Situation Desperate and Getting Worse: An Update on Events in Nicaragua
Up until last year, I had always felt safe walking the streets of Managua. Now, the stark contrast between the very rich and the nearly starving is shocking. Barefoot children go door to door begging for salt, and crime is common. It’s not just foreigners who are targeted; the poor also steal from each other. The child care center where I worked had to hire a full-time guard to prevent theft of supplies, kitchen utensils, and even the fruit from the trees we planted in the playground. Employment of guards is increasingly common, not only among urban businesses, but in rural areas as well.
Last March, during a conversation with a friend in the countryside, I began to better understand the effects of poverty on an entire society. My friend told me about hunger, about having no meat, few vegetables, and often having no milk for his baby daughter. Every day his family ate rice and beans, which could be purchased at the store. (Now poor families have only tortillas.) My friend had considered raising chickens. He had time and ample space, and chickens require little food. He also thought of planting vegetables. He did neither, though, because he knew that the chickens would be stolen and the vegetables would be harvested by thieves (or hungry neighbors) even before they had a chance to ripen. I suspected that this kind of hopelessness carried over to many businesses as well. I was struck with just how disempowering poverty is, and how it creates a vicious cycle. People don’t dare invest in the future, the economy’s free fall accelerates, and the national standard of living sinks lower and lower.
In 1980, the Sandinista government set up and subsidized child development centers (Centros de Desarrollo Infantil, or CDIS) in neighborhoods all over the country. Remaining in operation for the next ten years, the CDIs quickly became one of the Sandinistas' most successful social programs. The Ministries of Health (MINSA) and Social Security (INSSBI) trained women to care for children ranging from 40 days to six years old. Besides providing employment and education for many women and parenting help for neighborhood families, the CDIs greatly improved the nutrition of many poor children. The centers served a daily meal, along with several nutritious snacks. A nurse was always in attendance, and the children received health checkups from a pediatrician who visited weekly.
The teachers were kind and attentive, so the children received excellent care and some educational stimulation. The latter is especially important, since many Nicaraguan parents have never had access to formal education. Many households don’t even have books, which are of little use when many people are illiterate. This was the case in Nicaragua before the Sandinista government’s ambitious 1980 literacy campaign in which high school and college students and others were trained, provided with simple reading materials, and sent throughout the country to teach people basic reading and writing skills. The campaign succeeded in reducing the national rate of illiteracy from 50% to 13%.
In February 1988, a nutritionist colleague and I worked as volunteers in one of these CDIs. Called CDI Colombia, it was located in the Don Bosco neighborhood of Managua. We facilitated workshops in preventive health care and nutrition for the staff and parents. In the process, we made some lasting friendships. Early in 1989, at a time when Hurricane Joan had just devastated much of Nicaragua and the economy was reeling from the effects of the US trade embargo and Contra terrorism, we received urgent appeals from CDI Colombia. INSSBI had just announced that drastic cuts would have to be made in food subsidies to CDIs, largely because more funds were needed for defense.
We did fundraising in the US for food and educational materials. The combined aid from our support group, the Swedish and Spanish governments, and some other international solidarity groups helped CDI Colombia continue providing high quality child care. Thanks to the increased cooperation of neighborhood parents and the hard work of the staff and director, CDI Colombia even became a model for other centers.
In March 19911 met with CDI Colombia’s director to begin planning some income-generating projects which could be run by residents of Don Bosco to provide local support for their child care center. Nothing came of these plans, however, because shortly afterwards the director was replaced. She was dismissed, not for incompetence, but because she is a Sandinista. She is not the only one to meet this fate: ever since the 1990 elections, Sandinistas holding government positions all over Nicaragua have been “getting the broom.”
From May 1989, when we formed our support group, until the Chamorro Administration assumed office in April 1990, we supported CDI Colombia by sending funds to INSSBI; that ministry then passed them on to CDI Colombia’s director, who sent the money on food for the children. When the united Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO, the conservative coalition that won the February 1990 national elections) took over, we no longer felt confident that funds provided to INSSBI would actually reach the children. I learned from AMNLAE, Nicaragua’s leading women’s organization, that INSSBI had misappropriated funs earmarked for some CDIs AMNLAE supported. Moreover, we felt that we could not support many of the Chamorro Administration’s policies, such as erasing the history of the past ten years from school textbooks and privatizing schools, health care, and child care, thus effectively ending subsidies for public programs serving poor children.
