Friday, June 25, 2010

Nicaragua in the CIA Spinbook

Cloak-and-dagger missions aside, the primary purpose of the Central Intelligence Agency is to provide other agencies of the U.S. government with reliable information about the rest of the world. Much of this information is not classified; for example it provides maps that are reliable and definitive, in terms of boundaries and names recognized by the United States. These maps are the basis of the Perry-Castañeda Library  Map Collection at the University of Texas. For these maps and for other kinds of geographic information, the CIA is a significant employer of geographers, which is a good thing!

The CIA World Factbook is also available to the public and is a reliable source of basic demographic data and very general information about the physical geography of countries. It has, in fact, come to serve as quite a popular online almanac for many researchers, and I consult it from time to time for my own projects. Research for my coffee and tea encyclopedia project drew me to Nicaragua entry yesterday and to this critical essay, which has been brewing in my mind for years.

Some time during the second Bush Administration, the Factbook began to serve a more insidious role, as many narrative sections were rewritten to reflect a certain view of history, much as Mr. Orwell had warned us. I first noticed this in the case of Cuba, where the "Background" section was rewritten to exclude everything that had happened prior to the Castro regime, and to describe the country in terms that would ring true only to Castro's most ardent opponents. As I searched other countries, I found that the narratives for any hard-left or even left-of-center governments had been re-written, all at about the same time. I began to caution my students against accepting the resource at face value, as its contents apparently undergo both technical and political reviews.

Since the Bush Administration left office, civilian government workers have been re-empowered to do more of their own writing, and the Factbook has become more balanced. The Cuba entry continues to reflect a distinct point of view, but not as ardently as it once did. While the political slant may have softened, however, economic orthodoxy continues to prevail, as illustrated by this passage about the economy of Nicaragua:
Nicaragua, the poorest country in Central America, has widespread underemployment and poverty. GDP fell by almost 3% in 2009, due to decreased export demand in the US and Central American markets, lower commodity prices for key agricultural exports, and low remittance growth - remittances are equivalent to almost 15% of GDP. The US-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has been in effect since April 2006 and has expanded export opportunities for many agricultural and manufactured goods. 
The segments I have highlighted in blue describe negative economic outcomes that I would ascribe to unbalanced "free" trade agreements. The segments highlighted in red represent orthodox interpretations that are not borne out by the facts presented. The claim of "expanded export opportunities" is directly contradicted by the earlier statement of "decreased export demand," which in turn is a risk created by more open trade policies.

The blaming of the victim continues:
Textiles and apparel account for nearly 60% of Nicaragua's exports, but increases in the minimum wage during the ORTEGA administration will likely erode its comparative advantage in this industry. 
As the blue text indicates, free-trade agreements have pushed many Nicaraguans into low-wage textile work (Victoria's Secret has an unmarked, 200,000-square-foot sweatshop near the capital). This is followed by a very confusing statement about international aid, which hints at a double standard regarding the standards to be met by recipients of that aid.
Nicaragua relies on international economic assistance to meet internal- and external-debt financing obligations. Foreign donors have curtailed this funding, however, in response to November 2008 electoral fraud. In early 2004, Nicaragua secured some $4.5 billion in foreign debt reduction under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, and in October 2007, the IMF approved a new poverty reduction and growth facility (PRGF) program.

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