Category Archives: Making An Impact

“Nothing will be more revolutionary for our new Nicaragua than that the road to the liberation from the dictatorship be accompanied by the liberation of our consciousness”

This article appeared  on the website of “Nicaragua investiga” on October 17, 2018. The anonymous author is a victim of sex abuse. While it is similar to the reflection of Daniel Ortega´s stepdaughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez, in  drawing a parallel between the dynamics of abusers with their victims and the relationship of Ortega with the country, this reflection goes a step further. She points out the type of change that needs to happen in relationships throughout society, and the need to break the silence of abuse at all levels,  for real and lasting change to happen. This is a relevant reflection for any society, as evidenced recently in the US in the Kavanaugh hearing and priest abuse scandals.

“Nothing will be more revolutionary for our new Nicaragua than that the road to the liberation from the dictatorship be accompanied by the liberation of our consciousness”

This is a reflection that will end up being uncomfortable for many, but it is necessary and urgent for those of us who profoundly believe that it is possible to build a different country, because I am not going to settle for getting rid of a political dictator and continuing with the multiple dictatorships that have crushed us girls and women of my country, Nicaragua, for centuries.

To start, I will say that I am one of many girls who have learned too early the horror of the violence in our bodies at the hands of a relative, and who see in the situation of Nicaragua today too many similarities with the multiple violences that we women experience daily in this country.

I was born into a poor, Catholic and Sandinista family, where you could not speak ill about neither the priests nor the Comandantes. In this way I learned that silence could kill, and that a cry is a powerful weapon that all of us carry within us, and that has saved many of us. I am one more of the Zoilamericas who have said no more along with thousands and thousands of us who have rebelled against the Great Abuser.

Daniel Ortega is a sex abuser and also an abuser of the people. He and Rosario Murillo have operated with their victims in the same way that they have done with an entire country. In a sad but clear similarity, what has happened to Nicaragua is the same as the girl that falls into the claws of a predator disguised as a lamb who comes up to offer a piece of candy, sticks his dirty hands inside her clothing, snatches away her freedom and imposes silence on her, believing that she is never going to be capable of rebelling.

To the surprise of the abuser, the girl breaks the infernal pact of silence, begins to speak about it, first in a low voice, and little by little finds support, until one day shouts it in a loud and clear voice, and now no one can shut her up. The abuser has two options, shoulder the blame, or on the contrary, deny his responsibility, say to the entire world that the girl is to blame, and threaten her or, if it is possible, hurt her.

The story is the same in respect to Nicaragua. To the surprise of the dictator, the people broke their silence, we began with small protests, followed by others a little bigger, and others bigger and bigger until the shout of “No more” was deafening. The dictator had two options, and chose the same path that almost all sex abusers choose: deny the facts, blame the victim, threaten and even kill.

What is in play in both cases is not just the ongoing abuse of this girl or Nicaragua, but the possibility to continue hidden behind the mask of the lamb that allows him to continue the hunt without being discovered, continue making use of power, controlling and abusing a country, in the same way as he controls and abuses a body. The analogy is as perverse as it is appalling.

But more perverse is thinking that Nicaragua is one of the countries with the most sex abuse incidents in Latin America (5,000 denouncements per year), in other words that we are in a country full of men of the same calibre as the dictator Ortega. Men who have abused the girls who are around them for believing themselves owners of their bodies, and who have taken advantage of the trust which these victims have in them in order to violate their integrity.

Many of these abusers have been shielded by relatives, neighbors, the community, the authorities, the churches,…we live with these men on a daily basis, and it is even possible that we may be marching in the streets with many of them demanding freedom and justice. It is not by chance that as a society we have tolerated the fact that a man accused of sexual abuse would take power and that we would allow him to submit the country to the same dynamic as his victims. It is not by chance, because in the end sexual violence, and any type of violence practiced by men, does not seem acceptable to us.

Well that tolerance of macho violence ends up being equally despicable as the dictatorship to me. Not only because of all the damage to the lives of girls, boys and women; but because I am convinced that what we are experiencing today is the result of that macho culture that teaches men to control and subdue whatever and whoever it might be: girls, boys, women, nature, their workers, the people that surround them, and in the end an entire people. And then I ask myself, what is the difference between what we are fighting today in the streets, and the social networks from the daily dictatorship that is established and intact in our homes and that is deeply rooted in our social co-existence?

There is no difference between them, they are the same thing, they come from the same roots. The Ortega dictatorship is machista, violent, abusive, disparages life and abuses power, just as the man does who does abuse in the family, who disrupts the intimacy of girls and boys, who harrasses at work, who takes advantage of their investiture and authority as priest, teacher or president of a country.

Surely these reflections will be portrayed as inappropriate divisionism, but I am writing today precisely for that reason, because I am extremely concerned that, as happens to girls who experience abuse, in the name of family unity and to not create divisions, we let any form of macho violence continue occurring and continue saying, “there will be time for that later”. No. The time is now.

It is now when we can give ourselves the right to question everything that has not helped us to be happy as a society and as a people. It is now- not tomorrow, nor at another moment – when we can make way for a profound and serious debate on the society that we want, and it is now when we have to decide whether we are really committed to change in the system, or if we are playing at “changing it all in order to not change anything,” as goes an old premise in politics.

It seem to me that we urgently need to make a personal and collective appeal in our community spaces, and in the social and political organizations that we are strengthening in the face of the dictatorship, on this topic, without fear that conflicting positions might emerge, without fear of questioning ourselves, for example:

How can we rebuild a country in democracy if we are full of real or potential sexual abusers in families, neighborhoods, churches, schools and communities who we do not dare to question in the name of anti-Ortega unity?

How are we going to be different, the generation of rebellious youth of 2018, from those from the 80s who relegated the role of women to lesser positions, and tried to send them back to the kitchen after having fought shoulder to shoulder with them in the mountains?

How can we ensure that the history not be repeated of consecutive and ongoing abuse in all the spheres of our lives as a society, from the smallest, like the family to the most public sphere, like the government, if we do not disrupt the bases of that form of the exercise of power?

I imagine also that these reflections will awaken the typical misogynist comments that I have heard in forums and social networks. Unfortunately the great majority of these comments will come from fellow men and women who are also fighting against the dictatorship with expressions like “a feminazi is the one writing this” or “it is not the moment to talk about these issues because they distract from the principal objective of the struggle” or “to talk about feminism is excluding because not all of us who are in the struggle are feminists”.

I already have a response for you: yes, I am talking about feminism, everything that I write here is from my consciousness as a feminist woman. And even more, I can assure you that a feminist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, ecological…revolution is the only one that will really be inclusive, and is what we many girls aspire to who have put our lives at risk in these six months, and from long before that.

Even more, I will tell you that it is impossible to think about the word REVOLUTION without feminism, because revolutionize is changing from the roots the bases for an unequal society for another one that is open, inclusive, with social justice and human rights for everyone. And it is a secret to no one that our bases as a society are rotten, and in its rot seethes sexism.

Nothing will be more revolutionary for our new Nicaragua than the road toward the liberation from the dictatorship come accompanied by the liberation of our consciousness. And this implies destabilizing all the powers and backward ideas that we have inherited, exchanging them for ideas of equality between men and women, for social justice, respect for diversity, the right to decide without conditions for women, the right to say no more to any abuse not matter where it comes from, respect for nature…in other words, exchanging them for profoundly feminist ideas and practices. This is the society that I dream about, this is the revolution that I want for my country, and for the girls and boys who are going to inherit this country, so that never more will their voices be quieted in the face of the irrational desires of any predator, sexual nor political.

Juanónima

Letter from a Christian in Nicaragua to a priest in Spain

The following is a letter written by Pinita Gurdian, a well known member of the Christians in the Revolution movement in the 80s, in response to a letter from a Spanish priest friend. It is a witness to how she – and her family – lived their faith in response to the events of the day. In the 70´s and 80´s, that faith led them to sacrifice for the Revolution.  They continue to risk themselves  for a revolution, but one that she feels is being prevented by those  in government today.

