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News | Aug. 20, 2020

Wisconsin-Nicaragua SPP helps Nicaraguans despite tensions

By Capt. Joe Trovato Wisconsin National Guard

A partnership dating back to 2003 between the Wisconsin National Guard and Nicaragua via the National Guard’s State Partnership Program continues to yield mutually beneficial results despite strained relations between the U.S. and Nicaragua.

The Wisconsin Army National Guard’s Company H, 132nd Brigade Support Battalion recently completed a haul mission on behalf of Wisconsin/Nicaragua Partners of the Americas Inc., delivering humanitarian cargo from the organization’s warehouse in Stevens Point to the Minnesota National Guard’s 133rd Airlift Wing in Minneapolis for delivery to Nicaragua via a Denton Program flight.

The Denton Program is a long-standing program run by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, allowing donated humanitarian aid to fly on U.S. Air Force assets as space is available. The relief missions use flight training hours to provide humanitarian relief to countries in need, while simultaneously providing required training for aircrews.

Under the State Partnership Program, military engagement teams and units from the Wisconsin National Guard regularly visited Nicaragua to share best practices and glean lessons from the Nicaraguan military on topics such as natural disaster response. Likewise, Nicaraguan delegations visited Wisconsin on numerous occasions as part of the exchange program.

Those engagements ceased in 2018 due to political tensions between the U.S. and Nicaragua over human rights violations. Direct military-to-military exchanges are prohibited. But the Wisconsin National Guard has remained engaged via programs like Wisconsin/Nicaragua Partners of the Americas Inc., a nongovernmental organization established in 1965 under President John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress program.

Company H recently transported 40 pallets of humanitarian cargo from the warehouse in Stevens Point to Minneapolis for shipment. The cargo included a variety of donated items collected to help improve the lives of Nicaraguan people working to make a living or learn a skill that can improve their lives. In 2019, the 132nd Brigade Support Battalion loaded a variety of salon equipment that ultimately helped train individuals to work in beauty salons.

Sewing machines, corrugated cardboard, children’s furniture, desks, school supplies, sports equipment, bicycles, wheelchairs, cooking supplies and other equipment were among the recent shipments. In previous years, fire trucks, ambulances, and emergency vehicles have been shipped to Nicaragua as part of the program.

“First Lieutenant (Andrew) Gertner did a remarkable job carrying out the mission with the Soldiers from Hotel Company, 132nd Brigade Support Battalion, who were simply outstanding in their willingness to help, timeliness, courtesy, and hard work,” wrote Amy Wiza, the Wisconsin/Nicaragua Partners of the America’s Inc. executive director, in a thank you letter to the unit. “Please know the time and expertise involved to lend a hand in transporting the in-kind donations is greatly appreciated.”

She added that it takes many entities to make the program a success.

“With each shipment, it has been our experience that the military personnel are top-notch, professional, and good-hearted to get the job done,” she said. “This transport was no exception and provides opportunity for us to extend our gratitude for the amazing teamwork that takes place.”

The shipments have made an impact on the lives of many people in Nicaragua. Much of the cargo and equipment ends up at learning centers where people learn a trade or skill as part of community-based training programs. Some of the goods benefit families directly.

“On behalf of my family and myself as well, I would like to thank (Wisconsin-Nicaragua Partners) for donating me two loads of cardboard, which I used to make an additional room in our house,” wrote Juan. “Thanks for allowing me to take this material. We are a poor family and wouldn’t have had the means to buy other kind of construction materials such as cement and sand, bricks, etc. I don’t have words to thank you or your donors enough. God bless you all.”

Mirna Angulo, who works with Wisconsin/Nicaragua Partners of the Americas Inc. in Nicaragua, said a 53-year-old man from Nicaragua born with a disability received shoeshine equipment he uses to make additional income.

Angulo said sewing machine donations resulted in a man named Carlos learning how to sew. He and his wife entered the sewing business and they now make masks to protect against COVID-19.

While the transport mission has a positive humanitarian impact, it also provides valuable training to the Soldiers in the unit on mission-essential tasks. In transporting the pallets, the Soldiers trained on loading non-standard cargo, mission planning, operating their vehicles and equipment, and preparing cargo for air transport.

The effort also allows the Wisconsin National Guard to help advance State Department and Defense Department goals and missions in Nicaragua despite recent tensions.

Lt. Col. Derrek Schultheiss, the Wisconsin National Guard’s State Partnership Program director, visited some of the community-based learning centers in Nicaragua this year and said it was incredible to see the impact the shipments have had. He said people learn skills like baking, managing beehives to produce honey, and making lip balm and cosmetics.

“Since we can’t do military-to-military exchanges with the Nicaraguan military, this is a way we can engage in partnership,” he said. “There are over 50 learning centers in Nicaragua, and they’ve been so grateful for the support and everything we’ve been able to provide.”

He said the people benefiting from these learning centers know the support is from Wisconsin.

“They’re not thinking, ‘U.S.A.,” he said. “They’re thinking, ‘Wisconsin,’ but it’s simultaneously helping promote the U.S. embassy’s mission in Nicaragua in a positive way.”

Maj. Tiffany Niemer, who hails from the Wisconsin Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing but now serves as the lone military representative in the Security Cooperation Office at the U.S. embassy in Nicaragua, said the shipments and the mission they support play a critical role in U.S. foreign policy.

“It’s a whole-of-government, whole-of-community approach to national security cooperation,” she said. “Especially since we can’t engage directly with the Nicaraguan military.”

As a result, she said, the Wisconsin National Guard State Partnership Program relationship in Nicaragua is more important than ever.

“We’re touching a lot of people’s lives in a positive way,” she said, noting that while the state and the Wisconsin National Guard get a lot of credit in Nicaragua, ultimately it helps create a positive impression of the United States as the country works to make an ally in the long term.

“This positive interaction will have a positive impact down the road,” Niemer said.