The Odyssey of a Peasant Navigating the Seas of Power
Ullyses lived his odyssey in the Mediterranean,
navigating a sea teeming with fantastic powers.
Vicente Padilla, a humble but not humbled peasant
is going through his odyssey right here in Nicaragua,
navigating a sea lashed by waves of corruption and power.
His emblematic story gives us some insights into one of
Nicaragua’s most deeply felt structural dramas:
the tangled mess of property ownership.
Matagalpa, August 2, 2006. Bearing corn stalks and banners proclaiming “you won’t intimidate me,” a crowd of over a hundred peasants, human rights activists and members of the Matagalpa indigenous community marched on the Matagalpa city courthouse. They were demanding justice for organic coffee farmer Vicente Padilla, a leader in his community of Yasica Sur, and for other peasants fighting for their land.
Every Nicaraguan knows the name Vicente Padilla, star pitcher in US major league baseball for years. He’s currently with the Texas Rangers and any game he pitches is broadcast live in his native Nicaragua and followed in passionate detail. Chinandega-born Padilla is the pride of the country, and his bigger-than-life reputation is only enhanced by reports that he pulls the largest salary of any Nicaraguan anywhere in the world.
But he’s not the Vicente Padilla in my story. Vicente Padilla García is a poor, courageous Matagalpa peasant with a history of such tenacious commitment and dignity that it affects almost all who know him and makes one wonder deeply about the values of any who would wish him harm. But his story is much more than just another sad saga of a poor peasant facing a powerful landowner; in the complex and thorny tangle of Nicaragua’s property problems, it is emblematic. It illustrates the continuing failure of Nicaragua’s legal institutions to protect the rights of the powerless in the face of moneyed interests, the mounting social toll of the lack of resolution to so many pending cases and the US-supported trend of agrarian “counter-reform” in Nicaragua.
Padilla’s struggle thus resonates with peasants through-out the Matagalpa region, many of whom are facing property disputes of their own. Those who joined the march, many of whom walked for hours just to get to the city, see Padilla’s case as a precedent-setter for his spirited refusal to acquiesce to a greater power. They hoped the march would be a first step in a larger campaign centered on the rights of indigenous people and peasants involved in land disputes.
Padilla v. McEwanFor the last five years, Vicente Padilla has been embroiled in an impressive campaign against powerful coffee magnate José Esteban McEwan, owner of Santa Emilia Estates, a huge plantation in Yásica Sur (near San Ramón) that surrounds Padilla’s 3.5-hectare plot. The dispute began on January 15, 2001, when Padilla returned home from a spiritual procession to find that workers sent by McEwan had invaded the land where he had lived in peace with his family for the previous seven years. They had blazed a trail across his property to connect an adjoining section of Santa Emilia land to the main road, then fenced off part of his land and secured it with armed guards.
Padilla immediately filed a property damage suit against McEwan, the first in a long series of suits and countersuits that have resolved nothing. Today, five years later, Padilla’s land is still legally disputed, complicated by an important dose of judicial and police corruption promoted if not outright purchased by McEwan.
Padilla accuses McEwan and his cohorts of “threatening me, beating me, jailing me, putting his guards on my property, sending the police, even involving the army.” He has watched McEwan’s workers harvest his crops, protected by McEwan’s machine gun-toting private guards. He has suffered the loss of friends and backers in his community who admit they have been coerced into withholding their support. His family has been psychologically traumatized and Padilla fears for their lives; even human rights advocates investigating the case have been threatened. All this show of power has been deployed by one of Nicaragua’s largest coffee growers—a man whose surrounding plantation is already nearly 1,300 hectares—just to wrest a couple more hectares away from a small peasant grower.
It’s another of those David and Goliath battles, one Padilla is determined to undertake non-violently. He clearly understands it as part of a greater struggle for justice and human rights for peasants being persecuted by landholders throughout Nicaragua with the aid of corrupt institutions and the chaotic state of Nicaraguan land tenure. “I know this isn’t just for me,” he explains. “It’s for many others as well, which is why I won’t give up.”
