Spatial Inequalities in Sandinista Nicaragua

Article excerpt

THE spatial distribution of the Nicaraguan people and economy has been an explicit concern of geographers, economists, and planners since the earthquake of December 1972 that completely destroyed downtown Managua. The Nicaraguan population and economy are generally viewed as excessively concentrated in Managua, while the rest of the country is underdeveloped or even undeveloped. Before and after the overthrow of the forty-five-year-old Somoza family dictatorship by the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN), or Sandinista Front for National Liberation, its political rhetoric emphasized three implicit and explicit spatial commitments. The goals were to diminish the overall importance of Managua, to equalize development among the three principal regions, and to reduce inequalities between urban and rural dwellers (Brundenius 1985, 1987; Fonseca 1985; Slater 1986). This article examines the efforts of the Sandinista government to address spatial inequalities, through investments in the productive sector of the economy.

It has been argued that Nicaragua represented a socialist revolution that differed from previous ones (Vilas 1984; Zwerling and Martin 1985). President Daniel Ortega in 1989 argued "that socialism should be applied and advanced in accordance with the specific conditions of each society" (Zamora and Garcia 1989, 2). The Sandinista leaders thus maintained that they were applying socialist principles in the light of Nicaraguan realities. To many observers the Sandinista revolution held out the possibility for exciting approaches to spatial restructuring of the economy, because its policies would seek not only to alter the spatial distribution of economic benefits but also to transform the underlying forces that had produced unequal spatial growth and development (Coraggio 1985). Yet the Sandinista popular revolution did not launch a radically new approach to development in Nicaragua.


Nicaragua faces three spatial problems that are frequently encountered in third-world countries: excessive size of the primate city, regional disparities in development, and inequalities between rural and urban areas (Gore 1984). According to the Sandinistas, all three problems were attributable, directly or indirectly, to the development policies pursued during the twentieth century by the Somoza regime, especially after 1945. The agro-export model of development followed in the 1950s and 1960s worsened impoverishment and landlessness as large-scale capitalists drove campesinos off their land (CIERA 1984; Martinez-Heredia 1985; Williams 1986). The result was massive migration to the cities, chiefly to Managua.

Managua was the focus of much of the migration not only because it was the capital but also because the Somoza regime's main economic interests were there. Centrally located on the Pacific coastal plain of the country, Managua was at the hub of the post-World War II agro-export boom in the production of cotton, sugar, and beef. That boom further accentuated the disparities of development between the coastal plain and the other principal regions, the central highlands and the Atlantic coastal plain. Most of the benefits of the boom accrued to landowners and other capitalists whose business interests were concentrated on the Pacific coastal plain. The Nicaraguan industrial boom of the 1960s further solidified the dominance of that region in population and economic activities, with the opening of many factories in Managua by the Somoza regime and its agents.

In the wake of these trends, the Pacific coastal plain, which constitutes only 19 percent of the territory of the country, accounts for 60 percent of its population and produces almost 80 percent of its gross national product (GNP). The rich volcanic soils of the region underlay its high agricultural productivity and agro-exports of cotton, sugar, and beef. The central-highlands region, with 39 percent of the territory, has almost 35 percent of the population and produces 19 percent of the GNP. …