Skip to main content

Democracy gets close and personal

The man was clearly agitated. He strode from one side of the dusty road to the other, pacing off what he considered to be the public right of way. He stopped at a row of boulders and newly planted palm trees. Here, he said, was where his property began.

George Howard listened patiently. For the mayor of Corn Island, Nicaragua, it was all in a Saturday morning’s work. He had come to check on the progress of a new sidewalk that would line part of the road that encircled the island, which lay 65 km off the mainland’s Atlantic coast. He chatted with the construction foreman while the crew leveled off another section of freshly poured concrete. Then he dropped by a grocery store to thank its owner for letting the workers connect to his water outlet. “Send the bill to the municipality,” he said as he was leaving. Every so often, a pickup or a decrepit Soviet-era Lada passed by, raising clouds of dust.

The sidewalk would fulfill a longstanding dream for local residents. It would mean they could go to church during the rainy season without getting their good shoes covered with mud. Their children could walk to school a safe distance from the passing cars and trucks. Maybe someday the road itself would be paved.

But this defiant homeowner, an expatriate from a distant northern city, would have none of it. He told Howard that he had come to Corn Island in search of a warm climate, but most of all, for peace and quiet. To that end he had built a modest house overlooking the Caribbean Sea.

But now he felt under siege. Part of his property had already tumbled into the sea, a victim of the 1998 Hurricane Mitch. And here was the local municipality, planning to build a new sidewalk on “his” land. It would never happen, he vowed.

New position, new responsibilities. Howard left the scene exasperated but unbowed. It was not easy being the first elected mayor of Corn Island, a position that has been in existence only since 1996. Before then, mayors in Nicaragua were appointed by the central government, as has historically been the case in much of Latin America. But today, in Nicaragua and elsewhere, central governments are loosening the reins of power, and local elected officials are assuming the responsibility for addressing local problems.

It’s a historic change, and it’s not happening easily. In most cases, the newly minted municipalities are ill-equipped to exercise effective authority. They lack the basic administrative and financial skills that residents of big cities and developed countries take for granted. Nor do they have financial resources, either from tax revenue or reliable transfer payments from the central government.

Finally, the problems municipalities face are often staggering: extreme poverty, joblessness, illiteracy, bad infrastructure, nonexistent services, a weak judicial system, in some cases even rampant violence and civil unrest.

So it is all the more remarkable that here on Corn Island, in the poorest region of one of the poorest countries in Latin America, residents can point to their municipal government with justifiable pride.

A large part of the reason is Howard himself. Born in the mainland community of Pearl Lagoon, Howard combines an easygoing rapport with an air of authority that commands respect. He manages the municipal government as he does his 85-foot fishing boat—prudently, efficiently, and with clear goals. For good reason, he was elected to head a group that brings together mayors from the whole Atlantic Coast region.

Naturally, there are frustrations, particularly since the mayoral post is a political position. In Nicaragua, politics matter a great deal. Howard has his detractors, but even about these, he is philosophical.

One thorn in his side is the activist and irrepressible editor of the island’s first local newsletter, Lorrain Bodden. She cheerfully admits to “saying ugly things about the municipality.” But Howard’s view is that it’s better to have a newsletter that he sometimes disagrees with than no newsletter at all. And to make his point, he allocates 3,000 cordobas from the municipality budget each month to defray the publication’s printing costs. (Distribution of the newsletter is taken care of through a similar act of good will, by a vegetable vendor who hands out copies along with his tomatoes, yucca and plantains. See column at right for a sample copy.)

Taxes make the difference. But Howard’s term of office was scheduled to end in November 2000, and he had a lot to get done. His next stop that morning was another construction site, this one for a new school. As the pickup truck labored up a hill, he explained that the municipality bought the land for the school with money raised from taxes.

