Nicaragua: The crisis deepens
by B Prasant Seqora Eva Irma Dominguez wakes to a lovely August morning in her sprawling 12-acre estate on gently rolling hills and gullies. Looking out the window of her faux colonial style bedroom, she can view part of Managua in the foreground, and then the placid blue expanse of Lake Managua. On a clear day she can see the tallest of Nicaragua's volcanoes about 90 kilometres away. She rises late, has a leisurely bath, dresses in her fineries, eats a hearty breakfast of fresh fruits, juice, eggs, bacon, bread and coffee, and goes shopping in one of her four chauffeured limousines. Her two Rottweilers accompany her. Two "houseboys" follow in the "spare" car. At the bank, she makes a substantial withdrawal in US dollars, changes a few into gold cordobas, and descends on the glass-fronted shopping mall to splurge to her heart's content. While coming out, bulging shopping bags on the shoulders of her "houseboys", she is accosted by a gaunt-cheeked woman and her children. The men-folk, aware of the tradition of machismo, hang back. She carelessly hands out the cordobas, mutters under her breath about the "dirty vagabonds from the villages", and waves her chauffeur on. She will relax for the rest of the day, before the party she throws every evening for the elites of Hispanic descent of the capital city. Hollow-cheeked One of the undernourished women upon whom Senora Dominguez chose to shower her largesse for the day is Isabel Alonzo. With her two boys in tow, Isabel makes a beeline for the shopping mall on the other side of Managua. As she half-runs, half-walks, cursing her children for slowing her up, the frontage of the mall is crowded with dozens of hollow-cheeked men, women, and children. Lacking the energy even to hunt for food, she falls asleep. Her two children wander away. They know when not to bother the madre by hanging uselessly around. There is a good chance that the two Dominguez boys will become members of the street gangs who roam the city after evening descends. They also have a fair chance of being brutalised in the process. Had they a sister, her fate would be sealed: the bordellos beckon. Welcome to post-neoliberalism Nicaragua The return of the "two Nicaraguas" does not surprise me. Having been a steady visitor to the country between the 1970s and the 1990s, I am quite prepared for the tense co-existence of hunger and opulence, of the idle rich and the uprooted in this very poor Central American nation. This had been the picture in Managua and Matagalpas when the military-backed ruler, Luis Somoza was in office from 1956 to 1967. The US administration was quite enamoured of "their men" in Managua. The most endearing epithet was reserved for Luis Somoza's father, General Anastasia Somoza, fondly referred to by one US president as "our son-of-a-bitch". Winds of change The winds of change started to blow when the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN or Front for short), led by, among others, Josi Daniel Ortega and Tomas Borge, started to organise guerrilla-style military offensives against the dictatorship and commenced redistribution of land in the countryside in the late 1970s. Popular support for the Front grew rapidly. Trembling in fear of what the Pentagon described as a "Cuba-style takeover", the US imperialists poured men and money into the country. Direct intervention was repeatedly attempted as the CIA went into "secret war" mode. In July 1979, a Front-led government was set up in Nicaragua. The US then sponsored hordes of rebels, based mostly in Honduras and led by CIA operatives and regular US army commanders, to try to topple the new government. But the new government of President Daniel Ortega soldiered on. The real disaster took place when the Front, having won the battle against authoritarianism and imperialism, lost the 1990 elections to the US-backed centre-right National Opposition Union. Achievements Before its defeat the government had redistributed nine million hectares of arable land among the rural poor, to benefit 720,000 families. Rural credit was given to the campesinos. The system of co-operative farming took root. Agricultural production increased. Lacking substantial mineral resources, Nicaragua was able to sustain its economy by large quantities of agricultural exports. The fishing and mining industries were strengthened. Highways were built with full consideration for ecological imperatives. Small townships grew up in a planned manner across the country. Youth brigades were mobilised to ensure that literacy was increased from a miserable 9.8 percent to 52 percent. The education budget was raised from 5.5 percent under the Somoza regime to 15 percent of `GDP. A large number of schools, colleges and universities were set up. UNESCO declared that Nicaragua had mobilised the largest number of young men and women for educational tasks in the present century. The government launched programmes to educate street children. Healthcare was made free. Five new hospitals and 300-odd health centres were set up. Diseases like poliomyelitis and measles were eradicated. Child care centres were set up across the country. The average life span increased from 50 to 67 years. The greatest qualitative change was in the political