The Situation of the Campesinos in Nicaragua Today
This third, and for the time being last, article on agriculture and the rural social classes of Nicaragua is dedicated to the campesinos, both the small and medium sized producers. For further information, see the articles “Rural Nicaragua” in Envío N° 9 and “Castillo Norte, the situation of the agricultural workers” in Envío N° 10.
First ImpressionsWe are in San Juan del Sur, in the far south-west of the country, a small Pacific port with an approximate population of 5,000 inhabitants. The land is not too fertile, the countryside is sparsely populated. The forests in this region had been leveled for years, and the only good soil for agriculture is that near the rivers. All the region is so tremendously dry that the few irrigated lands appear as oases. We are here at the end of summer, so there have already been five months without rain.
Everything is calm in San Juan, the recent events have not had big repercussions in this zone. Above all, during mid-day life seems paralyzed by the heat. “The day before yesterday there was a mobilization of the militias, and they had a manifestation in the streets,” said Augusto, a 38-year old campesino. “More people than ever answered the call to defend the country”.
Nevertheless, when we speak with the people, whether with the process or not, it would seem that the principal problem of the area is the control of the sale of sugar. We visited Domingo, a 45-year old campesino who lives in a barrio on the outskirts of the city. He tells us, “Look, before we needed three pounds of sugar per person each week; today we receive only one. We used to nearly always eat our tortillas with sugar, we even put sugar on the meat and the white beans. We never drank the water plain, adding sugar makes it taste much better. We can only do this now in a reduced form”.
Augustino spoke to us of the same problem. “As Nicaragua is a country with so much sugar, we have problems understanding the new controls. Sure, we realize that the country urgently needs foreign currency, and that this benefits all of us, but why are the means to control speculation and hoarding only taken with sugar?”
With the exception of some areas of the region, San Juan is one of the zones that was not involved in the war. As a result the level of conscientization is not very high. Nevertheless, with the latest threats, the participation of the people in the militia and in the revolutionary night watch has increased.
Campesinos In San Juan Del SurIn the municipality of San Juan, approximately 20% of the population is campesino, living only from their land. Here the campesinos suffer the same fate as their counterparts in the rest of Nicaragua and Central America.
In 1950 the campesino economy began to decline because of the rapid expansion of the cotton plantations, accompanied by a process of land concentration, though this latter process did not have direct repercussions in San Juan. At the end of the seventies, when the prices of cotton fell in the world market, many of the capitalists changed to cattle ranches and meat exportation. The campesinos, who had always lived a border-line existence, were expelled from their lands by means of both structural and political violence. The mechanisms of this process are familiar: when agriculture is rapidly capitalized, the campesinos must compete on the open market with the large landholders, the superproducers. If the State does not take the means to protect them, their very existence is threatened. These quite profound structural changes, produced the following class structures in the Nicaraguan countryside up until 1978.
After the triumph of the Revolution in 1979, the great landholders lost much of their power due to the flight of the Somocistas. This was a direct benefit for the small and medium producers. The new policies of the Agrarian Reform (see Envío N° 9) will even strengthen the campesino sector more.
In San Juan de Sur, the flight from the rural areas, provoked by this wave of structural destruction, was aided by the fact that the port offered new opportunities of income such as the hotels, prostitution, etc.
Today in San Juan del Sur the National Union of Farmers and Cattle Raisers (UNAG) has about 1,500 campesino members, and they have formed 22 cooperatives: 6 Agricultural Cooperatives of Production (CAP), and 16 Service and Credit Cooperatives (CCS). In the CAPs, property, production and commercialization are collective. In the CCSs, the land remains in private hands, but most of the production and technical services to aid production are done through the collectives. To illustrate the characteristics of these two types of cooperatives, we’ll call on Augustino, a member of a CCS, and Domingo, a member of a CAP.
Augustino And Domingo: Two Campesinos From San Juan Del SurAugustino’s father had two cows and four hectares of land on which he planted corn and beans. It was necessary for the five sons to leave the farm and look for work outside. One brother became a tailor, another a mason, a third worked as a longshoreman, and Augustino worked as a truck driver. Because of his job, Augustino had to move to Managua. He lived there for seven years without ever getting accustomed to city life or ever being really happy. Although he made money quickly, he spent it just as quickly. For a time he played with the idea of returning to San Juan as a campesino, but there were no lands to buy. He had to wait until the triumph of the Revolution in 1979 and the simultaneous emigration of some local landowners. Two and a half years ago he returned with his wife and 6 children to San Juan, where he bought his house and 9 hectares of grazing land.
Today, he has 24 head of cattle, and of these 12 are cows. This gives him sufficient income for food and the education of his children, and he is able to help out his parents as well.
“Now I probably work more than I did before, but the work is easier.” Augustino has joined a CCS. “The day before yesterday we made up our annual budget. Now we’ll present this to the bank for credit”. Planning ahead for a full year is something totally new for campesinos.
“In the first year of the Revolution the CCS totally failed.” Augustino gives two reasons: first, the person who did the administrative-type tasks was not compensated by the other members. So this campesino did not work during this time, and this meant that he was soon faced with problems of keeping his business alive. Second, the credits given with so much confidence to the campesinos were often turned into alcohol. What caused these problems? Fatalism and individualism, Augustino told us, but he hastened to defend his colleagues.
