Welcome back to my series: Behind the Scenes. My previous post was about Guatemala where I did research on societal, economical and historical information concerning this country. Although I discussed a substantial amount of issues in current Guatemala, while doing this research I discovered some information that surprised me: that it is Nicaragua, and not Guatemala, that is the poorest country on this sub-continent. To the eye, it did not seem it. But after my research I came to understand which circumstances have led to the unfortunate truths concerning Nicaragua’s economic troubles.
In order to organize my findings I will break down this post into facts and opinions. I will begin with the research I have done and then relate it to everything I witnessed and address different situations. I have also linked a few charities along the way. The history of Nicaragua is incredibly interesting; I loved reading it and even though it is chunky; everything is so important and integral to understand what events formed this country; I hope you learn a little as you read.
A brief history of Nicaragua.
- It is the only country in Latin America to be colonised by both Spain and Britain. (1) Spain controlled the Pacific, until Mexico claimed independence in 1821, closely followed by the rest of Central America. Britain kept control of the Caribbean coast until the late 1800s. (2)
- Granada and Leon had continuous rivalry. Leon: liberal. Granada: conservative (2)
- Invasion of William Walker: invited by Leon to help them win the war against Granada. After burning Granada to the ground Walker double crossed Leon and made himself president, legalising slavery: his main intention. Overthrown in 1857. (3)
- The defeat of Walker was also a defeat for Leon. Granada now stayed in power for over thirty years, granting peace and stability since Nicaragua’s independence.
- However, the country went through much more turmoil.
- 1909 – US interventions to prevent conservative rebels
- 1912-1933 – Nicaragua occupied by the US to stop the war between conservatives and liberals. However, young guerrilla, Sandino, led a war against the conservative.
- Before the US left Nicaragua, they trained a local Nicaraguan force; National Guard. However, the National Guard aided the rise of the Somozas. Somoza, interestingly, was backed by the US for their anti-communist stance.
- Led by Somoza, a National Guard himself ruled Nicaragua from 1927 taking presidential power in 1937. This began the rule of rigged elections and dictatorship. Somoza ruled through three different members of family for forty years- the longest Nicaraguan dictatorship.
- 1972 Managua earthquake
- The FSLN, an activist group opposing the Somozas. In the 1970s they exploded onto the Nicaraguan political scenes as an armed rebel group. They backed the poor Nicaraguans due to the earthquake damage and lack of government response.
- The civil liberties imposed by the Somozas in 1978 led to civil war, causing the final ruling Somozan to resign in 1979.
- The war killed 50,000 people and left the economy faltering.
- With the fall of the Somoza dictatorship; democracy did not return. Leader, Ortega, was authoritarian and formed a one-party Communist state.
- Then came the Contra War of 1980. Contras were opposed Ortega and were backed by the US; providing the arms. Fought by Reagan without Congress’ knowledge, this lead to the Iran Contro Scandal (CIA sold arms to Iranians to give profits to the Contras).
- The war ceased to stop; so Costa Rican president stepped in to bring peace to Nicaragua. This caused both sides to sit down and agree to stop, and the FSLN agreed to hold fair elections.
- In 1990 Ortega lost the election and the first democratic government in decades began in Nicaragua.
- This lasted until 2007 when Ortega was re-elected into power. He then changed the constitution; allowing him to run continuously.
He is still in power to this day. (4)
In Nicaragua education is free; with elementary education being compulsory although not enforced. Under Somoza ruling there was limited spending on education and poverty forced children into work. In the late 1970s, only 65% of young children were in school; of those only 22% would complete the full six years of education. In rural areas, school was only offered for 1-2 years. Illiteracy rates ranged from 75-90% in rural areas and close to 50% nationwide.(5b) Secondary education was private therefore the average family could not afford to enroll. (5)
When the FSLN came to power they doubled the amount of money spent on primary and secondary education. In the first five years, enrollment of national schools went from 500,000 to one million and in college enrollment more than tripled from 1978 to 1985. (6b) The FSLN closed redundant institutions and established new, more relevant programs, influenced by Cuba. Citing new curriculum in agriculture, medicine, etc. (6) The FSLN managed to drop illiteracry rates from 53% to 12%. (6c)
There was no show of gender equality throughout the enrollment in schooling. (7)
Economics & Poverty & Violence
Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America. 1/3 of Nicaraguans live below the poverty line (as of 2014), and 70% of those live in rural areas. (10) 30% of Nicaraguans live on less than 2$ a day. (11)
However, there was a moment when the poverty in Nicaragua was falling. Extreme poverty in Nicaragua has fallen from 11.2% to 5.5% and in 2011, the country was reported to have the highest economic growth in Central America, at 5.1%. (8) Continuing with an economic growth rate of 4.7% in 2017. However, it then suffered a drop of 3.8% and is expected to keep falling. (9) This is related to the war and violence brought by the war between the government and the people. With over 300 people dying, lots of families lost their sources of income and the cost of food is rising. (12b)
It is expected that as politics solves itself poverty levels should become lighter and Nicaragua can continue to grow it’s economics. (12)
My time in Nicaragua was much less shocking that when I was in Guatemala. I did not see as many signs of poverty and I assume this is because I stuck to the more touristy trails. However, in saying that, the tourism facilities was visibly lacking in people. We would stay at hostels where we were the only people and eat in massive restaurants and be the only people sitting there. The recent troubles have put Nicaragua out off the average tourist’s path, especially with the US State putting it at a Level 3 stating “reconsider travel to Nicaragua due to civil unrest, crime, limited healthcare availability, and arbitrary enforcement of laws.”(13) With other websites referring to those travelling Nicaragua as ‘brave.’
