San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The End of a ‘New Era’

With the New Year only a few days old, 2007 is already starting to look a little brighter than last year, both literally and figuratively. Even before taking office Jan. 10, President-elect Daniel Ortega has taken some broad steps in past weeks to resolve some of the problems left behind by the “New Era” government of his predecessor, Enrique Bolaños.

The first issue that already appears to be on the mend is that of the crippling energy crisis, which has socked the economy and frustrated the nation for the last six months.

The first of the Venezuelan power generators arrived last week in Managua and is expected to be online by next week to cover the country’s energy deficit – something Bolaños was unable to do during his five years as President and three years as head of the energy commission before that.

The other pressing issue left on the table by the outgoing government is that of poverty, which many claim has gotten increasingly dire in recent years.

Though the Bible says the poor will always be with us, the new government seems to think that shouldn’t be an excuse not to do anything about it.

Ortega has set up a special “Zero Poverty” program that aims to eliminate extreme poverty in Nicaragua by the end of his term in 2011. It’s perhaps a quixotic goal in country that is the second poorest in the hemisphere, but it’s a noble cause nonetheless.

Thus far, the Zero Poverty program has been laid out only in broad strokes, in the forms of credit and other assistance for the poorest sector of the population, which statistics show is around 20% of the population of 5.2 million.

Poverty has not improved here in the past five years. But that should not come as a surprise from a government that didn’t do much to alleviate it, aside from creating thousands of minimal paying jobs in textile plants.

Though the outgoing administration is to be credited for establishing macroeconomic stability and increased investor confidence, much work remains to be done to address the issues of inequality and unmet basic needs – the same issues that gave rise to a revolution 30 years ago. Several analysts have mentioned that Bolaños is leaving behind a large social debt with Nicaragua.

Mauricio Zúniga, director of the Institute for Development and Democracy, noted in an article published Tuesday in El Nuevo Diario that during the five-year Bolaños administration, public spending in education increased $30-32 per capita, while spending on health care increased only one dollar, from $24 to $25. During that same time, Zúniga says, public spending on paying down Nicaragua’s internal debt increased from $16 to $41 per capita.

The numbers clearly show the priorities of the outgoing administration, which will take its so-called “New Era” government out the door with it.

Nicaragua is a country of extreme poverty and extreme needs. It can’t afford to dedicate its limited resources to subsidizing the rich and then later bailing them out of trouble.

Ortega seems to understand this. Or, at least he acknowledges the issues of poverty and inequality in his political discourse.

Now that he is taking office, it will be a chance for him to show the country where the rubber meets the road. Hopefully he will be able to wrench open the valve of trickle-down a little wider, to try to get the rising tide to lift a few more boats.

If he can do this and manage to fulfill his promises, Ortega could be remembered someday as the President that ushered in a newer New Era – one that will actually be talked about after he’s gone.


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