The High Cost to Children of Nicaragua’s Change in Government
Juan Carlos is but one of the fast-growing number of destitute, homeless children who have appeared on the streets of Managua since the election of the UNO government.
These children are part of the collateral damage inflicted by US destabilization tactics and low-intensity conflict. Washington’s relentless pressure wore down the Nicaraguan people to the point that a majority of them voted for the conservative opposition coalition UNO (the United Nicaraguan Opposition) in the February 1990 elections. As long as the Sandinista administration was in office, its wide range of social programs - especially those safeguarding the health and needs of children - kept the numbers of street kids to a minimum.
With the change in government, however, the economic situation has become even more desperate, giving rise to escalating social problems, and the safety net protecting the poor has disintegrated. As real wages decline and more and more families find themselves without work, social programs and subsidies - which are needed more than ever - have been severely cut or completely eliminated.
Pressure from the North for a free market economy and privatization of government services has played a major part in Nicaragua’s current crisis. As a condition for loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the UNO government agreed to slash funding for all public services and welfare programs by an average of 50%. As a result, many thousands of people lost their jobs. The few social programs that remain - now running with half their former staff and budget - must try to meet the needs of the swelling ranks of destitute people. No wonder the remaining public services are overburdened and ineffective! The situation is reminiscent of that in the US during the Reagan years, but several orders of magnitude more serious.
The IMF and USAID have also pressured the UNO government to freeze wages and free prices. Last August the government announced that the minimum wage would be set at the equivalent of $30 a month in the countryside and $46 a month in the cities. Labor unions protested, noting that the `market basket' needed to meet a family’s basic needs costs roughly $130 a month. Even arch-conservative Cardinal Obando y Bravo has called the government’s new wage scale “starvation salaries.”
Unemployment and underemployment in Nicaragua have risen to over 60%. With the recent major cutbacks in government services and spending, thousands have lost their jobs.
The impact of slashing government budgets has been exacerbated because the reduced funds available go into fewer pockets. While Sandinista government officials generally earned about $200 a month, today many UNO bureaucrats earn from $12,000 to 15,000 monthly. Paying such high salaries significantly widens the gulf between rich and poor and further reduces the money left over for public services.
80% of the prostitutes, many of them teenagers, have begun their trade only within the past year.
Added to all this is a huge increase in corruption, which has further compromised all services, including health. Today, even more than under the Sandinistas, community clinics (those which have not yet been closed) often lack basic medicines. So even the poorest patients are sent to commercial pharmacies, where drugs are outrageously overpriced. This medicine shortage could have been at least partially avoided. To help meet the country’s dire need for essential drugs, the Swedish government has been providing Nicaragua with over one million dollars worth of free medicines annually. But the latest shipments of these medicines have been held up by the Customs Department. It seems some high UNO officials have investments in the pharmaceutical industry. To keep prices and sales of commercial medicines high, they have blocked importation of the donated drugs. Some of these drugs, impounded for nearly a year, have now expired. Frustrated by this corrupt behavior, the Swedish government discontinued its medicine donations at the end of 1991. (There were also obstacles to the distribution of donated medicines during the period of Sandinista rule, but they were surmountable and were primarily due to red tape and lack of trained personnel, rather than corruption.)
More Prostitutes and More Big Cars
The economic crisis, soaring unemployment, and cutbacks in public services have taken a heavy toll on Nicaraguan society. Diseases such as polio and measles, which had been reduced or eliminated under the Sandinistas, are making a comeback. Malnutrition rates in children have increased alarmingly. School enrollment has dropped.
As hunger and homelessness grow, not only are there more street children, but prostitution—which had been reduced to low levels by the Sandinista government after being rampant during the Somoza dictatorship—has proliferated. A neighborhood women’s league we visited, which is struggling to protect women’s rights, recently surveyed hundreds of Managua’s prostitutes. Their November 1991 study found that 80% of the prostitutes, many of them teenagers, have begun their trade only within the past year. They sell their bodies to feed their children, or their younger brothers and sisters.
Diseases such as polio and measles are making a comeback.
Who has the money to pay for commercial sex? Lots of people: the new, highly paid bureaucrats, the owners of some of the new private businesses launched with aid from the US, some of the ex-Contras, and businessmen and former big landowners newly returned from self-imposed exile in Miami and elsewhere. Sexual tourism in Nicaragua is also reportedly on the rise.
One of the provisions of the pact that Sandinista leaders have negotiated with the Chamorro Administration is an agreement to allow returning Nicaraguans to bring all kinds of goods, including automobiles, back into the country duty free. This has caused social and environmental headaches. With the influx of cars and trucks, traffic in and around Managua has become a nightmare, and air pollution is becoming a serious problem.
