Roots and Patterns of our Political Culture
Allan Bolt, Nicaragua’s leading cultural worker,
is a defender of grassroots interests, an inspirer of hope.
With his country in the depths of yet a new national crisis
twenty-two years after the triumph of the revolution,
he shared with envío his views on the reasons.
Countries don’t have one single culture. We in Nicaragua live with several cultures. We have the Mayangna culture, the Miskito culture, the Creole culture, the Garífuna culture, the Ulwa culture, the culture of the small towns of Masaya and Carazo, the different varieties of peasant culture, the culture of the wealthy. And cultures have a history. They begin and change, come together, blend. New groups come with their culture and dominate other groups through the force of their weapons, dominating their cultures while they are at it. And those who lose the war find a way to keep their cultures alive. Mixed, perhaps, but still alive, despite all the sorrow.
In Nicaragua, the culture of the wealthy comes mainly from the Spanish, who dominated indigenous cultures by subjecting the people to blood and fire, although the dominant group’s culture today is also strongly influenced by the United States. That culture became hegemonic when the dominated peoples and groups, instead of trying to rebel, began to want to be like the dominator, to admire its culture, to acquire a complex, fluid sum of beliefs, customs, concepts, skills, reference systems, guidelines for everyday life, systems of relating to other people, sexes, groups and the environment in which they live, holding the dominators up as an example to follow. From that moment on, little by little, year after year, century after century, the oppressed people gradually submitted to their oppression, accepting the explanations of the dominant groups and taking their culture as the point of reference. To ensure this submission, the wealthy, who were enriched by the work of the indigenous and mestizo groups, killed all those who rebelled in the cruelest ways. And then they dirtied the memory of them so that even their relatives tried to forget that they had been part of the family. As the Spanish conquistadors explained, "You not only have to defeat the enemy, you have to denigrate them." And this is what we come from.
When a group dominates and oppresses others for a long time, the dominated and oppressed groups learn not to value themselves. They have no self-esteem. They don’t appreciate themselves. People who work in development programs talk a lot about sustainable development, hardly ever mentioning the problem of lack of self-esteem among the poor, but there can be no development without self-esteem. Since dominated people have none, they not only allow themselves to be oppressed but aspire to be like their oppressors. When we suffer from poverty, oppression and domination for centuries, and do not find ways to change things, dominated cultures end up cultivating a lack of self-esteem to such an extreme that willingness to bear all the hurt and oppression without protest is seen as a virtue.
In Nicaragua, as in many other colonized countries, the state grew out of the domination of indigenous peoples by the kings of Spain. Thus, the state of Nicaragua was born legal but illegitimate, because it was born from the domination of a minority over an immense majority. The Sandinista revolution sought to legitimate the state, but did not succeed. The indigenous peoples were not represented in it, and their territories and traditional forms of government were not respected. Nor was the peasantry truly represented in it despite forming the majority of the country’s population.
A confused, multi-colored mix of political forces brought about the 1979 revolution. The mix included angry protests by unorganized groups and uprisings by young people who identified with the Sandinista struggle without knowing much about it or about the FSLN. The cities rose up spontaneously, without clear political direction, with "los muchachos," young people, everyone’s daughters and sons, as the main protagonists. The Sandinista leadership took root only after the dictatorship fell.
What sparked the overthrow of the dictatorship was not the assassination of (FSLN founder) Carlos Fonseca. It was the assassination of (Conservative politician and La Prensa editor) Pedro Joaquín Chamorro. Carlos Fonseca was important to the Sandinistas, but was virtually unknown to the majority of people who participated in the insurrection. This gives us an especially important key to understanding events and, above all, the relations between the different forces, people, events, beliefs, fears, resentments and elements that came together in that mix that made change possible.
The first insurrection took place in Masaya, in the indigenous neighborhood of Monimbó. Those who rebelled were the same people who dance the traditional "Toro Venado," the same people who each year put together the festival in which all rules are changed, where men dress as women, where in fact women themselves dress their husbands, sons and sons-in-law as women. These people, disdained by the middle class for being indigenous, looking indigenous, for being artisans, earning their living by the work of their hands and not following the Miami model established by Somoza as the model of development, were the first to rise up when Somoza had Pedro Joaquín killed.
Why did Pedro Joaquín have such a high place in people’s eyes, and why did his death have such an impact? Although he accepted an eminently capitalist US development model, Pedro Joaquín defended the interests of those opposed to Somoza. He had participated in rebellions and spent time in prison; he directed a newspaper that denounced corruption and carried news about all sectors of society, as well as publishing information about social services for free. The wretched of the earth rose up to protest the assassination of their oligarchic hero. A different hero would have been unthinkable to them—among other reasons, because Somoza would long since have had him killed if he had not been a member of the oligarchy.
