This blog is for those wanting to keep up to date on all the work that the Vermont Council on World Affairs is doing around the world.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Crash Course in the Current State of Nicaragua

By Natalie Varney, Intern

Over two weeks ago, political and social unrest broke out in Nicaragua in protest against President Daniel Ortega’s change to the country’s social security system. Ortega announced the change in hopes to stall the growing deficit of the country. The reform forces Nicaraguan workers and employers to contribute more to the Nicaraguan Institute for Social Security than previously required, while also diminishing retiree benefits by 5%--igniting violent protests throughout the country.
University students rallied against the president’s decision, only to be matched with pro-government mobs that attacked them. Police apprehended the peaceful demonstrations with tear gas and rubber bullets; the students responded with throwing rocks. Additionally, several media stations were cut off as the government attempted to mediate the tension. Protests against the social security reform quickly became an international issue once the death toll began to rise, according to Human Rights organizations. The rising death count has only incited more protests; the protests are considered to be the largest in the country’s history since the end of the Nicaraguan civil war.
Part of the "Walk for Peace and Dialogue" in Managua on April 23.
(INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images)

The Nicaraguan government currently reports a death toll of 10, representing an immense difference from the toll the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights represents: a staggering 43 as of Saturday evening, April 28th. At the same time, other organizations report a death toll of more than 60, with hundreds injured. The United States’ Department of State has removed all officers and family members from the country.
On Sunday, April 22nd, the president of Nicaragua rescinded the social security changes, yet failed to mention the death of multiple students due to the protests. Instead, Ortega was quick to point his finger toward either right-wing or gang infiltration. Despite his rescinding of the reform, his words only seemed to fuel a passion stimulating a rebellion for his immediate removal of office.
Last year, the Vermont Council on World Affairs hosted many visitors from Latin America through exchange programs. One visitor from an exchange program is a current resident in Nicaragua. While not involved in any of the demonstrations, the resident has witnessed protests in the northern part of the country and said that he has seen people screaming for Ortega’s removal “because he has become the same dictator as ex President Somoza.”
Ortega first emerged in the international limelight as a Nicaraguan guerrilla leader and Sandinista in 1963, aiming to overthrow the country’s current dictator at the time: Anastasio Somoza, who ruled since 1937. Ortega’s leadership in a military campaign ultimately pushed Somoza into exile from Managua, Nicaragua in 1979. A few years later, Nicaraguan voters elected Ortega as president, despite United States’ President Ronald Reagan’s pro-marxist accusations and financial aid to an anti-Sandinista group, known as the Contras.
In 1990, Ortega was denied a second term when voters chose Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in an election where he was presumed to win in a landslide. He was continuously rejected a return to power by voters in subsequent elections, however, Ortega generated a massive political comeback when he was elected back into office in 2006.
President Daniel Ortega with Vice President and wife,
Rosario Murillo.
After his return to power, Ortega quickly persuaded legislators to do away with constitutional term limits for the president, allowing him to remain in office since 2006. Interestingly enough, Ortega has divided a generous amount of power over the last decade with his wife, Rosario Murillo, with whom he currently shares the executive branch as president and vice president, respectively. The Nicaraguan resident also mentioned that Murillo has a continuous presence in the media, where she tries “to simplify the problems of the country, just to manipulate [citizen’s] minds.” Nicaraguan citizens view the shared power as some sort of “dynasty,” and many fear a potential presidential run by Murillo in the 2021 election.
It is no question that Ortega has “dictatorial tendencies,” as he has continuously interfered with the law and the Nicaraguan Constitution throughout his time in power. Protesters recognized similarities between Ortega and dictator Somoza when videos emerged of them chanting, “¡Daniel! ¡Somoza! ¡Son la misma cosa!” While a rhyme in Spanish, the quote translates to: “They are the same thing!”
The announcement of the new social security reform is simply the last straw for Nicaraguan citizens regarding Ortega’s abuse. Their freedom of speech and expression is under fire, and people are dying in the streets. According to the Nicaraguan resident, citizens have finally woken up to Ortega’s manipulation and “want to stop [government] injustice.” Protesters now demand Ortega’s immediate resignation, as demonstrations do not seem to have an end in sight.

