Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 249 | Abril 2002



Between Paralysis And Passive Revolution

What has happened to the Nicaraguan population? What can explain today’s social anomie and political anemia, the lack of mass demonstrations, when there are so many reasons to protest? What do our history and the roots of our political culture tell us that could help explain it?

José Luis Rocha

Why have social lethargy, political apathy and conformism possessed the Nicaraguan population? This apparently simple question in fact implies at least three suppositions that need to be explained: that Nicaraguans have been inclined to mobilize in the past, that there are currently even more motives for mobilizing than before and that other people mobilize more than Nicaraguans do. It is a question that also immediately produces excuses such as "politics is a dirty game," "public issues are confusing," "everything’s rigged" and "there’s no margin for action."
Voter abstention should provide a good indicator for investigating this issue, yet, as some international observers point out, the population turned out en masse to vote in the 2001 general elections, stoically enduring interminable queues under the hot sun to deposit their votes. Could it be that another kind of mobilization prevails today? The enthusiastic turnout at those elections—although lower than the Supreme Electoral Council’s magistrates claim, since null votes added to abstention account for 24% of those registered to vote—was largely due to one specific and still relevant factor. Fear of the other side winning proved a particularly strong influence in drawing people to the voting booths, but has nothing to do with the capacity to mobilize in support of programs or concrete proposals or against specific government actions.

Others mobilize more

It does seem that Nicaraguans are currently more politically apathetic than other Latin American countries. In Brazil and Ecuador mass demonstrations have "overthrown" two corrupt governors: Collor de Melo and Bucaram, respectively. In Argentina, a country that has suffered bloody military dictatorships, people took to the streets against four consecutive heads of state whom they rejected as leaders of economic dictatorships, forcing all of them to resign, one right after another.

Closer to home, our habitually peaceable neighbors, the Costa Ricans, mobilized to block the privatization of public sector enterprises. In Guatemala, 20,000 people who were alarmed by the increase of the value-added tax from 10% to 12% protested in the capital city, where 90% of commerce was paralyzed. This occurred despite the fact that the government is virtually run by retired General Efraín Ríos Montt, president of the governing party, whose mere name has produced terror ever since his scorched earth policy wiped dozens of indigenous communities off the map in the 1980s. Big business representatives from the umbrella business organization CACIF played a major role in the strike alongside unionized workers, students and NGOs. According to political analyst Juan Hernández Pico (envío, August 2001), the protests were nationwide and were only comparable to President Serrano’s attempted Fujimori-style coup in 1993 or to the protests preceding the 1944 revolution. Nicaragua’s value-added tax, by contrast, is 15%, the highest in Central America, and neither merchants nor poor consumers seem particularly worked up about it. Nicaragua’s privatizations, too, have been greeted by an indifference that has warmed the hearts of the new investors, while corruption continues, generating growing condemnation in the media but not on the streets.

There’s no action

There has been no shortage of worthy causes for rebellion in Nicaragua, but the prevailing inertia has rendered some of them moot. For example, the privatizations that the population failed to challenge in time have meant that many areas of complaint are no longer the state’s responsibility. A number of other causes, however, are still alive. Putting the brakes on corruption and reversing the electoral law reforms that restricted voters to choosing the lesser of two evils in the 2001 elections are two outstanding examples. But there is no mobilization. During the Alemán administration, which many felt to be the most corrupt in Nicaragua’s history, the oft-predicted social explosions never happened, and the really significant protests were led by very specific groups: sugar cane workers, transport workers, doctors and, above all, students.

Apart from those were only a few languid, sporadic and very specific protests: against the pact; by the National Unity Movement when denied legal status; and in support of Liberal dissident José Antonio Alvarado when he was denied participation in the presidential elections. The unquestionable exception was the march in support of then-Comptroller General Agustín Jarquín in March 1999, which enjoyed a spontaneity and non-politicized civic nature that made it the most successful mass march of the 1990s.

None of the large or smaller mobilizations have achieved anything. Jarquín, after being savaged by the FSLN, whose top leadership opposed the march and his uncompromising opposition to corruption, agreed to stand as Daniel Ortega’s running mate in the 2001 presidential elections. Meanwhile, the transport workers failed to get the fare hike they were demanding or any compensatory subsidies; public sector doctors still pull salaries of under US$200 a month; the sugar cane workers were beaten by police and did not win their jobs back, and the students, while they did finally force the government to honor the legally required allocation of 6% of the country’s national ordinary and extraordinary budget to the eligible universities, they still receive a deficient education. And to top it all, the FSLN manipulated nearly all of the protests.

Is that why people are so unwilling to mobilize? Hypotheses on the issue of social immobilization abound in the media’s public opinion spaces, which are perhaps more abundant here than in any other country in the region. Among the suggestions are that protests are avoided—and minimized when they occur—in an attempt to sell the image of a democratic country living in peace; that foreign cooperation and family remittances act as a palliative by economically sustaining the country; that the protest mechanism has been exhausted in the face of insensitive governments; that the union, peasant and youth movements have collapsed; that opposition parties act like corporations, defending the interests of the business elite dominating them and not connecting with popular interests; that NGOs are more dedicated to providing aid to the victims of the system than to helping them organize to defend their own social interests; that the FSLN’s habitual manipulation of social unrest and protests has suffocated them; that opposition leaders fail to convince with their rhetoric plagued by obsolete, meaningless categories; that the dichotomous symbols have been further emptied of any content due to fragmentation, psychedelic coalitions and the Alemán-Ortega pact; and, last but not least, that the global ideological reference points for both Left and Right have been eroded in Nicaragua and in the world in general.