How rapidly the contrast between squalor and affluence, with all the resulting social degradation, has again become a part of the Nicaraguan landscape!
More Drug Trafficking and Drug Use
Another growing problem in post-Sandinista Nicaragua is the escalating trafficking and use of hard drugs, especially cocaine. Under the Sandinistas, illicit drug use—which had been widespread during the last years of Somoza rule—was minimal. However, starting in 1984 when the US Congress passed the Boland Amendment outlawing military aid to the Contras, the CIA helped the latter carry out a covert arms-for-drugs trade. Now these same Contras have returned to Nicaragua. For this and other reasons, including the worsening economic situation, substance abuse has increased dramatically since the change in government. As elsewhere, the uncritical, indiscriminate embrace of the free market, combined with poverty and despair, has had the effect of invigorating the multinational narcotics industry, both legal and illegal.
Two Government Child Centers
Thanks to a friend we made in Managua, we had a chance to see, first hand, the impact of ‘structural adjustment’ (IMF-imposed austerity policies) on services for children at high risk. Eduardo Carson, a Canadian specialist in child disability and development, has been working in Nicaragua for ten years. Having used our book Disabled Village Children, he wanted to meet us. So he invited us to visit the two ‘Centros de Protección Para Menores’ (Centers for the Protection of Minors) where he works.
These are government-run centers for orphaned, abandoned, abused, and/or disabled children, located on the outskirts of Managua. The ‘Niños Mártires por la Paz’ (‘Child Martyrs for Peace’) center is for children seven years old and younger. The Rolando Carrazco center is for children from eight years on up.
Started by the Sandinistas in the early 1980s, the centers were set up as provisional group homes. Children stay here under the care of ‘house mothers’ until they can be placed with families in the community. Priority is given to returning the child to his or her own parents or relatives. When this is not possible, adoptive parents are actively sought. Under the Sandinistas this was done through a process of community outreach and awareness-raising. Many families gladly adopted abandoned or orphaned children out of a sense of solidarity, even though they received no economic assistance (except when the child was disabled).
Now it is much harder to place children, both because the economic situation is even worse than during the period of Sandinista rule and because the present government lacks the Sandinistas' strong popular roots.
Also, the number of abandoned kids has risen sharply. Many poverty-stricken couples or single mothers simply can’t find a way to feed their children. So, out of desperation, when a baby gets sick they take it to a hospital under a false name and address, and never return. At the Rolando Carrazco center we met four young siblings whose mother, unable to feed them, had shut them into her apartment and vanished.
The child protection centers accept and then try to place as many children as they can. But they can’t begin to keep up with the present epidemic of homeless and abandoned children.
On our arrival at the Niños Mártires center, Eduardo took us to a large fenced-in yard.
“I want you to meet our child psychologists,” he said, “the only ones whom our new kids will speak to when they’re too terrified to talk to any of us.”
He pointed to the animals in the yard: several ducks and geese, an old donkey, and a tame deer.
“When many of the children come here, they are in emotional shock,” he explained. “Some have seen Contras torture and massacre their mothers and fathers. Some have been forced by the Contras to set fire to their homes with their brothers and sisters still inside. Some have been tortured or gang-raped. You wouldn’t believe what they’ve been through. (Eduardo was referring here to victims of the Contra war of the 1980s.)
“At first, they won’t talk. They keep it all inside. They have lost all trust in the world of adults, in human beings. No one can reach them - no one except the animals.
“So we bring them out here. And before long the geese are feeding from their hands and the doe is licking their cheeks. They begin to talk to the animas, to tell them things they dared not tell anyone, terrible experiences that they had blocked even from their own minds - except in their nightmares.
“First they open up to the animals. Then, little by little, they open up to us.
“But everything is harder now than it used to be,” he continued. “Often we can’t afford food for the animals. Our monkey died. And deer.” a few weeks ago someone stole one of our pet deer.”
“Why would anybody do that?” we asked.
“To feed their children,” replied Eduardo. “Remember, lots of people are starving.”
Our Canadian friend was heartbroken about the way that the new government policies have compromised the two centers. Not only have money and staff been cut by half, but most of the original highly competent and dedicated staff, mainly Sandinistas, have been replaced by friends and relatives of UNO officials. Many of the new staff lack the skills, patience, or commitment to work with children with special needs.
Our friend pointed to a man stoically working in the garden, while a group of disabled children looked on. “Our old staff helped the children to do the gardening themselves,” he said. “And the kids loved it! The flowers had meaning!”
