Nicaragua: love it or leave it (or both?)

Nicaragua’s Sandinista government remains very popular in the polls, but other numbers paint a more complex picture of emerging social and political issues

Most Nicaraguans are happy with their government, pleased with direction of the country, satisfied with their democracy, optimistic about the economy… and willing to pull up sticks and emigrate to a foreign land.

According to a recent M&R Consultants poll, more than 75% of Nicaraguans think President Daniel Ortega is leading the country in the right direction, 68% are optimistic that their family’s economic situation will improve within the next year, and 72% are satisfied with the way their democracy is shaking out. Yet despite the government’s favorable polling numbers, more than half the population—54.4% —say they’re still willing to leave the country in search of a better life elsewhere, preferably in the United States, Costa Rica, Spain or Panama.

Curiously, the percentage of Nicaraguans willing to emigrate has changed very little over the past six years of Sandinista leadership. When Ortega took power in 2007, 52.7% said they were willing to move abroad. That number peaked at 69% in August 2008, but in recent years has returned to levels hovering around 50%.

Nicaraguans’ willingness to migrate despite their relative satisfaction with the way things are going at home is one of several brain-itching contradictions in the most recent M&R poll, which earlier this month surveyed 1,600 voting age Nicaraguans in face-to-face interviews across the country. The survey claims a 95% confidence rating and 2.5% margin of error.

Taken as a whole, the M&R survey paints a compelling picture of a complex country. In addition to reaffirming Nicaragua’s political transformation toward a one-party system—59% of Nicaraguans back the ruling Sandinista Front while less than 10% identify with the opposition parties—the M&R poll also suggests a growing level of support for the Hugo Chávez-inspired model of “21st Century Socialism.”

When asked to pick between Nicaragua’s current model of development or “21st Century Socialism,” more than 33% of Nicaraguans think their country should move more toward the latter, without defining what that means. Despite the ambiguity of terms, support for the “Chavista” model of government has nearly doubled in the past seven months; only 17% of Nicaraguans supported 21st Century Socialism last September, when Chávez was still alive.

On the other hand, support for Nicaragua’s current model of free-market development implemented in 1990 has dropped from 71% to 50% over the same seven month period.

Strangely enough, Nicaraguans’ support for 21st Century Socialism seems to be growing at a time when that political project’s future is more uncertain than ever. The death of Chávez and the shaky succession of his political protégé has put 21st Century Socialism on its loosest footing in more than a decade. Now, nearly half of all Venezuelans think it’s time for a change, given the recent performance of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in this month’s elections.

Nicaraguans’ growing support for the Chavista brand of socialism is even more confusing considering the same M&R poll shows that three out of four Nicaraguans think their country is currently heading in the right direction, and 76.5% agree with the statement “the private sector is the motor for the economic development of the country.”

Then again, if most Nicaraguans are so besotted with their government that they’d be willing to emigrate, why not also consider swapping the country’s popular development model for an unfamiliar variety of tropical socialism that has led to inflation, blackouts and political instability in its model country?

Evolving perceptions of democracy & emerging problems

Six years into the Sandinista government’s self-styled “democratization of democracy,” Nicaraguans are apparently modifying their definition of what it means to live in a democracy, the M&R poll suggests.

According to the survey results, nearly 44% of Nicaraguans say the most important characteristic of democracy is “to live in peace, tranquility and liberty”—up from 28% who answered the same seven months ago. “Equality before the law,” which ranked as the second-most important trait of a democracy seven months ago with 20.4%, fell to fourth place with 6.8% in the most recent poll.

It’s not clear whether the fluctuating poll numbers mean people are changing their understanding of what it means to live in a democracy, or just changing their answers to reflect their current system.

What is clear from the latest poll is the trending concern over the rising cost of living. In 2007, only 3.8% of Nicaraguans polled said the cost of living and/or public utilities was the principal problem facing the country, compared to 42% who said unemployment was the main concern and 38% who said poverty. Today, the cost of living has climbed its way to the No. 2 spot on the list of concerns (more than 27%), surpassing people’s concern over “poverty,” which has dipped to 13%.

So while more Nicaraguans are feeling better about their economic standing than they were six years ago, it’s viewed as a precarious gain that could be threatened by the rising cost of living—an increasingly worrying concern that may just explain some people’s growing interest in experimenting with 21st Century Socialism.

  • car

    i’d like to see the demographics of those interviewed. 90%+ of the people that i speak to have very little if anything positive to say about their “government.” sounds like this poll was taken of folks “guarding” the rotundas or randomly selected off the street while they wore queer, garish t-shirts.

    and of course, there is that little nagging problem with a gross lack of education. how many truly understand what chavez’ socialism is really all about? more likely they answered that question in the affirmative thinking it meant nicaragua receiving chavez’ oil money aid…

  • KBzon

    This weird brain-itching contradiction is called “el gueguense” nicaraguense. Which is a combination of ignorance, lack of education (not the same) and stick with the flow of the moment, we have the capability to say no with a yes, or say yes knowing it’s a no. What is a reality is that the same problems in the country are the same as 15-20-25 years ago. God bless my country.

  • Martin Nelson

    I agree with Car. Folks just do not understand or learn in the schools that a one party system is a totalitarian system.

  • Mike

    Be nice to have the full results — what, for instance, was number one on the list of “concerns”?

