Monday, November 06, 2006

Preliminary Electoral Results: A Sandinista Victory


Fireworks and music have been filling the air since midnight. Preliminary results of the National Election give the victory to Daniel Ortega, candidate for the FSLN. It is still possible that the candidate for the right wing ALN, Harvard trained banker Eduardo Montealegre, will close the gap and cause the elections to go to a second round. Should this happen the currently divided anti-sandinistas will unite under one candidate and defeat the FSLN, but at this point of time it seems unlikely that there will be a second round.

From what I have seen and heard up to this point of time, the elections have been the cleanest and most orderly in the last sixteen years. Everything has been calm, and even with the preliminary results giving the sandinistas a victory, there has been no violence that I know of.

Will a sandinista victory be as wonderful as some hope or as terrible as some fear? It is not very likely. Although they will win the presidency, they will have a minority in National Assembly. That means that they will have to negotiate with one of the two right wing parties to pass any laws or even the national budget. Should the right unite against them in the legislature; it will be very hard for a sandinista government to do much of anything. They will also have to work within a legal framework restricted by neoliberal laws, a free trade agreement and within IMF conditions.

I will write more when I have a chance.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

"Armados" in Chilamate



An armed group of is terrorizing the community of Chilamate Kum. At least one of the members of this group previously was a volunteer policeman and had severely beaten a youth who was the nephew of a local religious leader. Two months ago they tracked down the same youth and killed him. They dress in camouflage carry assault rifles. They have threatened to kill anyone who denounces them.

If the police do decide to try to capture them, and if they do succeed in doing so, it is most likely that the perpetrators will be free with a few days and then return to the community looking for vengeance. The lack of institutional justice is always frustrating, but it is tragic when you know the people involved.



Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A Quote II


"This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angle would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."


Benjamin of the Frankfurt School, cited in Perry Anderson (1979) Considerations on Western Marxism. Redwood Burn Ltd,: London, p 90. For a discussion on Anderson’s book, see Chapter 1, Chapter 2 and Chapter 3.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Political Swinging in Nicaragua

An article by Andrés Pérez Baltodano appeared in the Opinions section of El Nuevo Diario today. In it he quotes Jaime Morales Carazo’s acceptance speech from when Morales became the official vice-presidential candidate for the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN). Morales has long been a member of the right-wing Liberal Party and was one of the principle advisors for the ex-president Dr. Arnoldo Aleman, currently under house-arrest after being convicted for corruption. In his speech, Morales explains his new political vision:

I confess with an open and modern mentality that I do not locate myself – not to the right, nor to the left, nor to the centre – because I have been convinced by a long process of real deeds that to generate economic progress and social advancement for all, with reconciliation, stability and peace, the pendulum of times and movements of societies and history oscillates from the right to the left, necessarily passing through the centre. It does not stay in the extremes nor immobilize itself in middle. Were it that way, time would not be dynamic.

So now will the FSLN, Nicaragua’s traditional left, spend its time ‘swinging’ from right to left with it’s new ex-right vice-presidential candidate?

Morales: a Political Swinger?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Rain in Waslala

After a month of rain, the northern road to Siuna has become impassible. The current problem is a hill just leaving Waslala that has become a mud bath. Vehicles can neither go up or down. Everyone – old, young, pregnant, sick, rich or poor – have to trudge and slip about a kilometer up and down the hill, carrying sacks or paying the young boys that gather around to carry them. The road south to the capital is still passable, but there are several parts that are in bad shape and if it continues to rain will also be impassible.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Death and life

Water drips to the songs of frogs and distant dogs, quiet, after the violent drums of unrestrained torrents of water falling upon the zinc roof.

Both harsh and soft, brutal fury and gentle beauty.

Life is everywhere, but last night a young nurse died,

because her blood tests came out wrong

(We are not even sure that the place she had her tests done has a trained lab tech)

because the local hospital has no blood bank

(Even if they did, we are spending more time without electricity than with it as the newly privatized electricity company, the government and consumers' rights organizations fight and oil prices soar to the rhythm of bombs in the Middle-East and capitalist growth)

because the new ambulance is broken and being repaired

(After years of fighting to get an ambulance, we received two and now both need repairs. The National Constitution states that access to health care is a right, however the spending on health per capita keeps on going down as the governments of turn promote private health care.)

because the road to Matagalpa is in such bad condition that it takes four hours to cover the 116 km to the nearest hospital that does have conditions,

because later the doctors did not risk a blood transfusion without tests, and by that time there was no electricity.

She was twenty-one years old, and her daughter, husband, parents and friends grieve on the other side of Nicaragua.

