Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 91 | Febrero 1989



Good News, Bad News, Population Views

Ana María Pizarro

A fertile and rich Nicaragua with forests, fish, minerals, tourist spots, hydro and geothermal energy all await only money, minds and muscle power. An impoverished and overcrowded Nicaragua, with rising malnutrition and falling school enrollment, rising unemployment and falling health, all doomed to worsen year by year as the population grows faster than any other in Latin America. Take your pick. There’s truth in both visions. You can choose one for today and another for the future. Both were in evidence at the National Population and Development Conference held in Managua at the end of September. The vision you choose to emphasize is a useful indicator of where you are likely to stand on specific family planning issues. People who are less enthusiastic about an active state role in sex education and in making contraceptives available tend to point to Nicaragua's development possibilities. Those who want a greater family planning effort concentrate on the current problems. The conference came after months of preparation by working groups made up of people from ten government departments.* The working groups developed two key papers—one on the spatial distribution of Nicaragua's population, the other on Nicaraguans' standard of living.

*Planning and Budgeting Secretariat; Ministries of Health, Education, Transport, and Social Security; National Food Program; National Institute of Statistics and Census; Institute of Territorial Studies; Nicaraguan Association of Professionals H&M; Nicaraguan Institute of Women.)

The delicate placing of each collective footfall in the papers, and during the conference itself, was evidence of the political minefield that is population policy. The church was a looming though invisible participant; not even the Sandinista women's organization AMNLAE had ever called for freely available contraceptives or changing the illegal status of abortions. But the conference had to propose solutions to population pressures, and its results and the media's coverage of the conference clearly sketch the outlines of ideological and practical debates within Nicaragua.

Nicaragua's population is growing faster than any other in Latin America. Its 3.35% growth per year is half again the Latin American average. Nicaraguan women average 5.5 children each, again far outstripping their sisters all over Latin America, where the average is only 3.8. At this rate, by 2000 Nicaragua will have grown from 3.6 million to some 5.2 million, of whom only 54% will be in the "economically active" age range of 15-64; the rest will need supporting. They're very unlikely to get what they need, even with the best efforts of their hardworking fellow citizens. [The conference paper] carries a powerful and thinly-veiled conclusion that the revolution simply cannot provide for the babies who are likely to be born, and that if steps are not taken to curb population growth the human and political costs of that failure are likely to be enormous.

“Well, we’ve got some good news and some bad news. Which would your like first?” Good news-bad news jokes are usually black humor. They combine a dose of likely bad news with a little much-less-likely good news and the two never quite fit together. The growing debate in Nicaragua about population policy takes much the same form. The good news is that Nicaragua is rich in resources and development possibilities. But that is in the future. The bad news is that the country cannot meet the demands being made by today’s population and will find it even harder to meet the need of tomorrow’s. That is the immediate reality.

The two parts met, but did not quite fit together, at the conference. The subject of population is a minefield in most developing countries, and the conference reflected the hopes and fears carried by the words population and development. The conference was supposed to take steps toward a population policy for Nicaragua but was usually described in the media, and on the conference floor, as trying to figure out how Nicaragua could meet the needs of its growing population. The official conference papers made it clear Nicaragua could not hope to feed, clothe, house or provide jobs, schools and health care for the population of five and a quarter million expected by the year 2000, but that view was rarely heard at the conference itself.

In this first section, we review the good news and bad news views of Nicaragua’s future. In the second, we will discuss the next, more controversial, phase of the debate: the move to ward policies on contraception and abortion.

Part I: Two views on Nicaragua's population and its resources

The fertile Nicaragua, just waiting to be developed. "Nicaragua has a great and varied potential in natural resources that are now underused. Besides the forests, soil, water (including hydro-electricity) and minerals that have historically sustained the economic development model imposed on the country, there are other resources like fish, geothermal energy, tourism, fauna and research, which offer many economic possibilities and in the future will play an important role in strengthening the national economy," optimistically asserts the conference paper on spatial distribution.

The stock-taking lists:
* More than 23 million metric tons of gold and silver, of which only 2% is being exploited.

