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Nicaragua - SOCIETY

Nicaragua - The Society


A GROUP OF DEDICATED REVOLUTIONARIES, THE SANDINISTAS came to power in 1979 determined to transform Nicaraguan society. How well they succeeded in their goal was still being debated in 1993. during their years in power, the Sandinistas nationalized the country's largest fortunes, redistributed much of the rural land, revamped the national education and health care systems to better serve the poor majority, rewrote the laws pertaining to family life, and challenged the ideological authority of the Roman Catholic bishops. But although the Sandinistas were confronting a society that was subject to powerful forces of secular change, this society also had deeply ingrained characteristics. Before and after the Sandinista decade, Nicaraguan society was shaped by the strength of family ties and the relative weakness of other institutions; by rapid population growth and rising urbanization; by male dominance, high fertility rates, and large numbers of female-headed households; by the predominance of nominal Roman Catholicism existing alongside the dynamism of evangelical Protestantism; by steep urban-rural and class inequalities; and by sweeping cultural differences between the Hispanic-mestizo west and the multiethnic society of the Caribbean lowlands.

In 1993 the permanence of the changes made by the Sandinistas' was unclear. The relevant social scientific literature was slim, and many basic statistics were unavailable. Furthermore, the forces set in motion by the Sandinista revolution might take decades to play themselves out.



Nicaragua - Population


Since the 1950s, Nicaragua has had a persistently high rate of population increase and rapid urban growth, both of which were expected to continue into the twenty-first century. The Sandinista revolution had little effect on these demographic trends. The Nicaraguan government has not carried out a national census since 1971, although it continued to register vital statistics and collect demographic data through periodic sample surveys of the population. A United Nations (UN) agency, the Latin American Center for Demography (Centro Latino-Americano de Demograf�a--Celade), has collaborated with Nicaraguan authorities to develop national population estimates.

In 1990 an estimated 3.87 million people lived in Nicaragua. The population had tripled in the preceding twenty-five years and was expected to double again in the following twenty-five. In the late 1980s, the population was expanding at a rate of 3.4 percent annually, far above the Latin American average of 2.1 percent for the same period.

This extraordinary growth reflects declining mortality and high fertility rates. Mortality rates have dropped steadily since the 1950s. By 1990 the death rate, which had been high by regional standards, had dropped to 8 per 1,000 inhabitants, close to the Latin American average of 7 per 1,000 inhabitants. Nicaragua's total fertility rate in the 1980s was 5.7, meaning that a typical Nicaraguan woman could expect to have almost six children in the course of her childbearing years, two more than the regional average. Although total fertility and crude birth rates are expected to decline, both, according to demographic projections, should remain above Latin American averages well into the next century.

Continuing high fertility rates, together with a long-term reduction in the infant mortality rate, have produced a very young population. In 1990 nearly half of the population was less than fifteen years old. The broad base and rapidly tapering shape of Nicaragua's age-sex pyramid is typical of high-growth, developing countries. Although the pyramid can be expected to broaden in the middle as the population ages and mortality and fertility rates drop, the pyramid will not assume the almost- diamond shape typical of high-income countries until well into the twenty-first century.

Life expectancy at birth in Nicaragua advanced from about forty-five in the late 1950s to sixty-two in the 1991. There are, nevertheless, considerable variations in these average figures. In general, women can expect to survive three years longer than men. Casual observation in Nicaragua and world experience suggest that city dwellers and more affluent segments of the population live significantly longer lives. The life expectancy of upper- class Nicaraguans was probably closer to the seventy-one-year average found in developed countries in 1988 than to the Nicaraguan national average of sixty-two.

In 1993 Nicaragua was rapidly turning into an urban society. The thickening bands of shantytowns surrounding the larger cities provide ample evidence of the hectic pace of change. The government defines as urban all cities and towns with more than 1,000 inhabitants. By this standard, 55 percent of the population lived in urban areas in 1990. Although birth rates in the towns and cities are significantly lower than they are in the countryside, large-scale internal migration to towns and cities has resulted in the faster growth of the urban population. From 1970 to 1990, the urban population expanded at an explosive annual rate of 4 percent, whereas the rural population grew at only 2.3 percent.

Much of the urban growth is concentrated in the capital city. The inhabitants of Managua constituted 7.5 percent of the national population in 1940, 15 percent in 1960, and 28 percent in 1980. By 1992 Managua's population was estimated at 1.5 million. No other Nicaraguan city was anywhere near that size. The country's second largest city is Le�n, an important regional center with a population of roughly 130,000 in 1990. The other important provincial cities, all with populations that range from 50,000 to 100,000, are Matagalpa, Masaya, and Granada. Somewhat smaller are the principal towns on the Caribbean coast, Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas. However, accurate estimates of populations of Nicaraguan cities have not been available since the 1970s.

Explosive population growth and rapid urbanization magnify many of Nicaragua's development problems. High birth rates strain the country's inadequate health and education systems, and the expanding population takes a heavy toll on the environment. Rapid urbanization requires expensive investment in transportation and sanitation infrastructures. Despite these problems, successive Nicaraguan governments (including the Sandinista administration) have declined to make population control a national priority. Nicaraguans are, in fact, divided over the issue. Although some people regard excessive demographic growth as an obstacle to development, others question the notion that their country, with the lowest population density in Central America (32 persons per square kilometer in 1990), should worry about overpopulation. In addition, the hierarchy of the Nicaraguan Roman Catholic Church and other conservative Roman Catholics have repeatedly stated their religious objections to birth control.

Nicaragua's population historically has been unevenly distributed across the country. In pre-Columbian times, the Pacific lowlands, with their fertile soils and relatively benign climate, supported a large, dense population. The central highlands sustained smaller numbers, and the inhospitable Caribbean lowlands were only sparsely populated. This basic settlement pattern remained unchanged 500 years later. More than 60 percent of Nicaraguans live within the narrow confines of the Pacific lowlands. About half as many live in the central highlands, but the Caribbean lowlands, covering more than half of the national territory, hold less than 10 percent of the population. In 1986 population densities ranged from 137 persons per square kilometer in the Pacific departments to 28 in the departments of the central highlands and fewer than 10 persons in the two eastern autonomous regions.

