Coffee Glut And Drought Hit Nicaragua
Sandinistas Gain in Campaign As Hunger Sweeps Rural Areas
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, Page A01
MANAGUA, Nicaragua, Sept. 2 -- A devastating drought and plummeting
coffee prices have driven Nicaragua into one of its worst economic crises
bringing scenes of hunger, malnutrition and misery to its impoverished countryside.
The crisis is unfolding in the midst of a heated campaign for the Nov.
4 presidential election that many people say has distracted the government
aggressively to provide help. And anger among Nicaragua's poorest is fueling support for a possible return to the presidency of Daniel Ortega, the Marxist icon of
this country's war-torn 1980s.
In a soccer field in the town of Matagalpa, a three-hour drive from
Managua, 100 hungry children begged for some rice or milk -- anything.
Some just whimpered,
unable to muster more of a protest on hollow stomachs. One 18-month-old's hair was falling out, her stomach distended, her tiny brown eyes rolling back in her
"If some of these kids don't get medical attention, they are going to
die. It is very bad," said Dr. Mirtila Padilla as she examined the semi-conscious
toddler who had
gone for months without decent food and had eaten nothing at all today.
Many Central Americans are suffering from the same two problems -- the
drought and the longer-term problem of falling coffee prices. This has
caused a noticeable
increase in the flow of migrants from Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador into richer Costa Rica and Mexico, and farther north into the United States.
"In the worst-hit areas in the region, some are simply walking out of
the country," said Francisco Roque Castro, the Nicaragua-based regional
director of the U.N.
World Food Program. "There is chronic hunger."
In the middle of all this misery, Ortega is finding increasing support for his bid to recapture the presidency in the November elections.
"I'm voting for Daniel," said Miguel Garcia, 48, one of thousands of
jobless Nicaraguans who turned out this weekend for a rally in the slums
of Managua to catch a
glimpse of Ortega. "People are worse off now. Even when the country was at war, people had food. Now there are too many hungry."
Nicaragua is a different country from the Cold War battleground that
Ortega presided over more than a decade ago, when he was the nemesis of
Reagan and his vice president, George Bush. With the Soviet Union gone and U.S. interests focused elsewhere, Ortega slipped down the path toward anachronism
Like so much of Central America, Nicaragua set out to rebuild itself
in democracy, led by the money raised by its main export crop, coffee.
In recent years, however,
the coffee industry has been devastated by cheap Asian coffee flooding world markets and causing prices to plummet. This year, a drought in Central America
compounded the suffering, leaving at least 1.5 million people in the region without enough to eat.
Now, hunger is creating a yearning among some for the old days, causing
the most desperate to forget the blood of the 1980s and remember only the
who might not have gotten a second look from voters a few years ago, is locked in a tight race in a country that is crying out for help.
"It's the worst economic crisis since the '60s," Ortega said in an interview
today. "A lot of it has to do with corruption and this government's failure
to meet people's
needs." He said that the government failed to protect small coffee growers from the growing foreign competition and that he would do better.
Ortega said the world has changed since he marched into Managua in 1979
with a machine gun. If he wins in November, he said, he would have no trouble
"coexisting" with the new Bush in the White House.
For more than a century the lush green mountains in one of the most
fertile coffee-growing regions in the world provided food and a home for
thousands of workers.
The days were long and the pay low, but the farmers and their families ate. But this year, because of a global crash in the value of coffee, more than a quarter of a
million Nicaraguans are suffering, many of them children, because their family income has been slashed or has disappeared. When good times mean earning less than
$2 a day, bad times mean going hungry.
In addition, a regional drought has wiped out the corn and bean fields for tens of thousands of small farmers, who are now forced to survive on a single meal a day.
Castro, from the World Food Program, said more than $2 million in U.S.
government aid is en route to the region to tide people over until the
next crop of beans,
corn and other foods is harvested in November. The food program and other international aid groups are supplying protein-enriched food and medicine to soothe the
effects of malnourishment and to combat diseases such as dysentery, respiratory infections, cholera and dengue fever.
But the autumn harvest will not solve the coffee crisis.