Symbolic Interactionism

I have been trying to get my head around microsociology. One of the branches, Symbolic Interactionism looks at the interaction between the internal thoughts and emotions (symbols) of a person and his or her social conduct. It breaks away from the mechanistic ideas of Structural Functionalism and Structural Marxism which see people acting according to social norms laid out by the social structures to which they belong. It centers on the idea of “self” continually formed by both social and auto interaction. When we interact with others, before we act we always have a quick ‘conversation’ with ourselves in which we interpret the situation, the possible actions and the possible reactions. When we act, the other person tries to interpret the significance that we are giving to the symbols we are using to communicate (words, actions, movements, etc), analyzes the possible reactions, and our reactions to his or her reactions, and then responds, and we immediately interpret their response and adjust what it is that we are doing.

It claims to recognize the importance of social structures (roles, status, institutions, society) but sees them as an interlaced continuum of interactions

The methodology used analyze the interior course of action is the following:

  1. Look for the interior experience that is behind the conduct.
  2. Understand the values, visions, significations and definitions that the individual applies to the situations in which he or she acts, and to him or herself.
  3. Clarify how the imaginative processes work.
  4. The explication comes from empirical data that emerge from the process through which the individual describes his or her world from within and at the same time defines his or her own objective reality.

It is a flexible exploration, a direct naturalist examination of the social world. It uses direct observation, interviews, listens to conversations, radio, and television and revises life histories, letters and public archives. Instead of definitive concepts, it uses sensibilizing concepts that simply suggest where to orient the search.

Okay ... I can understand the importance of trying to understand the person to person mechanics of how we create and reproduce the social reality in which we live; however if we only focus on day to day interactions of individuals, then power relations, the state, structures of domination, multinationals, poverty and imperialism all disappear into an interior conversation we have with ourselves based upon our valuations and interpretations of the symbols that others communicate to us. It just feels empty …

International politics: an interior conversation with myself, or an external social structure?



Monday, June 12, 2006

A Quote


‘Commerce is not a sin. Trading with emerging countries is not a sin. Trade helps them to emerge as a matter of fact. It makes reforms possible. The kind of reforms we all want. It brings them into the modern world. It enables us to help them. How can we help a poor country if we’re not rich ourselves?’

‘Bullshit.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘[…] Look around you. Trade isn’t making the poor rich. Profits don’t buy reforms. They buy corrupt government officials and Swiss bank accounts.’

John le Carré (2005) The Constant Gardener, Penguin Canada: Toronto, p 61.



Monday, March 20, 2006

Censorship: Power Struggles and the Limits of Freedom


At first glance, it appears very simple to argue the case against censorship by talking about universal morals and individual human rights. Unfortunately, the issue is somewhat more complicated than it first appears. Although the principal social actors are the state, mass media corporations and interest groups, it is a topic that runs through the entire society, affecting each family and every individual. This is because censorship is but a small part of the ideological struggle for our thoughts and minds. It is part of a struggle between those who want to maintain social relations more or less as they are, and those who challenge the status quo. It is also a question of where the limits to freedom are, and how they in turn depend on power relations. The decision to support or reject censorship is thus neither moral nor ethical. It is instead a question of where one’s interests lie in any particular case where censorship is used.

The principal actors involved on a national scale are the mass media corporations, the state and interest groups. In cases like the Iraq war, the American mass media corporations and the state worked very closely together. Reporters were imbedded with soldiers and received only authorized information. Hand in hand, they censored the reality that would be fed to the world. However, in the age of globalised technology, independent news chains such as Al Jazeera showed another side of the war and forced US television open up slightly. In Venezuela, for example, the relationship is very different. The government of Hugo Chávez has been facing an unending publicity battle with the media corporations. The media refuses to say anything good about their president, and they actively promoted the attempted coup in 2002 (Bartley & O’Brian, 2003). As a response, Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl states that the Venezuelan government has passed a law that makes it illegal to say things contrary to national security (2005). In other cases of censorship, the state is not involved at all. After the attacks of September 11th 2001, the largest owner of radio stations in the United States, Clear Channel Communications, sent a list of songs that it suggested be removed from the play lists of the company’s more than a thousand stations. The list consisted of well over a hundred songs, including highly subversive and violent songs such as the following: Alanis Morissette’s "Ironic," The Beatles’ "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "Obla Di, Obla Da," Louis Armstrong’s "What A Wonderful World," The Rolling Stones’ "Ruby Tuesday," and of course, "99 Luft Balloons/99 Red Balloons" (Nuzum, 2003). Leaving aside the corporations, NBC reporter Peter Arnett was fired during the offensive against Iraq because of public outcry after he gave an interview stating that he believed the US war plan had failed (Kovacs, 2003). On a smaller scale, white supremacist groups complain of censorship when their Internet hate-sites are shut down. Even within each household, parents choose which TV programs, books and magazines they want their children to be exposed to. In each case, we have different social actors exercising different forms of censorship.

