Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 99 | Octubre 1989




Envío team

August 23 marked the ninth anniversary of the completion of Nicaragua's Literacy Crusade. The 1980 campaign taught 400,000 people to read and write, lowering illiteracy from more than 50% to less than 13% of the adult population in five months. Germán Torres, a peasant, remembers how he couldn't sleep the night he first learned to write his name. His next accomplishment was a love letter. "I had bad spelling, but when I received an answer from the girl, I felt excited and proud. She'd understood what I said and from then on I didn't stop until I won her."

After the 1980 campaign, adult education continued in Popular Education Collectives where people learned from their peers, and in night schools, Saturday workshops and mini-campaigns during school vacations. Important gains were registered, particularly along the Pacific Coast. The town of Diriamba, for example, was declared a "Territory Free of Illiteracy" in a recent ceremony, after having succeeded in reducing illiteracy to only 2.5%.

But the years of contra war had drastic effects on education in the war zones in the north and central regions, leaving over 500 schools damaged or destroyed and 130 teachers dead, many of them popular adult educators. By 1989, illiteracy on the national level had risen to over 20% from the 12.9% achieved by the 1980 crusade.

In response, on September 8, the Ministry of Education (MED) launched a new literacy campaign. This new crusade will, at least initially, have a more limited scope than the original, focusing on towns and cooperatives, and only later attempting to reach remote communities. In Managua, 38 neighborhoods have been targeted. On the Atlantic Coast, the program will be conducted in Miskito, English and Sumu, as well as Spanish, for the benefit of the region's indigenous and ethnic populations.

Unlike the 1980 effort, when city kids volunteered to go to the countryside to share their educational skills, the teachers for the new program will come from the same communities as the students. Organizers hope to recruit 10,000 high school students, members of Christian base communities and local activists for the initial phase, to run from September through next March. If contra forces demobilize, as called for in the regional peace accords, and defense needs decrease, there is a possibility that army recruits could also participate as literacy and health workers.

The texts used in the original crusade were criticized by Sandinista opponents for their pro-FSLN content and by educators for their focus on topical issues that quickly went out of date. The first ten chapters, for example, were a history of the insurrection. In developing new materials, a decision was made to avoid party references and focus on enduring themes that would speak to people's experiences. The first chapter begins with the sentence "Nuestro camino es la paz" (our path is peace). Other sections deal with topics such as health, communal participation, production and culture.

By 1991, MED authorities hope to have illiteracy back down to the level attained by the 1980 campaign. According to Douglas Guerrero, director of the program, "Our goal is that by the year 2000 there won’t be one illiterate person."

On other academic fronts, the news was mixed this month. At the end of the first semester, final totals showed only 60.6% of primary and high school students are passing their courses, down slightly from last year's 61%. Students in the war zones, ironically enough, had the best academic performance. Managua, with the largest class sizes among other problems, came in last.

Forty percent budget cuts in education, designed to fight war-induced hyperinflation, partially explain the results. Class sizes have increased and there are shortages of everything from desks to books and other materials. Primary schools, which receive priority within the tight budget, show better results (64.5% passing) than high schools (only 43.9%).

Another factor is higher academic standards. This year, to pass a course, students must score 60%, rather than the 51% demanded in years past. The regional education director for Managua, Mary Bolt, explained that at a time when all sectors of society were being asked to produce more to help in the country's development, students could not be an exception. Students are also struggling with a change that gives less emphasis to final test results in favor of daily work, which now counts 40% of the final grade.

But there was good news as well: 90.8% of students nationwide stayed in school in the first semester, 2% above last year's student retention rate. Said Minister of Education Fernando Cardenal, "If we have been able to advance with so little funding, what could we not do with budget increases for education when peace comes?"

In recent months, tensions over housing in urban areas rose as long absent landlords moved to reassert their property rights over land and homes seized after the revolutionary triumph and now being occupied by community institutions and the poor. In many cases, the owners seem to have been encouraged by conciliatory moves made by the Sandinista government in the overall peace and economic concertation process. Some of those reclaiming property are former National Guardsmen released in March as part of the government's efforts to comply with a regional peace agreement signed the month before. Others are members of the wealthy landowning class who hoped that concertation meant a return to the past. Because many land takeovers were never formally legalized, the courts have often come down on the side of the former owner, producing conflicts with poor communities who are the Sandinistas' social base.

The roots of the conflict lie in a severe shortage of urban housing, exacerbated by the influx of migrants from the countryside in the last ten years. Managua has doubled in size since 1979 and now contains a third of the country's population. Over 220,000 Nicaraguans have benefited from laws that provided homes and lots and protected renters. But the revolution, strapped by the costs of the war and lack of access to multilateral loans because of US pressure, has been unable to keep up with the housing demand. In just one of Managua's six districts, though 400 families have received land for houses this year, 5,000 more are still awaiting a response. Those who have homes are no more secure: the city has 1,000 eviction cases pending.

