The Costa Rica-Nicaragua border divides two worlds. During my Central American trip last month with fellow classmates from Georgetown University, we traveled from Panama to Guatemala — five countries in all. The starkest — and saddest — transition was crossing that border. Lush green farms immediately gave way to a virtual desert, in a pathetic display of the economic problems that plague the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. We also observed that those problems are not external, but are the detritus of failed political and economic policies.
Abandoned tractor trailer trucks lined the roads and smoke filled the air as the Nicaraguan farmers burned their crops, leaving the countryside barren and dusty. While standing at the poor excuse for a customs station, taxi drivers swarmed us with the news of a nation-wide transportation strike. They insisted a taxi was the only remotely reliable way of traveling between cities.
La Coordinadora Nacional del Transporte (CNT) ordered the strike to protest high fuel prices. Filling the tank in Nicaragua costs more on average than in the United States, notwithstanding the nation’s grinding poverty. Such costs, coupled with a lack of faith in Ortega’s ability to remedy the problem, caused transportation workers nationwide to set up roadblocks at the limits of every city. In places, the national police showed their opposition to Ortega’s rule by enforcing the strike and forcing drivers to exit and abandon their vehicles. The roads were left as barren as the countryside.
The barren roads highlight both the travails of Nicaraguans and the unpopularity of leftist president and U.S. antagonist, Daniel Ortega.
The nearly universal strike damaged the nation’s economy, bringing all international and domestic shipping to a halt, inflicting terrible economic harm. Shops, restaurants, and hotels were empty in the tourism-dependent village of San Juan del Sur. Unable to find transportation, tourists could not reach the sandy beaches and other beautiful areas they would normally swarm.
Across the city — and in all the tourism-dependent cities and towns throughout the country — the residents, all of whom depend on foreign visitors in some way, were livid. Ortega naturally blamed the United States and U.S. oil companies for high energy prices. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who happens to sit on one of the world’s largest pools of oil, gave Nicaragua $520 million worth of help under the label of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). This is Ch√?¬°vez’s socialist trade alliance among Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, intended as a counter-weight to U.S. economic influence. Whatever happened to that all that money, neither Ortega nor Chavez will admit.
Ultimately, Ortega ended the 12-day strike by implementing a $1.30 fuel subsidy that reduced diesel prices to the lowest in Central America. Fuel prices, however, have again risen since then and another strike looms.
Nicaraguans realize that Ortega’s presidency, though only in its second year, is already a failure. Throughout the country, billboards depict the triumphant image of “Presidente Daniel” and his promises to lift up the poor of the world. But the reality below those billboards is barren countryside, horrendous roads, and rampant poverty. The reality is that an M&R Consultants poll released last month showed 64 percent of respondents believe Ortega to be an authoritarian ruler who wants to become dictator, while 88 percent say there has been no improvement in the Nicaraguan economy since he took office.
It helps to understand that Ortega never won the Nicaraguan popular vote. In fact, he only received 38 percent of the vote. But moderate and conservative parties split the non-Sandinista vote. Ortega came to power as part of a wave of leftist leaders elected throughout Latin America on the promise of reform. Some of these leaders have truly improved the lot of their populations while others have failed virtually across the board.
My time in Nicaragua allowed me to witness firsthand that the populations of Latin America will not stand for empty promises or leaders who fail to enact desperately-needed reforms. This is not the Latin America of the past; the people have tasted political and economic freedom. And they like it.