Lessons from Nicaragua

Nicaragua is not sending waves of refugees to the United States. Instead, Nicaragua, along with Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Belize, is receiving waves of refugees coming from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. What’s going on here?

This post was first published by Advocates for Human Rights as part of a series that delves into the plight of the Central American children and families fleeing violence in Central America. The series examines the historical context of the crisis, challenges that refugees face, international human rights obligations, and costs of a response.

Back in the 1970s, Nicaragua had a revolution. In 1979, the Sandinistas triumphed, elections followed, and the country voted in a leftist, democratic government. Among the first projects of the revolutionary government: a nationwide literacy campaign that enlisted the enthusiasm of young revolutionaries and volunteers to teach children, parents, and grandparents to read and write. The new government also set up free health care and converted many farms seized from the military and the old right-wing regime into cooperatives or state-owned farms.

While the revolution didn’t change everything — Nicaragua is still a very poor country — it succeeded in making government, police and military power more accountable to the people than in neighboring Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. That’s a big reason that Central American refugees flow into Nicaragua (and Costa Rica), rather than in the opposite direction.

While the revolution did not solve all problems, Nicaragua looks distinctly different from its neighbors. Nicaragua Network co-coordinator Katherine Hoyt wrote in August:

“The police and army in Nicaragua formed after 1979 have retained the respect of the people for all those years and always rate highly in opinion polls. They have been able to keep organized crime out while the forces in the other countries have either been overwhelmed by them or joined forces with them. No wonder the three northern countries have some of the world’s highest murder rates and people are fleeing! Nicaraguan programs for youths that keep them in school and out of gangs has also contributed to the low crime rate in that country.”

Nicaragua is far less violent and dangerous than the three countries whose children are fleeing. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that in 2013, murder rates per 100,000 population were:

Honduras: 90.4
El Salvador: 41.2
Guatemala: 39.9
Nicaragua: 11.3

The high rates of violence, driven by gangs and drug trafficking, drive children and families to flee. Nicaragua’s relatively low crime rates, in contrast to its neighbors, make it a destination for many refugees, despite its poverty and lack of resources to offer them assistance.

The World Bank reports that Nicaragua is poorer than its neighbors. That means Nicaragua has a lower per-person gross national income. However, the gross national income is not the only measure of economic success or failure. Another important measure is the distribution of income. In Nicaragua, the percentage of the population that is poor (42.5%) is smaller than in Honduras (64.5%) or Guatemala (53.7%). El Salvador has a lower poverty rate (34.5%) than its neighbors

Nicaragua’s relative poverty has historic roots. The economic progress of the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution was derailed, beginning in 1981, by the U.S.-sponsored contra war, which lasted for nine years, costing 40,000 lives and undermining the economy with a U.S. economic blockade. The war ended when the U.S.-backed candidate, Violeta Chamorro, was elected president in 1990. Revolutionary leader Daniel Ortega was elected president again in 2006 and 2011, returning the Sandinista party to lead the government.

Nicaragua’s economy is turning around. In 2014, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was hailed by Forbes Centroamérica as the leader of an ongoing economic miracle. Which is not to say that the economic changes are all positive — Forbes, for example, lauds the increase in foreign investment and the proliferation of WalMart stores. According to the World Bank,

“Defying global economic odds, Nicaragua has remained a bright spot in an otherwise mixed scenario for Central America’s economies. …
“After a quick rebound in 2010, economic activity grew at 5.4% in 2011, the highest rate in a decade. Inflation was also tamed to single digits–around 8% in 2011, down from a high of 25% in mid-2008. The macro economy remains stable, with a GDP forecast growth of 4.2% in 2014, and foreign direct investment and trade show an improved outlook.”

Some 35 years after the Nicaraguan revolution, writes Chuck Kaufman, co-coordinator of the Nicaragua Network/Alliance for Global Justice:

“Nicaragua remains important today and we have to teach the truths that they taught us in the 1980s. …
“We used to say ‘All Nicaragua is a school.’ The composition of refugees crossing our border today demonstrates that that is as true today as it was in the 1980s.”

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