Ethnically, Nicaragua is a relatively homogeneous country. In 1993 some 86 percent of Nicaraguans were ladinos--people of European or mixed European and indigenous descent, who shared a national Hispanic culture. In the nineteenth century, there was still a substantial indigenous minority, but this group largely has been assimilated culturally into the Hispanic mainstream. The country's racial composition is roughly as follows: mestizo (mixed indigenous-European), 76 percent; European, 10 percent; indigenous, 3 percent; and Creoles, or people of predominately African ancestry, 11 percent. Modern Nicaragua generally has been spared the bitter ethnic conflicts that other Latin American countries with large culturally distinct indigenous populations have suffered. In Nicaragua, friction has involved relations between the ladinos, who predominate in the west (the Pacific lowlands and central highlands), and the nonladino minorities (indigenous peoples and Creoles) of the east or Caribbean lowlands.

In social terms, the country is split into two zones: the economic and political heartland of the west, encompassing the Pacific lowlands and the central highlands; and the sparsely settled east or Caribbean lowlands. The west, containing the major urban centers, is populated by Spanish-speaking whites and mestizos, both of whom regard themselves as Nicaraguans and participate, to a greater or lesser extent, in national life. The east, historically remote from the centers of political and economic decision making on the other side of the mountains, includes a sizable indigenous and Creole population that has never identified with the nation or participated in national affairs.

Almost the entire population of the Pacific lowlands and central highlands is either mestizo or white. Although no distinct color line separates these two groups, social prestige and light skin color tend to be correlated, and the white minority is distinctly overrepresented among economic and political elites. Almost no culturally distinct indigenous enclaves remain in the western half of the country. Nicaraguans sometimes refer to the "Indian" barrio of Monimb� in Masaya, of Subtiava in Le�n, and to the highly acculturated Matagalpan "Indians" in the central highlands, but the cultural patterns of these populations are almost indistinguishable from others who share their economic position.

Having escaped assimilation into the Hispanic majority, the eastern, or Caribbean, hinterland is culturally heterogeneous. In many ways, it is a completely different country from the Spanish- speaking nation to the west. The Miskito, a mixed Indian-Afro- European people who speak an indigenous language, have traditionally been the largest ethnic group in the region. There are also smaller indigenous communities known as Sumu and Rama, a large group of Creoles, and a rapidly expanding mestizo population fed by migration from the west. In 1990 the Miskito and Sumu composed most of Nicaragua's indigenous population.

Facts about Nicaragua.




Describing the Nicaraguan class structure that existed in the early 1990s is a problematic task. Current data on the distributions of occupation and income are not available. In the wake of a decade of Sandinista rule, certain aspects of the class structure are still in flux. Nonetheless, the general profile of the class structure can be described with data from the recent past.

An outline of the Nicaraguan class structure, based on labor force and rural property data from 1980 and reflecting the 1979 seizures of properties held by the Somoza family and other early expropriations under the Sandinistas, revealed a highly stratified society. Less than one-fifth of the population could be described as middle class or higher. Another study from the same period showed that 60 percent of income went to the top 20 percent of households. The data also indicated that although a high proportion of Nicaraguans were self-employed, relatively few held stable, salaried employment. Self-employed workers constituted almost half of the labor force in 1980, and salaried workers made up less than 30 percent.

Land is the traditional basis of wealth in Nicaragua, and in the twentieth century the greatest fortunes have come from land devoted to export production, including coffee, cotton, beef, and sugar. Almost all of the upper class and nearly a quarter of the middle class are substantial landowners. The rapid expansion of agro-export production in the decades after World War II encouraged growth of the urban economy. Planters diversified their investments. Together with an expanding class of urban entrepreneurs, they found opportunities in banking, industry, commerce, construction, and other nonagricultural sectors. Economic growth created jobs for salaried managers and technicians. The impact of this period is reflected in the varied occupations held by the middle class.

The rural lower class is characterized by its relationship to the agro-export sector. Rural workers are dependent on agricultural wage labor, especially in coffee and cotton. Only a minority hold permanent jobs. Most are migrants who follow crops during the harvest period and find whatever work they can during the off-season. The "lower" peasants are typically smallholders without sufficient land to sustain a family; they also join the harvest labor force. The "upper" peasants have enough resources to be economically independent. They produce a substantial surplus, beyond what they can consume directly, for national and even international markets. Studies have shown that peasant farmers supply much of the country's domestic grains, beef, and coffee.

Many, if not most, of the workers in the urban lower class are dependent on the informal sector of the economy. The informal sector consists of small-scale enterprises that employ primitive technologies and operate outside the legal regime of labor protections and taxation to which large modern firms are subject. Workers in the informal sector are self-employed, unsalaried family workers or employees of small-enterprises, and they are generally poor. In the past, many economists believed that the informal sector in Latin America was a remnant of past underdevelopment that would disappear with economic modernization. But in Nicaragua, as elsewhere in the region, the informal sector expanded at the same time that modern factories were being built and new technologies were transforming export agriculture.

Nicaragua's informal sector workers include tinsmiths, mattress makers, seamstresses, bakers, shoemakers, and carpenters; people who take in laundry and ironing or prepare food for sale in the streets; and thousands of peddlers, owners of tiny businesses (often operating out of their own homes), and market stall operators. Some work alone, but others labor in the small talleres (workshops; sing., taller) that are responsible for a large share of the country's industrial production. Because informal sector earnings are generally very low, few families can subsist on one income. A man who works in a taller might have a wife at home making tortillas or a child on the street peddling cigarettes.

The Sandinistas attempted to transform the Nicaraguan class structure, most notably by expropriating wealth from the privileged classes. Upon assuming power in 1979, the Sandinista government expropriated the banks and seized the property of the Somoza family and its closest associates. These early measures targeted the interests of the country's most powerful capitalists: the Somoza group and two competing financial groups, each organized around a separate bank. In subsequent years, the government gradually took over other large urban and rural enterprises, until the private sector was reduced to about half of the gross national product (GNP).

