Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 244 | Noviembre 2001



The Political Culture of the Three Nicaraguas

IDESO-UCA’s last pre-election survey provides some interesting clues about the nature of Nicaraguan political culture.

Marcos Membreño Idiáquez

The image of Nicaragua as a single country is a fiction built by a patriotic school curriculum. Marked contrasts separate what is administratively and legally known as Nicaragua into at least three very distinct areas in climatic, geographic, economic, demographic, technological, social, cultural, political and institutional terms: the Pacific coast, the central region and the Caribbean coast. The Pacific strip combines fertile agricultural land with large, relatively sophisticated urban centers. The far poorer and less densely populated central region, battleground of the eighties, is largely isolated, traditional small towns and less productive hilly land used for basic grains, coffee and cattle ranching. The Caribbean coast is ethnically heterogeneous, influenced by the British rather than the Spanish during the colonial period, and except for a couple of relatively sizable port and mining towns is largely rainforest and limited communal agricultural production, with some of the highest pockets of poverty in the country.

The results of a survey done by the Central American University’s Institute for Surveys and Opinion Polls (IDESO-UCA) on September 1-4 reveal that these distinctions extend to the political and electoral culture of each of the three regions. The survey polled 1,800 people across the country, with a ± 2.3% margin of error and 95% reliability. With 59.7% of those interviewed living in the Pacific, 29.2% in the central region and 11% in the North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions of the Caribbean, the survey offers a reasonable statistical base for making comparisons between the three.

On willingness to sacrifice for one’s caudillo

The phenomenon of caudillismo, a social and political culture revolving around strong bosses, has been the subject of many analyses, but they often take a philosophical or literary approach, focusing mainly on the caudillo figure. Our survey sought to gather empirical data about the other side of the coin: the political culture and mindset of followers and sympathizers, the crowds seduced by caudillos.

One objective of the IDESO-UCA survey was thus to explore the nature and extent of a political leader’s pull among sympathizers. We can imagine a scale that ranges between the caudillos’ fanatic followers, ready to make any kind of sacrifice for their leader, and more prudent sympathizers, who hold back from excessive commitment to the leader or the cause.

In that vein, we asked people in the three regions what kinds of sacrifices they would be willing to make for their leaders. The following chart lists the options we gave, and the responses by region. While these results suggest that political fanaticism is not the predominant attitude in any of the three regions, its weight varies significantly among them. People in the Caribbean appear least willing to make excessive sacrifices for the political leaders they support. A relatively larger percentage of fanatic followers is found in the Pacific region and an even larger one in the central region. This is probably due to the traditional nature of social and economic relations in this remote rural area, which tend to depend on the coffee plantation or cattle ranch owners or on the merchant/money lenders who bankroll the small rural producers in exchange for their crops at futures prices.

On the party-state relationship

Every time the Alemán government has had to lay off public employees due to a reduction in public spending, privatization of public companies, budget cuts or the like, it has generally dismissed those who do not belong to the governing party. To the extent that this policy has been institutionalized, the executive branch has helped fuel the confusion between party and state, between the public official and the ruling party’s activist or sympathizer.

In the IDESO-UCA survey, we asked if each new President should "sweep clean" the civil service, the practice of massively making room for one’s own followers, even when it means losing skilled and experienced professionals who would make the new government run better. The views of people in the Pacific, central and Caribbean regions differed significantly on this issue. Those in the Caribbean are the most strongly opposed to the idea of firing public officials who do not belong to the President’s party (68.2%). Inhabitants of the central region are more tolerant of politicizing state employment, perhaps because they live in what is probably the most polarized region, where the war created a climate of extreme distrust and many people appear to feel represented only by public officials who belong to their party. Even in this climate, however, 58% oppose the practice of firing people for political reasons. Inhabitants in the Pacific fall between the two, with 64.2% opposed to the practice.

On presidential power

Another characteristic of the current Liberal government is the authoritarianism flouted by the President. This is not merely a personal characteristic of Arnoldo Alemán, however. A powerful executive has been a predominant feature of the Nicaraguan state throughout its history.

Given the harm done by this kind of authoritarianism, it is surprising that a majority of those polled approve of the model in all three regions, albeit with a greater spread than on most other questions. The highest level of support can be found among people in the central region (83%) and the lowest among those on the Caribbean coast (63%), with the Pacific again in the middle with 73.6%. It is reasonable to presume that the rejection of presidential authoritarianism in the Caribbean has an ethnic component, expressing a demand for autonomy from the power centralized and symbolized by the mestizo authorities in Managua.

