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  Number 357 | Abril 2011
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In Nicaragua’s fertile northwest area of Chinandega, people are constructing and deconstructing globalization. Over 30% of the population has left the now orange-less City of Oranges pushed out by cotton fields, fleeing the bad pay of the sugar cane plantations, refusing to take it lying down when the peanut business turned its back on them. They can now be found in many different countries: the United States, Costa Rica, Spain, Panama… building globalization their own particular way.

José Luis Rocha

Chinandega used to be the City of Oranges. The expression has survived what turned out to be an ephemeral reality. Chinandega’s orange groves have been so decimated that the most extensive ones cover no more than 8.5 acres. And in any case, Salvadorans no longer want to come and harvest them, as they used to do in large numbers in the seventies. Unfortunately the statistics from that decade are very poor, making any attempt to estimate how many Salvadoran emigrants there were back then very uncertain. Based on data from the Higher Council of Central American Universities (CSUCA), we can hazard a guess that there were at least 10,000 Salvadorans in Nicaragua in 1970 and that the department of Chinandega was their most profitable and popular option after Managua.

Yesterday they came here,
and now we go there

We know for certain that the eighties saw the peaking of intra-regional Salvadoran migration, a genuinely unavoidable phenomenon, with 22,230 Salvadorans coming to Nicaragua seeking refuge from the war in their country. Or to put it in the rhetorical terms of the times, the sons of Farabundo Martí found shelter in the land of Sandino.

The torrential river of migrations then switched direction, with Nicaraguans now going to El Salvador to work on the sugar cane harvest, in henequen, in construction and even in stalls selling pupusas, Salvadorans’ traditional griddle-cooked stuffed tortillas. Chinandegans are found in all these places, and many more besides. Has globalization pushed them out and then attracted them, positioning them as migrants to replace Salvadoran labor that left for the North? And is it continuing to fling them in many other directions, including overseas?

Globalization has been reified and even anthropomorphized: globalization has its malcontents, it harvests enemies, it came but will go…. The most trustworthy authors refer to globalization as a set of dynamics shaped—nourished, speeded up, slowed down—locally. Chinandega and its people are also constructing and deconstructing globalization. At the end of the day, globalization is a set of centripetal and centrifugal forces in which we drag and are dragged.

Fluid and solid dynamics

Abusing Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s metaphor, we could say that globalization has liquid dynamics and solid dynamics. The former are more ephemeral and trumpeted. They’re like tides that both expel and suck. The latter are more hidden and have the appearance of being more long-lasting. They’re like humus that dissolves into the earth and quietly determines energy, foliage and flowering.

One example of liquid dynamics is the free trade agreements that dissolve tariffs and seek a more accelerated circulation of merchandise. A marked US shift in the other direction—a return to less decontrolled markets, in other words to tariff barriers and other never entirely abandoned protectionist measures—could be a hammer blow to the global markets, altering the tides of liquid globalization. Small localities like the 4,662-square-kilometer department of Chinandega are inserted into these tides with their traditional sugar, globally-projected rum, now-extinct cotton fields and the more recent replacement, its prosperous peanut plantations. Such tides both attract and expel in a place like Chinandega.

One example of the solid dynamics of globalization is the cultural changes driven partly by access to information technologies. These are cumulative changes that allow us to think we’ve reached a point of no return. That humus is now in the earth and has incorporated other nutrients that “together with pure water and the aligned planets” produce twisted dynamics.

So many dispersed Chinandegans...

Chinandega is constructing globalization at the same time as it’s being expelled and reinserting itself. But in what way did Chinandegans insert themselves into the planetary-sized economic and socio-cultural migration exchanges, which is one of the aspects of globalization? And in what way are they currently doing so?

Chinandega is Nicaragua’s second highest emigrant-emitting department, topped only by Managua. But while Managuans’ weight among the total number of emigrants is the same as its proportion of the total Nicaraguan population (26%), the 2005 population census revealed that 11.5% of all Nicaraguans living outside the country are from Chinandega, whereas that department only accounts for 7.6% of the population. In other words, the weight of Chinandegans among Nicaraguan emigrants is almost 4% higher than their demographic weight, making Chinandega one of the departments most notorious for its emigrants.

The other departments in Nicaragua’s migratory top five are León (with 7.4% of the national population and 11% of its emigrants), Estelí (4% of the population, 6.4% of its emigrants) and Rivas (3.2% of the population and 6% of its emigrants).

Nicaraguan census data from 2005 shows the United States as the destination for 38% of Nicaraguan migrants. If we use the official figures from US censuses and surveys of 263,642 Nicaraguans living there in 2009 (8.7% of the 2,915,420 million Central Americans), it would mean the total number of Nicaraguan migrants is somewhere around 694,000.

If we trust more in the figures of the Pew Hispanic Center, which probably includes information gathered from migrants who elude government data collection, the figure rises to 275,126 Nicaraguans legally residing in the USA. And if we take the percentage of Nicaraguans among Central Americans in the US to be not 8.7% but rather the 8.8% determined by the Center, and apply that figure to the 1.35 million undocumented Central Americans, we end up with 119,000 undocumented Nicaraguans, for a total of 394,126 Nicaraguans in the US. That would mean a total diaspora of 1.37 million Nicaraguans in 2005, the year the last census was taken in Nicaragua and most of the Pew Hispanic Center estimates we’ve used here were made.

