I received the following email a few days ago from a woman who’s been living in Nicaragua for a few years. For the moment she’s back in St Andrews with her Nicaraguan partner, Polo. I thought it best to leave her email exactly as it was – I don’t think I can or should add to or take from it.
Obviously it was hard to leave everyone in Limon knowing how vulnerable they are in so many ways. When we left, the full public health sector strike had been going on for just over five months. Now Nicaragua’s poor have spent six months without access to healthcare (those who can, go to private clinics but that is a luxury the 80% of the population living on less than US$2 a day can’t afford). 23,000 of the 24,000 public sector health workers declared a full strike on November 14th 2005. Their demand? Initially an 160% pay rise (while in all other countries in Central America doctors earn between US$500 – US$1,000 a month, Nicaraguan doctors earn on average US$300 a month while nurses and other health workers earn less than US$100 a month). By March this year most health workers had reduced their demand to a 30% rise while doctors maintained their demand at 43.25%. Last week the government agreed to raise salaries for all health workers by 30% and 20,000 nurses and other health workers have slowly but surely been returning to work. The 3,000 public sector doctors, however, are still on strike.
Every day for the last six months the Nicaraguan newspapers have told the stories of people with bleeding wounds, women in the final stages of labour and children who have passed out after severe bouts of diarrhoea being turned away from public hospitals. Government figures say 80 people have died so far as a result of the health strike. Unfortunately that is nowhere near the actual figure.
A full health sector strike is inconceivable in the UK. The government would have to do something to bring the strike to an end should such stories start filling the British newspapers. Even in Nicaragua where people are used to being treated like s**t by their government, it has been a shocking six months. So why has the government still not been able to come up with a measly US$39.75 extra for each of their 3,000 doctors each month?
The answer is simple. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) won’t allow it. Yes I know, the G8 ordered the IMF to cancel Nicaragua’s debt (along with another 17 highly indebted poor countries (HIPCs)). And that’s what they did… for a period of 17 days. On Dec. 21, just in time for Christmas, the IMF cancelled the US$201 million that Nicaragua owed. On Jan. 7, however, Nicaragua was given another IMF loan of US$192 million. Along with this loan came all the regular conditions, including the prohibition of public sector pay rises above the rate of inflation. Of course the Nicaraguan government didn’t have to accept the loan. But then the governments which accepted the original loans (the ones that have just be ‘cancelled’) didn’t have to either. So where does the problem lie here? In my opinion any responsible international institution which claims it works towards ‘poverty reduction’ in developing countries (as both the World Bank and the IMF claim) would have a look at how a government treats its people before decided whether or not their another US$190 million loan is actually going to make any difference. And if (as in Nicaragua’s case) they find out that each member of parliament is given US$500 a month in petrol on top of their US$5,000 a month salary while state school teachers earn US$100 a month and 50% of people live on less than US$1 a day, then surely they would have to conclude that such a government cannot be trusted to act in the name of its people. But then, the IMF and the World Bank are… well banks, so it’s not really their job to care about the consequences of their actions, just to celebrate as the cash flows in.
I think most people in the UK felt pretty good about the G8 decision to cancel 100% of the poorest countries’ loans with the IMF and the World Bank. And so we should have. It was a wonderful achievement after so many of us dedicated so much to the Make Poverty history campaign. But, as always, the struggle doesn’t stop at the end of one action, no matter how big. And unlike what the Live 8 promoters had us believe, July 4 – 10th was not the ‘week poverty can end’(!). Governments the world over have a tendency not to follow through on their promises once the public’s attention is elsewhere.
What is happening is Nicaragua is shameful and it is something we should all at least have the chance to find out about. Jubilee Scotland is following up the G8 promise and what the (G8 controlled) IMF and World Bank are doing in the 18 HIPCs. For more information about the reality of the debt relief promise you can visit their website (www.jubileescotland.org.uk).
One more thing before I go. Some of you may know that Polo and members of his family have a musical group called Felipe Urrutia y sus Cachorros (Felipe Urrutia and his Litter!) which comprises Polo’s dad (Felipe Urrutia), three sons and five grandsons. They play traditional folk music from the Estelí region (where they’re from). The pieces they play would all have been lost by now if it weren’t for Don Felipe’s incredible memory and dedication to his guitar and the melodies he learnt from older musicians as a child. The vast majority of Nicaragua’s traditional music was lost when radios and jukeboxes arrived in the country bringing with them songs and melodies imported from Mexico, Argentina and the US. And although local musicians were no longer asked to play at parties or gatherings, Felipe never forgot the music and when he had enough children to form a group (!) he taught them to play all the melodies. He’s become nationally famous as a result and the music forms part of the country’s cultural identity.
The group has recorded two CDs of their music, Antologia and La Fuerza del Amor. Polo has several copies with him which he is keen to sell. If you or anyone you know would like to buy a copy please send us a cheque for 10 pounds (or twenty pounds if you want a copy of both) to 52 Hepburn Gardens, St. Andrews, Fife, KY16 9DF).
Thanks for reading.
Take care, Hannah