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January-February 2011

Vol. 36, No. 1

Nicaragua: Opinions vary widely on Sandinistas

Like most of the more progressive governments elected in Latin America in the last 10 years, opinions vary widely on the performance of Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Elected in November 2006 (after having served as president in the late 1980s), Ortega is praised by some due to effective social programs that have improved the lives of some of the poorest Nicaraguans. At the same time, many from both the political right and left vilify him as a corrupt and ineffective dictator.

Since assuming power, Ortega’s government have brought significant advances in areas of education, health, and economic inequality. The first action by the new government was to eliminate school fees, making education a right for all citizens. Children whose families could not afford to put them in school were able to attend. Tens of thousands of children under six years old also now have access to preschool and one free meal per day. The result of these and other initiatives, such as a literacy program based on Cuba’s successful “Si se puede,” was that from January 2007 to 2010, Nicaragua’s illiteracy rate dropped by 85 percent – from 22 percent to 3.3 percent of the population – prompting the UN to declare Nicaragua the fourth Latin American country to be free of illiteracy.

The government’s flagship program, Zero Hunger, is addressing poverty by distributing one cow, one pig, 10 hens, and a rooster to impoverished rural families, along with technical assistance to best use these resources. Since 2007 Zero Hunger has benefitted 70,000 families, 16,000 of them in 2010. The benefits are granted in the name of the woman in the household, as women are more likely to spread the profits to the whole family.

The government has greatly increased access to health care, especially for the poorest Nicaraguans, augmenting the number of medical consultations nationwide by 68 percent. This has resulted in a 24 percent reduction in the maternal mortality rate, a one-third decrease in overall mortality and a remarkable 75 percent reduction in cases of malaria.

In the same three years, they reduced the percentage of Nicaraguans who are malnourished from 27 percent to 22 percent, earning praise from the United Nations, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA). Nicaragua will also be the first developing country to vaccinate its children against pneumonia, the cause of 20 percent of infant mortality in the country.

Sewage treatment has dramatically increased as well as electricity generation, minimizing the number of power outages that had been plaguing the country for a number of years. Nicaragua was also recognized by the United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) as the country that has most reduced economic inequality in the region, at a time when a number of countries are also realizing historic advances in this area.

Even with these notable advances, Ortega’s presidency has not been without controversy. Conservatives have complained about Ortega’s close relations with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and the ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America) community, a trade collective of eight Latin American and Caribbean countries with progressive governments. In a deal with Venezuela, Nicaragua pays 60 percent of the cost of oil up front with the remainder being financed with a low interest loan. Profits from the sale of the 40 percent of oil go into a fund for many of the social programs described above. Many have challenged the transparency of this fund complaining that it has turned into a slush fund that Ortega can use with no oversight.

Many on the left complain of Nicaragua’s continued dependence on the International Monetary Fund and its austerity programs as well as the Sandinistas’ repression of protests. The alliances that Ortega formed in order to be elected are also a central point of contention. In order to win the election in 2006, Ortega made a number of political agreements that upset many traditional supporters of the Sandinistas. In addition to continuing a 2001 pact with Arnoldo Aleman, Nicaragua’s conservative former president (1997-2001), he chose a former Contra leader, Jaime Morales, as his vice president. Ortega supported a full ban on abortion including in cases when the mother’s life is in danger, a move that has provoked ire from women’s organizations around the region. Even with these concessions, Ortega won the presidency with just 37.9 percent of the votes.

Municipal elections in November 2008 brought widespread condemnation due to signs of fraud. The Ortega government barred international observers’ access to polls, though Transparency International’s Nicaraguan national chapter recorded irregularities in 32 percent of polling places. The European Community and the U.S. suspended funding to Nicaragua in response to the apparent fraud and violent repression of resulting protests. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Sandinistas did well in the election, claiming to win in 100 of 146 municipalities.

Controversy around Ortega will continue to stir in 2011 as he prepares to run for re-election in November even though the Nicaraguan Constitution prohibits consecutive presidential mandates and allows for a maximum of two terms for any president. Unable to get an exception to that rule from Congress, Ortega turned to a division of the Supreme Court dominated by Sandinista judges who ruled in October 2010 that the law did not apply to him. This decision must still be approved by the highest division of the Court. Meanwhile the Ortega government is working to get the Congress to strip the re-election ban from the Constitution. These moves have concerned many including Ortega’s own vice president who has said that he will step down in protest if Ortega is re-elected. While the Ortega government has been able to accomplish real improvements in people’s lives, it is unlikely to be enough to compensate for its questionable commitment to democracy.

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