New Buses for Managua

I had the opportunity to view some of the bid documents and specifications for this bus acquisition in my meeting at IRTRAMMA. They were quite technical (e.g. finite element analysis of different bus components), and it seems like the government is satisfied that DINA, a Mexican manufacturer, will meet their requirements. Translated from “Buses nuevos vendrán en cinco meses,” published February 3rd on El 19 Digital, an online news source for President Ortega’s government:

By the middle of this year the first lot of buses coming from Mexico will enter the country, and by next October it is expected that all of the 350 units will be circulating in the capital to benefit some 350,000 Nicaraguans. The announcement was made by the director of Managua’s Municipal Transport Regulator (IRTRAMMA), comrade Francisco Alvarado, after signing the manufacturing contract with Mr. Martín Meléndez, representative of the Mexican company DINA Trucks Ltd.

These buses will have a capacity for 70 people (40 seated) and will be acquired by different urban transport cooperatives of the capital, whose representatives seemed satisfied with the entire bidding process, which concluded this Thursday with the signing of a contract equivalent to approximately $24 million, money financed by the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (BCIE) and managed by the government of President Daniel Ortega Saavedra.

“For DINA Trucks and for Mexico as a whole it is a pride to participate in this purchase of buses for the people of Nicaragua,” said Meléndez, the representative of the Mexican company.

He said that these new buses will be fabricated with the climactic and topographic conditions of Nicaragua in mind and “that all the citizens of Managua and Nicaragua should have the confidence that they can count on buses of the first world, of extraordinary quality, and that they will benefit.” Ten percent of all of the buses will be manufactured with a system of special lifts for people who use wheelchairs.

“By the end of this year Managua will totally transform its fleet and with that its model of municipal transit,” assured Alvarado.

Luis Jiménez, a bus owner, said that improving and transforming the system of buses in Managua could only happen under the direction of a Sandinista Government.

“The strength which the revolutionary government has used in these negotiations is excellent. We have ordered a bus that will have excellent technical features and at the right price, and that will benefit the people foremost,” said Jiménez.

The political overtones of this article make more sense when one considers that Nicaragua’s next presidential elections are scheduled for November. With an election looming, I am confident that most or all of the buses will actually be operating by October. This means the demand for US school buses in Nicaragua will have declined significantly by then. It also means that IRTRAMMA should consider changing its logo, which currently features a yellow school bus complete with a stop sign:

IRTRAMMA logo

IRTRAMMA logo

Albanisa – The Blessing of an Octopus

After my excellent meeting with the General Director of Managua’s Transport Regulatory Agency, he graciously arranged for me to visit the facilities of Alba Transport (shared with Alba Equipment), where the city’s old buses amarillos (yellow buses) were being decommissioned. Here’s what opposition newspaper El Nuevo Diario had to say about the Alba companies and a reporter’s attempt to investigate Alba Transport:

The private firm doing business as Alba of Nicaragua, Ltd., Albanisa, tied to the presidential family, constitutes only the name and face of an emporium of businesses that offer all type of services, making itself into a new economic power in the country…The mother company or head of the octopus was formed in 2007 with the oversight of President Daniel Ortega and his Venezuelan partner and provider, Hugo Chávez…But from it also extend Alba Caruna, Alba Equipment, Alba Security, Alba Generation, Alba Ports, Alba Deposits, Alba Wind Power, Alba Food, Alba Transport, Alba Tenosa, and “at least two more which are being formed,” indicated informants.

El Nuevo Diario arrived at the facilities of Alba Equipment…and as we approached, the guards of Alba Security came out to meet us, and after making phone calls and making us uncomfortable, indicated that we could not wander around the site. Right there, in the gates of the two “Little Albas [Transport and Equipment],” we asked if [Alba Transport’s Director Freddy] Acevedo could be found, but the guards, now warned by the gray-haired man, did not respond to more questions and asked us to leave “to avoid problems.”…To these facilities were brought the 130 buses donated by the Russian Federation to Alba-Caruna, to open the windows, put in radiators, and change the brake system, i.e. adjust them to the climate and needs of the country.

When I arrived at the front gate, I was also greeted with a bit of suspicion by the Alba Security guards. They took a bit to confirm my identity (a Japanese reporter writing for a US school bus magazine – I highlighted my Japanese heritage rather than my “Yankee imperialist” heritage for the Sandinistas) and that I had an appointment with Director Acevedo. In the meantime, I saw a couple of buses skidding around in the compound, presumably testing their newly acclimatized brakes.

Director Acevedo gave me a great tour of the Alba Transport facility. Sitting in a lot were 104 dilapidated former US school buses, between 20 and 30 years old, waiting to be disassembled. Oil and other contaminants were drained in a process authorized by the national environmental oversight agency, then the buses were scrapped. I saw a couple of 18-wheelers with FSLN (governing Sandinista party) flags on the dashboard hauling away the scrap metal during my visit. There were also a few buses painted bright pink, which Director Acevedo said were used for entertaining children.

