“It is said that the children of the very poor are not brought up, but dragged up.” Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
It’s an image that is haunting, and daunting, this observation from 1852 Victorian England: the idea that some children- many children, in fact- in the very prime of their learning and forming years were forced to find their way to young adulthood through the hauling and heaving of desperate poverty and abuse. It was a reality distinctly at odds with the Victorians’ self-proclaimed progressive era of reform and improved societal standards. Author Charles Dickens made his mark, in part, chronicling the sad realities of the time.
That was a long time ago. The pokes at our collective conscience by Dickens have persisted since his time, as his works are among the most revered and widely-read in the English language. As a result, we should have every reason to expect that, with the passage of time and a presumed greater enlightenment about healthy societies, our nurture of children might have changed since 1852.
I’ve re-read a number of Dickens’ classics in recent years, including Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, Oliver Twistand A Tale of Two Cities. I’m drawn to his characters and the ambience of the times in his writings. But I also find myself distracted by the conditions encountered by many of his characters, especially the children. The stories are uncomfortable. The children’s circumstances are often abhorrent, to the point occasionally when I think that Dickens has likely exaggerated the realities faced by his young protagonists. But I read on in the certain hope that things will get better by the tale’s end.
Dickens’ hopes for any kind of empathetic reforms or changed sensitivities as a result of his works would be shattered in the face of today’s world. The travesties of Victorian England are comparatively small compared to the cold calculations of despots today. Reading fictional accounts of treachery and evil pales in comparison to the very real atrocities that we tolerate repeatedly on the world stage today.
A Christmas Caroldelights audiences because of its ability to take us from the depths of human greed to the pinnacle of generosity and redemption. It makes us feel good in the hope that it creates for eventual justice. I wonder if Dickens would be inclined to write very different conclusions to his stories today….
An important issue in the current crisis in Nicaragua is the question of what would Nicaragua look like should Ortega leave, as the opposition demands. In recent weeks some important proposals have been developed to begin to respond to this question. The following was developed by mostly student groups calling themselves “Construimos Nicaragua” and was posted shortly after the independence holidays in Nicaragua, Sept 14-15.
We are Building Nicaragua
“We are Building Nicaragua” Program
This document is the draft of the Program of the Social and Political Movement called “WE ARE BUILDING NICARAGUA” which we submit to the consideration of the readers to open a public discussion among all social sectors on the urgent tasks that we need to promote for a real democratization of Nicaragua.
PROGRAM FOR THE DEMOCRATIZATION OF NICARAGUA: GIVE BACK TO THE PEOPLE THE RIGHT TO DECIDE!
The days of struggle, started in April 2018, are forging and consolidating a strong sense of collective national identity in favor of democratization and justice, as had not occurred in our nearly two centuries of independent history around fundamental symbols and values: the blue and white flag, inextricably linked to republican democracy, public liberties, citizen participation in the State affairs, a strong sense of social equity and true solidarity.
The democratic struggle started by the youth opened the possibility of rebuilding and re-founding our nation on the bases of democracy, justice and social equity. The enjoyment and exercise of public liberties, as well as absolute respect for citizen rights, should not depend ever again on the will or discretion of any government. We all the sectors of the people (youth, students, women, workers, peasants, indigenous, etc) need to recover our popular sovereignty to re-found a new Nicaragua, creating a Social and Democratic Rule of Law on new bases, that imply eradicating forever the use of violence, repression or intimidation by those in power for the purpose of remaining in it, or limiting and blocking the exercise of these freedoms and rights.
The fundamental decisions of Nicaragua should not be made by small oligarchies, but by the broad majorities of men and women through democratic and deliberative processes with all the information on the table, where the broadest sectors can participate.
So that our society might move from discretion and the arbitrary and personalized use of power, to a social interaction more and more regulated by laws, norms and policies that are implemented in a more impartial, transparent and impersonal way possible, that is, with the absence of discrimination and punishment for some, and privileges and “awards” for others.
Currently State institutions have lost their public character by being completely subordinated to partisan control and the discretional management of the rulers. It is urgent to begin the transition toward the new Nicaragua, where national public institutions exist that fulfill their function of providing public goods and services, and that are capable of ensuring confidence, security and certainty to economic agents and all the citizenry.
Nicaragua needs a radical democratic revolution that would build national public institutions that can keep themselves relatively isolated from the pressures of economic groups and those in power, be focused on effective, professional performance and their objectives and responsibilities, establishing mechanisms that would ensure transparency and accountability, and that would make citizen control possible over the institutions that administer power.
Within the framework of this context, we a group of youth, men and women from all social strata, have agreed to launch a new political organization called “WE ARE BUILDING NICARAGUA”, an inclusive, horizontal, democratic and progressive political movement for the purpose of promoting structural changes for the sustainable development of Nicaragua.
