The Autumn of Patriachy

José Luis Rocha is a well known essayist in Nicaragua, has a Phd in sociology and is a very insightful social critic.

The Autumn of Patriachy

By José Luis Rocha, January 23, 2020 in Confidencial

[original article in Spanish]

Ortega is an agrarian patriarch. Maybe the last overlord of that species. Reflections from a Central America that is losing its agrarian nature.

The Somoza dictatorship was a sultanate, the sociologist Edelberto Torres-Rivas said many times. Somoza was the system of government. Once the sultan was dethroned, the entire edifice fell like a house of cards. His lieutenants fled, like rats jumping off a ship in the process of going under. It was easy to replace them, because in this country we have always had more than enough high officials to take their place, who seem to be extracted from Saruman – the perverse magician of the Lord of the Rings – from his reservoir of Orcs.

But Somoza was not the political culture and machismo. At most, he was their most visible representative, a strong man whose desires were orders, and whose whims were laws, and that is why he could show off his lover in official parties, where his ministers placed their Catholic convictions about marriage at his feet like fluffy carpet. Nine strong men replaced him. No one within the ranks of Sandinism questioned the fact that those nine were not even remotely representative of the national gender balance, and how much Nicaraguan women risked themselves and lost in the war. And if they did, they spoke with pressed lips out of fear, discipline and dissembling. Nor was there anyone who would advise them to suppress the slogan “National Directorate, give us your orders”, that for more than one German must have evoked the Nazi slogan “Führer befiehl, wir folgen Dir!” (Leaders, give you order, we follow you).

The faces changed, but the system continued. I am referring to the system of the strong man, the patriarch, he who could say “the State is me”, and who even though he did not say it, he acted as if that is how it was. It is a system that is linked to the Central America of the agrarian republics, that should be called agrarian autocracies. This system did not change one bit because of the fact that Nicaragua was the first country in the Central American isthmus to take a woman to the presidency. It soon returned to its habitual face: in the mayors of Managua a new strong man had been incubating, the farmer Arnoldo Alemán, who had the plan – but not the means – to keep himself in power, as Somoza had done, and later Ortega would do.

Daniel Ortega invited him to a negotiation of farm owners, the overlords of the two large parties. There he closed a deal with him where he took him for a fool: Alemán sold his political first born for a couple of jumbo nacatamales, and Ortega got the conditions that he needed to recover the throne, who in his second coming did not have to share it with the other commandantes. The strong men of finance, trade and haciendas did not bulk, and in that passivity – in addition to the obvious economic convenience – their tolerance also has to be read by the fact that the executive branch was taken over by someone accused of sexual abuse by his step daughter (why not, she was not his biological daughter, she sought him out and who can prove that is what happened, they have said), and someone who placed the red and black flag in all the state offices (why not, isn´t he the owner at the moment of the big farm “Nicaragua”?). Their inclination to pass over this minutiae springs from the acceptance that these cultural characteristics have which have been reproduced over centuries.

Ortega is an overlord of the same appearance as the protagonist of “El Otoño del patriarca”,  a sexual predator of child prostitutes that his subordinates would bring to him disguised as schoolgirls to satisfy his pedophilia. He is an agrarian patriarch. Maybe he is the last overlord of that species, the same species as Álvaro Arzú, who once was president of Guatemala and five times the mayor of its capital, Minister of Foreign Relations and Director of the Guatemalan Tourism Institute. An entire life in the scaffolding of power , like Ortega. What makes them most similar, nevertheless, is not their political longevity, but their condition of being men surrounded by thugs. One of the bodyguards of Arzú was Byron Lima, the murderer of Bishop Juan Gerardi, executed for having presented a report on the crimes during the war. The paramilitaries, soldiers and police of Ortega have given us a very precise idea about what the overlord understands as the art of governing. A cultural genealogical line can be traced that unites these strong men to be reckoned with, from Santa Ana and then Trujillo, passing through Castro and Pinochet, some with the gringos, others against them, all with weapons and the willingness to drown dissidents in blood. For them politics should and must be a reflection of the chain of command of the hacienda, where orders are not negotiated nor discussed.

All have been representatives of an agrarian patriarch. Ortega follows that agrarian tradition by his political approach and his recent options, in spite of the fact that he came to power on the haunches of a party that has had a mostly urban base. That support in the cities he harvested when many thought that this organization would lead to social progress, understood as a more egalitarian society. But in the 80s he devoted himself to creating agrarian white elephants, and in the cities, only those who were “connected” were able to get around the hunger. In this return to power, his proposal was for a huachicolero[1] socialism of Venezuelan oil, whose flow of funds were in large part channeled toward the pools of agrarian dreams: the Zero Hunger Program and its distribution of different types of cattle and farm inputs and credit; the fair parks for the producers – with high state subsidies – transacting directly with consumers; the construction of rural schools, without training teachers who breathe school life into them.