In the countryside, where the Sandinista revolution probably has had its most enduring effects, the Agrarian Reform Law transferred nearly a third of the total land under cultivation. Land expropriations began in 1979 with Somoza's properties, constituting about a fifth of all farmland, and continued under agrarian reform laws passed in 1981 and 1986. Most of the affected land belonged to the richest 5 percent of landowners, who, at the end of the Somoza period, controlled more than half of the land under cultivation. By 1988 the reform had benefited 60 percent of Nicaraguan peasant families: 43 percent received land, typically as members of government cooperatives, and another 17 percent received the land (often located on the agricultural frontier) on which they had been squatters.

The restructuring of land tenure between 1978 and 1988 resulted in a sharp decline in the share of land held by the largest landowners. Expropriated farms generally became state farms or peasant cooperatives. By 1988 the land reform had passed through its most active phase. During the brief lame-duck period following the Sandinistas' electoral defeat in 1990, however, Sandinista authorities granted several thousand new agrarian reform titles, often to land transferred from the state farm sector. Some properties, which later became objects of controversy, went to influential Sandinistas, but the net effect of these actions was to further reduce the concentration of land in the hands of the few.

The government of President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro (president, 1990- ) assumed power committed to privatizing the state sector in both urban and rural areas. But the new government also agreed to reserve a 25 percent share of state sector enterprises for their workers and to uphold the rights of the peasant beneficiaries of the agrarian reform. The government faced militant demands for land from ex-fighters on both sides of the civil war. Of roughly 300,000 hectares of state cotton, coffee, and cattle lands privatized by late 1991, former combatants received 38 percent, and farm workers received 32 percent. Far from attempting to reverse the agrarian reform, the Chamorro administration was compelled to extend it.

The enduring effects of the Sandinista revolution on the Nicaraguan class structure may not be known for some time. In the early 1990s, the property situation remained unsettled. It was also uncertain how many of the businesspeople, professionals, and skilled workers who became expatriates in the 1980s would reestablish themselves in the country. The Sandinistas did reduce class inequalities, most notably by eliminating the three major financial groups that once dominated the economy and by redistributing land. They seem also to have altered the perceptions and expectations of the population. The gap between the privileged classes and the poor majority did not appear as proper or as inevitable as it did in the past. However, some key aspects of the class structure that existed before 1979 remained unchanged. During the 1980s, the urban informal sector actually grew in size, and a large part of the rural population continued to depend on seasonal employment. Even before the economic collapse of the late 1980s wiped out the gains of the early Sandinista years, the vast majority of Nicaraguans lacked the resources to satisfy basic needs, according to a government study.




Nicaragua was one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere in 1992, with a per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) estimated at approximately US$425. In real terms, per-capita income was almost half of what it had been in 1981. The country's low living standards are reflected in nutrition and housing data. In 1989 each Nicaraguan consumed 1,524 calories and 44 grams of protein a day--well below minimum recommended allowances. Fewer than one in five urban households had sufficient income to purchase a minimum "market basket," as defined by the government. In the mid-1980s, 55 percent of urban houses and 67 percent of rural houses consisted of a single room; nearly half lacked drinking water and plumbing. The national housing deficit, according to a 1990 estimate, was 420,600 units.

A 1985 government study classified 69.4 percent of the population as poor because they were unable to satisfy one or more of their basic needs in housing, sanitary services (water, sewage, and garbage collection), education, and employment. The defining standards for this study were set quite low. For example, housing was considered substandard if it was constructed of discarded materials with dirt floors or if it was occupied by more than four persons per room. Predictably, the poverty rate was higher in rural areas (85.9 percent) than in urban areas (54.8 percent). Regionally, the highest rate was recorded in the two eastern autonomous regions on the Caribbean coast (94.5 percent) and the lowest in urban Managua (49.6 percent).

Conditions in Nicaragua have fluctuated widely with the economic and political upheavals of recent decades. In the years from 1950 to 1975, real GDP per capita more than doubled, driven by the rapid growth in exports of coffee, cotton, and beef. Capital generated by agro-exports contributed to the development of a thriving industrial sector. In the three decades ending in 1980, the urban population expanded from 35 percent to 53 percent of the total population.

The benefits of this remarkable period of economic expansion have been unevenly distributed, however. Precise data are not available, but local observers have noted that the middle class blossomed and many new fortunes emerged during these growth years. Some benefits did flow to the lower class. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, primary school enrollment grew 400 percent. Infant mortality, a significant indicator of social well-being, declined from 167 deaths per 1,000 live births in the period from 1950 to 1955 to 100 per 1,000 in the years from 1970 to 1975. Despite these gains, however, Nicaragua's school enrollment and infant mortality statistics remain poor by regional standards. The distribution of income in the 1970s was highly skewed, probably more so than it had been in the past: 30 percent of personal income went to the richest 5 percent of households, but only 15 percent went to the poorest 50 percent. Furthermore, some of the poorest Nicaraguans were the direct victims of economic development. As agro-export production expanded in the Pacific lowlands and the central highlands, thousands of peasants were pushed off their land, many of them to be converted into lowwage , seasonally employed agricultural laborers. Between 1965 and 1975, the GNP and the number of children under five years of age suffering from malnutrition both doubled. Clearly, many Nicaraguans were getting poorer as their country grew richer.

The Sandinista revolution brought a new cycle of upheaval to Nicaraguan society. The 1978-79 insurrection that toppled the Somoza regime left 30,000 to 50,000 people dead, a large population homeless, several cities devastated by government bombing, and extensive damage to the economy, including the destruction of much of Managua's modern industrial district. After they assumed power, the Sandinistas reversed the national priorities established under the Somozas. Their prime policy objective in the early years was to promote the welfare of the poor majority; national economic growth was a secondary concern. Government policy in areas from land reform and nutrition to health and education was strongly redistributive. In the early 1980s, generous spending on social programs was sustained by a relatively healthy economy and high levels of foreign aid from both Western and Soviet bloc countries.