August 16, 2018

Dear Benjamin,

Since I received your first letter about what is happening in these times in Nicaragua I wanted to write to you. I have thought a lot about what I wanted to say to you, because, even though we met for a short time, those years of dreams and utopias connected us as so many people who dreamed and worked for justice. Since that time, your name was always on the list of friends that offered so much solidarity during the Revolution, who I continued to tell about the process that little by little was developing and that later deteriorated over the years.

Our family, as you know, was fully committed to the revolutionary process through our Christian commitment. We completely abandoned all our goods and privileges to join this process, in which we believed all our dreams would be fulfilled of a more just society, and more in accordance with the faith that we said we professed. Our children committed to all the tasks that the moment required, many times putting their lives ar risk, to such an extent that in 1987 one of my sons was seriously wounded in combat, whose result left him with permanent lesions in various parts of his body, among them a cerebral lesion, and he had to undergo seven later surgeries.

At the beginning of the process everything was going well and our enthusiasm grew with each accomplishment. I do not question the intentions of those who led us to victory. This is shown in a paragraph in the first proclamation of the FSLN in 1979:

“Corruption and crime will be left behind forever: the use of the State as the patrimony of a family; the use of the Army as the personal guard of a tyrant and the prostitution of Public Institutions. The Government of National Reconstruction will direct its best efforts to promote and organize popular participation in the solution of the major national problems: hunger, unemployment, malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, illiteracy, lack of housing, the vicious legacy of fifty years of Somocism.” Proclamation issued on June 18, 1979, when the Government Junta for National Reconstruction was formed in Costa Rica, one month before the triumph.

We joined this project with our hearts, bodies and souls. But slowly that was changing, and even though we heard about abuses, luxuries when there was rationing, when authoritarianism began to be heard, we were blind and deaf. We did not want to see nor hear about what was right in front of us. Not all the leaders were in that line, but everything was changing, and criticisms were not permitted, with the excuse that we were suffering a war of aggression. Our guide and friend, and the person who was the inspiration of our commitment, the Jesuit Fernando Cardenal, member of the Sandinista Assembly, once had the courage to stand up and make a criticism about the lack of austerity of the leaders. One member of that Assembly responded to him, also publicly, saying, “You took a vow of poverty but we did not.” No one got up to support Fernando.

In spite of everything we continued forward because, even though many errors were made, we also saw the accomplishments to the benefit of the people, that can happen only within a Revolution. We were faithful to the end, and the day that the elections were lost I remember as one of the saddest days of my life. All those lives sacrificed, all those efforts to improve the lives of the poorest. And they, the poor, voted against us. The Revolution of that time had an independent and honest Supreme Electoral Council and they did not change the data, resulting in a loss for the FSLN. Everything has its cause and effect. The people, with their vote, expressed their discontent.

In 1994 the FSLN organized a congress where there was an attempt to change their leadership and provide opportunities for an entire generation that had been formed in the revolutionary work with strict discipline, but without renouncing their own criteria and thinking. A renovation was needed. The group that was led by the Ortegas and some others, like Tomás Borge and Bayardo Arce, denied any change, and another group of high level leaders, led by Sergio Ramírez, Dora María Tellez, Luís Carrión, Victor Tirado left and formed another party, The Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS). The first group was left with the symbols of the FSLN.

Since then the MRS became for them traitors, and they accused them of everything that tends to happen in Nicaragua, no matter how ridiculous it might seem. Very soon this party was stripped of their legal status. Nevertheless its members have always continued to be very active in politics, fighting and working for Nicaragua.

But the biggest betrayal of the FSLN was in 1998 when a shameful pact was made with the President of that time, Arnoldo Alemán, accused and sentenced as a thief. The FSLN pardoned his sentence, leaving him with with his booty and free from punishment. In exchange, the percentage needed to win the elections was lowered, and key posts in the branches of government were divided up, and since then they lost all their independence.

The most scandalous thing that they were able to cover up with the pact was the denouncement of sexual abuse from his adopted daughter, Zoilamerica Ortega Murillo, perpetrated by Daniel since she was eleven years old, before the triumph, when they were exiled in Costa Rica, and it continued on after the triumph of the Revolution. This was denounced in detail by she herself also in 1998. Rosario Murillo, her mother, also negotiated her power in exchange for protecting Daniel, accusing her daughter of lying and refusing her daughter all the support she needed. She currently lives in Costa Rica, because in Nicaragua she is denied opportunities to work and her partner was expelled from the country. In a speech Rosario said that she was ashamed of her daughter.

Daniel allied with the Catholic Church and penalized therapeutic abortion, a resource that had existed in the country for more than 100 years, for the purpose of ensuring the support of the Church. This has led to the death of hundreds of women. Doctors go to jail if they attend an abortion, even though the woman is in danger of death.

Thanks to these pacts Daniel returned to power in 2006. Likewise the history continued of abuses, ruses and electoral fraud, also changing the constitution to allow for re-election. Following later with a pact with private enterprise, with freedom to do all deals without state intervention and providing them with perks in taxes, etc. Everything, as long as they left him, Daniel, to do and undo whatever he wanted. In this way he was able to fulfill his objectives of illicit enrichment with every type of business managed by his children, and employing populism, giving handouts to poor people to get votes. He was doing all this using millions of dollars, aroud 500 million per year, that he was receiving from Venezuela. That money never came into the coffers of the state, forming a separate company for the exclusive use of the President, and leaving Nicaragua with a debt of millions of dollars.

In full view and knowledge of the Nicaraguan people, he sold the sovereignty of Nicaragua to a Chinese shell company for the construction of an interoceanic canal in Lake Cocibolca, the greatest reserve of fresh water in Central America. The purpose of this was to buy the lands that surround the lake at their property registry value, which are the most valuable tourist reserves of Nicaragua. Their owners are peasants who refuse to sell their lands, where they were born and were raised, and who intelligently know that they are the future for their children. Here is where the true rebellion began. They are not accepting selling at any price. This story began five years ago. International water experts have come in to give conferences on the ecological damage this would cause. The protest marches that the peasant have been doing with great frequency have prevented the beginning of the construction work.

It has to be noted that the policies that the IMF imposes have been strictly implemented by this government that calls itself, socialist, Christian and in solidarity, impoverishing with adjustment policies the poorest and benefitting the richest. Even though it is true that according to the World Bank poverty has been reduced in Nicaragua, it established a patronage model, and Venezuelan money was used to do big business deals. Nicaragua is considered as one of the countries with the most number of millionaires of Central America according to Global Watch Report 2014. At the same time Nicaragua today continues to be the second poorest country of Latin America and the third most corrupt (Infobae). The government that calls itself anti-imperialist needs the resources of the empire and depends on them. The only thing leftist it has left is the discourse.

We are experiencing exactly the opposite of what the first proclamation of the FSLN said, which this long letter began by citing. We have returned to repeat the same and painful history of abuse, repression, murder, jail, torture and persecution. I am not exaggerating if I tell you that our lives are in danger, above all those of us who really are fighting without weapons, more with words and denouncements. We are waging a civic struggle. We have against us a police force that responds only to Daniel, and an illegal group with weapons of war and faces covered, para police forces that shoot lead bullets mercilessly and without feeling against defenseless people, be they civilians, youth, priests or children. Since April 18th we have more than 400 people killed with shots directed at the chest, thorax, back or head. Unfortunately we have a good amount of youth whose lives have been changed forever, because of the impact received they have been left paraplegic or without an eye, because of the rubber bullets they received. Several hundred political prisoners, many of them savagely tortured. Hundreds of disappeared. Large amounts of youth who have had to migrate illegally through the borders to save their lives. Thousands who are in hiding for being on the list with death threats. As an example, Carlos Mejía Godoy saw himself forced to seek exile in Costa Rica. What I tell you is not an exaggeration. These are moments of terror. Everyone in the country closes their doors at 6pm. During the entire day one is exposed to being stopped, without any type of order or reason, even by para police, because if not, one runs the risk of receiving one or several bullets. They get you out of the vehicle, ask for your cell phone and review your contacts. They can go through what you have because they suspect that it can be food for people who are in hiding out of fear of being jailed. Very similar to what was experienced in Chile with Pinochet. We are waging a civic struggle, self convened, the only flags that wave in our marches are the blue and white of the Country and we encourage one another with slogans like “They were students, not murderers” and protest music.