The tortuous history of his tiny plot of landThe legal status of the small farm where Padilla has lived and worked with his family for the last thirteen years is, like many things in Nicaragua, unclear and complicated, with a history of dispute stretching back at least to the early years of the Sandinista period, and possibly all the way back to the Spanish conquest of Central America in the 1500s. The 3.5-hectacre plot has in its time been claimed by the Matagalpa Indigenous Community as part of its communal land, by McEwan and his family as part of Santa Emilia Estates, by the Sandinista government as part of a state-owned coffee farm during the eighties, by its workers as part of a worker-owned cooperative in the early nineties and by Padilla, who bought it in 1993 for the equivalent of US$7,000, unaware of the years of court battles, harassment and violence that would result from this purchase.
Vicente Padilla is short, never without his woven palm-frond hat, and wears a thick mustache over his sincere, open smile. An agricultural worker with a second-grade education, he was 14 when the Sandinistas took power. First he joined the Literacy Crusade to teach those who could read and write even less well than he, then continued to get involved in various Sandinista community initiatives until joining the army in 1983, ultimately reaching the rank of lieutenant. When the war ended in 1990, Padilla left the army and moved to Matagalpa where he began to save money to make a life for himself, his wife Carmen and their growing family (they now have six children aged 7-20). When his brother Francisco told him about a plot of land for sale near his own home in Yasica Sur, Padilla jumped at the chance to live near family, and in 1993 bought the land from Wilfredo Blandón who had been granted the plot in July 1991 by the board of directors of the Juan de Dios Muñoz cooperative.
While many cooperatives dissolved or fragmented in the years following the end of the Sandinista government, the history of this cooperative went in reverse. What had been the Santa Emilia Estates, owned by the McEwan-Mierisch family, was nationalized in 1980 as part of the Sandinista government’s land reform program and became a state-run farm under the name “Juan de Dios Muñoz.” After the 1990 elections, the farm was handed over to its workers as a cooperative.
In 1991, the cooperative’s board broke off four small parcels of land and gave them to Wilfredo Blandón, Padilla’s brother Francisco and two other men as renumeration for services rendered, recording the gifts in documents signed by all seven board members. When Vicente Padilla bought Blandón’s parcel in 1993, his lawyer considered that document sufficiently legal to certify the purchase and record it in Matagalpa’s public registry, where it was duly accepted.
José Esteban begins his moveMeanwhile, the new Chamorro government’s policy with respect to confiscated or otherwise nationalized lands took one of three forms. Where possible, the land was returned to its former owner. When that was not feasible or suitable, the owner was compensated either with cash, as was the case with Enrique Bolaños, Nicaragua’s current President, or with long-term government bonds. Those bonds, most of which have since been bought up by the banks, are now maturing and form part of the onerous domestic debt that the Bolaños government is prioritizing over social spending.
McEwan’s sister, Maria Ligia McEwan de Mierisch, received the equivalent of just over US$1 million for the Santa Emilia Estates in 1994. Two years later McEwan returned to Nicaragua from the US, where he had been living since before the revolution, and unwilling to see the family estate remain in the hands of mere peasants, initiated his plan to reacquire it. At first, he set his sites only on the 80 coop members, leaving the Padilla brothers and the other smallholders who were no longer part of the cooperative alone. Knowing that the coop members were engaged in a losing battle to keep the coop solvent without production credits—they were ineligible as they hadn’t been issued formal titles to their land—McEwan offered to take over their debts and compensate each cooperative member with two hectacres of land.
There was a bitter divide between those who favored McEwan’s proposal and those who wanted to maintain control of the land. Believing himself the undisputed owner of his particular plot, Padilla didn’t take part in the dispute, though both sides sought him out. As a community leader involved in various health, nutrition and environmental projects as well as a Delegate of the Word, he didn’t think it appropriate to take sides in the increasingly hostile dispute that had split the members of the cooperative in half.
