Sandinista government has made improvements in people’s lives

NSCAG News | | credit: Nicaragua Network on: Saturday, 7 May 2011
Origional source: Click here for original article

By Robert Siegel

[Robert Siegel is a member of the board of the Alliance for Global Justice, of which the Nicaragua Network is the founding member. Siegel has a long history of working in solidarity with Nicaragua. ]

Alejandro Gutierrez’s Feb. 17th piece on the web page of NACLA, “The Disconcerting ‘Success’ of Nicaragua’s Anti-Poverty Programs,” written in response to Katherine Hoyt’s online Dec. 12th article “Anti-Poverty Programs Make a Difference,” purported to provide a discussion of the “broader political and economic context of the Ortega government” that was supposedly missing in Hoyt’s article. Gutierrez’s criticisms of the Ortega government basically echoed those of Roger Burbach’s article in the March/April print edition of Report on the Americas: “Et Tu, Daniel? The Sandinista Revolution Betrayed,” which prompted Katherine Hoyt’s response.

Putting issues and events in their full context is, indeed, critical for an accurate understanding of those issues and events. Unfortunately, Alejandro Gutierrez and Roger Burbach fail to do that in their near-categorically negative characterization of the government of Daniel Ortega.

The most blatant example of this contextual distortion is the cursory, glancing, back-handed acknowledgment by Burbach and Gutierrez of the major achievements of the Ortega government in improving the lives of Nicaraguans. Thus, these achievements are passed off in a token two-sentence mention by Gutierrez and a one-sentence nod by Burbach. And, not content with distortion by minimization, Gutierrez disparages those achievements as just “some progress” and “merely palliative.”

In fact, the Ortega government’s achievements have been profound and broad-based and have benefitted a broad swath of the Nicaraguan people in critical areas of their daily lives.

To cite just several of those achievements:

1) The Ortega government has made dramatic strides in reducing hunger, malnutrition, and providing food security—strides which have drawn praise from the United Nations, the Food and Agriculture Organization ( FAO) , and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture ( IICA ). In its three years, the government has reduced the percentage of Nicaraguans who are malnourished from 27% to 22%. In July 2009, the government passed the historic Law for Food and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security which commits the government to promote programs that assure the adequate availability and equitable distribution of safe, nutritious food. Citing the government’s Zero Hunger Program, school nutrition program, infant malnutrition program, and the National Food Program, among others, the FAO representative in Nicaragua, Dr. Gero Vaagt said: “The Nicaraguan government gives great importance to food and nutritional security, which is reflected in the efforts it has made on the national level with small farmers, poor peasants, and the most vulnerable segments of the population to improve the food situation for all Nicaraguans.”

2) The Ortega government has slashed the illiteracy rate by 85%—from the 22% level when it assumed office in January 2007 to 3.3% in January of this year. On June 22, 2009, the U.N. officially declared Nicaragua to be free of illiteracy, making it only the fourth country in Latin America to achieve this distinction.

3) The Ortega government has rescinded the educational fees imposed by previous right-wing governments and, as with the first Sandinista government in the 1980s, has made free education a right for all Nicaraguans. The government, also, guarantees at least one free meal a day to students and, during 2010, will be providing free daily meals to 1,000,000 students.

Nearly 4,000 new teachers have been hired. More than 900 schools have been expanded and renovated, with 700 high schools having libraries for the first time. The government’s Community Centers for Child Development are providing, for the first time, tens of thousands of children under six years of age with pre-schooling and one free meal per day.

4) As with education, the Ortega government has de-privatized health care and is committed to providing free, quality, universal health care for all Nicaraguans. And, it is particularly committed to providing quality health care to those who have least access to such care: the poor peasantry in the countryside. To this end, teams of Sandinista doctors from numerous city hospitals have formed medical brigades ( nicknamed “white armies“)—most notably, the Denis Silva Torres Sandinista Doctors Brigade—that have gone throughout the Nicaraguan countryside performing thousands of surgeries and tens of thousands of lab tests and medical consultations. The number of medical consultations nationally has increased by 68% during the three years of the Ortega government.

