Optimism and Hope in Nicaragua

[Source – Nicaragua News Bulletin]

by Chuck Kaufman

With the exception of my first trip to Nicaragua to pick coffee in 1987, the Aug. 27-Sept. 5, 2012, delegation which Nicaragua Network/Alliance for Global Justice co-sponsored with SOA Watch, had the greatest impact on me.

 [Photo: Delegation meets with Esteli’s Deputy Mayor Rosa Argentina.] 

Of course, the highlight of the delegation was the meeting on our final night with President Daniel Ortega at the home of Fr. Miguel D’Escoto. Pres. Ortega told us that Nicaragua sent 78 troops to the SOA in 2008, only five last year, none this year, and that Nicaragua would send no more soldiers to be trained at the infamous School of the Americas (renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) at Ft. Benning, GA. SOA Watch deserves the credit for taking this plea to Nicaragua and I feel honored to have stood as a witness as Nicaragua became the first Central American country to join five South American countries in withdrawing from the “school of assassins.”

But for me, there were many other highlights to the delegation. At one point I turned to Nicaragua scholar Cynthia Chavez Metoyer and asked her if my memory was faulty about how shabby Managua used to look. She assured me that my memory was accurate. Today, the streets are in better repair than in my home town of Tucson, AZ. Modest homes have fresh coats of paint. “Social housing” developments are spotted across the city. [Social Housing is small, but neat and well constructed houses sold at prices and credit terms affordable by the poor.]

 [Photo: Affordable housing for former banana workers, victims of Nemagon]

The new owners of this social housing include banana workers who are victims of the pesticide Nemagon, families who previously lived in hovels on the Chureca Dump, families displaced by the rising waters of Lake Managua, teachers, firemen, and police who are underpaid because the IMF won’t allow public employee raises, and demobilized Contra and Army combatants. Where the financial limitations of being Latin America’s second poorest country have not yet allowed dignified housing for everyone, new galvanized metal roofs shine above poor people’s homes at least keeping the torrential rains off their heads.

It took me awhile to “see” two things that weren’t visible: there were hardly any kids rushing our minivan at intersections to wash windows or sell us gum, and the relics of condemned buildings damaged by the 1972 earthquake but still housing the poorest of the poor, were gone. Those blights and breeding grounds for glue-sniffing street kids  and despairing adults have disappeared. The Sandinista government, over the last few years, hired the residents of the condemned buildings to demolish them in exchange for new social housing of their own. Most kids are in school now that it is free and the government is beginning to catch up on the classroom infrastructure deficit created by the US-backed neoliberal governments from 1990-2006. Child labor is illegal. School lunches and programs for street children and at-risk youth have made a visible difference.

Another thing that “wasn’t there” was the infamous Chureca Dump. Google it and you’ll see heartbreaking pictures of whole families picking through a nightmare landscape for food and recyclables. I had never seen it except as smoke rising in the distance. But members of the delegation who had been there as recently as four years ago couldn’t even believe they were at the same place. 90% of the dump has been sealed and looks just like a large hill with standpipes bleeding off the methane gas produced underground. When it rains, no longer do toxic chemicals flow into Lake Managua. No longer are children picking through the refuse. Now they are in school and their parents are being trained to work in the modern recycling plant that is nearly completed. Or they are being trained for other jobs outside of the landfill. And, as I wrote above, they are now living in dignified housing.

 [Photo: Recycling plant under construction at La Chureca.]

People are healthier now that health care is again free to all. During the neoliberal years people could go to the public health centers and get a prescription for needed medicine which they often could not afford to buy. Now they get the medicine itself. The number of public health doctors is growing as more and more graduate from Cuba’s free international medical school. The Miracle Mission (Mision Milagro) from Cuba and Venezuela has performed tens of thousands of cataract and other eye operations. Cuban and Nicaraguan medical brigades have done a census of every household in the entire country to identify the needs of the disabled and to get them appropriate treatment. Water and sewer projects have extended to neighborhoods that never before had access to safe water and waste disposal. 72% of household now have access to electricity.

These advances in poverty reduction and the recuperation of rights necessary for a dignified life are not just apparent in Managua. Our delegation spent three days in the northern city of Esteli where they were obvious as well.  We visited women recipients of the Zero Hunger program. That program provides women who own or have access to a plot of land with a pregnant cow, pregnant pig, chickens and a rooster, as well as materials to build pens, seeds for planting, and most important, the technical training needed to become self-sufficient. Families which were previously destitute and malnourished are now food self-sufficient and can even generate a little income by selling excess milk and eggs. They pay forward on this “gift” by providing calves and piglets which allows the government to expand the program to other impoverished women. This program is a major reason that the UN has praised Nicaragua for its success in reducing extreme poverty.