Additional Readings

Chavez, Nicole, Samantha Lugo and Elizabeth Plaza. “More than 40 people were killed in unrest in Nicaragua, rights group says.” CNN. 28 Apr. 2018. 28 Apr. 2018. <>.

“Daniel Ortega Biography.” Biography. 10 Nov. 2016. A & E Television Networks. 29 Apr. 2018. <>.

Galeano, Luis Manuel and Peter Orsi. “How the wife of Nicaragua’s president became the figurehead of his re-election campaign.” The Independent. 2 Nov. 2016. 29 Apr. 2018. <>.

“My Nicaragua is falling apart before my eyes: A reader makes a plea for her country.” USA Today. 25 Apr. 2018. 28 Apr. 2018. <

“Nicaragua: Protests Leave Deadly Toll.” Human Rights Watch. 27 Apr. 2018. 28 Apr. 2018. <>.

Partlow, Joshua. “‘The people lost their fear’: How Nicaragua’s new revolution took shape.” The Washington Post. 26 Apr. 2018. 29 Apr. 2018. <

Phillips, Tom. “Nicaragua’s toppling ‘trees’ strike ominous note for Daniel Ortega’s rule.” The Guardian. 28 Apr. 2018. 29 Apr. 2018. <

Robles, Frances. “In Just a Week, ‘Nicaragua Changed’ as Protesters Cracked a Leader’s Grip.” The New York Times. 26 Apr. 2018. 28 Apr. 2018. <

