Re-Opening the Rum Case

Back in May I wrote a brief ethical examination on Nicaraguan rum. The problem is that the workers in the sugar cane (sugar cane being the main ingredient in rum) fields are dying of kidney failure at very young ages. So should we be drinking the rum that is produced from this sugar, or not? After examining the different sides of the issue that I saw, I concluded that it was indeed ok to drink the rum. And indeed since then I have (responsibly) consumed Flor de Caña.

However, since then, some things have come to my attention that have me doubting my original conclusion.

Managua is the indisputable capital of Nicaragua, but León is sort of the foreigner capital. It is more pleasant, there is less street  crime, easier to navigate, and its large university presence makes it a stronger contender for cultural capital (although I think that Managua has some great cultural offerings as well). All of these elements attract tons of foreigners. Tourists, volunteers, students studying abroad, and NGO’s. And these people and organizations have all, to different extents each of them, become aspects of my social network (if I haven’t emphasized how important networking is for a Peace Corps Volunteer, tell me, and I’ll write a post on it soon).

One of those organizations is La Isla Foundation. Their cause is the kidney disease affecting the workers in Chichigalpa (Chichigalpa is just 30 minutes north of León). They are a well known organization that attracts volunteers and workers to perform research and advocacy work. I was never involved with the organization, but I have met and become friends with a number of their personnel.

That was of course until three weeks ago, when La Isla shut down. Since I heard that this happened I’ve been asking around and reading up on the internet about what exactly happened to them. Here’s what I’ve gathered:

  • La Isla has always been quite disorganized internally
  • They took a very confrontational stance against the government and the sugar plantation, so much so that the sugar cane workers’ union chose to take stances contrary to La Isla, an advocacy group
  • In mid-February the American co-founder of La Isla was denied a visa upon arrival and turned right around back to the US, on order of the government. He later took to Facebook, portraying the Nicaraguan government as a goat featured on America’s Funniest Home Videos:

  • Another La Isla worker/volunteer was deported when she went in to renew her visa (this likely means that her extension was not approved and she had to leave the country in a matter of days)
  • In February La Isla released, via National Geographic, a short documentary on the medical plight of the sugar cane workers. Here’s the video:


I’ve definitely got my personal feelings about the video. Chichigalpa is certainly a one company town. However, it is not a miserable hovel on the hot coastal plains of northwest Nicaragua. I know plenty of Chichigalpans who love their town. It has a rich pre-Colombian history, and I think there is a degree of pride of it being the birthplace of what has become one of the largest business enterprises in Nicaragua and all of Central America. And I’m sure that some people might refer to neighborhoods as “The Island of Widows,” but it is more commonly known as “La Princesa del Occidente” – The Princess of the West.

Something else that I gleaned from watching the documentary is that most of the subjects lived in abject poverty, mostly in the form of horrible dwellings. I’ve been to Chichigalpa. The whole town (really, with 50,000 people, Chichigalpa is rather large for Nicaragua and larger than some department capitals in the north) is not like this. Many people live in much more stable dwellings. What is most likely is that in poorer outlying neighborhoods and communities people live in these awful conditions. And importantly, many of the cane field workers probably come from these communities. I would assume that they are one income families, most members don’t have more than an elementary education, and government support is hard to come by. In the “cycle of poverty,” their only opportunity is to turn to the cane fields and work for a pittance.

However, the documentary failed to mention some of the good work that the plantation is doing for the workers. The documentary framed one of the plantation’s doctors as a classic fool, but I think that the plantation is sponsoring some real research into the disease, as well as providing world class medical care for their employees and education for the children of their employees. Although the documentary did point out that a lot of the day labor is contracted through sub-contractors. This could severely curtail the compensation rights of the affected and restrict their access to the services that the plantation does provide.

So the question is, was La Isla its own victim, or is its shuttering evidence of unethical behavior of the plantation-cum-government that warrants a boycott of their product? One thing that struck me is the sub-contracting system. This to me seems like a way for the company to completely shield itself and continue conducting business as usual, as much as possible. Another thing is the blacklisting of the organization and its members. Despite the issues within La Isla and their controversial policies, taken together, I think there’s evidence to believe that the rights of the workers are being deliberately curtailed. Organizations should be allowed to take whatever stance they like, whether it be in accordance or not with other stakeholders. By denying visas it seems that the government was deliberately trying to eliminate this avenue of discourse, and unfortunately it looks like they got their wish. I’m off the rum. You should be too.

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