The struggle for economic hegemony going on between the Somocista dictatorship and the dominant classes meant that after Pedro Joaquín Chamorro’s assassination, a part of these dominant classes felt the need to establish alliances with the Sandinistas. Thus the Group of Twelve [prominent intellectuals and businessmen opposed to Somoza who acted as a bridge to the FSLN] was formed. This alliance was made under the supposition, based on CIA information, that there were very few Sandinistas. This was true; there were very few of us. We contented ourselves with the story that the vanguard is always made up of a small number but has the mission of guiding the whole people in arms.
When Sweden recognized the insurrectionary forces as a "belligerent force" and granted them diplomatic recognition once they had part of the country under their control, the Group of Twelve became the guarantors that the popular uprising would assume a capitalist-democratic nature. At that time, there were even people from Opus Dei among the figures dominating Managua’s political world. Given the country’s political culture, the Sandinista Front was taken into account because its people were armed and that inspires terror. Some knew of its divergent tendencies and this calmed the fearful, since the Left in Latin America has a reputation for splitting and infighting over any little thing.
In the eye of the storm was Violeta de Chamorro, widow of the assassinated hero, but then-Bishop Obando was not far away. It’s also very important to remember that the world was still in the midst of the cold war, and everything that happened in Nicaragua was seen through that prism. The Church began to move almost immediately to secure its privileges and prevent atheism from taking hold along with communism. Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie and the oligarchy set out to claim their share of power. The Church confronted while the oligarchy, as in Hapsburg, put their daughters in the comandantes’ beds, on the maxim that "what isn’t won in the war can be won in bed."
In reality, we should not speak of revolution, because the revolution ended before it began. Our world-famous "revolution" was nothing more than a broad social movement, irregular and heterogeneous, that allowed a political group with supposedly Marxist tendencies to come to power, only to be quickly seduced and co-opted by the glitter of the oligarchy’s culture. Seen in this light, it is easy to understand how the whole thing ended with some leaders acquiring enormous personal wealth—"to ensure the future of the people," naturally.
Never were indigenous peoples present in the new national project. Never were the unions involved in decision-making. This explains how the union leaders became powerful bosses, figures with dark sunglasses, super-protected working class representatives similar to the bosses of the big unions organized and controlled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico. And just as in the PRI, rhetorical revolutionary speech-making became a way to make a living and rise up the ladder, while spectacular business deals were cut by selling reserves of that precious wood called ñámbaro, the "occupation" of the "bourgeois" houses in the wealthy neighborhood of Las Colinas got underway, the first currency exchange office was established and then came the contacts and channels needed to sell international services, discreet and safe… The whole process ended with people putting their own name or that of close associates on coffee plantations, sugar refineries, cattle ranches, houses, buildings, fleets of vehicles…
Again, the oppressors—internalized within both the oppressed and the liberators of the oppressed—repeated the habits of a political culture structurally based on the plantation system and caste structure. And the state remained illegitimate, since it continued to be treated by the leaders as their personal patrimony. They used this patrimonial state, from which the dictator had enriched himself, to reward the sacrifices of the revolutionaries who had given everything for the people. "This is why I spent so much time in the war," they said. And again, the people became a mythical being in whose name and on whose behalf everything was done, and about whom the liberators really knew nothing, didn’t even recognize in the street, in everyday life.
Did they not, in emotional speeches about sacrifice and the need for revolutionary mystique, recommend that the workers tighten their belts in response to the crisis created by the war that imperialism was imposing on us? Did we not then see them pick up their dollar bonuses to buy themselves Christmas presents in the diplomatic store? Was there not a privileged caste that maybe didn’t feel the pinch of their belt? How many draft-aged sons of this caste stayed behind as aides, messengers, stock room attendants, drivers, payroll fatteners or even politicians while the sons of the majority and of those who didn’t ask for privileges because they believed in building a "nation for everyone" went to the mountains to fight the war?
Understanding that what happened with the "revolution" was a cultural event of a political order that brought some changes but no substantial transformations makes it possible to understand the logic behind all the measures taken against the rural "petty bourgeoisie" and the "anarchist-separatist" tendencies of the indigenous peoples. It helps explain the logic behind some of the measures taken in favor of urban workers, and the logic behind taking no measures against the patrimonialist tendencies of the leadership.
The agit-prop team devoted itself to creating slogans that reflected the spirit of the patrimonial state and its hierarchical government and of a model in which it was necessary for a few to make decisions for everyone. From these Goebbelian minds came slogans like, "National Directorate, give the orders!" or "Through the Directorate, we’re with the Revolution!" in which the leaders set themselves above good and bad as absolute owners of the truth, corporeal manifestations of a new, incontrovertible myth: the Revolution. Having minimal knowledge of some irreverent urban sectors of the population inclined to poke fun at everything or protest any silly thing, the Interior Ministry had to be vigilant to avoid any possibility of thinking or acting differently. It had to start with what was deepest within us, threatening to not give us a party card or promote us through the ranks. The grassroots committees were supposed to turn the reticent petty bourgeoisie into proletariats. They had to establish clearly, at the deepest level, how power functions and who wielded it. All those signs of a hierarchical, authoritarian, anti-democratic, ecclesiastical, Catholic political culture should have alerted us.