* "Important" reserves of copper, magnesium, heavy metals, limestone, sand and quarry rock. Also deposits of ceramic clays.

* "High potential" fish resources off the Atlantic Coast. So far, only shrimp and lobster are caught commercially in any quantity. There are also valuable and barely-harvested fish resources in several of the lakes and estuaries.

* A large area of underused agricultural land. Some 16% of the country is suitable, and it's estimated that half of that land is underused. A conference paper asserts that while malnutrition is now growing, "paradoxically...agricultural development could assure a more independent supply of food."

* Great potential for more irrigation in many parts of the country. Lake Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua), for instance, could supply water to all the land on the Pacific plain suitable for irrigated agriculture, about 2.5 million acres, but is now irrigating only about 100,000 or 4%. Nicaragua also has important, barely tapped underground water sources.

* Geothermal steam resources awaiting only capital and technology. The first geothermal power station is now operating, and while no one yet knows the full extent of the resource, international experts are confident that there's plenty more.

* Just over 5 million acres of broadleaf forest suitable for sustainable yield commercial exploitation, of which only about 15-20% is now being cut. Likewise, of the million acres of pine forest, less than 5% is now being felled commercially.

* A host of likely tourist attractions. "Few countries have so much and so attractive a range of natural scenery as Nicaragua, a potential hardly touched," said the conference paper. Rich and varied, almost untouched, ecosystems and a complex wildlife population should attract researchers. That's the good news. But many of the fallow resources have their dark side as well. The fish resource was badly damaged by contamination after Hurricane Joan hit, and the loss of forest to the hurricane's winds and rains is enormous. The hurricane aside, forests are being destroyed at the rate of some 250,000 acres a year as the agricultural frontier advances with a matchbox in hand; less than 10% of the forest which disappears for new farms is used. In addition, the last time the FAO did a study (1971), the wasteful use of wood for firewood and domestic coal accounted for 71% of the trees cut down. The richest remaining areas of forest are (or were before Hurricane Joan) in the Atlantic Coast, long distances from population centers.

The country's water resources have been polluted by industrial and human waste near Managua, and by agricultural chemicals in the León and Chinandega region. Soil use is so uneven that while large areas are underused, there are also large areas of the Pacific Coast where soils are poisoned or sucked dry of nutrients or eroding down hillsides never meant for pasture or cropping.

Resource development in Nicaragua is also hampered by the concentration of people in Managua: 27% of the country's residents and 1.4% of the country's land has 40% of its population. Attempts made since 1979 to decentralize development and population growth away from Managua have, with the war and the economic crisis, had to take a back seat. The conference working group on population distribution suggested three areas of the country that could be developed as alternative centers of growth: one in the central highlands enclosed by the cities of Matagalpa, Jinotega, Sébaco and Estelí; a Pacific corridor of Corinto, Chinandega and León; and the area on the plateau south of Managua circumscribed by Granada, Masaya and Meseta de los Pueblos. But this hopeful vision is in the future. Nowadays babies are being born faster than the economy can be expanded to take care of them.
The impoverished Nicaragua: Down and still sinking
"The Nicaraguan revolution by its essence and social character has as its fundamental aim to improve the population’s living conditions.... The economy’s precarious condition and the characteristics of the population mean that there has been a drop in the provision of such basics as food, employment, housing, health, education, and the other social services" says page one of the conference living standards paper.

This tally sheet makes grimmer reading:
* The infant mortality rate, cut in half since the revolution (to 64.7 per 1,000 live births in 1986) is still high and either stationary or rising again.

* Vaccination campaigns have succeeded in ridding Nicaragua of such preventable scourges as polio, but mortality rates from other sources have consistently worsened since 1983.

* 300,000 people either unemployed or underemployed—about one quarter of the workforce. In 1983, the estimated cost of creating a job was $7,500. That’s $2,225,000 just to put today’s population to work—roughly the same as last year’s entire gross domestic product. Every year for the next five, about 40,000 people are entering the workforce, needing jobs. That’s another $300 million per year.