This figure is quite plausible: applying it to the 46% of Nicaraguan emigrants who are in Costa Rica gives a total of just over 477,000 Nicaraguans, close to the half million that some analysts have been talking about rather vaguely and fearfully. In any event, this mixed bag of migrants includes 119,275 Chinandegans, which is equivalent to 31% of those still residing in Chinandega. There’s also a pocket of 40,450 migrants just from the municipality of Chinandega, equivalent to 33% of its population.

Like any estimate of this kind, these calculations have their limitations. For example, the Pew Hispanic Center applies surveys, not censuses. As for the Nicaraguan census, it asks about migrants who left the surveyed households, by definition excluding households that emigrated en bloc, leaving no one to report their departure, and placing a huge question mark over what happens when a household breaks up: who informs about parents or brothers and sisters who migrated when their family members were living in another house and formed another household 10, 20, or 30 years ago? In short, such inevitable glitches mean that the figures used here are inevitably only an approximation of migratory reality.

Chinandega: “Embarkation port”
for multiple destinations

Chinandega emits different flows (to the United States, El Salvador, Guatemala and Spain) and its border with Honduras at the closest point to El Salvador is a transit route for emigrants leaving different parts of the country and even transcontinental migrants. Chinandega is not only second to Managua as the department with the greatest absolute emission of migrants; it also ranks second for the emission of under-age migrants, accounting for 9% of the national total.

According to a survey conducted by the Jesuit Service for Migrants (SJM) in December 2010 in which we interviewed over 400 migrants or relatives of migrants from the city of Chinandega, we discovered the following geographical destinations: 35.3% live temporarily or permanently in Costa Rica, 26% in the United States, 12.5% in El Salvador, 9.6% in Spain, 8% in Guatemala, 4.7% in Panama, 2% in Mexico and 1% in Canada. Other destinations in far fewer cases were Honduras, Colombia, Belize and the Dominican Republic.

In contrast to the SJM 2010 survey, the 2005 Census in the department of Chinandega gives less weight to nontraditional destinations like Spain and Panama. It shows Costa Rica and the USA as the main emigrant settling places (40% and 28%, respectively), followed by El Salvador (12%), Guatemala (11%), Honduras (2.7%) and Spain (1%). It also reveals that 34% of migrants from the municipality of Chinandega were in the USA , 33% in Costa Rica, 13% in El Salvador, 10% in Guatemala and 2.3% in Spain.

In addition to the most glaring reason for the difference in these figures, which is that no survey has the scope of a census, certain other circumstances also help explain it. For one thing, the census took data from the whole department, thus including rural areas that the SJM deliberately excluded. Spain and Panama may therefore be destinations with greater weight among the urban population.

Another reason that may be much more decisive has to do with the five-year time gap between the two instruments. Nobody bathes twice in the same migratory waters. The relative weights of different destinations change with time. As the river of migrations never stops flowing and transforming itself, the difference in figures could be due to a change in destination trends.

One plausible hypothesis for the reduction of the weight of the USA and the rise of Spain and Panama as migratory destinations is a tendency over time. The five years that passed between the 2005 Census and the SJM 2010 were determinant. According to the SJM 2010, 80% of Chinandegan migrants in Spain left Nicaragua since 2005. Generally speaking, then, Spain is a more recent destination and the flow has increased very rapidly in recent years.

We could say something similar about the flow toward Panama, with 72% settling there during the same period. By contrast, those who went to the United States in the last five-year period represented only 37% of the total. Migration toward the Northern empire has a longer history and while it hasn’t stopped being replenished with new blood, its flow has been more measured than those toward Spain or Canada. As a result, migration to the USA has lost its relative weight, with Spain and Canada imposing an unusually strong presence on the balancing scales.

Spain and Panama have emerged as desired destinations in a context of increasing restrictions on migration to the two traditionally most popular destinations: Costa Rica and the United States. Costa Rica’s new migratory law, Law 8764 applies fines and other punishments to irregular immigrants and those who lodge or contract them, spreading a feeling of uncertainty among many undocumented Nicaraguans residing there.

The Nicaraguan government has taken no effective measures to mitigate that feeling. At the end of 2010, Nicaragua’s legislative branch approved a law authorizing the issuing of documents in the Nicaraguan consulate in San José, the capital of Costa Rica. Out and out optimists hoped this mandate would accelerate the regularization of Nicaraguans there, but these documents were previously authenticated in the Costa Rican consulate in Managua after being issued in this country, and the Nicaraguan government didn’t negotiate a new authentication procedure for them in Nicaragua. As a result, they’ve ended up in a kind of legal limbo and their issuing remains ineffective. Panama has appeared as an alternative destination, with similar risks and benefits, and with certain xenophobic outbreaks that at least until a few months ago seemed not to have had excessive repercussions on migratory policies and police persecution.

Spain: a new migrant magnet

Scanning northward, we can make out a filter produced by a combination of factors that, while not impenetrable, does multiply the risks involved. Elements of it include reinforcement of the border wall between Mexico and the United States; immigration policies penalizing illegal border crossings; an avalanche of funds for detention infrastructure, deportation and border patrols; reinforcement of the patrolling by civilian paramilitary groups such as the Minute Men and Ranch Rescue, among many others; and the increasingly omnipresent and terrifying belligerence of Los Zetas, a criminal consortium dedicated to drug trafficking and the kidnapping, extortion and even murder of migrants. The activities of Los Zeta have seen the American dream truncated by the Mexican nightmare in a growing number of cases.

