San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

An Opportunity for Leadership

El Compañero Presidente Comandante Daniel Ortega, as it has been widely noted, is not the most gifted orator that Nicaragua has ever produced. In many of his speeches, which meander unscripted for hours into the evening, his tongue seems to have a mind of its own, jumping effortlessly between unrelated topics with a fluidity that most experience only when dreaming.

But on the issue of food security, Ortega is on mark. His identification of the problem as a national priority is of crucial importance; his call to increase food production is urgently needed; and even his tired political diatribes of capitalist shortcomings seem particularly poignant in this case.

In some ways, Ortega and his government have already shown early leadership on the food security issue. Last year, faced with soaring bean prices that jumped from 32 cents per pound to $1.10, the Ortega government reactivated the old state food bank, ENABAS, which had been partially sold and otherwise abandoned by the three previous conservative administrations.

Since reactivating ENABAS, the government has converted itself into a major buyer of beans, driving out market speculators and helping to stabilize bean prices, which have since dropped by half to 63 cents per pound.

The problem with the government’s “fair price” bean initiative is that, like all things Sandinista, it has been overly politicized to the point where the merit of the achievement is overshadowed by partisan nonsense. By putting the famoso Councils of Citizen Participation, or Sandinista “CPC” neighborhood committees in charge of selling the ENABAS beans, the program has been contaminated by Sandinista politics, with the best prices going to party loyalists in what has become a mechanism for social control on a neighborhood level. However, the overall economic effects of the program have been more far-reaching, helping to drive down the price of beans on the open market and thereby helping everyone to one degree or another.

Now Ortega is jockeying himself into a leadership role on the international level to confront the food crisis in Central America and the extended region. Nicaragua is in the best position of any Central American nation to become the regional breadbasket of basic food supplies, as the president has correctly noted. Ortega, therefore, could indeed live up to his self-touted image as the president of the poor if Nicaragua is able to fulfill the challenge of producing more food to feed the region’s hungry.

In a country where irony is king, Nicaragua could be saved by its underdevelopment. The country just needs to make its fallow fields productive again, and help its campesino population produce more to become new players in a globalized economy that is increasingly unable to feed itself.

In a way, Nicaragua has to keep doing what it’s been doing for years – growing beans, corn, beef and other basic agricultural products – only now do it better. If the country is able to first feed itself, and then produce enough to become a major exporter of food products to set the tables in a region that is increasingly moving beyond basic agriculture, the country could find that its backwardness has become a competitive edge.

But to pull this off successfully, Nicaragua needs a plan, and it will require lots of investment, coordination, education and cooperation. The Sandinistas claim they have a plan and that the wheels are already in motion. The problem, as we’ve seen with other Sandinista plans in the recent past, is that most government efforts are not as inclusive as they pretend to be at the outset. Helping the poor usually means helping the “Sandinista poor,” while towns, cities and the countryside become more polarized and resentful as a result.

But for a man who’s already had more political first chances than anyone else in the region, the global food crisis could be another. This could be Ortega’s moment to show the world that a Sandinista Nicaragua does indeed represent the interests of the poor and that the country can become a major producer and a regional player. Ortega can also show his critics that ALBA isn’t just about Venezuelan oil and revolutionary hot air. It’s about putting food on the table and fulfilling basic needs.

This is a moment for Ortega to assume real leadership, but in a broader and sustainable way, and not through his traditional Machiavellian wranglings. Now he’s got a cause that he can rally people behind, and a war to fight in a productive way. If he doesn’t trip over politics, like he so often has in the past, this could be Ortega’s – and Nicaragua’s – moment to shine.


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