Magazine article New Internationalist

Country Profile: Nicaragua

Magazine article New Internationalist

Country Profile: Nicaragua

Article excerpt

Known as the 'land of lakes and volcanoes', Nicaragua is a land of turbulent history and social conflict. All eyes turned to Nicaragua last November as former guerrilla leader Daniel Ortega bounced back to power in an electoral victory that, according to many, bolsters an increasingly assertive anti-US bloc in Latin America.

Ortega's Sandinista movement was named after revolutionary leader Augusto César Sandino, who fought against the US occupation of Nicaragua from 1927 and was eventually assassinated by the dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia in 1934.

Ever unpopular, Somoza was shot dead by the poet Rigoberto López Pérez in 1956, but his son Anastasio Somoza Debayle soon assumed dictatorial control. Despite widespread opposition, it wasn't until the devastating earthquake of 1972, when international aid that poured in was unashamedly pocketed by Somoza - leaving the capital, Managua, in ruins - that serious unrest spread to all classes.

The Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN) had been formed in 1961 and ruthlessly repressed; but by the 1970s it was conducting guerrilla activities. When newspaper editor and prominent critic of the regime Pedro Joaquin Chamorro was murdered, reputedly by the National Guard, in 1978, even former moderates joined with the Sandinistas, which finally overthrew the Somoza regime in July 1979.

The Sandinistas promised to eschew Marxist dogma and pursue a mixed economy at the same time as prioritizing the poor. But they inherited a poverty-stricken country and, despite great progress in health and education, it wasn't long before the country faced new problems. Shortly after Ronald Reagan became President in 1981, the US announced that it was suspending aid and allocating funds to the organization of counter-revolutionary groups known as Contras. The Sandinistas responded by devoting the bulk of the nation's resources to defence, and received significant moral and volunteer support from leftist sympathizers overseas.

In the 1984 election Daniel Ortega won 63 per cent of the vote, but the US continued its attacks, imposing a trade embargo that lasted five years and strangled the Nicaraguan economy. Ground down by conflict and austerity, voters turned in 1990 to Violeta Chamorro and the Sandinistas subsequently lost two further elections.

Back in power, Ortega faces huge challenges. Nicaragua, the poorest country in the Americas after Haiti, has never properly recovered from the civil war that killed 30,000 people and devastated the economy; and the pro-Washington governments that succeeded the Sandinistas did little to alleviate poverty. Official statistics list unemployment at 12 per cent and underemployment at 34 per cent, though even these figures probably underestimate the scale of the country's economic problems.

With the new Sandinista Government in power, Nicaragua is likely to receive help from left-wing forces emerging in Latin America, as well as from Iran and China. At the same time, Ortega has adopted a conciliatory stance towards the US and has promised to respect the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), signed by the former Bolaños administration. He has also dismayed long-time Sandinistas by making deals with political adversaries - notably with former right-wing President Arnoldo Aleman, ranked by Transparency International as the world's ninth most corrupt leader in history for embezzling a total of approximately $100 million. Keeping one foot in either camp will prove a complicated task for the former guerrilla leader. …

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