A deadly way to break a deadlockThe dispute turned deadly in 1998 when coop member Gabino Paiz, who favored returning the land to McEwan, was murdered and Padilla’s neighbors, coop members Nicolás and Claudio Díaz, leaders of the anti-McEwan side, were accused. Padilla testified at their trial that he had been in front of his home when he heard the AK-47 rifle fire coming from the east and at roughly the same time saw Nicolás and Claudio outside their home further to the south, but they were convicted nonetheless. As the sole witness in a case marked by a lack of evidence, Padillo’s testimony ultimately freed them on appeal in 2005, but by that time they had spent eight years in prison and had lost their land. With them out of the way, the pro-McEwan group had the majority, and an agreement was reached in 1998 giving McEwan domain over the land that had remained in the coop’s hands.
With that, the dust settled for three years. Until 2001, Padilla lived in peace on his small plot surrounded by McEwan’s Santa Emilia Estates. During that time he obtained organic certification for his coffee and undertook various ecological improvement projects on his land.
A long chain of raids andI spent three days with Vicente Padilla at his simple cinder block home in Yasica Sur and accompanied him on his nearly daily visits to the nearby towns of San Ramón and Matagalpa to meet with lawyers, request documents and check in with his remaining supporters as he continues his fight to keep his land. He’s aware that members of his community have been intimidated into withdrawing their support for his case as part of a strategy to isolate him. “I understand perfectly,” he says. “Standing up to so much pressure isn’t easy, and McEwan’s people take advantage of the fact that these people have a lot of needs.”
impotent judicial responses
At night I sit with Vicente as he takes me through the stacks of documents he has accumulated in the last five years: various court orders, legal filings, police reports, testimonials, news clippings. There is a bewildering number of claims and accusations, with documents to back them up. I’m often unsure if we are talking about something that happened in 2001 or 2006.
I discover that the January 2001 land invasion was only the first in a long chain of raids on Padilla’s land by McEwan, his workers and private guards, the police and even the Nicaraguan army acting at McEwan’s beck and call. These raids have resulted in the theft of his coffee crops, the destruction of his property, threats of violence and actual violence against both Padilla and his sons.
The incursions often happened in defiance of court orders, and have resulted in criminal charges against McEwan. At one point, in February of 2001, the San Ramón police department even issued an arrest warrant against McEwan for the damage done to Padilla’s property the previous month. But it went nowhere. The Nicaraguan criminal justice system has proved too impotent to control McEwan’s behavior and make charges stick in the face of judicial corruption and alleged witness intimidation.
McEwan makes a mockery of the courtsFor example, in 2004 and 2005 Judge Evelyn González Betancourt, of the Matagalpa Civil District, issued at least three court orders to the San Ramón police department to prevent McEwan from entering Padilla’s property. These supported her various rulings, the most recent in August 2005, upholding Padilla’s right to his 3.5 hectares until the legal issue is definitively solved. However, neither her rulings nor her court orders stopped McEwan from invading Padilla’s land with impunity.
After one invasion on September 13, 2005, in which McEwan’s workers arrived with armed men to threaten Padilla’s family and tear down his fencing, Padilla succeeded in pressing criminal charges against McEwan. The case finally went to trial on February 16, 2006, but unfortunately Matagalpa policeman Rafael García, who had been sent to the farm to verify the September 13 damages, recanted his written and signed inspection report and testified that he had seen no property damage. According to witnesses present at the trial, García was shaking on the witness stand, his legs literally bouncing up and down as he glanced nervously at McEwan. At this point, the prosecuting attorney demanded that the judge go to Padilla’s farm and see the damage for herself. Judge Maribel Parrilla of San Ramón reluctantly acknowledged the damages to the national TV news cameras that accompanied her, but upon returning to the courtroom found McEwan and his workers “not guilty” of property damage anyway.