I also enjoyed seeing the other side of the equation, brand new Kurgansky Avtobusny Zavod buses that had just arrived from Russia. Alba Transport had handed the first batch of these buses over to operators but quickly realized that modifications were necessary:

The buses were delivered to seven of the thirty-six routes of urban collective transit, the majority of which are affiliated with the governing party, at a cost of $25,000 per bus. Transport sector sources affirmed that the cooperatives are unhappy with the buses, because each one needs to be held back a certain time for for problems related to acclimatization, “but the bill has to be paid on time.”

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After seeing some of the maintenance facilities for the new Kavz buses, Director Acevedo and I returned to his office. At his desk (complete with a small FSLN flag), we discussed the importation of used buses. School buses generally enter the country by boat through Puerto Corinto, but it is now illegal to import buses manufactured before 1996. The Director expressed his hope that within two years, all of the old school buses would be off of Managua’s streets.

Such an ambitious replacement plan could only happen with continued aid, like that which Venezuela gives to Nicaragua through Albanisa. While Albanisa is largely under the control of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, ALBA is a larger economic effort in Latin America to combat US-style neoliberal economic policies. Much of ALBA is driven by Venezuelan oil, as described in the same article from El Nuevo Diario:

Alba Caruna, which until a few years ago was a small credit cooperative, today is essentially the state bank and receives 25 of the 50% of the Alba Fund, which originates from the payment of the oil invoice that Nicaragua pays for the importation of Venezuelan crude.

Nicaragua imports Venezuelan petroleum through Petronic, which pays the the bill to the account of Albanisa, which, in its turn, pays 50% of the bill to the Venezuelan PDVSA. They transfer the other 50% to the Alba Fund (25% for social projects in all of the Alba countries) and the other 25% is transferred to Alba Caruna. During the past year, Venezuela’s help aid to Nicaragua reached $457 milion, according to source at the Central Bank of Nicaragua. Of this total, $146 million (30%) was for Alba Curuna.

This aid has benefited Sandinista farmers through rural agriculture products and city-dwellers through the new buses and fare subsidies. As the Sandinista Vision magazine describes,

The Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America (ALBA) has, for the last three years, been a blessing for Nicaragua to get out of the social, economic, and structural problems left by the neoliberals who governed the country for more than sixteen years, leaving a high percentage of extreme poverty, illiteracy, and misery, among so many other ills. In what conditions would we Nicaraguans be if the Government of Reconciliation and National Unity, headed by President Daniel Ortega, could not count on the resources to face the world economic crisis and the twelve-hour blackouts which we were suffering in the recent past?

An exceptional credit to Albanisa is that which is known as the Modernization of Collective Transport in Managua, which arose due to the strikes which occurred in May of 2008…A new contract signed with the Russian Federation will permit 225 more buses to enter the country, conditioned for the tropical climate and a little bigger, all with the end of modernizing the transport of the capital. The social fare project which Commander Ortega maintains to benefit more than 800,000 capital residents who utilize public buses, will continue to the end of this year. “Many citizens are now accustomed to paying 2.50 Cordobas for the fare which at best would cost 5.00 Cordobas if it were not subsidized,” said Jorge Martínez, President of Alba Caruna.

So my trip to visit a bunch of rusty old school buses from the United States ended up including brand new Russian buses bought with Venezuelan oil and a debate about whether this evolving economic arrangement was a blessing or an octopus.

Flooding in Nicaragua

During my stay, Nicaragua’s two largest lakes reached record heights, surpassing the floods resulting from Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Cocibolca (The Lake of Nicaragua) inundated one town that is not expected to be recoverable for three years. Xolotlan (The Lake of Managua) flooded Tipitapa and many of the communities around its shores. Local news channels showed footage of the flooding and scenes from refugee centers almost every night. President Ortega’s approval ratings have increased during the flooding; the government’s response is well-regarded, as are the additional refugee-center jobs being created (largely for Sandinista party members). While acknowledging factors contributing to these record floods, such as unauthorized low-lying settlements and an antiquated storm drain system, the Nicaraguan president’s jury is not out on for the fundamental cause: world capitalism (and the climate change it causes).

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Independence Day Parade

To celebrate its 1821 Independence from Spain, Nicaragua has a marching band competition every year. In the past, it has taken place in the national stadium; this year, it was for the first time conducted as a parade down the Highway to Masaya. The three hour parade included not only the marching bands, their associated dancers, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, police officers, and members of the armed forces, but also student “brigades” (government-sponsored clubs) dedicated to sports, environmental protection, and transit!

At one of the main intersections along the highway, Plaza of the Victories, a viewing platform was set up for the President and other dignitaries. I ended up watching the parade (along with a teacher and some fellow students from Spanish School) within about 200 feet of the viewing platform. It was pretty incredible to be be separated from President Ortega (as he gave a speech echoing Hugo Chavez in condemning the threat of Yankee expansionism) by only 200 feet (and only one police officer).

The opposition newspapers put a spin on the whole event; La Prensa wrote that it was “more of a salute to Ortega and his family than a parade.” The government also broke with precedent by the prominent display of the FSLN party flag, in addition to the customary Nicaraguan flag. President Ortega wasn’t there at the 3:00 scheduled start of the parade, and it ended up beginning about two hours late after raining: “The students, with their war flags, were there from 1:00 PM, and when Ortega appeared they were already wet and almost covered in mud, because, owing to being tired, they had sat on the ground.”

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