Country Overview© Elizabeth Rappaport

Free Trade & Food Security

US-driven economic policies, such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), have pushed Nicaraguans further into poverty, exacerbated unemployment and inequality, displaced poor farmers and Indigenous Peoples, destroyed natural resources and biodiversity, and undermined food security.

Women, who are responsible for feeding their families, and have less access to food in the first place because of gender discrimination, are especially threatened by free trade agreements. Meanwhile, increased privatization of critical services puts healthcare, education and clean water and electricity even further out of reach for poor women and families.

Healthcare & Education

In the 1980's, the Nicaraguan Revolution made great strides in public health, improving immunization coverage, lowering infant mortality, and increasing access to healthcare. But since the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in 1990 many of these gains have been reversed. Women's reproductive health, in particular, is threatened by the resurgence of the Catholic Church as a force in policy making.

Nicaragua's maternal mortality ratio is currently 250 per 100,000 live births, compared to 12 per 100,000 births in the US. One in every three adult women suffers from anemia, putting them at greater risk of infection and hemorrhaging during pregnancy and childbirth. And approximately 20 percent of children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition.

Government spending on education and healthcare has dropped dramatically since the early 1990s. During the 1980s, the Sandanistas spent $40 per person on education and $35-40 per person on healthcare. But in more recently years, Nicaragua has consistently spent two to three times more on debt servicing than on healthcare and education. Half of primary and secondary schools have been privatized, placing the financial burden of education on students and their families. Forty-five percent of the population under 18 does not attend school.

Structural Adjustment and Free Trade Policies

Since the early 1990s, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank have placed pressure on the Nicaraguan government to privatize utilities and encourage foreign ownership of local industries, measures known as structural adjustment policies. Today, multi-national corporations control over 40 percent of the country's natural resources. As a result, hundreds of Indigenous communities are threatened by mining and logging companies that have recently stepped up their take-over of Indigenous lands. Indigenous Peoples have traditionally relied on local forests and lagoons for food, fresh water, and medicinal plants and as a source of their cultural and spiritual practices. But increasingly, when people go out to fish, hunt, haul water, or cultivate lands, they are confronted with armed guards protecting newly privatized property. For Indigenous Peoples, the loss of their lands means the destruction of their cultures, with grave consequences to health. For example, the destruction of local food sources, coupled with aggressive marketing of processed foods like bread and cola, is undermining traditional diets and worsening malnutrition. Cultural disintegration brings on social devastation that gives rise to health hazards like domestic violence and drug addiction.

Neo-liberal economic policies have left Nicaragua saddled with over $6 billion in foreign debt—one of the highest per capita rates in the world, and the highest in Latin America. As a condition of debt repayment, the IMF and World Bank continue to force the Nicaraguan government to prioritize the interests of multinational corporations and international lenders over the needs of poor women and families. While Nicaragua qualified for debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, created by the IMF and World Bank to ostensibly reduce the debt of poor countries, the government is now be forced to adhere to even harsher neo-liberal policies that further cripple its ability to improve conditions for the poor majority.