Padilla appealed her decision and the case was reopened on March 24. The corpulent McEwan arrived late, driven in a luxury SUV and accompanied by a cargo truck full of workers from his farm. The judge, who also arrived late, wasted no time hearing the appeal argument. He had no more than taken his seat when he began reading from a previously prepared paper, upholding McEwan’s innocence of all charges. The landowner’s family, echoed by the farmworkers inside the courthouse, lauded the judge. Other workers who had remained outside held aloft a banner bearing a “State Street Coffee” logo on which was written: “Ladies and gentlement of the NGO, don’t intervene in Nicaraguan justice.” Despite the palpable tension between Padilla’s supporters and those brought by McEwan, there was no confrontation.
Soldiers, police officers and false rumors That the judge could come to his farm, see that the fence had been torn down and still find McEwan not guilty is more than Padilla can swallow. He leads me around his property perimeter, stopping every few meters to show me each remaining sign of the barbed wire fence that McEwan’s men took. Though he had rebuilt the fence several times before, after other incursions, this time he has kept it as it was. In a voice both sad and firm, he insists that I acknowledge every scrap of barbed wire that remains in the mud, every hole where there once was a fence post, every hatchet mark on the trees that once helped keep the fence in place.
Besides sending his own private guards to Padilla’s land, McEwan has manipulated local police and even the military into conducting raids on Padilla’s home based on claims that he possesses a stockpile of weapons with which he’s threatening McEwan. On October 23, 2005, four soldiers, acting on the orders of the chief of the Sixth Regional Military Command, surrounded Padilla’s home, expecting an armed confrontation. Padilla came out of his house peacefully and talked to them for over three hours, explaining the details of his dispute with McEwan. In the conversation, which he recorded, the soldiers eventually recognized that they had been used to defend the interests of a private citizen and left peacefully. Three days later, the National Police arrived to search for Padilla’s elusive arms stash but all they found—and dutifully confiscated—were firecrackers commonly used in religious processions. When I jokingly ask Padilla where he had managed to hide his machine guns so well, he smiles and points to his zinc roof. “I turned my AK-47s over to the disarmament brigades in the nineties and used the money they paid me for them to buy this roof.”
Riot cops, violence, liesThe most recent outrage in the Padilla case occurred on December 29, 2005, when McEwan himself drove up to Padilla’s house in his silver SUV, accompanied by seven members of the police force’s Armed Rapid Intervention Troops (TAPIR) and a judicial ruling naming McEwan “receiver” of Padilla’s 3.5 hectares, meaning that he has control over the property and its crops until the legal dispute is settled. While Judge González Betancourt had previously ruled that Padilla was the receiver, McEwan simply went to another judge, Judge Marta Loasiga Cruz, and received a new ruling in his favor, though it is of questionable legal status as Padilla and his lawyer were not even informed of the proceedings until after the ruling had been reached.
and abuses of power
According to the Padilla family and other eyewitnesses, the police savagely attacked Padilla, who emerged from his home armed only with a camera. Standing in the very place where he says he was first struck by the police, Padilla demonstrates how he pulled the camera out of his pocket and began to photograph the police pointing their guns at him but, “when I went to take the first photo I felt a blow on the back of my head.” After he fell forward, the police kicked him and beat him with the rifle butts, breaking one of his ribs in the process. Witnesses reported that they continued kicking him even after he was handcuffed and unconscious. The police also went after his two oldest sons, Wilmer (20) and Byron (16), as they came out of the coffee fields: they were gassed and received cuts and bruises.
The police version of events bears no relationship to this. They claim that Padilla, his sons and other peasant farmers who help work his land met them brandishing machetes and that the struggle necessary to subdue them resulted in the wounds the men suffered. Miraculously, the police were able to take on all these armed peasants (among them former soldiers) without using their machine guns or receiving a single injury.
