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A little more than two months ago, an article appeared on NACLA’s website purporting to be “an objective assessment of President Daniel Ortega's government in Nicaragua . . . [and] the programs it has put in place that are improving the lives of the poor.” Solidarity activist Katherine Hoyt wrote the article, which was based, she said, on the findings of a 10-person delegation to the country sponsored by the Nicaragua Network. Unfortunately, the article lacked any discussion of the broader political and economic context of the Ortega government and failed to link poverty to other quality-of-life issues like governance, transparency, democratic rights, and gender equity. I would like to respond.
To its credit, the Ortega government, part of Nicaragua’s Sandinista party, has made some progress in addressing the needs of the poor. Examples in the areas of education and health include reducing the illiteracy and infant mortality rates, and providing free access to health care. Yet these developments do not override certain underlying features of the Ortega government, which has aligned closely with Nicaraguan big business while aggressively confronting and alienating women’s groups, civil society, and non-governmental organizations.
In spite of Ortega’s scorching rhetoric denouncing “savage capitalism,” neoliberalism, and structural adjustment, his government has since 2006 worked hand-in-glove with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other multilateral financial institutions to formulate and implement their economic growth and poverty-reduction strategies. Successive injections of IMF aid, in fact, have been contingent on the Nicaraguan government’s strict adherence to the IMF’s policy recommendations. Spending for the poor has been only superficially redistributive and has been merely palliative.
Too often, reconciling growth strategies and poverty reduction aims has meant prioritizing financial prerogatives to the detriment of social programs. In the area of monetary policy, Nicaragua’s Central Bank has proved itself a disciplined steward in the accrual of international reserves, which have more than doubled during the past three years, from $730 million in January 2006 to $1.5 billion by the end of 2009.
Reaching that plateau has exacted a price. The buildup of reserves in the midst of a severe global crisis has accentuated the country’s economic contraction. There has been less growth in money demand, less spending, lower incomes, and less employment. Above all, we have seen a greater impoverishment of the population.
Furthermore, domestic programs are plagued by clientelism. Danielistas (the close followers of Ortega) form the core of Nicaragua’s new wealthy and propertied class, living a life of ostentation that is seriously at odds with the Sandinista’s historical revolutionary aims. Nicaragua’s political class (including many onetime militant Sandinistas) now looks out primarily for itself. All 91 national legislators, for example, enjoy the use of discretionary funds for “social” benefit purposes (read: personal use). The lack of accountability on the end usage of these funds has spurred widespread abuse.
Salaries among Nicaragua’s political elites are disproportionately high relative to the average salary of the common worker. Roberto Rivas, the head of the Supreme Electoral Council, earns more than 17 times what the average Nicaraguan worker does. Paradoxically, Orlando Nuñez, chief architect of Ortega’s anti-hunger and anti-poverty programs, earns 12 times the salary of the average Nicaraguan.
And on the social-policy front, NACLA readers would do well to ask themselves: How progressive can this government be when in the first trimester of 2009, 33 women died because of the government’s policy of criminalizing abortion? This is a policy that discriminates against poor women.
Clearly, Ortega’s rhetoric is outstripped by reality. As he spouts his nostrums on anti-imperialism on an exquisitely flower-arranged, air-conditioned, Perrier-watered stage in tropical Managua, 3,000 miles to the north, his Central Bank president, Antenor Rosales, is diligently working with IMF officials in Washington, trying to decipher the next set of initiatives that Nicaragua must undertake to satisfy the fund.
In December, the National Assembly passed a regressive tax bill drawn up in response to the downturn in economic activity, shortfalls in collecting fiscal revenue, and the withdrawal of foreign aid. Government officials stated that the new tax regime would ensure greater public equity, but their actions belied any claim to transparency as they negotiated key draft provisions solely with the private sector Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP). Accordingly, many of its measures strongly favor big-business interests while hurting salaried wage laborers and the working poor.
