Any objective assessment of Daniel Ortega's government in Nicaragua must take into account the programs it has put in place that are improving the lives of the poor. The Nicaragua Network recently sponsored a ten-person delegation to the country led by my colleague Chuck Kaufman and me. Within the country we were confronted with claims about Ortega's anti-poverty programs that strongly contradicted one another. We heard severe criticisms of the programs from some but found that in practice the criticized programs were making a difference, albeit with problems recognized by the people involved in implementing them.
In Managua, Moisés López of Nicaraocoop (a union of 41 cooperatives) explained to us how the money earned from the domestic sale of Venezuelan oil under the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) is routed to benefit Nicaragua's poor. The oil comes to the mixed company Albanisa, which is 60% Venezuelan and 40% Nicaraguan. Nicaragua pays 60% up front for the Venezuelan oil and the remainder is financed with a loan to be repaid over 25 years at 2% interest. The profit from the sale of that 40% of Venezuelan oil goes into a fund for social needs. It is divided among the ALBA Fund for Rural Credit (ALBA-CARUNA), the Zero Hunger and Zero Usury programs, and the internationally acclaimed Project Love program to address the problem of child labor. López said that Nicaracoop has benefited from ALBA funds, which have helped provide access to markets for many small farmers.
We heard some criticism that ALBA funds aren't part of the national budget. Evidently Ortega knew he could not get a majority in the National Assembly for the distribution he wanted. Thus, ALBA funds go to individual non-governmental projects but are not the only ones to do so. The U. S. Millennium Challenge Account money has gone to agricultural and road building projects in the Departments of Leon and Chinandega without passing through the National Assembly.
López said that ALBA, which is a collaborative trade and cooperation agreement among Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Honduras, Dominica, Ecuador and Nicaragua, had brought about an ideological change toward fair trade and fair prices, toward solidarity and complementarity. He said, however, that there have also been some people who have thought of ALBA as just another opportunity to make money and have power. And he expressed concern about the lack of information available to the public about just what ALBA is accomplishing in the area of small-scale agriculture.
Minister of Education Miguel de Castilla told us that the first thing the current Ortega government did upon taking office was to declare an end to IMF-World Bank mandated school fees and work to lower the rate of illiteracy among those who had missed out on school during the previous years. In 2007, more than 100,000 new students registered in the public schools, he said, adding that by 2012 he hoped that Nicaragua would meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of having almost all school age children in school. He said that one million students receive a meal (breakfast or lunch) each day at school. However, he said that Nicaragua's teachers' salaries were "among the lowest in Latin America and a national embarrassment." The Ortega government's Literacy Campaign is on target to make Nicaragua the fourth country in Latin America to meet UN requirements as "illiteracy free."
In Matagalpa, Alejandro Reyes of the Ministry of Agriculture explained that Zero Hunger is a program that has as its goal helping Nicaragua achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals of poverty reduction by providing rural women with a "production package" of animals and seeds, materials, technical training and a savings program. Reyes said that 32,000 women and their families have benefited from the program so far. He said that all animals and materials are provided in the name of the woman to ensure that benefits will go to all the members of the family, especially the children.
We traveled with the agricultural extension workers of the town of San Ramón to visit the small farms of two women who have benefited from the program. Pilar V., a widow, said that she and her sons had planted corn, beans, yucca, taro root, and bananas. She said that she has learned to care for her animals from the training she has received from regular meetings and visits from the agricultural extension workers. This is the first time her family has had farm animals.
Maria Isabel B. received a cow, chickens, and several pelibuey sheep. Besides corn and beans, she and her children grow oranges, avocados, papaya, and yucca. When asked about the accusation that the Zero Hunger Program was only for Sandinistas, Maria Isabel laughed and said that she had been a Liberal for many years but "never got so much as a pinch of salt" from them so she and her children all switched in 2006 and voted for "Don Daniel Ortega."
The agricultural extension workers told us they had completed degrees in agricultural engineering but were unemployed or underemployed until the Zero Hunger Program hired them to do what they called "very satisfying" work. The program hires half men and half women and gives preference to natives of the area where they will be working. The workers said that they didn't have to be Sandinistas. "We see improvement," one of the workers told us, "in that the people are not eating just corn and beans but cheese and eggs and they have elevated self esteem; I feel elevated as well!"
The Ortega government also reinstituted free health care, which has received virtually unanimous approval, including from strong critics of the government. For example, Luisa Pérez of the Grupo Venancia, a women's group in Matagalpa whose financial records have been subpoenaed by the government, possibly because of its consistent lobbying to reverse the 2006 criminalization of therapeutic abortion, said that health care has improved. After 1990, she said, things got worse and worse until people simply preferred to stay at home and die. Now, she explained, health care is better; there are free laboratory tests and free x-rays.
Based on our sample of visits, we felt the government's anti-poverty programs were making a difference, but it was necessary to travel outside the capital to see and feel that difference. Zero Hunger may not be a national development plan but it is a policy to bring an important sector of the population out of deep poverty. On the question of the policies of free education and health care, we found mostly praise although there was concern that the problem of class size could substantially affect the quality of education that children were receiving. In short, the polarization that we found was disheartening, but we found less polarization once we left Managua.
Any analysis of the present situation in Nicaragua that strives to be balanced should not ignore the social policies of the Ortega government. My mind keeps going back to an article on Cuba by Orlando Núñez about five years ago. He criticized a number of actions of the Cuban government but he said that he continued to support the Cuban revolution because "We socialists are seduced by the fact that the children eat and go to school." Many of us feel the same way about what is going on in Nicaragua today.
Katherine Hoyt is National Co-Coordinator of the Nicaragua Network. She is the author of "The Many Faces of Sandinista Democracy."