Padilla vehemently denies even the mere possibility of this version: “Every peasant knows how to use a machete. If I had attacked them with a machete, they would have had to shoot me to overpower me.” Human rights lawyers investigating the case have also noted this inconsistency and recall an incident in a Juigalpa police station on February 15, 2006, in which an enraged machete-wielding peasant killed one armed police officer and wounded two others before he could be subdued.
Vicente, Wilmer, Byron and four other men present were arrested at the scene and taken into police custody, though charges were never brought against any of them. Vicente and Wilmer were detained for two days, during which Matagalpa police officers and McEwan’s private armed guards protected McEwan’s workers, among them several children, as they harvested Vicente’s coffee crop. Human rights observers present took advantage of the opportunity to photograph the child workers present, many of whom appeared to be under the age of 12. One photo, posted online by activists, shows a female worker carrying a baby in the coffee fields near an armed guard. The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office is currently investigating these complaints of police brutality and exploitation of child labor.
This incident not only reflects partiality and a lack of professionality on the part of the riot police but also a disturbing trend of excessive use of police force in the Nicaraguan hinterlands. According to Amnesty International, the police killed three people in a forcible eviction in Chinandega in February; two months later Matagalpa riot police beat 15-year-old Melvin Elmer Vega Méndez so badly that he had to have a kidney removed. Padilla alleges that those who broke his rib were the same ones who beat the teenager—who, incidentally, had done nothing wrong.
Intimidation, threats and isolation In addition to the actual violence committed, McEwan or his associates have repeatedly intimidated and threatened Padilla, his family and their supporters. On August 9, 2005, an armed guard threatened Padilla’s sons as they were rebuilding their property fence, the same one McEwan’s workers destroyed again a month later. This occurred in the presence of Executor Judge Gamaliel Rivera Morraz, who was supervising the construction of the fence in accordance with the judicial ruling naming Padilla receiver. According to Padilla’s sons, when the judge identified himself and informed the guard of the recent judicial decision, the guard replied that he had never heard of any judicial decision and was ready to kill to defend McEwan’s interests. On other occasions, the family has heard gunshots fly over the house, and Padilla’s wife and children report that armed guards enter their home to intimidate them when they know Vicente isn’t home.
The intimidation extends to other peasants from the district to dissuade them from supporting Padilla. This attempt to isolate him works because while Padilla registered his property, ostensibly giving him legal status on his land, others don’t feel protected and fear that McEwan will go after them next. They haven’t yet wanted to recognize that not even legality means much to McEwan. Vicente’s brother Francisco has recently informed him that he can’t publicly support him anymore, after McEwan’s associates threatened to evict him from his own land, which isn’t registered either.
The turmoil caused by the years of struggle has forced Padilla to curtail his community activism, which gave him status as a community leader and involved him in various humanitarian projects. As a result, he’s beginning to feel alone: “I’m very isolated now, due to the pressure that man is putting on people.”
But Vicente Padilla isn’t alone. Various human rights organizations—the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) , the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office and the Ecumenical Center of English-Speaking Religious Personnel (CEPRHI)—have all been following and investiga-ting his case. Human rights activists have reported being threatened by McEwan and his lawyers. Accompanied by armed guards, McEwan himself hand delivered a letter dated December 16, 2005, to human rights activist Perla Sarria warning her to cease her involvement in the case. The letter, stating that “your support for Mr. Padilla García automati-cally makes you co-authors of the illicit acts committed by Mr. Padilla García,” was written by the Managua law firm Taboada and Associates but was in an envelope bearing the State Street Coffee logo. Later, other activists received the same letter.
Trauma and ecological damageWhile Vicente, Byron and Wilmer have recovered from their physical wounds, the family remains traumatized by the state-supported terror McEwan has inflicted on them during their five-year dispute. The younger children, witness to all that has transpired, suffer from post-traumatic stress, but Carmen, Vicente’s wife, seems to have suffered the most. In an examination conducted by psychologist Maria Eugenia Parajón Sevilla of the Ixchen Women’s Center, she was diagnosed with major depression with melancholic characteristics. The report notes that she has trouble sleeping, fears leaving her home, has lost weight and her appetite, and is constantly worried about her family’s situation.