  • jimmycoffee

    There’s a lot of statistics going on here. You also forgot to include….46% of Nicaraguans under 30 believe Aventura to be the only source of music in the known world….. and 32% of Nicaraguans believe the moon to be made of cheese…..

  • daddy-yo

    Nicas are not stupid. “Willingness to emigrate” is purely economic – better pay. Few willingly leave family & patria. A survey that asks if they “think President Daniel Ortega is leading the country in the right direction” is purely political, whether they’re asked about economics or not. A survey is not a secret ballot.

    All recognize one party control in Nicaragua today, but until they become grossly abusive, they’ll continue. Because most citizens see them as helping the poor (realizing they also help themselves, as is tradition). And good Nicas – the majority – care about their less fortunate countrymen.

  • Ken

    Yeah, I’d like to see the demographic breakdown too. My guess is that there are class differences between those who emigrate and those who remain, but I don’t know.

    Also, as far as indicating a willingness to emigrate is concerned, this might be taken with a grain of salt. I’m sure that many in the US as well as Canada would express a willingness to emigrate, especially if they understood emigration as involving the opportunity to earn a lot more money (which is probably how Nicas understand it), but this wouldn’t indicate that they are unhappy with their homeland or will emigrate.

    Additionally, Nica emigration is now so institutionalized that if Nicas move to Costa Rica, they are invariably already surrounded by friends and family–plus only a short bus ride from home.

    The comparison might therefore be with Canadians who are asked if they would be willing to emigrate to the US. My guess is that many would be, since it’s just across the border, the language and culture are roughly the same, and there are already lots of Canadians in the US.

    So in context I’m not sure that willingness to emigrate is that big of a deal.

  • flaco delgado

    Asking people how satisfied they are with “the way their democracy is shaking out” is like asking them to rate the wine they enjoyed with last night’s meal. Lacking any experience with either one, you will be challenged to get an informed response.

    Next poll, why not ask them what democracy means to them. My hunch is the results would be something like this:

    Sham elections: 10%
    Not being arbitrarily picked up off the streets and dropped into a volcano: 20%
    Bread & circuses & free pastel t-shirts (no, you can’t choose the color): 30%
    Befuddled stares: 40%

  • Abu

    Nice answers, which put the numbers in their place: no importance. The deep analysis is missing in this article, it’s just crazy numbers; a typical M&R contribution of nothing.

  • car

    btw, what does M & R stand for? Murillo and Rivas?

  • mark druce

    As an Economist, many of the posts have valid posts. However, one area for the costs of living has not been addressed.

    Dollarization of one’s currency has many negative effects, mostly for the middle class, small businesses, and the poor. Consumer prices generally rise faster than the rate of inflation. Small businesses tend to be hurt by it. Propertry values go up making housing hard to get for the middle class and the poor. Your balance of trade generally goes up a little compared to the exporting country. The U.S. trade balance with Central America has increased some 30% since NAFTA, while the nations of Central America balance of trade has generally gone up by only 10%. A two currency system like Cuba has. One currency for tourists and large exporters, foreign exchange of money, and the eventual replacement of the local currency. The other currency is the local currency which is used only in small local market and communities.

    The price of medicines become a system of 2 currencies. One using the
    dollar for the new advanced and better medicines. One for the older more common non-speciality medicines.

    The costs of homes generally skyrockets. Especially in nations like Nicaragua in which most of the new homes are being built for foreigners
    moving there. The builders forget about the needs of the middle class and the poor, in favor of building $100,000 or more homes for the the
    foreigners and foreign businessmen. I read today that they expect the land and home prices to increase by 60% in the next 3-4 years. Making
    the average cost of a home in Nicaragua $60,000. With an average per capita wage of some $3,500 per year, one can see that the average person will not be able to buy a home.

    You must also include the poor and the middle class as benefactors of
    economic growth, not just let the wealthy and business class get the benefits. If you do not, the government will have to outlay more money for food programs, housing assistance, and other social help programs.

    You may have a greater gap of wealth between the top, wealthy, class and the middle class and poor. That’s is what has happened in the U.S.
    The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

    • flaco delgado

      As an economist, Mark, surely you know the name for this phenomenon.

      It’s called “capitalism”.

      Works great if you happen to start life with some capital.

      • amordeliteraturadeNicaragua

        If you were up to dates on your economic terms, you would know that capitalism no longer exists—It has been replaced with neo-liberalistic economic globalization, the new economy of the world. People use capitalism to put the old idea of small business can become big. That is not true under the new globalizaitione ecomony.

        Capitalism does not allow monopoly, there is alsways some competion.
        Capitalism allowd the little guy to have a place in the economy, not so globialization.

        Believe your pipe dream that making money is more important than treating people right because it costs you money. Jesus will be talking to you, and you will not like where he will be sending you.

  • FAM86

    Part of this comes from the Sandinista contradiction… Ortega claims its socialist, but him and his good are the biggest capitalists in Nica.

    And Ortega has so much public support partly due to he can manipulate his image in the country. Ortega’s family owns almost all major TV and radio news outlets.

  • John Shepard

    ” .. . A two currency system like Cuba has….”

    I’ve been to Cuba, spent a couple of months there, and you can’t buy anything with the national peso. No one wants it. Bad bread, wilted vegetables, was all I found. Cuban nationals use it for admission to government attractions like museums, other pay with the convertible peso, which trades at one to the dollar (less 20% off the top at the exchange point – Fidel’s cut).