* Stalled agricultural production. While the population grew 14% between 1983 and 1987, rice production dropped by 3%. Despite donations and food imports, per-capita food consumption is dropping.

* Dropping family incomes. By 1987, these were well below a third of what they’d been in 1977. Not surprisingly, people are eating less. Between 1983 and 1987, consumption of beans fell 15%, of meat by 27% and of milk by 11%, and few people started out with any extra they could comfortably trim from their diets. “This could lead to a dangerous increase in the level of malnutrition.” Already it’s estimated that more than 48% of the children born in Nicaragua are born to “inadequate living conditions.”

* A housing deficit in 1985 estimated at 226,200 dwellings. Each year in the five-year period 1985 to 1990, some 20,000 new families will be formed and need housing, while in the previous five-year period the country only managed to build 4,000 houses a year. If you run this trend out to the year 2000, you find the country with a housing deficit of almost a half million homes; “the fall in the quality of life will be spectacular and immeasurable.”

* A retreat from the heights of the new revolution’s 1980 literacy campaign when illiteracy was cut from 50% to 12.5%. The war has killed rural teachers, burned rural schools and kept educational services from reaching many people in the countryside. Economic problems do the same in the cities. Illiteracy is up to 22%, and more than a quarter of Nicaragua’s children between 7 and 12 are not attending school. In June of this year, the Ministry of Education estimated that 70% of the five year olds and 30% of the ten year olds weren’t attending school.

* Spectacular teacher turnover. Mostly because of the country’s inability to pay teachers a living wage, there was a 94% teacher turnover rate in 1988. From targets set low in recognition of the country’s dire economic straits, the inability to provide basic education is all the more shocking: there are some one million students, but of a planned 26,000 new desks, only 8,000 were delivered; of a scant 3,500 textbooks the department hoped to distribute, only 2,200 could be given to kids; of 9,000 notebooks, only 5,600; of 1,200 schoolrooms needing maintenance, only 122 received it.

* More professional flight. The country has lost some 2,000 engineers and architects, 1,700 professors, 1,300 administrators, economists and accountants—some 60% of this group’s total. About 22% of the country’s doctors and medical technicians have left.

So why are things so bad?

The conference papers clearly set out some of the reasons for the gap between the country's potential and the reality of a steady drop in living standards. The new Sandinista government found itself in 1979 with a country in shambles. The war to oust the Somoza dictatorship took a terrible toll: 35,000 dead, 100,000 wounded, 40,000 orphaned, and 15,000 refugees; 40% of the export cropland and 23% of the land that grew products for Nicaraguans to consume not producing; 40% of the industrial base destroyed, along with one quarter of the transport fleet and five hospitals; the financial system had lost an amount equivalent to 45% of its activities, and per-capita incomes were down 35%, or back to what they'd been in 1963. But there was barely time to organize the new government and run a literacy campaign before the country began to bleed again.

The main reason the Nicaraguan people have had to watch their living standards fall year by year is, of course, the defense they have had to pay for against a US-backed counterrevolutionary army. The conference papers set out the grim toll, and the grim results. The war has claimed another 25,500 Nicaraguan lives, 25,000 wounded, 3,500 permanently disabled, and left another 13,200 children without parents. It has displaced farmers from some of the nation's best land, taken most of its victims from the country's most productive age group or at best just borrowed them from productive activity for two years of military service, it has raised costs to society as a whole in caring for shattered bodies and lives, driven professionals from the country and sent many Nicaraguans into neigh boring countries as refugees. Last year, 62% of this already poor country's budget went directly to defend itself in that war; there's not a lot left for hospitals, schools, job creation, let alone childcare centers or high wages to keep professionals from leaving.

Nicaragua didn't choose the war and has worked consistently to end it. There's been little room to maneuver with the Reagan Administration, and that's left little room to maneuver in the country's budget.