It would be interesting to explore in a future study whether the overwhelming support for presidential authoritarianism exhibited by people in the central and Pacific regions of the country has any relation to their feelings about "bosses," understood as either the entrepreneur—whether rural or urban, large or small—who lays down rules for workers and sharecroppers or the bureaucrat who gives orders to employees. One could envision this situation being different on the Caribbean coast, where the "boss" experience is limited by a widespread communal land ownership model, little state presence and no businesses with non-family labor outside of the few major towns. The survey did reveal that people in the central region (68.8%) and Pacific (63%) are much more strongly influenced by this authority figure’s opinion about whom they should vote for than those on the Caribbean coast (51%).

On the separation of powers

The sympathies shown in all three regions for presidential authoritarianism would seem to contradict the fact that most people in these same regions reject the subordination of the other state branches to executive authority.

We designed two questions to try to measure the degree of support for the separation of powers. First, we asked whether the majority of representatives in the National Assembly should belong to the same party as the President. People on the Caribbean coast rejected this idea most strongly (70.7%), followed by those in the Pacific (60.7%) and those in the central region (54.5%).

We also asked whether the President should have more power than the National Assembly. Again, people on the Caribbean coast were most likely to reject this idea (70%), and people in the central region least likely (48.1%). The clear preference on the coast for the independence of state powers is also probably colored by their demands for autonomy from the executive branch and greater shares of real power for the regional governments on issues related to the region’s population, territory and resources, without the executive’s constant and illegal interventions from Managua.

Nepotism and influence peddling

What is known as "influence peddling" in public administration is a practice at odds with democratic institutionality, since democracy is governed by bureaucratically abstract and impersonal rules of the game, while influence peddling obeys the diametrically opposed logic of informal personal relationships. In Nicaragua, influence peddling takes place within the framework of friendship and reproduces itself through an ongoing "exchange of favors" between two people who seek to become friends, or already are friends precisely because they exchanged favors at some point in the past.

According to Marcel Mauss, considered by many to be the father of French anthropology, what is going on here is an exchange of "gifts" that can take the form of material or symbolic goods or services. These exchanges obey the logic of "reciprocity," an omnipresent reality in the social life of human beings, by which each favor received creates a debt that must be paid or compensated for by another, more or less equivalent one, according to the social contexts and cultures. Anyone who does not return a favor is considered an ingrate and is ethically frowned on in the majority of groups, societies and cultures. This takes on whole other nuances when the favor comes from government employees capable of greasing the wheels of the notoriously inefficient and obstinate bureaucracies. Those with friends in a position to use their influence get things done; others must grease palms rather than wheels or resign themselves to non-responsive institutional structures.

The IDESO-UCA survey showed that this issue tends to divide the population into two large blocs of almost equal size in all three regions. Influence peddling is approved of by 55.8% of the population in the central region, 52.2% in the Pacific, and 44% in the Caribbean. The lower approval rating in the Caribbean coast is likely explained by the fact that the executive branch’s violations of their autonomy often take place through influence peddling and, furthermore, that few coast inhabitants have "friends" in high places.

It is most likely for similar reasons that people in the Caribbean (78%) condemn the practice of nepotism in the state more strongly those than in the Pacific (73%) or central region (62%), perceiving as a real or potential threat to their ethnic and autonomous demands as a region. In a society like Nicaragua’s, relationships based on friendship tend to become confused or transformed, sometimes almost imperceptibly, into quasi-family relationships—as can be seen in the relationship that develops between a child’s parents and godparents, or the way people informally adopt children they raise as their own. The ramifications of the large extended family make it understandable that the rules governing nepotism are very similar to those governing relations among friends, i.e. influence peddling among people who are not blood relations. Furthermore, from the perspective of anthropological theory, relations based on family and on friendship share, deep down, the same essentially personal and informal nature.

On the lesser of two evils

Most people in all three regions believe that political candidates don’t keep their promises. A resounding 76% of those polled in the Pacific, 72% in the Caribbean and 68% in the central region agreed with the statement, "Politicians make lots of promises but don’t keep them." It is worth recalling that people in the Caribbean have had somewhat more experience with electoral disillusionment, since they have had seven elections since 1984, compared to five elections in the Pacific and central regions in those 17 years.

There also appears to be a kind of resigned, fatalistic acceptance of the kind of corruption involved in the illicit enrichment of public officials. A significant minority of the population in each region—47.2% in the central region, 41% in the Pacific and 32.3% in the Caribbean—agreed with the statement, "It doesn’t matter if public officials illicitly enrich themselves as long as they do good things that benefit people."
This way of thinking is naturally linked to the willingness to choose the "lesser of two evils" among candidates rather than the most suitable or ideal candidate. It of course reflects a step backwards in the democracy-building process, but is also a troubling sign of people’s impotence in responding to the enormous corruption and great number of corrupt politicians who enjoy total impunity, protected by the immunity granted them by law, money or use of force.

Marcos Membreño Idiáquez is director of IDESO-UCA.

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