To understand how all these different social actors relate and are involved in censorship of one form or another, we have to understand what censorship is used for. If we use the Gramscian term of hegemony, we have the general acceptance of the dominant class’s vision of the world. This worldview is propagated through social institutions in civil society such as the church, mass media, the family and the education system. Hegemony crosses the barriers of class, race and gender, and it occurs when people believe that the way things are now is the way they have to be. They accept as natural the current social system. However, as it is simply a belief, people can stop believing it too. Groups looking for change try to show the inequalities in the system and to create the belief that another world is possible. In times of economic, social, political and military crisis, it becomes more probable that people start to question the ways things are. The end of the Vietnam War is a good example of the creation of a counter hegemony that rejects the status quo. However, when hegemony is fully accepted, social actors self-censor themselves, as occurred with the song list after 9/11. When hegemony is strong, deviants are socially censored, as in the case of the NBC reporter. When hegemony is weak, or there exists potentially damaging information, censorship is enforced, as occurred in Venezuela and during the Iraq invasion. In each case, there are relations of power between those who benefit from the hegemony and censorship and those who suffer because of them.

The relationships of power bring us to one of the most difficult parts of the debate on censorship: at what point does one’s freedom impinge upon someone else’s? An example is that of the white supremacist groups. Along with racist hate literature, we can also find violent pornography and sexual harassment. The social actors involved in these all claim the right to free expression, yet they are taking away freedom from others.
On the other side, anarchists call out slogans like “Eat the rich!,” and socialists call for an end to private property and capitalist exploitation. Feminists look for an end to patriarchy. These groups also impinge on the freedoms of others. We obviously cannot take an all or nothing view of censorship nor individual rights. Once again, we have to look at the power relations that are occurring. Discrimination is a form of oppression and must be strongly confronted even if censorship is required. At the same time, oppressed groups looking for social change and equality should be defended from the censorship of the ruling class with its twin arms of the coercive state and hegemonic civil society.

Do they have the right to spread hate?


Censorship is about power relations among social actors in a continual struggle between order and change. It is an issue that actively involves everyone, from the state, to the media, to the individual. It is used overtly only where hegemony has failed, although it can also be used to defend against discrimination. Even if we do not notice it, it is part of our daily lives, be it self-censorship, social censorship or information that is never shown to us. We cannot say it is good or bad; rather we must look at the power relationships involved, recognize the worldview being formed through censorship, and decide if we want change to the current social order or maintain it.

References

Bartley, K. & O’Brian, D. (Directors). (2003). The Revolution Will Not Be Televised [Film]. Caracas, Venezuela: The Irish Film Board.

Dile, J. (2005, March 28). Chavez's Censorship. The Washington Post. p. A17, Retrieved January 28, 2006 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/
A5755-2005Mar27?language=printer.

Kovacs, J. (2003, March 31). NBC's Peter Arnett: War plan has failed. World Net Daily. Retrieved January 28, 2006 from http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/ article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=31798.

Nuzum, E. (2002). Crash Into Me, Baby: America’s implicit music censorship in the wake of September 11th. Retrieved January 28, 2006 from http:// ericnuzum.com/banned/articles/paper_wcmc.html.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Meaning of .... Democracy

At the end of this year, 2006, Nicaraguans will once more elect the person that will lead the country for the next five years along with the people that will represent them in the legislature. The term democracy will once again swing into fashion as every candidate tries to convince voters that only he or she truly embodies the great democratic principles. The question is, what exactly is meant by democracy?

Shortly before the last national elections, I asked a few people from a rural community in the north-eastern mountains of Nicaragua what they thought democracy was. Much to my surprise, they told me that democracy was having a strong leader that “did things” and was not corrupt. What they considered democratic sounded to me as though it leaned more towards authoritarianism, and it was very far from the old Greek ideal where ‘the people’ ruled. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, just a few words above demolish, defines democracy as “government by the people […] rule of the majority […] a government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usu. [sic] involving periodically held free elections” (Webster’s New Collegiate, 1977, p. 302). The comments of the people from the rural community may not have matched the dictionary’s definition; however, they did reflect the ongoing verbal battles between national political parties.