In those three years, there was a reduction of 24% in the maternal mortality rate and a decline of one-third in the overall mortality rate. There has been a significant decline in the incidence of many diseases that have long plagued Nicaraguans, most strikingly a 75% decline in the incidence of malaria.

5) Through the program Houses for the People, 5,600 new homes were built for poor Nicaraguans, benefitting nearly 28,000 people; while, 5,800 existing homes of poor people were refurbished and/or expanded, benefitting nearly 15,000 people.

Sewage treatment and electricity were provided to 105 municipalities across the country, benefitting 346,000 people; while, access to safe, potable water was made available for the first time to 217,000 people. Nationally, the Ortega government increased overall electricity generation by 50%, thus significantly reducing the number of periodic blackouts that had damaged the national economy and caused significant difficulties for tens of thousands of Nicaraguan home dwellers and small businesses.

6) In environmental stewardship, the government has designated 11,700 hectares of natural forest for special care and protection. 36, 000 hectares of land were re-forested in 2009—triple the rate of 2006.

7) In the domain of indigenous rights, the Ortega government has made substantial progress in securing titles for indigenous peoples to their lands in the Atlantic Coast Autonomous Region in accord with the Autonomy Law passed by the first Sandinista government in the 1980s—– and, thus, reversing the policies of the 1990-2007 right-wing administrations which actively encouraged Spanish-speaking settlers and ranchers to move in to these indigenous lands.

8,) On the international front (and contrary to Gutierrez’s cartoonish characterization of Daniel Ortega as doing nothing but “spouting nostrums on anti-imperialism“) Daniel Ortega reacted immediately and decisively with enlightened solidarity to what has been the paramount foreign policy event during his Presidency: the criminal coup d’etat in Honduras. Under the Ortega government, Nicaragua was in the forefront of opposing the coup, serving, in effect, as the base for international opposition to the coup, and providing safe haven for Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.

In sum, the numerous, foundational achievements of the Ortega government in improving Nicaraguans’ lives are , by any objective standard, Successes, not “ Successes” in quotes and, far from being a betrayal of, are very much consistent with the policies, principles, and goals of the Sandinista Revolution.

While the virtual dismissal of the Ortega government’s accomplishments is the principal example of the distortion caused by Burbach’s and Gutierrez’s failure to provide fuller, more complete, more balanced context, this contextual failing also applies to a number of their specific criticisms.

On the economic front, Gutierrez takes the Ortega government to task for what he terms a regressive tax bill drawn up primarily in consultation with COSEP, the trade association of large business owners. And, both he and Burbach criticize the government for hewing too closely to the policies and dictates of the IMF.

In fact, the Ortega government consulted with a broad range of constituencies in formulating the tax bill. Among those consulted were representatives of civil society organizations, religious leaders, and various small and medium-sized business groups in addition to COSEP. The tax bill, itself, is an emergency, shorter-term measure necessitated by the disastrous economic consequences for Nicaragua of the global financial/economic crisis which created an immediate need to increase tax revenues—tax revenues needed, in large part, to finance the government’s economic and social programs. However, long term, the Ortega government is committed to its explicitly-stated goal of creating a progressive tax system where “those who have more pay more.” And, it should also be noted that in the fall of 2009 ministers of the Ortega government fanned out across the country to consult with citizens in all departments and municipalities to get citizen input as to how these federal tax revenues should be spent.

As for the government being too close with and solicitous of the IMF, the Ortega government forced the IMF to accept Nicaragua’s conditions for poverty reduction and public salary improvements—something no previous government in Nicaragua was able to accomplish.

A major criticism made by Burbach, and one commonly made by U.S. progressives/leftists, pertains to the political alliances and agreements forged by Daniel Ortega with the Nicaraguan Right, particularly Arnoldo Aleman, in what is referred to as The Pact. However, before issuing a blanket condemnation of these moves, one, at least, has to consider the political environment in which these actions occurred.

