What Laws Protect The War Wounded?
Law 98 of April 1990 and the decree that created INVICTA in February 1991 guarantee rights to the war-wounded on both sides. Who is complying with these laws today? Will those hard earned rights be transformed into hand-outs?
IHCA Team of Attention to War Wounded
What is left of the war in Nicaragua? The mantra heard daily is that the war is behind us, that we've gotten over it, that we need to get over it...but it is something that over 11,000 young Nicaraguans can never forget. They are the war disabled. For them, the wounds of the war which for most everyone else is something of the past are reopened daily in both body and mind.
We lack precise statistical data stating exactly how many Nicaraguans were disabled by the war and what their needs are today. It is estimated, however, that about 11,500 have some war disability, the majority of them between 25 and 35 years of age. Of that total, an estimated 65% fought in the Sandinista army and 35% with the Resistance. Nearly two thirds of them are of peasant origin.
"Nobody Remembers Us"In the 1980s, these young people shouldered the heaviest burden of the country's political and military crisis. They accepted its challenge motivated by an idealism that was sometimes truly heroic. Today, they are reeling as they attempt to take on the worst of the current economic and social crisis, while their heroism of yesterday is recast as foolish in an age marked by cynicism, disenchantment and confusion. The political and ethical crises cutting across the whole of Nicaraguan society are taking a grave toll on the country's war disabled, many of whom were heroes in a now forgotten war. "In Nicaragua, politicians are only interested in talking about the property law, the electoral law, the privatization law, etc., but nobody remembers to talk about us. Nobody pays attention to us not the contra leaders, not the Sandinistas, not the government officials," says Carlos Mena, a young man from Chontales who lost his left arm when he was a draftee in the war and is now in his third year of law school.
Fifteen years ago, the Organization of Disabled Revolutionaries (ORD) was founded to defend the moral and legal rights of Sandinistas disabled in the insurrection. But, like other organizations linked to the Sandinista party, the ORD has had to deal with divisions and internal conflicts that have substantially weakened it. Today, with determination and clarity, the disabled are increasingly seeking unity, even with their old adversaries. Says Mena, "Those guys, the politicians, are divided and only care about their personal interests. But as war disabled, we're clear that we can't divide ourselves into contras and Sandinistas."
"They Haven't Come Through"Agreements dealing with the war wounded have been reached and legislation has been passed. All involved, former Sandinistas and ex contras alike, are united in declaring that there was never the needed seriousness in complying with the agreements or respecting the laws. Two of the laws are currently on the books a law that guarantees rights and benefits to war disabled who belonged to the Sandinista Popular Army and to the state security forces and internal order units (Law 98, passed April 20, 1990); and a decree known as the Organic Law of the Nicaraguan Institute of Attention to War Victims (INVICTA), dated February 14, 1991.
Under tremendous pressure, Law 98 was drafted and passed by the outgoing Sandinista government after its unexpected defeat. Its objective was to ensure a legal framework that would support the war disabled from the Sandinista armed forces, allowing them to claim their rights and reminding society of its moral debt to these former soldiers.
INVICTA was founded by the Chamorro government in 1991 for "the protection and support of all persons who were affected directly and indirectly by the war." As an organization with no political stripe, its range of beneficiaries include mothers from both sides, widows and war orphans, and those with war disabilities represented in both the ORD and the Organization of Ex Combatants of the Resistance (ADRN).
The reality is that most of the people who could potentially benefit either from Law 98 or the decree to create INVICTA don't have the slightest idea that these laws exists. "As war wounded," comments Manuel Rosales, a former soldier from Matagalpa who lost his left eye in the war and now sells clothes in order to survive, "We don't feel protected. We're not organized and we don"t have an articulated plan." He adds that "some of our leaders knew about the laws, but they were shelved and did not begin to be widely disseminated and studied in some areas including Masaya, Granada, Chontales, Boaco and Carazo until the end of 1993." According to some war disabled, this step was "like coming out of the darkness, since we were finally becoming aware of laws that had been promulgated in our favor some four years earlier and had been all but forgotten."
They're still largely forgotten, because Law 98 has been weakened over these last five years to the point where one could say it has all but disappeared, while INVICTA is virtually non functional. In the case of the war disabled who belonged to the Resistance, the agreements signed with the government on May 20, 1990 are also just collecting dust. "The agreements were commitments that the government was obliged to fulfill, but the government has no plan for seeking a solution to our problems," declares Juan Peña, a disabled ex Resistance member. "They offered us special rehabilitation programs, productive programs for our reincorporation into national life. They promised us land, housing, health care. But they haven't come through on any of it. The government and politicians talk about reconciliation, about rehabilitating us, about getting us back into civilian life, but it's all just been talk."
