The Legacy of the Nicaraguan Revolution
by Carole Harper
Many of us in Sacramento, and in other parts of the U.S., struggled to support the revolution in Nicarauga throughout the 1980s. I lived in Nicaragua from 1986 to 1990, working with Habitat for Humanity in several rural communities. I was a member of a liberation theology Catholic parish in Managua. I went to Nicaragua to support the Sandinista effort to redistribute resources and make a better life possible for the poor. I was devastated by the 1990 elections like everyone else on "our side".
The question that keeps coming up is: Is it all lost? Were our efforts and sacrifices in vain? Did the 1990 election mean the end of the revolution?
NO!! On all counts !!!
First of all, I believe that we the solidarity community prevented a US invasion of Nicaragua. People in the US who demonstrated, wrote their congresspersons, got arrested, protested, all put a damper on "contra" funding. The North Americans who went to Nicaragua, short term or long term, with Witness for Peace, Elders for Survival, Habitat, and other groups, made it too difficult for the US government to carry out their anti-Sandinista campaign.
People who went to live in Nicaragua for an extended period of time, months or years, provided the kind of "human shield" that we tried to provide in Iraq this year. But in Nicaragua in the 1980s, it was effective. The only North American killed by US-funded "contras" was Benjamin Linder. And his parents made such a major counterattack on the government, with excellent public information in the US, the government didn’t want that to happen again.
When I returned to the US in 1990 I started a small nonprofit organization called El Porvenir which has worked in rural communities for the past 13 years. I have visited Nicaragua at least twice a year and sometimes more often, and am in constant communication with our Nicaraguan staff as well as with other friends in Nicragua, US and Nica. I have followed with keen interest the changes in Nicaraguan political and economic life these past 12 years.
Without the Sandinista revolution, El Porvenir could not exist. El Porvenir works only with organized communities. We do not initiate projects, but count on the basic organizing and education that the Sandinistas did during their decade in power. Throughout the past 13 years we have responded to poor communities who believe that they can change their lives. This will to self-determination has not diminished since 1990. It is strong and widespread. In every area where we work, in three regions of the country, there are hundreds of communities who believe they can make a difference for themselves. They do so with our financial and logistical support.
The poor of Nicaragua did not have this strength and confidence before the Sandinista revolution. They have it now, and nothing and nobody is going to take it away from them. We have worked with 172 different communities over the past 13 years. Every one of them has organized themselves and sought us out, carried out the project on their own, and maintained it long term after construction. This is an enduring success of the Sandinista revolution.
El Porvenir maintains strict political neutrality in Nicaragua and works with everyone of all political persuasions. Many of the villages which organize themselves and seek our help identify with the other party, and many were "contras". But what they are doing is a direct product of the revolution, as is our response to them.
Another great permanent change that the Sandinistas made in Nicaraguan life is that Nicaragua now has real elections. During the years of the Somozas, there was only one party and voting was an empty exercise. The night that Daniel Ortega lost in 1990, he gave the greatest speech of his lifetime and called on all Nicaraguans to accept the election results peacefully and support the democratic process. The Sandinistas could have retained power by a coup. They did not do so, but turned over power peacefully through the electoral process.
Now every election is hotly contested, and there are real parties. Although the Sandinistas have not won the presidency since 1990, they consistently win about 40% of the popular vote, which means they control 40% of the national legislature, and in the recent mayoral elections they swept the major cities of the country, winning city hall in dozens of important towns including Managua.
The fact that elections are real means that politicians have to pay some attention to the voters, a situation which is most beneficial to people in the rural municipalities. All of our project communities learn how to petition city hall for help with their projects (they ask for use of the mayor’s truck, the city’s mason, extra supplies, etc.) and after the El Porvenir project is completed they often go on to petition governmental agencies for other things they want and need. Some of our communities have successfully advocated for road improvements, electricity, and elementary schools. None of this would have happened in Somoza’s time. It is all a success of the Sandinista revolution.
Another great permanent change in Nicaragua is that the army is under left-wing control. All of the generals are Sandinista. As one general retires, another Sandinista general replaces him. This has happened twice since 1990. This army has never opened fire on a civilian demonstration. This army was not at the disposal of Arnoldo Aleman in his attempts to assume dictatorial powers, and will not be for any other president who wants to use the army to control the populace.
It is a sad fact that the Nicaraguan Army has sent members to the School of the Americas, but this small and miserable participation has not resulted in violence against the poor in Nicaragua. We should work to oppose any Nicaraguan Army participation in the SOA, but we should not lose sight of the great strength of the army as a left wing force, still.