Spain is the alternative for those willing to undertake more long-term, long-distance migratory feats, because it involves fewer risks and comparatively low costs. Spain’s appearance as a destination is rooted in another essential element: the accumulation of links between communities of origin and destination. Over more than a decade, informal sister city links have silently been woven between cities on both sides of the Atlantic. People from Somoto tend to go to San Sebastián, those from Río Blanco and Muy Muy tend to settle in Seville and Chinandegans have been attracted by the magnet of Zaragoza. These migratory sister cities have been growing at a more geometric than arithmetic rate.

What can be expected from these trends? Some family links may weaken with time and distance. But community links will be strengthened through the widening of the networks. Remittances could become more voluminous, as there is a far greater possibility of saving in Spain than in Costa Rica for equivalent jobs, such as domestic work. “There was a great difference,” Manuela Miranda told us, “because I left Spain with US$600-700 in hand. It wasn’t the same in Costa Rica. What did I earn? US$250. You can see the big difference.” The added value of growing migration to Spain, in the hypothetical and unlikely case that Spanish and European Union migratory policies don’t succeed in stemming that flow, would make its consumer power felt in communities with “sister links” on the Iberian peninsula.

Characterizing those who left

Each destination has its own very different occupational profile. Professionals find greater opportunities in Canada and Spain, where they account for 33% and 18%, respectively, of Chinandegans who have settled over there. These are very high figures compared to the 9.4% in the United States, 5.6% in Panama y 3.5% in Costa Rica.

The opportunities, however, are very dissimilar in the two professional-attracting countries. In Canada professionals, some of whom arrived as students, find jobs more in line with their education in commerce, services and administration, while in Spain the vast majority are dedicated to domestic service, frequently caring for the elderly, whom they spare from old people’s homes with the offer of a more personalized and affectionate form of attention. The key aspect explaining this difference is the fact that most of the migrants who went to Canada trained as professionals there and were thus better equipped to insert themselves as such into the Canadian labor market.

Former housewives have a strong presence in Spain (18%), El Salvador (17.6%) and Costa Rica (10%), where they tend to become domestic workers, as reflected in the considerable weight of domestic work as an occupation for migrants in those nations (64%, 19.6% and 32.6%, respectively). In Spain’s case, the host of domestic workers includes both professionals and people with previous experience in paid domestic work.

The migrants who were the best paid in Nicaragua before migrating are found in the United States, Spain and Panama: 9.4% of those now in the United States earned over 5,000 córdobas (about $250) a month, and over 20% of those in Spain and Panama earned between $150 and $250. Most of the people who chose these last two destinations tended to be professionals who saw the possibilities of improving their income exhausted in Nicaragua.

Of those surveyed, 27.7% had no children; 55% had one to four children; and nearly 18% had over four. The combination of youth and procreation is a powerful trigger for migration. Adolescent maternity and paternity probably exercise a catapulting force when they want a decent high school education for their children. The early responsibilities force them to “seek a life” and study once the “divine treasure” of youth (proximity to the age of 30) starts disappearing never to return.

It is striking in SJM 2010 that while 26% of the total sample of migrants received no wages or had any other income before migrating, this figure rose to 36% among 26- to 29-year-old migrants. This is an age at which responsibili¬ties press with merciless insistence and the lack of income is both a stigma and an imperative. In that age group, only 6.7% had no children, while that was true of 66% of migrants aged 18-25. Following migration, that socio-demographic condition of youth plus children is also a multiplier of remittances: young fathers and mothers capable of doing piecework, where the return is in part the result of one’s effort, send home juicier remittances.

Why else are they going?
Fear of the elections

Migration reveals a certain sensitivity to both natural and artificial disasters, to rain-provoked flooding and to earthquakes caused by demented policies. Presidential elections are also a trigger for migration: Uncertainty about what’s to come? Deception with the devil you know and fear of the devil you don’t? A reaction to more of the same?

In the last years of Violeta Chamorro’s administration, the number of migrants shot up. The magnet of promises had lost its power of attraction and there were fears about who would end up in the presidential chair. In our small but representative sample, between 2001 and 2002—in that case when Enrique Bolaños took power—the number of Chinandegans who left the country nearly tripled, from 11 to 31. And between 2005 and 2007—the FSLN’s return to power—it increased from 24 to 40. Political events play a more explicit role in the decision of young people between the ages of 25 and 29, as in the case of 27-year-old Damaris who decided to migrate three years ago: “The change of government came and I was seeing that things were harder. They were already looking ugly. They were saying that this was going to happen, that that was going to happen. That scared me and I said, ‘I’m off; I don’t want to go through that, because I experienced that in the eighties and I don’t want to go through it again.” Disasters also have an influence on the course of the migrant stream. In 1998, the year Hurricane Mitch devastated the region, 23 of the 408 Chinandegans we interviewed left the country, in stark contrast with the previous year, when just 7 left.

From cotton to soy and peanuts

Structural factors have an even greater weight. These are the factors of globalization seen from below. They started incubating in the 1970s and their roots were explored by US historian Jeffrey Gould when he researched land occupations in Chinandega.

Land—its access and use—forms the structural basis of Chinandegan migration. That basis is steadily eroded by the increasingly smaller landholdings inherent in the handing down of plots to numerous children, the reduction in soil fertility, agricultural mechanization and the exhaustion of the agricultural frontier and with it the solution used over decades: the possibility of internal migration. The replacement of Chinandega’s traditional crops—cotton and basic grains—with highly mechanized crops that have a meager demand for labor—eucalyptus, soya and peanuts—reduced the intra-departmental options. The regionalization of the labor markets resulting from the transposing of the agro-export model onto the regional level explains the transforma¬tion of the old system of internal displacements.

