The government of President Daniel Ortega made significant advances in 2008 in teaching Nicaraguans to read and write, providing loans for the poor, paving roads, and putting an end to power-rationing blackouts that had plagued the energy-starved country since 2006.
Though opponents blame Ortega for polarizing the country, cracking down on dissenters and weakening the country’s fledgling democratic institutions, Orlando Nuñez, one of Ortega’s top social-policy advisors, says critics should instead look at the government through different lenses: those of the poor.
“We’ve tripled credit to campesinos,” said Nuñez, who helped design the Ortega government’s transition after it took the reigns from President Enrique Bolaños.
In programs largely financed by Venezuela, the Ortega government claims it built 1,400 houses for the poor, reconstructed 422 kilometers of highways, improved 700 classrooms and provided 33,000 poor families with tools for production, including cows, pigs, chickens, fruit trees and seeds under the Brazilian-inspired Zero Hunger Program.
Nuñez says Zero Hunger, which he once managed, is a “very radical” policy in which wealth is redistributed to the poor while encouraging people to produce and become self-sufficient. At the same time, the social program aspires to create basic food reserves that Nicaragua can fall back in times of disaster and famine, thus increasing food security, the analyst said.
Instead of giving handouts and pumping social spending into state-run institutions as it did in the 1980s, the Sandinista government’s “21st Century Socialist” policies now finance private cooperatives, which Nuñez said are more effective distributors of income than the state. Independent economists, too, have lauded the effort, which is part of Ortega’s goal to turn Nicaragua into the region’s bread basket. Some, however, have noted that the program needs more funding to be efficient at poverty reduction.
“Zero Hunger isn’t about food, it’s about creating capital” for the poor, Nuñez said.
“We’re manufacturing our own food security. Small producers are controlling more and more of the production.”
Nuñez, himself a former cooperative manager, says the Zero Hunger program aspires to reach 75,000 poor families.
The program is one among an array of social programs the Ortega government rolled out this year in a strategy to protect national sovereignty, promote social justice, and move toward what Ortega calls a “direct democracy.”
Ortega supporters have lauded the government’s efforts to end energy-rationing blackouts, increase access to potable water for more than 200,000 Nicaraguans, and expand access to health care and free education.
With Venezuelan funds, Ortega expanded his Zero Usury program, in which 630,000 women producers, organized in small groups of five to 10, were given millions of dollars in small loans.
“When they loan money to women, the whole family benefits,” said Wilfredo López, a Managua resident whose wife is a beneficiary. He uses funds his wife receives under the program to buy juice which he resells in the Oriental Market in plastic bags.
The government also oversaw pavement of 1,200 blocks of urban streets and reconstructed 422 kilometers of highway. The public works program also “improved” 401 kilometers of rural roads, and 125 meters of bridges, according to a preliminary report on 2008 achievements from first lady Rosario Murillo, which was published in its entirety on the Web page of the pro-government radio station La Primerisima.
Among the projects completed was the much-anticipated World Bank-financed 20- kilometer highway leading into the booming beach town of San Juan del Sur that Ortega inaugurated in December.
According to Murillo’s 2008 government progress report, 20,000 Nicaraguans have received land titles, solvency or had their property publicly registered. By securing property rights for the poor, the government increases their chances of qualifying for loans that give them a ladder out of poverty, Nuñez said.
One of the government’s more dubious programs has been Ortega’s Houses for the People, which aspires to reduce Nicaragua’s gargantuan housing deficit that affects nearly half the population.
So far the government has built 1,400 houses and improved another 100 – a fraction of the 42,000 houses it aspires to build and 13,500 it wants to improve in four years. That program came under fire when a dozen Venezuelan-funded homes had to be demolished after being built on a fault line in Managua in violation of Nicaraguan law.
Critics say the program has benefitted Ortega loyalists without doing much to address the real problem. Prompting more criticism for the subsidized housing program was an October ceremony – days before the municipal election – in which the government handed out titles to 400 houses, but without keys.
While the Ortega’s government’s housing efforts may be one of its most scrutinized social programs, its literacy program has been one of the most revered. According to Nuñez, the Sandinista government has brought illiteracy rates down into single digits after they reached above 30 percent during “neo-liberal” rule between 1990 and 2006.
With help from Venezuela and the Cuban-inspired Yo Sí Puedo literacy program, the government hopes to “eradicate” illiteracy by July 19 to mark the 30th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution – a goal opponents dismiss as quixotic.
Ortega’s budding relationship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has brought in funds for other social and health programs, such as Mision Milagro, which offers free eye surgery for the poor. Ortega also credits Chávez for helping end energy-rationing blackouts in late 2007 by providing several new fuel-powered plants that have corrected the country’s energy deficit.
Other programs are too young to adequately measure. It has yet to be seen how Murillo’s program to get 25,000 child laborers and street kids back into schools will fare. Launched in September, the Programa Amor is to receive a boost from $3.4 million in Taiwanese aid to rebuild child development centers.
Murillo’s year-end report says about 2,000 kids have already been reinserted into centers, and another 500 have found new homes under the program. Still, images of Sandinista supporters donning Programa Amor T-shirts as they clashed violently with the opposition during post-electoral chaos in November remains the most visible contribution the program has made so far.
After the contested Nov. 9 elections, in which the Sandinistas won most of the municipalities, the ruling party says it will deepen its programs on a municipal level next year.