On August 29, the National Assembly ruled in favor of the current occupants of homes in dispute, voting to suspend all evictions for 180 days while a comprehensive law could be designed. The only exception was for those cases involving renters who owed more than 60 days' back rent. A commission made up of the Police, Welfare Department, Mayors' offices, Ministry of Construction and the judiciary is charged with developing new legislation. The community organizations (CDS) are assembling a team of legal experts and plan to make their own proposals.

The issue provoked a heated debate among Assembly delegates with the opposition PCD calling the proposal to suspend evictions an "attack on property" and other parties accusing the FSLN, which put forward the proposal, of electioneering. All sides agree that the law is not a permanent solution to the country's housing problem and that the real need is for an urban reform that addresses the underlying structural issues. In the long run, the solution is dependent on economic recovery to free up resources that could satisfy pressing needs for housing.

Sunday in Nicaragua is traditionally a day of rest, and, for too many, a day to sit around drinking rum and carousing with friends. In a country too poor to offer many recreational
alternatives, alcohol serves as a relatively cheap form of entertainment and escape from the tensions of war and economic crisis. The result is an alarming degree of alcoholism. According to Dr. Alejandra Bosche, Ministry of Health Program Director, Nicaragua's per capita consumption of alcohol in 1980 was 50% higher than the world average. Given that 45.8% of the population is under 15 years of age, the average alcohol consumption among adults is nearly double that amount.

For thousands of Nicaraguans, Alcoholics Anonymous has offered a supportive way to confront their disease. On a recent Sunday, the organization celebrated its 25th anniversary at the Olof Palme Convention Center. In his address to the crowd, President Daniel Ortega, a teetotaler, affirmed his government's commitment to fight alcoholism. The World Health Organization has recognized the Sandinista government for its prohibition of cigarette and alcohol advertising in the media. Ironically, stiff taxes imposed on the sale of these products (as well as soft drinks) in an effort to discourage their use also provide the government with one of its main sources of revenue. In the end, observed Ortega, the answer is neither cutting off production nor punishing consumers, but appealing to the drinkers' conscience, as AA has so successfully done.

Rights for Children with Disability
"Pipito" is an affectionate Nicaraguan term for a child. It is also the name of the organization that fights for the rights of children with disability, promotes social awareness and works with parents of such children to help integrate them into society. The organization was founded two years ago by a group of about 20 parents and today has grown to include almost 1,300 families.

Los Pipitos declared August 24 through 31 "Disabled Children's Week." Activities included a parents’ meeting, a first gathering of siblings of the disabled, a discussion with doctors on how to improve medical attention, a parade and a fiesta.

Los Pipitos faces a number of obstacles, among them widespread ignorance and a tendency for parents to be ashamed of and reject a child with a disability. "Until recently," says Pipitos director Roberto Leal, "a person with a disability was 'clandestine' in Nicaragua." Some affiliated families admit that they had never before taken their children out in public. The other major obstacle, according to Los Pipitos president Comandante Omar Cabezas, is the lack of economic resources for special education. Beyond that, most families cannot even afford equipment such as wheelchairs that are necessary for the child's social integration.

One of the most important functions of the association has been to support and educate parents. "When I first found out that my child was a deaf-mute, all I could do was cry, but listening to what other parents had experienced, I now think the only alternative we have is to unite to help our children achieve the right to greater development," said Marta Calderón. The parents have organized by geographical zone to detect new cases of children with disabilities, share their experiences and educate parents about the care of children with disability and the importance of encouraging their development.

On September 7, in a meeting on food policy with representatives of national and international organizations, Agrarian Reform Minister Jaime Wheelock announced that the basic food package given to 165,000 government workers would be expanded to include 25 pounds of dried milk. "This will have an impact from both a nutritional and an economic point of view," said Wheelock. The package of powdered milk, to be given every three months at least through the end of the year, is worth about a million córdobas, $40 at the current parallel exchange rate.

Wheelock also announced that a pilot program to give a glass of milk a day to preschool, first and second grade students will expand to reach 100,000 children throughout the country by October. The program, which began in April with 1,500 children, targets schools prioritized by the Ministries of Health and Education because of their students' poor nutrition levels.

The Carlos Fonseca primary school in Managua’s Batahola neighborhood received its first delivery of milk on September 6. "The arrival of the milk makes us happy, because some of these children come to school without eating," said Eveling Suárez, coordinator of preschool teachers. The limited food supply their parents can provide provokes fainting spells and leads to low academic achievement."

Beyond the cooperation of the European Community and the World Food Program, the project depends on the efforts of regional government and the mass organizations for distribution to individual schools and students. The free milk program aims eventually to reach 400,000 children, offering a nutritional supplement at a time when the government has been forced to cut a number of subsidies and many families are having a hard time putting basic foods on the table.

