CRS History in Nicaragua
In the last 30 years, Nicaragua has lived through an earthquake that toppled the capital, a revolution that brought down a corrupt and violent dictatorship, the U.S.-sponsored counterrevolution that followed, and several devastating hurricanes. Working alongside the Catholic Church and other local partners, Catholic Relief Services accompanied Nicaraguans through it all.
CRS has worked in Nicaragua since 1964, when we responded to the devastation caused by a hurricane. In partnership with the Catholic Church and lay partners, CRS focused on the distribution of food, clothing and medicines, ultimately reaching 200,000 people.
During the 1970s, CRS continued to implement a food program funded by the U.S. government for school-aged children. CRS also introduced a first "rotating funds" project, which was to become a precursor of the now-widespread microfinance programs. The small credit funds helped 327 participating small businesses, cooperatives, and agriculture production associations engage in market and business opportunities to generate income and improve their living standards.
The Great Managua Earthquake struck in 1972, killing up to 100,000 people and leaving 300,000 homeless. The two-hour ordeal leveled Managua, Nicaragua's capital, changing forever the character of the city. CRS responded with a $6-million, multi-year reconstruction effort implemented with Caritas Nicaragua.
The victory of the Sandinista revolution that ousted dictator Somoza in 1979 was frustrated by the U.S. government-backed counterrevolution, which sought to overthrow the Sandinista government. Given the insecurity of a country at war and the logistical difficulties caused by a trade embargo on Nicaragua, CRS moved the program and international staff to Costa Rica. Implemented through church organizations, CRS assistance at this time included the distribution of medicines, food and relief supplies after Hurricane Joan in 1988.
In 1990, CRS reopened an office in Nicaragua. With programs focused on agriculture, health and microfinance, CRS expanded involvement with diocesan Caritases to include four diocesan justice and peace commissions. Those commissions, founded by their respective bishops to address the volatile, post-conflict period, encouraged discussions on the sensitive issues of disarmament and reintegration of armed groups. CRS staff worked to strengthen key relationships with government ministry officials, local church representatives, and in-country partners and donors, while remaining nonpartisan in an extremely polarized, and at times violent, political setting.
In 1998, Hurricane Mitch, which killed 3,800 people in Nicaragua, laid bare the country's extreme vulnerability to natural disasters and highlighted their impact on the poor. Hurricane Mitch brought about a renewed focus on the importance of justice as a motive for programs designed to address poverty.
On a global scale, CRS began promoting greater awareness of justice issues in development, which in Nicaragua found expression in Global Solidarity Partnerships. Designed to connect Catholics in the United States and Nicaragua, such outpourings of international solidarity resulted in the construction of bridges in the areas worst hit by Hurricane Mitch. In the process, other bridges of understanding—based on personal conversion—formed between the two countries.
The devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch was soon followed by another crisis, the collapse in 2001 of international coffee prices. With so many small-scale farmers and day laborers relying on coffee for survival, Nicaragua was particularly hard hit. The crisis, which pitted hungry and unemployed coffee farm workers against landowners and the government, threatened to erupt into violence. Supported by CRS, the local Catholic Church led efforts to defuse the situation, calling for dialogue, immediate relief and long-term development assistance.
This experience became an entry point for CRS to promote the concept of fair trade and justice-based commerce in general. Working through small producer cooperatives, CRS opened markets in the United States for fair trade-certified coffee, while simultaneously promoting organic coffee production and crop diversification.
Today, with a staff of 40, CRS continues to work with local partners to improve the lives of Nicaragua's poorest and most vulnerable communities. Working in seven of Nicaragua's departments and autonomous regions, and directly benefiting more than 63,500 people without regard to religion or ethnicity, CRS supports a variety of programs that combine emergency preparedness and relief with long-term development assistance.
Such assistance takes a "livelihoods approach." Programs are designed to help people move out of poverty and maintain sustainable, healthy and productive lives. In supporting successful livelihoods, CRS programs tackle poverty and underdevelopment through various, interrelated approaches, including sustainable agriculture and commercialization, natural resource protection and watershed management, small business development and microfinance, community health, HIV and AIDS, and citizen participation and peacebuilding.