WE ARE BUILDING NICARAGUA is a social and political movement where all us Nicaraguans find the opportunity to voice our opinions and participate to achieve our political, economic, social, cultural and environmental aspirations.
The mission of WE ARE BUILDING NICARAGUA is to provide each Nicaraguan the opportunity to promote and defend their rights to achieve a full, just and prosperous life.
We present, then, our proposal for a political program that we submit to the consideration of the citizens for their study, critique and improvement, because only united will we be able to accomplish the immense task of democratizing Nicaragua for the benefit of the great majorities.
16 BASIC POINTS FOR FOUNDING THE NEW NICARAGUA
Free and Sovereign Constituent National Assembly
We men and women of WE ARE BUILDING NICARAGUA, many of us had not even been born during the time of the revolution, we think that the first thing that we should do is dismantle the status quo of the political power that was established in the last period, and that has roots in the institutions created during the process of the death of the revolution of 1979.
It requires returning sovereignty and decision making capacity to the people, in other words, the citizens. This elemental principle of democracy has been systematically denied in the history of Nicaragua. It requires profoundly reorganizing the State institutions. And this can only be achieved by repealing the Constitution of 1987 and its reforms, discussing and approving a new democratic Constitution, that would minimally bring together the issues that we discuss in what follows and that would bring the Nicaraguan State into the modernity of the XXI Century.
Limits to re-election for popularly elected officials
Re-election is not a problem of principles in democracy, everything depends on the political culture and the electoral system, whether it is sufficiently democratic to respect the popular will.
Nevertheless, this is a key discussion in Nicaragua, because the emergence of the dictatorships of José Santos Zelaya (1896-1909), Anastasio Somoza and his successors (1937-1979), as well as the new dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo (2007-2018) have been related to presidential re-election.
For this reason, and taking into consideration that a good government is not improvised, presidential re-election should only be permitted for a second period, so the new election becomes a plebiscite on the first mandate. Starting with the second period, there should be an absolute prohibition of presidential re-election, establishing iron clad clauses in the new Constitution that would prevent a third presidential period.
Likewise the deputies should only be elected for two consecutive periods. This same norm should be applied to mayors and council-members and the members of regional governments.
A new electoral system
A complete reform of the electoral system is needed, approving a new Electoral Law that would do away with the bipartisan system inherited from Somocism, and that served as a cover for installing a new dynastic dictatorship. A new Party and Political Association Law should be approved, which also should have constitutional standing, that would allow for the creation of groups, associations and political parties at the municipal, provincial, regional and national levels.
The obstacles created by the constitutional reform of 2000 should be ended, that demand a minimum of 4% for a party to maintain their legal status, because it limits the right to representation of minorities. The myth of dictatorships should be done away with, that only the traditional parties should exist. Democracy rests on the principle of diversity and the respect and protection of minorities.
But, above all, the monopoly of the political parties should be ended, that they are the only ones who can propose candidates. A new emphasis should be placed on the fact that citizens can run as candidates regardless of whether they are party members, in any type of election, including presidential elections, prioritizing the fact that youth, who have traditionally been marginated from political activity, might have a dominant role in the destiny of the country.
The election of deputies should be by provinces or districts, doing away with the election of national deputies. The right to proportional representation of minorities should be ensured, especially of indigenous, in every type of election.
The functions exercised by the Supreme Electoral Council (SEC) should be decentralized in different institutions (identity cards, parties and associations, organization of electoral processes, etc), completely reorganized, not just with the participation of the political parties, but civil society organizations, who should play a role of oversight and control.
Tbe new electoral system should include the partial or total renovation of the deputies of the National Assembly halfway through each presidential period. The dates for legislative elections should coincide with municipal and regional elections which should be held every two years, so that the elected officials might know that their posts will always depend on the assessment of their performance and the will of the electors.
To be a candidate for popular election they should be qualified and honest. In addition the 50/50 Law should be kept and respected that ensures the presence of women on electoral ballots which opens the doors for their participation in political decision making posts.
System for direct election and renovation of magistrates and of other high officials, under citizen control.
The citizens should be given back the capacity to elect and remove magistrates, as well as other high officials from other branches and institutions of the State. That vicious cycle should be ended where the executive branch proposes candidates for magistrates who end up being approved through agreements and negotiations among the deputies, who generally obey the interests of party leaders, who include them on the electoral lists, annulling the capacity of the citizens who elected them.
On establishing a percentage of votes of deputies to choose the magistrates, the problem is resolved through transactions or political pacts, turning the deputies into the principal electors, annulling the popular will. This type of indirect election makes possible the creation of political rings and castes, which are the negation of democracy.