By going back to newspaper articles from that pre-election time, we can see that the political forces use the word democracy in different ways to meet short-term political goals. In each case, democracy is referred to as something positive and related to elections. The rest is variable. It can mean Christian faith, honesty and power sharing, or simply choosing to vote for the friends of the United States of America.

The first example of the use of term democracy is by Dr. Arnoldo Aleman, the then president of the Republic of Nicaragua and leader of the Constitutional Liberal Party. In a talk with evangelical youth, he called upon them to pray to God so that in the elections democracy would “vanquish” his atheist opponents that were “enemies of God and peace” (Sandoval, 2001b, para. 2, 4)[i]. Suddenly, democracy becomes a religious issue between believers and non believers, where divine powers are invited to intercede to make one party win over another. It is also interesting that the electoral process is not represented as part of a democratic process, but rather that democracy will “vanquish” through the electoral process. Democracy becomes synonymous with the Liberal Party, or at least becomes its private property.

Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN for its initials in Spanish) and president of Nicaragua during the eighties also talked about democracy in his pre-election speeches. Since the Liberal government had been wracked by charges of corruption, Ortega promised an honest government with lower salaries for state functionaries. He also proposed a transfer of powers from the Executive to the population in what he called participative democracy (Ruiz, 2001). Ortega associates democracy with honesty and lower salaries. He speaks about a transfer of powers from the government to the population, yet his does not specify what powers or the mechanisms he would use. We are left with the message that democracy is the contrary of the other party, and that only the Sandinistas will bring this new profound yet undefined democracy.

Daniel Ortega, Nicaraguan President during the 1980's and current presidential candidate for the FSLN.

The third major actor in the 1991 Nicaraguan elections was the government of the United States of America. Different American functionaries spoke to let people know their version of democracy. After the September 11th attack on New York, the messages became more belligerent. The US embassy in Nicaragua put out a news release, in which they affirmed that the “interest of the United States is that Nicaragua has fair elections […] which show the will of Nicaraguan voters and that our programs help in the strengthening of the democratic institutions in the long run” (Sandoval, 2001a, para. 4). The State Department assured Nicaraguans that they would respect the results of free and fair elections; however, at the same time, they also said that they had “serious reserves” about the FLSN, since the Sandinistas had violated democratic principles and basic human rights and sheltered terrorists. The State Department continued by stating that “there exists no intermediate point between those who oppose terrorism and those who support it” (Chamorro, 2001, Section II, para. 5). Democratic senator Bob Graham and Republican senators DeWine y Jesse Helms wrote a proposal to Congress asking the US president to modify U.S. policy towards Nicaragua if the Sandinistas won. They claimed it was necessary because the Sandinistas had historic ties to “terrorist” states such as Cuba and Iraq, and the absence of free and fair elections in Nicaragua would constitute a serious reverse for the people of Nicaragua and for the democracy in the hemisphere (Briones, 2001). The logic seems quite clear. Democracy means free and fair elections. Free and fair elections means voting for the candidates the U.S. government promotes. Should the population choose not to do so, the country will be labelled a terrorist threat like Afghanistan and Iraq and treated accordingly.

Quickly looking through a few newspaper articles from the 1991 election period shows what messages Nicaraguans received about democracy from the major political forces in the country. In each case, democracy means voting for the speaker’s party and not the other. Aside from that, they have very little in common. One type of democracy is divine retribution against the unbelievers. Another type is honesty and some undefined participation of the population in the state. For the U.S. government, it is apparently voting for whom they tell people to, or face the same fate as all the other “terrorist” nations that failed to have “free and fair elections.” Each political force uses the term democracy in the way they feel best suites them. They cash in on its positive image and use it to forward their own agenda. In the end, this makes the word empty, simply referring to elections and little more. Instead of bringing “supreme power” to the people, it leaves them powerless. They are allowed to vote under dire threats and choose between candidates that they have not chosen, who will represent them on issues that have not been publicly debated, and they will not be taken into account for another five years when the circus starts up again. As we start a new election year, we will have to wait and see how many new and inventive meanings the political leaders give to the word democracy. However, this year, people may stand up and take back the word that should, by all rights, be theirs. As the Creole poet from the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua wrote in his poem “Tell dem fa mi”:

Dem a talk bout democracy, dem styla way

wen dem yusta go wit wi banana an wi lomba

wi gold an wi labsta, wi fish an so fort

dem was happy, tings was good, fa dem do.

[…]

But tel dem fa mi, wi da billup owa democracy

Ina owa styla way statin fram wi roots.