The Catholic Church has played a role of prophet and the defense of human rights, exposing their bodies to the murderous bullets to stop attacks against the population. They have been beaten and insulted. Their word has been inspired in denouncement and in defense of justice. Just as I am critical with the behavior of the church in everything related to abortion, on this occasion I feel proud of being Church. I believe that I am not mistaken if I tell you that this behavior of the church is unprecedented. Two bishops were those who set the standard for this very extraordinary twist: The auxiliary Bishop of Managua, Mons. Silvio Báez, and the Bishop of Matagalpa, Mons. Rolando Álvarez, both Nicaraguans and have received serious death threats. In general all the bishops, priests, delegates of the word, catequists have been risen to the challenge, opening the doors of the churches to provide refuge to those who are persecuted and curing the wounded. The hospitals have fired from their jobs all the doctors and medical staff who tended the wounded. Several of the wounded died for being denied medical attention in the public hospitals.

The protest marches are massive and I participate in all with my blue and white flag, with the danger of receiving a bullet. But it is what I can do. Making statements with my face uncovered, demonstrating and helping, visiting and consoling. The day of the march that we called “The March of the Mothers”, in addition to being impressively huge, was May 30th, Mother´s day in Nicaragua. That day we remembered the mothers who had lost their children in the previous month and a half. The government put sharpshooters stationed in the high point of the new recently inaugurated baseball stadium, ready to kill at the end of the march. The result- 18 young people killed, many with bullets to the head from Dragunov weapons. As you can see the Police obey Daniel, and the Army, called to prevent armed groups outside the law, has declared itself to be impartial. A clear form of support to this government. One more sign about how Daniel and Rosario were able to coopt the Police, the Army and all branches of government to their benefit,.

The purpose of this letter is to share my vision from my Christian commitment and from the analysis of a heart-wrenching reality. The blood that has run in Nicaragua in the last four months of so many young people motivates me to share this letter with you, someone who I sincerely esteem.

My family continue seriously committed, but for a change that would benefit the great majority. Like in 1979, when our lives took a turn to work and achieve the utopia that our faith feeds. A change that would bring justice and democracy. The God of life, who is Father and Mother, will listen to our voices and will console our tears. I cry out to Him and in He I hope and trust.

A big hug with the usual affection,

Pinita

 

 

 

Updated version- The power of a shared vision in peasant-indigenous cultures

The power of a shared vision in peasant-indigenous cultures

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

In the film “Spartacus” on the slave rebellion in 71 BC we recognize the strength of a shared vision. After twice defeating the Roman legions, the gladiators/slaves fell before the legion of Marcus Crassus, who says to thousands of survivors: “you were slaves and you will be slaves again, but you can save yourself from crucifixion if you turn Spartacus over to me.” So Spartacus takes a step forward and shouts, “I am Spartacus”. The man by his side also steps forward, “I am Spartacus”. Within a minute all shout that they are Spartacus. Each gladiator/slave choses death. Why? Following Peter Senge (1990, the Fifth Disciplne) they are not expressing loyalty to Sparacus, but to a shared vision of being free in such a profound way that they prefer dying to being slaves again. “A shared vision – says Senge – is not a idea, not even an important idea like freedom. It is a force in the hearts of people.” In this article we lay out some long term visions, show their importance for lasting change, and we take note of the role of organizations related to the peasantry of our millennium.

Millenary Visions

That vision of being free emerged as a profound human aspiration in the face of the slavery system, a fire that neither the cross nor death were able to extinguish. In the movie the lover of Spartacus comes up to him and reveals to him that his vision will be realized, “Your son will be born free!” 2089 years later that powerful vision continues present in the foundation of our societies.

Another vision, one of democracy, emerged even before in the years of 500 BC. Even though it excluded 75% of the population (slaves, women and foreigners), that vision arose based on assemblies, building institutions under the power (cracia) of the people (demo). 2500 years later, in spite of the fact that the elites flipped that vision to where democracy exists only under the control of a minority, that Greek vision based on assemblies continues moving millions of hearts.

The vision of the reign of God was sketched out by Jesus of Nazareth, son of a peasant woman and a carpenter, in 30 AD. In a hierarchical and despotic patriarchal world, Jesus envisions the possibility of a “kingdom” for those who are looked down upon – who might be like children, destitute and who would build peace, a reign that is small and becomes big like the mustard seed. Since then, that vision of the kingdom, in spite of being androcentric (king-dom), has mobilized millions of people. It is a vision that made Luther in the 1500s challenge the institutional church and translate the Bible into vernacular languages so that people might have access to God without religious intermediaries.

In the XVIII century the encyclopedists (1751-1772), living at a time with a minority of educated people, envisioned “putting up a wall against barbarism.” That vision of making “papers speak” has moved humanity with revolutions and fights against racism and extreme poverty. It is enough to see the movie “The Power of One” filmed in 1992, based on Africa in the 1930s, to recognize the vision of the encyclopedists, that learning to read made a difference. It is also the advice that we heard from our grandmothers in the countryside, “study, a pencil weighs less than a shovel.”

Even though the idea of organization and the construction of the State emerged with capitalism in the XVI century, societies envisioned alternative forms of organization to the control and rule of capitalism and the State. Thus the cooperative emerged in England against the textile industry and in Germany against usury, under the conviction of joining forces in line with the ideas of associativity of Saint-Simon, Fourier, Cabet and Owen. Along these lines the agrarian cooperative movement in the United States from 1870-1910 made explicit the cooperative vision of democratizing the economy (L.Goodwin, 1978, The Populist Movement). This alternative vision, of joining forces –“elbow to elbow we are much more than two”, as Mario Benedetti would say – to democratize the economy continues moving millions of people who are organizing.

Finally the non violent vision of M. Gandhi (1869-1948) in order to achieve the independence of India from the British empire, and improve the well being of both. That pacifist movement saw that “humanity cannot free itself from violence except through non violence”, that “eye for an eye will leave everyone blind” and that “there is no path for peace, peace is the way”. It is a vision in line with Jesus: “you hear that it was said, eye for an eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist the one who is evil; before, to anyone who would hit you on the right cheek, turn to him also the other (Mt 5:38-39). The methods of Gandhi, in accordance with that vision, were the use of hunger strikes, the “salt march” (salt satia graha) that affected the principal source of taxes for England, and being coherent in his actions and ideas (he made his own clothes and was a vegetarian), methods introduced in accordance with the realities and experiences that thehy promoted. That movement inspired Martin Luther King in the United States in the 1960s in his vision of a society where people were treated equally, regardless of their race and color. And Domitila Barrios of Bolivia walked the same route in 1978 with a vision of a country without fear overthrowing the dictatorship of Banzer peacefully, in the words of Eduard Galeano:

I was seated in the principal plaza with 4 other women and a poster that said: “We come from the mines, we are on a hunger strike until the military dictatorship falls.” People made fun of them as they went by. “So just like that 5 women are going to overthrow a military dictatorship! Hahaha, what a great joke!” And the women, unmoved, in solemn silence…After the 5 women they were 50, then 500, then 5,000, then 50,000 and then half a million Bolivians that came together and overthrew the military dictatorship. Why? Because those women were not wrong, fear was what was mistaken.

All these shared visions connect hearts by common aspirations. Yuval Noah Harari (2011, Sapiens: A brief History of humankind) tells that in human evolution homo sapiens differentiated themselves from other species like chimpanzees by their ability to invent myths capable of mobilizing millions of people to cooperate. Visions belong to that genre, they are real, palpable and move incredible forces born from human hearts.