The army is no longer called "The Sandinista Army", it is officially called "the Nicaraguan army" but it is under Sandinista control. The statue of Sandino, in huge silhouette, illuminated every night, still stands over the city, because it is on Army property.
Something that has not changed since the 1980s is employee rights under the labor code, which are incredibly strong. I have heard many employers and NGOs commenting (complaining!) in recent years on the strong position of the employee in any job termination or benefits dispute situation.
It is true that labor unions as unions do not fare well in Nicaragua or in any Central American country, but remember that under the Sandinistas, only the official Sandinista unions were allowed to organize! There never was strong labor union legislation in Nicaragua like the NLRB in the United States.
However, individual workers frequently sue their employers or ex-employers with the assistance of free government attorneys from the labor department, and if the employer has not followed all the requirements of the labor law, the worker wins and gets penalties against the employer.
Employers must cover all employees under the Social Security system (INSS) which includes health care and temporary disability pay as well as old age pensions. Employers must also pay the 13th month’s pay in December as a bonus to every worker, as well as providing 30 vacation days a year or their equivalent in extra pay. At termination, no matter what the reason for termination, the employer must pay the worker an "indemnity" or severance pay of so many months’ salary depending on years of employment. This is not an empty law. It is enforced constantly.
The employer/employee funded INSS system provides both work-related and non work related illness and injury coverage. It is quite good health care too: one of our employees was seriously injured last year and benefited greatly from his INSS health coverage (five surgeries, many X rays and tests, medications, months of physical therapy, all in private hospitals and clinics, all paid for by INSS.) It is also still a strong custom in Nicaragua that when an employee is on "subsidio" (disability pay from INSS, 50% of his/her salary), the employer pays the other half so that the employee continues to receive 100% of his/her salary while disabled or ill. This benefit is better than in the U.S.!!
Of course many people are not working in the formal economy and are not covered by this system and do not receive these benefits. But many poor people continue to receive healthcare, even now. The wonderful Bertha Calderon Hospital for women, a recipient of tremendous solidarity attention during the 1980s, is still providing healthcare for poor women today.
A friend of mine who works as a maid and house cleaner, who lives in a dirt floor house in a very poor barrio of Managua, is receiving extensive treatment for uterine cancer, including doctor’s visits, radiation, and personal counseling for her depression and anxiety, all at the Bertha Calderon, all at no cost to her. Our support to the Bertha Calderon in the 80s was not in vain. Far from it!
As for employment and unemployment, I think the percentage of people in the "informal sector" is about the same now as in the 1980s. In those years there were many more government jobs than there are now, (and alas, many more "jobs" in the army). There were also many fewer private sector jobs in the 80s and there are huge numbers of such private sector jobs now. Different people had jobs then: "our side" had the jobs.
The private sector in Nicaragua is vigorous now, and has created thousands of jobs that did not exist when I lived in Nicaragua. Both in the 1980s and now, about 70% of the population can be described as working in "the informal sector". You know what that means: selling watches or oranges at traffic lights, making tortillas for sale in the neighborhood, washing and ironing other people’s clothes, cobbling together a living here and there. These people can also be described as "underemployed". They are considered "unemployed" or "working in the informal sector" in the official statistics. But the percentages are about the same from decade to decade: about 30% of the population has "straight jobs" and about 70% are in the "informal sector".
The life of the rural people, the campesinos, has not significantly changed as I perceive it, since the 1980s, except that now there is no war, no draft, no blockade, and no terrible shortages of basic goods as there was in the 1980s. Then and now, campesinos are dependent on rainfall for agriculture, which leads to frequent hardship and is not affected by political changes.
I know that "our side" takes the position that everything is worse now than it was then, that it gets worse every year, that structural adjustment has devastated the life of the poor, etc. It is unquestionably true that structural adjustment harms everyone but the very rich, in every country, including Nicaragua, and that it has reduced the public budget for education and health. It is also true that the collapse of the coffee industry has led to terrible suffering among coffee workers. But the truth is complex. Some things are worse and some things are better. We would like to believe would we like to believe? And if so why would we like to believe it? that everything is more and more terrible each year since 1990. But it is not so.
There is no blockade now. There is very good telephone communication now. There is extended electrical service now, beginning to reach to even some rural communities. The water shutoffs are about the same in the provincial towns as during the Sandinista years, and the water shutoffs in Managua are fewer. You do not have to stand in line now to get a ration of beans, corn, oil, sugar. All food commodities are plentiful and available everywhere.
