MONTELIMAR, Nicaragua –Nicaraguan businesswomen, many possessingan MBA from the school of hardknocks, have become a dominant force inthis impoverished country’s entrepreneurialsector.Nicaraguan businesswomen own andmanage 80% of the country’s micro-businesses(five employees or less), andaccount for 40% of Nicaragua’s GrossDomestic Product, according to XimenaRamírez, president of the PermanentNational Congress of Nicaraguan Businesswomen.The women represent all sectors ofbusiness and trade, from tourism and textilesto mining and manufacturing.Their success, Ramírez says, is becauseof their ability to transform survival skillsacquired over a lifetime of hardship –including war and natural disasters – intoan entrepreneurial spirit.“THE Nicaraguan woman is brave,strong, honest, hardworking, inventive anda survivor,” said the efficient and vivaciousRamírez, during the recent II Congress ofNicaraguan Businesswomen. “We womenunderstand solidarity. We were the onesthat buried the dead, our sons and our husbands.”The congress of businesswomen, heldNov. 18-19 at the Hotel Barceló Montelimar,brought together hundreds ofentrepreneurs from all over the country todiscuss the need for unity in the face ofglobalization, and thepending CentralAmerican Free-TradeAgreement with theUnited States(CAFTA).Of the fiveCentral Americancountries participatingin the regionaltrade pact, Nicaraguais expected to be thefirst to ratify CAFTA,perhaps as early as this month.A recent poll conducted by the CostaRica-based Arias Foundation for Peaceand Human Progress revealed that 93%of Nicaraguan women believe the governmentdid nothing to listen to theirpoints of view while negotiating the tradepact last year, and 70% say the governmenthas not been transparent about thetrade talks.In spite of the skepticism and lack ofpublic knowledge about CAFTA,Nicaraguan businesswomen claim theirpasts have helped them to prepare for afuture of cutthroat global capitalism – ironically,even when that past is one of socialism.DELIA Saballos, coordinator of thebusinesswomen’s congress in the northerndepartment of Nueva Segovia, said hergroup is working with Nicaraguan womento revive the Sandinista values of solidarityand cooperativework, while un-teachingthe conceptof a government-issued freelunch.Saballos claimsthe women’s congresshas succeededin forming cooperativesof tortilla makersand textileworkers, which have found collectivestrength in union.In the rural northern town of Ocotal,the Nueva Segovia women’s congress hascreated a common development fund,which it uses to hold carnivals, attracttourism, promote area businesses and raisemore money for the fund.APART from grassroots fundraisingefforts, access to credit for small businessesin Nicaragua is a major obstacle togrowth and development, according tobusiness leaders.Zacarías Mondragón, president of theNicaraguan Council of Small and Medium-Sized Businesses (CONIMIPYME),explained access to low-interest developmentcredit all but disappeared when thegovernment’s three state-owned creditbanks folded in the late 1990s, during thegovernment of former President ArnoldoAlemán (1997-2002).Mondragón estimates 120,000 smalland medium-sized businesses investedwith or had loans from the three statebanks, which offered credit at a 12% annualinterest rate. Current interest ratesoffered by private banks and financiers arebetween 20-30%.Nicaragua no longer has any state creditbanks, and international debt-forgivenessstipulations prevent the government fromopening new ones, Mondragón explained.THE problem is not with availabilityof funds, but rather accessibility.Nicaragua has received $125 million indonations since last December, accordingto foreign trade advisor Pedro AntonioBlandón. Most of that money has nevermade it to the small producers and entrepreneurswho need it desperately.Mondragón insists it is imperative thatthe government create channels of accessibilityto the forthcoming MillenniumChallenge Fund, a $100 million developmentgrant for Nicaragua from the U.S.government.If private banks, which are largelyinaccessible to small businesses, handlethe money, only the well-to-do will haveaccess to the gifted funds, Mondragónwarned.EVEN without resources, Nicaraguanwomen have always been resourceful inbusiness, Ramírez said.Necessity is the reason so manyNicaraguan women started small businesses,and ingenuity and hard work is whatkeeps them afloat.When the government downsized inthe early 1990s, after the socialistSandinistas were voted out of office,women were the first ones on the choppingblock, Ramírez said. The machista culturesaid that if anyone should work, it shouldbe the man in the family, while the womanstays at home with the children, sheexplained.As the number of single-parent homesincreases, women have been forced toinvent ways to make money. Many of thesmall businesses have failed over the yearsbecause of a lack of business managementskills.THE Nicaraguan women’s congress ishelping to change that, Ramirez said. Thecongress, a private initiative that workswith government agencies and acts as anumbrella for other non-profit organizations,has worked with thousands ofwomen in the past four years to improvetheir business management, accountingskills and self-esteem, she said.Now with globalization approaching,and CAFTA waiting in the wings, thewomen’s congress is working even harderto get its strength-through-unity messageout to the women of Nicaragua.