The new law, for example, establishes a dual system of income taxation, imposing a higher tax rate on salaried workers than on private businesses; it regressively taxes wage earners’ gross income instead of net income; it imposes a new Minimum Payment Tax based on 1% of annual gross sales. (Tax experts argue that this last measure will seriously hurt small businesses that have low sales volumes and/or generate marginal profits.)
Meanwhile, little has been done to support the landless and migrant workers who typically fall outside the scope of government targets. A microcredit program called Zero Usury was designed to help the rural poor, but its scope is programmatically limited. It principally targets the small subsistence farmers who have access to land. The program excludes the landless, who make up a third of the rural population, as well as temporary migrant workers with weak access to land holdings. It also has locked out campesinos from medium- and large-size land holdings, including many long-standing, loyal Sandinista rural producers who privately complain about the limitations of Zero Usury’s reach.
In this light, Hoyt’s article fails to locate Nicaragua’s anti-poverty programs within the broader context of the country’s economic and social policy. I have tried to provide some of that broader context.
Alejandro Gutiérrez is a Nicaraguan who lived and worked in his country during the Sandinista Revolution. He is currently living in the New York area.
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The Idealistic Ideological Fog and other Illusions of the “Danielista” Solidarity Movement
It is truly unfortunate that Nicaraguan Network advocates Robert Siegel and Chuck Kaufman feel the “militant” imperative to defend the Ortega government rather than deal with the substantive critiques in my article. Rather than respond tit-for-tat to their counter-claims, I would like to pose some critical observations and questions that would allow us to reflect on the revolutionary authenticity of this government:
• It is instructive that today’s Daniel Ortega cannot travel to any capital in Latin America without being met by fierce opposition by women’s organizations given his retrograde policy totally banning abortion and his outright repression of women’s organizations in Nicaragua. How does his frayed image square with revolutionary ideology?
• Nicaragua’s social indicators reflect the fact that a majority of Nicaragua’s youth live in poverty. Less known is how the Ortega government’s economic policies have engendered social inequality among Nicaragua’s youth, particularly in two areas of the economy:
1. Since 2006, under a conventionally-structured liberal, free-trade regime allowing for a 100% repatriation of profits, the Ortega government has vigorously promoted and pursued a manufacturing and service-sector economic strategy centered on maquiladoras. Key foreign conglomerates invited to invest in Nicaragua include highly exploitative textile manufacturers from Korea and Taiwan, and US-based financial service, telecommunications and health sector “out-sourcing” firms looking to cut costs from their domestic operations. Internal source data from Nicaragua’s Free Trade Zone reveal that up to one-third of the labor force hired to work in these “call centers” include bilingual, consumer-oriented youth knows as “Miami boys” who comprised part of the contra Diaspora from Miami, Houston and Los Angeles in the 1990s [Note: The majority of these youth known as “Miami Boys” are actually a sub-cultural group within Managua who typically prefer to speak to each other in English, listen to reggaeton music and are stridently apolitical and anti-Sandinista]. The paradox of this situation highlights how the Ortega government’s industrial employment strategy rather than secure opportunities for native-born, working class youth favors a highly-segmented labor market comprised of Diaspora youth that are already from the middle-class
2. The Ortega government’s enthusiastic courting of foreign (principally US) luxury cruise liners to Nicaragua’s ports has paradoxically led to the brain drain of thousands of Afro-descendant youth from the Atlantic Coast, particularly Bluefields. While the Black population on the Coast is more highly educated and (English-Spanish) bilingual as compared to the average Nicaraguan, there are too few jobs available there; consequently, rather than traditionally migrating from Bluefield’s high schools to Managua, now these youth are leaving en masse as hired, low-wage service sector workers on these luxury liners. Again, the recurring and troubling issue here is how the Ortega government’s poorly conceived policies have created a disparate impact on a particular segment of the nation’s youth, in this case, the Afro-descendant population on the Atlantic Coast
• Finally, as a Nicaraguan and a Sandinista, it is inconceivable (and unacceptable) to me that today many of the nation’s “nouveau riche” are FSLN comandantes, so the double-talk they engage in about “equality” is really a smokescreen to amass greater personal wealth. Thus, I find it totally disingenuous that Siegel and Kaufman piously defend the regime, while the Comandantes laugh all the way to the bank.