Corn Island is one of the few Atlantic Coast municipalities that spends money it has raised itself, in this case, a 1 percent levy on businesses. The tax moneys come primarily from fishing, and almost exclusively from small-scale lobster fishermen. The big firms won’t pay, according to Howard, and he has initiated legal action against them.

Taken together, the money raised from taxes, some limited funds from the central and regional governments, and donations—for example from Corn Island’s sister city of Gouda in the Netherlands—yield an annual municipal budget of around $560,000. With these funds, Corn Island has bought a multigrader and compactor to maintain roads, as well as other road maintenance equipment.

The school Howard was visiting will be staffed by teachers paid by local tax money. Most of them will come from the mainland, either from nearby Bluefields or distant Managua. Their living quarters will also be provided by the municipality.

Arriving at the construction site, Howard consulted with the foreman, who was from Managua. In fact, all of the workers were mestizos from the Pacific side of Nicaragua, not local Creoles, people of African origin who identify with the culture of the Caribbean.

This was another cultural idiosyncrasy of island life, said Howard. He would prefer to see local people doing the work, but islanders have other things on their mind, like fishing. They might work for a few days, said Howard, and then go off in search of lobster. “Even in the off season,” he said, “they will think, ‘today will be my lucky day’.” Since local people are also not inclined to go into business, shops are generally owned by nonislanders. The local people resent this, but they would rather fish than run a business themselves.

The morning nearly over, Howard pulled up in front of a shack on the beach that served as a lobster acopio, or receiving station. There, for the next hour, he talked to the fishermen and played dominos. Slap, and slap again, went the blue plastic pieces, hitting the table so hard its legs wobbled.

The complex history of a long-ignored region. To understand the problems of Mayor Howard and Corn Island, it helps to know a little about the complex history of this region. Although called the Atlantic Coast, it comprises fully half of Nicaragua’s national territory, from the beaches and twisting estuaries, through the arid lowlands, to the foothills leading to the country's populated heart in the Pacific region.

At first, IDB funds will cover the costs of the technical unit staff. But in the following years, the regional governments will gradually assume financial responsibility.

In the meantime, studies will be carried out on the best way to transfer revenues raised from concessions and licenses to local governments. Other studies will look at how local governments can have a greater say in managing natural resources within their jurisdictions.

The program is founded on a commitment to participatory planning. Municipal officials will go out into the communities to learn about local priorities, and will carry out public information campaigns to ensure the projects’ success. Roundtable discussions will bring local leaders together with representatives from civil society organizations to help prevent duplication of efforts and ensure common goals.

But what happens if communities heed the call to participate, establish priorities, and the money never arrives to actually do the project? This demoralizing scenario occurs all too frequently in otherwise well-conceived development projects.

In the IDB program, $1.6 million are earmarked for local investments, such as repairing schools and health posts and buying equipment, potable water, day care centers, electricity, community centers, recreational areas and natural disaster prevention plans, among other things. Project beneficiaries and local governments will contribute at least 10 percent of the cost of each project, either in cash or donated land and labor.

Finally, the program has more than $3 million to spend on improving health and education projects. Among them are priority initiatives identified in a 1999 meeting in Stockholm of international donors that are helping to finance Nicaragua’s reconstruction needs in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. One such project will be to introduce telemedicine technologies to improve the quality of health care for isolated communities. Another will be to train school administrators to help improve the quality of education through in-service teacher training. In addition to their intrinsic value, the projects will also advance the program’s broader objective of establishing a process in which the central government routinely takes into account the needs of the Atlantic Coast.

A separate component of the program will address the growing problem of drugs along the Atlantic Coast. The region is located along the main transshipment route for cocaine from South to North America, and local people often find abandoned packages of drugs, which leads to their involvement in the narcotics trade. In addition, local consumption of marijuana and cocaine is increasing and has been the cause for growing health and social problems, including escalating levels of violence and crime.

A $330,000 IDB grant will be used to finance a drug prevention and awareness program at the community level. Included will be training for staff of the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, local agencies and nongovernmental organizations, as well as activities to provide youths with alternatives to drug use, such as sports, music, and theater.

