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Country Profile


Country profile: Nicaragua

Where is Nicaragua? The air over the main rubbish dump outside the Nicaraguan capital of Managua is heavy with the impending storm. Vying with the famished dogs and phlegmatic cows, hundreds of huddled figures rake through the rubbish with long poles. ‘Yesterday I found bottles and shoe soles, and sold them for ten cordobas ($1.30), ‘ says 13-year-old Juan Guevara Herrera.

Such scenes belie the praise heaped on Nicaragua by the World Bank and IMF for its speedy implementation of their ‘structural adjustment’ programmes – and show no sign of the aid their approval unlocked: since 1990, the Government has received $1,000 for every Nicaraguan. The aid is a reward for President Violeta Chamorro’s defeat of the left-wing Sandinistas in the 1990 elections.

From 1979, when they overthrew the dictator Anastasio Somoza, until their fall in 1990, the Sandinistas were both a magnet for solidarity from the international left and a thorn in the side of the US Government. The former guerrillas distributed land to the peasants and launched internationally acclaimed crusades to end illiteracy and bring free healthcare to all.

Their politics were unacceptable to Washington, however. Presidents Reagan and Bush launched a hugely destructive campaign to oust them, setting up, training and financing the ‘Contra’ rebels, while a US-imposed trade-and-aid embargo inflicted huge damage on the Nicaraguan economy. The war succeeded in reversing the initial gains of the Revolution and the damage was compounded by Sandinista mismanagement of the economy. By 1990 the population had had enough and voted the Sandinistas out of office.

Since 1990 Chamorro’s government has pushed through economic changes which in the rest of Latin America have taken 15 years. A crash programme of cuts, deregulation and privatization has transformed the economy: inflation has been reduced to around 10 per cent a year (from over 13,000 per cent in 1990).

Such ‘stabilization’ has brought international plaudits, but at huge social cost: half the state jobs have disappeared and unemployment has soared. Food production has fallen as banks have switched their loans away from peasant producers of beans and maize to large landowners exporting coffee and meat.

As elsewhere in Latin America, adjustment has boosted inequality. Malnutrition may be rising but the streets of Managua now suffer the hitherto-unknown sight of traffic jams of the élite’s shiny new imported cars. Meanwhile market reforms have transformed a health service that was once the pride of the Sandinistas. A notice on one rural health centre’s grimy wall reads: ‘Anyone coming for an injection must bring their own syringe, elastoplast, gauze and bandages. Attention is free. Thank you.’

Presidential elections are scheduled for October 1996. The Sandinistas have split in two with ex-Vice-President Sergio Ramirez forming the Movement of Sandinista Renovation. The favourite to succeed Chamorro is a right-wing former mayor of Managua, Arnoldo Aleman. For the rubbish pickers of Managua, times are likely to stay hard for many years yet.

Duncan Green


Girl from Nicaragua

LEADER: President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $340 (US $23,240). The lowest in Latin America and the Caribbean bar Guyana.
Monetary unit: Cordoba
Main exports: coffee, meat, seafood, bananas, sugar
Main imports: manufactured goods, fuel
External debt: $11.6 billion (1994).
Despite attempts to diversify, coffee, meat and seafood still make up over half Nicaragua’s exports and the country runs a large trade deficit.

PEOPLE: 4.3 million. Population growth rate of 3.3% per annum.

HEALTH: Infant mortality of 51 per 1,000 live births (Australia 7 per 1,000). Hospitals have been forced to open private wards to generate income, while health centres in the countryside are starved of cash and supplies.

CULTURE: The population is largely Spanish-speaking mestizo (mixed indigenous and Spanish). On the Atlantic Coast there are large Afro-Caribbean and indigenous populations.
Religion: Largely Roman Catholic, though 15% of Nicaraguans are now believed to have converted to the new evangelical protestant sects.
Languages: Spanish. On the Atlantic Coast the main other languages are Miskito and English.

Sources: State of the World’s Children 1995; World Bank; UNDP; Economist Intelligence Unit; Nicaragua: A Country Guide.

Previously profiled April 1982


[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Average for Latin America but has become markedly more unequal since the fall of the Sandinistas.
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[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
65%. This marks a significant decline from its estimated Sandinista peak of around 80%.
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[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Highly dependent on aid to cover a large trade deficit which pays for imports of food and fuel.
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[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Human rights have been largely respected during the transition to democratic rule. Little overt press censorship, but newspapers tend to be highly partisan.
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[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Machismo is still prevalent despite the upsurge in the women’s movement under Sandinista rule.
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[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
67 years. Compares with a rich-world average of 76.
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[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Following their electoral defeat the Sandinista Party has become too divided and demoralized to present a clear alternative to Chamorro’s right-wing adjustment policies. Hope for real change now lies in the continuing strength of grassroots community and women’s activism – itself a legacy of the Sandinista period.

NI star rating

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

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