How can one otherwise explain how key ex and current Comandantes de la Revolución, such as Humberto Ortega, Daniel Ortega, Bayardo Arce, Jaime Wheelock and to a lesser extent, Thomas Borge, are all bon vivants of Nicaragua’s leisure class. The forms and magnitude of their wealth differ: ex-General Humberto Ortega’s wealth stems from the pre-Piñata phase (pre-1990). He siphoned money from Sandinista Army bank accounts in Panama at the tail-end of the Noriega era and today is the most discrete and wealthy comandante who possesses holdings and investments in Nicaraguan and Central America; Comandante Jaime “James” Wheelock also diverted monies from the Ministry of Agrarian Reform’s bank accounts in Panama and used it to diversify into successful real estate investments in upscale residential housing in Managua as well as prime beach front properties in Tola, Rivas in southern Nicaragua. His real estate brokerage and investment firm, managed through his sons, sells “virgin beaches for sale” at a $400,000 dollar “bargain” (See http://www.nicaraguaishot.com/index.php?load=inicio); during the late 1980s economic crisis, Comandante Bayardo Arce busied himself importing $70,000 Volvos for personal use and providing mistresses free, government confiscated homes and brand new Soviet Ladas; today, he and his current wife are the number one rice importers in the country and he has just moved into a $3 million dollar mansion, courtesy of his role as Daniel Ortega’s Economic Presidential Advisor; Comandante Daniel Ortega, via his family and family associates is a amassing a level of wealth during his Second Act (2006 to the present) that is striking, both because of its magnitude and apparent lack of transparency. Leveraging his strategic economic partnership with Chavez’s Venezuela and ALBA, Ortega’s family has heavily invested in media and communications, productive infrastructure, tourism, real estate and a myriad of other businesses.
In the final analysis, the basic question to ask is how all this massive, questionable, ill-begotten wealth squares with morality, equality and ethics? We are not talking about the Frente’s patrimony, the party’s wealth, but the individual and family assets that each of these Comandantes has amassed. I am sure that if either Comandante Che Guevara, or historical Sandinista leader, Carlos Fonseca knew that this unfettered capital accumulation were taking place, these Comandantes would be sent to the outhouse, Siberia, or worse. Amusingly enough, colorful Comandante Eden Pastora said it best when he spoke of Comandante Thomas Borge:
Aquí entramos con las mochilas vacías y él las tiene llenas de dólares
(We entered here with our backpacks empty and he had it full of money)
In Defense of Daniel Ortega
Alejandro Gutiérrez’s online Feb. 17 piece, “The Disconcerting ‘Success‘ of Nicaragua’s Anti-Poverty Programs,” written in response to Katherine Hoyt’s online Dec. 12 article “Anti-Poverty Programs Make a Difference,” purported to provide a discussion of the “broader political and economic context of the Ortega government” that was supposedly missing in Hoyt’s article. Gutiérrez’s criticisms of the Ortega government basically echoed those of Roger Burbach’s article in the March/April print edition of Report on the Americas: “ Et Tu, Daniel? The Sandinista Revolution Betrayed,” which prompted Hoyt’s response.
Putting issues and events in their full context is, indeed, critical for an accurate understanding of those issues and events. Unfortunately, Gutiérrez and Burbach fail to do that in their near-categorically negative characterization of the government of Daniel Ortega.
In fact, the Ortega government’s achievements have been profound and broad-based and have benefited the broad swath of the Nicaraguan people in critical areas of their daily lives. I would like to cite a few of those achievements.
