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"Our North is South"

Nicaragua: National Traits and Characteristics

by SAM GORDON

Even talking about national traits can be enough to get you into trouble. It’s a topic with which the left has never been all that happy. At best it’s considered a gross simplification. At worst it shows a not too latent attitude of cultural superiority. And really, it’s not hard to find evidence for either or both of these views.

Anyway, here goes.

English political life is most clearly dominated by social class. The Conservatives and Liberals always relied on toffs – quaint English slang meaning a well dressed upper class person – and those who think that said toffs know best how to run the country. When New Labour was conjured up by Tony Blair the cloth cap disappeared into a cocked hat, then reappeared as the shiny new mantle of Neo-liberalism. The toffs remained centre stage.

In the USA the perennial issue of race lurks in historic shadows. The Founding Fathers had the opportunity to squash this at birth after the War of Independence. But the eighteenth century can got kicked down the road. Then it rattled into the nineteenth century Civil War. It made another appearance in the twentieth century when civil rights campaigners tried to put an end to it once and for all. But race in the USA is an issue that some people just don’t seem to be able to let go.

It’s not really obvious what might constitute a national characteristic in Nicaraguan politics. Throughout Central America Nicaragua enjoys good reputation in the areas of literature and folk culture, expressed through dance and song. In 2005 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization conferred on El Güegüense, a Nicaraguan social drama, the status of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

El Güegüense is a community elder from the indigenous Maya people. He has been hauled up before the Spanish colonial governor to be questioned about being some place where royal Spain decreed he ought not to be. Apparently the conquistadors had pass laws before the Apartheid regime in South Africa.  But crafty old Güegüense was a match for the European colonizer. By deliberately misunderstanding, then confusing the governor, he muddies the water and comes out on top. He even manages to walk away – or dance – with a good supply of the governor’s best Spanish wine.

Is there a bigger political point to all this? Well, yes. Whatever is going on in Nicaragua the important point is that lack of clarity is the only thing that we can be really clear about. Anyone familiar with the Irish writer Myles na Golapeen will have a head start in understanding this conundrum.

An example of this in action; the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) party was widely tipped, even by the best informed commentators at home and abroad, to win the 1990 elections. The Sandinistas lost spectacularly.

After an absence of 16 years and three failed attempts Daniel Ortega, the former Sandinista president and his party were voted back into government. His wife, who holds the unelected position of Co-ordinator of the Council of Communication and Citizenship, speaks most every night on TV. For years Rosario Murillo has assured Nicaraguans that this is a country marked out by characteristics which are Christian, socialist and promoting solidarity. I can see where she’s coming from with the first and last points. But the socialist bit concerns me.

Without question there have been notable advances for the country’s poor, made possible by the Sandinista government. However, electrical energy distribution is in the hands of a single Spanish company. The Limón gold mine, like others in the country is foreign owned. Vehicle fuel distribution is controlled by the usual suspects, all international oligopolies. The same goes for the banks. But we are assured this is socialism.

According to critics of the right, left and centre Daniel Ortega is a “traitor.” He wins elections by “fraud”. His government is “illegitimate.” And the new constitution he sent to the National Assembly, which has a clear Sandinista majority, is “unconstitutional.”

Daniel is an astute and experienced political operator, with a particular talent, which I’ll come to shortly. He is very different – and why shouldn’t he be? – from Hugo  Chávez. The latter was the son of two school teachers and had extraordinary communication skills.

Chávez put together an image for getting the message of socialism across to Venezuelans which he aptly called the “the elementary triangle of socialism.” The sides of this triangle are starting lines for exploration and construction. They represent; social ownership of the means of production, social production organized by workers and the satisfaction of communal needs.

Nicaragua’s present Sandinista government has a number of programs aimed at improving the quality of life among the country’s poorest, including women and children. Poor families are provided with sheets of corrugated iron for roofing, animal breeding stock and credit options. Health and education services have been expanded.

Some cooperatives, particularly in agriculture and transport, still exist from initiatives of the “revolutionary” government of the 1980s. Small scale producers and service providers are dominant in meeting everyday needs at community level. At the same time, supermarket chains do exist in the major cities.

Despite whatever claims are made in the name of socialism – leaving aside the “socialism in one country”/ “permanent revolution et al” arguments – the elementary triangle of socialism hardly reflects Nicaragua at the present time. This fuels the arguments forwarded by some on the left against President Daniel Ortega. But the achievements of his presidency in the 21st century bring undiluted praise from others on the left.

Daniel’s greatest political talent is probably his ability to make deals and pacts with others. But as seems the way in Nicaragua, the more agreements made by Daniel, the more many people disagree with his actions. Before the “Triumph” of 1979, which saw the end of a 40 odd year Somoza family dictatorship, Daniel was one of a group known as the Third Way tendency in the FSLN. This group sought to make alliances with others, often not of the left, but who were against Somoza.