As a result, we began bypassing INSSBI and channeling funds directly to MI Colombia’s director. In May 1991 INSSBI barred us from making further direct contributions to CDI Colombia. We responded by severing our relationship with both INSSBI and CDI Colombia and switching our support to two other CDIs run by community organizations in very poor neighborhoods.
When the Sandinista labor unions objected strongly to UNO’s “broom” policy, the government backed off. In the early summer of 1991 it announced a new initiative ostensibly designed to reduce government spending and inflation. The policy, euphemistically dubbed the “Occupational Conversion Plan” and funded by the US Agency for International Development, consists of offering a lump sum of $2,000 (in US currency) to government employees who quit their jobs and sign a pledge that they will not take another government job for four years. This is a lot of money by Nicaraguan standards, and many employees are succumbing to the temptation, often using the money to go into business as vendors of pastries, fruit drinks, cheap imported goods, or in other similar ventures. Unfortunately, the informal sector of the economy where such activity takes place is already saturated, the money is spent quickly, especially with the rising cost of living, and many people who have taken this route find themselves broke and with no viable way to make a living. Besides getting rid of Sandinista government workers and slashing the public payroll, the policy is also intended to reinforce the growing trend toward privatization. It has taken its greatest toll, not on bureaucrats, but on badly needed first-line service personnel. The plan has forced a number of hospitals, health posts, CDIs, schools, and state business enterprises to shut down for lack of staffing.
While causing painful dislocations in all sectors, the loss of workers is especially grave in the health field. At a time when a cholera epidemic is looming on the horizon, those public hospitals that remain open are dangerously short on personnel. Our visit in March coincided with a strike by health workers. It is a sign of just how desperate economic conditions have become that this strike was started by a small group of private physicians who protested that their pay was too low to live on. (They were making about $220 a month.) To the doctors surprise, they were immediately joined by the entire health workers union, which complained that its members could not maintain sufficient stamina to care for patients on the amount of food their salaries could purchase, and that the stocks of medical supplies and medicines they had to work with were grossly inadequate. The strikers “won” a small salary increase which was quickly dissipated by inflation and the general devaluation of the nation’s currency.
Meanwhile, the social gains made by the Sandinistas continue to be eroded. The nationwide vaccination campaign functions only sporadically because of government disorganization. The incidence of respiratory infection has increased among children, and more than 650 children died in the 1990 measles epidemic. The number of cases of dengue and malaria is expected to rise dramatically now that public health measures to control the mosquitoes that transmit these diseases have been all but abandoned. Deaths from severe malnutrition and from dehydration caused by diarrhea occur regularly. The Health Ministry estimates that 84% of the rural population has no access to toilets or latrines. A recent United Nations development project report found that 54% of Managua’s residents live in overcrowded conditions of extreme poverty without water, electricity, education, or health services. Just since January 1990, 15% of Managua’s population has been forced to move into squatter settlements. The government evicted some families from homes for which they didn’t hold legal titles; others simply didn’t make enough money to pay the $500 monthly rent.
Deaths from severe malnutrition and from dehydration caused by diarrhea occur regularly.
Shortly after taking office the Chamorro Administration moved to privatize the education system. Since that time, 200,000 children have had to drop out of school. One-third of the country’s college students are currently unable to continue their studies. It costs only $1.00 per month to send a child to elementary school and $2.00 to send one to high school, but the average salary is $50 a month. Books and school supplies that used to be free must now be bought by children’s families.
Although the US news media have turned their attention elsewhere, we would be dangerously mistaken to believe that the US government is through intervening in Nicaragua - or that the suffering of the Nicaraguan people has come to an end. Not satisfied with having killed 40,000 Nicaraguans by illegally funding ten years of Contra terrorism and having helped to devastate the country’s economy by imposing a trade embargo and credit boycott, Washington continues to meddle in this small nation’s internal affairs.