The economics of decentralization. Although all municipalities on the Atlantic Coast have to address similar problems, they vary enormously in their abilities to do so. Corn Island is perhaps the strongest, both financially and technically. Others are practically powerless to provide even minimal services, such as trash pickup and potable water. According to Howard, decentralization is essential for enabling them to do their jobs.

ldquo;If we can decentralize our governments, many of our municipalities can become financially independent,” said Howard. “They can use their own resources to address their problems, rather than relying on help from the central government.”

ldquo;They will also have the ability to prepare laws to put before the national assembly that will help them protect their own interests,” he said.

The key to it all, according to Howard and other Atlantic Coast leaders, is getting control over the region’s natural resources. Historically, decisions on exploiting minerals, timber, and fisheries were made in Managua. Companies from outside the Atlantic Coast—and from outside the country—were sold concessions, and most of the money ended up in the capital city.

ldquo;We have to join together and propose laws to the central government that will both protect our resources and ensure that our wealth remains here,” said Howard. “The Atlantic Coast has 70 percent of Nicaragua’s natural resources. But it’s Managua that makes the decisions. They just say, ‘we’re going to take so much more timber, so much more lobster,’ without considering if this is sustainable. In the end, if they return just 5 percent of the profits to the Atlantic Coast, they say it’s plenty. We have to protest this.”

Now the talk is about oil. It appears likely that this poorest region in Nicaragua—maybe the poorest in all of Central America—sits astride petroleum deposits that could be tapped for 20 years. How much of the profits will benefit the people of the Atlantic Coast?

In the global economy, having access to export markets is essential. In this regard, Howard says that Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast should no longer rely on firms from the Pacific to market the region’s products abroad. Not only would local people derive more direct economic benefit if they controlled their industries, but just as importantly, they would learn essential skills and gain experience.

But an export economy needs infrastructure, particularly roads and docks. Here again, Howard protests that firms from outside the region are getting contracts that should be going to local people. “The profits of a Managua firm are spent in Managua, not here. They think they are solving our problems. But their solutions are creating more problems. We want Atlantic Coast firms to make money here and invest it here.”

But for local firms to win contracts, they must be able to bid on a level playing field. “When this kind of work comes up, firms from the Pacific know about it long before we do. They have the contacts,” he said, “so they get the contracts. I would say they are so ‘lucky’ to get the contract.”

The problem goes deeper than historical circumstances, or even lack of experience, according to Howard. Discrimination is also a factor, he said, even though it is often hidden. “We are Miskito people, black people,” he said. “We’re Protestants, not Catholics.”

In all of this, Howard feels that the new IDB program will help to begin a process of change. No longer marginalized by its geography and political weakness, this region will be able to assert itself and control its future.

But more than geography distinguishes the Atlantic Coast from the rest of the country. When its residents refer to people “del Pacífico,” (from the Pacific), or españoles, they mean persons with a very different cultural and racial mix from their own. The Pacific side of the country is Spanish in its heritage and mestizo in its ethnic background. Its graceful colonial cities of Granada and León recall the early years of Spanish rule. After independence from Spain, the country briefly became part of the Mexican Empire, and then a member of a federation of independent Central American provinces. Then followed a period as an independent republic marked by intense political rivalries, and a brief interlude in which an American interloper briefly seized the presidency.

But while the Pacific region passed through these tumultuous years of adolescence on its path to nationhood, the Atlantic Coast remained a British protectorate. Its communities developed a distinctive racial, linguistic and cultural mix that exists to this day.

Only in 1894 was the Atlantic Coast region incorporated into Nicaragua. And until 1987, the entire area was administered from Managua, the capital, as one enormous department.

A product of its geography and history, the population of the Atlantic Coast is very different from that of the rest of the country. In the south and on into Costa Rica live large numbers of Creoles of African heritage. They speak a distinctive language, all but unintelligible to an outsider, as well as English, and in many cases Spanish too. Members of the distinct Garifuna communities speak their own language altogether.