Symptomatic of the agrarian approach is the fact that the repression has brewed up – from before the rebellion of April to now – in the rural areas. This is happening because the repressive organs live in the agrarian Nicaragua of 1980, that had 1,600,000 inhabitants in the cities (barely half the population), and not so much in the Nicaragua of 2018, with nearly 4 million city slickers, 60% of the total population. The FSLN represents a conservatism that is not a peasant one – it is even an anti-peasant conservatism – but it is that of an agrarian-patriarchal Nation-State, that of the large hacienda.

That is why the protests of April 2018 exploded and were incubated in the cities, and are linked to problems that affect the urban population more; social security, whose coverage is overwhelmingly of city dwellers; the payment of taxes, that squeeze in a more constant manner the urban centers; the violation of civil rights that are principally exercised by urbanites (freedom of expression, freedom of mobilization, clean elections…).

There is a fact that has been treated lightly: the biggest protests were unleashed around social security and the retired people, a surprising fact because in this country the coverage of social security barely reaches a fifth part of the Economically Active Population. The coverage of all elderly people should be even less. But more than 90% of those who pay into it live in the cities, and that is where the uprising exploded. Also, more than 90% of the university students, who were the leaders of the rebellion, are urbanites. This urban concentration makes the struggle of #OcupaInss a demand of the inhabitants of the cities, who were the principal scenario for the protests, and above all, the initial point of ignition of the civic insurrection.

The peasants have also had a considerable role. They rose up when  the interoceanic canal project threatened to absorb their small and medium farms. The dichotomy “peasantism versus agrarian patriarchy” floated to the surface. The canal has been so far – and maybe it will be forever – the last Nicaragua utopia that sets the mastery of the earth as the pivot point for accumulation. It is the last agrarian utopia, conceived in a country where ranching, coffee growing and mining continue being the principal industry generators of foreign exchange. If we relook at the distinction that the social scientist William Robinson makes between extensive and intensive expansion of capitalism, we will see that Ortega´s model, and that of his predecessors, was committed to extensive expansion: in the canal, in the urban subdivisions and urban constructions, in the forestry exploitation and in many other areas. These land-grabs are connected to the violence, that at times the medium level ranchers carry out on the lands of the indigenous, and that the high hierarchs of the army and police organize on the national level.

In the Central American countries that are more advanced in the processes of urbanization and de-agrarianization, like Panama, Costa Rica and El Salvador, the expansion of capital is done in large measure through an intensive way, incorporating goods and people into markets, in other words, turning into merchandise what previously was not:  panoramas whose beauty is rented out to tourists, family remittances that are banked, sale of services that previously were the object of exchanges, or provided by relatives and friends, etc. It is not by coincidence that Honduras and Nicaragua, that are the most agrarian and least urbanized countries, are the principal regional scenarios for the crudest dispossession and land grabbing. This particularity has political consequences that I want to examine in the next article.

In spite of the fact that Nicaragua is a country where agrarian patriarchy calls the shots, the tendency to urbanization and de-agrarianization is now a flagrant economic fact: the value of family remittances, which are a monumental non-agrarian income, surpasses by far any of the agrarian export crops (and also the non-agrarian ones, of course). Their weight in the economy is the work of the hand of globalized labor, that  is generated externally outside of agriculture, and internally maintained the economic growth in trade and services. This economic de-agrarianization has political expressions that have bloomed in this rebellion. In the two women leaders, Francisca Ramírez and Irlanda Jeres, the countryside and the city shook hands, but both are traders, even though one is a farmer and the other is a dentist. With the exception of Medardo Mairena, who represents the peasants opposed to the canal, the masculine names that are louder belong to people from the cities. Among the new faces, Juan Sebastián Chamorro y Félix Maradiaga stand out, who appear as opposed to Ortega: they are not men of weapons nor of farms, but of an educational level that is above the average. They confront a marriage of two high school graduates, who come from the Nicaragua where people made space in the public civil service outside of diplomas and educational levels. They won it through their last names or through their pistols.

The crisis of the Ortega dictatorship expresses the breakdown of the cultural and political structures of that time-worn agrarian patriarchy. The good news is that it is not possible to get in front of the train of historical tendencies without being run over. All resistance to change only complicates and prolongs the agony of the institutions, groups and people who oppose it. It could be possible that the patriarchal dinosaur might continue there, but we can be certain that the climatic conditions will make it unbearable. The bad news is that the transition process, that began decades ago and accelerated with globalization, takes an unpredictable amount of time, and generates a lot of violence, if the appropriate measures are not adopted. A comparison between the countries of the northern part of Central America can throw some light on this less agrarian Nicaragua that it not completely born, and on its consequences and symptoms in the political system.


[1] Term in Mexico for someone who steals or adulterates gas

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