It should be established that the holders of the executive branch, deputies, mayors, councilpersons, members of the regional governments, all popularly elected officials, are subject to the evaluation of the people through a recall referendum. In this way any popularly elected official, having finished a third of their mandate, and in the face of a petition for their removal signed by a certain number of citizens, those signers should have the capacity to call for elections in that specific case, so that it be the electors who decide if the official continues or not in their post.
Restructuring of the judicial branch
Democracy is, in the last instance, the governance of judges. These officials are the ones who decide on the freedom of people, the future of their assets and settle political conflicts. The one who controls the judicial power, controls the State and political power. That is why a profound reform and restructuring of the judicial system should be done. The magistrates, judges should be directly elected by the people, and submitted every two years, when intermediate elections are held, to the control of the citizenry.
The judicial profession should be submitted to periodic controls. Only the people through their vote can decide whether a judge continues in their post for one more period. The re-election of judges and magistrates should have a limit, no more than three periods, to open the way for the formation of new judges and magistrates.
A commission composed of recognized jurists and national and foreign academics should examine and review the curriculums of the aspirants, and they will be the candidates who would be subject to popular balloting. Political parties cannot campaign in favor of the candidates under pain of disqualification.
The Supreme Court of Justice (SCJ) should decentralize their functions, so that the administrative functions are not mixed with jurisdictional ones, and with those of control and sanctioning. Deputies cannot be candidates for judges or magistrates. It is a matter of building a new judicial branch that would supervise jointly with the citizenry the functioning of public administration and democracy.
Amparo [constitutional or administrative protection order] should not be an appeal but a judgement, as happens in Latin America. A Constitutional Tribunal should be created, whose magistrates will not obey political parties, but the mandate of the citizenry.
Ongoing fight against corruption
In Nicaragua corruption is an evil embedded in all the State institutions, and it has become part of the political culture: popularly elected posts and public service have been turned into ladders for illicit enrichment. That is why the fight against corruption should be ongoing and at every level. Corruption is one of the principal causes of the increase in poverty and social inequality. It is not possible to fight poverty without fighting corruption at the same time. Indeed corruption erodes and weakens democratic institutionality, annulling existing legality, promoting impunity and social chaos.
The existing laws for fighting corruption are not applied because the State institutions responsible for fighting it, like the Comptroller General of the Republic (CGR), the Attorney General of the Republic and the different tribunals of justice have been victims of the concentration of power phenomenon, which centralizes the mechanisms for the election of magistrates and other high officials solely on the deputies of the National Assembly, who are elected through the lists of the political parties who exercise a monopoly on popular representation.
The anti-corruption legislation should be modernized, administrative processes should be greatly simplified, a new law of State Purchasing and one for Conflict of Interest of Public Officials should be approved, establishing online bidding, so that everyone can see what is happening with prices and technical specifications, taking into consideration citizen participation at all levels, developing to the maximum electronic governance.
Transparency should become a new fundamental right, a key factor for strengthening social confidence and a sense of participation and co-responsibility in the construction of a shared destiny. Public information should never be managed as if it were private. The people have the right to know all the affairs, no matter how complicated they may seem. The officials who violate this principle of access to public information will be submitted to severe penal sanctions.
Likewise, the obligation should be established of all officials to be accountable to the general assembly of workers of the public sector with the participation of the citizenry every three months for spending, investments or purchases made. The result of these reports should be placed on the web page of the respective institutions.
In all State institutions an assembly of public servants should be organized to create citizen control commissions responsible for overseeing the implementation of the budget, plans for purchasing and bidding, with the legal faculties to file the corresponding charges. Those who make any denouncements will not be able to be fired nor will there be any administrative reprisals against them, unless it is shown that they had no basis.
The new constitution should establish the new principle that there is no immunity for crimes related to corruption. All assets obtained through acts of corruption or money laundering are imprescriptible, it is the obligation of the State to pursue them until they are recovered, trying and punishing those who are guilty. The officials punished for acts of corruption through a final judgement will be disbarred for life from running for public posts or providing public service, as well as prohibited from being a supplier of the State or contracting with Public Administration.
Professionalization and dignity of public service
A radical democratization is required so that workers in public administration never again are hired or fired based on their party affiliation or loyalty, but rather on the basis of their capacities and competency, and so that the career of civil service be respected.
The Civil Service Law should be governed by the principle of the merits and capacities of the applicants, we should eradicate the culture of sharing posts by pacts and political arrangements or by electoral quotas. Likewise they should promote reforms so that the youth can make a career in public service in a decent way and with facilities for access.
A fair tax system
The taxes of all Nicaraguans should not be used or diverted to enrich small groups, but should form part of the sacred national patrimony. Tax collection should be based on transparency, social control and the principle that the payment of taxes should be proportional to income. In this way society will have the resources needed to cover social spending and ensure the minimum functioning of democracy and the construction of a medium and long term national development plan that is able to transcend changes in government.
