MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- The prostitutes stalking the streets that ring the volcanic hills and craters of this gritty capital are young -- very young. Some have barely reached their teens. Some say they are selling sex to feed their starving siblings. Some say they were sent to this job by their unemployed, single mothers.
"I try to help them," says the Rev. Xabier Gorostiaga, rector of the Jesuit University of Central America. "I tell them I can give them a scholarship to the university. But they say, 'I already have a scholarship to the university. A scholarship, I can't eat.' "
The prostitutes of Managua -- like the street urchins of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and the trash-dump dwellers of San Salvador -- are only symptoms of an increasingly visible poverty in Central America, made worse by a decade of war, corruption, misspent American aid and, critics say, misguided U.S. policies.
"In reality, the majority of [American] aid was wasted in the
military field," Honduran government adviser Manuel Acosta Bonilla says of the billions of dollars spent in Honduras and in much of Central America. "It produced nothing. It did nothing to help development. The decade of the 1980s was one huge step backward, economically and socially. It was a lost decade."
As Central America slips from its place of prominence on the United States' policy agenda, the region -- with notable exceptions -- is also sliding deeper into poverty and social inequity. Despite substantial progress in achieving political democracy in Central America, millions of the region's people do not have potable water, health care or enough food to ward off hunger and disease.
Countries such as Honduras and Nicaragua, by objective measures, are poorer today than they were 20 years ago, before the United States shoveled its billions of dollars into the region. Despite more than a decade of war, El Salvador, by contrast, is faring better than its neighbors, but soaring prices and unemployment pose a danger to economic stability. Even Panama, traditionally comfortable by Central American standards, faces a widening gulf between rich and poor, following an American invasion to oust a military dictator; Panamanians are struggling to cope not only with that disparity but also with a round of strikes, drug abuse and social unrest.
"Things are supposed to be better now, but where is the better?" asks Maria Luisa Tunon, a Panama City street cleaner and mother of five who recently led a strike to demand an increase in her $150-a-month pay. She echoed the lament of many of the poor and unemployed in her country, where impressive economic growth in the years since the 1989 invasion that ejected Gen. Manuel A. Noriega has failed to trickle down to the underclass.
In contrast to the trend in much of Latin America, the economies of Nicaragua and Honduras shrank between 1985 and 1991, the World Bank reports.
El Salvador, despite its war, showed growth in its economy over the same period and today is enjoying a boom in construction and commerce. Besides U.S. financing, the Salvadoran economy receives a Gargantuan boost from Salvadorans living in the United States who send home an estimated $700 million or more annually.
After Haiti, Nicaragua is now the poorest country in the hemisphere, followed closely by Honduras, according to World Bank and other measures. More than two-thirds of the population in Nicaragua and Honduras lives in poverty.
At La Mascota Children's Hospital in Managua, where there is an acute shortage of medicine, staff and supplies, Dr. Roberto Galan says parents have resorted to stealing sheets for later resale.
"The people steal about 300 sheets a week" from the hospital, he says. "It is the very crisis of the country . . . People have to eat, they have to feed their children. They don't have anything with which to buy food, so they steal sheets to sell them . . . The people steal to survive."
The United Nations, which annually ranks countries by a "Human Development Index," reports that all of Central America -- with the exception of perennial oasis Costa Rica -- declined in the first three years of this decade.
The index charts poverty, health statistics, social conditions and other economic indicators.