Education, health care, water: three reasons the country voted for the FSLN last November

Monday 20 April 2009 by CEPRID

Karla Jacobs

Tortilla con Sal

The opposition forces in Nicaragua, which consist of the different right wing and center right political parties, the corporate media and a number of influential NGOs, claim that the FSLN, in cahoots with the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), perpetrated massive fraud in the recent municipal elections. "How else could the FSLN have won 109 of the 153 municipal governments?" they ask. "Everyone knows that the FSLN government is an authoritarian regime which has not delivered on the promise of improvements for the poor."

The credibility of those who present this version of events as the whole truth depends on excluding the other version of events in Nicaragua - the day to day reality of ordinary Nicaraguans – to ensure it is not presented at all. Unfortunately for the opposition forces, it is becoming more and more difficult to deny this other version of events as, slowly but surely, and despite all contrary efforts, the government continues implementing its program.

Over the last six months Tortilla con Sal has carried out in-depth interviews with many of the people overseeing the implementation of government policy for education, health care and water. In an attempt to provide readers with an insight into this other Nicaraguan reality (the massive improvements in terms of access to basic services over the last two years) Karla Jacobs has translated and summarized the main points made in these interviews.

The transformation of the public education system

Last November Education Minister, Miguel de Castilla, spoke to Tortilla con Sal about the state of the education system he and his colleagues inherited when they took office in January 2007. De Castilla described the system as not just "privatized and corrupted" but also "completely disjointed."

The Autonomous Schools Law, which the new education authorities overturned in January 2007, had created a system within which local school authorities were not required to report back to the Ministry of Education (MINED) about their school’s financial operations or educational activities. The amount of money MINED sent to any given school depended on the number of pupils matriculated at that school. Having received the funds, however, the school authorities were not required to inform MINED about how that money was spent. An investigation carried out by the new education authorities in 2007 revealed that, as a result of this practice, 165,000 phantom (non-existent) pupils had registered in Nicaraguan schools in 2006.

On top of this, there was no effective monitoring system to dissuade or punish schools for charging pupils for services provided. Almost without exception, and without any institutional control, monthly fees, matriculation fees, exam fees, result fees, fees to cover the cost of cleaning the school building, fees to help pay the school’s water bill, etc. were charged to pupils studying within the Nicaraguan "public" school system. When MINED overturned the School Autonomy Law it effectively banned all charges in public schools.

As a result of previous administration’s laissez-faire education policy, by 2006 the estimated number of Nicaraguan school aged children and adolescents not in school had reached 500,000 (equivalent to 34% of all school aged children). According to MINED statistics during the first two years of the FSLN government the number of Nicaraguan school aged children not in school has been reduced to 360,000 (equivalent to 25%).

Meanwhile the school drop out rate has been reduced from 12% to 6% - the lowest rate since records began. On top of the obvious benefit of not being charged to go to school, MINED has introduced other important measures to ensure kids do not desert the classroom such as providing free school meals to over one million school children each day and giving out rucksacks, shoes and uniforms for children in very poor rural areas where the school abstention rate has traditionally been highest. In terms of improving the quality of education MINED has introduced a system of permanent training for teachers with monthly training workshops called TEPCEs as well as completely rewriting the national curriculum. The new curriculum, which was introduced in February this year, was created with reference to the conclusions of a national consultation process involving 17,500 individuals including teachers, pupils, parents and representatives of civil society organizations.

One of the fundamental aims of the new curriculum and the monthly teacher training sessions is to scrap the traditional copy and memorize method of teaching and replace it with a didactic and participatory method. In recognition of the profound reforms and palpable improvements in the public education system introduced during 2007 and 2008, MINED was awarded an Acknowledgment of Educational Excellence by the Organization of Educational Excellence for the Americas . A new model of attention within the health system

In February this year Dr. Edmundo Sánchez, Director of the Health Ministry’s (MINSA) Department for Public Health Monitoring, spoke to Tortilla con Sal about the implementation of a new model of health care in Nicaragua. This new doctrine, which MINSA refers to as the Community and Family Model of Health Care, requires the health authorities to provide communities with training and support with the aim of helping communities organize and inform themselves so that common health problems are understood and prevented.

As part of the this new model "doctors and nurses do not just sit behind their desks waiting for sick people to arrive, they go out into the community and talk to people about common health problems. ... There is much greater interaction [between community and health services]."

Sánchez is adamant that the ongoing implementation of this new health care doctrine has already permitted lives to be saved citing the experience surrounding an outbreak of respiratory syncytial virus in 2008. MINSA was able to communicate vital orientations about how to treat infants presenting symptoms of the virus via the different community organization networks it had already been working with.

In order to prevent potentially fatal secondary infections doctors were requested not to hospitalize infants with the virus. According to Sánchez, "an orientation as controversial as not hospitalizing a child that is having difficulty breathing would not have been accepted by the community if it had not been for the direct communication between the health authorities and the community."

Sánchez went on to cite the 65% reduction of cases of leptospirosis in October 2008 compared to October 2007 despite almost identical climatological and socio-economic conditions in the affected regions (Chinandega and Leon). According to Sánchez this dramatic reduction is proof that "the alliance between community and health services is already showing results."

In President Daniel Ortega’s 2008 yearly report to the National Assembly other important figures were given which demonstrate the extent to which access to medical attention and medicines has increased. The number of medical consultations registered by MINSA in 2008 was over 50% higher than in 2006. Meanwhile, the number of prescriptions given out complete with the relevant medicines in 2008 was nearly 100% more than in 2006.

Reversing water privatization, mitigating thirst

Ruth Selma Herrera, who is currently President of the State water company ENACAL, led the struggle against water privatization during former neo-liberal administrations from her position as Coordinator of the National Consumer Defence Network. As President of ENACAL she has overseen the process of re-nationalization of the administrative and other functions of the company which had been taken over by multinational companies.

Herrera, who spoke to Tortilla con Sal in February, describes how the former ENACAL directorate "deliberately abandoned the role the State is constitutionally obliged to play" in terms of guaranteeing access to water for the population. This institutional negligence was intended to make ENACAL so discredited among the population that full privatization would be considered the only option.

As part of this policy next to nothing was invested in the construction of new water systems or the maintenance of existing systems during the years previous to the FSLN electoral victory. As a result, over seventy different water systems around the country were out of order when Herrera was appointed in January 2007.

During 2007 ENACAL repaired all the systems which had been out of order. During 2008 ENACAL built 33 new water systems in different towns and cities around the country. The company has plans to build over 30 new systems during 2009. As a result of the different investments carried out by ENACAL since 2007 the percentage of the urban population with access to water had increased from 65% to 77% by December 2008.

For those of us whose lives involve constant personal interaction with impoverished Nicaraguan families improvements in basic services such as those mentioned above are an irrefutable part of our understanding of Nicaraguan reality. The FSLN’s historically significant electoral victory in the recent municipal elections, therefore, came as no surprise.

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