What did the agro-export model imply? Abundant migrant labor available to harvest the big crops inserted into the global market that sustained the national economy and generated foreign currency. That reserve army then withdrew back to its ever tinier smallholdings where it scratched out a subsistence awaiting the next round of labor demand from the big haciendas, considered the driving force behind economic dynamism.

Today, Chinandegans no longer seek to insert themselves into their own country’s big coffee plantations and can no longer do so in the now non-existent cotton farms or in the peanut-producing haciendas that replaced them, as they are cultivated and harvested by a few tractor and harvest machine operators. Instead, they cross the border and harvest strawberries and melons in Costa Rica, cut sugar cane in El Salvador and build houses in Guatemala. The absorption role that Nicaraguan businesses or Nicaraguan-based foreign businesses used to play is now reserved for those in other countries of the region who have been deprived of their traditional workers by northward migration. Due to its border location, Chinandega, perhaps more than any other department in the country, has become a prime supplier of migrant labor that fills in for those from northern Central America who already left for the USA.

Gone with the cotton…

Let’s take a look at history to understand how this transformation occurred. The total number of waged workers in Chinandega dropped from 73,000 in 1963 to 63,500 by 1971, paradoxically at the very time cotton cultivation was doubling from over 55,000 to some 109,000 hectares. The percentage of waged workers in Chinandega fell from 27.3% to 21.6% of the country’s total and the average number of workers per employer from 27 to 19. Chinandega became characterized by the expulsion of internal migrants and fights over land. According to a study by CSUCA, the profitability differential between export crops and internal consumption crops determined that the most fertile and accessible lands were dedicated to export crops.

Although there were abuses and expropriations—such as the case of Captain Ubilla, who took possession of the common lands of San José del Obraje, also known as Las Cuchillas, signing a supposed contract to lease them for five years—cotton cultivation didn’t involve a drastic transformation of the legal land tenure structure. Gould observed that “in 1950, before the expansion of capitalism in the Chinandegan countryside, less than 2.6% of the landowners owned 65.1% of the land. The cotton boom did not significantly alter land ownership patterns. Thus, in 1971, 2.1 percent of the landowners possessed 61.3% of Chinandegan soil.”

The cotton boom did mean a change in land use, forms of hiring labor and peasant access to land, as Gould found based on statistics and declarations from peasant leaders who lived through the metamorphosis of the cattle ranches into cotton agri-businesses: “In 1949, Chinandegan growers cultivated less than 1,700 acres of cotton, but in 1955 they grew over 5,100 acres of the fiber. For the hacienda laborers and tenants, the transformation of land use signified a loss of access to hacienda land and a change from permanent to seasonal labor. The growth of the cotton industry often meant the loss of one’s home and consequently the necessity to squat on land of neighbors or kin.”

Gould concludes by pointing out that “for the majority of Chinandegan rural laborers what changed with the influx of cotton growing was the quality and stability of work and their access to hacienda land. Few of the San José campesinos had ever owned land. But before the cotton boom, nearly all of them had planted their own corn and grazed their own cattle on hacienda land. After 1950, however, elite cotton growers needed all available land for their export crop and denied the campesinos their traditional claim to the land.”

Between Bruno and Fermín

Cotton substantially altered the agricultural laborers’ relationship with the haciendas. This hybrid between laborer and peasant known as “lessee” started to disappear and the laborer-boss relationship took unexpected turns. This is the same tragedy narrated in the novel Todas las sangres [All the Bloods] by José María Arguedas, although the novel is told in an Andean setting narrated with moving magic.

The story is about two brothers who represent two models of being a boss: a traditional one reaching its end, and a modern one emerging with overwhelming success. On the one hand, Bruno Aragón de Peralta, a product of the hacienda, is possessed by the demon of lust and opposed to all forms of technical progress, which in his opinion is a source of sin and corruption. He’s capable of inflicting physical punishment on his workers, but is the godfather to their children and guarantees their survival. “In him,” says Vargas Llosa in his very biased but frequently penetrating analysis, “is embodied the archaic ideal and the love of the old….” Bruno is a monumental father figure who has similar attributes to the divinity: almighty and quick to both punish and reward.

On the other extreme is Fermín Aragón de Peralta, a civilized man of the world who was educated far from the hacienda as an upper-class city dweller, proud of his cordial manners, but inaccessible to the laborers and capable of dispensing with their services and suddenly breaking what he views as merely contractual relationships.

The Bruno/Fermín dichotomy represents the opposition between agriculture and mining, feudalism and national capitalism, hacienda and agri-business. Fermín triumphs over all the feudal lords of San Pedro de Lahuaymarca, who are descended from the conquistadors, but is in turn liquidated by the imperialist Wisther-Bozart company. By the end of the process, in San Pedro as in Chinandega, we have witnessed the disappearance of Bruno Aragón de Peralta’s ideal farmhand, “the communal Indian who is born and dies within the microcosmos of his community, preserving his tongue, his songs, his ancestral rites and working the same land as his ancestors, who is naturally virtuous and of pristine humanity. But if he changes, he becomes vulnerable and could end up losing his soul.”

