By toni solo
Source: Axis of Logic
North American and European economies continue to be stuck with intractable, if for the moment moderate, stagflation. Prices for most household purchases steadily increase while majority incomes stagnate. By contrast, corporate incomes increase, subsidized by Western government and Central Bank policy. The resulting increase in inequality is clearly a deliberate policy outcome responding to the weakening of Western economies relative to global counterparts led by China and Russia.
Among those counterparts, Latin America, for long one of the world’s most unequal regions, is playing a leading role demonstrating how to reduce inequality. That is true to some extent in Brazil and Argentina, but it is particularly the case in the bloc of countries grouped in the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). Western governments and corporate media regularly criticise the governments of ALBA members like Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua while omitting the solidity and consistency of those countries’ economic and social success over the last seven or eight years. Nicaragua is a perfect example of that pattern, having achieved the highest regional decline in inequality along with Bolivia and Ecuador.
A July 2013 World Bank paper “Deconstructing the Decline in Inequality in Latin America” shows that ALBA members Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua are the countries that had most reduced inequality as of 2011. Nicaragua had the highest average GINI coefficient year-on-year fall of 2.6% between 2000 and 2011. The figures for Bolivia and Ecuador are 2.05 and 1.99 respectively. In terms of an overall decline in the GINI coefficient in the region the figures for the period covered by the World Bank report are that Bolivia’s dropped 15.5%, followed by Nicaragua (12.2%), Argentina (10.7%), Peru (8.7%) and Venezuela (8.5%). (The figure for Ecuador is absent because data prior to 2003 were unavailable.)
Nicaragua in macro
Nicaragua is a Central American and Caribbean country with a population now of over 6 million. For decades it was the second poorest country in the Americas. Devastated by a US government contrived war in the 1980s, from 1990 to 2007 the country was governed on neoliberal principles dictated by foreign donor governments and multilateral financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In January 2007, President Daniel Ortega took office leading the second democratically elected government of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional.
2007 was the year in which global economic crisis followed the collapse of the Western financial system. Despite Western propaganda to the contrary, the effects of that crisis clearly persist. Even so, over the last five years, in that highly adverse international economic environment, Nicaragua has maintained better growth than its Central American neighbours, averaging over 5% a year. That success is the result of socialist inspired policies, responsive to the country’s emphatically Christian culture, based on the fundamental principles of solidarity and shared responsibility in all areas of national life.
The 2013 report of the United Nation’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) places Nicaragua among the more successful regional economies on a variety of indicators. For example, between 2010 and 2013, foreign direct investment more than doubled from US$491m to US$1004m, representing a much greater percentage improvement than in Costa Rica (43.5%), Honduras (8.7%) and Guatemala (40.5%). In El Salvador, the same indicator almost doubled, but at a much lower level from US$117m to US$224m.
Nicaragua’s international trade is now well over twice the value of its exports in 2005. In Latin America and the Caribbean in 2013, only Peru had higher fixed capital growth than Nicaragua as a percentage of GDP. Nicaragua’s figure of 29.2% is about 7% greater than Costa Rica and Honduras and over double that of El Salvador or Guatemala. Price inflation has held at around 7% for the last three years. Foreign external debt is around 31% of GDP. Foreign reserves are over twice those of 2006. In August 2013, two years after Nicaragua exited its last IMF programme, the IMF’s deputy director for the western hemisphere declared Nicaragua’s economy to be solid and stable.
The current crisis in the West suggests similarities with the prolonged economic crisis in North America and Europe from 1873 to 1896. The Western powers resolved that crisis through a virulent burst of imperialist aggression, setting the stage for the global wars of the 20th Century. Since the end of World War 2 in 1945, the appearance of democracy in the West has depended on externalizing onto the majority world the costs of mitigating and managing inequality in Europe and North America.