As soon as the Right assumed control of the Presidency and the National Assembly in April 1990, they began their attempt to roll back the historic achievements of the Sandinista government in improving the lives of the Nicaraguan people. That attempt continued unabated for the next 17 years. The Sandinistas, although the largest individual party in the nation and the National Assembly, were perpetually outnumbered and “ outgunned “ legislatively by the coalition of right-wing parties. And, having had the 1990, 1996, and 2001 elections effectively stolen from him by massive U.S. intervention, Daniel Ortega had every reason to believe that he would never be allowed by the U.S. to regain the presidency. Moreover, in dealing with the Nicaraguan Right, Ortega was not just dealing with a nationally autonomous, self-contained political grouping. Rather, he was dealing with a political faction that was/is backed to the hilt by the 800,000 pound gorilla that is constantly looming over the Nicaraguan political landscape: the USofA.

Thus, in effect, the political landscape, the political reality in which Daniel Ortega was operating was one in which he had his back to the wall, in which he was cornered, in which he was in a box. If he were to have any realistic chance of increasing his political effectiveness and leverage (one major consequence of which would be to at least slow down, if not being able to halt, the right-wing rollback of Sandinista social programs), he would have to forge alliances/agreements with the Right, however distasteful they may be.

In addition to understanding the pressure-cooker political reality in which Daniel Ortega was operating, progressives/leftists in this country would do well to consider the unsavory alliances/agreements/compromises made by numerous Democratic/progressive/left political figures in this country with the Right. Political figures that progressives/leftists have supported electorally and, quite possibly, with donations of money, time, and effort as well.

For example, consider “The Pact” made by Bill Clinton with Orrin Hatch, the ultra-right Senator from Utah. After the Democrats lost control of the Senate and the House in the November 1994 elections, Bill Clinton had a private meeting with Orrin Hatch, who was slated to become the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bottom-line result of that meeting was that Clinton agreed that he would not even propose for federal judgeships candidates who were not acceptable to Hatch. Thus, Clinton effectively ceded control over federal judiciary appointments to Orrin Hatch.

Or, consider Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist and Independent Senator from Vermont. During his nearly 20 years in Congress (first in the House and, then, in the Senate), Bernie Sanders has consistently voted with the NRA, the National Rifle Association. As Sanders has said in private, he “holds his nose” when he does this, but he does it because the NRA is a major political force in Vermont, a state with an extremely high percentage of gun owners, and to go against the NRA would be political suicide.

Another criticism leveled at Daniel Ortega by Roger Burbach pertains to the attacks on opposition rallies perpetrated by “young Sandinista-linked thugs.” While not condoning violence, or threats of violence, one, again, has to try to look at the full picture, the full context as Alejandro Gutierrez counsels.

For years, Daniel Ortega has been the target of explicitly-violent, murderous threats. On the day after the Feb. 25, 1990, elections, the ultra-rightist newspaper La Prensa ran a full-page ad—paid for by a wealthy right-wing businessman—which placed a bounty on Daniel Ortega’s head and asked “How Much Will Daniel’s Death Cost Me” ? The threats by the Right against Ortega continued during the ensuing 17 years when the Sandinistas were out of power.

For the three years the Sandinistas have been in power, the Nicaraguan Right and the Nicaraguan media, (which are overwhelmingly controlled by the Right) have repeatedly and explicitly called for violent opposition to, and the violent overthrow of, Daniel Ortega’s government.

This stands in complete contrast to the behavior of Daniel Ortega during the 17 years the Sandinistas were out of power and were in the opposition. Never did Daniel Ortega call for violent resistance to, much less the violent overthrow, of the governments of Violeta Chamorro, Arnoldo Aleman, or Enrique Bolanos.

In brief, the attacks on opposition demonstrations by Ortega supporters, while not to be condoned, have to be considered in the context of the climate of violence stoked by the Nicaraguan Right and Nicaraguan media, of their consistent calls for the violent overthrow of the Ortega government, of the long history of violent threats against Daniel Ortega.

Given the constraints of time and space, let me address only one more of the criticisms leveled at the Ortega government: the categorical ban on abortions even when the woman’s life is in danger. This issue is raised by Gutierrez and is a constant source of criticism from progressives/leftists in this country.

