Last month’s visit to Nicaragua included another in a series of workshops conducted by colleagues Rene Mendoza and Edgar Fernandez, two of the most experienced researchers and trainers in the country. They continue to educate, facilitate reflection, spur innovative thinking and encourage the rural cooperatives Winds of Peace has been working with in recent years. The quality of the discussions in these workshops has been as deep and introspective as any business thinking forums I’ve experienced over the past forty years.
As part of the worksop, Edgar Fernandez shared an interesting perspective on the relationship between two strata within Nicaraguan society, the elite and the peasant, the have’s and the have-not’s, the powerful and the powerless, particularly in the context of the agricultural commercialization process. He painted a vivid portrait of how, over generations of time, those in authority have systematically acted as though they- and only they- possess the intellect, vision and courage to manage the affairs of society, especially those of an economic nature. And like anyone, peasants hearing the same mantra repeated continuously eventually came to believe and accept the perspective as truth. From this dynamic, a national patriarchy was born and nurtured to this day. The result is a series of dependencies and deferrals that erode whatever bargaining power small producers might have and place it squarely in the hands of those further along the marketplace chain.
The result of such power inequality is predictable: the powerful become better off and the powerless become more destitute, the powerful speak of the mutual successes achieved and the powerless ponder their worsening conditions, now even more convinced that their need for the patriarch is a reality. It is an astonishing example of self-fulfilling prophesy. Even before the next growing season begins, the vicious cycle starts all over again with the market players touting their indispensability (within a process which they maintain the average peasant could never understand), and small producers accepting the claim as fact.
Edgar’s recitation of the prevailing patriarchy provided a significant insight as to the nature of “class” relationships in society, why the poor continue to slip even further behind even in the face of significant aid resources, how the chasm between living circumstances continues to widen, why government agencies have seemingly few answers to the needs of so many people. His historical recounting revealed the evolution of an unsustainable relationship of disparity and reliance; the voracity of his observations were reflected in the knowing nods of assent by many in the workshop audience.
The circumstance is one which will be impacted only by significant educational efforts and a receptive population which finally reaches a point of desperation and a final gasp for survival. Indeed, as resilient and adaptable as human beings are, they often are slow to react to conditions which deprive them of justice and fairness, until sometimes it is simply too late to have any “say” at all.
Yet even when armed with awakening and urgency, the victims in a lopsided power relationship require the courage to stand up to it. There are many reasons not to: it’s always been this way; it’s easier not to “rock the boat;” there’s a price to pay politically for speaking out; we’re only peasants and they are more educated; God intended it to be this way; confrontation is too stressful. The list of obstacles is long, having been nurtured and expanded over generations by the very ones who benefit from the patriarchal model. But there are even more reasons to take a stand in breaking the model: more autonomy; greater freedom to choose; leverage in the marketplace and in society; opportunities; less dependence on those with competing interests; pride in better controlling one’s own future. It isn’t easy. But then, facing Goliath in the shoes of David never was.
Whether the small producers in Nicaraguan cooperatives will be heard is too soon to say; for now, the small workshops conducted with some very grassroots cooperatives are doing what they can to bring some light into a very dark room. Meanwhile, the wealthy become wealthier and the poor become more confused about why they can’t make ends meet even in a lush growing cycle. In a mimic of the Hans Christian Andersen “emperor’s new clothes” fable, what is said as truth is afforded more weight than what is done in reality, and even when seeing the truth we are sometimes manipulated into denying it.
As I reflect on these relationships and the conundrum they present, I am reminded of an identical circumstance that prevails in a much larger, more affluent and supposedly educated country called the United States….