Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 116 | Marzo 1991




Envío team

The day after the US began bombing Iraq, Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo tried to calm an anxious population with the report that Nicaragua had two months' supply of petroleum in reserve and that the country is using 21% less gas than in September. The energy minister announced that the war would likely bring a 30-35% increase in gas prices, electricity rationing, daylight savings time and reduced public office hours. The population, meanwhile, rushed to fill empty gas cans and buy basic foodstuffs, candles and other supplies, and the black market rate for the dollar took a new leap. Until threatened with heavy sanctions, gas stations started charging extra for gas or refused to sell in anticipation of an official price hike.

While the gas price has not yet increased and relative calm has returned, that first week of war provided an example of the expectation-speculation-inflation spiral that can so easily break Nicaragua's delicate economic and social "stability."

A prolonged war in the Persian Gulf could have devastating consequences for third world countries like Nicaragua that are already suffering serious economic hardships. In a TV panel on the Gulf war, Lieutenant Colonel Ricardo Wheelock, head of Nicaraguan military intelligence, said, "Third World countries are now increasingly defined as those that have oil. Countries like Nicaragua will move into the fourth world, or even the fifth or sixth."

Even before the outbreak of war, Nicaragua was forced to allocate US$80 million of precious foreign aid money to cover the jump in the 1990 petroleum bill from $90 million to $170 million after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. CRIES economist Oscar Neira reports that every dollar increase in the price of a barrel of oil costs Nicaragua an additional $600,000 per month, and estimates that the current artificially low barrel price cannot be sustained for more than a couple of months. Contingency loans promised by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to cover oil price increases work only if "only a few countries are affected"; the international banks cannot cover loans to the entire third world.

The economic recession in the US has a more direct influence on Nicaragua's economy than the war itself, says Neira. And as the war exacerbates that recession, the US is bound "to share its economic decline with the rest of the world.” Dollarized economies like Nicaragua's that are highly dependent on US trade will be hit hard. Mexico, for example, has already seen a 23% drop in tourism and a 17% drop in export income from its free trade zones.

The combination of recession and war forecasts a gloomy future for Nicaragua. Even if the war were to end quickly, Neira warns that the country's internal inflationary mechanisms could start the spiral toward hyperinflation in motion again. The US recession will cause a drop in Nicaragua's export income and drop in the now significant amount of dollars entering the country from family members in the US. Less cash for the government means more speculation and an increase in the black market rate for the dollar. An increase in the price of oil will increase all transport costs and, therefore, production costs for exports. An increase up to $50/ barrel would raise international interest rates, affecting all debtor nations. The concentration of resources on the war and domestic economies will make even less foreign aid available; economic stabilization measures will fail; and Nicaragua's precarious economic balance will be broken, leading to even greater political and social instability.

After a hiatus of several months, signs of renewed debate within the FSLN began to appear with the new year. The first salvo was fired on the pages of Barricada by Rafael Solís Cerda, former secretary of the National Assembly during the Sandinista government and current FSLN alternate to that legislative body.

Solís took a relatively conservative position, arguing that the FSLN should "assume its responsibilities to the country and support this government on substantive issues, without prejudice to its right to...criticize and express its own views....” Solís criticized the FSLN's support for the July strikes and its demands that preconditions be met before joining government-sponsored concertation discussions. "The country will not be stabilized with strikes, land occupations and takeovers of industries, with positions of force, pressure and even blackmail by Sandinista unions,” he said.

The legislator argued that the FSLN must rein in the Sandinista mass organizations, asking them to limit their demands and refrain from destabilizing tactics. "No one is going to believe that the FNT or the CST or the ATC, no matter how much autonomy they have now, are making their own decisions apart from what the FSLN decides and, in any case, the FSLN cannot allow the ATC or the CST to be the ones to make these decisions."