A key witness to that fact is former French President Jacques Chirac who in the 2008 documentary “10 mai Africaphonie” stated, with uncharacteristic honesty, “We forget one thing…namely that much of the money in our wallets comes precisely from the exploitatation over centuries of Africa. Not completely, but a lot of it comes from the exploitation of Africa. So we have to show a bit of common sense. I won’t say generosity, but common sense, some justice to render to Africans… you might say ….what was taken from them. As much as necessary, if we want to avoid the worst convulsions or difficulties with the political consequences these might bring in the near future.”
As the West’s neocolonial options recede, most clearly in Asia and Latin America, the United States and its European allies embrace more than ever the logic of fascism, the alliance of corporate interests and coercive government. Domestically, their policies protect wealthy elites while cutting back on provision for education, health care and social security. Overseas, to intimidate Iran, destroy Libya and attack Syria, NATO country governments have allied themselves with feudal tyrannies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar and with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
To intimidate Russia, they have funded, trained and supported murderous neonazi groups in Ukraine while deploying military resources including missile systems around Russia’s borders. To intimidate China, they harrass North Korea, encourage Japanese nationalism and increase military deployments in the Pacific. Extensive military deployment is also a key element of Western efforts to reset their countries’ neocolonial control in Africa in response to China’s growing influence there.
The perfidious dollar
Underlying these developments is the end of global dollar hegemony and the steady emergence of multipolar alternatives. China, Russia and various countries in Asia and Latin America are conducting trade more and more in their own currencies or even, in the Latin American and Caribbean ALBA framework, in kind. As Western economic dominance declines, especially relative to Russia and China, the United States and the European Union compensate increasingly overseas with terrorist subversion and outright military aggression. Their corrupt political and economic system staggers like a zombie from one crisis to the next.
The Western powers cling to vestiges of their former global power by continuing to dominate the world’s financial system and through ruthless military barbarism. Their financial dominance persists in large part because commodity prices, especially oil and gas are denominated internationally in dollars. In 1971, the US government floated the dollar in order more freely to fund the Vietnam War and its broader imperialist foreign policy. Since then, in effect, only the United States has been able to use its own credit to fund economic growth and finance deficit spending.
Every other country has needed dollars in order to ensure their people’s economic development, mainly to guarantee energy needs and attract foreign investment. Even the wealthy Eurozone countries and Japan are subject to that dollar hegemony. The US Federal Reserve and its Primary Dealer network manage dollar liquidity in the global financial system. The Primary Dealers are all subsidiaries of crooked, giant North American, European and Japanese global financial corporations, too big to fail and too big to jail. They act in close collusion with the Federal Reserve and the other Western Central Banks, monitoring and managing international financial, currency and commodities markets.
Low wages and deregulation
The various mechanisms of dollar hegemony necessarily promote deep inequality around the world because international competition to earn dollars via exports encourages low wages, restricting domestic demand in the exporting countries. Ever since the 1980s the pernicious low wage effects of dollar hegemony have been progressively compounded by neoliberal propaganda for radical deregulation, urging low taxes, attacking organized labour and dismantling financial and commercial controls, especially of international capital flows. Incomes in the West began to stagnate as the rate of profit for Western corporations slowed and former well paid jobs were outsourced overseas.
The demise of the Soviet Union signalled a deregulation boom. In Europe and North America, mergers and acquisitions increasingly concentrated corporate power, strengthening the drive for deregulation. The resulting fraudulent financial innovation and free transfer of capital across the world lead to the Long Term Capital Management debacle and the Mexican, Russian and Asian currency crises of the 1990s. Despite these disastrous outcomes and the subsequent Enron and Worldcom scandals, deregulation continued to drive asset bubbles and easy credit so as to compensate for stagnant incomes, especially in the United States, leading directly to the crisis of 2007.
Poverty reduction in Nicaragua
This dead hand of decrepit neoliberal corporate capitalism was choking the Central American economies when Daniel Ortega took office as President of Nicaragua’s second democratically elected Sandinista government in January 2007. In such a dismal international economic context, poverty reduction represented a monumental challenge. Even so, President Ortega’s Sandinista government quickly set out in an extremely determined way to reduce poverty with a policy program whose many components are worth listing, if only because they show what can be done by an extremely poor country despite largely adverse international conditions. Extreme poverty in Nicaragua has been cut from over 17% in 2006 to just over 5% now.