Also damaged is the environmental integrity of Padilla’s land. He has long been an environmental activist and when he had control over his coffee plants, he did a lot to improve his land ecologically. He also got his coffee certified organic, allowing him to sell the beans to the Matagalpa-based Carlos Fonseca organic coffee cooperative. Since the raid by the TAPIRS and McEwan’s shifty receivership designation, McEwan has occupied most of Padilla’s land and has begun to use chemical pesticides and fertilizer on his coffee plants, which will jeopardize Padilla’s organic certification if he ever regains control of his land.
As we walk through Padilla’s property, he points out a hill on McEwan’s property that is covered with coffee plants and small, young trees that don’t provide much shade. According to a complaint filed by the “May 4” Environ-mentalist Law Office, this hill once hosted a variety of fauna species and five water sources. “The little animals all went away and the springs are drying up due to his environmental mismanagement,” Padilla laments.
McEwan’s land sharply contrasts with the small part of Padilla’s land he still controls: the trees are mature and provide full shade, and water flows from a small spring. As Padilla explains the various methods he has undertaken to protect his land’s water source and ecosystem, a guarda-barranco, Nicaragua’s endangered national bird, swoops down from one of his trees as if on cue. Walking quietly towards it, Vicente points out another one higher up in the canopy. “They don’t have many other places to go around here.”
A history of expropriations, “civilizing,” uprisings and forced “volunteer” laborVicente Padilla, a decorated veteran of the Sandinista Popular Army, a peasant farmer with a second-grade education who joined the literacy brigades, a successful organic coffee farmer, a community health activist, a Delegate of the Word committed to non-violence and the transformation of his reality provides a sharp contrast to the greed, violence and corruption of José Esteban McEwan and his US business partner Victor Yanovich. Of course, property disputes are not decided on the basis of character. To understand Padilla’s situation, it is necessary to understand the history of his 3.5 hectares, because it reflects the broader history of land ownership in many parts of Nicaragua.
Before that little plot of land was part of a large coffee plantation, before it was part of a workers’ cooperative, before it became the dream and livelihood of a peasant with the same name as a baseball hero, it belonged, like most land in the region, to the Matagalpa indigenous community. According to Padilla’s lawyer Reynaldo Manzanares Aguírrez, “the Matagalpa Indigenous Community holds a communal title not only to Padilla’s land but to all of Santa Emilia Estates dating back to the King of Spain in the 1500s,” which was last registered in 1902. In fact, Manzanares is bringing the Matagalpa Indigenous Commu-nity into the Padilla case as a third party with an older claim, which should stall McEwan’s legal case against Padilla until the indigenous title issue is resolved. If it is deemed valid it will throw all landholdings in this part of Matagalpa into turmoil, though Manzanares insists that the indigenous community is seeking “only acknowledgement and reparations, not evictions. What we want is for the right they lost to be devolved to them.” Padilla supports this legal strategy as he strongly identifies with the indigenous cause for historical justice. When he learned about the community’s pending claim, he even requested legal permission to continue to use and enjoy his land, which the community granted in November 2005.
In the second half of the 19th century, the Matagalpa region underwent a coffee boom, fueled by Conservative policies encouraging expansion of the coffee industry. The expropriation of around 140,000 hectares of indigenous lands in this region provided the basis for the establishment of large coffee plantations. In 1881, some three thousand indigenous people, protesting these reforms, occupied Matagalpa in the strongest indigenous uprising of that century. As José Luis Rocha explained in the August 2001 issue of envío, these reforms occurred “on the assumption that ‘forming landowners is good for the homeland’ and that only adoption of the new system would shake the indigenous people out of their ignorance.” The government initiated a policy of both “civilizing” and “reducing” the indigenous populations and their power, expropriating their land and concentrating them in isolated settlements. They were often forced to “voluntarily” work the coffee fields on their own displaced lands, providing a large pool of cheap labor and fueling the coffee export boom.