sphere. Democratic functioning was nurtured. Political parties of every ideology, or lack thereof, were encouraged to take part in the democratic process. Elections become free and fair. Left-wing mass organisations flourished, including a strong trade union movement. The rights of the indigenous people were protected and allowed to develop. Women's rights were established and expanded. Yet the Front and its allies were defeated in three successive presidential elections — 1990, 1996, and 2001. The country, now in the clutches of neo-liberalism, is in the doldrums and things are getting worse everyday. Roaming the streets Bereft of food, habitat, social recognition and courage, the young of the nation have taken to roaming the streets after darkness falls, looking for victims. Unemployment has grown to nearly 60 percent. The infrastructure is in complete ruin. Hospitals work only partially. Nursing homes and clinics flourish only for those who can afford them. Schools and colleges are falling into disuse while "centres of excellence" are encouraged for the rich. The vast majority of the populace (5.4 million and growing rapidly) face hunger, disease, social conflict, and early death. The life span is down to 54 or less. The contribution of AIDS to the state of affairs is considerable. Polio and measles have come back. Infant mortality is spiralling upwards. The transport system appears beyond redemption. Environmental degradation is everywhere. Corruption in high places is common. During my stay, I learned how the coffee industry (the chief foreign currency earner of Nicaragua) has suffered a great setback. The oversupply of cheap, low-grade coffee from neighbouring countries and from Asian, Latin American and African nations has seen coffee prices touch rock bottom. With no subsidies in sight, the farmers have started to starve and die. On August 27, more than a thousand coffee cultivators trooped to Managua. The contingent that I saw were beaten mercilessly by the City police. The indigenous people are also in great jeopardy. I shall cite one example. A 500 kilometre-long pipeline has been designed to carry oil across Nicaragua. This World Bank-funded project will cross the land of indigenous communities, causing environmental degradation. Massive deforestation has added to the miseries of the indigenous communities. The FSLN has been organising the affected people, but construction of the pipeline has started. The most important popular movement now taking place is spearheaded by Centro Sandinista Trabajadores (CST) against the US-backed Central America Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA. Big anti-CAFTA demonstrations were held in Managua and other cities in September when the CAFTA session was in progress in the Nicaraguan capital. The Front is also campaigning for the cancellation of Nicaragua's foreign debt, which now stands at US$6.5 billion. Sadly, however, the sharp edge of the movement that inspired me during earlier visits is not present this time around. The rural base of the Front appears to be slowly disintegrating. Many campesinos I spoke to say that the Front is not able to take along the rural poor in its effort to resist the return of the great estates and the drive to reverse the land reforms. Another regrettable reason was the accusation that a small section of Front activists were seen to be entrenched in the countryside as the newly rich, each having a substantial estate. There is no denying, however, the strong support for the Front, especially in the cities and townships. Catholic Church As in other Central American countries, the Catholic Church plays a big role in the political realm. Thus, Padre Miguel d'Escoto served as Foreign Minister in the Front government with the poet Ernesto Cardenal as its Minister for Cultural Affairs. Recently, the Front has rebuilt bridges with the Church, boosting its prospects in the municipal polls for Managua in 2004. The Front is in control of 54 municipal bodies, either alone or in coalition with other progressive parties. This includes Managua. Of late, the Front has formed an alliance with the Renovation Movement, the Christian Socialists, and the National Project parties. Jacinto Juarez of the Front told the left-leaning La Prensa newspaper that this move represents a "unity in diversity" approach. Front leaders like Managua's mayor, Jose Osorno Lopez, are confronted by a tough challenge. More than 70 percent of the city's populace live in extreme poverty. The abandonment of rural areas around the capital is a big problem for the Front-led mayoral council. The Mayor's problems are compounded by the national government's unwillingness to release its share of assistance to a city in the hands of the opposition. The situation was summed up recently, when the mayor said he would not bother setting up new health centres and schools since the government was not willing to hire teachers and doctors for the capital city. Elections to the National Assembly are slated for 2006. Until then, will Seqora Dominguez continue to enjoy her siesta, and will the children of Isabel Alonzo continue to rummage in the sun for food at the city dump? I leave Nicaragua with a heavy heart.
* * *People's Voice, Canada's communist fortnightly