As someone who supports, categorically and unequivocally, a woman’s right to a medically-safe abortion under all circumstances, there is no one who opposes and laments this policy more than I.

However, as with all the other issues previously discussed, one has to look more broadly–more contextually per Gutierrez’s admonition–at this highly-charged issue.

In the week before the November 2001 national election, Nicaragua’s chief prelate, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, an ultra-rightist champion of the oligarchy and implacable enemy of the Sandinistas (who had been receiving U.S. funding since the early 1980s), delivered a sermon in the form of a parable exhorting Nicaraguans to vote against Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas. The sermon was communicated throughout Nicaragua and is widely “credited“ by observers of varying political perspectives as a critical factor—along with massive U.S. intervention on behalf of Enrique Bolanos—in snatching away from Daniel Ortega what appeared to be a likely electoral victory, making this the third straight election that the U.S. effectively stole the election from him.

Thus, given that electoral history and given the Church’s pivotal role in denying him the 2001 election, it is understandable that Daniel Ortega deemed it politically imperative to neutralize Obando in the 2006 election, even if it meant passage of this regrettable legislation.

In addition, as per the above discussion related to Daniel Ortega’s agreements with the Right, progressives/leftists in this country would do well to take a hard look in the collective national mirror before being so quick to judge.

How many Democrats and alleged progressives/liberals have they voted for—for President, the Senate, the House, for Governor—who supported/support the death penalty? Whose support of the death penalty is, arguably, more shameful and inexcusable since, while Daniel Ortega can claim a genuine, compelling political necessity for his actions, these Death Penalty Democrats and Liberals can only claim political cowardice as they tremble at being labeled “ soft on crime.” How many U.S. leftists/progressives, who are so quick to condemn Daniel Ortega, voted for the ultimate Death Penalty Democrat, Bill Clinton, who, in the aftermath of the April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City bombings greatly expanded the application of the death penalty as he quintupled, from 11 to 55, the number of federal offenses that not only allowed for the death penalty, but mandated the death penalty.

Again, one should consider the aforementioned Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders, arguably the most Left member of both Houses of Congress and strongly supported by progressives/leftists throughout the U.S. as well as in his home state of Vermont. Sanders’ support of the NRA , driven by pure, crass political consideration, carries with it blood on his hands as the NRA’s relentless, all-too-effective lobbying to prevent the passage of desperately-needed new gun control legislation as well as to try to gut existing legislation has resulted in the killings of hundreds, if not thousands, of people in gun-caused deaths.

And, of course, one can point to all the Democratic, supposedly liberal presidents, including the current occupant of the White House, who have been supported by U.S. progressives so critical of Daniel Ortega , who have—in the basest of political calculation—wreaked death and devastation all over the world to prove that they were/are not “soft on Communism,” or “soft on terrorism.”

In closing, one can raise the ultimate contextual question/issue: namely, Daniel Ortega’s government versus what?

The MRS (Sandinista Renovation Movement)? It is not a viable political alternative as it has no political base, no political support to speak of. In the national elections in which they have participated since their founding in 1995, they have consistently polled only in the single digits, often the low single digits. As Orlando Nunez stated in Roger Burbach’s article, it is only the Sandinista Party which has the broad-based support of the peasants, the workers, the poor.

The right-wing regimes of 1990-2007 that were, effectively, put in power by the US? That waged unrelenting economic and social war against the great mass of Nicaraguans? That would have waged outright physical war against the people (per the violent suppression by Violeta Chamorro of a student protest resulting in the killing of a student) if they had been able to have their way and convert the Sandinista police into an instrument of repression?

The right-wing regimes waiting in the wings to ready to roll back the significant, broad-based improvements in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans that have been effected by the Ortega government?

Whatever its actual or alleged shortcomings, the Ortega government is vastly preferable to anything the U.S. and the Nicaraguan Right have ever given to the Nicaraguan people and anything they ever intend to give to the Nicaraguan people.

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