The rosy version of that bloody realityThat bloody repression and strife has been mostly overlooked in current land disputes in the Matagalpa region, with no one questioning how wealthy landowners such as the McEwan-Mierisch family got their land in the first place. According to the rosy family history on the website of Café Sol y Agua, another coffee farm run by the family, “our mother’s family immigrated to Nicaragua from Scotland in the late 19th century. Our grandfather, Esteban McEwan-Blandon, married a beautiful Nicaraguan girl, Mina Callejas de McEwan, and settled in Matagalpa to farm coffee.” Today members of the family not only run Santa Emilia estates and Café Sol y Agua, but also helped found “Contra Café,” an explicitly right-wing alternative to fair trade coffee. While Sol y Agua trumpets its earth-friendly, socially conscious, rainforest nurturing coffee, Contra Café’s website sports a portrait of Ronald Reagan and blares the slogan, “Wake up with the freedom fighters!”
The McEwan-Mierisch family’s landholdings continued to grow throughout the 20th century. The exact date they came to posses the 3.5 hectares where Padilla now lives is uncertain: the threat letter sent to human rights activists claims that their title dates to 1932, while on other occasions McEwan has said they acquired the land in 1968. At any rate, the massive landholdings the family possessed on the eve of the revolution were part of a larger pattern of skewed land distribution in which 1.4% of the total number of farms controlled 41.2% of the farmland, while 50% of the farms controlled only 3.4%.
Eleventh-hour US citizensWhen Santa Emilia Estates was confiscated in 1981, it was part of over 6 million hectares of land belonging to the Somoza family and friends or other large estate holders that came into Sandinista possession and was managed under the Agrarian Reform Law. In the first years, the state typically held possession of the land and ran the farms in what was called the “Area of People’s Property,” although increasingly that state farm concept gave way to production cooperatives. As some Sandinista officials had an ideological bias against individual smallholdings, the title, if issued at all, was in the cooperative’s name, and its members only had usufruct rights. This became a crucial distinction after the end of the Sandinista period and is the main root of the continuing land tenure crisis.
and “Patriotic Producers”
“One of the mistakes of the Sandinista revolution was that they thought it was going to last forever, so they didn’t bother with the technicalities of granting titles through the appropriate processes,” explains Harold Urbina, a human rights activist involved in the Padilla case since 2001. In what Patrick Dumazert (“Agrarian Property and Stability,” envío, December 1995) characterizes as tacit recognition of the questionable legality of some of the reformed land-holdings, the Sandinistas pushed through Law 88 on March 30, 1990, giving ex post facto legal status to all agricultural land transfers undertaken under the banner of agricultural reform. As Law 88 also granted agrarian reform beneficiaries authorization to “sell, cede, transfer, will or effect any other form of disposal” of their land, it seems to cover the cooperative board’s transfer of 3.5 hectares to Wilfredo Blandón in 1991 and his later sale to Padilla. McEwan, however, disputes this, insisting that he bought or negotiated back the entirety of his former property upon his return to Nicaragua. This together with his actions suggests that he won’t rest until he has evicted not only Padilla but his brother and the other smallholders as well.
The Chamorro administration’s attempts to solve the land question only complicated it further as former landowners confiscated during the eighties began to mount their claims on the land with active support from the US government. Many of the claimants were Nicaraguans who applied for US citizenship only after passage of the Helms amendment, which hardened US relations with foreign governments that confiscated the property of US citizens. “Patriotic producers” who had supported the revolution by giving land to the agrarian reform also sought to get it back after the Sandinistas lost the 1990 elections. In his greedy determination to recover every inch of Santa Emilia Estates, McEwan has played the game both ways: he has sought “redress” as a US citizen while brazenly claiming to be a “patriotic producer” despite the fact that he was not even in Nicaragua during the revolution.