A tenfold increase in coffee production in Vietnam and abundant crops
in Indonesia in the past decade have dramatically increased the world's
supply of coffee and
lowered its price. A 100-pound bag of coffee from Nicaragua's highlands that sold for more than $350 on the world market in 1976 and was worth $160 two years
ago, is worth just $50 today, according to the Union of Nicaraguan Coffee Growers.
Even though the falling prices did not affect the cost of a cappuccino
in the United States, the drop fell like a guillotine here. Many of the
workers once housed, fed
and paid on Nicaragua's 30,000 coffee farms -- like their mothers and fathers before them -- are now sleeping in soccer fields and city parks.
Several hundred, including Miquel Zuniga, arrived last week in Managua, the capital, after a 60-day march aimed at getting government attention.
"No one is listening," said Zuniga, his weathered face and thin frame
making him seem far older than his 65 years. "We walked and walked and
has to listen to our problems."
Only in recent days has outgoing President Arnoldo Aleman offered some
jobless coffee workers $2 a day for sweeping streets and requested international
has been criticized for politicizing the problems, even saying at one point that they were mainly in towns controlled by mayors from Ortega's Sandinista party.
Weighing more than 300 pounds, Aleman is called "fat man" and increasingly abhorred by hungry Nicaraguans who accuse him of using his office to enrich himself.
Ortega had been slightly ahead in public opinion polls, but the race
is now considered too close to call, and one poll in August showed a dip
in his support. But many
say he seems to be winning over more of the poor -- even those in coffee lands where the "contras" -- U.S.-backed rebels who fought against Ortega's socialist
government -- had strong support.
Economic analysts, however, said his candidacy was worsening the economic
crisis. The image of the Sandinista leader who had been supported by the
Soviet Union and Cuba returning to power has scared foreign investors and banks, and the flow of credit has virtually stopped.
"He is trying to take advantage of the hunger," Enrique Bolanos, the
candidate from the governing Liberal Party who is running against Ortega,
said today in an
interview. He said it was Ortega's Sandinista government, which ruled from 1979 to 1990, that plundered the economy.
Bolanos said Ortega "ruined the economy the first time, and I have no doubt he will ruin it again."
The capital, abuzz with presidential campaign rallies including "Ben
Hur"-like horse-drawn chariot caravans and musical marches, shows few signs
of the deprivation
of the countryside.
But in the highlands, all activity slackens. Whole coffee farms are
abandoned. Instead of soccer games in the playing field in this town's
center, hundreds of people
are camped out, refugees from the coffee farms, waiting for food handouts by churches.
Alfredo Mejia, one of the owners of La Esperanza, a family-owned coffee
processing plant on the outskirts of town, said coffee grown on the other
side of the world
has changed everything here. There is so much coffee in Asia now that it is being thrown away, ground up for fertilizer or dumped on the world market.
"What's happening in Asia means that we have nothing to eat here," he
said. When the price of a sack of coffee dropped below production costs
this year and no
loans were available for the growers, the layoffs began. Last year there were 250 people bustling about his plant; these days there are 15.
So Mejia is organizing a meeting Monday with dozens of local producers.
The topic: how to compete in the global coffee market. At his desk, Mejia
has a world
map of coffee-growing regions and a chart marking the steady drop in the price of coffee on the New York commodity market. "Increasing our quality -- not volume
-- is the answer. Gourmet, organic coffee is our future, our hope," he said.
Planting better-quality seeds at higher elevation, where the beans grow
more slowly and taste better, will raise the value, he said. So will learning
how to become
certified as organic coffee growers and taking over the role of the foreign middlemen -- those who roast, grind, package and continue to make money.
Those who are not able to make the transition are expected to abandon
coffee and turn the land over to cattle. The transition will be of enormous
traditionally, coffee accounts for more than one-third of Nicaragua's foreign income. On Friday, the Inter-American Development Bank offered up to $6 million in
loans to help the coffee growers and other farmers, in part to try to get them to begin diversifying land use.
Coffee has been grown in their mountains since the early 19th century,
so watching it wane is painful, Mejia said. "Coffee is part of the blood
here. When I was a kid
my mom didn't give me milk, she gave me coffee."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company