[…]
Dem-a-crazy[ii]

(Hurtubise, 1995, p. 50)

References

Briones Loáisiga, W. (2001, November 2). Senadores de EE.UU. proponen modificar política si gana el FSLN. La Prensa. Retrived January 26, 2006 from http://www-ni.laprensa.com.ni/cronologico/2001/noviembre
/02/politica/politica-20011102-14.html
.

Chamorro, X. (2001, October 6). EE.UU. sacude al Frente. La Prensa. Retrived January 26, 2006 from http://www-ni.laprensa.com.ni/cronologico/2001/octubre/
06/ nacionales/nacionales-20011006-05.html
.

Hurtubise, Josef. (1995). Poesía en Ingles Criollo Nicaragüense. WANI Revista de la Costa Caribe de Nicaragua, 6, 43-56.

Ruiz López, N. (2001, July 20). Ortega ofrece cambiar sistema político actual. La Prensa. Retrieved January 26, 2006 from http://www.laprensa.com.ni/cronologico/ 2001/julio/20/politica/politica-20010720-03.html.

Sandoval, C. (2001a, January 27). Estados Unidos espera “elecciones sin fraude”. La Prensa. Retrieved January 26, 2006 from http://www-ni.laprensa.com.ni/ cronologico/2001/enero/27/politica/politica-20010127-03
.html
.

Sandoval, C. (2001b, July 1). Presidente Alemán ora por la democracia. La Prensa. Retrieved January 26, 2006 from http://www-ni.laprensa.com.ni/ cronologico/2001/julio/01/politica/politica-20010701-02
.html
.



[i] All quotations except for those from the Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary and the Creole poem are my translations from the originals in Spanish.

[ii] With Standard English spelling the poem would read as follows: Them talk about democracy, them style way/ when them used to go with we banana and we lumber/ we gold and we lobster, we fish and so forth/ them was happy, things was good for them. […] But tell them for me, we will build-up our own democracy/ in our own style way starting from we roots. […] They-are-crazy [or democracy].

Monday, February 06, 2006

Waslala and the Fear of Losing a Legend

Waslala is more of a myth than reality to most Nicaraguans. It was in these breathtakingly beautiful and isolated mountains of northern Nicaragua that guerrillas struggled against the dictator’s National Guard in the seventies. Carlos Fonseca, the young intellectual leader of the Sandinistas, was killed in combat here shortly before the triumph of the revolution.


In the eighties, it became one of the centers of heavy fighting during the civil war. After the war ended and throughout the nineties, political and bandit armed groups continued to roam its forests. The combination of struggle, resistance and violence has made this distant municipality well known through out the country.

I can still remember when I first traveled to this mythical place nearly a decade ago. The world became more beautiful as we advanced through the serpentine mountain roads. I caught glimpses of waterfalls between the trees, and majestic views of lush valleys spread out below us. As we drove around one particularly tight corner, we encountered another pickup truck racing towards us. It swung back onto its side of the road, but in the sudden movement, a woman flew out of the back. The man driving us managed to break before running over her, but she was badly injured from the fall. From where we were, it was a three-hour drive over rough roads to the nearest health center. That is how I first found Waslala: both beautiful and terrible. As the years have gone by, Waslala has changed. It has become slightly less isolated, its population has grown and the local economy has transformed.

When I arrived in the municipality of Waslala, it was isolated physically from the outside world. Its communities were distant and dispersed, and there were no communication services. The road to Matagalpa, the closest city, was at least six hours away in a four-wheel drive vehicle over bad roads. The first time I drove was to carry two patients to Rancho Grande, a neighbouring municipality, to find an ambulance. I was taking a woman in precardiac condition and another with a baby that had been born with its internal organs outside of its ribcage. We left at seven o’clock at night under torrential rains. Even with four-wheel drive traction, we slithered up and down muddy roads until we found the road before us blocked. A cargo truck had flipped over blocking the entire road, and two buses had slid sideways, slightly further up the hill where one had nearly fallen into a ravine. After two hours under the rain, we managed to pull the truck out of the way, and we continued onwards. When we arrived at the health center in Rancho Grande, we were told that the headlights of the ambulance were not working and we would have to continue on to La Dalia, the next municipality. At two in the morning, we finally arrived. The patients were taken by the ambulance the rest of the way to Matagalpa, and I returned alone to Waslala. One the way back, I came a few meters away from sliding into a canyon and into the river below. The road has gotten better since then. A small part has been paved, and it removes two to three hours off the trip. Although the road gets completely cut off at some place at least once every two years, it is generally in better conditions than it was. We also managed to get an ambulance in Waslala a year and a half ago.


