At a dinner in Managua in the mid-1980s, I sat next to a British businesswoman who had lived comfortably in Nicaragua for decades. Heading for retirement in England, she took a last potshot at what she considered the immature idealism of the Sandinistas, who were then in power. “Haven’t they read the Bible?” she asked archly. “Don’t they know the poor will always be with us?”
I lived in Nicaragua for six years of the Sandinistas’ embattled rule (1979-90) and recently returned for the first time. Of hundreds of comments I’d heard in Nicaragua, that was the one that echoed in my mind as I headed back. I had met many people during my years there–teachers, doctors, agronomists and others–who believed quite the opposite: that widespread poverty was not a foregone conclusion, and they had fought to reduce it.
The individuals who are now in power were not among them. What I found, after Nicaragua’s eleven years as a free-market economy and on the eve of national elections, was a depth of poverty that had never existed during the Sandinista years. Shortages and rationing, which were endemic in the 1980s, have been replaced by relative wealth for some households and out-and-out hunger in many others. The failed populism of the Sandinistas, which was an economic disaster but did include a safety net, has given way to more commerce and some construction of infrastructure, but also flagrant corruption, massive unemployment and indifference toward the indigent.
The United States, which found Nicaragua unsettling in the 1980s because of socialism, now supports a government that’s giving capitalism a bad name–to the point where the Sandinistas may be voted back into office. “You walk into houses, put your hand on the mud ovens and know that the families haven’t lighted a fire all day because there is simply nothing to cook,” says Carlos Fernando Chamorro, a former Sandinista newspaper editor who now operates the most respected muckraking operation in the country. Even my friend Jaime Bengochea, a businessman who always opposed the Sandinistas and supports their opponents today, shook his head ruefully. “Yes, I’ll admit that to a degree there has been a loss of humanity these past years,” he said. “It is a sad thing.”
On November 4, Nicaraguans will choose between former President Daniel Ortega of the National Convergence, an alliance of political organizations headed by the Sandinista Front, and Enrique Bolaños, a crusty businessman chosen to lead the ticket of the ruling Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC). One of them will succeed outgoing President Arnoldo Alemán of the PLC. The latest polls say the race is too close to call, and there is fear that if balloting is close, violence could erupt.
The political system is already a shambles. Not only has humanity been lost, but also any semblance of honest or sane government. Last year, the two major parties arrived at a notorious agreement under which positions in key institutions–the Supreme Court and other levels of the judiciary, the commission overseeing elections and another that supposedly investigates corruption–were divided between the two parties. “If you’re a Sandinista you go to a Sandinista judge with your case, and if you’re a Liberal you pick a Liberal judge,” says Ana Quiroz, director of a group of nongovernmental organizations, funded by foreign aid, that has criticized the pact. “It works the same with the officials who oversee banks. Each party is allowed to cut its deals.”