Monday, April 2, 2018

To Be or Not to Be: Catalonia and the Fight for Independence

By Natalie Varney, Intern

On December 21, 2017, the Spanish autonomous state of Catalonia held snap regional elections to declare the distribution of seats in the 135-seat parliament. This election was triggered by the independence referendum of October 1, 2017, in which thousands of Catalans voted in favor of the referendum and subsequently declared independence from Spain. Against this unilateral decision, Madrid seized power over the region with an iron fist--which is permitted under Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution. As the referendum was deemed unconstitutional, Spanish police used force and violence in an attempt to stop voters from reaching the polls in October. There is shocking footage of the police using batons and rubber bullets--the rubber bullets ironically being forbidden in Catalonia.
According to the Catalan government, 90% of those who voted backed independence, but turnout was only 43%. This turnout can be considered an inaccurate representation of the thoughts of Catalan citizens due to the closing of many polling stations and the presence of police suppression at the remaining opened ones. However, the majority of citizens against the independence movement are thought to have boycotted the vote.
After the referendum, the Catalan Government was subsequently terminated by the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy. In hopes to calm the Catalan independence fever, the snap regional elections were declared to take place in December to fill the 135-seat parliament. The President of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, then fled to Brussels--escaping arrest from the Spanish government.
A record of more than 80% of Catalan voters showed up to cast their ballots in the snap regional elections. Results demonstrated that Catalonia’s separatist parties won a slight majority in the Parliament with 70 of the 135 seats--a number that could continue the push for independence. Unfortunately for the separatist parties, many of their leaders or politicians remain incarcerated or in self-imposed exile. Additionally, the Ciutadans (Citizens)--an anti-independence party--gained the most seats for a single party in the parliament. However, the 36 seats are not a majority.
This picture was taken on La Diada Nacional De Catalunya, a day that
commemorates the fall of Barcelona during the War of the Spanish
Succession on September 11, 1714.
Whether or not separatist leaders remain in self-imposed exile, it is unlikely Catalonia will become independent--at least not in the near future. While recent events in Catalonia may seem as unforeseen to those around the world, the Catalan people have desired independence from Spain for centuries. In 1640, Catalonia revolted against the Spanish crown in an attempt to become independent for the first time. Unlike Portugal, Catalonia was unsuccessful. In 1714--not even a century later--a new dynasty abolished the laws and the institutions of all the former kingdoms of Spain, including Catalonia. The use of Catalan became prohibited for the first time, and this is considered the beginning of discrimination against the Catalan language.
During my year of study in the Universitat de Barcelona, I had the opportunity to befriend many students with diverse opinions on Catalonia’s fight to secede, as well as experience many non-violent political demonstrations in the streets of Catalonia. Due to the recent events of Catalonia’s appearance in international news, I decided to reach out to a few friends in an attempt to understand a general younger opinion on the secessionist movement. According to a Catalan student of the Universitat de Barcelona, the decision of independence “is not a decision of politicians, it is the people’s decision. People will continue to want it, and that is not going to change.”
The same student also mentioned that “Spain would need to change its constitution, which was written in transition after Franco’s death. It’s a very old and outdated constitution and does not include the interests of all communities.” During Franco’s dictatorship, the use of languages other than Spanish (like Catalan, Basque, etc.) was forbidden and made illegal in an attempt to establish national homogeneity. Nonetheless, citizens continued to use Catalan in private. It is also interesting to note that this “old” constitution was put in place in 1978, being a mere 40 years old compared to the ancient United States Constitution.
When another Catalan student was asked about the likelihood of independence, the source responded: “Catalonia would need recognition from other countries, and especially from Spain. This could take time. But how long? I don’t know.”
However, it is not likely that Catalonia would get recognition from other countries, being that many have to deal with their own problems of rising nationalist movements. Not one nation-state in the European Union backs Catalonia in its battle to secede--not even Belgium, where separatist leaders sought refuge.
A third student described many reasons why they wanted Catalonia to be independent, one being along the lines of Woodrow Wilson’s self-determination: “I believe in the right of self-determination,” the source said. “Catalan society wants a referendum...and the state denies us every time.”
With that, the second source also described opinions of diglossia in Catalan society. One common factor that each interviewee agreed on was that the Catalan language and culture is very important to them and that they wished it receive the respect it deserves. The first and second source also agreed upon the idea that the Spanish government is manipulating television and radio of not just Catalonia, but the rest of Spain so that Spanish citizens remain uninformed.
Catalonia’s deep history and current events describe why many citizens may want to separate from Spain. However, opinions of Catalan citizens may range from complete indifference of independence to a pure hatred towards Spain. During my time in Barcelona, I was able to encounter citizens on both sides of the spectrum. Generally, the younger population backs the independence movement. There were select students who would only discuss with professors in Catalan, as well as bakery workers who would only respond to me in Catalan--making it clear that they knew Spanish but chose not to speak it, even with someone who clearly did not speak Catalan.
Catalonia has attracted a substantial amount of international attention within the last decade or so, and is likely to attract much more attention in the years to come. It does not seem likely that Catalan citizens will cease to fight for secession, however, it is also not likely that Catalonia will secede in the near future. Rising up from near political-irrelevance to international breaking news, Catalonia’s fight for secession is guaranteed to become a household topic in subsequent years.

Additional Readings

Cuadras-Morató, Xavier. Catalonia: A New Independent State in Europe? London and New York: Routledge, 2016.
Henley, Jon. "Catalonia secessionist parties declare victory in regional elections -- as it happened." The Guardian. 21 Dec. 2017. 16 Feb. 2018. <>.
"In Pictures/Timeline: The Catalan Crisis in October 2017." The Local. 30 Oct. 2017. 16 Feb. 2018. <>.
Minder, Raphael. "Catalonia Election Gives Separatists New Lift." The New York Times. 21 Dec. 2017. 16 Feb. 2018. <>.
Minder, Raphael. "Catalonia's Parliament Delays Vote on Puigdemont as President." The New York Times. 30 Jan. 2018. 16 Feb. 2018. < spain-catalonia-carles-puigdemont.html>.
Rodriguez, Vicente. "Catalonia." Encyclopedia Britannica. 28 Feb. 2018. 20 Mar. 2018. <>.
Woolf, Christopher. "The roots of Catalonia's differences with the rest of Spain." PRI. 20 Oct. 2017. 20 Mar. 2018. <>.