There have been many other changes. Since 1990, many new rural schools have been built and many old schools rehabilitated, under government programs. In the village where I used to live, the school has been rebuilt and expanded by FISE, the government aid to education program supported by USAID. It is true that the government tries to collect fees from the parents for children in elementary schools, and all schools, but in our villages, what happens is, if the parents cannot pay, they just don’t pay, and the child goes to school anyway. Some parents are ashamed to send their child if they can’t pay, and others are not. The village schools are bursting at the seams with kids.
The government healthcare program continues under MINSA, and clinics in every large town offer doctor and nurse and pharmacy services to the poor for little or no charge. Children in our most remote communities are still vaccinated every year, at no charge, by outreach workers who come from the MINSA health clinics with their little ice chests of vaccine. MINSA continues to provide chlorine to rural villages for disinfecting their wells. The Sandinista health program for the rural poor is not lost. It is still functioning to the benefit of hundreds of thousands of campesinos.
Also Managua looks amazingly better these days than it used to. The old earthquake ruins have all been taken down, and parks and fountains put in their place. Some buildings have been rehabilitated and many, many new buildings have been built. There is an explosion of paint, signs, electrical lights, decoration. We miss the murals, the heroic portraits, the wonderful revolutionary art that has been destroyed. None of us in solidarity enjoys seeing a mall go up. But the city looks optimistic, bustling, on the move. People feel a sense of expectation and possibility which they did not feel during the war and blockade.
There has been an explosion of NGOs in Nicaragua since 1990. There are more foreign governments and organizations working in the country now than there ever were in the 1980s. The largest and most prominent of these is the European Union, which finances many NGOs and many development projects in the rural provinces. Another is Catholic Relief Services, which left in 1984 and returned in 1991. While it is offensive to us in the solidarity movement that these groups stayed away in the 1980s, the benefit to the people of Nicaragua from this flood of development assistance since 1990 is undeniable. These organizations are bringing millions of development dollars into Nicaragua every year, much of it into rural areas.
There has also been a flowering of the women’s movement since 1990. Though the Sandinistas were my heroes, I have to admit they kept a tight reign on all their popular organizations, and there was only one official and supported women’s group, AMNLAE.
Now there are more than a dozen active women’s groups, including the impressive Women’s Network Against Violence, (La Red de Mujeres Contra La Violencia) which has managed to get legislation passed to make beating your wife illegal in Nicaragua. They have also gotten special police offices established just to take complaints from women who have been abused. Also, there is now a women’s radio station in Nicaragua! All of this has happened since 1990. The Sandinista revolution made a space for women and women’s rights in traditional Nicaraguan society, and women have stubbornly clung to that space and expanded it!
As for the non-Sandinista governments since 1990, one of the most important things about the various presidents during these years is that they have not stopped nonprofit development work. Dona Violeta was a relatively benign executive. Arnoldo Aleman was the opposite, and actively prosecuted one US woman health worker, a famous case you may have heard about (Dorothy Granada), and he periodically threatened to tax the income of nonprofits working in Nicaragua, but he did not ever actually do that, or stop our work or anyone else’s. After Hurricane Mitch, over 300 nonprofits banded together to form an alliance of nongovernmental organizations called La Coordinadora, and the leader of this alliance, Ana Quiroz, is a powerful figure in Nicaraguan life, speaking for Civil Society in the press and in the legislature.
New nonprofits continue to obtain legal status in Nicaragua long after the Sandinista era (El Porvenir obtained its legal status in 1997, two other U.S.-based solidarity organizations known to us are getting their legal status now this year). Nonprofits continue to carry out their programs, and to interact with government at all levels. Many, including El Porvenir, have positive relationships with the local mayor’s office, whether it is Sandinista or Liberal.
The Sandinistas made changes in Nicaraguan life that will endure for a very long time. The Sandinistas’ loss of the presidency in 1990 was not a total loss of power. Far from it. They remain a potent force in Nicaraguan political life, despite The Pact, despite the repeated defeat of Daniel Ortega.
At the July 19 celebration this year, the Sandinistas enjoyed the blessing of the Catholic church for the first time since 1980. While this may be a mixed blessing in the eyes of the US solidarity movement, it shows that the Sandinistas are acutely aware of how to recover power in Nicaragua and are taking all necessary steps to do so. The Sandinista Party may yet transform itself internally, allowing a new and more viable candidate to run for president in the future. Hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans identify themselves as Sandinistas, today.
Keep the faith. It is NOT all lost. We all need to hang in there for the long term. El proyecto revolucionario is still a work in progress:
Adelante, es nuestro el porvenir.
Carole Harper Lives in Sacramento, California. This article first appeared in the July-August 2003 edition Central America Connection.