We visited a “solidarity group” of five women who receive micro loans through the Zero Usury Program. Zero Usury combats predatory micro lending companies (which charge high interest and demand collateral) by making extremely low interest loans to women organized in solidarity groups that are collectively responsible for repayment of the loan. These recipients also get technical training on financial and business management. We also visited a small cooperative that makes animal feed which it is able to do thanks to a government loan program for micro, small, and medium enterprises.

No one is saying that everything is perfect. One of the most common refrains we heard was “It’s complicated.” That in itself to me was a sign of a healthy society. In the 1980s, while under attack from the US economically and militarily, government supporters were reluctant to admit to any problems other than the US-sponsored war. In the 1990s and first half of the 2000s, everyone was depressed and focused on the daily struggle to survive. Today there is a palpable sense of optimism and a sense that people feel in control of their own destiny. And, as a result, they are able to also talk about the flaws.

The Zero Usury women told us they were the only remaining solidarity group in their community because the others had failed to pay back their loans. But they were optimistic on their own behalf because they had successfully paid back multiple loans and anticipated continuing to grow their small businesses. The animal feed cooperative lamented that it had switched to adding food concentrates to their production “because industrial farmers want their chickens to mature in six weeks.” They said the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry was not happy with them and wanted them to return to producing organic feed, but that was a problem too because the animals distributed by the Zero Hunger Program were industrially grown and didn’t adapt well to organic feed. As they said, “It’s complicated.”

The complexities were also apparent when top presidential domestic policy advisor, Paul Oquist, presented the government’s economic development plan through 2017 to our delegation. The numbers were impressive in terms of future poverty reduction, housing to be built, land titles to be granted. But Oquist said that without a balance and compromise with industrial agriculture companies and mega-projects such as hydroelectric dams and an interoceanic canal, rail lines, and North-South highways, there is no way for Nicaragua to produce the financial resources needed to help a sufficient number of people climb out of poverty.

Can good things come out of compromises with global capital? I don’t know. I certainly join many Nicaraguans in having questions about it. Oquist said it is a matter of balance. My co-worker Elane Spivak Rodriguez, on her first visit to Nicaragua, was impressed that all the government officials and ordinary people we talked to were talking about reducing poverty and restoring the rights to a dignified life. She said she couldn’t even imagine such a conversation taking place in the United States. And that, I guess, is what gives me hope that the Sandinista government can pull off the balancing act needed to convert some neoliberal practices into achieving goals of social equity. In the final analysis this is a matter for Nicaraguans to decide for themselves. There is some evidence in Venezuela that they can succeed. As long as the capital produced is used as social investment rather than for private accumulation, I think the positive trends will continue.

If any country and any government can accomplish that balancing act, I believe it is the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. That is why, for me, this was such a transformative delegation. Nicaragua’s participation in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA) cooperative trade group, and the growing integration of Latin America, which is freeing itself from US hegemony, are two factors enabling Nicaragua to lift itself by its bootstraps. Ultimately, Nicaragua can only free itself from the US through food sovereignty and developing to the point that it is not reliant on US aid and US votes in the international lending institutions. “It’s complicated.” Our job as solidarity activists is to work unceasingly to stop our government from interfering in Nicaragua’s efforts to build better lives for its citizens.

Our goal for this delegation was to determine whether Nicaragua had again become “the threat of a good example.” That is what Oxfam-UK called it in the 1980s. The US was determined to wipe out that threat through military and economic violence. My conclusion is a resounding — Yes, Nicaragua is again the threat of a good example, and I will not allow my government to repeat its atrocities of the 1980s.

I’m not saying that the US is going to launch a new Contra War, but neither is it going to release its historic stranglehold on Nicaragua willingly. Despite Ortega’s 62% electoral victory last year, Nicaragua remains politically divided. Indeed the saddest meeting we had was with the leadership of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (the only meeting where we were required to pay for the meeting room!). The MRS split off from the Sandinista Party in 1994. In recent elections it has allied with the most neoliberal faction of the Liberal Party headed by banker Eduardo Montealegre. These former close allies of the Nicaragua Network told us that there is no democracy in Nicaragua, no development, that the ALBA money is going into Ortega’s family businesses and not benefiting the poor. They have traveled to Washington, DC to call for US aid to be cut off to Nicaragua. Frankly the delegation was not impressed since what they were saying was the opposite of the evidence of our own eyes. At the end they appealed to us to tell their story too when we got home. I wanted to say, “We don’t need to. Your story is the one told by the US government, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.” But I held my tongue.

Nevertheless, the US will use these political divisions to undermine the gains of this new Sandinista revolution. Through USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy core groups which include the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, millions of dollars are being pumped into so-called civil society groups to undermine social cohesion and to manipulate elections in favor of US political and economic interests. Your job, and mine, is to expose and oppose the Empire’s plans.