As is the case with most indemnification agreements, the one his sister signed in 1994 included a clause rescinding any further claim to the Santa Emilia Estates, but not even this has stopped McEwan from trying to seize Padilla’s small piece of land by any means necessary. McEwan’s lawyers even perversely entered that agreement as evidence in their case against Padilla, arguing that it proves McEwan is the rightful historical owner.
Is there any end?Today, the property question remains, as Nicaraguan newspaper El Nuevo Diario characterized it, “an unending labyrinth.” In May 2005, there were still 768 outstanding claims against the government for land confiscated under the Sandinistas, about half of which were filed by US citizens. Generally these holdouts have rejected compensation, instead seeking the return of their property. As of last year, successive Nicaraguan governments had paid the equivalent of US$1.5 billion on previously negotiated indemnifications and still owed $900 million more.
In an interview a few years ago, a US embassy spokes-person helpfully suggested that the government return all unsettled property to the original landholders to avoid racking up more internal debt and to promote investor confidence. Could he possibly have been ignorant of the fact that all of the various laws issued to resolve the property problems since 1990 have recognized the need for economic compensation in cases where it would be unjustifiable to evict the people occupying the property? Or was he simply so strongly identified with powerful businessmen like McEwan that he was indifferent to the plight of a Vicente Padilla?
In this chaotic labyrinth, the rich, the powerful and the crooked have all the advantages. The lack of titles and other formal documents, the need for costly lawyers to wade through the unclear and incoherent laws, and the rampant police and judicial corruption that allows for manipulation, leave the poor and the guileless at a marked disadvantage.
Indeed, many of the peasants who participated in the August 2 march in Matagalpa had their own land dispute experiences. Justa Hernández, a single mother living on two hectares with her six children, walked two and a half hours from her community of Santa Josefina to support the march “because we have the same conflict.” She’s expecting to receive an eviction notice any day and doesn’t know where she and her children will go next. Others complained of unfair treatment by the judiciary and threatened or real violence at the hands of the police.
Despite his profound disadvantage, Padilla will continue his legal battle against McEwan. The Matagalpa Indigenous Community has made public its claim against Santa Emilia Estates. Padilla is trying to press charges against McEwan and the Matagalpa police for the December 2005 attack. He continues to fear for the life of everyone in his family, as armed men still come to his house to threaten them. In April another human rights activist received a menacing phone call. Padilla and his supporters see a US consumer boycott campaign against State Street Coffee as an increasingly likely next step. The one step that Padillo refuses to even consider is giving up: “In the end, justice must see that my struggle is fair and that I’m waging it peacefully. I hope I’ll live to see the day that they recognize I’m right.”
“ETHICAL” COFFEE FROM AN UNETHICAL COMPANY?What is State Street Coffee, the name that appeared both on the banner carried by McEwan’s workers at the courthouse and on the envelope of the intimidating letters from McEwan’s lawyers? It is a US coffee company owned by US investor Victor Yanovich that presents itself as an importer of “ethical coffee” grown on the Santa Emilia Estates coffee plantation. It also markets itself in the US as an “ethical” coffee company.
Despite the violence, intimidation and property damage committed against the Padilla family, not to mention the documented use of child workers, environmental damage and threats against human rights advocates, ethical investment coalition Ceres lists State Street Coffee, LLC, as a partner company, meaning it supposedly promotes environmental and social sustainability. State Street Coffee also claims to adhere to Global Reporting Initiative standards, which promote social and environmental responsibility. Bibiana García-Romeu, the company’s social and environmental policy adviser, has even spoken at a conference sponsored by Social Accountability International, whose slogan “Protecting the Human Rights of Workers Around the World” rings hollow indeed under the circum-stances. The very coffee picked last December by young children protected by armed private guards while Vicente Padilla, owner of the coffee trees, was in jail with a rib broken by police driven to his property in McEwan’s car might well be marketed right now to unwitting consumers in the US as good and “ethical” coffee!
CAROLINE NAGY IS A HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST LIVING IN NICARAGUA.