In his opinion piece, Solís issued a dire warning. "If this government falls apart, the FSLN is not going to be the alternative.... If the FSLN does not reconsider its position and change its attitudes and the economic situation does not improve, the Nicaraguan people will have more sympathy for an Alemán-Godoy (Liberal) or a Bolaños-Argüello (Conservative) ticket in the next elections than for the progressive sector of this government in alliance with Sandinismo."

The Solís editorial elicited a lively response in the streets and on the newspaper's pages. Barricada editor Carlos Fernando Chamorro wrote, "The FSLN's political disarmament for the sake of a supposed stability for the country, without a clear commitment by COSEP and the rightwing groups, would lead inexorably to the revolution's political suicide."

Edgardo García, leader of the Farm Workers' Association (ATC), followed with a pithy letter outlining Solís' ties to large landowning interests and asking, "What alliances do you have with large landowners and forces of the extreme Right in favor of a counterrevolutionary 'order'?"

The Regional FSLN Committee in Somoto wrote, "Here at the bottom what we have is hunger, desperation, unemployment, new layoffs, sickness, misery, malnutrition, political revenge by Godoyists and devaluations that we feel because we don't earn dollars. What we Sandinistas carried out in July wasn't an uprising, Dr. Solís, but a concrete response, the only one this bourgeois and anti-popular government understands."

The debate Sparked by Solís' article is only the precursor to discussions leading up to the FSLN party congress on July 19-21. In a recent press conference, the planning committee for the event announced that grassroots discussion of four basic position papers (analysis of the years of Sandinista government, declaration of principles, program and statutes) would begin in mid-March. All Sandinistas, whether officially members or not, are invited to participate. Four hundred delegates elected in regional meetings in late June or early July will attend the Congress itself.

Managua residents were startled one Sunday morning in late November to hear a booming voice offering salvation coming from—where else?—the sky. The celestial sermon was blasted into living rooms from a small plane circling lazily above the city. The pilot was US citizen and Assembly of God pastor Miguel Jaen. Jaen flies a plane with an engine silencer and uses a parabolic device to project his voice. The 52-year-old evangelical pastor, who has been preaching from the air for 18 years, has worked the skies of Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico and all of Central America. During the Christmas season, he covered wide stretches of Nicaragua, from Puerto Cabezas to the Pacific, scattering five tons of hard candy as he went.

At the beginning of February, a week and a half after doctors at La Mascota, Managua's children's hospital, began a work stoppage, they were joined by workers at all levels in public health facilities throughout the country. Though staff members continue treating emergencies and patients already interned in hospitals, other services have been suspended.

"What we want is a salary that allows us to send our kids to school; what we're getting is hunger-level pay," said Gloria Campos, an x-ray technician whose monthly paycheck is 50 córdobas oro (still officially equivalent to $50, but expected to devalue soon). Ministry of Health salaries range from 40 córdobas oro for janitorial workers to 100 for an intern and 300 for a doctor with more than five years' experience. Strikers are demanding a job reclassification that would mean salaries ranging from 200 to 1,300 córdobas oro per month. They also demand that the abysmal lack of basic medicines and other supplies needed to treat patients be addressed.

Minister of Health Ernesto Salmerón first said strikers' demands were "just," but later angered striking doctors by calling them "necrophiliacs" and "traffickers in the health of the people.” Whatever his sympathies, Salmerón has insisted that there is no room in the $83.5 million budget for salary increases without layoffs or cuts in medical supplies. Minister of Finance Emilio Pereira echoed this, adding that the strike was a violation of the concertation accords in which unions agreed to hold the line on salaries to prevent massive layoffs.

The doctors chose to represent themselves rather than seek the support of Fetsalud, the pro-Sandinista union that represents the majority of health workers. Dr. Oscar Núñez, representative of the doctors' Pro-Salary Commission at La Mascota hospital, explained. "Fetsalud will ask for more for the workers who earn least, naturally enough. We doctors can represent ourselves best. Other health workers accused us of sectarianism, but our answer is that they go talk to their Fetsalud representatives and go out themselves, which is what happened."