Peasant and indigenous visions

In our days we hear visions that, like those quoted, are mobilizing a good part of humanity. Scrutinizing them, we understand that they are both new and connected to millennial flames. Let us start with the oldest. Our ancestors that lived close to 2 million years ago as hunters and gatherers envisioned human survival based on agriculture, which led them to domesticate plants and animals between 9500 and 3500 BC. Since those years in our DNA is that tense vision of humans subjugating nature or plants like soy beans, wheat, sugar cane and sunflowers multiplying at the cost of “domesticating” humans (Yuval Noah Harari).

Following that vein, the vision of peasant families has been to have land. In the 1970s in Honduras (Azomada, Lempira), the peasants saw idle land taken away from their ancestors and recognizing that fire that came from their grandparents to “recover a piece of land to produce on it”, took those lands as thousands of peasants have done on the face of the earth under the anti-large estate idea that “the land Is for those who work it with their hands” of Emiliano Zapata in 1911. In 1985 when the war was raging in Nicaragua, the State moved 74 indigenous families from Cusmapa and San Lucas to Samarcanda (San Juan del Rio Coco), organized them into cooperatives to confront the Nicaraguan Resistance, as had happened in so many places in the country; one of the leaders, Claudio Hernández recalls, “to get land with coffee we risked our lives, and we accepted being treated as fieldhands and soldiers”; the paradox was that many of those involved in the Nicaraguan Resistance also were fighting for land.

In the 1980s Ricardo Falla S.J. put that vision into words: “a peasant without land is like a being without a soul.” In 1993 I went to La Primavera in Ixcan, Guatemala where hundreds of families that returned from Mexico with the signing of the peace agreements were working the land collectively; at one dinner that a woman shared with me, she whispered: “help us, my husband was killed by the military, I want a piece of land to leave to my children, that his death not be in vain!”; it was a vision shared by families of Mesoamerica and beyond.

Being a farmer is more than having land, as in 9500 BC. In Nicaragua Marchetti and Maldidier (1996, El campesino-Finquero y el Potencial Económico del Campesinado Nicaraguense) detected that peasant vision: “I dream of that day in which my friends visit me and say, what a beautiful farm you have!” The land would not just be a plot with annual crops on it, but a diversified farm with permanent crops – because “tree have value”, said Tupac Barahona and Marcelo Rodríguez with the peasantry of Masaya (Nicaragua) and nourish biodiversity, as Abraham Cruz observed in Peñas Blancas (El Cuá, Nicaragua); “the birds of the forest come to eat on the farms.” In Honduras, Carlos Cantoral from Terreritos (Nueva Frontera) in the 2000s, sketched out what food sovereignty and peasant autonomy is, echoing our ancestors thousands of years ago:”being a peasant is producing what my family eats, without depending on anyone” – without a debt with the usurer, without giving in to the intermediary, and without lowering your head in the presence of the politician and religious leader. And again in Honduras Porfirio Hernández de Trascerros (Nueva Frontera) in 2018 describes those who lose that vision: “even having cattle they walk around money in hand looking for their corn grinder,” unfortunate is that family that does not first ensure their food. These are the families that resist being a clone of monocropping, families that grow their corn and produce their food on more and more diversified farms, which gives them the freedom to generate their own thinking and experiments, and a basis for cultivating their autonomy and resisting proletarization – and much more if it is organic agriculture.

Being a farmer and processing what is produced to ensure food “in green and mature times” has been a vision for thousands of years. Humanity learned to dry meat under the sun in its era of hunting and gathering, and in the years of 3000 BC made bread, and the Incas stored potatoes as starch, exposing potatoes to the sun during the day and to the cold at night. In this vein we find the peasantry of the XVII and XVIII centuries envisioning agro industrializing raw material in their communities. That vision, in spite of being squashed by capitalist industry and later by the socialism of Preobrazhensky and Stalin, persisted within Europe itself. That is why there are around 1100 flavors (brands) of beer in Belgium today, or vineyards and wine in Trentino, Italy. And it persists in Latin America. In Honduras in 2008 (Laguna de La Capa, Yoro), in the face of the “vocation” of the agricultural frontier to receive a peasantry whose grandchildren migrated with sugar cane and sugar mills defeated by the slavish rule that “only the rich make sugar”, the COMAL Network and peasant families started to process granulated sugar in the community itself. Cirilo George from the APROCATY Associative Enterprise put that fire into words, “we will not go back”, referring to the fact that individually they fell with their sugar cane into that destiny and that slavish rule, but organizing themselves, they made that vision of agro-industrialization palpable, as the Manduvirá Cooperative of Paraguay has done. In 2015 Raul Cruz from the Forest Rangers Cooperative (El Cuá, Nicaragua), after years of growing coffee, visiting two roasters, had a vision: “I imagined myself selling roasted, ground coffee”; what he imagined kept him from sleeping and he began to make his roasters from barrels in order to today sell roasted, ground coffee in 1 lb packages. Visions that move human will and show a path for creating living communities.

Having land, being a farmer, processing food…and selling! What a chain of visions! Even though the peasantry sees itself at odds with commerce, their aspirations include commercializing in order to cooperate. Within this perspective, in Honduras (Encinos, Intibucá) in the midst of intimidating polices under the Alliance for Progress of the 1960s and 1970s, women and men who would walk for days through mud to buy what they were not producing, envisioned “bringing in a store managed by us the Lenca peasant ourselves, right here.” That community, like the members of the La Unión Store in Taulabé, Honduras. Maquita Cosunchej of Ecuador, or the Hope of the Peasants Cooperative in Panama, overcame the old rule that “peasants and indigenous are no good at selling, only at planting.” Maybe individually it is difficult for a peasant family to sell, they say that it is a “betrayal of a promise” (buying oneself in order to sell your own product later), but organized is another story, because “the market is really relationships of people coming together, getting to know one another and trusting one another”– Peter Druckers would say to Peter Schwartz (1996, The Art of the Long View). In the 1990s again in Honduras a dozen leaders of several organizations, among them Auristela Argueta, saw a vision that continues to light up deep Mesoamerica: “we now have land, we are producing our food and something more, a market for selling and exchanging our products.” That aspiration that markets can connect organized people to one another, was the seed that gave rise to the Comal Network of Honduras.

What is distinctive about these visions and the imperative to see them

These visions, far from the current ones that businesses tend to express to generate capital or the blueprint of organizations of “being a leader” to find donations and “to put a patch on the problem” (formulate visions as a formality), move human determination through time and are like flames that do not go out, in search of a greater good. What distinguishes them? They are born out of crises, when that which should die, does not, and what should sprout, does not, as A. Einstein used to say: “creativity is born from anguish as day from night.” Adversity is overcome by “swimming against the current” and connecting oneself with centennial and millennial human aspirations that, like tectonic plates, shake even the most solid land, like that outrageous belief that a divine being or the market writes human destiny. They are understood by people discontent with the status quo, geniuses who question their worlds, see other possible realities, expand their mental horizons and really believe in their capacity to create the future because they experience it daily. As Blanca Rios advised her sons Juan, Victorino and Noel Adams, members of the Bosawas Cooperative in El Cuá, Nicaragua, “never feel you are on a horse, even if you are in the stirrups, because many people on a horse can end up on foot.” They are shared visions that emerge from personal visions, and not from adhering to visions prepared by managers or consultants; they derive their energy and commitment precisely from the fact that they come from personal visions.

These shared visions reorder life. If your vision is that your family eats what you produce, that makes you reorder your farm, the work of your family and your relationships with your neighbors, and if that vision is shared by other people of an organization, this reorients the organization toward that vision. They are concrete visions, here and now, visions that make them encounter the stranger and discover themselves. They are visions that cause changes day to day, brick to brick, seed after seed, the drop of water that cracks the stone.