In the late 1980s, however, the resources available for social programs declined as foreign aid dried up, the economy floundered, and war with the Contras (short for contrarevolucionares) compelled the government to redirect spending toward national defense. Living standards sank abruptly during this period. By the end of the decade, the average real wage had dropped to less than 10 percent of its 1985 value, nearly half the labor force was unemployed or underemployed, and the poverty rate was rising. Infant mortality, which had declined sharply in the early years of Sandinista rule, began to rise again. The death rate per 1,000 live births was 97 in 1978, the last full year of the Somoza regime; 63 in 1985; and 72 in 1989. For several years, the Contra war disrupted social and economic life across the country, but especially in contested zones like northeastern Nicaragua and the northern central highlands. In such areas, Contra forces targeted both economic and social infrastructure, including agrarian reform farms, schools, and health facilities. More than 20,000 Nicaraguans died in the fighting, and thousands of others were left maimed or crippled.

Conditions improved after fighting largely stopped in 1988. Democratic elections, followed by peaceful transition to a new government in 1990, resulted in the lifting of the United States trade embargo imposed in 1982, renewal of United States aid, and the removal of informal barriers to international credits. The Nicaraguan economy was, however, slow to respond to these changes. GDP continued to decline in 1990, and no growth was recorded in 1991. Despite making deep cuts in military forces, the new government did not have the resources to restore spending on social programs to prewar levels.


Nicaragua - Education


When the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, they inherited an educational system that was one of the poorest in Latin America. Under the Somozas, limited spending on education and generalized poverty, which forced many adolescents into the labor market, constricted educational opportunities for Nicaraguans. In the late 1970s, only 65 percent of primary school-age children were enrolled in school, and of those who entered first grade only 22 percent completed the full six years of the primary school curriculum. Most rural schools offered only one or two years of schooling, and three-quarters of the rural population was illiterate. Few students enrolled in secondary school, in part because most secondary institutions were private and too expensive for the average family. By these standards, the 8 percent of the college-age population enrolled in Nicaraguan universities seemed relatively high. Less surprising was that upper-class families typically sent their children abroad for higher education.

By 1984 the Sandinista government had approximately doubled the proportion of GNP spent on preuniversity education, the number of primary and secondary school teachers, the number of schools, and the total number of students enrolled at all levels of the education system. A 1980 literacy campaign, using secondary school students as volunteer teachers, reduced the illiteracy rate from 50 percent to 23 percent of the total population. (The latter figure exceeds the rate of 13 percent claimed by the literacy campaign, which did not count adults whom the government classified as learning impaired or otherwise unteachable.) In part to consolidate the gains of the literacy campaign, the Ministry of Education set up a system of informal self-education groups known as Popular Education Cooperatives. Using materials and pedagogical advice provided by the ministry, residents of poor communities met in the evenings to develop basic reading and mathematical skills. Although designed for adults, these self-education groups also served children who worked by day or could not find a place in overcrowded schools.

At the college level, enrollment jumped from 11,142 students in 1978 to 38,570 in 1985. The Sandinistas also reshaped the system of higher education: reordering curricular priorities, closing down redundant institutions and programs and establishing new ones, and increasing lower-class access to higher education. Influenced by Cuban models, the new curricula were oriented toward development needs. Agriculture, medicine, education, and technology grew at the expense of law, the humanities, and the social sciences.

One of the hallmarks of Sandinista education (and favored target of anti-Sandinista criticism) was the ideological orientation of the curriculum. The stated goal of instruction was the development of a "new man" whose virtues were to include patriotism, "internationalism," an orientation toward productive work, and a willingness to sacrifice individual interests to social and national interests. School textbooks were nationalist and prorevolutionary in tone, giving ample coverage to Sandinista heroes. After the 1990 election, the Chamorro government placed education in the hands of critics of Sandinista policy, who imposed more conservative values on the curriculum. A new set of textbooks was produced with support from the United States Agency for International Development (AID), which had provided similar help during the Somoza era.

Despite the Sandinistas' determined efforts to expand the education system in the early 1980s, Nicaragua remained an undereducated society in 1993. Even before the Contra war and the economic crisis that forced spending on education back to the 1970 level, the educational system was straining to keep up with the rapidly growing school-age population. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of children between five and fourteen years of age had expanded by 35 percent. At the end of the Sandinista era, the literacy rate had declined from the level attained at the conclusion of the 1980 literacy campaign. Overall school enrollments were larger than they had been in the 1970s, however, and, especially in the countryside, access to education had broadened dramatically. But a substantial minority of primary school-age children and three-quarters of secondary school-age students were still not in school, and the proportion of students who completed their primary education had not advanced beyond the 1979 level. Even by Central American standards, the Nicaraguan education system was performing poorly.


Nicaragua - Health


Like education, health care was among the top priorities of the Sandinista government. At the end of the Somoza era, most Nicaraguans had no access or only limited access to modern health care. Widespread malnutrition, inadequate water and sewerage systems, and sporadic application of basic public health measures produced a national health profile typical of impoverished populations. Enteritis and other diarrheal diseases were among the leading causes of death. Pneumonia, tetanus, and measles, largely among children less than five years old, accounted for more than 10 percent of all deaths. Malaria and tuberculosis were endemic.

By the beginning of 1991, twenty-eight persons had tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), and eight of those individuals had died. These figures were low in comparison with neighboring countries, but health officials regarded them as accurate because the government had conducted an aggressive search for HIV among prostitutes, blood donors, and tuberculosis patients in the late 1980s. The same officials cautioned against complacency toward AIDS. A large number of sexually transmitted diseases was reported in Managua and Bluefields, and if HIV were introduced into groups with multiple sex partners, AIDS cases would rise rapidly.