Hunger: The Ortega government has made dramatic strides in reducing hunger, malnutrition, and providing food security — strides that have drawn praise from the United Nations, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA). In its three years in office, the government has drastically reduced the percentage of Nicaraguans who are malnourished from 52% to 22%. In July 2009, the government passed the historic Law for Food and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security, which commits the government to promote programs that assure the adequate availability and equitable distribution of safe, nutritious food. Citing the government’s Zero Hunger Program, school nutrition program, infant malnutrition program, and the National Food Program, among others, the FAO representative in Nicaragua, Dr. Gero Vaagt said: “The Nicaraguan government gives great importance to food and nutritional security, which is reflected in the efforts it has made on the national level with small farmers, poor peasants, and the most vulnerable segments of the population to improve the food situation for all Nicaraguans.“
Education: The Ortega government has slashed the illiteracy rate by 85% — from the 22% level when it assumed office in January 2007 to 3.3% in January of this year. On June 22, 2009, the United Nations officially declared Nicaragua to be free of illiteracy, making it only the fourth country in Latin America to achieve this distinction.
The Ortega government has rescinded the educational fees imposed by the previous right-wing governments and, as with the first Sandinista government in the 1980s, has made free education a right for all Nicaraguans. The government, also, guarantees at least one free meal a day to students and, during 2010, will be providing free daily meals to 1,000,000 students.
Nearly 4,000 new teachers have been hired. More than 900 schools have been expanded and renovated, with 700 high schools having libraries for the first time. The government’s Community Centers for Child Development are providing, for the first time, tens of thousands of children under six years of age with pre-schooling and one free meal per day.
Health care: As with education, the Ortega government has de-privatized health care and is committed to providing free, quality, universal health care for all Nicaraguans. And, it is particularly committed to providing quality health care to those who have least access to such care: the poor peasantry in the countryside. To this end, teams of Sandinista doctors from numerous city hospitals have formed medical brigades (nicknamed “ white armies “) that have traveled throughout the Nicaraguan countryside performing thousands of surgeries and tens of thousands of lab tests and medical consultations. The number of medical consultations nationally has increased by 68% during the three years of the Ortega government.
In its three years in office, there has been a reduction of 24% in the maternal mortality rate and a decline of one-third in the overall mortality rate. There has been a significant decline in the incidence of many diseases that have long plagued Nicaraguans, most strikingly a 75% decline in the incidence of malaria.
Housing: Through the program, Houses for the People, 5,600 new homes were built for poor Nicaraguans, benefiting nearly 28,000 people; meanwhile, 5,800 existing homes of poor people were refurbished and/or expanded, benefiting nearly 15,000 people.
Urban services: Sewage reatment and electricity have been provided to 105 municipalities across the country, benefiting 346,000 people, while access to safe, potable water has been made available for the first time to 217,000 people. Nationally, the Ortega government has increased overall electricity generation by 50%, thus significantly reducing the number of periodic blackouts that had damaged the national economy and caused significant difficulties for tens of thousands of Nicaraguan home dwellers.
Environmental protection: In environmental stewardship, the government has designated 11,700 hectares of natural forest for special care and protection; 36,000 hectares of land were re-forested in 2009, triple the rate of 2006.
Indigenous rights: In the domain of indigenous rights, the Ortega government has made substantial progress in securing titles for indigenous peoples to their lands in the Atlantic Coast Autonomous Region in accord with the Autonomy Law passed by the first Sandinista government in the 1980s, and thus, reversing the policies of the 1990-2007 right-wing administrations, which actively encouraged Spanish-speaking settlers and ranchers to move in to these indigenous lands.
Foreign policy: On the international front, Daniel Ortega reacted immediately and decisively with enlightened solidarity to what has been the paramount foreign policy event during his presidency: the criminal coup d’etat in Honduras. Under the Ortega government, Nicaragua was in the forefront of opposition to the coup, serving, in effect, as the base for international opposition to the coup, and providing safe haven for Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. In addition, Daniel Ortega’s government is the only Central American government that did not agree to U.S. initiatives, put forth at the March 5 Central American presidential summit, calling for the reinstatement of Honduras in the Organization of American States and in the Central American Integration System.
While the virtual dismissal of the Ortega government’s accomplishments is the principal example of the distortion caused by Burbach’s and Gutierrez’s failure to provide fuller, more complete, more balanced context, this contextual failing also applies to a number of their specific criticisms.
