Is Nicaragua for ever buried in our collective unconscious, or will the presidential elections held at the beginning of November 2001 help to bring this small Central American country back on the world scene ? Already a decade has gone by since the left/right conflict, played out through the Nicaraguans, was active in this region of volcanoes. There, in the 1980s, it was the time of the revolutionaries and the counter-revolutionaries, the “sandinistas” and the “contras”. The left-wing international would travel to Managua to support people’s liberation ; the US right-wing, from bases in Honduras and Costa Rica, armed the opposition to Daniel Ortega’s regime. It was a reflection of the East/West confrontation and it reduced the whole of the Central American isthmus to a banal game of dominoes.
In 1990, the Sandinista leaders, who had been in power for more than ten years, finally gave in. Exhausted by years of war, the Nicaraguan people closed the revolutionary interlude by their vote at the urns. The record had been a mixed one : on the positive side was the combat against illiteracy ; the vaccination campaigns ; the redistribution of wealth ; universal education ; agrarian reform ; the aspiration for national sovereignty : all these were to some extent achieved. But there were dissatisfactions, more or less deeply felt : the volontarism and the planned economy of those in command, who were convinced of their liberating mission ; the raisons d’Etat which were imposed ; the sacrifices - although accepted - in a context of political violence and boycott and the militarism that surrounded them. The Sandinistas accepted their defeat and the way was open for the liberal democracy of the nineties.
Together with Nicaragua, all Central America underwent a process of democratic “normalization” during the last decade. But living conditions for the majority of the people of Central America are today worse than they were in 1980 and the social divide is more manifest than anywhere else. Also, the gradual pacification of the region has caused the whole isthmus to fall once again into the anonymity of societies without history. The political polarizations of yesterday have given way to increased social dualization : violence is no longer partisan, but social and unchecked. The number of murders in Guatemala and Salvador (1,500 a year per million of inhabitants) is more than ten times greater than the Latin American average. Eighty per cent of the Nicaraguans live in poverty. In the social field, the limitations of electoral democracy with a Central American sauce are only too evident.
There are two main reasons for all this, one internal and the other external. On one hand, the scandalous corruption, the public cynicism and the nepotism of the national representatives - particularly the outgoing Nicaraguan president Arnoldo Aleman - have disillusioned the people at large and discouraged international aid agencies. On the other hand, there has been the size of the debt, structural adjustment programmes, the neoliberal policies imposed by the multilateral financial institutions and the precipitous drop in external aid. The economic aid of the United States to Central America has fallen from 1.5 billion dollars in 1995 to 149 million dollars in the year 2000. The weakness of the institutions and the incapacity of the political parties to become democratic certainly did not help and indeed do not protect the region from new authoritarian adventures. The still vivid memories of past political violence should however have a certain dissuasive power.
Ten years of liberal democracy in Nicaragua have proved a virtual failure, both from a socio-economic viewpoint and at the cultural level. Was it not a fact that two-thirds of the Nicaraguans interviewed last year said that they would leave the country if they possibly could ? Nicaragua was 60th in the United Nations human development index in 1990. Now it is ranked at 116th place. This is dramatically illustrated by the famines that are raging in the rural regions during these last months.
While the traditional Central American elites were until recently dictatorial, under the combined pressure of people’s movements and a changing global context they have been induced to play the democracy game. The old revolutionary left has been transformed into opposition parties, as has been the case for the Sandinista Front in Nicaragua. If it succeeds in winning the elections on 4 November, will it bring Nicaraguan society back to life ? Its old ideals of social justice : are they still on the agenda ? And, if so, in a small dependent country, will they have a minimum chance of being put into practice ?