In the face of these visions of future frameworks that we want to create, the challenge for peasant and indigenous organizations is to encourage their members to express their visions, understand them, and embody them in agreements and new rules to support the peasantry, the basis for food and assurance of environmental sustainability for humanity. For that purpose, the more an organization opens itself to learning, the more it tunes its ear to hear the visions, the more it takes out a pencil to take notes and ruminate on them, the more it reinvents itself, breaking rules like “the older one gets, the less one changes”, “the more one studies, the more one forgets about where they came from”, and “the more power one gets, the more farther they get from the people”. A peasantry that organizes itself and awakens to the fact that they can create their future, is more connected to the vision of Jesus, feels more the vision of the gladiators/slaves, seeks to have more democratic assemblies, aspires more the path of non-violence, makes agriculture an art, and weaves more of their own thinking, seed after seed- like constantly falling drops of water that eventually make a hole even in stone. Shared visions, in the midst of the tensions and adversities of all times, move human mountains and help us to be generators of long term change that started just yesterday.

[1] René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium), collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/) and member of the COSERPROSS Cooperative RL. rmvidaurre@gmail.com

Student Interview of Harley Morales of the University Alliance

The massive protests have been led by university students, who also are key players in the National Dialogue. This is an interview of one of those student leaders

University Alliance warns: they want to “advise” us and “impose agendas” June 11, 2018

(translation of article published originally in El Faro, republished in Confidencial:

https://confidencial.com.ni/la-prioridad-ahorita-es-que-no-nos-maten-luego-la-justicia-y-la-democracia/

Harley Morales lives today in a type of cloister. This 26 year old young student of sociology at the Central American University (UCA) in Nicaragua sleeps in a safe house, along with 40 other university student representatives of the student groups that emerged in the current political crisis.

Harley Morales is a member of the political strategy committee of the University Alliance, one of the five student movements that make up the University and Civil Society Coalition, a group that is leading the political struggle that is demanding the departure of the current rulers. NGOs and business groups have joined this coalition.

The crisis started less than two months ago, on April 18th, due to the cut in the social security pensions. The protests turned massive due to the attacks of the National Police and the progovernment forces. When the dead began to be counted, the protests ceased being for the pensions, and were directed against state repression. The university students entrenched themselves in the universities and churches, and a significant sector of the population accompanied them, demanding the resignation of the rulers. This was the beginning of the current political and social crisis in Nicaragua. Barely seven weeks ago. Since then, more tham 130 people have died as a direct consequence of the conflict, and every day that lists gets longer.

More pushed by circumstances that by a deliberate decision to lead a popular revolt, the students had to move in the midst of a full street protest to a new stage: that of organization. “Since April 19th itself committees began to be organized and movements built; we were worried that the protest would dissipate,” said Harley Morales. His University Alliance arose out of what he called “the hijacking of the cathedral”: on April 19 in full retreat, fleeing bullets, hundreds of students and civilian took refuge in the Managua cathedral and had to stay there several days, under siege. Within the church they organized, and the first leaders emerged. In a similar fashion another four groups were formed in several universities.

These students leaders mutated in a few weeks from social agitators to political actors. If before (barely a month ago) you could find them on a street with a megaphone in hand, or organizing logistics on campus, now they are living together, as if they were in confinement, isolated, surrounded by advisers and with tremendous pressure from different sectors to take postures in a very complicated process.

They are, then, a true spontaneous generation, trying to adapt to their prominence in one of those moments that close and open chapters in history. They continue being, along with the church, those who legitimize each step of the process and have won national and international recognition since the moment in which, during the installation of the national dialogue last May 16th, a 20 year old student called Lesther Alemán said to President Ortega that the only thing they were going to negotiate at that table was his departure. That video was seen around the world.

The Ortega government consider them to be part of a “right wing coup conspiracy”, and more than a few suspicions have been caused by the sudden economic capacity of the students to hold press conferences in luxury hotel meeting rooms, or maintaining a new lives without having income.

Harley Morales does not shy away from responding to these questions and clarified the origin of the funds for his support. But they know, he says, that these funds come with a trapdoor from sectors that are trying to move their agenda through the students, who have won legitimacy in the streets. They are young people without experience, at times naïve, who are trying to walk through a forest with a lot of threats, more than a few of them walking right alongside them.

Last week a delegation of these students visited Washington to attend the General Assembly of the OAS, and just afterward they met and were photographed with three of the most extremist US republicans: Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Ileana Ross-Lehtinen. The photos surprised everyone in Nicaragua and were seen with reservations not just by sympathizers of Ortega, but also by opponents of the regime, liberals and ex Sandinistas. “It was terrible”, he says. “They are the extreme Republican right. We are very unhappy with that trip, that was paid for from the United States, and an agenda was imposed on them. It has given us a terrible image. We are going to have to correct mistakes.”

El Faro has confirmed that the trip to Washington was paid for by the organization Freedom House, based in Washington, who in addition set the agenda for the students, including the polemical visits to Rubio, Cruz and Ross-Lehtinen. Carlos Ponce, director of Latin America for Freedom House, argued that they asked for meetings with other congresspeople and senators, but only those three accepted. “It seems that they are the ones most interested,” he said.

The photos with the Republicans were ill-timed, given the situation in Nicaragua: the government of Ortega accused the students of being instruments of an international right wing conspiracy. The mistake has not discredited them, but it has left them some of their first lessons in politics, as Harley Morales admits. The principal one, probably, is that there are a lot of people around you wanting to impose an agenda that is not theirs.

It is helpful here to put things in context. These young people were children when Daniel Ortega won the presidency in 2006. They are university students without any political experience, who have been under the spotlights for two months and under the weight of leading an important transition in their country. It is not strange, then, that their naivete was revealed in their visit to Washington. But above all it is not strange that there would be so many sectors interested in isolating them, in influencing them, in advancing their own agendas through them. “We know that only we can legitimize this process,” says Harley Morales. Those who prowl around them today also know it.

This conversation took place on Friday June 8 in Managua.

How have you organized in seven weeks?

Since April 19 committees began to be organized and movements built. We were concerned that the protest would dissipate. Five movements were formed and later the University and Civil Society Coalition. When the Bishops Conference called for the dialogue, we held meetings with COSEP (Superior Council of Private Enterprise), with civil society organizations and others who were in favor of articulating this. COSEP is part of the Coalition, also AMCHAM (American Chamber of Commerce in Nicaragua); there are peasant organizations amd also the representation of the peoples of the Caribbean.

Why did you decide to unite with groups so different from your own?

We know that the way to defeat the regime is making a common agenda. The student movement already transmuted into politics. We are not fighting for scholarships nor for sector agendas.

And who is paying for your new life? Your upkeep, lodging, transportation, security, your trips…

We demanded a minimum of security to go to the dialogue and obviously the government would not give us that. We have to ally ourselves with other sectors, like the private sector and civil society. It is not just the private sector. Oxfam is there, the María Elena Cuadra Movement, agricultural producers and ranchers, etc…

How did the trip to Washington come up?

That trip was something very strange. We are very unhappy with that trip. Even with our representative. When we planned it there were already many actors wanting to intervene in the agenda. That happened from the beginning. I am refering to organizations, opposition politicians, some more from the right… That trip was financed from the US (Freedom House) and an agenda was imposed on them, and that was terrible. They were the ones who decided which students would go.

Why did you accept it then?

We did not accept it. We were going with a clear issue that they would attend the General Assembly of the OAS. It is terrible. We did not know about the meetings with Ted Cruz, Ileana Ross nor with Marco Rubio. We are very unhappy about that. When the young people come back, we are going to talk with them. We cannot cede on what is fundamental.

What are you refering to?

That they did not tell us that they were going to those meetings. It was very strange. All the movements now have advisors. People that get around. Offspring of politicians, businesspeople…They have a very clear political line. Of the three students that went to Washington, two are from the April 19th Movememt and one, Fernando Sanchez, yes is from our alliance.

And he did not tell you where he was going?