Addressing intractable balance of payments difficulties, the government sought to broaden Nicaragua’s trade with Latin America, the Russian Federation, Asia and elswhere. Similarly, the government diversified its development cooperation, maintaining links with traditional partners in North America, Europe and Asia but also deepening its relationships with Venezuela, Cuba, Mexico and Brazil. Attracting greater foreign investment was also a key policy objective. Joining the ALBA framework, led by Venezuela and Cuba, freed up around US$500 million a year to invest primarily in production but also in major social programs.
To give Nicaragua’s overwhemingly agricultural economy much needed domestic stimulus, government programmes have prioritized small and medium producers of basic grains, cattle and coffee. The cooperative sector received support and resources to develop existing production cooperatives and form new ones. Small and medium sized businesses benefited from greater access to credit. The government has prioritized tourism, ensuring that it integrates closely with other sectors of the economy, especially small and medium sized businesses.
This democratization of the Nicaraguan economy has radically transformed the position of women. Flagship programmes like Zero Hunger and Zero Usury, as well as property titling programmes and social housing are all directed at women beneficiaries. President Daniel Ortega’s insistence on genuine democracy and national reconciliation made possible tripartite agreement on a minimum wage framework between government, labour unions and employers organizations. Since 2010, that framework has ensured an annual increase in the minimum wage several percentage points greater than the rate of inflation.
In the last three years, those domestic stimulus measure were accompanied by administrative measures relating to equitable tax and social security reform which have helped significantly increase government revenue and stabilize the social security system for the foreseeable future. As Nicaragua’s economy generates progressively more formal employment, both tax revenue and social security income benefit. ECLAC reports that while formal employment has declined throughout the rest of the region, in Nicaragua it has grown steadily through 2012 and 2013
One key mechanism reducing inequality has been to use subsidies in the most sensitive areas affecting ordinary families’ costs. Apart from free health care and education, the government subsidizes the cost of public transport. Bus companies in the capital Managua receive preferential prices for fuel, oil, tyres and spare parts in exchange for pegging fares at 10 US cents. Taxis in Managua as well as inter-urban and acuatic transport in the rest of the country also receive similar benefits enabling the Transport Ministry and local municipalities to negotiate favourable fare tariffs for transport users.
Low income families benefit from subsidized electricity for consumers using under 150Kw a month. The government also operates a retail network offering basic food stuffs at preferential prices through local general stores. Over 58,000 families have benefited from subsidized or free housing. Low-income families nationwide have benefited from a free construction materials program enabling impoverished families to repair defective roofs.
Other social investment programs include assistance for people, especially children, with disability as well as food support for vulnerable groups such as the elderly. The Amor para los más Chiquitos programme has helped around 32,000 very young children at risk, ensuring they enjoy care, education and attention rather than ending up on the streets. That programme has worked with over 420,000 families providing advice and guidance in the care of young children under 6 years old. The government’s efforts to promote social stability also encompass property titling programs that have issued over 180,000 title deeds bringing security of tenure to over 800,000 people.
Health, education, infrastructure
Health and education are crucial expenses for most families in Nicaragua as everywhere else. The availability of free public health care has made a massive difference to low income families who cannot afford private care. The government is steadily equipping the public health system with the resources it needs to improve its services year by year. Emphasising preventive health care, government vaccination programs applied over 4,100,000 doses in 2013. The Casa Materna programme, almost tripling facilities to assist expectant mothers in rural areas, has helped the government reduce maternal mortality, which fell 35% from 2007 to 50 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2012.
Likewise in education, government expenditure improving infrastructure is accompanied by a range of programmes supporting low income families. The Merienda Escolar programme for adequate nutrition for primary school children, ensures provision of meals for over 1,000,000 pre-school and primary school children. Low income families also get help with schooling inputs. Apart from regular primary and secondary education, the government has invested heavily in vocational technical training for young people and improved access to education in rural areas. Follow up to the successful literacy programs of the government’s early years is consolidating the eradication of illiteracy. Education programmes for children with special needs include the integration of children with slight disability into the regular school system as well as dedicated programmes for children whose disability is more severe.
