- The Guardian
- Issue #2065
A person in festive costume, Carazo, Nicaragua. Photo: Roberto Zuniga – pexels.com (CC0).
The years under neo-liberalism in Nicaragua saw trade union rights stripped away, collective bargaining agreements junked and, as trade union strength waned, living standards plummeted.
The 1980s saw massive investment in essential services after the 1979 revolution by the Sandinistas. This brought about major advances in education and healthcare as well as in land reform and, alongside it all, the growth of the trade union movement.
All of this heroic progress was achieved despite military intervention by the US and their illegal funding for the “contras” (armed opposition) designed to destroy the revolution.
But the neo-liberal era undid this progress and jobs disappeared which led to trade union membership in the Central American country nosediving.
In the public sector alone, one union, UNE, saw its membership plummet from around 40,000 to barely 6,000 between 1990 and 2006.
Those workers that did manage to keep their jobs often found themselves in precarious low paid roles with employers quick to fire anyone daring to question the authority that had been granted to them by the right-wing government of Violeta Chamorro.
Chamorro was elected president in 1990 after defeating the Sandinistas in an election marred by continued interference by the US.
Under Chamorro Nicaragua became the cheerleaders across Central America for US-backed neo-liberal austerity, which saw the privatisation of education, health, energy, and telecommunications.
The brutal policies led to living standard plunging while transnational companies, largely from the US, led to Nicaragua entering a vicious downward spiral.
By the time Daniel Ortega led the Sandinistas back to power in 2007 the country was on its knees as the second poorest country in the Americas after Haiti.
Unlike in some countries where trade unions are regarded as, at best, an irritant, but, at worst, the embarrassing relative that needs to be disowned, in Nicaragua unions were central to the rebuilding of the country.
Rather than an afterthought, when the Sandinistas lost power in 1990 Ortega could see the writing on the wall.
Jose Angel Bermudez, the national executive secretary of the now 800,000-strong National Workers Front, the FNT, who is also a member of the Nicaraguan National Assembly, told me: “Ortega could see what was coming, so he called on the unions to work with the Sandinistas to resist privatisation.
“We couldn’t stop it but we did manage to slow it down through strikes.”
This resistance placed the Sandinistas in a constant state of mobilisation which left them in good shape when the party returned to power in 2007.
It meant that on returning to power the Sandinistas were able to make access to healthcare free for all and expanded it into remote rural areas, where it had disappeared under the neoliberal governments.
Education was made free and accessible to all. Just 18 months after the election of Ortega, remarkably Nicaragua was declared by UNESCO to be free of illiteracy after 120,000 young people had been mobilised by the government and unions to volunteer for literacy programs.
Nicaragua is now less dependent on oil and the economy can rely on a stable supply of energy.
The government has also made huge strides in redistributing wealth in Nicaragua and they have invested heavily in housing, some of which is built and distributed by trade unions.
The FSLN (Sandinista Front of National Liberation) restored collective bargaining rights and enshrined the rights to strike, organise and to bargain in the country’s constitution.
Bermudez said: “We were clear that our enemy never rests and that means neither could we. We had to press on quickly with the job of rebuilding our country.
“But none of the actions we took would have been possible without the support of our members.
“The FSLN is ours and we will do what is needed to defend the revolution. We know that to improve working conditions we need a revolution.”
Around a third of the FSLN’s seats in the country’s National Assembly are held by trade unionists – giving the movement direct access to the highest levers of power in Nicaragua.
Unions also have seats, as of right, on all government commissions, such as education, health and race. Ortega and the unions have replaced the dark days of the neo-liberal period by placing trade unions at the heart of the governance of the country.
Professor Jose Antonio Zepeda, the national general secretary of teachers’ union CGTEN-ANDEN, told a gathering of more than 20 activists from Britain, the US, and Nicaragua at his union’s headquarters in Managua that “our economy is still very fragile after the US imposed sanctions on our country but we still have economic growth.
“Our main enemy is poverty, not the gringos.”
He added: “Poverty in Nicaragua is down to 14 per cent but we know we still have a long way to go. But we have clarity over where we are going.”
According to a report released recently by Oxford University, their Multidimensional Poverty Index showed Nicaragua to be one of only three Latin American or Caribbean nations to reduce by half the “unsatisfied needs” of its citizens.
Wages, including the minimum wage, increase every year through negotiations involving unions, employers and the government. This year’s increase saw increases of 10 per cent across nine economic sectors with 5 per cent for public service workers.
Low-paid health workers have a right to receive an annual “solidarity” bonus on top of subsidies towards energy, transport, and fuel costs.
Zepeda said: “One of the reasons that we have been able to continue to make progress in building the country is because we didn’t close down the economy during the COVID pandemic.
“The government also guaranteed that no public service workers would lose their jobs. This would not have been possible without our alliance with the FSLN.”
Women have been central to building the Sandinista revolution.
General secretary of the university workers’ union FESITUN, another member of the Nicaraguan National Assembly, told me that “here the revolution is for everyone.
“Women members of FSLN have always been general secretaries. This reflects our numbers in key sectors such as universities where 56 per cent of workers are women and in healthcare where it is around 80 per cent.
“The reality in our country is that women have more power.”
Speaking of the ever-present spectre of the US looming from the north, Zepeda said: “The US doesn’t hate Nicaragua. They just have political and economic interests in our country.”
He added: “People will carry on spreading their lies about our country but we know the reality.
“Comandante Ortega has an approval rating of more than 80 per cent. Tell me anywhere else in the world where a leader in power for as long as he has been is so popular amongst their people?”
The union leaders are rightly proud of the contribution their movement continues to make to the revolutionary change taking place in Nicaragua.
But Zepeda is clear that “the real agents of the revolution are the poor. No change takes place without them.
“They are the true agents of transformation.”