Paradoxically, the people in whose name the revolution did everything refused to accept it and rose up. Peasant and indigenous groups rebelled. They were prompted by the drastic, violent, humiliating actions taken to make peasant farmers, whose opinion had not been requested, into a militia to defend a national project about which they knew nothing. In the case of the indigenous groups, the rebellion took place after massive relocations, bombings and incomprehensible efforts to convert them into proletarians.
What validated us in the eyes of the world was the massive participation of the urban population of a certain part of the country in non-decisive activities, and our proud rebelliousness and dignity in response to US imperialism. Our admirers did not have clear in their minds the issue of power, or the illegitimacy of the state, or what would have to be done to legitimate it. Nor did I, although I was so uneasy and anguished that I felt no peace. I spent my time trying to put the puzzle together, but some of the pieces were missing. My anguish continued to grow, because my intuition told me things were going badly, very badly, despite the huge demonstrations, the poetic speeches, the visits by movie stars.
What made my anguish grow, what kept my feet on the ground, what served as my reference point, were the peasant and indigenous people with whom I worked and who I saw every day. They had hopes, but they still lived in misery and the new local leaders failed to create mechanisms for effective participation. In the rural municipalities, the political secretaries were all young people from the city placed in these positions only because they were presumed to be politically trustworthy. They were all from the middle classes. There was not a single peasant farmer, man or woman, among them. We did not create participatory mechanisms for reflection and decision-making. The argument they gave us for not doing so was the need to progress quickly. Toward what? And who was making progress? Power was an inebriating and excluding drug. A good number of these leaders, young people of both sexes, took the revolution as a holy war and not as a collective construction. It’s clear that in a holy war there are good guys and bad guys, and if we’re good then the others are bad, and it’s all about winning or losing. Besides this, the question of good and bad was so confusing. Good for what? And bad for what?
The structures that ruled on the farms were so obviously blurred and sidestepped as to be invisible. And we missed another important sign: if what we were trying to achieve was a proletariat revolution, the people working on the farms were rural proletariats. Although unions such as the Farm Workers’ Association (ATC) were created for them, the people who worked on those farms never offered opinions or said anything. And when they began to criticize, to complain, they were sent to the front. Meanwhile, their representatives, selected by the National Directorate, negotiated and made the decisions, sent down the lines to implement and were pleased to be accepted in the eyes of the men of power.
I don’t mean to say that there were no valuable people and efforts to do something. But the results are there to see: farms that supposedly belonged to the workers enriched their administrators and left the farm workers just as poor as before. And the glorifications of workers’ property written by some intellectuals were nothing but paper, with all the hypotheses and principles torn to shreds by the ambitions of the numerous guardians and representatives. Was it perversity? No. It was yet another expression of our political culture.
In an effort to explain so many paradoxes, Pablo Antonio Cuadra and Jorge Eduardo Arellano remind us of the Güegüense [the two-faced interlocutor between Spanish colonizers and indigenous colonized described in the 17th-century Nicaraguan play by that name]. In reality, what they are claiming for us is the brutal historical process that produced mestizaje [the mixture of Spanish and indigenous]. They refuse to recognize that "El Güegüense" is a brutal attack against the mestizos, a short ballet that circulated through the Náhuatl world of Meso-America warning of this new being, the child of Spanish violence, a mule trader who mocks everything sacred. For this reason, defense of this Nicaraguan, this mestizo, of his or her mestizaje, is a defense of the Spanish colony and the classes and state that grew out of it. From the indigenous perspective, defense of the Güegüense—as made by certain intellectuals of the hegemonic class—seeks to legitimate the state and the excluding nation, ignoring the acts of aggression against the Chorotegas, Miskitos, Mayangnas, Ulwas, Ramas and others. To identify the Nicaraguan as the mestizo, the mocking Güegüense, is to negate the indigenous Nicaraguans, respectful of their traditions and aware that the trees of the forest are their kin.
In this context, Rubén Darío—the Gallicized Darío, the mestizo Darío—has been enthroned as the epitome of poetry. They remember Sandino’s heroic deeds but not his beliefs, like his insistence that his generals were reincarnated indigenous chiefs. The same intellectuals who encourage this interpretation of the mestizo Güegüense symbol defend the purity of the Spanish language and make numerous studies of Darío. And when they say that all Nicaraguans are poets, following Darío’s example, they never mention the ancient indigenous poems. They seek to use art to legitimate what is absolutely illegitimate: a nation in which only the dominant classes are citizens and the rest, the majority, the producers of wealth, are merely inhabitants.