The majority of people in Waslala live in the close to a hundred rural communities that cover the municipality. Many were ten to twelve-hour treks by horseback through the tropical forest covered mountains and by dugout canoes to cross the rivers. Although that is still the only way to reach some communities, five new roads have been built within the municipality, and this reduces most travel times in half, if people can pay the fare. Waslala now also has six telephones that occasionally work, Internet service that often functions, three radio stations, cable TV and, as I write, a cellular telephone tower is being installed. Waslala is becoming more open to the world and the world more accessible to Waslala.

The population has grown immensely. There is continual migration from other parts of the country to Waslala as the agricultural frontier moves farther east. All the communities are growing in size, and along the roads, villages are beginning to form. Waslala itself has grown from eight to twelve neighbourhoods, and there are several housing projects in process near Waslala and near the larger villages. This massive influx of people has caused several changes. The forests are quickly disappearing. The land is cleared for agricultural purposes, for cattle farming, or for firewood. At the same time, the strong community bonds and sense of solidarity seem to be weakening. Whereas once everybody in a community knew everyone else, now many communities are becoming very large, and the number of people changes the social dynamics.

Although the changes in accessibility and population growth have been significant, the economic changes are perhaps the most obvious visually. The streets of the town are now lined with new shops selling clothes, jewellery, pirated DVDs and construction supplies. New concrete houses are being built all throughout town, and there are two PlayStation arcades. Whereas once there were very few vehicles in the streets, now taxis, trucks, buses, pickups and motorcycles seem to be everywhere. Four microfinance organizations exist where before there was only one. Cooperatives and NGOs train producers in new agricultural techniques and help them sell organic coffee and coco. Cattle farmers send off truck loads of cows to Managua and ship cheese to El Salvador. The economy appears to be doing well and getting better. However, the majority of the population lives by growing basic grains, and from their point of view, the future does not look very bright. Agriculture is always precarious. It depends on normal weather to obtain a good harvest. Weather changing phenomena like El Niño and La Niña bring rain, or lack of rain, at the wrong times and destroy an entire year’s harvest. Aside from natural causes, subsidized American grains drive down local prices making it more difficult each year to make ends meet. The newly signed free trade agreement with the United States promises to make things even more difficult. The local economy has changed. With a quickly growing population, commerce, transport and a few other sectors are prospering; however, for the majority, life is becoming more difficult.

Since I first arrived here, Waslala has changed in accessibility, size and economic composition. It is no longer as difficult to reach or to communicate from. The population has grown quickly, and that in turn has affected the sense of community and the existing forests. Economically, it has improved for sectors such as commerce, while becoming worse for the small grain farmers. These changes bring benefits and disadvantages. Waslala is still a beautiful place and has wonderful people, and it is still difficult in many ways. As I get ready to send this off by email, however, I cannot help feeling that a little bit of the myth, of the legend I arrived in nearly a decade ago, is slowly slipping away.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The greatest show on the road.



In a comment to my last entry, Victor Serge
pointed out that Free Trade
Agreements are
part of American Imperialism. By a strange
coincidence,
I immediately afterwards received
an email with a copy of Harold Pinter's

acceptance speech for the 2005 Nobel Prize
in Literature titled “Art,
Truth & Politics”.
Pinter spends much of his speech reflecting
on how
the US has maintained its international
hegemony through violence and then
letting
everyone forget about it.
It is, Pinter affirms,
“the greatest
show on the road.”
I quote a rather large section of the speech,
and you
can find the original at
http://nobelprize.org/literature/laureates/2005/pinter-lecture-e.html

As every single person here knows, the justification for
the invasion of Iraq was that Saddam Hussein possessed a highly dangerous
body of weapons of mass destruction, some of which could be fired in 45
minutes, bringing about appalling devastation. We were
assured that was
true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq had a
relationship with Al Quaeda and shared responsibility for the atrocity
in New York of September 11th 2001. We were assured that this was true.
It was not true. We were told that Iraq threatened the security of the
world. We were assured it was true. It was not true.

The truth is something entirely different. The truth is to do with how the
United States understands its role in the world and how it chooses to embody it.

But before I come back to the present I would like to look at the recent past,
by which I mean United States foreign policy since the end of the Second World War.
I believe it is obligatory upon us to subject this period to at least some kind of
even limited scrutiny, which is all that time will allow here.

Everyone knows what happened in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe
during the post-war period: the systematic brutality, the widespread atrocities,
the ruthless suppression of independent thought. All this has been fully
documented and verified.

But my contention here is that the US crimes in the same period have only been
superficially recorded,let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, let alone
recognised as crimes at all. I believe this must be addressed and that the truth
has considerable bearing on where the world stands now.Although constrained, to
a certain extent, by the existence of the Soviet Union, the United States' actions
throughout the world made it clear that it had concluded it had carte blanche to
do what it liked.



