Sport and Stability in Nicaragua – Youth Protagonism

When even the director of the International Monetary Fund publicly writes in praise of Nicaragua's economic and social stability, clearly something very unusual is going on in Central America, a region notorious for its volatility and impoverishment. By now, even the most retrograde anti-Sandinista ideologue has little alternative but to acknowledge the tremendous social and economic achievements of the Sandinista government led by President Daniel Ortega. Similarly, even the most radical Western feminist must acknowledge the role of leading Sandinista women, especially Ortega's wife Rosario Murillo, in turning Nicaragua from a bastion of machismo to one of the countries with the highest representation of women in public and political life in the world.

Nicaraguan baseball fans

A less recognized aspect of this revolutionary transformation in Nicaragua has been the determination of the government to prioritize the needs of youth and to guarantee the role of young people as protagonists in the country's transformation. In one sense, that policy shift has not been difficult because Nicaragua's population is overwhelmingly young. Around a third of the population is between 10 and 24 years of age. The Sandinista FSLN as a political party has always been the party of youth. In the years of the Sandinista insurrection against the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua in the late 1970s, being young was virtually identical to being Sandinista, a crime in itself back then in Nicaragua.

So it is natural for the FSLN, now in its second period of revolutionary government, to prioritize youth. Apart from ready access to free education and health care, an obvious need and interest of young people in Nicaragua is access to sport. Young people everywhere look to role models in the national sports of their respective countries. Nicaragua is no exception. Currently, triple world champion boxer Román “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, Central American gold medal swimmer Dalia Tórres and US major league baseball stars like Vicente Padilla and Everth Cabrera are showing young Nicaraguans how athletes from their country can reach the highest rank of sporting achievement.

The current generation of Nicaraguan sports stars themselves had the illustrious examples of triple world boxing champion, Alexis Argüello, and Denis Martinez, pitcher in 1991 of the 13th perfect game of only 23 in U.S. major league baseball history. The national stadium in Managua is named after Martinez and the national sports movement of the Sandinista Youth is named after Alexis Argüello. In politics, Alexis Argüello was a very popular mayor of Managua for the FSLN until his tragic death in 2009. Both Martinez and Argüello were politically opposed to the revolutionary Sandinista government of the 1980s.

So when Argüello campaigned to be mayor of Managua for the FSLN in 2008, he faced constant anti-Sandinista attacks from the right-wing and social democrat opposition. For his part, Denis Martinez has avoided politics, accepting with dignity and grace the honors and unreserved recognition of the current Nicaraguan government, led by Daniel Ortega. On the other hand, triple boxing world champion Ramón Gonzalez, with his impressive mixture of prowess and humility, currently serves as an outstanding ambassador for the down-to-earth, but strongly spiritual values of the Sandinista Revolution promoted by Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.

Since 1990, sport in Nicaragua only began to receive significant statutory support from the government in 2005 with Law 522, the General Law of Sport, Physical Education and Recreation. The law was originally proposed in 1995 but was shelved until persistent advocacy by Sandinista deputies ten years later achieved its approval. Under this law, Nicaragua's Institute of Sport receives 50 percent of the surplus from the income of the National Lottery and 10 percent of government revenue collected via taxes on alcohol, soft drinks and tobacco. This statutory income has meant the relevant government authority, the Nicaraguan Institute for Sport, can plan investment in sports activities, events and infrastructure. Apart from specifying sources of income, the law also specifies areas of investment and funding.

For example, 35 percent of Nicaragua's Institute for Sport's income is dedicated to improving sports infrastructure in the country. Twenty percent is dedicated to the promotion and development of sports activities in Nicaragua's schools and 25 percent is assigned for the country's 40 national sports federations. When President Ortega took office in January 2007 only three sports federations existed in Nicaragua. This dramatic expansion of sports activity has happened in parallel with Nicaragua's emergence as the Central American region's most secure and stable country in terms of crime.

Marlon Torres, Director of Nicaragua's Institute for Sport explains the government's overall approach to sports policy in terms of the physical and moral formation of Nicaragua's youth, “Sports activities are an element of the integral development of our citizens above all at an early age. Sport is a stimulus motivating children and young people to give the best of themselves. It transmits a series of values and benefits that are useful throughout people's lives in whatever field they may work once they are no longer active in sport.

“We are talking about values like self-discipline, constancy, team work, due respect for authority, learning how to win, how to lose, understanding that results come from hard work and nothing is gifted, but rather everything comes from working for it. Those are values that accompany you for the rest of your life. They're something you don't learn in a classroom, but something you learn by living them and there's nothing more beautiful than girls and boys experiencing that kind of learning through sport, whether it's individual or collective. Sport really is an an activity that contributes to the integral formation of our citizens and our country's Constitution reflects that.”

