Charity Begins in Swindon: What Happens to All the Money Donated to Nicaragua, That Favourite Middle-Class Cause?

Article excerpt

Here in the small industrial town of Ocotal, buried deep in the northern mountains of Nicaragua, the good people of Swindon, Wiltshire, are remembered. Running north to south through the centre of the pueblo, with the sweaty, frantic market to the east and a rather unremarkable cathedral to the west, lies Swindon Avenue. A proudly mounted plaque thanks the people of Swindon, England, for financial aid donated over recent decades.

It's a pattern repeated all over the country. Close by, in Matagalpa, Nicaragua's coffee capital, every public rubbish bin thanks Germany for its kind assistance.

Aid to Nicaragua during the Sandinista revolution, which finally toppled the brutal dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979, was the trendiest of all middleclass causes during the late 1970s. The Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) used the millions raised by support groups and solidarity campaigns the world over to fight the Somoza regime, and once it came into power, to stave off the US-funded Contra forces. That international giving continued throughout the 1980s and was stepped up following Hurricane Mitch in October 1998.

Thanks to this legacy of giving, there is a booming social and non-governmental organisation sector in modern Nicaragua. But it is a sector almost wholly run and controlled by the Sandinistas. In Esteli, a fiercely FSLN ranching town in the north-west, there is a development fund, a human rights centre or an assistance network on almost every street corner--all funded by supporters across Europe, the US and Japan.

At one social centre there, where I took Spanish classes, my group was given revolutionary protest songs to translate as part of the lessons.

"At least 97 per cent of the social organisations here are Sandinista," my profesora told me proudly during an "educational visit" around one of Esteli's many NGOs.

Soon after an FSLN-dominated ruling committee took over, when Anastasia Somoza Debayle fled to Miami in 1979, the Sandinista leadership seized hundreds of properties owned by the middle classes and redistributed them among themselves. They also engineered a similar divide-and-distribute manoeuvre with the international goodwill they had built up during the revolutionary years. When Daniel Ortega, the post-revolution FSLN leader, admitted defeat and handed over power to an opposition coalition following the 1990 elections, the Sandinistas did not hand over to the new government the myriad international contacts and funding channels they had established.

FSLN leading lights fell out of very well-paid political positions straight into very well-paid directorships of charities and NGOs, each funded using their international links.

While Daniel Ortega stayed in politics, many other Sandinista heroes heard the charity call. …