Growing, growing, gone: Nicaragua's disturbing population curve

The report's authors cite a third reason for Nicaragua's declining living standards: its rapid population growth. Nicaragua's population is growing faster than any other in Latin America. Its 3.35% growth per year is half again the Latin American average. Nicaraguan women average 5.5 children each, again far outstripping their sisters all over Latin America, where the average is only 3.8. The situation is compounded by the youth of Nicaragua's people. Half are under 15, which puts few beyond childbearing age and an enormous bulge in the population growth curve. And mothers in Nicaragua are getting younger all the time; 16% of the babies are born to teenage girls, compared with 12% in 1963. At this rate, by the year 2000 Nicaragua will have grown from 3.6 million to some 5.2 million, of whom only 54% will be in the "economically active" age range of 15-64; the rest will need supporting. They're very unlikely to get what they need, even with the best efforts of their hard working-fellow citizens.
If the population continues to grow at its current rate, by the year 2000, aiming only to reproduce today's living standards, the country would need:

* 35% more cultivated land,

* 400,000 new jobs (maintaining the current level of 300,000 unemployed or underemployed),

* 280,000 houses (maintaining the current deficit of 266,000),

* 16,000 new teachers and

* 2,300 new schools.

* The growth in the gross national product would have to match the growth in the population—3.3%. (This year it was expected to be -4%, but with the hurricane it's now expected to be -20-25%.) This shopping list sounds the alarm bells: "If the revolution's objectives of improving and redistributing income are not achieved, educational opportunities for those [poor] sectors will continue to be reduced, and poverty will be widely reproduced from generation to generation.... If [families] can't improve their income and the quality of their lives, the risk is run of infant mortality moving into other groups and of forming generations with serious learning, growth and development limitations because of food and nutritional deficiencies during infancy and its consequences, with repercussions in a lower quality workforce," said the living standards paper.

"Deterioration in educational, sanitary and housing conditions will have as a direct consequence in higher death rates, lower production and accumulation, with consequences for family development and in particular the development of children and adolescents."

The papers even ventured a political assessment of the risks of the current course: "To continue the current situation and not attend to the problems will produce a broad social crisis, because discontent about material conditions can't always be answered, or answered in time, by political and ideological explanations. The lack of effective responses will silence the revolution's program and within the broad framework of political pluralism we enjoy today, those who are unsatisfied will swell the ranks of opposition to the revolution." So far, the opposition has not benefited from the hardships the Nicaraguan people are enduring: in a June public opinion poll, identification with all the opposition parties combined was only one third of that the Sandinistas enjoyed. The effects of the government's economic measures since the June poll probably cost them support, but their performance during the hurricane emergency is likely to have increased it again.

The conference got to this point and then effectively stopped. The papers that clearly spelled out the disastrous consequences of such rapid population growth barely mentioned sex education, contraception and abortion. At the conference itself, women occasionally rose to gingerly introduce the delicate matter, but their comments never generated response or discussion. There was clear consensus that the country could not provide for the number of children who will be born if the population grows at its current rate, but there was also clear unwillingness to take the next step.

The conference's draft summary and proposals paper (the final version has yet to be released) devotes a total of five lines out of its four and a half pages to any suggestion that population growth should be influenced, saying, "An important component of this [education] campaign should be sex education. It is necessary to…develop a program of family planning aimed to avoid undesired pregnancies, high-risk pregnancies (women younger than 20 or older than 35, spacing between pregnancies of less than two years, and multiple births)." That's it.

Part II "The forbidden subjects":
Sex Education, contraception and abortion

There are four distinguishable positions on the thorny issues of sex education, contraception and abortion in Nicaragua. First, there's the Catholic Church’s view that abortion and most contraceptive methods are sinful. The Sandinista revolution and the Catholic Church have had an intimate and difficult relationship. There are priests who are ministers of state and a cardinal who vehemently and actively opposes the government. Relations with the influential church hierarchy have never been easy, and have always been important; the church’s position on contraception and abortion may well make the beleaguered government reluctant to buy into one more fight on yet one more front.

Then there is the view that population growth itself is not a problem, only the distribution of resources. In this analysis, many developing countries see the promotion of contraception by the first world as an easy way out: control the size of the third world’s population, don’t try and share out resources more fairly. The corollary is that population “control” measures are imperialism in disguise. The third world’s suspicions have honorable roots. During the 1960s, massive numbers of forced sterilizations were carried out in Guatemala, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Brazil and Bolivia. Adding to cynicism about first world motives is the fact that US and European drug companies still test new contraceptives on third world women, and profitably sell such dangerous products as Depo Provera, which have been banned in their home countries.

