I spoke to a university class of business students this past week, citing the universal qualities of the employee-owned business I directed for 16 years and Winds of Peace Foundation, with whom I have worked for the past 13 years. Such work tenures provide me with a reasonably credible basis on which to make comparisons, which are many in number and deep in similarity. Since I have been invited to do this presentation for a number of years, I have to presume that it finds interest among the audiences, and maybe even prompts some new thinking about organizations and the people who co-inhabit them.
Following one presentation early last year, a student caught up with me as I was leaving the building and wanted to share with me her own experience in Nicaragua from the previous year. She had traveled there with her college sports team in an exchange program. She described her love of the beauty of the country and the warmth of its people. She expressed surprise at how safe she felt while there, despite pre-conceived ideas about the dangers of Central American countries. She talked about her surprise at the freedoms that her Nicaraguan university counterparts enjoyed in expressing dissent and opinion on almost any issue. She felt very good about the fact that Winds of Peace was working in Nicaragua and wanted to say so. I acknowledged her impressions and concurred with the part about beauty and warmth.
As to her other observations, regarding safety and societal openness, I was not as quick to concur. Nicaragua has been stressed in recent years with ever-tightening restrictions on political dissension and public demonstrations. That posture, along with government control of many media outlets and police, has led to an increasingly difficult environment for expression of any position other than the prevailing party’s line. Contesting a party line is to risk one’s status and economic opportunity, and even safety. Any sense of openness and free speech are carefully crafted illusions that are as ephemeral as they are potentially dangerous; it is too easy to believe in something that we really want to be true.
Nonetheless, there was no advance warning about the latest eruption to take place in the country. This heat derived not from the awakening volcano, but from the streets. The government announced an increase in the country’s social security withholding, raising it up to 22%. That, coupled with the 7% contributed by the worker directly and an actual decrease in benefits of 5%, makes for a program that was deemed punitive by many, especially the more socially-conscious student population from the universities. Demonstrations occurred. Youth of the ruling Sandinista party pushed back violently, while the police did nothing to intervene. People were injured. Some died. Soon there was panic that the growing demonstrations and confrontations would interrupt everyday activities, such as shopping for groceries and fuel; lines began to form at stores and stations in anticipation of shortages. Semester study students from the U.S. were sent home early. WPF cancelled travel into the northern sector of the country. Overnight, the general peace of Nicaragua had disappeared like a wisp of smoke in the wind, illustrating the fragility that exists between leaders and followers anywhere. Trust and stewardship are delicate elements of leadership.
One week later, some degree of quiet had been restored. President Ortega appeared on television, flanked by business leaders (from outside the country, interestingly) to urge a return to calm, and suggesting a re-visitation of the social security action. Eventually, there was a pull-back on the social security action, for now. The fuel and grocery lines disappeared. In turn, travel into the heart of the country resumed. Citizens desperate for the patterns of normalcy willed the resumption of daily routines. After a week of upheaval, with scores of injured and as many as sixty dead, this spot of global warming had cooled. Or at least for the present.
But what occurred in Nicaragua last week was simply a data point, a current event, In a moment of frustration and anger, citizens protested. The government hit back. Things calmed down. And now we wait for the next storm squall, to measure its power and impact, to gain a further read of citizens’ ire, to forecast future storms to come. For elitism eventually creates a response, whether in Nicaragua, the U.S., Syria or anywhere else. The reaction may come sooner or later, but it will come: when people are marginalized enough, they will rise up. Consider the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. Or the women and men of the MeToo phenomenon. Populace rebellion is a reality that should be well-recognized universally, and perhaps especially in a country like Nicaragua, with its rich history of revolution.
One series of demonstrations does not foretell revolution or even a movement. It is like the difference between weather and climate change. Weather is a data point, a measure of what has occurred recently and may likely occur in the short term, while climate change is the story of all the data points put together over a longer period of history. But they are linked, to be sure. Eventually, enough weather data points have been collected to constitute the case for climate change.
If there is a pending change in social climate in Nicaragua, or the U.S. for that matter, it will be foretold by the individual data points. Those occur every day, sometimes in big ways and sometimes imperceptibly. But they are the early distant warning signs for what may be to come, and ignoring them is governance folly….