The fact that Fetsalud hesitated before joining the strike may reflect the FSLN's stance in favor of the concertation accords as a guarantee of stability. Ultimately, pressure from union members played a decisive role. The strike now includes not only Fetsalud, but also two small pro-government unions (FITS and FENITRAS) as well as the doctors' organization. Demonstrators interviewed at a health workers' march to the presidential offices insisted that their struggle was not divided along political lines.

With negotiations stalemated, the strike's outcome is in doubt. As health worker demonstrations grow in size and militancy, government representatives continue to refuse to compromise. They undoubtedly fear that strikes could spread to education and other state workers, reeling under the effects of the economic crisis. With an agreement with the IMF and the World Bank in the works, this is a possibility the UNO government is eager to avoid.

* With information from the National Central America Health Rights Network, Managua.

In the wake of UNO's electoral victory last February, many Latin American expatriates and refugees who had long called Nicaragua home began pulling up stakes, fearing harassment by the new government. The Salvadorans in Nicaragua were no exception, and they began leaving the country in small numbers last year. But a more organized move back was planned for late December, as 280 Salvadoran refugees, most of whom have lived in Nicaragua for nearly 10 years, made the decision to return home.

Their plans met immediate roadblocks from the Salvadoran government. They were told they must wait until another group of Salvadoran refugees repatriating from Panama had entered the country. But when that repatriation process finished on January 26, the Salvadoran government said it could not have a documentation team in Nicaragua until February 6. Many of the refugees' lives were on hold for weeks, as they had left their homes and given up jobs, expecting to leave Nicaragua in late December.

The Nicaraguan government placed other obstacles in their way. The majority of the Salvadorans have been working on an agricultural cooperative near León. They planned to take an irrigation system with them that had been donated to the refugees through the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). However, some Nicaraguans at the cooperative appealed to the Nicaraguan authorities to intervene so they could keep the cooperative's equipment, including the irrigation system. After what one US observer involved in the repatriation effort called an "unfortunate conflict" between Nicaraguan cooperative members and representatives of the Salvadoran grassroots movement, it was agreed that the equipment would be divided between the two groups and the Nicaraguans would assume a large debt left by the Salvadorans.

Refugees say they were harassed at gunpoint, and charge that the Nicaraguan police were slow in responding to their complaints. During the Sandinista administration, they had to deal with the country's extreme economic crisis, but one refugee said that at least they were left to work in peace. All that changed with the new government.

As envío goes to press, the refugees have made an agreement with the Salvadoran government that the UNHCR will fly the refugee families back to El Salvador, while the equipment and the community's belongings, accompanied by several cooperative members as well as an international observation team, will make the trip by land. As of February 12, the refugees still have no firm date for their trip home.

Still Stumping for Peace
Premiering in his new role as third world statesman, former Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega spent most of the last two months of 1990 and early 1991 doing his best to contribute to a peaceful, negotiated settlement to the Persian Gulf crisis.

In early November, Ortega declared that "we cannot be absent at this moment when world peace is at stake." He left Nicaragua on November 12, meeting with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad on November 15. The Miami Herald cited several Western diplomats as crediting Ortega with playing a key role in the December 6 release of the majority of Iraq's foreign hostages. After his visit to Iraq, Ortega went to Jordan, Libya, France, India, Germany, Italy, Tunisia and the Soviet Union. He also met with UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar in New York. Ortega's hope was to forge a third world alliance that would facilitate a negotiated solution to the crisis.

Ortega returned to Nicaragua in January, but, since the war broke out on January 16, he has begun another round of globetrotting dedicated to ending the war, which he called a threat to every nation in the world. Ortega expressed concern that, to avoid an all-out land war, the US will resort to nuclear weapons, an option he called "catastrophic.” Interviewed in Jordan in early February, he announced that he and other third world leaders would introduce a peace plan to the United Nations later in the month. The plan, he said, hopes to strengthen international law and is thus directed towards the international community rather than specifically addressing either Iraq or the United States. Our goal, he said, "is to generate an international movement for peace."

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