The FSLN leadership was educated with this mentality; they shared these cultural characteristics, which operate in the deepest part of the conscience. And this is why they were suspicious of any different cultural proposal, and saw any indigenous demands as an attack against the security of the state, this illegitimate state we inherited from the Spanish colony.
The basic structure of the Spanish colony was the encomienda, in which the Spanish king gave an Indian village and all of its inhabitants to a colonizer, and it later evolved into a plantation or hacienda. This structural basis survives. In Somoza’s time, it was said that all of Nicaragua was his farm, or that he behaved as though it were. The same is said today of Arnoldo Alemán. The plantation owner rules the plantation, and appears to own even the lives of the people who work there. Human rights are not necessarily respected on a plantation. Worse yet, people don’t know or exercise their own rights. This daily renunciation serves to increase the owner’s power. Without reflecting on what they are doing, workers renounce their rights and their creative power, which materially benefits the plantation owner, although it impoverishes him spiritually by depriving him of people to talk to.
For all these reasons, our context today is one of a social pathology. We have been through many crises and are currently going through one with various facets and angles. We react to the crisis according to how it affects us and to our role in it. The economic crisis triggers such desperation in some people that they choose suicide. Although this choice seems terrible to us, it has its logic. For people to be desperate, they must feel a total lack of citizenship. People are desperate when there are no solutions, and there are no solutions when one is alone in the world, if one does not form part of a democratic state. People are desperate when they are not citizens but rather see themselves as and in fact are merely inhabitants.
Our state’s illegitimacy stems from lack of understanding, from discrimination, authoritarianism and hierarchies, from the pathological need of the conquistadors and colonizers to dominate others. Those pathologies sparked other pathologies and they in turn spark others and degenerate into corporal problems that are incrusted beyond our consciousness; they establish patterns that determine much of our behavior and memories of behaviors that reinforce structures that, in the end, are very hard to change.
We have before us today the clear challenge to change the structures and legitimate the state through full and massive participation of its citizens, but we must also understand that our history and the crises we have been through have prevented many people in Nicaragua from fully participating. We need to change our society, our state, our structure of government, our political culture. And to do that we need to change ourselves. Changing ourselves means changing at all levels, from within our bodies, our emotions, our conscience, our behavior.
In "El síndrome del figureo," by León Núñez, it becomes possible for us to understand something of the pathology or dysfunctional behavior of the hegemonic classes that need to validate themselves. One of the elements of this pathology is mythomania, a vice reinforced by a perverse culture that promotes the symbols of power as indispensable. But since the oppressors worked their way into all of us through a widely studied phenomenon called internalization, we also think as they do, and this is what allows them, as the dominant class, to become hegemonic. This is why there is a profound and urgent need to change the symbols and the social imagery.
Faced with a crisis, we can use strategies that work or strategies that don’t. If we choose our strategies well, we move ahead and come out stronger. If we choose them poorly, things only get worse for us. Nicaragua’s history has been filled with crises; since the time of the Spanish, the dominant groups have created crises against the indigenous people and peasant farmers and we have responded with strategies that don’t work. If they had, we would not be where we are today. The indigenous peoples and peasant farmers from all over the country have moved from crisis to crisis, responding inadequately to one after another. If we don’t work through the crises, the feelings of pain, fear, guilt, anger and sadness accumulate and we become sick. Even more seriously, when people move from crisis to crisis without resolving them, they grow accustomed to resolving nothing and gradually lose their strength, their intelligence, their capacities to imagine, to rebel, to protest, to demand their rights.
When I hear criticisms of Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán, I wonder if we’re not criticizing the part of them that exists in ourselves. By this I don’t mean that what they have done or continue to do is not objectionable, not spiritually and materially damaging to the majority of our people, including the indigenous and mestizo peasant communities. But I do not believe that Ortega and Alemán are particularly perverse. I believe that they make more visible the serious defects of our political culture, our illegitimate state and the mechanisms created to administrate the country.
We cannot ask others to change, and cannot expect them to. But if we feel bad about the country’s situation, about the lack of honesty, the corruption, the violence, let’s change ourselves. Let’s raise up our personal dignity and refuse to commit acts against a nation that is for everyone. Let’s build this common nation. Let’s go beyond laments, self-pity and passivity, to active resistance and purposeful action. Are we afraid of authority? Let’s vanquish that fear. Are we attracted to the easy money of corruption? Let’s fight this impulse and help create control mechanisms and then values and attitudes that make them unnecessary. Until we begin to move in this direction, we will have the rulers we have because we are as we are.