By Tyrion Perkins
Last month two prominent members of the FSLN toured Australia. Alejandro Bendaña and Zoilamerica Ortega, representing the Centre for International Studies, spoke at meetings organised by CISLAC (Committees in Solidarity with Latin America and the Caribbean).
They spoke about the gains of the 1979 revolution: the destruction of the repressive National Guard, distribution of 3 million hectares of land were to 120,000 peasant families, reduction of the illiteracy rate from 54% to 12%, the setting up of free schools and health clinics.
But in the hope of ending the US-backed Contra war and gaining some economic help, in the 1990 elections the majority of people voted for the US-backed Violeta Chamorro.
However, since 1990 there has been an unprecedented social and economic crisis. Nicaragua today is governed on behalf of a small group of monopolies and oligopolies; its financial policies are set by the World Bank. There is 60% unemployment and underemployment. Less land is under cultivation than at the height of the Contra war. The 1995 per capita income was equal to that of 1945. Students and workers are repressed violently, corruption is extreme, and the Catholic Church virtually runs the Ministry of Education. Hunger is rampant in the cities and countryside: only 18% of the people of Managua, the capital, can afford three meals a day.
Health care cuts have meant higher infant mortality rates and the proliferation of infectious diseases. Bendana equated this to the effect of war: what difference is there between the child killed by malnutrition or preventable disease and one killed by a bullet or land mine? Average life expectancy has been reduced from 66 to 59 years.
People voted for peace, but six years later armed bands are still terrorising the population in the mountainous regions of the north. In the first four months of this year, 50 campesinos were assassinated. People in the countryside migrate to cities in order to survive physically. Others migrate to the United States or other countries to survive economically.
Neo-liberal policies also mean an ecological crisis. Small producers and landless peasants must exploit what land is available, while international conglomerates are given 35-year concessions to 62,000 hectares of forest reserves.
To the question "can elections change this situation?", the president of the Central Bank answered that there will be no increase in real wages for some time to come. A vice-president of the World Bank stated that any new government will be obliged to continue the application of the structural adjustment program.
The right wing is using populism to manipulate the misery and despair its policies generate. The challenge for the FSLN and the popular movements is to take part in the electoral frameworks without becoming contaminated by them and to sustain grassroots organising without falling into localism.