From subjected farmhand
to rebellious peasant

In Chinandega, that Indian lost his soul of subjected farmhand in anger, revolts and uprooting. Gould relates: “As the laborers discussed their unfortunate lot, Ramón Candia, a foreman on the hacienda, declared that he was fed up with working on the haciendas ‘because the rich don’t have any heart anymore.’” The rich were no longer like the impetuous but generous Bruno; they were now like the unctuous, calculating and metallic Fermín. The appearance of the Fermíns led to revolts and land invasions: “Regino Escobar pointed towards some scrubland, saying, ‘Look over there… that’s people’s land. We’ve always gotten kindling, lumber, palm leaves and oil from over there. Let’s go clear the land and plant.’ Within two weeks, thirty peasants began to clear and fence off 300 manzanas (510 acres) of ‘the people’s land,’ dividing it into lots of ten manzanas (seventeen acres) each.”

This strategy didn’t work because, as Gould puts it, the Somoza group also had economic interests in the profitable introduction of machinery that would reduce and even replace human labor. This explains the National Guard’s participation in the repression of peasants. The invasion of the Deshons’ property floundered in the face of jail and extortion. To obtain their release from jail, on June 21, 1977, the peasants signed an agreement granting the authorities the right to incarcerate them and the rest of their colleagues should they continue with the invasion. By then 98% of all cotton was grown in Chinandega and León, to the detriment of basic foods such as rice, whose production in Chinandega dropped from 72% to 40% of national production between 1963 and 1971.

The death of king cotton

Cotton suffered the same fate as Fermín, overthrown by bigger fish. It could no longer compete with the growing use of synthetic fibers and US cotton production, practiced on a large scale with state subsidies. In 1957, the cotton boom suffered a serious setback when international prices plummeted from $33.40 to $26.81 a hundredweight.

But cotton growers were sustained by the Somocista state for years by means of preferential exchange rates and generous extensions on their loan payment periods. According to Gould, a combination of “state and private initiatives prevented the price decline from ruining the industry and allowed the elite to maintain its control over land and labor.” The free market didn’t get a look in.

The cotton debacle was impossible to avoid, however. Having peaked at 212,380 hectares in 1978, the snow-white cotton carpet shrank. In the eighties, if we exclude the very exceptional year of 1980 immediately following the insurrection, cotton only covered an annual average of 83,960 hectares. This was then reduced by half and in 1992-93 experienced a drastic drop from 35,840 hectares to 2,510, from which it never recovered. From there it only tended to drag out, with its meager production mainly reserved for the domestic market. Exhausted and poisoned by pesticides, the soils of Chinandega and León had little left to give. Yields had fallen from an average of 22,322 hectograms per hectare in 1971-79 to 20,963 in 1981-89 and 18,532 in 1991-99.

Cotton production took up just a few lines—one day it will be nothing more than a footnote—in Nicaragua’s long-term history. But its brief rule of perhaps 20-30 years generated irreversible changes in the worker-boss relation¬ship that now add to the characteristics of solid globalization: uprooting—the rupture of the umbilical cord with the hacienda—and the icy and transient contractual relations that replaced warm eternal godparent-based relationships…

The arrival of peanuts

In liquid globalization, the tides did their work of abduction. A globalizing high tide expelled the Chinandegan cotton fields from the world markets, but the ancient lands of the cacique Agateyte got pretty much back on track through the cultivation of sugar cane and had started to prepare another form of reinsertion.

In 1975, the Somoza government estimated that Chinandega and León had 132,900 hectares with peanut-growing potential, although all were in the category of “good” or “marginal” and none in the optimum range. But that volume represented 35% of the surface area with agricultural potential. These indicators revealed peanut cultivation’s adaptability to the climatic and physical conditions of Nicaragua’s northwestern Pacific region and served as the starting point for the peanut adventure. In the 1974-75 cycle, a total of 2,100 hectares of peanuts were sowed with a yield of 24.5 hundredweight per hectare. That year, all peanut growing was concentrated in the municipality of El Viejo, which still heads peanut production, followed by Chinandega, Villanueva, Somotillo, Posoltega and Puerto Morazán.

From those historical 2,100 hectares of 1974, peanut farming expanded its coverage almost without interruption until it accounted for 15,400 hectares in 1981. It suffered a decline in the eighties, dropping to 980 hectares in 1988, after which it rose again, peaking at 38,579 hectares in 2008. That year, it achieved a production of 139,266 tons, an export volume of 77,973 tons of shelled peanuts, representing 56% of the tonnage of peanuts produced in Nicaragua. In other words, 44 out of every 100 tons remain in Nicaragua, an enormous part of which is peanut shells because all of the production—shell and nut—is weighed, even though exporters only take the gleaming peeled seed.

Production peaked at 173,523 tons in 2005, a year in which the 30,735 hectares cultivated yielded a record productivity of 56,457 hectograms of peanut per hectare, considerably higher than the 36,098 of 2008 and 2009. However, even the latter figure leaves us close to the 38,242 of the United States, slightly above the 33,165 and 23,520 of China and Argentina, and far higher than India’s 9,208, all peanut colossus countries. In 2001, peanuts already contributed 13% of the value of agricultural exports. By 2009, the crop’s weight had increased to 18%, only exceeded by coffee (44%) and sugar cane (27%).

In 2008 Nicaragua was the world’s sixth largest shelled peanut exporter, behind only India, the United States, China, Argentina and Holland. If Chinandega were a country, it alone would be in sixth place, with almost 60,000 tons in the world market, well ahead of Brazil, the seventh largest, which only exports around 45,000 tons. Three out of every four Nicaraguan peanuts are Chinandegan, while almost 10% of Chinandega’s cultivable area is covered in peanut plantations.

Get a grip on your enthusiasm, peanut farmer

The reality these figures express has generated unbridled optimism that should, in the best of cases, be reined in by the eternal deflators of third-world triumphs: prices, brand ownership, access to the pie and the generation of public ills such as unemployment and labor instability.