He finally won back the presidency in 2006. By that time many voters had lost faith in the promises of the liberals, the liberal camp was divided and still is. Rule changes which Daniel had negotiated with Arnoldo Alemán, leader of the main Constitutional Liberal Party, allowed him back into the presidency with fewer votes than when he lost the job in 1990.

Beyond Nicaragua, Egyptian Marxist economist Samir Amin has focused his attention more on Africa and Asia than Latin America. He is acutely aware of the historic short comings of western intellectual traditions, which include many contributions from a left perspective, when it comes to understanding the paths taken by former colonized societies.

Writing about centre / periphery (northern industrialised countries / global south) relationship he has his own take on characteristics exhibited by many countries of the south. These, even in this post colonial and modern, not to mention post modern age, he puts under the heading of “lumpen development.” Nicaragua, it seems to me, is one such country, which also experiences “accelerated social disintegration.”

Among some socio-economic sectors, there is a race towards modernization. In Nicaragua those with access to capital can and sometimes do, invest in better equipment to process raw materials. Many big farmers in the fertile north west of the country don’t risk diversification, preferring only to produce and sell pea nuts to the USA. Some seed their money away in less volatile economies elsewhere. Country people sell their small holdings to big agro businesses, often to become paupers in the cities. Those who stay on the land subsist on the land and not much more. Cooperatives with debts fall into the hands of the banks.

After the Triumph of 1979 much of the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie, bank books in hand, fled to Florida. So too did some class associates who were less well off. Not long after, US Republican Party administrations imposed an economic blockade causing all kinds of internal shortages. Simultaneously they funded a low intensity war targeting the achievements of the Sandinista Revolution particularly hitting schools, health centres, agricultural cooperatives and export led coffee production.

The 1980s advances in literacy, health and education services and radical agrarian reform have all been well documented. That they were achieved within a capitalist framework, albeit with government intervention and support is less clearly understood. This concurred with the rapid establishment of a new, neoliberal economic order. What history notes less clearly is the destabilisation of an already stressed social order. This provoked a series of fractures, realignments and dislocations of class relationships. Here is the social disintegration that Amir writes about.

This legacy of disintegration is the political environment in which today’s Sandinistas and Daniel Ortega operate. And he is very much part of that environment. Few would dispute that promoting Daniel as future president is now a central function of the party. It’s hardly an overstatement to say that a cult of the personality exists in Nicaragua today.

He has not made conciliatory overtures to the “Colossus of the North” to use national poet Rubin Dario’s words in referring to the USA. He has not followed the classical “comprador (bought) class” so evident in Colombia, Honduras, and Panama. But consistent with his history of forming alliances he and his ministers gush with praise and admiration for the umbrella organization of Nicaragua’s big business elite. Private sector trade unions are a voice almost unheard. Public sector trade union leaders sit at the table with the president and cardinal, army general and police chief.

Opinion polls continue placing Daniel Ortega in a popular light and the liberal opposition in the shade. What is not clear in Nicaragua is the position held by other Sandinistas, many of whom have a commendable political past in more radical times but are now in a Siberia, beyond the Ortegas’ pale. There is no formal opposition to the left of Daniel.

It’s beyond dispute that Daniel and Rosario Murillo are the joint leaders and public faces of the party. Issues which could be troublesome in Nicaragua do make it to the headlines but melt away to nothing in the heat of the daily grind. Apparently there is an air of harmony in the heart of Nicaragua.

It can be difficult to make sense of all this. But commentators of every hue paint pictures which claim proper perspective, depth and above all, clarity.

Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres Garcίa, towards the middle of the last century, produced a series of paintings. In these he depicted an “inverted America.” The South American continent fills the canvass. It is inverted so that the southern tip is at the top of the work. It becomes a compass needle providing a reference by pointing to the South Pole. This is in defiant contradiction of the traditionally accepted reality that northern culture straddles the whole world.

His School of the South art movement sought to combine the art of Latin America’s traditional cultures with Western and non-Western traditions. Surely that’s a closer reflection of Latin America and the Caribbean reality than a purely Eurocentric rendering.

For Torres Garcίa reality was that “our north is the South.” The compass needle guiding human development in this part of the world should be part of the experiences of people here. If we take a wrong turn sometimes, then it is us who must correct it.

If Daniel and his circle are to continue in government they may well wish to consider the words of a Nicaraguan friend who is also a Sandinista supporter, at least on polling days. “Daniel will fall under his own weight,” he said, using a local expression. He may yet antagonise even more traditional supporters, alienate himself from the diverse sectors of Nicaraguan society. But in a country where tradition easily outweighs ideology and a political personality can trump a political idea the outcome is not at all clear.

Sam Gordon has worked in a Belfast factory, an engineer in the merchant navy, a trainer, researcher and co-coordinator of community projects in Scotland. A graduate from various universities, on a good he claims he’s a decorative artist and sometimes writer. Most days he’s a blacksmith, welder, and painter in Nicaragua.