"They Forced Us to Rearm"Ignorance and abandonment, as well as the reigning confusion, were all made more acute in 1995 with the appearance of a new law: the law of prevention, rehabilitation and equality of opportunities for disabled persons, approved by the National Assembly on August 29, 1995, according to a Nicaraguan newspaper, though its passage was never officially listed in La Gaceta, Nicaragua's legislative record. It is virtually impossible to get legislators to make copies of the legislation available to people requesting it, and it is difficult to get a clear idea of the procedures that led to the law's approval.
It is known that the law contains 24 articles and establishes that the Ministry of Health will be responsible for dealing with the problems affecting disabled people in the entire country. According to Jerónimo Silva, a lawyer who works with disabled people in León and Chinandega, this is a key and problematic aspect of the new law. "Institutional responsibility is transferred from the army to the Ministry of Health. This change could mean that the aim is to stick the war disabled in the same package with all other people who have disabilities for reasons having nothing to do with the war for example, accidents or illnesses. This legal change could well have a political subtext. It could be a very subtle manuever to make us forget that we have a legal and moral responsibility to this country's war disabled, whatever their ideology may be. They could be seeking to wipe the slate clean of our history of struggle, to wipe out our historical memory."
Why has all this happened? Everything seems to suggest that the lack of compliance is due to excessively short term governmental policies, organizational and ethical deficiencies among those who during the war were the leaders of today's disabled, and the indifference of civil society. They are realities that generate instability for all Nicaraguans, not just for the disabled.
"The lack of a government program that would help us reintegrate into civil society has led to real disorder," says Pedro Urcuyo, a former Resistance fighter who now serves customers in his tiny home based store from a wheelchair, since both legs have been amputated. "Some politicians and people have wanted to undermine us, calling us warlike and violent. But we don't have anyone willing to help us do the legal paperwork needed to defend our rights. This is one reason so many people have rearmed, even up to four times. If there's no money and the kids are dying of hunger and we're out of work, we're forced to rearm. Nobody's interested in how we manage to survive, or what our suffering might be like."
"The Pension is a Pittance"How do the young disabled men survive? In a country increasingly pushed to rock bottom survival, these war veterans are at a great disadvantage. They are disabled: they have undergone amputations, suffer from blindness or deafness, have serious problems in their motor control, or in their nervous system psychosis, schizophrenia. Some live with shrapnel that has become part of their bodies, triggering intense pain. It is embedded in areas that make it difficult to extract and they don't have the money for an operation to relieve this situation.
Depending on the kind of wound, those with disabilities who belonged to the Sandinista armed forces receive monthly pensions of between 100 and 380 córdobas (today about $14 54). Since neither these nor any other pensions have been revalued for inflation, ORD filed suit with the Supreme Court in August 1993 demanding the revaluing. But the Court never responded.
"This money that the government gives us gets eaten up immediately," says Esteban Pérez, who is from Masaya, lost his left hand and now grows corn and beans with his father. "This pension is a pittance, but we can't make demands, because we have no value to the government. I had a pension of 150 córdobas but now they only give me 70, with no explanation."
The official aid is really virtually nil. The average market basket of 53 basic products needed by a Nicaraguan family of six to survive costs about 1,250 córdobas (US$166). If, as recent Nitlapán UCA studies have shown, 20% of the population in Nicaragua lives in extreme poverty and almost 54% of urban households are submerged in chronic poverty, it is not reaching to assume that many of the disabled veterans live in the worst of these conditions.
For those living in Managua, survival presents additional problems, since the city is growing in a completely chaotic fashion, with no urban planning, and no thought at all to the needs of the disabled, who must venture out into the city as if it were another battlefield. Who is complying with Article 11 of Law 98, which states, "State and private firms offering public services will progressively eliminate the material and architectural barriers that impede access and deployment of the disabled in public buildings and roadways"?
"We Feel Like We're in the Way"With unemployment the most destructive epidemic currently punishing Nicaragua, unemployment rates are even higher among the disabled population. There is not a single legal instrument or institutional training program that works in a coordinated way with any governmental entity to assure employment to the disabled. "We feel humiliated when we go to a school or institution to ask for a scholarship or when we have to ask for a couple of extra days while we wait for some money so we can cancel our debts," comments Virgilio Céspedes, who, missing his right leg, sells lottery tickets. "The response is always negative, we're always rejected. We know that, according to Article 20 of Law 98, we have the right to scholarships in technical centers and other schools, but the directors aren't interested in that. They only want money, and they don't care who we are. We feel like we're just in the way."
