The leap of the century, the challenge of the municipality of Palacagüina


The leap of the century, the challenge of the municipality of Palacagüina

René Mendoza, Edgar Fernández and Ramón García *

The dogs in the village of Riito in the municipality of Palacagüina, on hearing the noise of a motor, come out barking wildly in pursuit of the vehicle; when they finally reach it , nothing happens! They return, tired, marking their territory. This reference is applicable to most of the families and organizations of the municipality, and to thousands similar ones in other places. In this article we describe the opportunities that the municipality has, and how after a period of success, the families and organizations that took advantage of those opportunities then became stagnant. We talk about the causes behind this, and we suggest how to overcome these structural limitations.

Between 1900 and 1930 peasant families saw in Palacagüina the opportunity of having land and making their farms. In 1944 the Panamerican highway was built, and 15 years later the slaughterhouse of Condega was built, where the ranchers of Ocotal and Estelí saw an opportunity, so bought land in Palacagüina as their “second farms”; they would bring in cattle from their haciendas to fatten them in Palacagüina, getting them ready for the slaughterhouse in Condega. Also  coffee producers from Ocotal built the first dry coffee mill, and buyers even from Managua came to await the coffee that would come down from San Juan del Río Coco and Quilali. The families of Palacagüina lost their land and their farms, and got jobs in construction, the slaughterhouse, tobacco and tannery plants in Condega, and in the coffee mill, and each November they would go to San Juan del Río Coco and Dipilto to pick coffee. These rancher and coffee growing families, like previously the peasant families, were successful for some 25 years and then went into decline.

In the 1980s the revolution was an opportunity, families without land got access to land and organized into cooperatives, benefitting additionally  from state resources and international aid; these cooperatives disappeared after some 20 years and their members were left without land; the same thing happened with dozens of organizations with large projects in the decades of the 1990s and 2000s, and when foreign resources got scarce, they disappeared. Also in this period the rancher, Balvino Cruz, saw the opportunity in baseball for forming children and adolescents, this success lasted some 20 years and with his death baseball came to a standstill. In the last 20 years the youth saw the opportunity of studying as a means for scaling up, today there are professionals from Palacagüina throughout the country, even though most have resigned themselves to be “ diploma bearing workers” in tobacco and florist companies in Estelí. Also in the last 20 years hundreds of people migrated in search of opportunity, while other families making concrete blocks and other businesses have been growing; all of them, we predict, will go into decline after 25 years of relative success.

Within this century-long pattern, Palacagüina has been left with the image of being “the birthplace of baseball”, and a municipality where “the people use gloves as pillows and the broom as a bat;” “the place of the best bricklayers in the country”; the “municipality of scholars”, with a “large reserve of workers”, a municipality where “the people would rest” when they travelled by bus, and it is the municipality where “Christ is now born” (song of Carlos Mejía Godoy). What has kept them from scaling up in a sustainable manner? We point out three interrelated answers. First, the primacy of the myths that leave the population like “hens with their feet tied together”; the myth of the “biotype”, that believes that “short statured” people can not get ahead in baseball, when teams from Korea and Japan have been successful in spite of being “short statured”; the myth of being a “dry municipality”, when the ranchers and coffee growers see it as an opportunity; the myth of “without money there is nothing”, when  international aid projects, remittances and a multitude of workers and professionals have generated a lot of capital and nothing happens! Their attitude keeps them “hobbled.”

Secondly, when the level of investment grows and businesses, cooperatives or associations are formed, they end up being managed under the rules of the institution of the family. In this way a successful bus owner in the face of the opportunity of buying another bus and another route, declines because “who is going to drive the bus for me the way that I drive my bus?” When a cooperative, foundation or association emerges, they end up being managed by a small number of people, who centralize the decisions, the contacts and the information. They are “orchestra” people, that even though “two or three hats do not cover one head”, occupy all the possible posts, and manage the organization as if it were their “milk cow.” So, for example, the bodies of a cooperative (Assembly, Administrative Council, Oversight Board and Credit Committee) do not function and their statutes (rules) are worthless paper. It does not matter how high up they go, this “law of social gravity” smashes them against the ground.

Thirdly, the endogenous institutionality (attitude and family) are reinforced with neoliberal ideas (maximize profits, preeminence of the individual, everything is economics). These ideas, as K. Polanyi used to say in his book, “The Great Transformation”, make  land, money and work  be seen as merchandise. We would add,  organizations are also seen as merchandise. These ideas co-opt the organization´s bodies and rules. They are able to earn money, but they do not invest well.

This trilogy has meant that the dog, after reaching the vehicle, returns with his tail between his legs; that the families, after they have been successful, get stagnated and go back to the routine. How can this trilogy be overcome and make the population take the leap of the century? Opportunities abound, which is their location as the door to Estelí, to Telpaneca, and San Juan del Río Coco, to Ocotal and Las Manos, to Yalagüina and Somoto, and to Pueblo Nuevo and San Juan de Limay; also their high number of professionals and migrations-remittances. It is important to take advantage of these opportunities, and developing savings and loan services, technical and organizational assistance for production, processing and commercialization is important.

The biggest challenge lies in the spirit of the people and a change in the family-style institution, expressed in two experiences. In the village of Musulí, a mother on her deathbed counseled her 20 year old son Faustino, “be careful about taking something that belongs to someone else,  and taking the road to alcohol”; 60 years later, Faustino followed the two pieces of advice and added a third, “never arrive in the early morning wiping  sleep from your eyes”, to which his wife Felipa added, “that is a good step forward;” and Faustino concluded, “I am 80 years old and don´t have a lazy bone in my body.” In the Riito Méndez village, 70 years ago grandfather Froylan left his land equally to his daughters and sons, along with his advice to “respect people”; the two following generations repeated both rules, and today in that community there is less violence and greater equality. A saving spirit, one of investing well, respecting people and embracing the institution of inheritance with equity can be what the Prince called “that which is untangible.”

This spirit is a “good step” for scaling up – “getting ahead” – if it responds to the opportunities, and is accompanied by organizations (foundations, cooperatives, associations, NGOs and unions) that see Palacagüina as a great opportunity, and function according to their rules and decision making bodies, governing the market. This would make the difference of the century.

* René Mendoza ( has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF) (, associate researcher for IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium) and of the Nitlapan-UCA Research and Development Institute (Nicaragua). Edgar Fernández is a collaborator with WPF. Ramón García is from the Roncalli Association of Palacagüina.

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