“Look, for us campesinos, having a government that truly helps us, that’s interested in our progress, that not only gives favorable credits but also technical assistance, is something completely new.” During Somoza’s time, the rich campesinos we knew who received credits had family members either in the Bank or in the Government. Today, there are still poor campesinos who have the idea that the government is going to trick them or rob them of their property. There are still campesinos who won’t go to the bank because they are afraid that they’ll never see their money again.
The lack of guarantees for survival, fear, the ever present insecurity of a good harvest, the violence on the part of the former government agencies, all worked together to produce a fatalism in which planning ahead was both useless and futile. In these situations, alcohol became the answer. Alcoholism is a great problem in the countryside not only in Nicaragua, but in all of Latin America. Another important factor is the evangelical sects who try to capitalize the discontent that is not already drowned in alcohol. “Sad to say, they appear to have a lot of success,” commented Augustino. “Besides”, he added, “they influence many campesinos against participating in the cooperatives”.
There are still many things that do not go well, e.g., there are a lot of problems and much time is lost because of the bureaucracy of INRA and AGROMEQ (state agencies of Agrarian Reform and Farm Machinery). Also in the beginning, the level of confidence in the personal of PROCAMPO and PROAGRO, who are the directors of technical assistance and supplies, was quite low. Yet the campesinos feel confident that changes for the better have already been implemented.
Another problem is the marketing of milk and cheese. Until now the campesinos had to sell these products to a single buyer. A fixed price was never set, and they felt cheated when they saw that the prices in the market were often much higher than what they had received. Augustino asked his colleagues, who all agreed that the municipality of San Juan had to take measures so that the campesino could sell their products to a buyer who would offer a fixed price. The municipal government promised that in the coming weeks they would watch the prices of milk and cheese in order to establish a fixed price according to quantity.
Domingo, a member of a CAP, has experienced both ups and downs since the triumph of the revolution. He lives in a wooden house, typical of countryside housing. There is one room for sleeping, with hammocks and cots, and another room which has an adobe oven and table. Dogs, chickens, cats and pigs come and go. Domingo used to be a mason, and his companions in the CAP were fishermen, agricultural wage workers and longshoremen. They all had dreams of a piece of land, and the revolution made it possible. INRA gave them 45 acres of land from a Somocista landholder who left Nicaragua. Of these, ten acres were prepared for farming. In the first year, the CAP had 13 members, in the second only four, and today these are seven members. Why is there such an inconsistency?
“The first year, we planted sorghum and the prices in the market were low. We didn’t break even, and for this reason many impatient companions gave up. In the second year, we planted rice; it went much better, and we earned a small profit. In the third year, we planted rice, corn and beans. The profit was satisfactory, and CAP grew again”. Three companions from the first year are still in the collective. All the members live in the same barrio and knew each other before.
They sell their products to ENABAS (Government Distributor of Basic Food Stuffs). “Last year the bank gave us 42,000 córdobas in credit. We sold a certain percentage to pay our debts, and we shared the rest of the production in equal parts among the members of the CAP.”
If a member is sick or absent (due to participation in the militia or some other activity) the others take on his share of the work. Everyone did not accept this rule at first, but now it is generally accepted.
The CAPs work closely with PROCAMPO and PROAGRO. These institutions together with UNAG make up the budgets and the production plans. Domingo’s CAP is quite satisfied with the advisor from PROCAMPO. He not only builds up their confidence but also helps them in their dealings with the bank.
Each cooperative elects a president, an accountant and a supply person. For the work in the fields, a leader is elected each year. Once elected, the work is still discussed and group decisions are made, but in the case of disagreements the leader has the last word.
We asked Domingo what he considered were the chief benefits of the revolution: “Look, before we had no land, today we do. Now we can at least live peacefully and without fear. Besides, we can secure credits without many problems, which was impossible before. We still have many problems but we are more confident now.”
One of the problems they had was with INRA, because INRA wanted the region to be turned over almost exclusively to cattle raising. The people in the cooperative did not have cattle for the project and were not given the necessary initial capital for fear of losses. So a great part of the land was not used, but was left idle.
In the summer, when there is not much work on their own land, the campesinos work in other ways to increase their income. Domingo works as a mason, the others participate in the harvesting of coffee and cotton.
“Our biggest problem this year is the rental price of the land. The government wants to charge us 30 córdobas per acre each year. We don’t understand this. We were promised land, and now they want to charge us rent. We can’t manage this economically. The government should fulfill its promises”.
Augustino, the representative of San Juan in the departmental Assembly of the UNAG in Rivas, said to us: “I presented this problem at the Assembly. Representatives of other regions, those with fertile lands, such as Isal en Ometepe, were happy with the low price of rent. I insisted on making an exception for the regions such as San Juan. After a while, it was decided in the Assembly that the campesinos of San Juan did not have to pay anything. This is proof that democracy functions in Nicaragua today”.
The Actual Situation: Law Of EmergencyAccording to Domingo, everything in his barrio is the same since the Law of National Emergency was decreed. He works as before, and all is calm. “The participation in the militias and in the revolutionary night watch has increased, although the number is still not very high. Some are afraid, while others say that there are already sufficient militia. But we are alert and ready for whatever happens”.
Augustino agrees with Domingo: “There are many campesinos who don’t participate in the manifestations. Many are timid, but in the case of an aggression everyone would take up arms”.
Augustino said, “I believe that we campesinos are with the revolution even more than are the workers, because up to now we have received more help from the government and the Frente Sandinista than they have. We will never allow the revolution to be stopped…”