Nicaragua: A Development Overview

After three centuries of Spanish colonial rule, another century of despotic presidencies, and three decades of the bloody Somoza family dictatorship, the Sandinista revolution in 1979 sought to create an egalitarian society. The focus was to redistribute land, political power, and economic resources to Nicaragua's vast majority of impoverished citizens. The new government achieved some substantial gains—5 percent GDP jumps in 1980 and 1981, along with a national literacy campaign that reduced the illiteracy rate from 50 to 23 percent of the total population and more than tripled college enrollment. However, this growth was quickly negated by years of war against a guerrilla insurgency, policy missteps, natural disasters, and a debilitating trade embargo by the United States.

In 1986, the world became aware of Nicaragua's guerrilla war when news of U.S. involvement became public. Images of children with limbs lost, women wielding guns with infants strapped to their backs, and bleeding soldiers on both sides of the conflict broadcasted around the globe, exposing a scandal—the Iran-Contra Affair—that would shake the United States. The CIA channeled millions of dollars in profits from weapon sales to Iran toward the funding of the insurgent "contras" against the Nicaraguan government. The scandal exhibited a controversial side to U.S. foreign policy that would soon be the topic of every news source across America.

In 1986, Nicaragua won a historic case at the World Court that ordered the United States to pay Nicaragua $12 billion in reparations for violating sovereignty and attacking the country. The U.S. government refused to pay any of part of the $12 billion—a decision that directly went against the passing of a United Nations resolution.

The war cost Nicaragua some 50,000 lives, or 2 percent of its population. To put this figure into perspective, the equivalent loss of 2 percent of the U.S. population would be 4.5 million people, or more than 75 times the U.S. death toll in the Vietnam War. Government infrastructure suffered as well. Programs and services instituted by the Sandinistas fell by the wayside as the conflict continued. By the end of 1985, 10 percent of the population had lost access to health facilities, and 170 teachers had been killed, while over 1,300 schools were closed due to the threat of attack. By the end of 1987, 128 of 600 health facilities were destroyed.

The 1990s proceeded to be a politically and environmentally challenging decade for Nicaragua. In 1990, U.S.-backed conservative Violeta Chamorro surprisingly defeated the Sandinistas to win the presidency and the U.S. trade embargo was subsequently lifted. Chamorro's tenure ended a decade of war and brought political stability to the country. She left politics at the completion of her term and is widely known for making Nicaragua the safest country in Central America.

The free elections of 1996 saw Arnoldo Alemán assume the presidency on an anti-Sandinista platform. He was greeted a few years later by Hurricane Mitch, which devastated the country, killing 3,800 people and causing over one billion dollars in damage. During this crisis, Alemán was embezzling $100 million in government funds, part of which were earmarked for Hurricane Mitch relief. In 2002, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison and is now recognized as one of the most corrupt leaders in history.

These devastating political, economic, and environmental events left the nation in a precarious development position for the new century. The landscape ahead will be challenging for the people of Nicaragua:

Economy: Nicaragua is the fourth poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Its economy is based mainly on agricultural exports, and dependent on coffee, sugar, beef, and seafood exports, along with some manufacturing.

Health: Malaria and tuberculosis cases continue to increase and one out of three children suffers from chronic malnutrition. Forty-six percent of the population does not have access to sustained sanitation services.

Environment: Large-scale commercial and slash-and-burn agriculture have decimated Nicaragua's forests and left the land vulnerable to landslides and droughts.

Human Rights: Approximately 76,000 landmines (left over from the Contra war) continue to kill and maim hundreds, particularly children. Domestic violence remains a severe problem, while indigenous people's access and rights to land are a constant issue.

Women's Rights: Family violence (55,000 reported cases) and sexual violence are two of the main issues; yet they are routinely unreported and unresolved due to social stigma and legal inaction. Wage discrimination and sexual harassment also persist.

Youth and Education: Only 29 percent of children complete primary school, and only 5 percent of disabled children receive an appropriate amount of attention from instructors.

Community Development: Nearly 46 percent of Nicaraguans live below the poverty line. Poverty also results in child labor, which affects more than 167,000 children and adolescents.

FSD partners with nearly 50 nongovernmental organizations in four different locations throughout Nicaragua—Ciudad Sandino, Masaya, Jinotepe, and Chagüitillo. Ciudad Sandino is the poorest city in Nicaragua, with refugees settling from various natural disasters. It is characterized by poor infrastructure, high unemployment, and extreme poverty. Slightly better off, Jinotepe and Masaya are cities of about 100,000 people. These cities have many restaurants, internet cafes, and better infrastructure. Chagüitillo is a rural town in northern Nicaragua that is known for coffee growing.

These locations provide a wide variety of opportunities for interns and volunteers to implement development work. Project work aims at empowering communities to assert cooperative solutions that reflect local values and make use of appropriate technologies and ideas. Whether you are working at a microfinance cooperative in Masaya or training youth to become peer health educators in Ciudad Sandino, FSD will provide you with an opportunity to gain development experience and learn what it is like to tackle some of the world's most challenging problems.

Read more about programs and opportunities initiated by our Community Partners in Nicaragua.

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