In a survey done by the UCA's Human Rights Program and the War Disabled Project of the Central American Historical Institute (IHCA) among 2,000 war disabled from both the Resistance and the Army in Ocotal and the departments of Chontales, León, Masaya, Carazo and Granada, the following information was obtained:
*30% are illiterate.
*35% have completed second grade.
*5% finished primary school.
*7% are in secondary school, most of them studying at night.
*4% finished high school, but have not been able to enter the university.
*16% are studying carpentry or mechanics, but will not obtain any degree or certificate.
*2% are studying in a university.
*Only 1% are professionals.
This data confirms that, as in all wars, the poorest pay the highest costs.
Of the few war disabled who are professional, most do not work in their field, given the high level of unemployment in the country, so they have been forced into the informal sector. "In many firms and workplaces they think that we simply won't work as hard as a normal person because we have some physical problems," says Victor Artola, who has a degree in business administration and now works in a local market selling bread and cookies. "In my experience job hunting, I noticed that business owners would look at us without much confidence, even though we'd show them our credentials. They think that, instead of responding effectively in the workplace, we'll end up affecting them because of our health problems."
Article 14 of Law 98 says, "In equality of capacity and requisites with other postulants, they will have preferential right to the job post they solicit in any work center in the country, whether public or private."
"Laws on Paper Only""This hard reality," points out psychiatrist Socorro Pérez, "demands the urgent implementation of rehabilitation and readaptation programs for the war disabled. Many of these young men suffer from depression, war psychosis and anxiety, problems that quickly become chronic and are hard to combat since the disabled men and their families find it impossible to assure their daily food, health and education needs. This frustration and abandonment, along with the virtual absence of alternatives, leads them to depend on alcohol and drugs, seeing in these substances a refuge from a situation that threatens to strangle them. Individual or family therapy carried out with a disabled patient should be accompanied by a process that reintegrates them into productive life. The psychological aspect, spiritual religious support and economic security are all fundamental for the disabled to be able to deal with his new reality. If those aspects are not present, insecurity and frustration will continue to deepen in the consciousness of these young people. Unfortunately, Article 6 of Law 98, which establishes free psychological and psychiatric assistance to the disabled, and Article 14, which promises them jobs, are on paper only and have never taken force."
"I Don't Believe in the Leaders Anymore"The burden of pain and uncertainty weighing on war disabled who live in the country's rural areas is even greater. In the first place, it is more difficult to obtain medicines, prostheses, crutches, hearing aids and other things that are important for survival. In addition, the countryside is plagued by kidnappings, cattle rustling, assassinations of entire families for political vengeance, rapes of both women and children all in the larger context of an inefficient and overloaded justice system, which in turn promotes an ongoing sense of fear and paralysis among the peasantry. The war disabled suffer these grave problems twofold.
"The situation out here in the countryside is critical," says Mario Mena, who still has shrapnel scars on his face after two operations. "In places like Matagalpa and Jinotega, they pay us 5 córdobas a day (US$.70). We don't have land anymore, because we had to sell it off. I had two cows and some armed men stole them. We don't get help from anybody. And the rights we had as war disabled, what happened to them? We've lost them. Before, I was organized to defend my land, just like the revolution said. But now a lot of leaders are rich, and it's not the same. They don't defend peasants anymore. I don't believe in them anymore."
The UCA IHCA survey shows that 85% of the war disabled living in the countryside face problems in legalizing their land, despite the fact that Article 13 of Law 98 provides that "land be assigned" to them. Fully 90% receive no assistance from the national financial system because, according to statements made by officials who authorize credit, "the small subsistence parcels are not profitable." The insecurity in land tenure, lack of financing and lack of support for marketing their products, along with serious health problems, have obliged some 68% of the disabled surveyed to sell off all or part of their land, at extremely low prices.
The disabled who fought with the Resistance hold that the May 30, 1990 final peace agreement has been a total failure in terms of implementation. Legalization of the lands that were handed over when the war came to an end and implementation of productive programs that would assure them and their families integral development and full incorporation into civilian life have been nothing more than promises, made with much publicity and fanfare.
"We've been saved because some organizations that aren't part of the government have helped us out so we don't die of hunger," declares Carlos Machado, who lost his left ear and eye and now works as a shoemaker. "But we haven't seen our Resistance leaders around here. They tell us that help is on the way, but it's just talk. People from other countries, who aren't Nicaraguan, give us help. But here in our own land, they make us feel like trash."