Nicaraguans depend on a three-tier health system that reflects the fundamental inequalities in Nicaraguan society. The upper class uses private health care, often going abroad for specialized treatment. A relatively privileged minority of salaried workers in government and industry are served by the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute. These workers and their families compose about 8 percent of the population, but the institute devoured 40 to 50 percent of the national health care budget. The remainder of the population, approaching 90 percent, is poorly served at public facilities that are typically mismanaged, inadequately staffed, and underequipped. Health care services are concentrated in the larger cities, and rural areas are largely unserved. In fact, the Ministry of Health, which has sole responsibility for rural health care, preventive health care, and small clinics, received only 16 percent of the health budget, most of which it spent in Managua.

In the early 1980s, the Sandinista government restructured and reoriented the entire health care system. Following a recommendation made by AID in 1976, authorities combined the medical functions of the Ministry of Health, the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute, and some twenty other quasi-autonomous health care agencies from the Somoza era into a unified health care system. Within a few years, spending on health care was substantially increased, access to services was broadened and equalized, and new emphasis was placed on primary and preventive medicine. During this period, the number of students annually entering medical school jumped from 100 to 500, five new hospitals were built (largely with foreign aid), and a national network of 363 primary care health clinics was created. With help from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), 250 oral rehydration centers were established to treat severe childhood diarrhea, the leading cause of infant deaths, with a simple but effective solution of sugar and salts. The Ministry of Health trained thousands of community health volunteers (health brigadistas) and mobilized broad community participation in periodic vaccination and sanitation campaigns.

The expansion of access to health care was reflected in a doubling of the number of medical visits per inhabitant and a reduction from 64 percent to 38 percent in Managua's share of total medical visits between 1977 and 1982. These early years also saw a substantial drop in infant mortality and reductions in the incidence of transmittable diseases such as polio, pertussis, and measles.

In health as in education, some of the ground gained in the early 1980s was lost during the second half of the decade. Health care activities, including vaccination campaigns, had to be curtailed in regions experiencing armed conflict. The health care system was flooded with war victims. Among an increasingly impoverished population, children especially grew more vulnerable to disease. But the steep economic decline and tight budgetary restraints of the period resulted in severe shortages of medicines and basic medical supplies. In addition, deteriorating salaries drove many doctors out of public employment.

Despite the problems of the late 1980s, however, the Sandinista decade left behind an improved health care system. According to a 1991 AID assessment of Nicaraguan development needs, the Chamorro government inherited a health care system that emphasized preventive and primary care; targeted the principal causes of infant, child, and maternal mortality; provided broad coverage; and elicited high levels of community participation. The AID report noted the effectiveness of the oral rehydration centers, the wide coverage of vaccination campaigns, and the key role of the health brigadistas, three programs maintained by the new government. The report concluded that the major problem of the health sector was lack of budgetary resources.


Nicaragua - FAMILY


In the 1990s, traditional Hispanic kinship patterns, common to most of Latin America, continued to shape family life in Nicaragua. The nuclear family forms the basis of family structure, but relationships with the extended family and godparents are strong and influence many aspects of Nicaraguan life. Because few other institutions in the society have proved as stable and enduring, family and kinship play a powerful role in the social, economic, and political relations of Nicaraguans. Social prestige, economic ties, and political alignments frequently follow kinship lines. Through the compadrazgo system (the set of relationships between a child's parents and his or her godparents), persons unrelated by blood or marriage establish bonds of ritual kinship that are also important for the individual in the society at large.

Nicaraguan institutions, from banks to political parties, have traditionally been weak and more reflective of family loyalties and personal ties than broader institutional goals and values. For several decades prior to 1979, the Nicaraguan state was scarcely differentiated from the Somoza family. Family ties played a diminished but still critical role in the politics of the 1980s and early 1990s. The Roman Catholic Church, which, until recently, had little or no presence in the countryside, still does not touch the lives of most Nicaraguans. To survive in a country whose history is replete with war, political conflict, and economic upheaval, Nicaraguans turn to the one institution they feel they can trust--the family. As a result, individuals are judged on the basis of family reputations, careers are advanced through family ties, and little stigma is attached to the use of institutional position to advance the interests of relatives. For both men and women, loyalty to blood kin is frequently stronger than those of marriage.

Most Nicaraguan families are built around conjugal units. Outside of the upper and middle classes, however, relatively few couples formalize their marriages through the church or state. Legislation passed in the 1980s recognized this situation by giving common-law unions the same legal status as civil marriages. Although stable monogamous unions and strong patriarchal authority at home are deeply ingrained cultural ideals, at least a third of Nicaraguan families were headed by women in the 1980s. Among urban households, this proportion is even higher.

Because of high fertility and the presence of relatives beyond the nuclear family, households are large--six to eight people are common. The Nicaraguan household is typically augmented by the presence of a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, an orphaned relative, a poor godchild, or a daughter with children of her own. Newly married couples sometimes take up residence in the home of one of the parental families. In the countryside, peasants feel that a large number of children helps them meet their everyday labor needs and provides for their own security in old age. Families are smaller in the city, but housing shortages and low incomes encourage the urban poor to create expanded households that can share shelter and pool resources.

Both traditional values and practical considerations support the maintenance of strong ties with a large kinship network outside the household. Nicaraguans maintain ties with kin of the same generation, which may extend to fourth or fifth cousins. Peasant patriarchs build rural clans by accumulating small parcels of land near their own land for the families of sons and daughters. City people of all classes look to relatives for jobs and other forms of economic assistance. In times of economic crisis, the survival strategies of the urban poor often center on mutual assistance among kin.

Like other Nicaraguans, members of the upper class maintain relations with extensive numbers of kin. In addition to these "horizontal" ties, however, they place special emphasis on "vertical" descent. Upper-class Nicaraguans are much more likely than their compatriots to be aware of ancestors more than two generations removed from the present. This tendency is supported by shared family fortunes, which have been passed from generation to generation, and by the prominence of historical surnames rooted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Through the institution of compadrazgo, the attributes of kinship are extended to those not related by blood or marriage. When an infant is baptized, the parents choose a godfather (padrino) and godmother (madrina) for their child. This practice is common to Roman Catholics around the world, but in Nicaragua and many other Latin American countries, it assumes a broader social significance. Compadrazgo establishes relationships similar to those of actual kinship not only between the child and the godparents, but also between the parents and the godparents. The latter relationships are recognized through the use of compadre and comadre (literally, co-father and co-mother) as reciprocal terms of address between the child's parents and godparents. The godparents are responsible for the baptism ceremony and the festivities afterward. They are also expected to concern themselves with the welfare of the child and his or her family, and come to their aid in times of hardship.

