Nicaragua has a fascinating and unique political and cultural history that distinguishes it from any other country in the region, and its people are proud of that and eager to share it with visitors. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti. It is also an important test case for economic and social development models, having experienced some version of a socialist (some say a social democratic) revolution in the 1980s, followed by a neo-liberal reaction that has lasted 25 years. Like many other countries in Latin America, there is currently a political struggle going on to find new models of development that are not tied to old liberal versus conservative dogmas. For the past few years, a political stalemate has dead-locked the country, with a right-wing president supported by the U.S. and a leftist, Sandinista dominated legislature. In the fall of 20011, the former Sandinista President of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega was elected into his third term as president. Nicaragua continues to provide a fascinating opportunity to observe the important debates and trends that are transforming Latin America and the so-called developing countries throughout the world.
When Casa Xalteva was founded in 1995, businesses and homes were abandoned, the economy was at a standstill, unemployment was rampant, and tourists and foreign investors had totally written off the country, all effects of a bloody struggle against one of the worst dictatorships in Latin American history, revolutionary transformation, and a terrible civil war, created in large part by the Reagan administration.
The picture has changed today, and a “new Nicaragua” has begun to emerge. The official economic growth rate has been about 2-4% per year for the past few years, and visitors to Nicaragua these days see obvious signs of economic development in the cities. Much of it has been fueled by the wealthy elite within Nicaragua, who fled to Miami or Europe during the Sandinista period, and have now returned to Nicaragua or send their money back in the form of investments. Entrepreneurs have built a plethora of new restaurants, businesses, recreational outlets, and hotels. Tourism is growing by leaps and bounds, especially in and around Granada.
However, the obvious new development in Managua, Granada, Leon and a few other cities masks a disturbing reality for the lives of most of the population of Nicaragua, and in particular the most vulnerable groups, including rural dwellers, children and women. Here are some statistics from the latest United Nations Human Development Reports.
- Per-capita income is $3,262.00 in U.S. dollars, ranking Nicaragua 116th out of 177 countries
- The richest 20% of the population earn 49% of the income, the bottom 20% just under 6% of the income
- 46.2% of the population live below the poverty line, and 79% live on less than $2 per day
- 27% of the population is chronically undernourished, 19% do not have easy access to potable water
- Public expenditure on education as a percentage of the gross domestic product is 3%, and has gone down in recent years
- 33% of the adult population are illiterate
- Women in Nicaragua earn less than half the average salaries of men
While life for some Nicaraguans has improved in the last 15 years, for most people it is still a constant struggle just to find and keep a job, earn enough money to put food on the table, obtain basic medical care and medicine, and pay for tuition, books and uniforms to send their kids to public schools. For a family earning $2 a day it is a hopeless goal to provide even the fundamental necessities of a decent life.
- Population: 5,869,859 (2011)
- Capital: Managua
- Area: 120,254 sq km (46,430 sq miles)
- Size: largest country in Central America,; slightly smaller than the state of New York
- Major languages: Spanish, English, several indigenous languages
- National Pastime: Baseball
- Major religion: Christianity