109,600 live in rural areas. In general, the rural population lives on isolated farms and there are no centers where population is concentrated. Jinotega is first in coffee production in Nicaragua. In the 1979–80 season, some 31.9% of the country’s total coffee production came from Jinotega.

Coffee was first introduced in Jinotega in 1895. In 1950 the first major road was built to facilitate production. For years, Jinotega’s development has been subordinate to the interests of large-scale coffee producers who themselves have been subject to changing prices on the international market. With the confiscation of Somocista properties in 1979, 8.9% of the land area used for coffee in Jinotega became part of the state sector. The majority of Jinotega’s coffee producers continue to be small- and medium-sized producers.

Jinotega’s economic formation, social participation and infra-structure revolve around coffee production for export. Production has never been developed in other areas, such as basic grains, beef and milk. Jinotega’s natural resources, such as forests, minerals, water and fauna, have not been exploited.

A few figures give an idea of the conditions inherited from the Somoza years in Jinotega. Some 52% of the rural communities lack piped drinking water. Traditional health care services attend only 30% of the population. Prior to the literacy campaign, 70.9% of Jinotega’s population was illiterate. Illiteracy has now been reduced to 28% in Jinotega and 12% on a national level.

During the Somoza years, the FSLN began its struggle in this region of the country. In response, Somoza’s National Guard intensified the levels of repression, killing those who were suspected of aiding the Sandinistas. In this situation of extreme repression, suspicion thrived among the workers, making it virtually impossible to organize. The Association of Agricultural Workers (ATC) was formed clandestinely in 1976.

After the triumph, the ATC began to organize openly. On many farms, words such as overtime, vacations, social security and union were unknown to the workers. Today the ATC has more than 5,500 members in Jinotega. The ATC concentrates its work on the large-scale farms.

Castillo Norte: A State Production Unit

The Castillo Norte coffee farm has more than 300 manzanas of coffee. There are 110 permanent agricultural laborers living on the farm and many who live with their families. During the harvest, the farm employs 350 workers. Castillo Norte was confiscated immediately following the victory.

Its former owner, a Somocista who lived in Managua, left the farm largely in the overseer’s hands. The overseer and the foremen were in charge of controlling the labor force. The foremen often carried guns. If work levels were not maintained, the foremen would threaten to have a person fired or his pay held up. If there was too much protest, the foreman could threaten to send people to jail. There was no union, and the foreman had both the overseer and the national guard to back him up.

Today, Castillo Norte forms part of the People’s Property Area and is administered by INRA. The overseer, foreman and workers all form what is called a State Production Unit or UPE. The UPE is responsible for implementing a technical economic plan and meeting the goals established there. While this plan is researched in Jinotega, it is formulated in final form in Managua. There is also a union which is affiliated with the ATC. The union carries the name of Germán Pomares, Sandinista leader and martyr, who fought in this region and whose dream was to work someday in agrarian reform.

Arriving at Castillo Norte

Communication between the city of Jinotega and the surrounding rural areas is by unpaved roads that go unrepaired for lack of resources and often become impassable during the rainy season. Many rural communities are reachable only by mules or waterway. The road from the city to Castillo Norte winds through the mountains and crosses rivers where bridges have not yet been built. The fifty-five kilometer trip takes three hours in jeep. For many miles there are no towns, no houses, no schools or stores, and only the tended fields hint at a population living there.

Entering Castillo Norte, we pass by a large cement structure, the beneficio where the coffee is depulped, washed, dried and graded – the highest qualities going for export. It is a relatively modern structure and well-maintained.

Across the way, there is the camp, built off the ground because of the rains and with wood that is rotting away. A narrow platform forms the walkway to any one of a series of doors. Inside, there is a room, 6 by 9 feet, with no ventilation and no sunlight. Two shelves spread from wall to wall where people sleep on coffee bags. There are a few nails in the wall where clothes can be hung. One family lives in each room, or in the case of single men, as many as eight may sleep there. There is no electricity or running water in the camp. No one knows exactly when this camp was built. Many such camps were built during the depression in the 30s, when coffee prices reached an all-time low. As prices rose, these camps were never remodeled.

Standing in contrast to the camp is a new house with brightly colored chairs and tables on the porch, for two- to five-year olds. These, the only chairs on the farm, form part of the newly established childcare center. Before mothers had to leave their babies with sisters and brothers, often only a few years older. Now a group of women attend the children under five during working hours.