The competitive results of this government policy certainly demonstrate the benefits of the government's more active promotion of sports since 2007. For example, in the 2014 Central American and Caribbean games in Veracruz, Mexico, Nicaragua won various silver and bronze medals in the sports where its athletes have traditionally excelled, baseball and boxing, as well as in karate, judo and wrestling. In 2015, Nicaragua sent a delegation of 49 athletes to the Panamerican Games in Toronto including athletes in baseball and boxing as always but also participants in track and field, weightlifting, wrestling, swimming, taekwondo, shooting, rowing, triathlon and beach volleyball. That number of competitors, in such a range of sports, is unprecedented for Nicaragua.

Participation in those headline international events tends to obscure how government sport policy stresses and prioritizes social inclusiveness. So in 2015, the country also sent delegations to Dominican Republic for the World “One Armed Bandit” Softball Championship, to Los Angeles for the Special Olympics, to Toronto for the Parapan American Games, as well as a team of under-12s to the prestigious International Baseball Federation 12U World Cup in Taiwan. At that last event Nicaragua's team surprised international baseball fans by winning the bronze medal, beating Cuba's team to do so.

Another surprise took place more recently in the regional qualifying games for the next soccer World Cup. Nicaragua's soccer team stunned Jamaica's, winning away 3-2 in the first leg before Jamaica restored the status quo in the second leg played in Managua, where they won 2-0. Even so, Nicaragua's performance proved that soccer is developing fast in the country and before very long its teams are likely to equal their regional rivals. Another new development for Nicaragua has been its extremely successful hosting of international surfing competitions on the country's Pacific Coast. Nicaragua's profile as the setting of international sports events will reach a new peak in 2017 when, for the first time, it will host the Central American games in which over 3,500 athletes are expected to participate in 28 sports disciplines.

These major international events are important for both for developing sport in Nicaragua and also for the economic dynamism and stimulus they provide, for example in relation to tourism. But they are only one and perhaps not even the most important component of Nicaragua's national sports policy. As an integral part of Nicaragua's social and cultural development, national sport policy focuses on developing both infrastructure capacity and skills. Improved municipal and departmental sports facilities permit a busy calendar of local events as well as the organization of national championships like the “German Pomares Ordoñez” baseball tournament, named after the heroic Sandinista guerrilla leader, and the national boxing championship named after Alexis Argüello.

In coordination with universities, Nicaragua has set up a Physical Education School based in Managua, the national capital, with centers also in Bilwi, the North Caribbean regional capital, and in Bluefields, the regional capital of the Caribbean South. These centers are training over 500 specialists in sports related areas. Marlon Torres notes, “This is a fundamental step to be able to improve the quality of our sports people. So long as we fail to ensure quality physical education at the stage when our young people are developing their skills we will have difficulty getting better results. The Physical Education School is a strategic project to be able to improve our competitive results.”

Training nationally is also being decentralized through programs like the Barrio Leagues for urban centers and Community Leagues for rural areas, currently active in over forty of Nicaragua's 153 municipalities. These local leagues guarantee training in eight sports for young people at municipal level through the school vacations so as to ensure consistency in sports education for children and adolescents of school age throughout the year. All the costs of equipment and infrastructure are covered by the national and local authorities, so participants have only turn up in order to play and learn the sport they are interested in.

Many factors have contributed since January 2007 to the extraordinary effort by Nicaragua making the long climb out of impoverishment against very adverse circumstances. The encroachment of organized crime and narcotics in neighboring countries, global economic recession and subsequent stagnation, destructive natural phenomena and disturbing climate change have all worked against efforts at positive change. Nicaragua owes its success and stability against those odds to the resourceful, sensitive tactical creativity of the Sandinista government, supported by its ALBA allies, Cuba and Venezuela and made coherent by the strategic wisdom and vision of Daniel Ortega, who turned 70 on November 11 this year.

That vision ranges from a deep grasp of regional geopolitical and economic fundamentals to a detailed, intimate understanding of Nicaragua's people, knowing that their basic needs are not just material, but moral as well. Access to cultural expressions and to sports activities especially are basic rights whose realization has engaged people's commitment and loyalty, most importantly of young people, in support of a sovereign, revolutionary project. Nicaragua's Sandinista government has created the most successful national development project in Central America by focusing on the needs of the human person in every sense and creating an encouraging context for the nation's youth.

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