Despite the many good things in politics and society accomplished by the Sandinistas, one cannot claim that Nicaragua is a paragon of democracy and modernity—far from it.
The United Nations Human Development Report ranks Nicaragua 129, just behind Vietnam but ahead of Morocco. While the country has improved every year but one since 1980, Nicaragua’s ranking falls below that of the Latin American and the Caribbean average, and indeed the average of all of the countries scored by the UN. Compare Nicaragua’s rank to those of the rest of Central America (a region in which Nicaragua is the largest): Belize (93), Costa Rica (69), El Salvador (105), Guatemala (131), Honduras (121), and Panama (58). Nicaragua does not occupy a proud location on the UNDP scale.
Transparency International ranks Nicaragua 134 on their corruption perceptions index, tying it with such democratic stalwarts as Eritrea, Pakistan, and Niger. In its democracy index, The Economist Intelligence Unit does the country a little better, though, ranking Nicaragua 92, smashed between Tanzania and Tunisia.
These dismal rankings are not completely the fault of the current (and previous) Sandinista ruling regimes (1980s and 2000s); yet neither can the blame be squarely leveled at the conservatives who ruled in between (1990s). There is plenty of blame to go around, for sure, but my feeling is that the United States has to accept a high level of responsibility for retarding the country’s growth and development.
Immediately after the Sandinistas gained control in 1979, American intervention in Nicaraguan political and economic affairs, especially vis-à-vis President Ronald Reagan’s economic embargoes and military incursions (by proxy), effectively sidelined Nicaragua’s growth prospects.
I’m not going to pretend to be steeped in knowledge about the details of Reagan’s (American) involvement in Nicaragua, nor am I knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the Contra counter-insurgency in and around Nicaragua. The material that I read in preparation for my visit to the “land of lakes and volcanoes” mostly focused on the 1950s-1980s, with a heavy leaning on the conduct and success of the Sandinista Revolution. I have drawn a few conclusions, however, shaky as they may be (but I am sure I am leaning in the right direction).
To be sure, the Contra War, in which American funds and training were used to fuel an anti-Sandinista guerrilla movement based (mostly) in El Salvador, crippled the triumphant revolutionaries almost immediately. While the 1972 earthquake left an indelible mark on Managua from which the city still seems to be recovering, American intervention scarred the psyche of Nicaraguans and seriously hampered any efforts to move the country forward (on any given front: economics, industry, administration, agriculture, policing, education, name it).
Gioconda Belli’s memoir, The Country Under My Skin, terrifically recounts how the Sandinistas’ political maneuvers were consistently thwarted by American intervention (via war with the Contras) and blockades. Instead of spending money to improve roads and schools, funds were diverted toward (ultimately successful) military efforts. Instead of spending time improving diplomatic relations with regional players, Sandinistas crawled to Eastern powers (namely the U.S.S.R.) for economic and military assistance. Instead of spending time improving hospitals or instituting just land reforms, Nicaraguans scrambled to find food to feed their family, for just one more day. Instead of empowering journalists—those essential guardians of any strong democracy—energy was diverted to censoring possibly subversive (disruptive) media efforts that sought to undermine the newly established regime.
This went on for years; the strategy was one of attrition: the more time, energy, and funds spent on fighting Contras, the Americans wagered, the sooner Nicaraguans would rise up (again) and toss out the new government and, it was hoped, re-install a more American-friendly regime. They were wrong.
Despite the scaremongering by Reagan, the Sandinistas were not (and are not) communists. Their brand of revolution and economy was uniquely their own, much to the chagrin of not only Reagan, but also of Fidel Castro, who pressed for a Cuban-like political-economic paradigm to be installed, but was rebuffed time and again. The Sandinistas borrowed their social, economic, and political ideals from here and there, foregoing a blind subscription to any one ideology. This eclectic approach to a new form of governance carried broad support across the country, from peasants (who were awarded land in re-distribution schemes) to the petty bourgeoisie (who were unmolested, no matter what ideologies they held) to the business class (whose businesses, despite Reagan’s claims, were not nationalized and communally operated).
The civil war, as the Contra intervention can also be classed, took a tremendous toll on the Nicaraguan economy and rate of development. This forced stagnation (if not retardation) still burns. Today, the feelings toward the United States and toward Americans in general is not, however, one of disgust or hatred. Like many people around the world, there is an attitude of loving American people and spirit, but not our government’s constant (and often hypocritical) finagling in other peoples’ business, especially for the benefit of the former to the detriment of the latter.
Noting that everywhere I went I was able to use American cash to make purchases, I remarked to my host, “Nicaragua has a love-hate relationship with the United States.” He immediately corrected my supposition: “There is no love-hate relationship. Since the U.S. is the biggest player in the region, there is no choice. The relationship just is.”
Nicaragua, Sandinista Revolution, US Foreign Policy