issue 156 | February 1986
When asked what ideology is being followed Nicaraguans will respond: 'Sandinismo', to avoid defining the undefinable - a pragmatic mixture of capitalism and socialism, liberally spiced with nationalism and covered with a thin layer of marxist-leninist rhetoric.
The achievements since the revolution have been impressive, with higher proportions of the Government's budget and energy being devoted to social services like health and education. And there have been determined efforts to share out resources more fairly, both through land reform and by controlling and rationing the distribution of goods throughout the country.
The legal status of women has improved since the revolution: women now have equal property rights with men. The women's organisation AMNLAE, has been responsible for most of the lobbying. AMNLAE has about 50,000 card-carrying members but many times that number are involved in their activities. Women now work outside the home more than they used to, but this has added to their burden rather than led to greater equality. AMNLAE is not demanding wages for housework. What it does want however, is that the double burden be recognised - so that if both partners work outside the home any domestic employed should be paid for from wages of the woman and the man.
Women often contribute more than men to community activities. About 60 per cent of the teachers who took part in the literacy campaign were women - and a high proportion of the health brigadistas are women. Women even make up 45 per cent of the militia groups in each community. These are voluntary defence forces - which in the rural areas come under attack from the contras. AMNLAE wanted military service to be compulsory for women as well, but as yet it is only voluntary.
AMNLAE takes a traditional socialist - possibly over-optimistic - view of women's problems. They do not focus as much as Western feminists on the personal exploitation of women by men. They see the solutions to women's oppression in a fuller integration of women into the political, economic and military life of the country. This may not be sufficient in a notoriously macho society.
A commitment to health care, particularly for the rural areas has tripled the number of health posts. And the Sandinista Defence Committees have been effective in mobilising the population for blitz campaigns. Around 95 per cent of the children under six years have been vaccinated against polio - and overall vaccination coverage is now similar to that in developed countries. There hasn't been a case of polio since 1982. And between 1979 and 1984 the infant mortality rate fell from 121 per thousand live births to 80. The health system is, however, more geared to curative medicine than the advocates of primary health care would like.
A severe problem for the health service at present is the desertion of staff to more lucrative activities. A private health system runs in parallel with the public one - doctors may choose whether to work in one or the other or both.
Health problems in Nicaragua, as elsewhere, remain linked to the country's lack of economic development. Only 11 per cent of people in the countryside have access to clean drinking water - one of the lowest levels in Central America. And 60 per cent of children are believed to be malnourished, though only three per cent seriously.
Rapid strides were made in health care in Nicaragua between 1979 and 1982, but progress has stagnated as the country has come under economic and military siege.
There's no doubting the Government's commitment to education. The literacy campaign of 1980 used 90,000 volunteers to reduce illiteracy from 50 per cent to 13 percent. And this has been followed up with an adult literacy programme that involves some 200,000 people. The number of teachers has increased four times since the revolution, the total number of students has doubled and 1,404 new schools have been built.
But there is still a long way to go. The problems of poverty persist and they are reflected in school attendance. In Managua the truancy rate is as high as 20 per cent. This may be because up to half the children in a class also have to work - selling food on the streets or shining shoes. Pressure on resources also means that the schools are not very attractive to the children.
Those who lived on the Atlantic (Caribbean) coast of Nicaragua watched the revolution from afar. Though welcoming the promise of change, they didn't feel part of the process. When the Sandinistas contacted the Miskito Indians they made the mistake of trying to transplant socialist structures into tribal societies where such notions made little sense - the Miskitos were already communist in the wider sense.
The 'autonomy project' is an attempt to repair the damage - and is doing so with some success. Regional self-government is now being explored with the various different groups.
There will also be an extension of bilingual education. Before the revolution Miskito or creole children had to struggle through their lessons in a foreign language, Spanish.
The Sandinista land reform has been one of the most successful in Latin America. But it had two great advantages. First, Nicaragua is sparsely populated by Central American standards - so there is more land to go round. Second, 20 per cent of the cultivated land had been held by members of the Somoza family. After they fled the country, there was no opposition to the takeover.
The landowners who did stay and who were prepared to co-operate (the 'patriotic producers') were treated fairly by the Sandinistas who were anxious not to jeopardise production. So land-holdings of less than 300 hectares were not affected (unless they had been abandoned). And even owners of more than 300 hectares were left alone if they were using the land productively.
Much of the Somoza land was converted into State farms. This had, it was argued, to be held as large units to maintain efficient production of agro-export crops like cotton. Of the rest of the land, most went to campesinos who had organised themselves into co-operatives. Past and present land distribution is shown below.
The majority of the new co-operatives are of the 'Credit and Service' type - the land is owned by individuals whose collective action is limited to raising bank loans and buying seeds and pesticides.
Making sure that the poorest get goods at reasonable prices is tricky. It involves trying to control the market place. The Sandinistas have found it a struggle. But they seem to have fashioned a system which works. There are six basic items of which a rationed amount can be bought at controlled (though not subsidised) prices. These are rice, beans, sugar, cooking oil, soap and salt. The basic daily wage is 250 cordobas and the price of beans, for example, is 100 cordobas a pound.
Goods can also be bought more expensively outside this system in the free market At present the State is selling 81 per cent of the rice and 57 per cent of the beans. The success of the rationing system is encouraging its extension to other items like shirts, shoes, lightbulbs and toilet paper. Most manufacturers now have to sell their products to the State - though some does leak into the black market where it is sold at two or three times the price.
Workers on fixed salaries, like teachers, generally earn less than those who work for themselves. So they are supplied directly with goods at subsidised prices. This might be at their workplace - or in certain shops which have a section set aside to serve them. A dress, for example, could be available to them at half the usual price. The idea is to reduce the temptation for workers to leave manufacturing or government service.