In the Coalition they no longer see us as groups. Someone called him and told him: we are going to take you. They did not communicate anything with the rest of us.

What is it that you do not like about the meetings with Rubio, Cruz and Ross?

We do not sell ourselves out! Not even in our own Alliance. We propose our points above the table. We have legitimacy and this alliance exists because of us, not because of the private sector, and we can discredit the alliance and leave. We are not the children of COSEP. I am from the left, I would not have gone.

How have those meetings been received within the University Alliance?

We are going to have to do a plan for correcting mistakes. We have created a terrible image for ourselves. If they were already saying we were children of COSEP; what are they going to say now, that we are the children of the US Republican Party? We have to talk about this when they return.

In your opinion are there actors interested in manipulating you?

Many. I was in the UPOLI (Polytechnical University, one of the first taken over by the students to entrench themselves) on April 22nd, and I remember then how many actors that I recognized were there already looking to talk to someone. There were many groups fighting over student leadership. And many trying “to advise”. That is the key word. The “advisors” that I think are making decisions and there are movements that are letting themselves be advised by certain people.

What is your relationship with COSEP in this situation?

We are very clear. We know that when COSEP does not need us, they are going to throw us away. But we have other plans.

Are you going to reveal them to me now?

Of course. History tells us that we should not submit ourselves to the political and economic agenda of the business sector, and we know that they will leave us in the streets. We know the risk that we run by receiving their support. They believe that they can ask us for something in exchange. We are insisting on justice and democracy, and there are some things that we say that they have not liked.

Is there no contradiction in that you, opponents of the system implanted by Ortega and the large business sector, are being supported by those same business people?

Yes there is. There were two pacts that allowed Ortega to come to power: the one he made with Arnaldo Aleman, and the one he made with big business. When we started to dialogue with the business leaders, we did not do it with (José Adán) Aguerri (Executive Director of COSEP), but with Michael Healy (president of the Union of Agricultural Producers of Nicaragua, UPANIC) and with Álvaro Vargas from FAGANIC (Federation of Associations of Ranchers). We believe that COSEP now is in dispute. Healy´s chamber is the most belligerent. We have the business leaders as allies for the dialogue, but we do not trust them. Once we were very clear with them: we told them that we were afraid that the dialogue would be a show for the media and that the real dialogue would be happening under the table. That is still a fear. We are demanding justice and democracy.

And justice means having all the corrupt people in court? In other words, even the business people who end up being accomplices of the corruption?

Yes, of course! But first those responsible for all these murders have be tried.

If Ortega resigned tomorrow, as you are asking, and there was a call for elections, what would you do?

We are not longer committed to being a student movement, but a change for the corrupt political elite that has always watched out for its own interests. Maybe we might not be the ones who are going to lead the country in the short term, but we are going to be a belligerent force. If there were elections tomorrow, we would have to sit down with a lot of people. “Prepare the field”, as the OAS says. We are not only demanding transparent elections, but profound electoral reforms. We do not want just a change of elites. We do not want traditional parties. The Sandinista Front is not just to blame here, but the entire oligarchy and the political elite of this country, for complicity or for incapacity. We have made it clear to the business people that we did not want elections, but the resignation of the current rulers and the formation of a transitory ruling junta. Our struggle is also against all the traditional political parties.

So, how do you want to do it?

The FSLN right now is in crisis. Our fear is that if we give them more time to call elections, COSEP and the big business sector will make another tripartite pact [that is what they call in Nicaragua the agreement between Ortega, big business, and the unions, that has allowed Ortega to govern without counterweights, pervert state institutions and eliminate the opposition, with the blessing and complicity of big business which, in exchange, dictates the economic measures and benefits from the State]. We need guarantees that neither the political parties nor the business people are those who are going to take this. No one can impose their own interests.

But what would be, for you, the ideal calendar?

Private enterprise has asked for 14 months. That would allow them to pact with the regime or install themselves. We are asking for popular circumscription to participate in elections in alliance with other sectors.

But how, with whom, if you presume to not have leaders?

Every agreement of civil society needs today to be legitimized by us. We have to be pretty wise to know who are those called to exercise public posts. We are not approaching it with the logic of revenge.

Recently representatives of the OAS came and met with you. What did you talk about?

We talked. They did not say much. We clarified for them our positions and the scenario we are in. Ortega would like a pact with less belligerent actors. We know the love relationship between Almagro and this government. They say that the field will be ready for January, but they will have killed us by January. We presented our agenda to them. They told us that they are not accepting anything outside of the constitutional avenues.

And what was your counterproposal?

That in August there could be a call for elections. But first there has to be reforms. We did not accept any early elections.

All of this requires Ortega´s departure?

At the moment in which the dictator accepts our agenda, he would be surrendering. That we know. We would be twisting his arm. That depends on our capacity to get people into the street. Unfortunately we just played a bad role before the international community.

Let us talk a bit about your current conditions, closed in, with security…This has not made you lose your connection with the streets, that was precisely what you were able to win in April?

A lot. It has is cons but also its pros. It has allowed us to organize ourselves better, design strategies, lines of action. We have lost the contact with the barricades and our weakness is the UNAN (Autonomous University of Nicaragua), because it is very big. We are trying to integrate ourselves more into the Coalition. There was a moment when we were in the barricades. Now we are in another phase. It is no longer just entrenching ourselves. We are going to have to be very creative and learn from history.

You mention the word history a lot. Do you see yourselves as actors in a historic moment?

Yes, we know that. The circumstances demand making careful decisions and being disciplined. Calling this a revolution is beautiful, but that means changing structures. The priority now is that they do no kill us. Later, justice and democracy.

The dialogue rountable called by the Bishops Conference has been suspended. What happens if it is ended?

We are planning strategies so that the way of shutting down the country be more coordinated. A network of supplies. The possibility always exists for a shut down or installation of a ruling junta in liberated territory, like Masaya. They are ways of applying pressure.

(published originally in Spanish in El Faro)

Shadow Steps

We live in an age of walks and runs, and I’m not talking about baseball.  It seems as though nearly every organization will sponsor some kind of event that is intended to get people moving for some bigger purpose, like disease research, feeding the hungry or saving animals.  I generally like the approach of these initiatives, because they involve the potential donor in active ways that money donation alone cannot, and the exercise by itself is a good thing!  But every once in a while, an individual will embark on an undertaking that does not necessarily invite throngs of participants or the clicks of many cameras, but rather demonstrates a kind of quiet commitment, a solitary sojourn to symbolize something important.

A young Korean woman by the name of Kyong Juhn will simply begin to walk.  But it won’t be just another Sunday stroll in the Spring.  Kyong Juhn will commence a journey of 323 miles on foot, starting in Rochester, Minnesota and ending in Bemidji, Minnesota some three weeks later.  The purposes of the trek are several: Ms. Juhn will re-create the long pedestrian migration of her mother from North Korea to South Korea a generation ago, a much more demanding effort; Ms. Juhn will walk, as the event is called, “For Hope and Peace,” an initiative which some may view as naive, but which is something she can do; and finally, Ms. Juhn likely hopes that her pilgrimage will awaken in all who might chance to see or read about her what commitment looks like.

The first rationale of her hike is beautiful in its honor and remembrance of Ms. Juhn’s mother.  I do not know the particulars behind the woman’s journey from North Korea to the south, but I can imagine its dangers and demands and the perseverance required to complete such steps.  I can further infer that the odyssey was undertaken before Ms. Juhn had been born, imbuing her trek with a determination for her future, and whatever child or children  might inhabit that world in the fullness of time.  Ms. Juhn will pay a remarkable homage to a woman who is known to very few of us, but who has earned our deep and enduring respect, and her daughter’s abiding love.