Incorporating new rights in the Constitution
Respect for human rights in Nicaragua will never be limited by any government, placing arguments of “national sovereignty” above the relevancy of international treaties on this matter.
New fundamental rights should be incorporated and applied, like Gender Equity, and other specific rights of women, that should be implemented in all the State institutions and at all levels of social life.
Likewise, basic income should be established in a progressive manner for people who are living in levels of poverty. It is the only way of ending the political patronage that does so much damage to democracy, and so that the State might protect in this way those most in need.
Nicaragua should be proclaimed as a Social and Democratic Rule of Law State, governed by fundamental rights, by the principle of absolute respect and equality under the law, the control of the citizenry in the affairs of the State, and the defense of the environment.
The right to rebellion or insurrection against dictatorial or dynastic governments should be recovered, as a fundamental essential right of Nicaraguans.
Likewise, new procedural guarantees should be reformed or incorporated: the function of the Police should be to investigate crimes and send the accused to the judicial authorities in a term no longer than 24 hours. In their investigations the Police should be subordinated to the Prosecutor´s office, who should be responsible for directing the investigations and the gathering of proof. Detentions can only be done through a judicial order or when catching a crime in progress.
Jury trials should be re-established for all cases, and exceptional jurisdictions should be ended.
In addition, Nicaragua should bring itself into the XXI Century and promote the access of all children and adolescents to information technologies and the internet.
Reorganization of the Army and the Police
The role that the National Police have performed in the current civic insurrection, as a small, very centralized repressive army, forces us to re-examine the role of the police forces. The Police should play a very important role in ensuring citizen security, in a context of the advance of the drug trafficking cartels and organized crime in Central America.
To keep the National Police from being a small, mercenary army at the unconditional service of a dictatorial government, their operation should be decentralized, creating municipal police who will maintain a national coordination or command, but whose members will be recruited from within the community, who will be subject to the local authorities. The naming of the Chief of Police in each municipality, as well as their term in the post, will be done through direct election of the citizens. The monopoly of the control of the president of the republic over the National Police must end, it should be shared with the local authorities.
The National Police should have a Community Policing approach, composed of people from the community on a rotating manner, with a reduced administrative apparatus and permanent officials. More women should be incorporated into the chain of command of this Community Police.
Likewise, the role and conception of the National Army should be re-evaluated. The collective trauma that the implementation of military service had during the civil war (1982-1990) has made it possible, contradictorily, for the evolution of the National Army as an institution ever more separated from the people.
In times of peace, the Army should have a very reduced apparatus, it should be composed of citizens who provide their civil service regularly within the armed forces at certain times. Likewise, more women should be incorporated into the chain of command of the Army.
It should not only defend the national sovereignty against drug trafficking and organized crime, but also exercise a social function in the most vulnerable social sectors, protecting and defending the environment, enabling youth to join as their first job and acquire technical training. This is the only way to prevent having an Army of full time paid soldiers unconnected to the people. The Army should not have, nor its officers, businesses or companies to finance retirement systems different from those that most of the population have, or caste privileges that promote social inequality.
Due to the importance of this issue, a special plebiscite should be promoted on the reorganization of the National Army and the National Police, so that the people might democratically decide the path to follow.
Educational revolution, academic freedom, and university autonomy.
Nicaragua will never come out of poverty without being able to raise the educational level of its population.
Nicaragua is losing the only opportunity from the “demographic dividend” as dozens of thousands of youth do not have the opportunity to study and work. The dichotomy between primary education and higher education is false. Both are complementary. That is why academic freedom and university autonomy should be insisted on for training the technical staff and the professionals that the country requires.
Primary and secondary education should include a class on civic education, so that the students might learn from an early age how the State functions and what the principles of democracy are.
Within the framework of basic income, it should be ensured that all children finish their primary and secondary schooling. For that purpose 15% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) should be used for public education. State resources should be used to develop public education, and the businesses of private schools and universities should never be subsidized. The universities should never be submitted to political power and party control.
The teaching profession and scientific research should be encouraged and protected by the State.
Social innovation and entrepreneurship should be encouraged by the State to expand the labor prospects of the recently graduated youth from the Universities so that they can be inserted into the work world. Likewise, the Youth First Job Law should be approved where the universities and companies will coordinate to provide facilities of access to work to recently graduated youth, and so that the relationship between professional majors and market demand might be improved.
The role of the State in the economy
Given the backwardness of the productive forces in Nicaragua, the State should play the role of promoting economic development, the only way of doing away with migration and poverty. Within a scheme of the social market economy, the principal public services (water, health care, education, energy and communications) should be in the hands of the State. The acceptance of mixed enterprises in these areas, and the percentages of private, national or foreign participation, will depend on the needs of each concrete case.