The Bush Administration interfered in the February 1990 national elections by making large contributions to UNO’s campaign, holding out the prospect of an end to US support for the Contras, the dropping of economic sanctions, and an economic aid package if UNO won, and rebuffing all Sandinista overtures for a cessation of hostilities in the event of a Sandinista victory. Coming against the backdrop of war, economic crisis, and severe, prolonged hardships, this US intervention helped tip the scales, contributing to the Sandinistas' surprise defeat.
When President Chamorro announced her relatively conciliatory stance toward the Sandinistas, she made enemies in Washington. By threatening to withhold future aid to Nicaragua, the Bush Administration coerced the Chamorro government into dropping Nicaragua’s request that the World Court ask the US to pay it war reparations (in 1984 the Court ruled in Nicaragua’s favor on a suit filed by the Sandinista government against Washington to end US military aggression). But the UNO Administration has not completely succumbed to US control. Despite the fact that her government is committed to rolling back Sandinista reforms, Chamorro so far has not presided over human rights abuses on the order of those occurring in Guatemala and El Salvador. With the Nicaraguan army and police still largely under Sandinista control, Nicaragua is the only country in Central America where the US does not exercise major influence over the military.
Despite their defeat at the polls, the Sandinistas are still a force to be reckoned with. The FSLN remains the single largest political party in the country, boasts a nationwide network of grassroots activists, and retains its dominant position in the mass organizations of such social sectors as youth, women, and farmers and in the labor movement, as well as in the military and security forces. The Sandinistas' continuing clout has been a major factor in keeping Chamorro and her `moderate' advisors from implementing even more strongly anti-popular policies and pushing even harder to reverse the Revolution’s gains. Unlike the faction of UNO hardliners led by Vice-President Virgilio Godoy, National Assembly head Alfredo César, and Managua mayor Arnoldo Alemán, Chamorro and her circle shy away from taking any steps which might set off a full-scale civil war. The Bush Administration and UNO’s far right-wing are unhappy that the Sandinistas are continuing to have such a strong say, and are doing their best to discredit Chamorro and destroy the FSLN once and for all.
One positive event that has occurred since UNO’s victory has been the end of the war. This was accompanied by the end of the hated draft - probably the Sandinistas' single most unpopular policy. However, violence continues, especially in the northern part of the country. In that region, random attacks by “Recontras” (former Contras who have once more taken up arms) are terrorizing the population to the point that they are seriously interfering with travel, work, and business. Interior Minister Carlos Hurtado estimates that there are over 2,000 Recontras operating in the country. Disgruntled and in some cases actually hungry because the president has failed to make good on her promises of money and land, they are mounting ambushes, occupying farms, and stealing vehicles and cattle. Farmers are so afraid of violence that much of this year’s coffee harvest is being sold at a loss while still on the trees. Last July, a group of Recontras attacked a hydroelectric plant in the northern city of Jinotepa which produces about 25% of Nicaragua’s power. Policemen and even a mayor have been killed in other attacks.
Several hundred members of the Sandinista army have broken away and formed armed groups of “Recompas” to counter this recontra violence, but the main body of the army has refrained from doing so, fearing that taking such a move would spark a civil war or provide the pretext for a US invasion.
The returning Contras are not the only ones vying for farmland m northern Nicaragua. Rich expatriates, who abandoned large estates for Miami at the beginning of Sandinista rule, have now returned and are demanding that “their land” be given back to them. It is questionable, though, whether they ever legally owned these disputed estates in the first place, since they had originally confiscated most of the land from small farmers or campesinos. Over 60% of Nicaragua’s campesinos lost their land to the coffee barons in the late 1800s. In 1881, 5,000 peasants who refused to hand over their land were massacred. Another round of evictions took place during the cotton boom of the 1950s, resulting in still greater concentration of land ownership. In the early 1980s, the Sandinistas gave much of the country’s farmland to cooperatives or individual peasant families, and in the years since, the new owners have been using it to produce both export crops and food for Nicaraguan tables.
