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Is Nicaragua's Negative Image Justified?

Nicaragua: the home of poetry and spectacular geography or the home of war and dangerous crime? How is it that the simple word Nicaragua conjures up visions of violence and suffering for the foreigner before a visit and memories of beautiful culture and nature on the airplane ride home? Why does Nicaragua suffer such a negative image? Is it justified?

While guiding visitors to Nicaragua over the last 12 years customers have related to me that before departure from their home country, at least 95% of the ones from North America, and more than 70% from Europe were shown serious concern by family and/or friends about safety issues for a visit to Nicaragua. The polar opposite of Nicaragua in the international traveler’s mindset is our southern neighbor Costa Rica. According to a recent independent study, of all North American travelers who were interested in visiting Central America, 91% of them said that Costa Rica was the place they would “really like to go to”or “like to go to”. Of the same travelers when asked to describe Nicaragua, 47% said “unstable”and another 20% said “dangerous”, while only 13% said “friendly”.

Therefore Costa Rica inevitably serves as the yardstick for which Nicaragua’s realities are measured. The comparisons are too convenient, neighboring countries, with opposite images. Costa Rica has done a marvelous job with image management, while Nicaragua has done an equally horrible job. None the less, any serious comparison between much-maligned Nicaragua and oft-praised Costa Rica must use reality (not image) as its scale.

Nicaragua is poor. 40 years ago Nicaragua’s wealth was greater than Taiwan and 25 years ago it was superior to Costa Rica. However, societal freedom and strong economies have not traditionally been great dance partners in Latin America. In the 20th century Nicaragua lived 45 years of a Somoza family dictatorship in Nicaragua that was very good for international business and trade and very bad for liberty and democracy. In the end freedom triumphed, with the popular overthrow of Somoza, thanks to the revolution of 1978-79, lead by the FSLN and fought by a diverse cross-section of Nicaraguan society. The cost was high on both a human and economical level.

Despite the war being won by broad-based coalition, after the victory, another dictatorship, the FSLN (or Sandinistas) quickly consolidated power and personal freedoms suffered once again. When the reality set in that real democracy was not achieved by the popular victory against Somoza, some of the heroes of the revolution returned to the mountains to fight once again, this time against the new Sandinista Government.

Three years later, when the US began to finance the rebels and installed ex-Somoza National Guard leaders to direct them, they became know as the “Contras”, their border insurgency as the “Contra War”. Unlike the revolution against Somoza, the anti-Sandinista guerilla war was fought in limited areas of the country, but the world-wide controversy that surrounded its funding buried Nicaragua’s international reputation in infamy.

Meanwhile the lethal combination of a US economic embargo, Sandinista economic policies and spending to combat the Contras destroyed Nicaragua’s economy. A peace pact was finally signed and in 1990 the Sandinistas lost in general elections and they democratically handed over power to Violeta Chamorro. Many of the former rebels from both sides of the 1980’s conflict fence became wealthy and/or successful businessmen. Economic interests of the Sandinista leaders and aggressive disarmament policy gradually solidified peace in Nicaragua, which was fully in place by the end of 1995. Poverty, however, remained well entrenched.

For comparison, UNICEF’s 2001 gross national income per capita figures are revealing. They list the USA at $34,870 per capita as the world’s second highest standard. Costa Rica is one of the wealthier countries per capita in Latin America at US$3,950, while Nicaragua rates a measly US$420 per capita. World statistics generally list Nicaragua as the 2nd poorest country in the hemisphere behind Haiti. Much of the problem revolves around Nicaragua’s external debt. Foreign debt stands at US$6.5 billion, a mere pittance for many countries, but a giant ball and chain for Nicaragua, who’s annual GDP is only US$2 billion. In 2004 Nicaragua appears very close to being pardoned of 75% of this external debt by the IMF, which would relieve Nicaragua of its unenviable current status as proportionally the most indebted country on the planet.

One could rightfully imagine that a decade of war and the resulting poverty would create a miserable population, desperate and depressed, turning to crime, with waves of social unrest triggering subsequent government repression. If only Nicaragua was not the country where “lead floats and cork sinks”as the popular saying goes, this might be true. However in Nicaragua things are not as the world would likely expect or imagine them to be.

One quick measure of any populace’s happiness is suicide rates. Surely such an impoverished and war-weary people might be inclined to pull the plug, throw in the towel. Suicide rates according to the World Heath Organization in Nicaragua are 6.9 per 100,000. However, wealthy southern neighbor Costa Rica’s rate is higher, at 11.8 per 100,000. Both pale in comparison with the really wealthy countries like the USA at 21.7, Australia at 26.3 or France at 35.5, not to mention Switzerland at 36.5 or Japan at 50.6 per 100,000.