A State bank should exist that would promote financing, at fair interest rates, to the benefit of the peasantry, artisans and small urban and rural producers. To prevent political patronage and corruption that can lead to their bankruptcy, the workers and clients of the state bank should be allowed to form a verification and control commission of the loans, focused on citizen participation.
The profits of the private banks should be regulated, through a policy of fair interest rates, that do not exploit the population.
Agrarian reform and the defense of the environment
The agrarian reform that was promoted under the revolution in the 1979-1990 period was reversed in later decades. A process of land concentration functioned and now we have the existence of new large landowners. This process was possible because the peasantry did not have financial and technical assistance that would allow it to develop agriculture or ranching. Not only should the right of the peasantry to land be ensured, but also the right of peasant women to be owners of land. Likewise, a state bank is needed whose principal function would be to develop the peasant economy. The State should ensure a policy of fair prices for peasant products.
The agricultural production of Nicaragua in large measure rests on small and medium producers. It is necessary that these sectors grow through increase in yields and productivity, more than by the expansion of the agricultural frontier, which has degraded hydrological basins, produced sedimentation and the disappearance of water sources, and destroyed biodiversity.
Protected areas should be expanded, like Bosawás and Indio Maíz, and other new ones created. Protecting the national capital of the country should be a priority – water, soils, forests and biodiversity – the State should ensure that they be used in a sustainable manner.
The agrarian reform should have an ecological approach, one of defense of the land, forests, water and the environment. Zones apt for agriculture should be defined, planting should not be done on hills or inclines, what lands are apt for ranching should be pinpointed. Extensive ranching should be eliminated, promoting the creation of modern farms with breeds of cattle that allow production to increase without the need to destroy forests. Peasant or indigenous communities should be the protectors of the forests. A process of reforestation should be promoted and the protection of natural reserves for the purpose of caring for the water of rivers and lakes.
For true autonomy in the Caribbean Coast
Raising the autonomy of the Caribbean Coast to constitutional status in 1995 implied great progress, but the real effects of the Autonomy Statute of the Regions of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua are more formal than real. The principal decisions on the economic resources of the Caribbean Coast, and investment in them, in reality are not up to the Regional Councils, nor the indigenous communities, but the central government, which continues limiting the right to autonomy of the native population.
Not only should the customs, language and culture be preserved, but also the communal forms of organization of the indigenous population, which should administer and protect the natural resources.
Even though it is true that as a result of the struggle of the indigenous communities progress has been made in the titling of communal lands, as long as there is no resettlement of non indigenous on their land, the autonomy of the Caribbean Coast will be a fiction.
Consolidation of municipal autonomy
Municipal autonomy has been enshrined in the Constitution since 1987, but in reality the municipalities are subordinated to the central government, in spite of the existence of the Municipal Law. The role of the State in society should be realized through the municipalities. The national budget should be invested in the municipalities. The role of the central government should be reduced, and the functions decentralized in the municipalities. The structure of the State should rest on the municipalities, who should control education, the supply of potable water, public services, services of police, sewage and the defense of the environment.
The democratization of Nicaragua passes through transferring more national power and resources to the municipal governments.
Reconstructing the Central American nation
In the XXI century the countries of Central America are intimately linked by their economic bases, but not on the level of state superstructure. What happens in some of the countries of Central America has repercussions on the rest. SICA [Spanish acronym for the Central American Integration System] has played a great role as a project for the reunification of the national economies, but it has not achieved the goal. The establishment of PARLACEN was a great step forward on the political plane, but it has very limited functions. We should make more progress. The deputies to PARLACEN should be the same deputies of the national legislative organs, so that there is no separation and ignorance about the regional reality.
We should proceed until achieving the call for a Central American Constituent Assembly that would allow for the creation of a Central American federation or confederacy.
The following reflection was written during my recent week in Nicaragua. I had the unusual experience of writing it on paper, with a pencil, no less. It was composed in nearly “real time,” as if for a journal, and only minutes after the experience occurred. Maybe that’s partly how it came to be such a personal, emotional record. (And for the record, writing with paper and pencil still works.)
The time is 8:35. We are overnighting in the municipality of El Cua, in the department of Jinotega. The mountains of Peñas Blancas are just behind us; indeed, the road from the mountains to El Cua features some of the most beautiful kms anywhere on earth. The vistas around each corner are filled with valleys and peaks that truly steal the breath away. Hotel El Chepita is arguably one of the more modern accommodation in the town, though in order to flush the toilet in my bathroom, I am required to lift up on the back of the toilet until the stopper, which is somehow attached to the tank lid, is pulled up and the flush can commence.