Godparents are typically trusted friends of the parents. However, lower-class families (for whom the compadrazgo has the greatest significance) often chose godparents of superior economic, political, or social status, who are in a position to help the child in the future. Large landowners, affluent businesspeople, government officials, and political leaders may become godfathers to the children of social inferiors in order to build up a system of personal loyalties. In such cases, compadrazgo becomes the basis of a network of patronclient relationships.


Nicaragua - WOMEN


Collectively, the lives of Nicaraguan women are shaped by traditional Hispanic values regarding appropriate sex roles and high fertility, the prevalence of female-headed households, and an increasing rate of participation in the labor force. Although the Sandinista revolution drew thousands of women into public life, encouraged females to work outside the home, spawned a national women's movement, and enshrined gender equality in the national constitution, it left largely intact the values, beliefs, and social customs that traditionally had regulated relations between the sexes.

Virility, sexual prowess, independence, protectiveness, assertiveness, and a drive to dominate have traditionally been expected of the male. Dependence, devotion, submissiveness, and faithfulness are attributes that the female ideally reflected. From adolescence, men are encouraged to demonstrate their machismo (masculinity) through acts of sexual conquest. Married men commonly have regular extramarital relations and even maintain more than one household. However, premarital and extramarital relations, more or less expected from men, are stigmatized in women. The ideal female role, glorified in the culture, is that of mother. Her place is in the home, and her duty is to raise her children.

The ideal expectations of the culture do not prevent most Nicaraguan women from becoming sexually active early in life: 38 percent by age sixteen and 73 percent by age nineteen, according to one study. This phenomenon contributes to the high birth rates noted earlier, as does a lack of use of contraceptives. In 1986 the Ministry of Health estimated that because of lack of knowledge and the limited availability of contraceptives only 26 percent of sexually active women practiced contraception. An informal poll of 200 Nicaraguan women of diverse educational and class backgrounds revealed that only ten were aware that women are most fertile at the midpoint of the menstrual cycle. The Nicaraguan Roman Catholic Church has publicly condemned contraception other than the rhythm method. Although most Nicaraguans are probably not even aware of the church's position, it appears to have influenced government policy.

In most cases, abortion is illegal but not uncommon in Nicaragua. Although affluent women have access to medical abortions, poorer women generally depend on more dangerous alternatives. During the 1980s, when lax enforcement expanded access to medical abortion, studies conducted at a large maternity hospital in Managua determined that illicit abortions accounted for 45 percent of admissions and were the leading cause of maternal deaths. Relatively few of the victims of botched abortions are single women, and the majority have had pregnancies earlier in life. The most common reasons for seeking abortion are abandonment by the father and strained family budgets.

Many Nicaraguan women spend at least part of their lives as single mothers. Early initiation of sexual activity and limited practice of contraception contribute to this phenomenon, as does the very character of the Nicaraguan economy. The key agro-export sector requires a large migrant labor force. The long months that agricultural workers spend away from home harvesting coffee and cotton greatly disrupt family life and often lead to abandonment.

The steadily growing proportion of women in the labor force results, for the most part, from their being single heads of households. The vast majority of female heads of households work, and they are twice as likely to be employed as married women. Women's share of the labor force rose from 14 percent in 1950 to 29 percent in 1977 and to 45 percent in 1989. By the 1980s, women predominated in petty commerce, personal services, and certain low-wage sectors such as the garment industry. Peasant women traditionally have performed agricultural labor as unpaid family workers; their economic significance thus probably has been underestimated by official labor statistics. By the 1980s, however, they formed a large and growing part of the salaried harvest labor force in cotton and coffee. Because men assume little of the domestic workload, the growth in female labor force participation has meant a double workday for many Nicaraguan women. Middle- and upper-class women have a good chance of escaping this trap as they are much less likely to work outside the home and can depend on domestic help for household duties.


Nicaragua - RELIGION


In the early 1990s, the vast majority of Nicaraguans were nominally Roman Catholic. Many had little contact with their church, however, and the country's Protestant minority was expanding rapidly. Roman Catholicism came to Nicaragua in the sixteenth century with the Spanish conquest and remained, until 1939, the established faith. The Roman Catholic Church was accorded privileged legal status, and church authorities usually supported the political status quo. Not until the anticlerical General Jos� Santos Zelaya (1893-1909) came to power was the position of the church seriously challenged.

Nicaraguan constitutions have provided for a secular state and guaranteed freedom of religion since 1939, but the Roman Catholic Church has retained a special status in Nicaraguan society. When Nicaraguans speak of "the church," they mean the Roman Catholic Church. The bishops are expected to lend their authority to important state occasions, and their pronouncements on national issues are closely followed. They can also be called upon to mediate between contending parties at moments of political crisis. A large part of the education system, in particular the private institutions that serve most upper- and middle-class students, is controlled by Roman Catholic bodies. Most localities, from the capital to small rural communities, honor patron saints, selected from the Roman Catholic calendar, with annual fiestas. Against this background, it is not surprising that the Sandinista government provided free public transportation so that 500,000 Nicaraguans, a substantial part of the national population, could see Pope John Paul II when he visited Managua in 1983.

Despite the leading position of the Roman Catholic Church, it touches the lives of most Nicaraguans only sporadically at best. The activities and resources of the church are concentrated in the cities. Although the church attempts to reach people in small towns and rural areas, its capacity to do so is limited. In the mid-1980s, there was approximately 1 priest for every 7,000 Roman Catholics, a ratio lower than the Latin American average and considerably lower than the 1 priest per 4,550 Nicaraguan Roman Catholics recorded in 1960.