So money does not necessarily buy happiness, but it should keep crime down. Crime statistics are a shaky business, the more efficiently a country reports their crimes the further they slide down in the safety rankings, but it does prove useful as a reference point. According to Interpol in 2001, crime rate per 100,000 was 9,927 for England, 7,736 for Germany, 4,161 for the USA and 1,750 for Nicaragua. Could Nicaragua be home to less than half the crime in England or Germany?

Murder rates are a popular measure for a country’s level of violent crime and are more reliable than most, as murders rarely go unreported. The world’s homicide rate is currently estimated at 8.86 per 100,000. Latin America is quite a bit rougher, with an average of 22.9 murders per 100,000 in the region. Most neighbor countries of Nicaragua in Central America are on the upper end of the world’s scale, exactly where the world might expect Nicaragua would be located. Countries like El Salvador at 117 per 100,000, Guatemala at 45 per 100,000 and Honduras at 41 per 100,000. In North America, the US murder rate is 7.1 per 100,000, yet its famously violent cities weigh in at 14.8 per 100,000 for Los Angeles, 21.9 for Chicago, 31.7 for Atlanta, with Washington, D.C. at 41.8 and New Orleans at 43.3. Little Costa Rica, the “oasis of peace”, is at 7.2, the same as the US and significantly safer than most other Central American republics. What about Nicaragua? Nicaragua suffers only 3.4 per 100,000, making it the least violent country in Central America and one of the safest in all the hemisphere.

Nicaragua safer than Costa Rica? How is that possible? Could it be that Nicaragua is safe because it is actually a police state that has come down hard on the population, locked everyone up? Incarceration rates suggest otherwise. The USA leads the world in prison inmates with a staggering 682 per 100,000 in jail. Canada has 123 per 100,000, Scotland 119 and Germany 96, while Nicaragua has only 57 per 100,000 imprisoned. How about on a regional level: comparing Nicaragua vs. Central America in total inmates? Honduras has 9,816 inmates under key, El Salvador 9,378, Guatemala 7,834, Costa Rica 5,542 and Nicaragua at 3,913. How does one explain that Costa Rica has a higher murder rate and more people in prison than bad-boy Nicaragua? Especially considering that Costa Rica is home to 1.2 million less people than Nicaragua? Perhaps it is Nicaragua’s police? Do they have menacing, heavily armed forces that guard the country with intimidating 24 hour patrols? Police officers per thousand statistics rate Italy at 5.3 police per thousand, Spain at 4.7, Germany at 4.4, El Salvador at 2.6, Costa Rica with 2.5 and Nicaragua with 1.2 police per thousand. Nicaragua has less than half the police density of Costa Rica. What those numbers don’t show is that Nicaragua’s small police force is also largely unarmed. In fact more than half of Nicaraguan police do not carry firearms at all.

All right, the Nicaraguan population is not all crowding into prisons, and Nicaragua has a tiny, lightly armed police force. Therefore Nicaragua must have a very intimidating military that keeps its poor population in check, right? After all, Costa Rica claims to not even have a military and Nicaragua had a more than 120,000 man army in the 1980’s. Part of President Violeta Chamorro’s mandate when she took over Nicaragua’s presidential office from Daniel Ortega in 1990 was to dismantle the Sandinista Army. In what was one of the most radical disarmaments of the 20th century, Nicaragua went from 120,000 armed men to less than 16,000 soldiers in under 4 years. Today Nicaragua has the smallest military in Central America at 14,000 men. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Nicaragua’s military is shrinking at a rate that puts it as number 129 out of 132 countries in world rankings for military growth with a minus -75% growth rate. This compared with Mexico whose armed forces are growing at a rate +49%, or the extreme of Colombia at +130%. In fact Nicaragua ranks behind peaceful Holland in soldiers per 1,000 people.

In a regional armed forces spending comparison published in the 2002 CIA factbook, Mexico spends US$4 billion on military annually, while Central American neighbors Guatemala and Costa Rica spend US$120 million and US$69 million per year respectively. In contrast, Nicaragua spends only US$26 million annual. The same source cites Nicaragua’s military spending per person at US$5.18, compared to Costa Rica’s US$17.99 per person. But wait, you say, Costa Rica has no army! Indeed, they have a “Civil Guard”, not a “Military”. Costa Rica’s armed forces may not have heavy artillery and sport a user-friendly name, but those who know the country understand this as nothing more than semantics and damn good PR. When Costa Rica’s troops were caught patrolling inside Nicaragua’s territory on the San Juan River in 1998, their non-existent military was dressed in battle fatigues with M-16 attack weapons at the ready, and their camouflage motorboat sported a mounted-machine gun. Not only does the Costa Rican Civil Guard receive military training (many trained abroad in Panama, Israel and the US), but more than 2,500 soldiers have graduated from the infamous “School of the Americas”, where Costa Rican troops received specialized training in military intelligence, psychological warfare, sniper and commando tactics, “irregular warfare”and special tactics, to name just few. By insisting that they have no military, Costa Rica (less than half the size of Nicaragua) keeps their 23,000 strong fighting force registering as big fat zero on the world image screen, including in comparison with Nicaragua’s 14,000 poorly equipped soldiers.