We are a little late getting in. We arrive to an empty registration desk and even the desk bell fails to summon anyone to receive us. Mark calls the phone number for the hotel and we can hear the distant ringing of a phone, but it has no more effect than the bell. A guest from the lobby, impatiently waiting to retrieve her room key, comes to the desk and bangs on that desk bell with a fury. But the assault proves to be no more effective than the other summons, so we simply wait and discuss other lodging options.
After maybe 15 minutes, a young woman comes running to the desk with profuse apologies and a promise to get us registered immediately. She defends herself by explaining that she is the only person working at the hotel in that moment and she is having understandable difficulty covering all bases. As she records our identities, she does inquire whether it would be acceptable if one of the rooms has no TV. Since I still do not speak Spanish with any skill even approaching “just getting by,” a TV is of no import to me so the registration continues.
The room, not unexpectedly, is sparse in its appointments. There is no chair. No table. No clothing hooks adorn the walls, the bathroom has no counters, my room looks directly across the narrow street to a discotheque (yes, even in this era) and the music there is only drowned out by the persistent roar of motorcycle and truck engines racing down our street. I can shut my slat-style windows, but I need the air in my air-conditioner-free room. Besides, two of the glass louvers are missing from my windows, so the effectiveness in shutting out noise is highly suspect. But the barking dogs in the property next to ours do take a break every half-hour or so to rest their voices.
My room is dark and hot. (Oh-oh, there go the dogs again.) I keep the single overhead light turned off, to reduce the heat and the depressing feeling that overhead lights always convey to me. The overhead fan tries hard to keep up with the heat in this upstairs room, but the blades cannot turn fast enough to generate any meaningful cooling. All I can do is to lie on my bed in the dark and read by the light of my Kindle. I keep the bathroom light on, though, because the 8 o’clock hour is too early to fall asleep for the night, even in weary Nicaragua.
Staring across the room into that dimly-lit WC gives me pause to wonder to myself how I possibly came to be in a place like this on a Tuesday in March. It is certainly unlike any place I ever experience in the course of my “normal” life.
And that is precisely the point. The sounds, the smells, the conditions reveal the life of rural Nicaragua in ways that words or even photographs cannot. At this moment, I would not choose to be in any other place but this. In a single, isolated moment I am confronted with gratitude for the good fortune of my life, the shame of my self-centeredness, a humility at my recognition of being the most fortunate of men, an anger that I have not shown the strength and wisdom to have accomplished more, a thankfulness for the men and women here who have taught me even as I posed as the teacher, and gratefulness at being permitted to be among people who are at war with the injustice of their poverty. Ironically, this place and time represents privilege: my privilege at the opportunity to become a part of their lives, if only for a short time.
To be sure, this evening I miss my wife and the comforts of our Iowa home, as I always do when I travel. But I am filled up tonight in ways that I could not at home. In this moment, it turns out that the most important grant during this trip is the one made to me….
My wife and I were looking at some photos of ourselves the other day, marveling at how young we once looked and subsequently commiserating at how old we appear today. I stared for some time at one photo in particular, one that seemed to capture the relative innocence and naivete of the young man in question. I tried to recall his state of mind at the time of the photo, what issues weighed heavily upon him, and the decisions with which he would be confronted in the days and years ahead. Hindsight is a wonderful perspective to play with; when you already know the result, the journey becomes an interesting study of choices.
Each of us is, after all, the sum total of choices we have been permitted to make throughout our journey of life. Our choices reflect not only preferences but, more importantly, our values, our principles, our character. They serve as articulations of who we wish to be and of who we actually are. And they are the milestones of our journey, marking the signal events of our lives.
Choices are the acts of bringing to life our beliefs. They are the expressions of our innermost feelings about lifestyles, about the type of vocation to which we aspire. Choices reflect our most intimate feelings about having a family and what is important in our personal and spiritual lives. Choices are dynamic portraits of who we are. I reflected long and lovingly about the choices that the young man in the photograph made over his coming years, with a sense of satisfaction that his decisions had been, for the most part, the right ones for his own unique psyche.
But what if I had not had the luxury of choice? What might my portrait look like if my life, instead, had been channeled at every turn. if the circumstances of my being were such that I had no choice?
I might never have been introduced to and courted by music. Maybe I would not have encountered the opportunity to know sports and fitness, the elements of my physical well-being. Perhaps I would never have known the centering peace of my spirituality. What if there had been no option for education? Possibly I’d have served in the military during the Viet Nam war. What if Katie and I had never met? Our adopted children would have been raised in different homes; our mutual, familial love for one another would never have come to be. Maybe our beautiful grandchildren would never have been born. What if circumstance had dictated that I spend my days in search of food instead of organizational strengthening? The list of choice-based outcomes is nearly endless. How might you own life have evolved differently if you had not had the blessing of choice?