Direct invasion of a sovereign state has never in fact been America's favoured
method. In the main, it has preferred what it has described as 'low intensity
conflict'. Low intensity conflict means that thousands of people die but slower
than if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop. It means that you infect
the heart of the country, that you establish a malignant growth and watch the
gangrene bloom. When the populace has been subdued - or beaten to death - the
same thing - and your own friends, the military and the great corporations, sit
comfortably in power, you go before the camera and say that democracy has
prevailed. This was a commonplace in US foreign policy in the years to which I
refer.

The tragedy of Nicaragua was a highly significant case. I choose to offer it here
as a potent example of America's view of its role in the world, both then and now.

I was present at a meeting at the US embassy in London in the late 1980s. The
United States Congress was about to decide whether to give more money to the
Contras in their campaign against the state of Nicaragua. I was a member of a
delegation speaking on behalf of Nicaragua but the most important member of
this delegation was a Father John Metcalf. The leader of the US body was
Raymond Seitz (then number two to the ambassador, later ambassador himself).
Father Metcalf said: 'Sir, I am in charge of a parish in the north of Nicaragua.
My parishioners built a school, a health centre, a cultural centre. We have lived
in peace. A few months ago a Contra force attacked the parish. They destroyed
everything: the school, the health centre, the cultural centre. They raped
nurses and teachers, slaughtered doctors, in the most brutal manner. They
behaved like savages. Please demand that the US government withdraw its support
from this shocking terrorist activity.'

Raymond Seitz had a very good reputation as a rational, responsible and highly
sophisticated man. He was greatly respected in diplomatic circles. He listened,
paused and then spoke with some gravity. 'Father,' he said, 'let me tell you
something. In war, innocent people always suffer.' There was a frozen silence.
We stared at him. He did not flinch.
 
 
Innocent people, indeed, always suffer. Finally somebody said: 'But in this case
"innocent people" were the victims of a gruesome atrocity subsidised by your
government, one among many. If Congress allows the Contras more money further
atrocities of this kind will take place. Is this not the case? Is your government
not therefore guilty of supporting acts of murder and destruction upon the
citizens of a sovereign state?' Seitz was imperturbable. 'I don't agree that the
facts as presented support your assertions,' he said.

As we were leaving the Embassy a US aide told me that he enjoyed my plays. I did
not reply. I should remind you that at the time President Reagan made the
following statement: 'The Contras are the moral equivalent of our Founding
Fathers.'

The United States supported the brutal Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua for over
40 years. The Nicaraguan people, led by the Sandinistas, overthrew this regime in
1979, a
breathtaking popular revolution.

The Sandinistas weren't perfect. They possessed their fair share of arrogance and
their political philosophy contained a number of contradictory elements. But they
were intelligent, rational and civilised. They set out to establish a stable,
decent, pluralistic society. The death penalty was abolished. Hundreds of thousands
of poverty-stricken peasants were brought back from the dead. Over 100,000 families
were given title to land. Two thousand schools were built. A quite remarkable
literacy campaign reduced illiteracy in the country to less than one seventh.
Free education was established and a free health service. Infant mortality was
reduced by a third. Polio was eradicated.
 
 The United States denounced these achievements as Marxist/Leninist subversion.
In the view of the US government, a dangerous example was being set. If Nicaragua
was allowed to establish basic norms of social and economic justice, if it was
allowed to raise the standards of health care and education and achieve social
unity and national self respect, neighbouring countries would ask the same
questions and do the same things. There was of course at the time fierce
resistance to the status quo in El Salvador.

I spoke earlier about 'a tapestry of lies' which surrounds us. President Reagan
commonly described
Nicaragua as a 'totalitarian dungeon'. This was taken generally
by the media, and certainly by the British government, as accurate and fair
comment. But there was in fact no record of death squads under the Sandinista
government. There was no record of torture. There was no record of systematic
or official military brutality. No priests were ever murdered in Nicaragua.
There were in fact three priests in the government, two Jesuits and a Maryknoll
missionary. The totalitarian dungeons were actually next door, in El Salvador
and Guatemala. The United States had brought down the democratically elected
government of Guatemala in 1954 and it is estimated that over 200,000 people
had been victims of successive military dictatorships.

Six of the most distinguished Jesuits in the world were viciously murdered at the
Central American University in San Salvador in 1989 by a battalion of the
Alcatl regiment trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, USA. That extremely brave
man Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying mass. It is estimated that
75,000 people died. Why were they killed? They were killed because they believed
a better life was possible and should be achieved. That belief immediately
qualified them as communists. They died because they dared to question the status
quo, the endless plateau of poverty, disease, degradation and oppression, which
had been their birthright.