Let’s take a closer look at the issues of prices and brands. In 2008, Nicaragua obtained $90 million for its peanuts, while Australia obtained only 12 times less by exporting a 20th of the Nicaraguan volume. How can we such explain such disproportion? Quite simply, Australia sells with a brand name and very presentable bags. Nicaragua sells in boxes, wholesale and in an anonymity that isn’t very lucrative. Australia obtained $1,821 a ton; Nicaragua just $1,155.

Our main buyer is Mexico, which so far this century has accounted for half of Nicaragua’s shelled peanuts. In 2009, Mexico paid us $56.8 million for our exports, around a quarter of which was for peanuts that it then bagged, labeled as “snacks” and sold nationally or re-exported at enviable prices. So Mexico buys our peanuts then re-sells us what are then its peanuts at a great profit. In 2003, Nicaragua sold Mexico over 19 million kilograms of peanuts and Mexico sold us just over 19,000 kilograms. But the Nicaraguan peanuts were sold at 0.70 cents a kilogram, while the Mexican ones cost over twice as much at $1.62. The elites—unsurprisingly—would like a different deal, but they lack the guts to negotiate it. Perhaps they should be sent to a Dale Carnegie type course to learn that the “secret lies in attitude.”

A piece of the peanut pie, anyone?

The Nicaraguan elites are also part of the problem in another sense. Although the agrarian reform of the 1980s upset the agricultural ownership structure, their presence and options are still determining. In 1971 there were 6,675 agricultural exploitations in Chinandega, while 30 years later the National Agricultural Census (CENAGRO) registered a total of 11,546. The multiplication of farms was one of the effects of the reform. The surface area of the farms appears to have dropped from 319,207 to 318,513 hectares, although the census didn’t register the size of 308 of Chinandega’s 11,546 farms.

In 1971, haciendas of over 350 hectares accounted for 61.3% of the cultivable area and just 2.1% of agricultural properties. Thirty years later, this size range accounted for just 35.9% of the land, with the under-7-hectare and 7-to-35 hectare ranges rising from 2.7% to 5% and 11.5% to 19.3% of the cultivable surface, respectively. At the same time as this multiplication of small- and medium-sized properties, however, there was also a preservation of or regression back toward large properties.

It should be noted that while previously 2.1% of the farms swallowed up 61.3% of the land, that same 2.1%—a total of 243 farms ranging from 223 hectares to over 350 hectares—now hogs 46% of the land. While still a fair way below the idyllic times of 61.3%, compensation for and the return of expropriated properties have added up to such an extent that they determine who has ended up with the biggest slice of the peanut pie. The champions who ended up with the peanut laurel wreaths are both scarce and refined. The fact is that the elites are like children who are tyrannical at home but shy in public.

According to CENAGRO, only 92 of Chinandega’s 11,546 farms grew peanuts in 2001, with 37% of the peanuts grown on farms larger than 140 hectares and 66% on farms larger than 35 hectares. The 19 biggest farms absorb 62% of the total surface area dedicated to peanuts in the department. Cotton farmers like Carlos Deshon Duquestrada became peanut farmers. Cukra Industrial and COMASA are the two largest peanut producing and exporting companies in Nicaragua. The Cukra group was a pioneer in peanut cultivation, starting up in Nicaragua three decades ago when it was a branch of Chiquita Brands. In 1997 it was acquired by four big producers and its board of directors only has room for high-powered gentlemen: Alvaro Lacayo Robelo, Farid El Azar Somarriba, Gustavo Argüello Terán and Ronaldo Lacayo Cardenal.

The plague of unemployment

The other problem is the displacement of labor. Let’s look at a comparison between sugar cane and peanuts, products that together account for over a fifth of agricultural Chinandega. Let’s take the case of the San Antonio sugar refinery, easily the most prosperous, oldest and most enormous agricultural company in the department. Its largest hacienda in Chinandega covers 15,250 hectares, 10,676 of which are dedicated to cane cultivation. In the year of the agricultural census, it hired 700 full-time workers and 4,200 temporary ones for agricultural labor. Sugar cane has a high demand for seasonal work, so the refinery employs six temporary workers for each full-time one. In other words the seasonal work added 600% more workers. On average, each worker can take on 1.8 hectares.

Now let’s take a look at the biggest peanut hacienda in Chinandega: a farm covering 560 hectares, 660 of which were used to grow peanuts. It employed just 50 full-time workers and 30 temporary ones. In other words, the seasonal work added only 60% more workers—10 times less than sugar cane—to the workforce. To the pride of the foremen and peanut owners, each worker took on an average of nearly 7 hectares, which is 3.8 times the hectare-per-worker yield of sugar cane cultivation.

The panorama is no more encouraging for the other crops. Of the 11,546 production units in Chinandega, 5,735 hired an average of 1.5 full-time workers and 7 temporary workers. If we add an average of 3 workers from each household, this gives us 11.5 workers per farm. Remember that in 1971, after the drop in employment due to the effects of cotton cultivation, we were talking about 19 workers per employer. The fragmentation of farms has its effect on that indicator: the smaller the production unit the fewer hired employees. But the 2001 calculation has an advantage because it includes family labor, which was not mentioned and perhaps not included in the 1971 calculation.

