Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Nicaragua for beginners

One of the low tech rural wells I went to Nicaragua to see.

For ten days this month I had the privilege of traveling in Nicaragua on an ecological tour sponsored by El Porvenir, a donor-funded project that assists sustainable development in rural areas by helping communities acquire clean water, practice sanitary waste disposal, plant new trees, and educate themselves about health measures. In this post, I'll try to explain a little about the Nicaraguan context of El Porvenir's work; in future posts I'll share a few of my stories and pictures.

Nicaragua, if it intrudes into U.S. consciousness at all, is an obscure Spanish-speaking country in Central America where Ronald Reagan denounced a Communist government in the 1980s. From the Nicaraguan point of view, the U.S. has intruded constantly-- over and over forcing its will on its poor, tiny neighbor.
  • A U.S. mercenary adventurer named William Walker appointed himself ruler of the country in 1856 and legalized slavery, which had previously been outlawed. Nicarguans threw him out after a year.

Battle of San Jacinto where Walker was defeated as portrayed in a Nicaraguan painting in the folkloric style.
  • Nicaragua has suffered multiple U.S. military intrusions, in 1894, 1896, 1899, 1907, 1910, and a long occupation by the Marines from 1912-1933.
  • Augusto Cesar Sandino led a persistent, effective guerilla resistance against those Marine occupiers in the 1920s and 30s.

Roughly: "it is better to die fighting than to live as slaves." A.C. Sandino
  • During that last occupation, the U.S. created the Guardia Nacional to fight the rebels. One of its generals, Anastasio Somoza Garcia, assassinated Sandino by trickery. With U.S. support, the Somoza family ruled Nicaragua as a personal fiefdom until 1979, monopolizing the country's wealth.
  • In 1979 the last Somoza fled a general uprising of all sectors of society who repudiated the regime's backwardness, brutality, and greed. The socialist Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) led this revolt and won legal state power in multi-party elections in 1984. The FSLN enacted a land reform, breaking up huge estates, and worked for literacy, education and health care for all Nicaraguans.

Statue memorilizing the young insurrectionists who forced out the dictator.

Sandinista leaders shown on a mosaic in Leon.
  • A U.S.-financed and -facilitated guerilla war begun by elements of Somoza's National Guard (later joined by the country's former elites) as well as a U.S. economic blockade, killed 50,000 Nicaraguans during the 1980's, forced the FSLN to implement an unpopular military draft, and impoverished most Nicaraguans. Certain that the U.S. would never let up its attacks on their country with the FSLN in power, Nicaraguans voted for a bourgeois government in 1990.

Violetta Chamorro was elected President with U.S. backing in 1990.
  • Since 1990, Nicaragua has been subjected to a conventional Latin American neo-liberal* kleptocracy which sells off the wealth of the country in the form of export crops, mineral and forest products, enriches a small elite who participate in the international ruling class, and leaves most Nicaraguans poor and without sustainable economic opportunities.
  • Today Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the hemisphere (exceeded in misery only by Haiti). Most Nicaraguans are subsistence farmers, living on what they grow. Since medical care and education require cash money, they are effectively excluded from the modern life of their society.

One of Daniel Ortega's campaign posters from the recent vote.
  • In 2006, Nicaraguans again elected Daniel Ortega of the FSLN their president much to U.S. horror. Over the years since 1990, Ortega has made his peace with the conservative Catholic hierarchy and many elite leaders. Whether his elevation will lead to benefits for the poor remains to be seen.

Giant silhouette of Sandino dominates Tiscapa park overlooking Managua.

In this context, the non-profit El Porvenir helps communities to dig wells and generally improve sanitation and health. Its staff reports that, at minimum, Ortega's election seems to mean less government hostility to international non-governmental aid efforts. Previous governments view such efforts as likely to be subversive.

Does this young man have a future?

*For an excellent short description of how "neo-liberal" economics has played out in Latin America, see this recent letter from Jim Shultz of the Blog from Bolivia. "... It was an experiment directly sponsored by the US and its economic missionaries, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), and it didn't turn out too well for the lab rats."

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