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Power, passion & politics.

Poverty is escalating, corruption is rife and the healthcare system is collapsing. Yet people-power is close to forcing the Nicaraguan government to legalise one of the most fundamental legacies of the Sandinista revolution -- land reform. Hilary Bower reports

Spotlit against the massive, faded facade of the mission church by golden evening light, the Grupo de Teatro Espiga. Nueva ("New Ears of Corn Theatre Group") is entertaining an audience of about 100 children from the poor Indian village of Subtiava with an ecological morality play. Wearing school uniforms, which do not bear close inspection, they squeal with laughter and shout warnings as the players romp through their tale of a family whose pig is poisoned by the garbage-ridden River Chiquito.

Among the actors are Marvin, a medical student who cannot afford to continue his studies, Manuel, a builder and activist, and Subeyda, a ballerina who has dropped out of university to work with the poor. She spends her evenings teaching barrio girls how to be aerobic instructors so that they can take advantage of the country's new affluence. Ironically, while the wealthier Nicaraguans have both the time and the money to spend on exercise classes, the less well off cannot even afford to pay for an education for their children.

All volunteers, the actors raise funds for their work wherever they can. Their latest funding success is a 124,000 [pounds sterling] grant from the UK lottery under the auspices of an Oxford charitable trust which will fund various projects in the poorest barrios of the city of Leon. These will include programmes in children's theatre, literature and dance, and will be used to spread messages about health, the environment, drugs and prostitution. The money will also be used to provide classes in chicken husbandry, machines' skills and business for women, and there will be revolving credit schemes, which are crucial to helping the less well off break out of the poverty cycle.

"They seem simple these things, but projects like chicken husbandry give poor people an alternative to eating from the rubbish tips and an alternative to crime, prostitution and drugs," says Subeyda.

Given that Nicaraguans have now twice deserted the revolutionary Sandinista party at the polls, even going so far as to elect the right-wing Liberal party in the 1996 elections, one might be forgiven for thinking that they had turned their back on the social ideals that rearranged the priorities of this country so dramatically. But Espiga Nueva, and hundreds of other small NGOs, are determined to keep the principles of the revolution alive, and may offer the only opportunity for Nicaragua's poor.

Eight years after the Sandinistas lost power to Violeta Chamorro and her US-backed UNO coalition (which brought the gruelling Contra war to an end) Nicaragua has fallen from 89th place on the UN Human Development Index to 127th, making it the second poorest country in Latin America after Haiti.

While there are signs of wealth in the capital Managua -- glass and marble fitted shopping malls, 4WDs, air-conditioned banks -- the prosperity Nicaraguans were promised for rejecting the revolution has failed to materialise.

Despite the years of peace, half the population lives on less than $1 a day. The healthcare system, which brought medical care to the poorest and most isolated communities for the first time in the 1980s, is collapsing from lack of resources and corruption, and school attendance is falling as fees rise. Seven out of 10 Nicaraguans are unemployed and 10,000 more state employees are due to lose their jobs this year. In addition, in the new harsh private enterprise culture, land is falling into disuse as banks stop giving credit to small farmers.

The Liberal government blames the economic woes on past administrations and the World Bank's demands for public spending reforms in return for debt relief, the latter with some justification. The World Bank's highly indebted poor countries initiative allows foreign debt to be written off as long as the government invests the money which would have been paid in interest in social, education and health programmes. The "Catch-22" is that to be accepted a country must first implement austerity measures including slashing its public budgets and privatising its essential services.

But corruption too, whitewashed by political patronage, is endemic. In the rain-soaked, steaming-hot, down-at-heel Atlantic Coast provinces, for example, unemployment is as high as 90 per cent despite a wealth of forestry, fishing and minerals. Laws requiring foreign companies to employ a percentage of Nicaraguans, or to use local boats for fishing, are easily overlooked when cordobas (the Nicaraguan currency) reach the right palms.

The Atlantic Coast's people and resources are being plundered by cowboys, says Arturo Valdez, director of Radio Zinica in Bluefields. "We call them `empresarios de maletin'--briefcase entrepreneurs. They bring in lots of money in a briefcase. They pay a few officials, get people working for them, then disappear. One group of workers employed by a North American forestry company for $100 a month worked for five months without seeing any money. What could they do? They couldn't stop because they needed the money owed to them. In the end the company disappeared with a load of logs. They are stealing from the workers, stealing from the country, and the government doesn't care because these cowboys give officials money."

But unscrupulous deals are not limited to foreigners. In hospitals, meagre salaries and lack of resources are bringing out the worst in people, says Dr Manuela Rodriguez, head of accident and emergency at Bluefields' hospital. "It's very bad now -- there are often no medications, no analgesia, no sheets. People are dying because they can't afford to pay. Many times I know what to do and how to do it, but there's nothing to do it with."

Doctors are paid so little -- between $150 and $300 a month -- she says, that they are either being forced into private practice or losing their principles. "They only attend the free wards when they feel like it, or they tell patients who need operations they must pay $200 and pocket the fee. The hospital directors know this but they do nothing."

To make things worse, hundreds of hospital administrators trained with German government aid during the Chamorro government have been fired by the Liberals and replaced by returning exiles whose credentials are political but not practical.

"People who studied for six years in the Soviet Union, who came back to Nicaragua speaking four languages now can't get jobs because they are not Liberal supporters," says one ex-manager. "People who had jobs but were supportive of the Sandinistas have been replaced by incompetents. People who have spent the past 15 years washing cars in Miami and know nothing about anything are suddenly hospital administrators."

