During my recent trip to Nicaragua, I had a chance to witness some of the poverty that is so prevalent in that country. I spent time in a village where people lived in homes with dirt floors and no doors, where they drank polluted river water, and if they were lucky, they had an outhouse–if they weren’t so lucky, they just dug a hole in the ground somewhere when they wanted to go the bathroom. The people were so warm and generous of spirit, and the poverty I saw was heartbreaking.
I was there with a group of people for a voluntourism project, and early in the trip the group was treated to a Nicaraguan history lesson from a university professor. I enjoyed a great deal what she had to say, but she did make one comment that I had a problem with. Referring to the Sandinistas of the 1980s as poets rather than economists, she blamed them for incompetence in economic management and asserted that it was their fault that the Nicaraguan economy was in such bad shape during that time. Even as she said that, I was thinking to myself that it seemed unfair to blame the Sandinistas for economic problems suffered at a time when the United States was launching a full scale terrorist assault against the nation, not to mention illegally mining Nicaragua’s harbors. (The United States was found guilty of violating international law by the International Court of Justice.) It is hard to see how anyone can expect a small country, especially one that was attempting to recovery from an earlier civil war, to do well economically under such horrific conditions.
Shortly after returning to the USA, I picked up the current issue of the NACLA journal, which coincidentally contains an article about the ideology of neoliberalism in Latin America. The article mentions the Sandinistas:
In the 1980s, throughout their decade-long support for Washington’s illegal Contra war against Nicaragua, U.S. media outlets…implied that “economic mismanagement” was most to blame for the Nicaraguan economic crisis. The title of a typical 1985 column in the Washington Post proclaimed that “the Sandinistas are allowing the economy to collapse.” Three years later, after the Sandinista government had been forced to adopt a series of neoliberal reforms, The New York Times‘ Flora Lewis wrote that “the civil war has hurt Nicaragua’s economy, but not nearly so much as the Sandinistas’ own mismanagement and terrible policy.
The reality, again, was quite different, and very seldom given much serious attention. Although the Sandinista government was guilty of a fair amount of incompetence, dogmatism, and even corruption at times, the primary cause of Nicaragua’s economic crisis was the brutal U.S.-funded war that killed 30,000 people, devastated much of the rural infrastructure, and forced the Sandinista government to prioritize military spending over health care and education. In 1980 the Sandinistas spent about half of the national budget on health care and education and 18% on defense; seven years later, the figures had reversed.
The sad truth is that, not only did the Sandinistas end up adopting neoliberal policies at the end of the revolutionary period, but now that the Sandinistas are back in power in these post-revolutionary times, neoliberalism continues to be the foundation of their policies. The old ideals are gone. Reagan’s illegal actions against the revolution ultimately succeeded. No matter who is in power now in Nicaragua. A revolution that inspired so many around the world has ended up adopting economic policies that embrace the neoliberal, free market ideology that Reagan sought to impose. And the massive poverty that we find in Nicaragua continues. As the Who once sang, “Meet the new boss–same as the old boss.”