Local activist works to improve impoverished conditions

September 19, 2003|JENNIFER BRUMMETT

Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series on Centre College professor Richard D. Axtell's work with Witness for Peace and its work in Latin American countries.

When the war ended and the Sandinistas lost the 1990 election, Axtell says, Nicaragua was in serious debt and went to the International Monetary Fund for loans to work through its debt crisis.

"In order to get those loans, Nicaragua had to agree to what's called a structural adjustment program," Axtell explains. "Structural adjustment requires the country to balance its national budget, increase exports, privatize publicly owned enterprises, etc., in order to be able to pay off its debt.

"People with Witness For Peace who knew Nicaragua well became increasingly aware that those policies were hurting the poor in different ways from the Contra war, although not through overt physical violence as during the war. But perhaps the harm of the IMF policies is almst as serious, because in order to live up to structural adjustment, Nicaragua had to cut funding for health and education, and has had to privatize socially constructive enterprises like electricity, telephone (service), the health care system and education. One of the big issues right now is the privatization of Nicaragua's water."


So, WFP shifted gears in the 1990s and 21st century toward looking at the effects of these policies on the poor, Axtell notes.

"Witness for Peace still sends what they call delegations down to Nicaragua, who live in Nicaraguan villages, interview Nicaraguan economists, farmers, activists, women's groups, student groups, labor organizers, etc., to get a clear picture of how the International Monetary Fund and U.S. policy are affecting the poor," he says.

The delegation with which Axtell traveled in June was part of the 20th anniversary celebration of Witness for Peace.

"They sent four delegations to the four countries where we currently are active - Nicaragua, Cuba, Colombia and Mexico," Axtell explains. "It was one delegation to each country, and about 70 U.S. citizens who went. Then, they gathered back in Washington, D.C., to share their experiences, to lobby Congress, to send spokespersons to the IMF and the State Department and, of course, to celebrate the 20 years of work in Latin America."

Observations and recommendations

The government of Nicaragua is elected, and currently the party in power is the Liberal Alliance, which leads the National Assembly.

One of the most striking aspects of Nicaragua is its extreme and pervasive poverty, Axtell says.

"There are whole areas of the city of Managua that are little more than shacks," he explains. "They are thrown together with tin, cardboard, scrap metal.

"There are children in inner sections of the city who can't go to school because of the huge budget cuts in the national education budget and who are selling, say, Alka Seltzer or fruit drinks or bananas. We stayed in a coffee-growing village in the mountains near Esteli, where only 40 percent of the children were able to attend local school because their parents now have to pay so much of the costs of a primary education."

While in Nicaragua, he stayed with a family in a village called El Regadio that lived without running water.

"I lived with was a mother, with three sons living at home, and four grown daughters. And two children had died."

Axtell says his delegation met with small farmers who are "having serious trouble getting loans under the structural adjustment program and who spoke to us of their fears about the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which is currently being negotiated between Central American countries and the United States."

"It's an agreement patterned after NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement)," he explains. "As small farmers find themselves competing with the influx of subsidized U.S. agricultural products that drive down the price of their produce on the local market, they find themselves having to sell their land because of an inability to compete.

I saw this effect of trade policy when I went on a Witness for Peace delegation to Chiapas, Mexico. There, we spoke to indigenous farmers wh had lost their land, and they attributed their plight to NAFTA. In fact, this is widely understood to be one of the causes of the Zapatista rebellion in southern Mexico."

"The farmers we met with in Nicaragua feared the same thing would happen under CAFTA. They feel like their segment of society has no voice in the negotiations. There is still a great fear of the United States."

With that in mind, Axtell and the WFP delegation made a number of recommendations to Congress and the IMF when they visited Washington. First was an "increased voice for civil society groups in CAFTA negotiations," Axtell says. Another was "room for appropriate protections for those segments of Central American economies that would be most hurt by free trade agreements."

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