Urbanites, women, and members of the upper and middle classes are the most likely to be practicing Roman Catholics, that is those who attend mass, receive the sacraments, and perform special devotions with some degree of regularity. Nicaraguans of the lower classes tend to be deeply religious but not especially observant. Many limit their practice of the sacraments to baptism and funeral rites. Yet they have a strong belief in divine power over human affairs, which is reflected in the use of phrases such as "God willing" or "if it is God's desire" in discussions of future events.

Religious beliefs and practices of the masses, although more or less independent of the institutional church, do not entail the syncretic merger of Roman Catholic and pre-Columbian elements common in some other parts of Latin America. Popular religion revolves around the saints, who are perceived as intermediaries between human beings and God. Prayers are directed to a relevant saint asking for some benefit, such as curing an illness, in exchange for ritual payment, such as carrying a cross in an annual procession. Pictures of saints, called cuadros, are commonly displayed in Nicaraguan homes. Set in a corner or on a table and surrounded with candles, flowers, or other decorations, a cuadro becomes the centerpiece of a small domestic shrine. In many communities, a rich lore has grown up around the celebrations of patron saints, such as Managua's Saint Dominic (Santo Domingo), honored in August with two colorful, often riotous, day-long processions through the city's lower-class neighborhoods. The high point of Nicaragua's religious calendar for the masses is neither Christmas nor Easter, but La Pur�sima, a week of festivities in early December dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, during which elaborate altars to the Virgin Mary are constructed in homes and workplaces.

Protestantism and other Christian sects came to Nicaragua during the nineteenth century, but only during the twentieth century have Protestant denominations gained large followings in the western half of the country. By 1990 more than 100 non-Roman Catholic faiths had adherents in Nicaragua, of which the largest were the Moravian Church, the Baptist Convention of Nicaragua, and the Assemblies of God. Other denominations included the Church of God, the Church of the Nazarene, the Episcopal Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Seventh Day Adventists. Most of these churches have been established through the efforts of missionaries from the United States and, although now institutionally independent and led by Nicaraguans, retain strong links with members of the same denomination in the United States.


The Moravian Church, established in eastern Nicaragua in the late nineteenth century, is the dominant faith among the non- Hispanic population of the region. Virtually all Miskito are Moravians, as are many Creoles, Sumu, and Rama. Moravian pastors play a prominent leadership role in Miskito communities. The Nicaraguan Baptists are related to the American Baptist Church, which began missionary work in 1917. The Nicaraguan Baptist Church's membership is concentrated in the Pacific region and is heavily middle class.

The Assemblies of God, dating from 1926, is the largest of the rapidly expanding Pentecostal denominations. Known for ecstatic forms of worship, energetic evangelization, and the strict personal morality demanded of members, the Pentecostal faiths are flourishing among the urban and rural poor. By helping recent arrivals from the countryside adjust to city life, they draw many migrants into their congregations. Pentecostalism reportedly has particular appeal to poor women because it elicits sobriety and more responsible family behavior from men. Largely because of the Pentecostals, the long-stagnant Protestant population has accelerated in numbers, going from 3 percent of the national population in 1965 to more than 20 percent in 1990. It could easily surpass 30 percent in the 1990s.

The 1970s and 1980s were years of religious ferment in Nicaragua, often coupled with political conflict. Encouraged by the spirit of liberal renovation then sweeping through Latin American Catholicism, a new generation of Nicaraguan Roman Catholic Church officials and lay activists tried to make the Roman Catholic Church more democratic, more worldly in its concerns, and more sensitive to the plight of the poor majority. Many were inspired by the radical doctrines of Liberation Theology and the related idea of consciousness- raising Christian base communities (small groups of people from an urban slum or rural district who met regularly to read the Bible together and reflect on social conditions). In the 1970s, priests, nuns, and lay workers committed to social change organized community development projects, education programs, and Roman Catholic base communities. Especially after 1972, Roman Catholic clergy and lay activists were increasingly drawn into the movement opposed to the regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Many developed links with the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberaci�n Nacional--FSLN), which was very receptive to radicalized Roman Catholics and led the insurrection that finally toppled the dictator.

No previous Latin American revolution has had such broad religious support as that of the Sandinistas. Even the Roman Catholic bishops openly backed the anti-Somoza movement in its final phases. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Roman Christian Base Communities (Comunidades Eclesi�sticas de Base-- CEBs) provided the FSLN with vital political support among the urban poor. Roman Catholics, including several priests, accepted positions in the new government and became members of the Sandinista party. But the close ties between Sandinistas and Roman Catholics generated tensions within the Roman Catholic Church and between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the FSLN. The bishops, led by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, accused the Sandinistas and their Roman Catholic supporters of attempting to divide the church by creating a separate Popular Church out of the CEBs. They viewed the Marxist-oriented FSLN as a long-term threat to religion in Nicaragua, despite the professed tolerance of the Sandinistas. An explosive church-state conflict developed, during which the bishops more or less openly allied with the Sandinistas' political enemies and the FSLN struggled vainly to contain the influence of the institutional church. Throughout the 1980s, pro- and anti-Sandinista forces regularly manipulated religious symbols for political effect.

Protestant leaders were less inclined than the Roman Catholic episcopate to become embroiled in conflicts with the Sandinistas. Some, including prominent Baptist ministers and a minority of pastors from other faiths, were sympathetic to the FSLN. At the other extreme, a few Moravian ministers openly identified with Miskito Contra forces operating from Honduras. Most Pentecostal leaders, reflecting the conservative attitudes of the United States denominations with which they were affiliated, were cool toward the Sandinistas but generally adopted a public stance that was apolitical. Suspecting that the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Christian conservatives in the United States were promoting evangelical activity in Nicaragua to undercut their government, Sandinista authorities monitored and tried to intimidate certain Pentecostal leaders. They did not, however, attempt to limit the growth of normal religious activity. The expansion of the Protestant population actually accelerated under Sandinista rule. During the first five years of Sandinista government, the number of evangelical churches (largely Pentecostal) had doubled to 3,000.