A day at Castillo Norte

At 4:00 in the morning, candle light begins to come through the cracks in the camp walls, and there is an incessant patting as the women begin to make the day’s tortillas. Soon the camp literally vibrates with activity. Families may either prepare their own meals or eat at the common kitchen. Either way, the menu is the same: rice and beans, tortilla and coffee three times a day. At 5:30, women, men and children begin the hike out to the fields. The work day runs from 6:00am to 1:00pm, four hours shorter than the work day prior to the victory.

Along the path we run into four boys beside a pile of logs. One tells us he is 13 and has been working for seven years. Their job is to walk about half a kilometer down a hill, chop logs and carry them back up the hill to pile them by the roadside. They tell us how they will probably soon go to school. The union is now pushing for a teacher for the over 200 children who live on the farm. Yet union leaders explain that it will be difficult because there is a shortage of teachers, and there are hundreds of farms waiting for them.

We arrive at where the adults are working, pruning the coffee plants. They foreman tells us about this year’s production. He says a credit had been held up during the preparation phase. As a result, the weed beneath the coffee plants had not been cleared, and during the harvest many coffee beans fell into the weeds and were lost.

In the afternoon, women do the washing, cooking and caring for the children. In front of the new “Rural Provision Center” a group of men are talking, and children are playing nearby. The Center sells milk, cream, sugar, salt and other basic items. It is run by ENABAS, the Government Distributor of Basic Food Stuffs. ENABAS distributes to the most remote areas at the lowest possible costs, attempting to prevent speculation and hoarding. At Castillo Norte, the stock varies with road conditions and during the harvest often cannot meet the needs of the expanded labor force.

Before the triumph, basic goods were not available on the farm, and when they could be found nearby, the prices were exorbitant. Before there was a canteen on the farm, but it is now prohibited to sell liquor in the State Production Units. While it is still possible to go to surrounding farms to buy a beer, the measure has cut down on alcohol consumption and thus the proportion of family income spent on this.

In the afternoon, there is time to talk with people in a casual way. They tell us that salaries are now guaranteed every 15 days; before the owner would hold up salaries for as long as 3 months, and if you protested you could lose your job. While housing and diet have not changed, there are now a number of guarantees that create a sense of security not known before, such as three meals a day, a salary, notice before layoffs, and a union to back these up.

Repression suffered in the past remains internalized in many of the people at Castillo Norte. There is still a fear to speak up or to question authority. Referring to this, one of the union leaders explains: “Freedom cannot just be granted by a government. It has to be achieved by the people themselves”.

At night there is lots of activity around the militia center. Twenty men march by, rifles in hand, standing tall and highly disciplined. The men will take shifts throughout the night to guard the farm and assure that there is no sabotage. On the porch a group of men speak of how better arms are needed, how the contra bands are operating in the zone, how they attacked the farm some months ago.

Union Meeting

Both our arrival at the farm and our departure happened to coincide with union activities. When we arrived, an event was just beginning, granting recognition to the best coffee harvester. A large group had gathered and were listening intently. Local, departmental and national representatives of the Association of Agricultural Workers spoke.

The local organizer read his speech slowly, word by word. He explained that a census would soon be taken so that adult education classes could begin again. The program had died out during the harvest due in part to longer working hours.
After touching upon many problems facing the people at Castillo Norte, the national ATC organizer summed up her speech saying, “Amid all these difficulties, it seems we’ll never do what we set out to do when we made this revolution, that is, ensure that every Nicaraguan has a decent place to live, that no Nicaraguan goes to bed hungry, that there is education and health care for everyone. Yet it also seemed that we would never overthrow Somoza, and we did overthrow him. And now we are going to overcome these difficulties”.

On Thursday another large meeting was held to discuss Sunday’s demonstration in Managua. The union leader spoke of the three events being marked by the demonstration, namely, the commemoration of Sandino’s death, the meeting of Latin American Political Parties (COPPPAL) being held in Managua, and a tribute to Mexico’s President José López Portillo.

The union leader’s careful explanation of each event stood in sharp contrast to the old ways, when Somoza’s men came and offered food and liquor to all who would go the demonstration. He went from talking of Mexico’s solidarity with Nicaragua, to the friends Nicaragua has in other countries, to setting up an interview then and there between the “three journalists from other countries” and the 120 people gathered there. We began to ask questions, how the union was formed, how their lives were changing. After some hesitancy, people began to speak. One of the workers stood up and stated: “After the triumph, we began to take the first steps towards organizing the union. There had never been a union on this farm before. We could not demand our rights. Now at the same time that we are becoming organized and coming to know each other as brothers and sisters and friends, we are watching over production, we have the chance to participate, and we are becoming informed as to the situation in our country and the problems facing Nicaragua.”