The northern part of the Atlantic Coast is a bastion of the Miskito Indian culture that extends beyond the Coco River and into Honduras. Maintaining their language, beliefs, and traditional political institutions, the Miskitos continue to assert their identity and their historic relationship to the land.

In addition, the Mayagna (also known as the Sumu, which in the Miskito language means “non-Miskito”) live in isolated areas in the north, and in the south, the Ranas add to the region’s ethnic and cultural diversity. All are intent on conserving their linguistic and cultural traditions.

Today, the Atlantic Coast is home to less than 15 percent of Nicaragua’s five million inhabitants. But its population is growing fast as mestizos from the rest of the country come in search of economic opportunities, rapidly expanding the agriculture frontier. The result in many cases is increasing tensions between the local population and the newcomers as well as mounting pressure on natural resources.

From dependency to autonomy. For nearly 300 years, the Atlantic Coast has been administered as a protectorate by outsiders, first by the British, and then by officials in the distant capital of Managua. They did things to the local people, and for the local people. But they didn’t ask the local people what they wanted and what they needed. The outsiders viewed the region principally as a source of natural resources—timber, minerals, and fisheries–for the benefit of distant consumers.

But now this long history of paternalism is ending. As part of the agreement to end Nicaragua’s decade-long civil conflict at the end of the 1980s, the central government pledged to grant regional autonomy to the Atlantic Coast.

In 1987, the government adopted the Autonomy Statutes and created the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS). These regional governments, and their locally elected regional councils, were intended to give the local people a strong participation in development programs as well as a strong voice in managing the region’s natural resources. From now on, the relationship between the capital and the Atlantic Coast would be negotiated, not imposed.

The plan was ambitious, but it was fundamentally flawed. For one thing, it did not spell out the roles and relationships between Managua and the regional governments. For another, the regional governments lacked the basic managerial skills—including financial management—needed to exercise autonomy in any real sense.

Nor did the regional governments have effective links with municipal governments, most of which existed in name only. The municipalities, in turn, had little to offer local communities. Only some of the larger jurisdictions had experience in providing potable water, sanitation and trash pickup, and only in their urban centers.

Both regional governments and municipalities are constantly strapped for cash. The RAAN and the RAAS receive transfers from Managua, and both they and the municipalities are also entitled to a portion of revenues from mining concessions, lumber, and fishing licenses. But the amounts are small and they arrive sporadically. Moreover, the regional governments end up spending more than half of the funds they receive from central government transfers on salaries, not on projects to improve the lives of their citizens.

Building local government from the bottom up. Clearly, the mere granting of autonomy could not by itself guarantee the benefits of local government. The regional and municipal governments must have the skills, the organization and the institutions needed to plan and carry out their own development, and to demand what is due to them from the national authorities. In addition, there is an urgent need to put the 1987 Autonomy Statutes into effect.

This is the objective of a new IDB-financed plan to strengthen government institutions on the Atlantic Coast. Taking up where the 1987 Autonomy Statutes left off, the $8 million IDB loan will finance activities to develop expertise in local government institutions as well as to break down existing barriers between government, local communities and nongovernmental organizations. The program will be carried out in close coordination with other international donor agencies, in particular Sida and DANIDA, the Swedish and Danish development assistance agencies.

The heart of the program will be a clear definition of the role of the regional governments along with the administrative and technical capacity to represent regional interests. Programs will be financed and carried out by two regional technical units, one for each of the regional governments. Plans are already underway to contract experts in planning, finance, administration, project development and other specialized areas who will advise their government counterparts and create the basis for an institutional framework that includes a career-based human relations system. The regional government units will then go on to work with selected municipalities to strengthen their own capacities and to manage their finances, plan and carry out development projects, and work with local leaders at the community level.

Jump back to top