Eduardo explained to us that much of the simple, imaginative equipment in the center’s playground had been modeled after our ‘playground for all children’ at PROJIMO. It was indeed a splendid playground. But we noticed that many of the playthings were now broken. Clearly the centers have seen better times.
Still, both centers convey the inspiration and vision of their founders. Their outer walls are flamboyantly decked with delightful murals. On the outer wall of the Centro Rolando Carrazco is a grand figure of “Mother Nicaragua,” her windswept hair streaming protectively over a ten-meter long panorama of disabled and non-disabled children playing, working, and studying together.
Oddly, Mother Nicaragua’s flag-like hair is painted in two long bands of yellow and black. We earned that her hair used to be red and black, representing the Sandinista flag. But to prevent defacement of the mural when UNO took power, the Sandinistas painted over the red band of hair with yellow to disguise it. (Nearly all murals identified as ‘Sandinista’ were obliterated when UNO took over.)
What is unique about most of these murals at the child protection centers is that the children helped paint them. They all sport the children’s signatures, in the form of a brightly colored hand- or footprint beneath each child’s name.
Our friend explained that desecration of these lively murals had begun while the FSLN (Sandinista Front for National Liberation) was still in power. Indeed, when the mural on the adobe wall surrounding the Niños Mártires center was first painted six years ago, local village children began to vandalize it, scrawling obscene graffiti over the paintings.
To cope with this problem, the teachers at the center, instead of seeking punishment of the village children, invited them to help repaint the mural they had vandalized. So village kids joined disabled kids in creating a new mural. Each child added his or her hand- or footprint and name. This put an end to the vandalism. Indeed, this mural is one of the few in Managua that was not destroyed either by UNO supporters or Sandinistas during the tense period following the 1990 elections.
But why did the village children vandalize the mural in the first lace? The answer is complex, and can be traced to the pervasive destabilization tactics of low-intensity conflict.
The Niños Mártires center is located in a very poor, semi-rural area on the outskirts of Managua. The site was once one of the Somoza family’s resorts. After the Somoza dynasty’s overthrow, the Sandinistas converted it into the child protection center. At first the center was well-accepted. But as the US government’s campaign against the Sandinistas escalated, it ran into problems with the local community.
Like many of the poorest communities near Managua, the neighborhood surrounding the Niños Mártires center was visited during the 1980s by right-wing evangelists. Many of the reactionary evangelist groups that flooded into Nicaragua at this time were financed by US government agencies or US-based private conservative organizations, and had a covert political agenda. They put the fear of the Red Plague into the local people, portraying the Sandinistas as the devil incarnate.
Because the children’s center was run by Sandinistas, it was fair game for attack. When disabled children painted its wall, the preachers denounced this too as sinful, charging that the Sandinistas were wasting paint on useless murals while the villagers were too poor to paint their doorposts. Many residents viewed the vandalism by the village children, not as misbehavior, but as a righteous act of war - a war which the children and their families had been duped into fighting on the wrong side and for the wrong reasons.
Fortunately, when the little vandals were invited to join in repainting the mural, they were able to see through the lies they had been fed and make peace.
If only we adults could see as clearly and learn as quickly as children!
Managua’s Street Children
One of the best indicators of a population’s overall health is said to be infant mortality. But if we want to look at health in the broader sense of a whole community’s “complete physical, mental, and social well-being” (the World Health Organization’s definition of the term), other indicators are also needed.
One indicator of a society’s health, now being used by UNICEF, is the ratio in annual earnings between the richest and poorest 20% of the population. According to this `fairness factor', the systemic health of Nicaragua—as well as that of the United States and indeed nearly every country worldwide has been on an ominous downhill course during the last few years.
Another base line indicator of `community health' might be the relative number of homeless people, especially street children. On this count, too, Nicaragua -again along with the US and most other countries - has recently taken a sharp turn for the worse:
In Nicaragua, UNICEF reports (in December 1991) that there are now at least 17,000 street children—many more than at any time during the tenure of the Sandinista government.
In the United States, Covenant House (an organization that runs shelters for homeless young people) estimates that at least one million children regularly sleep on the streets. And the number is rapidly rising.
According to a wide range of indicators, it seems that the peace and prosperity Nicaraguans dreamed of when they voted for UNO have turned out to be a bitter illusion.
Our Canadian friend, Eduardo, works with one of several non-government organizations that have stepped into the welfare gap left by the change in government. One of them is a very informal program that tries to improve the situation of street children.
