Origins of TecNica, July 1984

Attending Office of Americas Conference

In 1984 I was invited by the Santa Monica-based Office of the Americas to attend their Conference on Central America which they were co-sponsoring in Managua and which would coincide with the 4th anniversary  of the Sandinista Revolution. I quickly accepted, got a passport, and said goodbye to friends. A group of about 20 teachers, students, clergy, and journalists flew from LAX with an overnight in Mexico City. Little did I know then that I would be staying with my own TecNica groups at the same hotel within a year.

We were greeted at the Managua airport by the other co-sponsoring group, the ASTC, Asociación Sandinista Trabajadores Cultura (Association of Sandinista Cultural Workers). They steered our entry through the diplomatic line, making the whole process pretty easy. And again, little did I know then that this same group would be the sponsor of TecNica in another year, steering us, and our many boxes of supplies, through the same diplomatic line.

From the airport, the ASTC took us on buses to what would become our lodging for the week – a couple of large homes in the upscale neighborhood that had been built by Somoza for his business cronies and top ranking government and military officials—but abandoned after the Revolution. The neighborhood was tranquil with Sandinista Police patrolling the streets on foot with AK-47s in their arms. I had a sudden flash of emotion—for the first time in my life I was in the presence of police that were on the side of the people, not protecting the rich and corporate elite. It was a real thrill, one that many TecNica volunteers would also feel in the coming years.

The opening session of the conference was held the next day. I lasted for the day, but by the next day I was in search of a car to rent so I could see more of this revolutionary country. Nothing was available at the two rental agencies. Fortunately, I did meet a journalist from NBC who had rented a car from a private family and was leaving that day.  After paying up his bill he turned the car over to me. Now I had independent mobility. This would also be the car I would rent on my return trips.

Another participant at the conference, knowing I was an economist, suggested I accompany him and another American living in Managua who knew the Vice President of the Central Bank, Eric Brenes, to visit Mr. Brenes in the bank’s office. It was a friendly and informative visit that would eventually lead to Eric becoming an advocate and sponsor of TecNica, and very good personal friend—until his terrible death in a plane crash while on a flight to attend a meeting of central bankers in Chile.

After hearing of my interest in seeing how his new country worked, spawned by my economist’s curiosity about economic institutions, Eric arranged for me to visit several government ministries— Education, Health, and his own Central Bank. For the first two, Eric made a phone call to his counterpart and friend, usually a Vice Minister. He would introduce me, and set up a time for me to meet with them. After brief meetings at each agency I was taken on tours to see how the agency worked and to meet people, who described their jobs—and the problems they were encountering.

The Genesis of TecNICA

What I found on these visits, and surprised me, was not that these agencies lacked modern techniques and equipment. They had these, but this equipment was not being used because either the ministry lacked an employee who knew how to operate it, or the equipment was broken and not being used because they lacked a skilled person able to repair it. This finding was one of the key ideas that would soon come together and be the foundation of TecNica. More on this later.

I did attend a few other conference sessions over the next few days and was impressed with the range of backgrounds of the approximately 150 attendees from all over the US.  Of course, the larger purpose of all the attendees was to witness for themselves a revolutionary country, and a country against which the Reagan administration was waging war by supporting the “Contras” because it had become a “socialist” county.

I was also impressed that all the attendees had paid their own air fares and a small administrative fee in order to attend. This was the second key idea that would later complete “TecNica model”.

Weekend Trip to War Zone 

Buses carrying Conference attendees to war zone near Jalapa in northern Nicaragua

To give attendees a closer look at this war and its effects on the population, the ASTC took us all in a caravan of several buses on a tour to the northern border. What an eye opener! We met with mothers of young soldiers who had been killed by the Contras and soldiers who had lost limbs. So much loss and pain, so little resources with which to carry on. Sad, sad stories. All of us were deeply moved and took these stories and our photos home with us so we could tell everyone we knew what evil our own government was perpetuating on this small Central American country that had thrown off the choke of tyranny and was trying to build a new, more equal society.

—Michael Urmann