The luxury of choice stems, in part, from political philosophies which recognize and value human independence. It also arises from circumstances that allow the human spirit to envision new aspirations and realities for itself. In the absence of these elements, choice is minimized. And outcomes are dramatically different. It’s true everywhere. In the U.S. In Nicaragua.
Winds of Peace Foundation works with many organizations and individuals in Nicaragua who have few choices. They are moved in directions dictated by their realities and their histories, in the former cases often motivated by need for survival, in the latter cases motivated only by what they know from previous generations. And when motivation stems from either absolute need or limited knowledge, then choice is often a forgotten, impractical dream. The nature of the Foundation’s work is to create the environments for more choice, with the certain knowledge that, over time, greater choice invariably leads to better outcomes. I wonder what Nicaragua might look like today if their history was populated with greater choice and fewer outside impositions that eliminated it.
In the years ahead, I expect to make lots of choices about things. Perhaps the Foundation will adopt some new methodologies. Maybe I’ll move into a new vocation altogether. I might do some more writing. My wife and I will make some determinations about eventual retirement. We’ll think about travel that might be important to us. I’ll even continue to choose the kinds of food I want to eat, whether for my health or for my enjoyment. But whatever the issue, I’ll have in mind my gratitude for having the opportunity to choose, and a hope to be a resource to those who do not….
I’ve taken to re-reading the Charles Dickens classic tale, Our Mutual Friend. It’s Dickens’ last work, a long piece of literature that captured my imagination as a young man and for some reason (perhaps the recognition that if I ever intended to re-read it, I’d better get going), I decided to tackle it again. It’s full of lessons and observations about Victorian (and modern) life, as well as those long and circuitous sentences with which Dickens was so adept.
Dickens’ focus on the great disparities in Victorian London are well-known, such as in his tale, A Christmas Carol. But I ran across a passage in the current book that I simply couldn’t pass up for sharing. One doesn’t really need to know the context of the story or the characters to understand the clarity of the message. It reads like this:
In the meantime, a stray personage of meek demeanour, who had wandered to the hearthrug and got among the heads of tribes assembled there in conference with Mr. Podsnap, eliminated Mr. Podsnap’s flush and flourish by a highly unpolite remark; no less than a reference to the circumstance that some half-dozen people had lately died in the streets, of starvation. It was clearly ill-timed after dinner.It was not adapted to the cheek of the young person. It was not in good taste.
“I do not believe it,” said Mr. Podsnap, putting it behind him.
The meek man was afraid we must take it as proved, because there were the Inquests and the Registrar’s returns.
“Then it was their own fault,” said Mr. Podsnap.
The man of meek demeanour intimated that truly it would seem from the facts, as if starvation had been forced upon the culprits in question- as if, in their wretched manner, they had made their weak protests against it- as if they would have taken the liberty of staving it off if they could- as if they would rather not have been starved upon the whole, if perfectly agreeable to all parties.
“There is not,” said Mr. Podsnap, flushing angrily, “there is not a country in the world, sir, where so noble a provision is made for the poor as in this country.”
The meek man was quite willing to concede that, but perhaps it rendered the matter even worse, as showing that there must be something appallingly wrong somewhere.
“Where?” said Mr. Podsnap.
The meek man hinted Wouldn’t it be well to try, very seriously, to find out where?
“Ah!” said Mr. Podsnap. “Easy to say somewhere; not so easy to say where. But I see what you are driving at. I knew it from the first. Centralization. No. Never with my consent. Not English.”
An approving murmur arose from the heads of the tribes; as saying, “There you have him! Hold him!”
He was not aware (the meek man submitted of himself) that he was driving at any ization. He had no favorite ization that he knew of. But he certainly was more staggered by these terrible occurrences than he was by names of howsoever so many syllables. Might he ask, was dying of destitution and neglect necessarily English?
“You know what the population of London is, I suppose?” said Mr. Podsnap.
The meek young man supposed he did, but supposed that had absolutely nothing to do with it, if its laws were well-administered.
“And you know, at least I hope you know,” said Mr. Podsnap with severity, “that Providence has declared that you shall have the poor always with you?”
The meek man also hoped he knew that.
“I am glad to hear it,” said Mr. Podsnap with a portentous air. “I am glad to hear it.It will render you cautious how you fly in the face of Providence.”