One afternoon Eduardo took us to a hangout of street kids in the old city center of Managua, which has remained in ruins ever since it was leveled by the devastating 1972 earthquake. Scores of youngsters live among the rubble of old buildings and warehouses. Some of them shine shoes, earn a pittance for watching (that is, for not vandalizing) parked cars, beg, steal, run errands, and in other ways try to scrape together enough to survive on. Every morning a bevy of boys picks through the fresh garbage at the city dump, searching for small prizes to eat or sell.
Eduardo obviously has good rapport with the street kids, who swarmed around his pickup as we pulled up to the remains of a large cement building. The kids led us into the shadowy entrails of the wrecked edifice.
The street kids ranged from about nine to thirteen years old, a few of them older. All the members of this particular gang were boys. The younger ones seemed fearless of us strangers, and knew how to dull on our heartstrings. But some of the older boys initially kept their distance, eyeing us with a mix of suspicion and hostility. Gradually they warmed up.
Eduardo had been reluctant to bring us after midday because, he said, the kids would be high on glue. He was right. Each boy earned on him a small bottle, like a Gerber baby food jar, filled with shoemaker’s cement. Every minute or so, as we talked, the children would put the bottles to their lips, lift the lids slightly, and inhale.
The kids seemed drunk. Their eyes were glazed, their speech somewhat slurred, and their movements a bit off balance. The boys were all extremely thin, which gave the younger ones a deep-eyed, hauntingly angelic look. When we asked one boy, about ten years old, why he sniffed glue, he shrugged and said it was just something to do, then added, “Se quita el hambre.” (It takes away hunger.)
Most of these kids have been repeatedly beaten by the police. (Some had scars to prove it.) Sometimes they are beaten because they have committed (or are suspected of committing) - petty crimes. But more often they are beaten because they are there: a problem that warrants correction. Since Nicaragua’s Constitution prohibits jailing children under 16, policemen routinely resort to physical punishment, often quite brutal. They sometimes raid the hangout, sending the ever-vigilant kids scampering up jagged walls and across roofs.
We learned that within a gang of street kids there is relatively little violence. Some of the older boys bully the younger ones. But just as commonly, older boys defend and take care of the younger ones, with whom they often have sex.
Although there are reportedly also a lot of girls who live on the streets, they tend to frequent more prosperous areas. The girls, we learned, are mostly thirteen to fourteen dears old or more. They survive by selling their bodies, mostly to older clients.
As for the street kids in the inner city, Eduardo is still trying to get to know them and figure out how best to help them. As yet there is no organized program that addresses these children’s needs.
Eduardo feels that the biggest immediate danger the kids face is glue-sniffing. It damages their brains and weakens their lungs.
But the problem is not easy to combat. Marketing shoe cement to children has become a lucrative business. Nicaragua apparently imports large amounts of this cement - many times what is needed for shoe repair. The cement is imported through a multinational supplier. Shopkeepers in depressed communities do a thriving business with weekly refills of the children’s little bottles. Health activists suggest that restrictions be placed on the import and distribution of shoe cement. But it is unlikely that such a law will be passed in the present climate of unrestricted free trade.
So what can be done? Telling the kids that glue sniffing is dangerous to their health doesn’t impress them, and disciplinary measures would be counterproductive.
Eduardo has come up with one modest way to alleviate the problem. The kids love to go for rides in his pickup. Twenty or more of them scramble in at once. When he has time, he takes them for outings to swim in a nearby lake or to climb the Masaya volcano.
But in order to be allowed to go on these outings, the kids must agree to leave their glue behind. To begin an outing, the kids themselves had the idea of a ‘glue bottle smash’, which they have turned into a sort of pagan rite. They stand high on the cab of the truck and, whooping loudly, fling their glue bottles against the pavement.
When he takes them to the volcano, Eduardo has the boys run a footrace to the top of the final hill. Although the climb is neither long nor steep, it is exhausting for many of the long-term glue sniffers and cigarette smokers. Upon reaching the toy, everyone wins a prize (something to eat). But it is understood that no one will receive a prize until every child makes it to the top. In this way, those who are fastest, instead of running ahead, learn to help the slower kids along. This makes the race a cooperative challenge rather than a competitive one.
When they reach the top, all the kids are laughing and coughing and breathing hard. Eduardo feels that these outings, while they have not yet convinced any boys to give up glue sniffing, do give them a day’s respite and a chance to clean out their lungs. The excursions also provide the kids with a breath of fresh air for their minds and spirits.
Following our visit to the inner city, Eduardo took us to an asentamiento (new settlement) to see a small community center set up for street kids. The center -which the children painted themselves - serves as a place for both play and informal study. When folded upright, the ping-pong table becomes a blackboard. A `street educator' teaches basic literacy so that kids who want to can get into public school and hold their own. A few of the kids have begun to go to school.