On the economic front, Gutiérrez takes the Ortega government to task for what he terms a regressive tax bill drawn up primarily in consultation with COSEP, the trade association of large business owners. And, both he and Burbach criticize the government for hewing too closely to the policies and dictates of the IMF.
In fact, the Ortega government consulted with a broad range of constituencies in formulating the tax bill. Among those consulted were representatives of civil society organizations, religious leaders, and various small and medium-sized business groups in addition to COSEP. The tax bill, itself, is an emergency, short-term measure necessitated by the disastrous economic consequences for Nicaragua of the global financial/economic crisis, which created an immediate need to increase tax revenues — tax revenues needed, in large part, to finance the government’s economic and social programs.
However, over the long term, the Ortega government is committed to its explicitly stated goal of creating a progressive tax system in which “those who have more pay more.” And, it should also be noted that in the fall of 2009, ministers of the Ortega government fanned out across the country to consult with citizens in all departments and municipalities to get citizen input as to how these federal tax revenues should be spent.
As to the government being too close to and solicitous of the IMF, the Ortega government forced the IMF to accept Nicaragua’s conditions for poverty reduction and public salary improvements — something no previous government in Nicaragua had been able to accomplish.
A major criticism made by Burbach, and one commonly made by U.S. progressives/leftists, pertains to the political alliances and agreements forged by Daniel Ortega with the Nicaraguan right, particularly Arnoldo Alemán, in what is referred to as The Pact. However, before issuing a blanket condemnation of these moves, one, at the least, has to consider the political environment in which these actions occurred.
As soon as the right assumed control of the presidency and the National Assembly in April 1990, it began its attempt to roll back the historic achievements of the Sandinista government in improving the lives of the Nicaraguan people. That attempt continued unabated for the next 17 years. The Sandinistas, though the largest individual party in the nation and the National Assembly, were perpetually outnumbered and “outgunned“ legislatively by the coalition of right-wing parties. And, having had the 1990, 1996, and 2001 elections effectively stolen from him by massive U.S. intervention, Daniel Ortega had every reason to believe that he would never be allowed by Washington to regain the presidency. Moreover, in dealing with the Nicaraguan right, Ortega was not just dealing with a nationally autonomous, self-contained political grouping. Rather, he was dealing with a political faction that was/is backed to the hilt by the 800,000-pound gorilla that is constantly looming over the Nicaraguan political landscape: the U.S.A.
Thus, in effect, the political landscape, the political reality in which Daniel Ortega was operating was one in which he had his back to the wall. If he were to have any realistic chance of increasing his political effectiveness and leverage (one major consequence of which would be to at least slow down, if not halt, the right-wing rollback of Sandinista social programs), he would have to forge alliances/agreements with the right, however distasteful they may be.
Another criticism leveled at Daniel Ortega by Roger Burbach pertains to the attacks on opposition rallies perpetrated by “young Sandinista-linked thugs.“ While not condoning violence, or threats of violence, one, again, has to try to look at the full picture, the full context as Alejandro Gutiérrez counsels.
For years, Daniel Ortega has been the target of explicitly violent, murderous threats. On the day after the Feb. 25, 1990, elections, the ultra-rightist newspaper La Prensa ran a full-page ad, paid for by a wealthy right-wing businessman, placing a bounty on Daniel Ortega’s head. It asked, “How Much Will Daniel’s Death Cost Me”? The threats by the right against Ortega continued during the ensuing 17 years when the Sandinistas were out of power.
For the three years Ortega has been in power, the Nicaraguan right and the Nicaraguan media, which are overwhelmingly controlled by the right, have repeatedly and explicitly called for violent opposition to, and the violent overthrow of his government.
This stands in complete contrast to the behavior of Daniel Ortega during the 17 years the Sandinistas were out of power. Never did he call for violent resistance to, much less the violent overthrow, of the governments of Violeta Chamorro, Arnoldo Alemán, or Enrique Bolaños.