Yet Costa Rica’s brilliant public relations work goes well beyond their invisible military and ultra-safe image. Costa Rica makes great use of their famous love for nature preservation and their enduring democracy. No one will argue against the fact that Costa Rican nature park administration is superb, among the finest in Latin America and that their promotion of those parks is twice as good. However, how many would guess that it is Nicaragua that has the largest expanse of rain forest north of the Amazon basin? Where are all the travelers dreaming of visiting Nicaragua’s 84 nature reserves that cover over 21,000 square kilometers, protecting more than 17% of Nicaragua’s landmass? Giant nature parks in Nicaragua? Sorry? Wouldn’t that be Costa Rica? Costa Rica claims 27.27% of its landmass as protected areas, though 10.27% are national parks, the other 17% is padded with the inclusion of “buffer zones”and Indian reservations. Total protected landmass in Costa Rica, including the buffers and Indian lands is 14,500 square kilometers, still 6,500 square kilometers short of Nicaragua. The management of Nicaragua’s nature parks leaves a lot to be desired, both in funding and management, but according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna; for protection of endangered species, Nicaragua ranks 28th in the world, ahead of Costa Rica, which ranks 49th. What about deforestation? The highest rate in Latin America belongs to Costa Rica, at 520 square kilometers annual.

How about contamination? Poor Nicaragua might have bigger nature reserves than Costa Rica, but surely it is not as clean, right? According to the World Resource Institute, measuring pesticide in kilograms used per hectare of crops, Costa Rica is the world’s 3rd worst offender, averaging 18,726 kg per hectare. Nicaragua ranks as only the world’s 111th worst offender, using only 357 kg per hectare. For sewage treatment Nicaragua’s poorly funded infrastructure can only manage to treat 35% of waste water, though this does not look too bad in light of relatively wealthy Costa Rica treating only 5% of their sewage waste.

For sure Costa Rica’s democracy deserves to be applauded; they have a marvelous constitution, model education and heath programs. However, no Costa Rican would claim their government does not suffer from corruption. Corruption has also been a problem historically in Nicaragua, but the country has made tremendous strides in fighting government corruption, a virtual institution across Latin America. Nicaragua’s ex-president, Arnoldo Alemán has just been sentenced to 20 years in prison for corruption charges. While accused ex-ministers are in exile to avoid prosecution (the standard Latin American tactic), Nicaragua has arrested and convicted their former head of state, a rare feat in any republic, and unprecedented in Latin American history. What makes it doubly unique and surprising is that the attack against Alemán’s corrupt former administration comes from his very own political party. Imagine that happening in any other country in the world. Nicaragua truly is the land of the sinking cork and floating lead.

The real bottom line of democracy could be voter participation, the population making its voice heard. In Costa Rica’s last presidential elections in 2002 they enjoyed a 60.96% turnout at the poles, not bad, after all voting there in not compulsory. In Nicaragua the right to vote is given to every Nicaraguan 16 years and older and voting is neither compulsory nor convenient. In Nicaragua’s last presidential elections in 2001 a staggering 93.4% of registered voters placed their vote, keeping poles open more than 4 hours after their scheduled closing time. For non-compulsory voting turnouts, Nicaragua is at the leading edge of the world. Freedom of the press is also a reliable barometer of true democracy. According to a study published in October of 2003 by Reporters without Frontiers; Costa Rica is judged to have the freest press in all of Latin America. Yet Nicaragua is not far behind, listed in third place, in front of more than 30 other Latin America countries.

It is apparent, that despite Nicaragua’s checkered past and current financial woes, its image is dramatically worse than its reality. A look at annual AIDS incidence rates in Central America reveal that Hondurans suffer an average of 142.6 AIDS cases per million, according to the World Heath Organization. Their survey also indicates that Belize is not far behind at 129.6 per million, Panamá is stricken with 77.2 cases of AIDS per million, El Salvador at 65.9, Costa Rica at 47 per million. In last place for AIDS density is Nicaragua, with 2 cases of AIDS per million (two, not a typing error).

This endless barrage of statistics, percentages and numbers gets very tiresome and they do nothing to demonstrate the Nicaraguan people’s interminable sense of humor, warmth and hospitality. Nor do the statistics highlight Nicaragua’s love for poetry or their amazing, daily reinvention of the Spanish language. The percentages do little to reveal Nicaragua’s unique cultures of dance, music, and great food. These are all qualities that carry no numerical value. If in Nicaragua the probable seems impossible and the impossible extremely likely, it is thanks to her unique people. No writer can do them proper justice with a long list of numbers. Some qualities can only be felt, experienced first hand. Only a visit to Nicaragua can provide that pleasure.

By Richard Leonardi