The children do not sleep at the center, but they can bathe there and come and go as they please. The only strict rule is no drug use inside the center. Glue, drugs, and cigarettes are deposited on entry and picked up on the way out. At present the center serves only boys, but there are plans to include girls.
Several similar centers exist in Managua. But together they serve only a tiny portion of the growing numbers of street kids. Only through a return to a more equitable social order which assures that all citizens' basic needs are met can the problems of street children and child prostitution be meaningfully resolved.
Where is Nicaragua Headed?
Nicaragua is locked in a steadily worsening spiral of social and economic crisis. Its adoption of structural adjustment and free market policies has not led to economic recovery. Rather, it has produced further economic stagnation, widened the gap between rich and poor, and driven millions of marginalized citizens into extreme poverty.
In the February 1990 elections, many Nicaraguans voted for the UNO party at least in part because they realized that, if they voted for the Sandinistas, the US-sponsored war (with the accompanying unpopular draft), terrorism, and economic sanctions would continue. The Bush Administration, like its predecessor, made it very clear that it would simply not accept a Sandinista victory at the polls, and would never let the FSLN govern in peace.
But the situation has not improved with the change in government. (The one exception is the fact that the Contra war has ended, but the peace process had already been all but concluded by the Sandinistas, and the peace has proved a fragile one, with some Contras and Sandinista partisans once more taking up arms and doing battle.) The US has failed to deliver on many of the promises of aid it dangled before the Nicaraguan people to entice them to vote for UNO. And most of the aid that has materialized has been used to reintegrate the Contras, provide start-up funds for business, and privatize public services. In short, as is so often the case, the aid has benefited a small minority at the expense of the majority.
In sum, in Nicaragua, as in so many other poor countries, austerity measures imposed by the IMF and USAID have caused increased misery. As local currency devaluates, prices rise faster than wages. This further reduces the buying power of families already on the margin. Rates of child malnutrition and infant mortality have begun to rise again after their dramatic drop during the early years of the Sandinistas. Diseases of poverty which had been virtually eliminated are again on the increase.
All in all, it is a sorry situation for a country which, in the early years of the Sandinistas, was praised by the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization for its remarkable progress in bettering its people’s health.
Actually, `sorry' is not the right word. Many Nicaraguans are angry. Many people who sharply (and in some respects rightly) criticized the Sandinistas in the late 80s are beginning to weigh their losses against their gains.
My impression is that there is still hope for revival of the people’s struggle in Nicaragua. In the 1970s Nicaraguans came together to fight for liberation from the Somoza dictatorship. Then, during their ten and a half years of self-determination under the Sandinista government, they mobilized to achieve literacy, health, and economic development. The Revolution brought about a popular awakening and a taste for freedom which are proving hard to destroy.
During our visit to Nicaragua we became convinced that the Revolution is still alive. Many of the people in the women’s organizations and community health programs (now run outside of government) showed a remarkable vitality and commitment to the struggle for people’s health and rights. In fact, now that they can no longer rely on the government for support and direction, they have in some cases gained a healthy measure of self-reliance and autonomy which they did not always enjoy under Sandinista rule. And, conversely, the Sandinistas, now that they are being forced to “govern from below,” are being forced to renew their links to ordinary Nicaraguans, especially the poor, and to turn once more to the grassroots activism that made the Revolution possible in the first place. But this resurgence of grassroots dynamism can only fight a holding action in the absence of remotely adequate funds and resources.
Nicaragua has stronger, more active organizations of disabled people than any other country in Latin America. Even the children we met seemed to reflect something of the revolutionary spirit.
In the Child-to-Child workshop we were struck by the difference between the Nicaraguan children and groups of children we have worked with in other countries, especially Mexico. The Nicaraguan children impressed us as being more open, more self-assured, more ready than most other children to stand up, speak out, and express their ideas. The germ of liberation is still in their blood.
And yet, for all their dynamism, Nicaraguans working at the community level can at best fight a holding action as long as they lack adequate resources.
There is little doubt in my mind that, if the US government would only allow them a free hand, the people of Nicaragua would soon forge a healthier and more equitable society. Nicaragua could once again become a model of people-centered development for the rest of the Third World - perhaps an even better one, with some of the kinks ironed out and the pressure imposed by the superpower to the north removed.
We must all do whatever we can, in our own way, to enable the people of Nicaragua-and of all the rest of the world, especially the developing world - to regain their right to self-determination.