Sunday, October 29, 2006

Nicaraguan Election

With the upcoming election, all eyes are focused on Daniel Ortega. There is a great sense of optimism that the recent wave of left leaning leaders continues it's progress further north. With this in mind, it is worrying to note that Ortega has supported the recent move to ban abortions. In the past, Ortega has been broadly supportive of women's rights in the face of strong opposition by the Catholic church. The law is certainly draconian, particularly as it is already written into law that women and doctors who take part in abortions can face prison sentences of up to 6 years. It is clearly a very depressing development, and particularly for the support given by Ortega. Having said that it is vital that, in the face of extreme American pressure, Nicaraguans vote for Ortega in the election. It is interesting to note, that despite the attention on the Middle East, some in America wish to restart old battles.

Oliver North, who played a vital role in channeling funds to the Contras (during the Iran-Contra affair), has recently visited Nicaragua with the clear intent of influencing the election. Speaking out against the possible election of Ortega, North said:

Whilst in Nicaragua, North also visited a memorial to fallen Contra rebels. Although he wasn't visiting the country as an official representative of America, his appearance was designed to destabilise the Ortega campaign which has been causing some discomfort in the White House. It has also reminded Nicaraguan of their troublesome past relations with the superpower. To understand the impact of this visit upon the poor of Nicaragua, one must understand the recent history of the country.
For 44 years, Nicaraguans lived under the US backed dictatorship of the Somoza family. The dictatorship fell shortly after the murder of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro in 1978. Chamorro was an editor of the only opposition newspaper during the Somoza dictatorship, and was subjected to a great deal of harassment for his opposition to the regime. His murder was mourned throughout the country and around 50,000 people turned out for his funeral in a show of strength against the regime. Following the funeral, an estimated 30,000 people rioted in the streets of Managua and the escalation of hostilities by the regime lead to the popular movement that removed Somoza from power.
After the removal of the dictatorship, the US took a very firm line with the new FSLN government led by Ortega, seeing it as a Soviet satellite in the region and a threat to security. Thus began the war with the Contras (thanks to the support of John Negroponte - American ambassador to Honduras) that continued for the next six years. The US provided a great deal of financial support to the Contras throughout their campaign against the Sandinistas, hoping to remove them from power. Perhaps the most despicable act of the period was the mining of Nicaraguan harbours in 1984. In April of that year, the CIA had confirmed that they had been laying mines in Sandino harbor in Nicaragua, sabotaging Sandinista communications and destroying an arms depot. The action was a blatant violation of international law and was condemned by the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The US administration refused to accept the judgment and continued to support the Contras in their battle with Ortega's government.
Despite the ongoing troubles throughout Ortega's reign, Nicaragua made some astonishing achievements. Perhaps their greatest success was the introduction of the Nicaraguan Literacy Campaign. The drive to raise literacy levels throughout the country lead to the country lowering its illiteracy rate from 50% to 12%. An astonishing achievement given the ongoing hostility from the United States. The Sandinista's achievements were consequently recognised by UNESCO, who awarded Nicaragua the Nadezhda Krupskaya International Prize. Nicaragua also managed to eradicate polio and reduce the infant mortality rate during this period (the mortality rate per 1,000 live births was 97 in 1978, the last full year of the Somoza regime; 63 in 1985; and 72 in 1989). Furthermore, women in Nicaraguan society experienced a positive shift in policy. The Sandinistas had long campaigned for equality of genders and employment of women steadily rose under their leadership. They certainly had more influence during these years than they had ever experienced under the rule of the Somozas. However, once the Sandinistas were voted out of power, women noticed a downturn in their fortunes. By the end of 1991, 16,000 working women had lost their jobs and they suffered a big drop in economic support.
Although there was great progress in Nicaragua during this period, the country has slipped back to the standards during the Somoza regime. UNICEF reports that the mortality rate per 1,000 live births is now 83, almost at the levels at the end of the dictatorship. The illiteracy rate has gone up to 23% after the recognised achievements of the Sandinistas. UNICEF also reports that:
The people of Nicaragua have an important choice to make. Continue to be held to ransom by the richest 10% of the country, or to stand up to the bullying tactics of the United States and make a positive change. One hopes that they grasp this opportunity to take the path of others in the region and end their sub-ordination to the White House. Yes Ortega has made a terrible error in supporting the anti-abortion legislation, but he is the one that can give the people of Nicaragua hope in the face of the oppression from the north.