The United States finally brought down the Sandinista government. It took some
years and considerable resistance but relentless economic persecution and
30,000 dead finally undermined the spirit of the Nicaraguan people. They were
exhausted and poverty stricken once again. The casinos moved back into the
country. Free health and free education were over. Big business returned with a
vengeance. 'Democracy' had prevailed.
 
But this 'policy' was by no means restricted to Central America. It was conducted
throughout the world. It was never-ending. And it is as if it never happened.

The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing
military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer
to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines,
Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The horror the United States
inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.

Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they
take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The
answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign
policy. But you wouldn't know it.

It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn't
happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United
States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people
have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised
a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force
for universal good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.

I put to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the road.
Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it is also very clever.
As a salesman it is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self love.
It's a winner. Listen to all American presidents on television say the words, 'the
American people', as in the sentence, 'I say to the American people it is time to
pray and to defend the rights of the American people and I ask the American
people to trust their president in the action he is about to take on behalf of
the American people.'

It's a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep thought at
bay. The words 'the American people' provide a truly voluptuous cushion of
reassurance. You don't need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion
may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it's very
comfortable. This does not apply of course to the 40 million people living below
the poverty line and the 2 million men and women imprisoned in the vast gulag
of prisons, which extends across the US.

 © THE NOBEL FOUNDATION 2005

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Does Nicaragua Benefit from Free Trade with the United States?

The Dominican Republic and Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) with the United Status of America was approved by American Congress on July 2005 and by the Nicaraguan National Assembly in October of the same year. Within Nicaragua it has been a fiercely debate topic for close to two years. The proponents of DR-CAFTA in Nicaragua claim that access to the world’s largest market will attract more foreign investment, increase exportations, and in this way create more jobs and stimulate the economy. However, its opponents state that the cheap imports will destroy small national industries and the internal market, and in this way close jobs. In areas of Nicaragua dedicates to agriculture, people fear that it will be impossible to compete with highly subsidized agricultural products from the United States. According to the organization SIMAS in Nicaragua, farmers in the U.S. receive an average of twenty one thousand dollars each in subsidies each year, without including the benefits of good roads, communication systems, electricity and education. Although it is true that many Nicaraguan products will no longer face tax barriers to enter the American market, it is questionable how many will be able to compete there. With DR-CAFTA in Nicaragua, there will be winners and losers. The few large producers of products such as sugar and rum will benefit, as will consumers of import items. However, the size of the group to benefit is rather small, since according to Oxfam, half of the population lives in poverty and nearly one in five in extreme poverty. The small national industries will suffer as will small farmers or campesinos. They will be obliged face hunger or move from where they live to work in the newly opening maquila-style sweat shops that are the new face of foreign investment. It is most like that free trade with the United States will bring investment and new jobs, but it will do so at the cost of current jobs and increased hardships for much of the population of Nicaragua.

Works cited:

SIMAS (2005). El Tigre se los Comió, Managua, Nicaragua: Servicio de Información Mesoamericana sobre Agricultura Sostenible.

Abella, Tomás (2006). Nicaragua, Intermon Oxfam. Retrieved 10 January 2006, from http://www.intermonoxfam.org/page.asp?id=904&idioma=1.


Monday, January 02, 2006

Waslala: Strength in the Face of Adversity

Waslala is both beautiful and terrible; bearing the burden of decades of violence and extreme poverty, the inhabitants maintain a positive outlook on life. The municipality is composed of a small town and close to a hundred small communities dispersed throughout the jungle-covered mountains of northern Nicaragua. The people who live here have suffered through three decades of political violence. They suffered the repression of the dictator’s National Guard, renowned for throwing prisoners into active volcanoes or out of flying helicopters. The inhabitants of Waslala suffered the civil war between the Sandinista government and the US-backed Contra-revolutionaries while both sides reined terror upon the countryside. Although the war officially ended in 1990, combatants of both sides continued to fight against the new government and against each other. The last political armed group in the vicinity of Waslala was destroyed by the army only three short years ago. Even with the end of overtly political violence, poverty plagues the countryside. A third of the children are malnourished, and many people die from easily preventable or curable diseases. Despite the hardships of life, people are caring, supportive and hopeful for the future, and the communities have impressive and inspiring levels of organization. Volunteers dedicate their lives to improving the health and education of their communities. Neither victims nor angels, the people of Waslala have shown their strength through adversity.