Let’s assume that each farm corresponds to a single owner, a false supposition that adds another advantage to the situation in 2001, due to the currently large number of farms. We’ll also exclude from this calculation the range of farms that cover less than 7 hectares, which in 2001 almost exactly coincided with the 5,501 farms that that didn’t hire any labor. So in 1971 the 3,028 farms of 7 or more hectares gave jobs to 57,532 farmhands, while in 2001 the total number of employees had risen by 24,495 to a total of 82,027 (8,756 full-time, 40,508 temporary and 32,763 from the owner’s household). This is an increase of 42.6% for a rural population that increased by 80% in the same 30-year period.

Poor with no rich to exploit them

There are many considerations that can aid an educated guess that the disproportion is worse than these cold numbers reflect: full-time jobs are now more buffeted by rotation (still full time, but not permanent), the temporariness is reduced to ever shorter periods, and the self-employed (the 32,763 household members working on their own farms) are underemployed and have to complement their annual income by going to El Salvador, Costa Rica and Guatemala.

A first attempt to “spontaneously balance” this imbalance was in the form of rural-urban migration, followed by emigration from Nicaragua to Central American countries, or even to the other side of the Atlantic. Gould told us about the land struggles that impregnated the conflicts of the seventies, but there were simultaneous struggles over both wages and working conditions. The current struggles—simply for work—are flatter and embody the cynical saying repeated by businesspeople at the drinking table: “The worst thing that can happen to poor people is not having rich people to exploit them.”

The peanut triumph
and employment failure

Chinandega appears to be both triumphant and a failure, harvesting peanuts but also unemployment. The peanuts are a snack to better swallow the myth of progress against which political philosopher John Gray alerts us: “Secular societies are ruled by repressed religion. Screened off from conscious awareness, the religious impulse has mutated, returning as the fantasy of salvation through politics, or—now that faith in politics is decidedly shaky—through a cult of science and technology. The grandiose political projects of the 20th century may have ended in tragedy or farce, but most people cling to the hope that science can succeed where politics has failed; humanity can build a world better than any that has existed in the past. They believe this not from real conviction but from fear of the void that looms if the hope of a better future is given up. Belief in progress is the Prozac of the thinking classes.”

For Gray, progress is an ethical and political superstition. What has been gained at a certain moment “can also be lost, and over time surely will be.” Or in our particular case, what is experienced as an advance on one level—productivity per person and hectare—translates into the tragedy of unemployment: a technical triumph expressed as an ethical and political failure. Technological advances do not expand leisure: they displace labor, making life itself superfluous. In the unpolluted world of development plans and grandiloquent slogans, peanuts are one of the panaceas for sitting gracefully in the great parlors of globalization. A brilliant sixth place in the top ten of international peanut growers may seem like insurance against crises, but in fact amounts to a crisis in itself.

In practice, not even cornucopias overflowing with peanuts or those who lavish praise on other exportable delicacies can avoid the indissoluble Schumpeterian dichotomy of creative destruction. In the case in hand, creative insertion into the market and the application of technology that maximizes yields per person and area translate into the destruction of employment. This dichotomy is updated in the exercise of the centripetal and centrifugal forces of globalization: centrifugal because of the expulsion of workers and centripetal because of the pull toward big global cities or toward small villages from which those (Salvadorans, Guatemalans) currently in the large cities set off.

Lenin and Kautsky got it wrong

Lenin might accuse us of economic romanticism for lamenting the decline of agricultural employment. In this field, he agreed with his adversary, “the renegade Kautsky,” a Marxist theorist who in On the Agrarian Question attacked the proposal to limit the use of mechanical threshers so as not to expel labor, given that “this conservative friendship for the labourers is nothing more nor less than reactionary utopianism. The threshing-machine is of too great an ‘immediate’ advantage for the landlord to be induced to abandon its use for the sake of profits ‘in the future’. And so, the thresher will continue to perform its revolutionary work; it will continue to drive the agricultural labourers into the towns, and as a result will become a powerful instrument for the raising of wages in the rural districts, on the one hand, and for the further development of the agricultural machine industry, on the other.”

Kautsky calculated that elements of cultural attraction added to these forces of economic expulsion. He argued that the more capital development progressed, the more accentuated the cultural difference between the city and the countryside became, and the greater the countryside’s backwardness with respect to the city, the greater the enjoyment and distractions the city offered compared to the countryside. Like Lenin, Kautsky had an optimistic vision of the migration from countryside to city and the city’s attracting force. Kautsky believed waged workers would have greater employment possibilities in the city than in the countryside, could more easily form their own family and could enjoy greater freedoms and more civilized living conditions. The bigger the city, he stated, the greater these advantages and thus the greater its force of attraction.

But in Chinandega there was no appearance of either increased wages or the great developments in agricultural mechanization promised by the myth of progress that dogmatic Marxists have believed in as much as, if not more than, capitalists (Lenin once said that the soviet was communism plus electricity). What actually materialized was pure, hard unemployment. In the inter-census period of 1995-2005, Chinandega became a little bit more urban, with the urban population rising from 58% to 59.7%. Considering that the rural population only grew by 624 inhabitants per year, partly as a result of migration to the city, we might have expected a greater urbanization rate, if only to comply with the predictions of forecasters and demographers for 21st-century Nicaragua and Kautz and Lenin’s suppositions regarding the attraction of cities. But the population of urban Chinandega grew by only 1% a year.

And this had nothing to do with the use of condoms. Despite the cost in lives and forced displacements of first the 1978-79 insurrection and second the US-financed war of the eighties, Chinandega’s urban population grew by 5.8% a year between 1977 and 1995, a case in which the theories of Kautsky and Lenin did apply. Given this rate, the 1% annual growth between 1995 and 2005—and even more, the meager 0.4% growth of the rural population—appears to be a wonder of population control that would make Chinandega an emblematic case for the United Nations Population Fund, the only case in Central America of advanced demographic transition, placing Chinandega alongside Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.