"All They Gave Us Was a Card"The experience of the disabled in their attempts to dialogue with government officials has been frustrating. In the few cases in which government officials have deigned to receive them, they either argue that Law 98 is not valid, or interpret it they way they want to. They are also unclear about the commitments made to the Resistance disabled.
"The most serious thing at this point," points out the lawyer Jerónimo Silva, "is that in October of this year, in clear violation of the Constitution, the Minister of INSS [the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute], suspended the pensions of thousands of people, including former Resistance and EPS members. The reason given was that INSS cannot accept documentary evidence written for events that occurred before 1990. But, according to Article 113 of the Social Security Law, disability benefits are to be extended 'even when the cause of the contingency has occurred earlier'."
Even with all these legal rights, the INSS has publicly stated that the war disabled do not form part of the Social Security system and cannot receive pensions because they have not complied with the paying in system. According to data of CENIDH, the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center, some 20,000 war victims from both sides disabled, orphans and widows have never received INSS pensions, and that ministry continues to insist it doesn't have the funds to pay pensions.
The ORD has made public some 20 cases that it says clearly show that the INSS policy is to totally do away with full pensions, only agreeing to take on partial pensions. The disabled charge that the paperwork necessary to request and receive a pension takes from six to twelve months. According to an INSS official, this institution receives 17% from all workers on payroll and utilizes the money in the following manner: illness and maternity, 8.5%; professional risks, 1.5%; disabled, elderly and death, 5.5%; and 1.5% for war victims.
"In the case of INVICTA, the institution the government supposedly created to offer attention to the key problems facing all war disabled," says Cándido Rojas, "we can say that it has done virtually nothing for us in five years. We know that the INVICTA director was interviewed by a newspaper in 1994 and said that the institution had half a million dollars for housing, health and training. But BAVINIC sells us housing at speculative rates and it's impossible for us to pay the set allotments. All INVICTA has done is given us our little cards."
Despite so many institutional obstacles, some war disabled point to concrete realities showing that, with their organizational ability, they have made some aspects of Law 98 take hold. In some municipalities, accords have been signed with the mayors relating to exemption from fees for birth certificates, bicycle registration, renewal of driver's licenses and basic commercial permits. They are small gains that must be maintained in a country where unchecked privatization is creating the conditions for new and greater violations of human, economic and social rights of the poorest, of those who are condemned to a lack of basic services or to receiving very poor quality services.
"Their Souls are Disabled"The disabled hold up as a basic demand that all those who suffered bodily lesions due to the war, regardless of their political position, should be included in any law having to do with the disabled. The contradiction between Resistance and Sandinista disabled must disappear. This is a key weakness of Law 98, drawn up for the exclusive benefit of disabled soldiers who had belonged to the Sandinista armed forces. "We are interested in maintaining the benefits extended by Law 98," says Milton Cuevas, who lost his right arm and is today finishing high school, "but we want it broadened to include the wounded from the former Resistance. They are also suffering and have been deceived, just like us. There is unanimity on this point."
In addition, the new and as yet, unknown law approved this year should not turn the benefits given to the war disabled into pure social compensation or "alms", sidestepping the fact that the disabled demand their rights and opportunities to exercise them. "The new legislation could turn the disabled person into an object," says attorney Felipe Mena, "and that is something that must be avoided. If this is the logic of the new legislation, it will be a case in which legal resources will be used to strip the disabled of a historic and moral right, as well as of a debt that all future governments of Nicaragua and civil society as a whole have to the disabled."
This new law recognizes the state's responsibility to extend attention to the disabled. But what does this mean in the neoliberal context, one of whose governing principles is to strip the state of all its social responsibilities? Exempting students from educational fees is a right that will be extremely hard to maintain if all educational centers are privatized. In practice, and in spite of what Law 98 says, the disabled are already paying for many medical services that used to be free for them. And the employment situation is not at all promising, taking into account that the neoliberal dynamic is based on unfettered competition.
What state will be responsible for the war disabled? Given Nicaragua's current conditions, this is the key question to be asked. The state institutions and the politicians who head them are already seen as irresponsible by a great majority of Nicaraguans, as they are by the disabled. In the UCA IHCA survey, 75% of those polled declared that they "don't believe in any politician, from the left or the right," because "they're dishonest and ambitious," and are only "looking to enrich themselves at the expense of the people." As one respondent put it, "They are ethically disabled. Their wounds are in the soul."