The month of August brought the lowest inflation rate—6.6%—in well over two years, reflecting the success of government efforts to control a hyperinflation that reached 36,000% last year. This year's cumulative total so far is down to 833%. One of the primary factors in reducing inflation is a drastic state budget cut that slashed public spending by 51% since last year, according to Planning Minister Alejandro Martínez Cuenca. Defense suffered particularly large cuts, dropping from 62% to 36% of the overall budget.

There is concern about recession, particularly in industry, which relies on expensive imported raw materials and is now facing a depressed internal market. However, exports overall are up by 27% this year and industry has increased its exports from $30 million to $40 million dollars.

The government hopes to keep monthly inflation rates to one digit. One of several factors that may work against these plans is the February 1990 elections, with an estimated cost of $14.5 million according to the budget recently passed by the National Assembly. The plan is to finance the elections through international contributions and transfers of funds from other state institutions such as the telephone company and the fishing and mining industries, rather than through the inflationary practice of printing more money. The greater the level of donations, the less hardship there will be for already under-funded ministries. However, to date, according to Vice President Sergio Ramírez, many governments that are pressuring for Nicaraguan elections "have given a very poor response." A number of the reforms agreed to at the National Dialogue with the opposition parties will make the process considerably more costly. One opposition demand, for example, established four Sundays, rather than two consecutive days at two times during the month, for voter registration, doubling the cost of mobilizing all the necessary personnel.

Solidarity took on a new twist in Estelí, where eight Soviet and eight US citizens collaborated recently to build housing for the Oscar Gámez neighborhood. The project was co-sponsored by CEPAD and the Soviet Peace Fund. The group was received by Soviet Ambassador Valeri Nikolayenko, who said, "This gesture of yours will help you to better understand the problems of Nicaragua so that peace may come and this country may develop its economy and satisfy its people’s needs." US Embassy Charge D'Affaires John Leonard, who was also present, commented that the project was "something private that had nothing to do with the US government..."

In a recent meeting with leaders of youth and student organizations, President Daniel Ortega agreed to establish a commission to develop a sex education program for the schools. The commission will include representatives of the Ministry of Education, the welfare department (INSSBI), high school and university student associations and the FSLN youth organization JS-19. The government also agreed to guarantee social benefits to the 4,000 war disabled and, to the extent possible, to the 100,000 youth who have completed military service. A 30% transport subsidy was promised for students who commute from rural areas to the city to study. Representing 73% of the population between children and youth, those present at the meeting also demanded that local governments address their needs by pledging to construct and maintain recreation centers, among other projects.

As a key sector of the population, young people are insisting on the inclusion of candidates who represent them on the FSLN slate for election to the National Assembly and Municipal Councils next February. On August 23, the tenth anniversary of the Sandinista Youth, the organization presented 100,000 signatures backing this demand.

More than 1,500 women associated with AMNLAE, the main women's organization, also met with the nation's leadership to present proposals for the Sandinista electoral platform. AMNLAE representatives from each of the country's six western regions and the Atlantic Coast, as well as women organized in unions and in the communal movement, young women and mothers of heroes and martyrs, all presented lists of demands developed through a long process of discussions in assemblies at the grassroots level.

Workers raised the issue of childcare to facilitate their participation in productive work, the guarantee of their right to paid pre- and post-natal leave, and access to training for traditionally male jobs and positions of greater responsibility. Rural women called for an end to discrimination in land distribution and asked that women be integrated as equal members in agricultural cooperatives and that land titles be in the names of both husband and wife, in case of the man's death or abandonment of the woman. A Sandinista Youth representative spoke in favor of access to training for nontraditional careers, quotas of scholarships for women and an end to discrimination against pregnant students, often rejected from day schools and forced to attend high school at night. The issues of sex education and easy access to contraceptives were repeatedly raised and there was loud applause for calls for strict penalties for rape, abuse and sexual harassment, and for the jailing of men who do not pay child support.

But the AMNLAE members did not limit themselves to strictly "women's" issues. The Atlantic Coast representative called for deepening autonomy for her region and others supported the government peace initiatives as the only vehicle for improving the lives of all Nicaraguans. A mother of one of the thousands of contra kidnap victims appealed to the government to continue working for their release, saying, "We want them back alive." Others proposed that representatives of the mothers of the disappeared be incorporated into a commission to visit the contra camps in search of their family members.

Mónica Baltodano, a member of AMNLAE's national executive, cautioned those present that "we must also represent non-Sandinista women whom we want to attract to the platform of the FSLN. The pro-yankee parties are trying to attract the feminine vote." Baltodano told the crowd of AMNLAE women, "The FSLN is the only organization capable of fulfilling the demands we are putting forward." With a woman, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, as their presidential candidate, the rightwing opposition grouped in UNO has already begun this effort. But the politics of the UNO coalition make it unlikely that they will champion women's interests. Dominated by business interests, UNO's platform lists none of women's specific demands. Women are mentioned only once when the platform urges that "programs be directed to women with the purpose of strengthening their sense of dignity and integration into family, economic, social and political functions."

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