The transformation of government social and economic policy is physically much more obvious in terms of energy and infrastructure. National road, port and airport infrastructure has been almost completely renovated. Construction is on schedule of the new oil refinery being built near León with the Venezuelan State oil company PDVSA. Dependence on oil fired thermal generating stations has dropped from over 80% to less than 50% of the country’s generating capacity thanks to investment in renewable energy sources. Work on the long delayed Brazilian financed Tumarin hydroelectric project on Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast should begin later this year. Also by the end of this year the results of the feasibility studies for the Interoceanic Canal will permit work to begin on that epoch making project and its sub-projects. These include an interoceanic rail link and pipeline, new airports and two deep water ports on the country’s Pacific and Caribbean coasts.
Confidence, security, democracy
Domestic and international confidence has been fundamental in making all this transformational social and economic investment happen. Despite a comparative lack of resources, Nicaragua’s police and army are acknowledged to have the best record in the region combating narcotics and other organized crime. Overseas, Nicaragua’s community oriented policing is recognized as a model, largely because the country has prevented the spread of the gang culture prevalent in neighbouring El Salvador and Honduras. While common delinquency remains a persistent problem, enhanced security in rural areas has been crucial in encouraging the small and medium farm production that has transformed Nicaragua’s agricultural economy since 2006.
The success of the Sandinista government’s economic policies has resulted from consensus-building with private business organizations and labour unions by means of constant consultation with all sectors of the national economy. Similarly, government social policy has been developed in close collaboration with the country’s municipal authorities. Many resources and implementation of much social and economic policy have been channelled through the country’s 153 local authorities. The positive impact of that strategic partnership is most obvious from investment in improved municipal infrastructure, in sports facilities for young people and in support for local small and medium sized businesses.
Another fundamental component in the success of President Ortega’s social and economic strategy has been the deliberate and active promotion of the role of women. Previously, women in Nicaragua were in effect structurally excluded from both economic and political life, denied their legitimate role in decision making and as economic agents. Nicaragua is now acknowledged among the world leaders in guaranteeing political representation for women. Less well known is the transformational role of women in Nicaragua’s economy through access to resources via government programs like Zero Hunger and Zero Usury and ensuring property titles to families previously without secure tenure. All those programs prioritize women beneficiaries.
More specific to Nicaragua has been the consolidation of the country’s Caribbean Coast into the national economy. That process has been a continuation of the historic autonomy project for Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast initiated under the first Sandinista government in the 1980s. In the next five to ten years, the economy of the Caribbean coast is likely to change radically. It has become an ever more popular tourist destination. The recovery in 2012 of Nicaragua’s maritime territory, usurped for decades by Colombia, has opened up new commercial opportunities. The Interoceanic Canal and its sub-projects will definitively end the area’s historic and geographic separation from Nicaragua’s Pacific coast.
Daniel Ortega – Central America’s leading regional statesman
Based on broad consultation and consensus, President Daniel Ortega has implemented strategic policies through a ministerial team led operationally by Rosario Murillo, successfully managing all the various complex factors in relation to social investment, the macro and domestic aspects of economic policy, infrastructure development and energy policy, fiscal and administrative reform, trade and agricultural renewal and security. He has done so constrained by the continuing international economic crisis and in the face of relentless, vicious national and international disinformation campaigns. But the results speak for themselves and explain why Nicaragua’s political opposition have been unable to muster more than 10% support nationally for well over a year, while support for President Ortega is consistently well over 60%.
Aside from the incomparable figure of Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega is the most outstanding statesman of Central America and the Caribbean of the last thirty years. Rosario Murillo stands with Dilma Rousseff and Cristina Kirchner among Latin America’s women leaders transforming the region’s societies and economies. Under the leadership of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, Nicaragua’s government team has proved by any measure to be among the most effective in Latin America and the Caribbean. Many Western government officials will acknowledge that in private. Multilateral organizations have recognized it publicly for years now. It is long past time for the Western corporate and alternative media to recognize it too.