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NICARAGUA
Loosing faith in Ortega
Bryan Kay
3/27/2008
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Nicaraguans grow impatient with socialist leader as poverty persists and food prices rise.

Nicaraguans appear to be losing faith in Sandinista President Daniel Ortega, according to the latest opinion poll, published last month in leading national newspaper La Prensa.

The socialist leader swept back to power in 2006 promising hope for Nicaragua’s poor — around 80 percent are said to live below the poverty line, on less than US$2 a day, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

His return to the presidential palace was after a more than 15-year absence. He first governed Nicaragua in 1979 when the Sandinistas ousted the previous US-supported Somoza regime. Ortega was in office until 1990.

The recent poll showed that Ortega’s popularity had plunged to just 21 percent, down from 61 percent in February 2007, a month after he re-took the reins.

A campaign slogan, which still adorns a giant billboard in the center of the capital Managua, reads: “Rise the poor of the world!” It now appears decidedly stale one year on in the wake of his apparent dramatic fall in popularity.

Many ordinary Nicaraguans, the kind he wooed with promises of free healthcare and education, seem disillusioned.

Taxi driver Dennis Rocha believes Ortega is more preoccupied with rhetoric than substance. “We don’t have the roads, we don’t have the buildings, we don’t have the jobs,” Rocha said, referring to Ortega’s campaign promises. “There’s no progress.”

Saray, who only gave her first name, from Rio Blanco, a northern rural town, says the poor are likely to rise against Ortega.

Disappointment expressed
“He has changed nothing. Food prices are rising. People are leaving all over the place, to Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica or even the United States if they can,” she said, shortly before boarding a bus to take up a job lined up by a family member in neighboring Costa Rica.

As the International Monetary Fund (IMF) arrived in town in late February on a two-week inspection of the economy, linked to a $100 million loan agreement, concerns from the IMF over a lack of disclosure of aid provided by Hugo Chávez and Venezuela cast some doubt over the finality of the IMF loan package.

Yet while firing broadsides against the United States from such places as the pulpit of the United Nations in New York and standing in solidarity marches with Chávez, in the background Ortega has cooperated with the United States, giving a lie to the public shows of defiance.

In one deal under the US-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), he was said to have maintained good relations with an American textile firm building a multi-million dollar plant in the country.

Also, less a month after launching a verbal volley at the US Drug Enforcement Agency, Ortega met with anti-narcotics officials from the United States in February in a bid to find new ways to work together to fight the scourge of illicit substances.

But then, as the meeting with the IMF got underway, more than 1,000 workers marched in protest outside the Central Bank venue over supposed IMF pressure on the government to resist salary increases.

All the while, Nicaragua continues to be riddled with poverty and, for many, hope has all but evaporated.

Ortega promised “zero unemployment” and “zero hunger” but critics say little progress has been made. Hostel worker Ángela López claimed little has changed. “The talk about free education and free health — this was good,” she said. “But there are still so many kids who can’t get to school and access to free university education is bad.”

According to economic indicators, Nicaragua continues to be the fourth poorest in Latin America, according to the UNDP. And the financial forecast is bleak. The IMF inspected an economy that last year posted an inflation rate of nearly 17 percent, the highest in Central America and some 7 percent more than in 2006, according to preliminary figures. Similarly, economic growth in 2007 was just 3.4 percent, down from 4.2 percent the previous year, though others point out Ortega inherited many of the problems.

Local economist Néstor Avendaño told the press that in order for the country to see a real reduction in poverty, growth must hit 8-10 percent. But recent predictions for 2008 were around half that.

Venezuela’s importance
Much of Ortega’s hopes seem pinned on Venezuelan aid and oil. Shortly after he took power, Nicaragua joined Venezuela and Cuba in the left-leaning ALBA bloc of countries designed to offset US influence. One plan would see a $4 billion oil refinery built in Nicaragua with cash from the South American country.

An incident last August saw Ortega at loggerheads with US-owned Esso, which owns Nicaragua’s only existing refinery. Reeling from an energy crisis — blackouts plagued the nation last year — and an inability to get his hands on oil promised by Chávez, Ortega briefly took control of the refinery site under the guise that Esso owed almost $3 million in back taxes in order to attain some of the Venezuelan oil.

Despite such incidents, Paul Trivelli, US ambassador to Nicaragua, has said it is clear that Ortega wants to court both sides. “Our relationship is a reasonable working relationship,” he told local media last year. “So in that sense he continues to sort of walk that line.” As the political games continue, the poor of Nicaragua are still waiting to see the campaign promises materialize.

For 26-year-old Ricardo Antonio Amador, a part-time bar hand, however, Ortega remains the savior of the poor. “Ortega will change things for the better. I’ve even seen him stop his car to give poor people clothes and food. I’ve seen it more than once.”


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