Poor Seek Ways out of Nicaragua Crisis: Political, Economic Quagmire Complicated by Debt and U.S. Policy

Article excerpt

MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Seventy-one-year-old Cecile Meyer, a retired school social worker who lives in De Kalb, Ill., is investing in the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and in a country that has the highest per capita foreign debt in the world -- Nicaragua.

Sound like a financial fiasco? Well, Meyer said she is getting substantial returns -- economic ones, ethical ones, even spiritual ones -- from the percentage of her retirement annuities she pumps periodically into things like worker-owned fodstuffs factories, women's farm cooperatives and barrio businesses run by single mothers.

"I don't understand why anyone with a little money to invest doesn't invest in Nicaragua," said Meyer, who grew up during the Great Depression. 'I see people my age who are retired, and they take tours around the world spending money. I wish they would find the satisfaction they can get by investing in poor people who, with a little bit of money, accomplish so much."

Meyer is one of a growing number of socially conscious investors from the United States who are aiding reconstruction in postwar Nicaragua through a program called the Nicaraguan Community Development Loan Fund, or NCDLF, a joint project between the Nicaraguan Council of Protestant Churches and the Wisconsin Coordinating Council on Nicaragua. Catholic religious orders top the list of the fund's institutional lenders.

Begun in 1991 with $65,000 in capital, the fund reached $1.4 million in loan funds distributed to poor in 1994, according to the organization's director, Ofelia Guevara. Many of the loan beneficiaries are individuals, cooperatives and businesses that have been blackballed by the commercial banks in Nicaragua either because they have been associated with the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front or simply because they are too poor to have credit guarantees. The loan fund provides lower interest

rates than those offered by commercial banks.

Poverty the norm

The loan fund is a "little light that serves as a buffer against the horrible crisis facing our country," Guevara said. It is also a new model of solidarity between people in the United States and the Nicaraguan people, she added.

And Nicaragua, the second-poorest country in Latin America next to Haiti, has never needed solidarity more -- and gotten less -- than right now. True, the military war in Nicaragua is technically over. Former members of the contra force and former Sandinista soldiers are even learning how to work together in farm cooperatives, some of them sponsored by the NCDLF, in previously violence-torn regions like Jalapa. The U.S. financing of the contra army has apparently subsided. And a feeble democratic political system is struggling to survive.

Economically, however, the people of Nicaragua are still under siege. Seventy percent of the population lives in poverty, while unemployment affects 60 percent of employable Nicaraguans. According to statistics compiled by Witness for Peace in its publication Bitter Medicine: Structural Adjustment in Nicaragua, only 18 percent of the residents of the capital city, Managua, eat three meals a clay.

"Levels of poverty and food consumption place Nicaragua alongside Somalia, Ethiopia and Haiti as the poorest countries in the world," the publication asserts.

According to Patrick Dumazert, an economist from the Jesuit-run Central American University in Managua, "Nicaragua is in such economic disgrace that even money launderers have no confidence in it."

These numbers translate into lives and faces at almost any stoplight in steamy Managua, where vendors, mainly women and children, cluster around vehicles, havinmg everything from coconuts to Q-tips. When the ordinary does not sell, they seek the exotic: Some vendors hoist cages holding bright-feathered parrots. Scooped into one man's arms is a baby deer.

"This is our supermarket of pain," said Fr. …