This view is or has been widely held within the FSLN. In 1977, AMPRONAC (forerunner to the Sandinista women’s organization AMNLAE) set as one of its objectives: “to eliminate the policy of birth control as a way to eliminate poverty. Because the basic problem is not a shortage of productive riches in the country, but the system under which underused economic resources do not permit an equitable distribution of the wealth, instead working toward its concentration in a few hands.”

Ten years later, at the first “De Cara al Pueblo” town meeting specifically for women, President Daniel Ortega would say, “Our country is being subjected to a policy of genocide,” referring to the US-sponsored contra war. He said the best thing for the US would be for Nicaragua’s birthrate to fall; that leaving the country without young people would destabilize it, “as would promoting a policy of abortion.” Saying such policies may be all right in the developed world, the President pointed out that “this isn’t a Nordic country but an underdeveloped one.” Women in the audience were audibly unhappy with the President’s views. This year the population and development conference heard a softer version of the same view from President Ortega, who told delegates the problem of the Nicaragua economy is not the current demographic growth; extraordinary efforts had to be taken to solve the economic problems caused by US aggression. President Ortega emphasized that "in the 1960s US imperialism launched a policy whose aim was to restrict demographic growth in developing countries to avoid political explosions among those seeking to achieve national liberation." He concluded that it cannot be established that the problem is a "demographic explosion."

And in a Barricada interview during the conference, one of the organizers echoed the theme: "Population is not a problem, though there do exist populations with problems. We need to take steps to achieve economic growth that matches the growth of our national population." The prescription offered by those who hold this view is more economic growth, better distributed; population growth equals more labor power.
There is a third group made up of pragmatists. They fall on both sides of the issue. The workers in government departments who prepared the conference papers clearly fall into this camp; although they never spell out what is to be done, their work carries a powerful and thinly-veiled conclusion that the revolution simply cannot provide for the babies who are likely to be born, and that if steps are not taken to curb population growth the human and political costs of that failure are likely to be enormous.

On the other side, we find those who say Nicaragua can't afford to provide the contraceptive devices. Barricada, in an October news story: "Do you know how much the state would have to invest in importing condoms if it wanted to guarantee at least one per week to a population of 800,000 sexually-active Nicaraguan men? You better sit down: the calculation is US$4 million a year. But if they tried to guarantee birth control pills to a population of 500,000 women of child-bearing age (15 to 45), they would invest about US$2 million."

Finally, there are the views of women themselves. While the opinions of those in the three other groups are relatively static, views of women (or at least of politically active women) have shifted dramatically and fast, if the AMPRONAC statement was a real reflection of women's views in 1977. Perhaps here again it is wise to distinguish pragmatism from ideology; it is the ideology that has shifted.

In pragmatic terms, many women simply don't want to have as many babies as their uncontrolled fertility gives them, and never have, if the number who have historically risked their lives with illegal abortions are any measure. Though there is no Nicaraguan research on the subject, a recent UN study on fertility in 18 developing countries concluded that between 40 and 50% of women of reproductive age did not want to have more children.

And in Peru, research shows that women of every social sector bear more children than they want. In the rural zones, women say they want an average of four, but they have seven. In the cities, they want two or three but have four. Perhaps the clearest evidence of women's views are the abortion figures. In Nicaragua, abortions are illegal, and though the crime is rarely if ever prosecuted, women are forced to back-street abortionists or home implements if driven to rid themselves of an unwanted pregnancy. In research carried out at the Bertha Calderon women's hospital in Managua, Dr. María Pizarro documented 4,000 women who arrived seriously damaged from botched abortions in the first ten months this year. That's more than ten a day. And an average of two of those women die each day.