But this most efficient population control is the result of migration, not of the dissemination of contraceptives, sexual education, prevention of teen pregnancy, reduction of the reproductive period, or, fortunately, homicides. And of course, this form of control only applies to the places from which the emigrants departed, because a reduction in one place leads to an increase in another.

“Why are they going if this government’s
going to make things better?”

All of the dynamics that we have analyzed, stressing the centrifugal forces, are structural in nature and weigh much more than politicians’ fleeting promises. Regardless of the prevailing government administration, its unscrupulous promising of things it has never even dreamed of providing or its rhetorical ability to dissimulate the lie and dress up theft as achievement, migration always renews itself through new recruits.

Over 50% of the migrants whose data was collected by the SJM 2010 left the country between 2005 and 2010, with 90% leaving in the last 15 years and 70% in the last 10. The migration is relatively new and a growing number of people are added each year. The Living Standards Measurement Survey (EMNV 2005) also registered an overwhelming presence of fresh migration, showing that over 56% had left in the five years previous to the survey’s application (2000 to 2005), a figure that was 78% between 1995 and 2005.

From whichever angle they are viewed, these figures show migration continuing in an ascending line that refutes statements like the one made by Ronaldo Chávez, one of the FSLN’s alternates in the Chinandega municipal government: “Migration has been dropping as this government has been building liaisons with the other neighboring countries.” The figures also give the lie to the even more overwhelming certainties of Argentina Gaitán, the FSLN’s municipal political secretary in Chinandega: “It is my belief that starting in 2007 and 2008 the migrant rate has been falling considerably, as we’ve been working to generate employment. And as you and we must know, Chinandega is a department that has income, that’s creating businesses, micro-businesses, but that’s also prospering with the support this government is providing to many women through loans in the Zero Usury program and through the solidarity production bond, all of which is generating a migratory containment. Because if they give me a cow and a chicken to rear in my house so I can push ahead, it means that as a woman I have that benefit, so I won’t go, and of course my husband won’t go either. Now, with the Zero Usury program, in which we give loans to women, I can also create my own micro-business and start to work. That also generates migratory containment.”

This party-based optimism is an example of the myopic vision concentrated in liquid globalization and its short-term changes, including agreements in the framework of the Central American Integration System (SICA); commercial exchanges with Venezuela; and programs that distribute cows, hens and seeds that last about as long as a candy at the school gates—one or two government administrations at best. These perceptions are based on focusing one’s view on a single point.

“Our country offers us no way to improve”

The politicians and those who swallow their conceited optimism look at the country through an ideological prism that distorts the facts. But the existence of this perception is not without its value as a sociological input. The illusion of a Nicaragua going full steam ahead—whether to insert itself into the global markets, as the Bolaños administration promised, or towards a Christian, socialist and solidarity-based future, as proclaimed by FSLN slogans—explains the absence of specific migratory policies and the sluggishness of consular protection.

Laziness and non-independent brains that just process party slogans are as much to blame for the suffering of migrants as the opportunism of officials looking for bribes and the criminals who kidnap them. The words of Jenny Serrano, whose brother lives in Miami, help plant our feet firmly back on Chinandega’s sun-baked ground: “The truth is that people who are poor and dream of being and doing something better in this life have to emigrate. Because unfortunately our country doesn’t offer them that something, and if it does, it’s only to certain people, a very small group, shutting the doors on many young people with or without qualifications.”

With or without Zero Usury, as Lesbia Ramírez explained, the indebtedness that follows on from a lack of opportunities and unfortunate events is a frequent motivation for migrating: “I went because I was in debt. A friend of mine had lent me money to work. I was only able to pay it because my daughter helped me later. The money was from a friend who lives in the States and had lent it to me and I didn’t want to fall out with her over it because it made me feel ashamed. I traveled to Panama as a trader and ended up with a problem. They gave me merchandise that wasn’t what I’d asked for. They were flip-flops and they gave me another style. That merchandise was awful and I lost everything: twelve dozen pairs of flip-flops and other products. I lost nearly $700, which was money I owed. So I got desperate and went to Costa Rica to work and save and be able to pay my friend back.”

Globalized, Chinandega style

With threads tauter and longer-lasting than those of business networks and mergers, clusters and regional free trade agreements, these survival strategies through transhumance are weaving solid globalization, whose macro and micro expressions through the effects of remittances we will analyze in a coming article. Over 30% of Chinandegans left the City of Oranges, were expelled from the cotton fields, fled the bad pay of the sooty cane fields and refused to bow to impotence when the peanut fields turned their backs on them. They are constructing globalization their own way.

It remains to be seen how they reinserted themselves into dynamics with a global reach and also helped their relatives do so. The employee/employer and farm/farmhand dichotomies have been replaced by contractor/laborer dichotomies that lack the solidity of their predecessors. Contracts are like one-day blooms, bosses are intangible corporate conglomerates and flexibilization evaporates the rules of the game. The volatility of these institutions makes them ideal for evading the rebellious struggles of the old way. The business/employer is a category that maintains its economic weight, but its socio-political protagonism has been claimed by other structures and dynamics. The world of work has been knocked off its pedestal by the world of consumption. We’ll take a closer look at all of this in the continuation of this analysis of the migration of Chinandegans.

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council.

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