First I am not brave. Let’s make that abundantly clear. I am educated. And after my research and after speaking to people who had actually been in Nicaragua recently, I felt it was safe for me to travel, and I was right. I am not saying to ignore your countries warning but make sure you find out for yourself. If you feel comfortable and if there is no ongoing war, I do not see the harm. The harm comes from not going due to fear, so many businesses no longer exist due to the massive drop in tourism; in 2018 tourism dollars in Nicaragua decreased 35% since 2017. (14)
I also overheard someone saying that ‘backpackers think they are liberal, yet they come to a country run by a dictator and support his industry.’ Now this really got me thinking. I take the opinion that boycotting is not always the best way to change a political landscape. If we were to boycott Nicaragua, to punish the government, the first people to be punished would be the public. Businesses and peoples livelihoods would fall. However, I do not know what the solution could possibly be.
The company ANF works on donations to help alleviate poverty in Nicaragua.
When backpacking through Nicaragua, I also noticed a lot of children out on the streets, similar to Guatemala. There were children selling candy floss, souvenirs and in the town of Leon young boys would where a costume and dance around, trying to earn money. I researched into these groups of dancing boys but could not find any information. As to whether they were orphans or encouraged by their parents, I do not know.
I also came across of lot of young people in Granada making little bamboo leaf figurines. I read on numerous blog posts to not support them as they ‘ask for money.’ Well, no shit. You don’t just get given something and expect it to be free. I bought a grasshopper off a young boy. And this relates to what I said previously. To boycott is not helpful. To not buy from him will not help him in anyway, to give him the money will help him. Literally help him eat. I touched on this in my previous post where I discussed the exploitation of children. However, I saw a young couple invite a small boy selling candy floss to their table where they gave him a meal, and maybe this, is a better way to help the children on the streets.
The company WE works on the education and schooling of Nicaragua.
Nicaragua is in fact, a steadily growing country and given the right political ground has the potential to grow incredibly well into a developing country, growing it’s tourism infrastructure.
I thought it was incredibly interesting that the FSLN, although with its major political criticisms, did a lot for the education of it’s people and helped increase the countries literacy rates.
However, speaking to a local in Granada they spoke to us in a hushed voice about how terrible the government was and that it was also dangerous to speak out against the government in public, as you can be reprimanded. I thought this was so terrifying and insane, to live in a society where you cannot criticise your government and be given a fair opportunity to better your life.
In my research I learned that a contract was created by the Nicaraguan government to build a canal in 1849 however, nothing came to it. The US lost enthusiasm because of cited instability and natural disasters. At the start of the 20th Century Panama became the new prospect for the canal. (3) However, the Nicaragua Canal has been given the go ahead again- which is incredibly interesting and means more tourism and hopefully great growth for the country.
Nicaragua was an amazing country and the time we spent here was incredible. If you want to read my post about my backpacking experience I will link it here. Even though seeing countries that show signs of poverty can be hard, by travelling to them you are also contributing to their economy and helping people make an income. You can eat and drink at small local restaurants and buy souvenirs off people in the streets. You can also educate yourself before going to these countries; learn who these people are and what makes them special.
Thank you so much for reading this post about Nicaragua, an incredibly beautiful country and I want more than anything to encourage people to visit and support the people. If you wish, I will link my behind the scenes Guatemala post and my previous post about my time travelling through Panama.