The Government is keen to erase memories of the revolution everywhere. "When the Liberals took power, they tore up the curriculum and replaced it with teaching practices of 50 years ago, not because these were better but because they had to be seen to change from what the Sandinistas had done" says one teacher afraid to give his name. "In school, now, we commemorate things like Christopher Columbus Day, the anniversaries of imperialism and we are supposed to choose new names for our schools from a list provided by the ministry because the names of heroes and martyrs `recall violence'. Nicaragua has a very young population -- almost half are under 15 -- so you can rewrite history very quickly. Already you can ask children about the revolution and some don't even know there was one."

But the new government has not succeeded in turning back all the clocks. Indeed, grassroots outrage has forced them to legitimise the most fundamental legacy of the revolution -- land reform.

Over 200,000 poor families benefited when the Sandinistas seized and distributed more than one million hectares of land, including over a third of Nicaragua's agricultural land. But the turmoil of the Contra war meant that many have never received legal title and years of uncertainty have scared off both local and foreign investment and constipated the economy on all levels.

Last year President Aleman -- who himself lost his coffee estate in the 1980s -- came to power and began a wholesale return of property. This was a signal that saw many ex-owners return from exile intent on speeding up the process. Pedro Pablo Ramirez and his mother woke to find a gun at their throat and bulldozer at the door, courtesy of the previous owner. "They just said we were thieves and told us to go, then they bulldozed the house and the fields so that we couldn't come back and the police just stood by."

Violent confrontations like these has outraged Nicaraguans of different political loyalties and culminated in a general strike which paralysed the country forcing the Government to back down. The extraordinary property law now agreed will, if implemented, leave almost all new, small landowners undisturbed, while those occupying larger properties judged by special tribunals to have been unjustly confiscated will have 15 years to either pay for them or return them.

But the road ahead is still far from smooth, according to Ligia Briones, head of the small farmers union UNAG in Leon. She fears that many campesinos (peasant farmers) could still lose their beloved land either because they will be outgunned in the courts by persistent landowners or worse because, after the long wait for legal title, no credit lines, grinding poverty and ill health will force them to sell.

"It's not the most obvious ways of action that are most unpleasant, it's the underhand ones," says Briones. "Because campesinos can no longer get credit, they have no money to work their land properly, so when the old owners come along offering a tiny amount of money for their land, they can't refuse. And then they have no option but to work for a pittance on land that was theirs. The government is destroying the very base of survival for small farmers. This means that even to think about defending a land claim is impossible."

Already dozens of `silent claims' are underway which allow owners to pursue their case in secret right up until an eviction notice is served. Among those eager to get to court are the nephew of deposed dictator Anastasio Somoza, who have set up a team of lawyers in Managua to file claims of unjust confiscation on 50 family properties valued at US$250 million.

Juan Carlos is a Californian car salesman and son of an exiled Somoza-era banker. He has returned to Nicaragua to lay claim to his family's property and take up a "nice job" with the Government and waxes lyrical about the wonderful lack of materialism and simplicity of the Nicaraguan life. However, he loses his toothy smile when talk turn to "stolen" land. It is the cause, he says, of all Nicaragua's present woes.

"How can these people think they own the land -- it was pure theft. And they don't know what to do with it. Campesinos are like children. If you tell them what to do, it's fine, but on their own, it's chaos -- not only for them but for the economy. The ones who received land plant bits and pieces but they either eat the grain and the cows, or they drink any profits away. Come the next year, they don't have anything to plant or harvest, so they starve and production plummets. If you steal from the producers you get ruin."

There is some truth in this. Although the country blessed is with fertile soils there is a lot of unused land. Many campesinos plant a little maize in the rainy season, work short hours (from 6am to 11am), and spend the dry season on starvation rations eating only a tortilla a day.

But, says Daniel Gagnon, projects director of the Canadian Cooperation Agency who previously worked as a rural volunteer for seven years, the blame lies elsewhere. "In the past big landowners kept their workers untrained and ignorant because they needed the cheap labour to bolster their own wealth. When these workers were given land, many of them did not know how to manage it and with the war, the Sandinistas had no time to train them. The campesino simply lived on the government handouts which were supposed to help them work the land."

In the late 1980s, the situation started to improve as unions and the government worked together to set up training programmes. "But now the government don't want to educate small farmers," says Gagnon, "because it is not in the interest of the returning landowning classes who want their land -- and their cheap labour -- back."

It remains to be seen now whether there is enough revolutionary spirit left to fight back.


In July 1979, the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (the Sandinistas) overthrew the 43-year-old, US-supported dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle and his family. The Sandinistas wanted to reverse the extreme concentration of power and wealth in the privileged elite and empower the common people. They redistributed rural and urban land owned by the Somoza family and friends, who had fled to the US, established free healthcare and education, and set up trade and community organisations.

In 1981, unhappy with the example of "people-power" on its doorstep, the US started arming exiled Nicaraguans, known as the "Contras". In 1985 it implemented a trade embargo, pressurising other countries to do the same.

The Sandinistas won the first free elections in Nicaragua's history in 1984. But by 1990, war and the trade blockade had taken its toll and 60 per cent of Nicaraguans voted for the only hope of peace, the US-backed Union Nacional Opositora (UNO) led by Violeta Chamorro.

By 1996 UNO was a spent force and the right-wing Liberal Alliance beat the FSLN in an election said to have been marred by fraud.

Hilary Bower is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for the Independent on Sunday, Daily Mail, Guardian, British Medical Centre and The Lancet.
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Title Annotation:Nicaraguan's poor
Author:Bower, Hilary
Date:May 1, 1998
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