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ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative) Has Brought Nicaragua out of Darkness

Nicaraguan foreign minister Samuel Santos explains how twice as many children are in school one year after the new Sandinista government assumed power. Nicaragua exports beans to El Salvador, Costa Rica and the US and un longer imports beans. The South is helpting itself.

More and more Latin American states are turning away from neoliberalism. Nevertheless the European Union (EU) relies on the old elites. An interview with Samuel Santos

[Samuel Santos is Nicaragua's foreign minister and prominent member of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front. This interview published in: Junge Welt, 5/11/2008 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.jungewelt.de/2008/05-16/052.php?print=1.]

Mr. Foreign Minister, the 5th summit of the heads of state of Latin America, the Caribbean and the European Union (EU) begins later in May 2008 in the Peruvian capital Lima. On its eve, the anti-neoliberal policy of the "Bolivarian Alternative for America" (ALBA) triggered criticism in Europe. Since 2007, Nicaragua has belonged to this alliance alongside Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and Dominica. Why did you join?

Membership in the ALBA and the Petrocarbe- agreement prevents our suffering today a twelve-hour electricity blackout - as happened several years ago. Regional integration has brought Nicaragua out of darkness. Before becoming the government, the FSLN successfully prevented the complete privatization of electricity. After taking power, we entered Petrocarbe and ALBA. Helped by special deliveries of crude oil, Nicaragua produced energy for its own needs. The idea of just and solidarity trade, cooperation and mutual aid is accepted by 17 states in Central- and South America and the Caribbean. These 17 countries belong to the "Petrocarbe" energy agreement and ALBA. The highly developed states of the North must recognize this. They may not leave the South in poverty and dependence.

Beside energy supply, the question of energy security is dominant. How would you solve this problem?

Let me give you a concrete example. At the beginning of 2007 when the Sandinista government assumed power, there was a shortage in beans - a staple food. What did we do first? Farmers increased production after they were given land and seed. The first goal was to guarantee self-sufficiency. That was the exact opposite of the policy in the years before. For a long time, importing food from the industrialized North was cheaper than producing domestically. Agricultural land was used for production of so-called bio-fuel. Then there was a rude awakening when the food prices rose. Under our noses, food was processed into fuel while our population suffered hunger.

Alone you will not be able to solve this problem. The prices will ultimately be determined on the world market.

Obviously we cannot see the problems of our country isolated. The food supply worldwide is precarious. Recently on April 26, 2008, we invited representatives to a summit of ALBA states in Managua to draft a common strategy. There were representatives from Mexico, five Central American states, Haiti and the Dominican republic. The interest was enormous since the discussions focused on how we as the South can help ourselves. At a second meeting on May 7, 2008, the presidents of several states met to explore production plans and strategies. These were concrete steps necessitated by our problems.

What lesson can be learned from this process?

If industrial states really want to help us, they must support our economic development. The possibilities are there - through technology transfer or knowledge transfer. In the negotiations over an association agreement between Central America and the EU, the Nicaraguan proposal was accepted by all the states of our region. Any agreement with the EU must help us guarantee our necessary development. This does not mean constantly standing as a petitioner at the European door.

But the EU rejected this demand in the last years. Your proposed reorientation of trade- and economic policy contradicts the neoliberal logic. How would you clear up this contradiction?

One proposal is to establish a relief fund. Loans are really central, not relief funds. Businesses and states of the South could raise their output through loans. Building the power supply network in all Central America would be one concrete support project. Developing traffic routes in the whole region is vital. Then transportation costs would fall and seed from Nicaragua for example could be brought more simply to Guatemala. That is the kind of development we envision. In direct contact with the European Union, we urge that trade be organized justly. We are ready to pay Europe just prices for its products. But we expect the same in the case of our exports. A sustainable development will be first possible when we receive just prices for our rice, beans, sugar and coffee. Only in this way can we gain revenue to invest in the infrastructure, education and the public health system. Then every house can have an electrical connection. Then every child can go to school instead of having to work.

In the middle of May 2008, an FDP-party delegate in the German Bundestag urged slashing budget aid for Nicaragua because "legal security and transparency" in government were lacking. These criticisms were repeated by the SPD. The reason for stopping payment was that your country has not fulfilled the conditions of the German government.

What do these people expect? Should we act like Nicaragua's past governments - when corruption was unparalleled and a president had to arrest his predecessor? We have broken with that politics. If this is seen as poor government leadership, I want to know concretely what we should do. Since the new cabinet came into power a year ago, the number of children in schools has nearly doubled. More people have access to the public health system. In the countryside, jobs were created in that the government provided seed and supported cattle breeding. Credits were given to farmers. This is a successful economic policy, not abstract projects. At the beginning I described to you how a lack of the staple food beans prevailed in Nicaragua when we (the new government) assumed power. Today, a year later, we do more than cover our needs. We even export beans to Costa Rica, El Salvador and the US. Only in this way will we advance.

What were the prerequisites?

When we left government in 1990, the illiteracy rate was twelve-and-a-half percent. According to official data of our predecessor government, it was 32 percent at the end of its term in office. We must still struggle against these backward steps. During the war in the 1980s, the poverty in Nicaragua was far less than today.

You mentioned the ALBA states several times. Right before the EU-Latin American summit in Lima, there was an open conflict between the German chancellor and the Venezuelan head of state Hugo Chavez. He reproached the conservative politician for wanting to isolate Venezuela. Berlin's position against the left in Latin America is blatant. Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua are named alongside Venezuela.

What about Brazil, Argentina and Chile? What about Paraguay, Guatemala and Ecuador? I could continue this list. A transformation process is underway in Latin America because the people cannot endure any more the consequences of mismanagement. They no longer vote for the old political caste whose figureheads made promises without fulfilling them. They elect politicians who back their announcements with deeds. There is an obligation today. The life situation of the most marginalized must be improved. This improvement can only happen through new jobs, developments and possibilities for self-help.

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