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Sweat Nothings - Nicaragua

editorial - SchNEWS,  11 February 2005

"My brother works ten hours a day, sometimes from 4am to 10pm. I've never known him to have a holiday or time for the kids. For this he gets £45 a month." - Andrea, Nicaraguan Charity worker

UK PLC seems to be in a generous mood. Last weekend Bliar and Brown even dedicated a whole G7 summit to African debt relief, promising £27bn a year in aid. Make Poverty History campaigners, meanwhile, were 'allowed' to protest from the confines of a fenced-off pen. Outside the meeting, the World Development Movement had an electronic counter ticking away indicating that one child was dying from poverty every four seconds. Debt relief has been tried before and it always comes with the same conditions: privatisation, redundancies and cuts to government spending on health and education.

Nicaragua joined up to the old-style Highly Indebted Countries Initiative and, for a few million dollars, was forced to sell its assets and open the economy to bargain hunting investors. The idea is that by attracting investment the economy will grow, eradicating poverty in the process. But for the multinational corporations the most interesting thing about Nicaragua is its cheap wages. Once again our corporate sponsored politicians are using debt relief as a smoke screen to hide the reality of neoliberalism for the majority of the world's workers.

Costa Arm And A Leg

Heading into Nicaragua from the Costa Rican tourist resorts, you may be forgiven for thinking that the people are good at speaking foreign languages because the majority of roadside adverts selling sports cars, land deals and financial services are all in English. Scantily clad women meanwhile, flog booze and fags in Spanish. This is an investor's paradise where if you can't make it, at least you can get pissed. "Costa Rica is being sold as a playground for rich North Americans" says Pepe, a bar worker from the Playa Coco resort in the North of the country, "none of the businesses here belong to Costa Ricans. We're all being pushed into the countryside. Gringos practically own the whole coast and we can't afford to buy anything anymore."

In a recent publication on poverty reduction, the World Bank said that neoliberalism was the best way to 'develop' poor countries. Bank officials argued that people could "move from the vulnerability of grinding rural poverty to better jobs, often in towns or cities". Leona disagrees. She's an activist working with sweatshop workers in Nicaragua. There's no doubt, life in the countryside is tough, "You've got to borrow money from the bank to buy seeds and this means mortgaging the land. But the way things are at the moment, with the droughts and harvest failures, you can't earn enough money to pay back the loan and the bank takes your land. People say: 'what's the point of that?' and leave the countryside for the city."

"But we live in a poor city, a really poor city. We consume more than we produce," says Andrea, a charity worker, "several years ago the city was happy. Now its sad, very sad." The only 'formal sector' work on offer is in the local Maquila, a sweatshop factory on the edge of town. The Maquilas operate in tax-free environments and in Nicaragua are generally owned by US, Taiwanese or Korean clothes companies. The high value stages of making things like jeans such as design and marketing take place in Paris, London and New York. Maquilas are here to contract out the assembly stage. Being able to force women to sew thousands of t-shirts a day is one benefit, but with 70% unemployment, Nicaragua offers an even bigger advantage for the profit hungry men in suits: Low wages. This is the world of 'just in time manufacturing'. Business is booming and profits are good.

"But the Maquilas are a disaster", says Leona. And, if workers want out, "you get no compensation, they withhold your wages and you can't get social security". So what do they do, asks SchNEWS? "Move to Costa Rica!" replies Andrea. "If you want to leave those infernos, the only option is to emigrate."

Just before Christmas the Costa Rican border town of Penas Blañcas, heaves with Nicaraguans returning to their families after working in the plantations and sweatshops and as domestic servants in Costa Rica. Although the local newspaper says that record numbers are crossing the border, many workers are no longer returning to their families. Juan, a campesino from just over the border in Nicaragua, earns less than 50p a day and has a family of nine to support, "I haven't seen or heard from my two eldest sons for over ten years." He suspects they're too embarrassed to admit they haven't made their riches down south in Costa Rica. And there are certainly riches to be made! A Maquila worker there can bring home almost £1.40 per hour, that's over triple the 42p per hour in Nicaragua.

Rebel Waltz

While some are hopeful that the Sandinistas will return to power and things will get better, the revolutionary fighters of the seventies have changed a lot since then. "I was in my 20s when I fought with the Sandinistas" says Miguel, now an NGO worker in Managua. "But now I'm in my 40s. I want a quiet life, more relaxed, without problems. The same is true of the people I fought with, they want an easy life. But the problems in Nicaragua require a radical solution."

Still at the helm of the Sandinista party, Daniel Ortega, sure enough, is searching for the easy life by striking a deal with the same Catholic Church hierarchy that opposed the revolution he led twenty five years previous. Hoping that the pact will improve his chances in the forthcoming presidential elections he joins the leaders who attacked 'liberation theology', the philosophy that influenced many who fought in the revolutionary army. "Although the Sandinistas will be better for the poor" says Leona, "they don't have a magic wand to resolve all the economic problems in this country. And, in reality, when the elections do come, the Sandinistas may even lose. With Bush against us, I don't have much hope."

Papa Bush told reporters in 1989 that Daniel Ortega "was like an unwanted animal at a garden party." The feeling is still the same. Junior Bush's henchman Donald Rumsfield was in the capital, Managua, last November to bolster the corrupt and unpopular Presidency of Enrique Bolaños. But supporting a president with only a 10% showing in the polls comes at a high price. Bolaños agreed to destroy another 300 of Nicaragua's 1,300 ground-to-air missiles, which had been used to repel a US backed invasion during the 1980s. The White House is making sure that they don't get in the way should the policy to attack become an option once again.

more info

Read The Country Under My Skin by Gioconda Belli (Anchor Books: New York)

A fashion show benefit by No Sweat for Batay Ouvriye, a Haitian garment workers union, will be held at the London College of Fashion, 20 John Princes St, Oxford Circus on 25th Feb 2.30pm. More info 07845 277865 -

Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign -

- SchNEWS  (11th February 2005)

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revised 18 November 2005