Struggle to preserve Nicaragua's gains

Wednesday, July 10, 1991

By Martin Mulligan

On the 12th anniversary of the revolution, Nicaraguans suffer living standards that have plummeted since the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in February 1990.

In the last year, the annual inflation rate reached a staggering 13,500%. The health system is in crisis, infant mortality is on the increase after 10 years of decline, and the overt signs of poverty have returned to the streets of Managua.

Yet the government of President Violeta Chamorro has been forced to back away from many attempts to reverse gains made during 10 years of Sandinista government.

Just three weeks after Chamorro took office, 70,000 public servants were out on strike over sackings, wage cuts and the repeal of a law which had provided job security. The government backed down on some of its provocative initiatives and promised a wage increase.

Two months later, 90,000 workers were drawn into a general strike over the government's economic austerity and a provocative attempt to repeal the laws under which land had been distributed to many peasant farmers. During two weeks of the general strike, 11 people were killed and barricades were erected in Managua, but when the smoke had cleared, the Chamorro government had again backed down.

A third big strike wave was set off in January when doctors, nurses and health workers at a Managua children's hospital began a hunger strike over the deterioration of health care facilities and the erosion of their own wages. The strike spread through the education sector and public service, hard hit by cuts to social services and the effect on wages of hyperinflation. The government had to promise the National Workers Front (FNT) to improve supplies to hospitals and to restore the buying power of wages for 110,000 public employees.

When the government called on representatives of all sectors of society to participate in a summit meeting on economic policy in September 1990, the FNT leaders organised a militant demonstration to coincide with the opening session and argued their case firmly.

Representatives of one of the employer organisations — the Higher Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) — walked out when the government refused to consider its demand to restore all property rights to what they had been before the 1979 revolution.

The negotiations resulted in a concertation agreement that was welcomed by the FNT and by the National Union of Farmers

and Ranchers (UNAG). It promised to shift the emphasis from spending cuts to tax collection so that health and education spending could be given a higher priority; provide credit to small farmers; and abolish the gold cordoba (intended as an inflation-proof investment for the wealthy).

Defence of the revolution's gains has been helped by the fact that the 14-party coalition government has been badly split since the day of its electoral victory. Chamorro relies heavily on a faction led by her son-in-law, Antonio Lacayo; the majority of government members in the National Assembly support the more right-wing policies of Vice President Virgilio Godoy, who has campaigned for a frontal assault on the achievements of the revolution.

Godoy has the support of COSEP and the National Endowment for Democracy (which includes 104 of the country's 146 mayors). Together with a wing of the former contra army, these were the forces behind the "mayors' revolt" of November, which resulted in the occupation of public buildings and the blocking of highways.

The former contras are not united in support of Godoy. Chamorro has neutralised some by providing disused farmland, and even the Sandinistas have won some support from them by backing their right to land.

An "economic stabilisation" package released on March 3, 1991, included only some of the concertation agreements. The majority of Sandinista members of the National Assembly reluctantly supported the plan on the basis that it might help to curb hyperinflation, while the FNT negotiated a settlement of the public sector strike which included more specific commitments to restore spending on social services.

The Chamorro government cannot get anything through the National Assembly against the opposition of the Godoy faction without support from Sandinista deputies. This has led to allegations that the country is being ruled by a Chamorro-Sandinista alliance. The Sandinistas stress that they have made no permanent agreements with Chamorro, but they find themselves in a powerful if delicate position, holding the balance of power in the assembly.

Issue