By the time the Sandinistas left power in 1990, church-state relations were considerably smoother than they had been in the early 1980s and mid-1980s, in part because the Contra war, which intensified conflict over religion, was winding down. Some of the radicalized Roman Catholics who had supported the Sandinistas in the years since the 1970s remained loyal to them, but their influence outside the Sandinista movement and a few religious think tanks was limited. The number of active CEBs plunged in the early 1980s and never recovered, in part because the bishops had systematically restricted the church-based activities of pro- Sandinista clergy. The Pentecostal churches continued their rapid growth among the poor, eclipsing the radical branch of Roman Catholicism and challenging the Roman Catholic Church's traditional religious monopoly. By the early 1990s, the Pentecostal minority was large enough to cause some observers, aware of the recent role of Christian conservatives in United States politics, to speculate about the influence of Pentecostals in future Nicaraguan elections.




Nicaragua's extensive Caribbean lowlands region, comprising the country's two autonomous regions and the department of R�o San Juan, has never been fully incorporated into the nation. This area, known as the Costa de Mosquitos, is isolated from western Nicaragua by rugged mountains and dense tropical rainforest. Communications across these barriers are poor. In 1993, there was still no paved road between the cities of the Pacific region and the Caribbean littoral. Coste�os (the indigenous and Creoles native to the Caribbean lowlands) are also divided by history and culture from the whites and mestizos of the west, whom they call "the Spanish."

The Caribbean lowlands were never part of the Spanish empire but were, in effect, a British protectorate beginning in the seventeenth century. In the mid-nineteenth century, the United States displaced Britain as the region's protecting power. Not until 1894 did the entire region come under direct Nicaraguan administration. Even then, continuing United States political weight, commercial activity, and missionary interest in the Caribbean lowlands eclipsed the weak influence of western Hispanic Nicaragua until World War II. As a result of this history, coste�os have not traditionally regarded themselves as Nicaraguans. Rather, they see Nicaraguan rule as an alien imposition and fondly recall the years of semisovereignty and intermittent prosperity they enjoyed under British and American tutelage. Coste�os are more likely to speak English or an indigenous language at home than Spanish. Most are Protestants, generally Moravians; those who became Roman Catholics did so under the influence of priests from the United States rather than from Nicaragua.

The Caribbean lowlands are home to a decidedly multiethnic society. Miskito, Creoles, and mestizos account for most of the population of the region, but there are also small populations of Sumu, Rama, and Garifuna, an Afro-Carib group. The Miskito, the largest of the indigenous groups, themselves reflect the region's diverse ethnic history. Like the Sumu, they are linguistically related to the Chibcha of South America. Their culture reflects adaptations to contacts with Europeans that stretch back to their seventeenth-century collaboration with English, French, and Dutch pirates. Their genetic heritage is from indigenous, European, and African ancestors. During the colonial period, the Miskito, allied with Britain, became the dominant group in the Caribbean lowlands. A Miskito monarchy, established over the region with British support in 1687, endured into the nineteenth century.

The Miskito population is concentrated in northeasternmost Nicaragua, around the interior mining areas of Siuna, Rosita, and Bonanza, and along the banks of several rivers that flow east out of the highlands to the Caribbean. Honduras also has a large Miskito population in territory adjoining Nicaragua. In modern times, the Miskito have survived by alternating subsistence activities with wage labor, often in foreign-controlled extractive enterprises.

The black people of the Caribbean region, known as Creoles, are the descendants of colonial-era slaves, Jamaican merchants, and West Indian laborers who came to work for United States lumber and banana companies. As British influence receded from the Caribbean lowlands in the nineteenth century, the Creoles displaced the Miskito at the top of the region's ethnic hierarchy and became the key colonial intermediary. Concentrated in the coastal cities of Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas, on the Islas del Ma�z, and around Laguna de Perlas, the contemporary Creoles are English-speaking, although many speak Miskito or Spanish as a second language. As a group, they are urban, well educated, and amply represented in skilled and white-collar occupations. The Creoles are disdainful of indigenous groups, over whom they maintain a distinct economic advantage. All Caribbean groups, however, share the traditional coste�o resentment of the western Hispanic elite.

The expanding mestizo population in the Caribbean lowlands is concentrated in the region's western areas, inland from the Caribbean littoral. Many live in mining areas. Since the 1950s, the expansion of export agriculture in the western half of the country has forced many dispossessed peasants to seek new land on the agricultural frontiers. On the Caribbean side of the central highlands, this movement has produced bitter clashes between mestizo pioneers and Miskito and Sumu agriculturalists over what the indigenous people regard as communal lands.

Within contemporary Caribbean lowlands society, a clear ethnic hierarchy exists. The indigenous groups--Miskito, Sumu, and Rama--occupy the bottom ranks. These groups are the most impoverished, least educated, and generally relegated to the least desirable jobs. Above them, at successively higher ranks, are recently arrived poor mestizos, Creoles, and a small stratum of middle-class mestizos. Prior to 1979, Europeans or North Americans, sent to manage foreign-owned enterprises, were at the top of the hierarchy. In the mines, Miskito and Sumu work at the dangerous, low-wage, underground jobs; mestizos and Creoles hold supervisory positions; and foreigners dominate in the top positions. Also prior to 1979, a special niche was occupied by a small group of Chinese immigrants, who dominated the commerce of the main coastal towns.

The demography of the Caribbean lowlands is a subject of speculation and controversy. The last census data are from 1971. Since then, the region has experienced rapid natural increase and heavy migration of mestizos from the west. Traditionally, the Miskito are recognized as the numerically dominant group, but that status has been challenged by the mestizo influx. In the early 1980s, armed conflict in the region drove thousands of Miskito over the Honduran border, but as the violence ebbed in the late 1980s, refugees returned. The most recent government estimates of the ethnic composition of the region are based on data from a 1981 housing survey.


CITATION: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

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