Her second rationale for walking might well be a reflection of the artist who is Kyong Juhn.   She is a School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) Distinguished Scholar Scholarship awardee, who recently finished her Fine Arts degree at SAIC, where she studied photography and art history.  Self-described as having transformed herself from a first generation immigrant-homemaker to a tenacious artist who expresses the complexities of rediscovered identities after returning to school, Ms. Juhn is a creator.  Through whatever media or motion suits her need for expression, she undertakes this walk because it conveys an image, a story-  several stories, in fact-  in manifestation of a deeply-held worldview.  This walk is her art on display.  Pursuit of peace and hope may be daunting ideas, but the walk is tangible and the act of doing it is an imaginative statement in time which sorely needs personal acts of harmony.

Ms. Juhn will be supported, in part, by the organization Vets for Peace, which will accompany her.  They will follow her progress with a “SAG” (support and gear) vehicle for her safety and immediate needs during the trip.  (In fact, the sag vehicle is a Vets for Peace bus funded, in part, by a gift from WPF Founders Harold and Louise Nielsen.)  With help from VFP, Ms. Juhn will seek all the attention that she can get for the purpose of her walk, so that people like you and me will understand that this is what is required of us: that we have the capacity to make an impact in whatever ways are within us, that we each have a role to play, a responsibility for the good or ill that becomes our collective life together.  But we are called to actually do what we imagine, to actually take the first steps for hope and peace.

She will take her first steps on May 6, according to the route below.  I hope the date does not find me standing still….

Kyong Juhn Walk

 

 

Toward the Re-Invention of “Fair Trade” (updated edition)

The height of injustice is to be deemed just when you are not. Plato

Even an honest man sins in the face of an open treasure. Saying.

The VII song of the Odyessy tells how the goddess Circe warned Ulysses that the sailors of those waters were so enchanted by the song of the sirens that they went mad, and lost control of their ships. To not succumb to that enchantment, Ulysses asked that he be tied to the mast of the ship, and that the oarsmen have wax put in their ears, and ordered that if he, because of the spell of their song, would ask that they free him, instead they should tighten the knots. So it was that Ulysses and his oarsmen were saved, and the sirens, failing in their objective, threw themselves off the cliff.

Facing unfair commercial relations, Fair Trade (FT) emerged as an alternative so that people who organized might improve their lives and be a space of solidarity among different actors beyond their countries´ borders. Nevertheless, in our case study in Nicaragua and Central America, we show that the institutional structure of power relationships under the market control of elites is like the sirens in the myth, capable of seducing the FT network, turning it against its own principles, and turning solidarity into just a bunch of words, numbers and papers. How can FT tie itself up so as to not succumb to the song of the sirens, and in this way, grow, enhancing its FT alternative principles? To respond to this question we take as a given that there are exceptional cooperatives, organizations, and people who confirm the importance of organizing and cultivating global solidarity, and that there are successful cooperatives, in countries in the south as well as in the north, in FT as well as outside of it. Nevertheless, in this article we study certain practices of the FT framework that seem to indicate its involution, and on that basis we suggest its reinvention. To do so we focus on coffee, which constitutes 70% of the volume of what is sold through FT.

Pull down full article here

 

The Virtue of Virtues

A long-time friend of mine recently bestowed a gift on me, one that has intrigued, perplexed and annoyed all at the same time.  It may seem strange that one small gift could accomplish all of this, but given the nature of the giver, I would expect no less.

George is an octogenarian, and one who has stuffed a great many experiences into his years, whether in vocation, family, service to others or contemplation of self.  For these reasons, as well as the fact that he is simply a very nice man, I enjoy meeting with him every so often for excellent conversation.  Neither one of us will ever be able to recount the winners and losers at The Academy Awards, but both of us like to expound upon what is right and what is wrong with the world today.  We both pretend to have the answers, if not the questions.

The gift he brought to me is no less than a presentation of life’s virtues.  One hundred thoughtful descriptions of moral excellence and goodness of character are printed on 4X5 cards, along with certain actions which embody the particular virtue.  They are a product of The Virtues Project, an international initiative to inspire the practice of virtues in everyday life.  Each day at breakfast, I’m confronted with a new aspect of right action and thinking which may or may not be attributable to myself.  But they’re good triggers for thought and conversation with my wife, as I either claim ownership of a virtue or confess my weakness of it.  (I am too afraid to keep track of whether I have more “hits” than “misses.”)  The object is not keeping score, but reflecting on one’s personal posture.

The experience is stimulating.  I mean, how often do most of us have the questions posed about our daily existence and how we have chosen to live it?  Consider matters of integrity.  Honesty.  Humanity.  Commitment. Honor.  Gratitude.  Faith.  Empathy.  Grace.  Generosity.  Love.  Peacefulness.  Responsibility. Sacrifice.  Tolerance.  Truth.   The list is as long as it is deep.  Serious reflection of virtue is sobering, affirming and complex, all at the same time.

Yet there is a sort of elitist quality about contemplation of such things.  My past week in Nicaragua reminds me that consideration of manners and philosophies often becomes subjugated in light of the daily grind of feeding one’s family or securing the particulars of suitable shelter.   In some cases, circumstances tend to bend absolute virtues, or at least place them in conflict with other virtuous aims.

I do not imply that Nicaraguan peasants are without virtuous living; in fact, the reality is quite the opposite.  My experiences with rural Nica farmers often have been object lessons about living with dignity and hope despite enormously difficult circumstances.  Virtuous behaviors come from within, cultivated from generations of living in concert with their faith, the earth and one another, rather than from a conscious deliberation of what “ought to be.”

What occurs to me in the understanding of living against great odds is that the opportunity for meditation on matters of virtue and how to cultivate such behaviors is almost non-existent.  The conscious deliberation of what “ought to be” is too often a luxury afforded to those who are well off enough to indulge in contemplation of 4X5 cards.

Perhaps the observations are of no note.  Certainly, those who have been blessed with opportunity for musing on such matters have brought about only a modest degree of change and equity in the world: children still starve against the virtues of  Generosity, Humanity, Justice, Mercy and Sacrifice.  In my own reading of the virtues, I long for the recognition of them inherent within myself, regardless of the words on the cards.  But it is not always so, and the gentle reminders of what I could be are blessings to embrace.

There’s still time.  The questions are not complete, the answers not finished, our lives are not done, our legacies are not written and our virtues are not known until the end of our days….

 

 

Dismantling the large estate with cooperativism

Dismantling the large estate with cooperativism

René Mendoza Vidaurre with Edgar Fernandez[1]

You have to look at coffee like the fingers on a hand; the first year we plant, the second year the coffee develops, The third year we harvest, the fourth we harvest more and the fifth year the coffee begins to decline       R. Mairena, President

The cooperative works for me: it sells my coffee at a better price, it gives me credit. And it guides me in growing coffee. M.D. Gómez, Member

Plato in his book “The Republic” tells the story of the cave. A group of prisoners remained chained in a cave since their birth. They cannot turn their heads, they can only see the wall in the back. Behind them is a corridor and a bonfire. Men are passing through the corridor with different objects which project shadows on the wall because of the light. The prisoners believe that the shadows of the objects are real. One day one of the prisoners is freed and seeing the light from the fire, the people, trees, lakes and the sun, realizes the origin of the shadows and that they are only shadows. He returns to the cave to free his fellow prisoners, who on hearing that the shadows were only shadows, do not believe him, make fun of him and treat him as if he were crazy. This allegory reveals the strength of mindsets (tacit beliefs that rule the lives of people).

What is this kind of mindset in a cooperative? How can a cooperative free itself and build its own way? We explain this mindset, study it seeking to change it: we do it from the experience of the Solidaridad Cooperative in Nicaragua[2].

1.     Mental frameworks and their origins

“The large estate provides, and the farm is a drain”, “we always need a patron”, “the patron knows and decides, the rest obey”, “only one crop, more inputs, more production”, “the dumber the fieldhand, the more hardworking they are”, “ the cheaper you pay the fieldhand, and the cheaper the land is, the more money can be made”. These beliefs sustain a hierarchical and discriminating framework, internalized by a good part of our society.