The Chamorro Administration’s agricultural credit policy favors loans to large farms which grow export crops
The Sandinistas' restoration of land to those who work it is now in jeopardy. Alfredo Cesar, the former Contra leader who is now President of the National Assembly (Nicaragua’s legislature), has been spearheading a right-wing drive to repeal the land reform laws passed under the Sandinista government. If these efforts are successful (so far they have been voted down by the Assembly or vetoed by Chamorro), 20,000 families will lose their homes, 9,000 rural land titles will be annulled, and 3,400 agricultural cooperatives will be disbanded. Even if the laws are not overturned, many small farmers may lose their land by default. The Chamorro Administration’s agricultural credit policy favors loans to large farms which grow export crops. Small farmers, who need loans to buy seed, are often afraid even to apply for them because they have only their farms to use as collateral. If crops fail, as often happens due to drought or violence, they stand to lose everything they own.
When the expatriates get tired of waiting for the government to return “their” land, some hire Recontras to do so by force. Others cruise the now congested streets of Managua in their luxurious new cars, waiting.
Half of the funding sent by President Bush to the Chamorro Administration has gone for payments on Nicaragua’s $11 billion foreign debt (over $1.5 billion of it incurred by the Somoza dictatorship). Most of the rest went to former Contras. And even aid earmarked for projects that at first glance appear worthwhile often produce results of questionable value. For instance, a state-of-the-art rehabilitation center funded by USAID has left disabled Nicaraguans dependent on expensive, foreign-made equipment which could not be maintained after US technicians left.
By imposing conditions on aid and loans to Nicaragua, the US government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) hope to pressure it into instituting a political climate which will be more favorable to private enterprise and foreign investment and which will continue the flow of resources to the US. The structural adjustment plan that the Bush Administration and the IMF have already forced the Chamorro Administration to accept has caused a drop in the inflation rate, but at a high social cost. Wages have decreased, state businesses have closed (which results in more unemployment), and government subsidies to social programs have been slashed or discontinued.
Under the terms of its free trade agreement with the US, Nicaragua has had to drastically cut import tariffs. This has led to an influx of imported goods which are much cheaper than those made in Nicaragua. Vegetables and grains are now being imported from Costa Rica while Nicaraguan farmers dump their produce in the fields because they can’t offer competitive prices.
Desperate for hard currency from any source, the Chamorro Administration is opening up Nicaragua to foreign corporations. For instance, some US companies are negotiating to dump toxic and radioactive waste off the Atlantic coast. A Taiwanese company has won a huge lumber concession under which it will clear cut most of the remaining pine forests in the North Atlantic region, and other foreign corporations are competing for the right to exploit the rich fish harvest of the Atlantic waters. The government is also moving to emphasize cultivation of export crops over that of beans, rice, and other staples for domestic consumption, a step that will lead to greater dependency on imported food and to worsening nutrition for poor families.
Despite harsh conditions that make it a challenge merely to survive from one day to the next and the formidable forces arrayed against them, many Nicaraguans continue to hope for a brighter future. Once a people has opted for revolution, successfully deposed a dictator, and briefly experienced self-determination, it is hard to beat them back into passivity. While the Nicaraguan Revolution is experiencing some serious setbacks, the days of the Somoza dynasty are gone forever, much as the Bush Administration, UNO, and some returning expatriates might wish otherwise.
Many Nicaraguans I have met are determined to hold the line against further attempts to roll back the social institutions and policies established by the Sandinistas. They feel that these were part of an effort, however imperfect, to achieve a more equitable and just society, to guarantee citizens' human rights, and to meet the basic needs of all Nicaraguans. The Sandinista unions are pressing UNO to take emergency measures to cushion the hardest hit sectors of society, halt the decline in the purchasing power of wages, and create new sources of employment. Unions and other groups are also building coalitions to tackle common problems themselves. Many non-governmental organizations have been formed to conduct necessary studies and to provide a variety of services. Tremendous energy has gone into the formation of neighborhood groups, now organized nationally under the umbrella of El Movimiento Comunal (`the Communal Movement’). These committees of the poor have taken their survival into their own hands and -through furnishing volunteers, staffing CDIs and setting up health clinics and housing cooperatives - have provided some squatter communities with services such as water, latrines, and electricity. All of these groups operate on a shoestring, relying on innovative methods of income generation and whatever funding they can manage to attract from foreign governments and international solidarity groups. Working under exceedingly difficult conditions, they are keeping the spirit of the Revolution alive.