In reference to that absurd and irreverent conventional phrase, the meek man said, for which Mr. Podsnap was not responsible, he the meek man had no fear of doing anything so impossible; but-
But Mr. Podsnap felt that the time had come for flushing and flourishing this meek man down for good. So he said:
“I must decline to pursue this painful discussion. It is not pleasant to my feelings; it is repugnant to my feelings. I have said that I do not admit these things. I have also said that if they do occur (not that I admit it), the fault lies with the sufferers themselves. It is not for ME- Mr. Podsnap pointed ME forcibly, as adding by implication though it may be all very well for YOU- “it is not for me to impugn the workings of Providence. I know better than that, I trust, and I have mentioned what the intentions of Providence are. Besides,” said Mr. Podsnap, flushing high up among his hair brushes, with a strong consciousness of personal affront, “the subject is a very disagreeable one. I will go so far as to say it is an odious one. It is not one to be introduced among our wives and young persons, and I-“
He finished with that flourish of his arm which added more expressively than any words: ” And I remove it from the face of the earth.”
It is an easy thing to simply banish disagreeable realities with a sweep of the arm. Or to claim that something is true when it is not. But doing so does not change the realities or absolve us from the human stewardship that we owe to one another as fellow-travelers on this earthly journey. Dickens knew it. And as unpleasant, repugnant, disagreeable and odious as it may be, so do we all….
One of my daughters, Molly, has been working with a local university in co-teaching a section on the concept of privilege. She’s very excited about the opportunity and the subject matter; in turn, I’m very excited to hear about the class sessions and how people respond to the comforts or discomforts of privilege. It’s a section of social work students, so my presumption is that they have some awareness of the societal realities regarding privilege. It’s a topic that touches every one of us, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Molly commented on the awkwardness exhibited by most of the class members in discussing the notion of their own privilege; it is a group of predominantly white, middle-class students. Maybe they were feeling a bit of “privilege guilt” or, contrary to my assumptions, perhaps they had never really thought about privilege in their own context. Whatever the cause, the members of the class struggled in that first session, heads down, voices silent, struggling with whatever notions occupied their hearts and minds. (Molly related that subsequent sessions became more open, less constrained.)
But the episode spawned interesting conversation between Molly and me, in part because Molly is an ethnic minority herself, an adoptee from Korea at infancy. She can personally relate to the idea of privilege, both from the standpoint of a minority who has grown up in a white-privilege society, as well as from the point of view of someone who was raised in a family of relative economic and opportunity privilege. The dialogue prompted some musing on my part, as I contemplated the problems inherent in discussing such a charged topic as privilege.
The first of these problems is that privilege is something that everyone inherently wants. We may not refer to it in terms of privilege, but it’s that competitive or better position that all of us seek, and in nearly all avenues of life. We want to be “first in line.” It might be first in line for a new technology. We line up through the night to obtain front row tickets. We follow our sports teams in hopes of being able to claim, “We’re number one!” even though the game is played by others. We push ourselves at work so that we might advance in title and pay. We wonder longingly what it might be like to have great material wealth or not to be required to work. Sometimes we even compete to be among the first to escape the church parking lot on Sundays. It’s in us instinctively. Whether it’s called getting ahead or realizing one’s full potential or seeking favor in the way our communities look at us, privilege is seen as an advantage, or an honor, or a placement somehow better than before, better than where others are. We might equate the term privilege with those who are of the economic upper 1%, but it’s an objective we all strive to achieve.
The second problem is that, whether we believe it or not, nearly every one of us already enjoys some degree of privilege in our lives. Everything is relative in life, and if we could chart the degree of privilege of every human being on a continuum, the only person without privilege would be the individual at the very bottom. For all the rest of us, we occupy some position that is further ahead or better off than those below us. We need to recognize that just as we gaze jealously or longingly at someone who we regard as being “ahead” of us, there is someone doing the same thing from below. All of us are more privileged than some. Some are more privileged than most. Most are more privileged than the least. I even have met some of the least who regard their lot in life as more privileged than the most. So the cycle depends entirely upon one’s point of view and the meaning of “privilege.”
Third of these problems is that, despite our privilege in life, very few of us recognize that we have it. We seem to feel as though everyone else has it. No matter what the blessings or good fortunes of our lives, we are fixated on those who seemingly have so much more, believing that it’s these fortunate few who are the privileged. The recognition of privilege is as difficult as knowing our own incompleteness: we can only see it in others. There are good and valid reasons for us to dream about privilege; such dreams often fan the flames of knowledge and invention. But privilege has visited most of us, even when we never recognized its random faces.
Finally, privilege has never embraced notions of fairness or justice. When disparities exist among people, discussion of them is usually laced with guilt or blame or other tension to drive a wedge between those who have and those who have less. The fact that privilege is so unevenly divided within our society has been cause for debate throughout our history. It continues to be, and the arbiter of privilege falls to whatever political perspective happens to own government. That’s ironically the privileged class, and so the cycle continues its lopsided turn.
If the problems of privilege are understood and acknowledged, then a meaningful dialogue can happen for people wanting to know their own places in the equation. It’s a searing examination of self and other that requires enormous self-honesty and deep compassion. But the undertaking is a sort of privilege unto itself….