Monday, March 19, 2018

My Experience at the Global Ties U.S. 2018 National Meeting

By James Gunger, Intern

The Global Ties U.S. 2018 National Meeting proved to be more than a three day conference full of meetings and informational sessions: Global Ties U.S. provided a place and time for the facilitation of international dialogue between professionals and emerging leaders in the field.  Not only was this an opportunity to learn but it was also an opportunity to grow.  As an accepted member of the Emerging Leaders program, I was able to expand my network while developing professional skills and my knowledge of international relations.

Attending the 2018 National Meeting as an Emerging Leader aided me in becoming a more productive intern at my Community Based Member: the Vermont Council on World Affairs.  Here in Burlington, VT we are proud to embrace the global community in our small city in one of the most rural states of the nation.  While attending the National Meeting I heard from Sophie Lamprou.  Ms. Lamprou, who was a member of the VCWA’s IVLP program, received the 2018 IVLP Alumni Award for Social Innovation and Change.  Listening to her experiences in international relations with us in Burlington reassured me that the work we do truly makes a difference. After my time in Washington, D.C. the global community feels a bit smaller.

VCWA Intern, James Gunger, pictured third in
from the left with three other Emerging Leaders
Emerging into the international workforce is intimidating but the humanity and humility of my experience with those in the field truly highlighted why exchange matters. Eating lunch with the First Secretary of the Embassy of Kenya and enjoying hors d’oeuvres at the Embassy of the Republic of Argentina were among some of the activities which opened my eyes to the globalized world in which we work and thrive.

The opportunity to be sponsored as an Emerging Leader of the Global Ties U.S. National Meeting was one of the most enriching experiences of my professional life. Now I have a network of fellow young professionals across the country and experienced professionals working around the globe.  I would like to thank Global Ties U.S. and the VCWA for an experience which not only made me a more efficient worker in international exchange but also allowed me to develop as someone who will be working in citizen diplomacy for the rest of my life.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Becoming a Visitor to my Own State with IVL

Kathryn Ashley McNeish, Intern for VCWA

Beginning in May, I started working directly with the Vermont Council on World Affair’s International Visitor Leadership Program, and had the opportunity to travel around the state of Vermont with our many international visitors. I got to use my camera and take photos of the  many meetings and activities our visitors participated in. I have worked with nearly a dozen different IVLP Projects, including singular countries and multi-national groups, and have personally met nearly 80 people from different countries around the world. Visitors came from places such as Greece, Uganda, the Maldives, the Netherlands, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Morocco, China, Kazakhstan, and many more.
The projects offered me insight to various aspects to Vermont’s culture. Groups came focusing on a variety of different subjects, including sustainable agriculture, women’s health,  disability advocacy, renewable energy, social and economic entrepreneurship, international trade, NGO management, tourism and economic development among many others. As a Vermonter, having the opportunity to get to travel to farms, the State House, and different programs all around the state has introduced me to an enormous amount of Vermont culture and the state’s role to society as a whole. 
Not only have I learned more about my home state, I have also met some incredible people along the way. I’ve had insightful and eye-opening conversations with people who have lived in a society vastly  different than Vermont. I met one woman named Lia Zampetoglou who was here from SETE in Athens, Greece, a program that works with promoting a healthy Greek tourism economy, and enjoyed the small town feel of Burlington and learning about Vermont’s growing tourism industry.
I also met Ignasi Calb√≥ Toryano, the Director of the Barcelona City Refuge Program in Spain. I got to talk to him about his interests in how Vermont handles the pressing global issue of refugee resettlement, and how the US’s perspectives and methods of combatting this issue compare and contrast with those of Spain’s.
It’s been a privilege having the opportunity to meet so many people, learn about Vermont, and contribute to my role as an #802Diplomat throughout my experience with IVLP.