In brief, the attacks on opposition demonstrations by Ortega supporters, while not to be condoned, have to be considered in the context of the climate of violence stoked by the Nicaraguan right and Nicaraguan media, of their consistent calls for the violent overthrow of the Ortega government, of the long history of violent threats against Daniel Ortega.
Let me address only one more of the criticisms leveled at the Ortega government: the categorical ban on abortions even when the woman’s life is in danger. This issue is raised by Gutiérrez and is a constant source of criticism from progressives/leftists in this country.
As someone who unequivocally supports a woman’s right to a medically safe abortion under all circumstances, I oppose and lament this policy. However, as with all the other issues previously discussed, one has to look more broadly — more contextually per Gutiérrez’s admonition — at this highly charged issue.
In the week before the November 2001 national election, Nicaragua’s chief prelate, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, an ultra-rightist champion of the oligarchy and implacable enemy of the Sandinistas, delivered a sermon in the form of a parable exhorting Nicaraguans to vote against Ortega and the Sandinistas. The sermon was communicated throughout Nicaragua and is widely “credited“ by observers of varying political perspectives as a critical factor — along with massive U.S. intervention on behalf of Enrique Bolaños — in snatching away from Daniel Ortega what appeared to be a likely electoral victory, making this the third straight election that the United States effectively stole from him.
Thus, given that electoral history and given the Church’s pivotal role in denying him the 2001 election, it is understandable that Ortega deemed it politically imperative to neutralize Obando in the 2006 election, even if it meant passage of this regrettable legislation.
It should also be noted that, according to a CID Gallup poll taken at the time, the majority of the Nicaraguan people supported the total ban on abortions, even when the mother’s life was in danger.
In closing, one can raise the ultimate contextual question: Daniel Ortega’s government versus what? One contender for power is the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS). But it is not a viable political alternative since it has no political base nor any political support to speak of. In the national elections in which it has participated since its founding in 1995, it has consistently polled only in the single digits, often the low single digits. As Orlando Nuñez stated in Roger Burbach’s article, it is only the Sandinista Party that has the broad-based support of the peasants, the workers, and the poor.
Then there are the right-wing regimes of 1990-2007 that were, effectively, put in power by Washington. They waged unrelenting economic and social war against the great mass of Nicaraguans. They would have waged outright physical war against the people if they had been able to have their way and convert the Sandinista police into an instrument of repression.
There are also right-wing regimes waiting in the wings, ready to roll back the significant, broad-based improvements in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans that have been affected by the Ortega government.
In short, whatever its actual or alleged shortcomings, the Ortega government is vastly preferable to anything the United States and the Nicaraguan right have ever given to the Nicaraguan people and anything they ever intend to give to the Nicaraguan people.
Robert Siegel is a member of NACLA's Board of Directors, and a member of the Board of Directors of Nicaragua Network/Alliance for Global Justice.
It is interesting to me how often "intellectuals" so easily dismiss the Sandinista government's enormous advances in poverty reduction as "clientilism." This article is just another example of Ortega-bashing with virtually no substance. Yes, Nicaragua is getting IMF loans -- but the Ortega government forced them to accept Nicaragua's conditions for poverty reduction and public salary improvements -- something no previous Nicaraguan government achieved. And high government salaries? Come on. The Ortega government slashed the mega-salaries of its predecessors. 17-1 and 12-1 corporate salary ratios are what we had in the US pre-Reagan when we had the most equitable distribution of wealth ever. For Nicaragua to achieve that is impressive. I don't defend Ortega's abortion stance, but reducing infant and maternal mortality with improved healthcare and educating girls thanks to returning free education are also "women's" issues. The rest of the author's complaints boil down to the fact that the Sandinista government isn’t wiping out poverty everywhere, all at once. Even with the Sandinista government, Nicaragua is still the second poorest country in the hemisphere. It is simply disingenuous to complain that they haven’t done even more to wipe out the effects of 45 years of dictatorship, 10 years of imposed war, and 17 years of right-wing neoliberalism.
Chuck Kaufman, National Co-Coordinator
Nicaragua Network/Alliance for Global Justice