This mentality was refined over centuries all over. By 1880 Matagalpa had an indigenous population with more than 200,000 mzas of mountainous land, most of it was expropriated by the State for coffee; the mindset was in line with the myth of mestizo Nicaragua (J. Gould): “coffee, a civilized crop, indigenous an obstacle for civilization.” Thus between 1889 and 1895 there were more than 200 foreigners in Matagalpa. In time, in the zone of Arenal, Thomas, Manning, Crespi, Harrison and Vita formed large estates. Vita founded the Aranjuez estate (hacienda), later bought by Potter, then by De Savigny, later on turned into the first mountain hotel and later Somoza turned it into a Sanatarium for people with tuberculosis. From the start of the XX century up to now, temporarily interrupted by the war in the 1980s, the following haciendas were formed: El Quetzal, Marsellesa, Monimbo, La Aurora, El Paraíso, El Paraisito, Los Helechos, Santa Ana, La Esperanza and La Minita. The Solidaridad cooperative is in Aranjuez and El Arenal, has an indigenous past and is now surrounded by haciendas.

The hacienda system was imposed with State backing. Racism and dispossession mechanisms went hand in hand, which is the origin of that mentality that persists even in our times. In the 1990s a hacienda closed the road on 62 members of the Carlos Rodríguez cooperative, forcing them to sell their lands at the price that the hacienda had set. Currently the El Quetzal hacienda closes the road after 6pm, thus leaving the communities “closed in”, communities where its own workers live, as well as some families who are members of the cooperative. After 2010 several haciendas of the area have been facing a drop in the production of their coffee, the soils are exhausted, the exploited environment no longer produces: more inputs, more dead soil, the more coffee is exposed to full sunlight, the more the soil is washed away with the rainfall.

The very act of explaining the origin of that mentality awakens people. The hacienda has built itself by taking. More inputs and mono-cropping has led to greater soil deterioration. Closing roads no longer leads to cheaper land, nor does it force the hand of producer families. The “stupid” fieldhand, leaving the hacienda, has become a farmer.

2.     A check on the hacienda: the cooperative

The 63 members of the cooperative have more than 300 mzs of land and produce about 7,000 qq of export coffee. The cooperative collects and exports 60% of the coffee of its members, 30% of that as quality coffee. 20 years ago most of these 63 members were fieldhands – some of them foremen – of the haciendas, they were families with little or no land, some of them producing some flowers and vegetables. Of the 63, some 25 members produce between 30-100qq export coffee per manzana, producing more than some haciendas. A small producer of Aranjuez, who is not a member of the cooperative, with 5 mzs of coffee, won the 2017 Cup of Excellence Award with 91.16 points. That is quality coffee! Diversified coffee farms with bananas and citrus, and not mono-cropping haciendas, produce quality coffee, not just standard coffee. All of this makes the land increase in value, puts a check on the hacienda, and in addition the hacienda sees its earnings decreasing.

It is easy to find examples to illustrate these results. There is a member who is a single mother who lives off her 2 mzs of coffee and bananas, that produces enough for her to support her mother and married daughters. Another member of the cooperative was able to intensify his coffee with bananas and citrus through the cooperative, and left his job as a fieldhand of the hacienda. There is a foreman who became a member of the cooperative and ended up being president of the cooperative.

What has generated this change? Well, the cooperative! Its strategy? First, it understood the importance of regularity in the application of inputs (urea and leaf sprayed fertilizer) that coffee needs in order to produce more, which is why the cooperative provides in-kind credit so that, under technical supervision, each member family applies it and pays for it with that same coffee, for which the cooperative finds markets. Secondly, they got past the biannual nature of coffee (one good year of production and the next year low production), pruning 25% of the coffee each year, and systematically renovating their old coffee plants. Third, the member families are concentrated in a microterritory and receive credit services, technical assistance and collect the harvest right there, which reduces their transaction costs and facilitates a close relationship between members-leaders and members-administration. Fourth, strong leadership pushing the cooperative in new challenges in a calm, gradual way; “directed credit”, “piloting direct exporting with a small amount”, and “getting into milling with low volume”; they do it as they establish relationships with the social banking sector, coffee buyers and chemical input companies.

Seen from the results, organized small scale production provides more and better farms, good for the people and good for the environment. Nevertheless, seen from the processes, following a different path from that of the hacienda, the response is two pronged: increasing family ownership over their production, but not over their organization. On the one hand, the discipline of applying inputs every 30-35 days on their coffee, and selectively pruning 25% of the plants has become a custom, and thereby a tacit law; as well as turning their coffee in to the cooperative, paying their loans and waiting for a better price. On the other hand, the mindset planted by the hacienda persists: “more inputs, more production”, “without the president we would fall”, “information is not up to date and does not get to the members”, “decisions about credit and who can have a better price for their coffee are not made in the organs of the cooperative”, “a buyer even chooses 10 members to buy their coffee”, “we members rely on the president, we only come in to get our loans and our payments”, “the members who do not increase their production will not increase it no matter what we give them”, “if we apply the rules of the cooperative we would be left without members”, “let the member with the most volume of coffee set the price”. A good part of the cooperative and some of its allies breathe in this mindset.

The benefits of the cooperative for the member families and the environment, for Aranjuez and el Arenal are visible, but their durability depends on changes in their mentality. As Saint-Exupéry said in his novel The Little Prince, what is most important is what is invisible. Taking your own path involves getting off the path of the hacienda.

3.     Transformation of  mental models

In addition to increasing production, the cooperative proposes increasing coffee quality, diversified farms with environmental sustainability, stronger relationships with the social banks and buyers, members who study their farms, and good relations between members, leaders and workers. And they are on that path. One member who studies and experiments: “I make a selective leaf spray, because I am watching over my plants, I recognize the coffee bore or rust, I observe it daily, if it progresses, I spray it, if it does not progress, I enclose it”; “I spray the entire coffee field, for prevention”; “ before putting a chemical on it I test it a little”, “what I learned when I had organic coffee I continue applying, I spend less and it goes further”, “I have coffee trees for repopulating and to sell”. The member/leader, the one that asks questions, accepts positions of responsibility and exercises them, complies with the rules of the cooperative and the decisions of its respective bodies, is still a subject under construction. Relationships with the workers, encouraged by a coffee buying organization, are making progress: “Coffee with a union aroma” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SD3QBJ7r_U&feature=share)

For that the cooperative is refining its strategy. First, it is strengthening the observation and study that led them to determine the regularity in the application of inputs, this time to get beyond the belief of “more inputs, more production” to “more observation and management, more quality production”, including mixtures of coffee in micro-lots. Second, it is keeping its decision to have an office and services in the same territory, trying to get their sons and daughters to participate in the life of the cooperative – as members and personnel-staff. Third, it is making the policies and rules of the cooperative be applied, that decisions come from the organs of the cooperative, that members, board and administrative staff be subject to those agreements, and that the international allies respect and strengthen that institutionality. Fourth, the distribution of earnings based on updated information be posted on the wall- information on loans, financial statement, balance statement, volume of coffee collected, services of processing and exporting – so that the member families might come in to be informed, because informing is forming.

The Solidarity cooperative has taken a giant step: it stopped the hacienda. But even though it is at a standstill; it is still intact; the member families, even though are progressing in production and organization, are dividing up their land through inheritances, and their cooperative instrument continues being a challenge. The myth of the cave could change in the cooperative framework if the 4 elements of the strategy – observation, territory, institutionality and transparency – are carried out as the origin of its “light”, that would let them dismantle the mindset of the hacienda (“shadows”) and discern a new path. Their challenge is also the challenge of the entire world.

[1] René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of the IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium), collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/) and member of the COSERPROSS RL cooperative. rmvidaurre@gmail.com Edgar is also a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation.

[2] We talked with the member families, their leaders and staff and we facilitated workshops in Aranjuez. This article is the result of that collective learning with the member families that observed their farms and reflected on their cooperative. We are grateful to J. Koldegaard for his comments on the draft of this article.