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Disaster aid likely to benefit Nicaragua’s wealthy

Managua, Nicaragua

The following is the third of an occasional series on the ongoing problems and the emerging hopes of Central America by Gary MacEoin, a longtime observer of the region.

This city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1972. Only two major buildings survived in the center of the city, the Intercontinental Hotel and the Bank of America. Only the shell of the cathedral remained.

Dictator Anastasio Somoza’s followers, self-exiled after the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, returned when Violeta Barrios de Chamorro became president in 1990, following the electoral defeat of the rebel party. The new Managua they proceeded to construct reflects their priorities.

Nicaragua now faces another chance at a different kind of rebuilding, thanks to the latest natural disaster, Hurricane Mitch. The central question is whether new concern throughout the world and the accompanying new development money will be spent in a way that will alleviate poverty or increase the distance between rich and poor.

Sorting out the implications of decisions about rebuilding in the coming months requires sorting through the dramatic turns of Nicaragua’s recent tumultuous past.

Modern stores and upscale boutiques today line newly constructed avenues in downtown Managua. The Rubén Darío rotunda is dominated by 45-foot-high advertisements for Coca Cola, Esso, Ron Flor de Caña and Cerveza Victoria. McDonald’s triumphs in the rotunda named for Gueguense, the indigenous chief who fought the Spaniards. Domino’s Pizza, whose founder Thomas S. Monaghan gave $3.5 million to build the gaudy new cathedral, is similarly heralded.

Soon additional monuments will adorn new plazas. Cardinal Miquel Obando Bravo has announced that a statue of Pope John Paul, costing $150,000, will grace the Plaza de la Fe Juan Pablo II. The plaza, bigger than any other in Central America (27,000 square meters), will cost $4 million.

Paying the price

Later, a statue of Christ the King will mark the plaza named after him. Its cost has not been specified, but presumably it will not be less than that of the pope.

Inevitably, someone had to pay for the luxury. International financial agencies were cooperative, but at a price, and that price was “structural adjustment”: harsh cutbacks on health, education and other public services. The official statistics of the Labor Ministry and the Central Bank tell part of the story, an increase in unemployment and sub-employment from 44.3 percent in 1990 to 53.5 percent in 1995.

A recent study by a prestigious international body tells an even more dismal story. Between 1993 and 1998, the proportion of the population in the major cities that does not earn enough to buy half the basic basket of food rose from 40.8 percent to 63.5 percent. Some sources report a substantial drop in the literacy level, which in 1980 was 66 percent of the population. No figures were available showing exact literacy rates today.

However, hordes of children swarming around the traffic lights are palpable evidence of the new Managua. They dash recklessly among the cars, cleaning windshields, selling Chiclets, trinkets, flowers, simply begging a coin. At night, 13-, 14-, 15-year-old girls, scantily clad and with painted faces, work the streets. Sex tourism has reached Managua.

Hardly surprising in these circumstances, domestic violence has become rampant. Since Mitch it is worse. On the International Day Against Violence, Nov. 25, the Nicaragua Network of Women Against Violence deplored the “shocking” increase of violence and sexual abuse against women and children of both sexes since the hurricane.

Hurricane Mitch not only destroyed thousands of homes and radically changed geography and ecology, with new streams, canyons, hills and roads, but it also stirred international calls for a change of the conditions that caused the hurricane to concentrate its devastation on those already most disadvantaged. Four months later, one can visualize the outlines of the response.

The government of President Arnoldo Alemán Lacayo hopes to get vast new loans from the international financial agencies and spend the money in ways that will benefit the already wealthy while doing very little for those who suffered most. It has committed itself to strict observance of the IMF’s “structural adjustment” terms on which such loans are conditioned. The result is destruction of local enterprises, lowering of wages and of food production, cuts in public spending on health, education and other social services, with a resultant increase of polarization of society.

Capital will flow to short-term deposits with high returns, at the expense of productive investments. Environmental controls will be further relaxed. And the deforestation, which in the past decade created conditions that intensified the devastation of Mitch, will continue apace.

Fear that whatever money comes will be diverted to the politicians is widely voiced in the press. It points to President Alemán’s recent acquisition of thousands of acres of land in areas that will benefit from projected tourist projects.

Already since Mitch, the Nicaraguan Congress has voted increases to itself while refusing to raise the minimum wage, which is 345 Cordobas, the equivalent of $30. The salary increases, per month, that congress voted on are: $1,000 a month additional to deputies, $2,000 to cabinet ministers, $3,000 to Alemán. The increase will bring Alemán’s salary to $7,000 per month, about 163 times that of the average primary school teacher, who is paid 500 Cordobas or $43 per month.

Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization based in Berlin and associated with Goettingen University, says that Nicaragua is “one of the most corrupt countries in Latin America.”

The most obscure factor today is the role of the main opposition party, the Sandinistas, still headed by Daniel Ortega. So far, its protests are muted. Many are talking about a pact between Ortega and Alemán. In 1980, after they had lost the elections, the Sandinistas voted what is referred to here as a piñata (a gift to themselves) in the form of substantial real estate to the top leaders. A pact, the rumor goes, would ensure that Alemán would drop the efforts still underway to reverse the piñata.

It could also end the proposal before the legislature to lift the immunity Ortega enjoys as a deputy so as to allow his stepdaughter Zoilamerica Narvaez, 30, to pursue her charges that he molested her sexually. In a recent public opinion poll, 44.3 percent favored and 30.3 percent opposed lifting immunity.

Two priests resign

The Sandinista leadership has also been hurt by the resignation from the party of two of the three priests who were members of the National Directorate, Jesuit Fernando Cardenal, minister of education, and his brother Ernesto, minister of culture. A small group, Fernando Cardenal said in his public statement, appropriated property of the state and of the party. “These corrupt acts broke the tradition of Sandinista honesty and constituted the greatest damage in all its history to the Frente Sandinista. ... I end my political activity, but I shall continue faithful, for whatever time life grants me, to my original commitment: the cause of the poor.”

The third priest, Maryknoller Miguel D’Escoto, continues to back Ortega. When he heard that I was in Managua, he sent a message saying he wanted to see me. I visited him one Sunday morning in his gracious home on the outskirts of the city, a home -- he volunteered -- that belonged to his mother and that he can maintain thanks to the beneficence of a wealthy friend in London.

For more than an hour he briefed me on what he is now doing. Ortega, he said, has entrusted him with the task of “reinventing” the Sandinista Party. He waxed eloquent about two books that have guided him: Yehaskel Drov’s The Capacity to Govern, published by the Club of Rome, and Richard Walden’s Action U.S.A. He has put together a small think tank composed of the best brains in the country, and they are starting from scratch to build something totally new. The project will take time, he said. I was unable to elicit any clear description of what it will look like.

According to several with whom I spoke and also to Envio, a monthly produced by the Jesuit University, a large part of the Sandinista rank and file is unhappy with the leadership. Even the leaders don’t all agree with the apparent support of Alemán’s reconstruction policy.

Urged to use vacant land

Rita Retes, a Sandinista deputy, told me that she and many of her colleagues are urging the victims of Mitch to take the law into their own hands and squat on vacant lands (“invade,” they call it) in protest against the government’s failure to relocate them. In fact there have been several such invasions since Mitch, and so far the authorities have not moved to dispossess the new squatters.

Cardinal Obando has given no indication of unhappiness with the Alemán project. On his way home from Rome after he received the red hat in 1985, he showed his loyalties by stopping in Miami to bless the contra leaders.

His attitude since has never wavered, an attitude that has the approval of nearly all the diocesan clergy who constitute about half of all priests in Nicaragua, though not of the overwhelming majority of the men and women religious.

Just days before the 1996 elections, when the legal ban on electioneering (a period before the election during which advertisements by the parties were prohibited) was already in effect, he took an action that many believe decided the outcome of a contest then too close to call. He chose candidate Alemán and his wife to lead the procession at the solemn Mass in the cathedral, put them in a prominent position and blessed them. The ceremony and quotations from his homily, understood by all as calling for Alemán’s election, were broadcast repeatedly by the government-controlled TV stations the day before the voting.

Caritas of Nicaragua, the official Catholic aid agency, is the only major nongovernmental organization (NGO) that has stood aloof from the NGO Coordinating Committee, the one body that has enunciated a clear alternative for the rebuilding of Nicaragua. The committee insists it does not want to rebuild the old Nicaragua.

“We want another model of development, one that will be sustainable and human, that will make it possible to eliminate both the extreme poverty and the extreme wealth, a model that will gradually get rid of the deep inequalities in the having, the knowing and the power of Nicaraguans.”

Is this dream realizable? The international NGO community, both church-related and secular, certainly approves it, and that community can provide substantial resources. But the international financial institutions must provide far more. Even if their only concern is to make money, they are political animals. A massive arousal of world opinion could pressure them into doing the right thing and ensure that Hurricane Mitch was not only a scourge but also a blessing for Nicaragua.

Transparency International's Web site: http://www.transparency.de/index.html

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 1999