By Rose Spalding*
Daniel Ortega’s political rebirth has produced a remarkable partnership with the Nicaraguan business sector. Thirty-five years ago, when he and the Nicaraguan revolutionaries ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza, a U.S. ally known for corruption and human rights abuses, they clashed with the business sector, the Catholic Church leadership, and a heterogeneous band of counterrevolutionaries armed and financed by the Reagan administration. Ortega lost elections in 1990 but made a remarkable return to power in 2007, ushering in the “second phase of the Sandinista revolution.” Unlike during his first term, he undertook to collaborate with COSEP, the Nicaraguan association of business chambers, and gave its members, perhaps more than any other group, regular access to high-level officials and a palpable voice in shaping legislation. According to José Adán Aguerri, the current president of COSEP, 77 out of 81 of the Ortega government’s economic laws have been produced in dialogue with the business association. These involve wide-ranging negotiations on minimum wage increases, tax reform, housing development, social security expansion, investment incentives, and other issues.
This partnership has contributed to economic growth and direct foreign investment. The World Bank reports Nicaragua’s economic growth was 5 percent in 2012 and 4.6 percent in 2013, compared to 2.6 percent and 2.4 percent for the Latin American region as a whole. According to CEPAL, foreign investment in Nicaragua reached $849 million in 2013, a level that was second only to the $968 million reported for 2011. Nicaragua’s investment promotion agency, ProNicaragua, documents strong investment in tourism, agribusiness, textiles and outsourcing services. The extractive sector is also growing rapidly. Responding to strong commodity prices and a cordial reception in Nicaragua, Canadian gold mining company B2Gold recently announced a planned investment of $289 million to expand its operations in La Libertad. Nicaraguan investors have developed new initiatives, including a major tourism project orchestrated by Carlos Pellas, the country’s richest man. The relationship has benefited from the ALBA agreement Ortega signed with Venezuela President Hugo Chávez in 2007. Venezuela assistance has totaled $3.4 billion in loans, donations and investments in the 2008-2013 period. These funds regularized Nicaragua’s precarious energy supply and subsidized transportation, housing, microcredit and public sector wages, providing a general economic stimulus from which elites also benefitted. Announcements of a projected $40 billion investment in an interoceanic canal reinforce the image of a new development era in Nicaragua.
The business-government relationship reflects mutual accommodation by Ortega and business leaders. Nicaragua lost several decades of economic growth during the 1980s and the “contra” war, so upon his return to power Ortega put a premium on promoting growth, tread lightly on issues of tax reform, and eagerly pursued foreign investment. He met repeatedly in closed sessions with business leaders and called for a “grand alliance” of government, business and workers to combat poverty, promote investment and create jobs. A formal consultation mechanism brought together leaders from COSEP and the government, such as Bayardo Arce and Paul Oquist, for regular policy discussions. Offering a stable economic environment and generous investment incentives, a non-conflictual labor force with the lowest wages in the region, a relatively low crime rate, and receptivity to business initiatives, Ortega won over business allies. The business interests of current and former Sandinista leaders, some affiliated with COSEP, reinforced the collaboration and helped convince a new generation of business leaders to put aside traditional hostility and preoccupation with injuries of the revolutionary 80s. They accepted the government’s legitimacy and bolstered its domestic and international credibility. Enthusiastic about the growth of the Nicaraguan economy, economic elites also downplayed lingering questions about deficits in democratic institutionality and accountability. But the heightened concentration of political power under Ortega and the weakness of other state institutions mean that economic rules are vulnerable to shifting political winds, and questions remain whether this development approach will resolve the problem of widespread poverty. Even as the government-business relationship warms and the economy grows, these social and political concerns continue to bedevil the country.
*Dr. Spalding is a professor of political science at DePaul University.