Another said he wished to speak of the hardships suffered by the workers in the past. After imitating the way in which the former owner treated them, he explained: “Before the owners soaked us from 4 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, and yet because of the situation in which we lived, we went along with whatever they would give us, because we had no one to defend us, no one who could speak for us. If we complained about the overseer or a foreman, we were insulted and fired from our job. At times, we went to a judge to complain, but the owner would intervene and the workers always lost. We knew nothing about social security, vacations or other rights. When pay day came, the national guard was always there. With the revolution, we have felt more secure. It’s true that the revolution was not made so that we could sit around and do nothing. We have to work, we have to understand the situation in our country, and we have to produce more for the welfare of all.”

Challenges Facing the Revolution

In the kitchen at Castillo Norte, there is a sign that reads: “In 1977, one tractor cost 33,000 pounds of cotton or 139,400 pounds of sugar or 9,800 pounds of coffee. In 1981, one tractor costs 47,600 pounds of cotton or 214,300 pounds of sugar or 24,800 pounds of coffee.”

The State Production Units, like the private farms in Nicaragua today, continue to function within the same international economic order. Coffee prices are lower than they have been in six years, while production costs continue to rise.

The State Production Units (UPE) can try to reduce the human costs resulting from this widening breach. They can assure workers salaries and continue reinvesting part of the profits in social improvements. Yet at the same time, Nicaragua is badly in need of the foreign exchange earned from coffee exports to pay off its foreign debt and reactivate the economy. Thus, there is a balancing act between efforts to reactivate production and to bring about social benefits.

Down the road from Castillo Norte, a neighboring UPE has a new camp. It is a simple wooden structure, yet it is built with consideration for those who live there. Each room has ventilation, sunlight and space. There is a hallway overhead where clothes can dry out during the rainy season. In the hallway, there are now three light bulbs. On other farms, the government is now building houses for the workers, eggs are served everyday, and meat is served once or twice a week. While conditions vary from farm to farm, the coffee farms tend to remain worse in the conditions because profits are so low.

ATC organizers encourage the workers to organize and press for their demands. At the same time, they list Nicaragua’s grave economic difficulties which will limit the extent to which these demands can be met. The workers’ struggle is directed towards consolidating and defending the revolution; thus tasks of raising production and protecting the farm from sabotage become all important.

Workers’ Participation

A number of additional problems face the revolution. Workers’ participation in production plans is still very low. At Castillo Norte, the bureaucrats’ role in planning production far outweighs that of the workers. Plans are written up in Managua and at times omit important factors, which those working on the farm may know, yet lack the tools to express. Most are just learning to read and write, have never been consulted before, and have little experience in meeting to formulate a position or respond to a plan. At present, assemblies form the main forum for workers participation. Yet these assemblies are large and workers often don’t speak up. More effective channels have not been established on a wide basis. There are a number of reasons for this.

During the Somoza regime, there were virtually no organizing efforts in the countryside. On many farms, workers had never heard of anything called a union. In the last years of the Somoza regime, Somocista farms were drained of capital and left in disarray. In the first stage of the Agrarian Reform, the government expropriated these farms. The farms had to be brought back under production, businesses had to be formed, and accounting sheets had to be drawn up. The state sector had to consolidate its structures so that it could incorporate feedback received from the working force. Likewise, the working force had to organize itself so as to formulate its demands.

Yet the state sector has expanded rapidly without a corresponding pressure from the base, aggravating problems of bureaucracy. The fear is that if there is not sufficient pressure at the grass-roots level, bureaucratic structures will be formed which will lack the flexibility and comprehensiveness needed to respond to demands at the base. This problem is widely discussed in Nicaragua today.

Productivity Levels

Low worker-productivity levels constitute another cause of concern for the revolution. In Castillo Norte, the old structures of domination, repression and control no longer exist. The UPE and the trade union represent the new social structures. After the victory, many worked only two hours a day. Today the work day is seven hours long and except during the harvest is paid by the hour. There are no direct material incentives or punitive measures relating to individual productivity levels. At the same time, there is no direct correlation between collective productivity levels and improvements made in living conditions on the farm.

Through political education, the ATC is now encouraging workers to take responsibility for production levels. People at Castillo Norte will speak of how it is better to work in an UPE because profits go towards improving the lives of their Nicaraguan brothers and sisters. This understanding seems to influence their attitude towards the revolution, and their sense of participation in it. Ye there are still few indications that this is influencing productivity levels substantially.

At Castillo Norte, the challenges facing the revolution seem enormous. Changes are happening more slowly on this isolated farm than in the urban areas. Yet the people at Castillo Norte seem to believe that the changes will continue to come, that they can make them happen, and that Nicaragua will become a country belonging to its people.

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Castillo Norte
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