By way of comparison, in 1984 (the latest published figures available) there were 1128 serious injuries from road accidents in Managua, 139 deaths. This would suggest three times as many women are gravely injured from abortions each day as men and women are injured on the roads, and six times as many women die from them as men and women are killed in traffic accidents. These figures are for Managua only, and only for those women who make it to the hospital. And as a counter to the pragmatists who point to the cost of contraceptives, Dr. Pizarro pointed out that in the second half of 1985, the sum that the women's hospital spent on trying to patch up women from wounding and lethal abortions "could have bought 45,000 IUDs, 11,000 copper Ts, 30,000 packages of birth control pills."

In the last three months, women from many sectors have raised what Barricada headlined "The Forbidden Subjects.” September 7th: At a meeting of 30 of the 45 women workers on private farms near Matagalpa, part of a round of regional meetings, "women with 3,6, and as many as 11 children, claimed the right to sex education and family planning for themselves and their daughters. But they also claimed it for men, so that they will learn to be responsible with their sexuality." Barricada notes that this is the first time the subject has been discussed at AMNLAE meetings, the first time the demand has been made. September 21/ 22: A two-part series on population policy appeared on the op-ed pages of Barricada. Written by Mercedes Olivera of the Nicaraguan Women’s Institute, the pieces carefully set out first the pragmatic arguments, concluding that "the gap between population and resources has structural and situational causes; but it is clear that while the war of aggression continues and there is no change in the unjust international terms of trade, our development will continue to be limited and we will accumulate a growing deficit of resources and services.

"Hence, to face the situation and at least maintain survival levels, we have to find through a population policy the best way to use the time and resources we have to meet our needs in the medium and long term.... The great number of births and infant deaths means that the growth of the Nicaraguan population, besides being fast, is very costly in economic and human terms, while conditions and resources do not exist so that the children who are born can survive."

Olivera goes on to review the feminist/progressive arguments for placing control of women's fertility in their own hands. She points out that uncontrolled "natural" fertility was historically promoted by those who needed cheap labor, and that women will never escape from their traditional domestic role without control over their own bodies. She says, "Nicaragua's population policy should include reducing the fertility rate, not only by way of development programs, but also through a continuous and integrated revolutionary campaign of sex education and family planning, putting emphasis on rural areas and among the sectors of lowest incomes, where women have historically been very disadvantaged.... By reducing family size and sharing domestic work and the time it requires, we women can fully exercise our rights, train ourselves, work, and develop ourselves integrally, as is the aim of our revolution.”

September 30th: The AMNLAE celebration of its eleventh anniversary saw a radical shift. As recently as March this year, when AMNLAE announced its "Program of Struggle" on International Women's Day at a demonstration addressed by the President as well as AMNLAE's general secretary, their aim was only "to struggle for massive and systematic sex education directed at both sexes, focused on scientific and human knowledge of their bodies and relations between men and women in the area of sexuality."

But in September, the line had been breached. A comparison of coverage of the event by the Sandinista paper Barricada and the pro-revolution but independent paper El Nuevo Diario is instructive. El Nuevo Diario led with the news that AMNLAE had a major change in policy and “demanded the decriminalization of abortion and the inclusion of contraceptives in the basic goods basket of women workers.”

There were extensive quotes from the speech by General Secretary Lea Guido, where she detailed the number of women injured and killed by illegal abortions. Barricada, on the other hand, while giving the AMNLAE celebrations front-page coverage, said only that the women’s movement would “combat clandestine abortions, and wants contraceptives in the basic basket of goods.” The rest of the story was about the speech made at the celebration by Comandante Bayardo Arce. The story ends with his line “the emancipation of women is only possible through a true revolution, like ours." A later Barricada story would call the women's demands "novel and surprising."

October 3rd: The assembly of women farm workers, some 500 strong, added their voice to the demand for "contraceptives along with milk, children's clothes and shoes in the basic basket of goods, and better wages."

November 11th: Barricada carried the research of Dr. Pizarro, detailing the extent and the cost of abortions. That editorial decision was an important one; the very same information was the basis of Lea Guido's speech in September, part of her justification for AMNLAE's decision to call for decriminalization of abortion. Then, it wasn't reported in the Sandinista newspaper.

Things are changing, incrementally, slowly, clearly shifting.

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