Devoid of myths and of any ethic of solidarity

When Nicaraguan reluctance to mobilize is examined as the reflection of a world problem, a cultural mechanism is adduced. It is said that mass mobilizations are fed by myths, and that although the old mobilizing myths have been tainted because their name has been spoken in vain and only in the rhetoric of obsolete caudillos, no new myths are currently being constructed.

The myth of the people has not entirely fallen into disuse, but within a paradigm that proposes the individual as a programmatic priority, this myth lacks the drawing power it once had. The theory is that this is an era in which each person looks after his or her own interests. In this light, most citizens appear to have read the definitive last rites to the ethos of solidarity and collectivism, as though the survival of this humanist ethic was inseparably linked to the bi-polar world and historic forms of socialism. The current boom of individualism is an element that led British social scientist Anthony Giddens to wonder if we were witnessing the birth of a "me generation," which in turn fosters a "me society" that inevitably destroys common values and public concerns.

It is evident that people are opting for individual, individualist and atomizing solutions, such as migrating, amassing academic titles and pedigrees and obtaining a post rather than a job. A reduction of the state apparatus corresponds to such individualism. Security is seen less as a state responsibility and more as a private investment that involves putting up walls and barbed wire fences to protect houses, paying private security guards, buying alarms and guns and training at firing ranges.

The welfare state is in decline and private service providers such as social security medical companies and pension fund administration companies are multiplying. Even NGOs increasingly present themselves less as solidarity organizations and more as the providers of services paid for by their beneficiaries and by money from foreign cooperation—which is a mere reflection of the truth at a time when foreign cooperation is demanding a bang for its buck that grassroots mini-donors never had either the clout or the skepticism to demand.

A new ethic for the "me generation"

A new ethos is emerging, although it is still not being spoken aloud and doesn’t even have a well-formulated program. Gramsci thought that when there was a contrast between what a social group thinks and what it does, between one conception of the world affirmed through words and another through actions, it meant that the group in question had its own, still embryonic, conception of the world, but that for reasons of submission and intellectual subordination it borrowed a foreign conception until able to formulate its own.

This new tendency is still insufficiently characterized and social scientists hold very diverging positions on it, which range from cataloguing it as egotistical hedonism to understanding it as a rebirth of the capacity to enjoy the present, an idea that has a conspicuous forerunner in Walt Whitman’s "I celebrate myself." But it should not be presented in pejorative terms. Giddens concludes that the new individualism—which the Left attributes to market forces and the Right to the permissiveness of the sixties that marked a process of moral decadence—should not be described in terms of a "me generation." Surveys show that today’s youth are more aware of a wider range of moral concerns than their predecessors were. They also tend not to tolerate the idea of tradition legislating on questions related to lifestyles and do not allow the enjoyment of life to be postponed until an extraterrestrial paradise has been achieved. Perhaps we are really talking about various tendencies with certain common denominators. But that’s another story.

Have we ever been all that mobilized?

Individualism and the decline of the myth industry make up a small part of the phenomenon, and are not limited to Nicaragua. Exploring the specifically Nicaraguan elements of the causes of demobilization involves asking ourselves whether Nicaraguans were ever really independently involved in belligerent demonstrations in the past. There is no shortage of people who sustain that there was never any particularly vigorous development of the labor movement or unions and there were never any massive civic protests. By that argument, the 1979 insurrection can be seen and understood as a flare-up, an uncontrollable but ephemeral fire, a sudden and violent explosion that failed to produce the Promised Land many hoped for.

In Bitter Pride, a history of Nicaragua’s labor movement in the first half of last century, US historian Jeffrey L. Gould describes how the incipient labor movement that the Socialist Party tried to create in the second quarter of the century was repeatedly co-opted by the interests of Anastasio Somoza García, who tried to exploit the fact that he did not belong to the traditional power-wielding lineages by presenting himself as the "worker chief," defender of the interests of the proletariat and champion of the penniless. The first Labor Code was promulgated midway through his mandate and included the payment of overtime, hospital services and the reduction of the working day to a maximum of eight hours. That notable improvement in working conditions helped reinforce the dictator’s image in the central and eastern regions of the country while he finished off the remains of Sandino’s movement in the north.

Although some union leaders were aware that an alliance with Somoza could only be a tactic and could even become counterproductive, the infiltrators and opportunists exploited internal grudges and the fear of the National Guard to create a labor movement that in practice adjusted itself to the regime’s requirements. Demands were rarely listened to and even less frequently put into effect. Meanwhile, there was an increase in the legally permitted exceptions to the Labor Code as Somoza the statesman extended the dominion of Somoza the businessman.

The workers realized very late that Somoza had changed his strategy, that the labor movement no longer served him as a way to win consensus and that his interests had changed to coincide with those of the other businessmen. The result was a relatively weak and frequently deceived labor movement. Most historians agree on this point, though they may attribute the fact to different causes.

The theory, for example, that inadequate industrial development was responsible for the generalized weakness of the Nicaraguan unions and the Socialist Party that promoted them does not seem very plausible if we examine what happened with the peasant revolution headed by Mao Zedong in China or even the Russian Revolution, which developed within a feudal society. However, an investigation of the evolution of leaderships and forms of government shows the main cause to be the centralizing caudillo—or political boss—system and the governmental structure that aids it.

The historic route from leader to chief

In Nicaragua, caudillos have faithfully followed a route that anthropologists for some time now have identified as characteristic of the evolution of leaderships and the societies in which they develop. This route is marked by gender—it is only taken by men—and implies two leaps: from leader to big man and from there to chief. It is a route that involves attaining leadership by sacrificing oneself for the group and then turning into its worst parasite.

According to anthropologists, nobody was originally a "big shot" in primitive tribes. A tribal leader had to physically punish those who disobeyed him, so if he wanted to remain in his post, he gave few orders. The Kung tribe, studied by US anthropologist Marvin Harris, has leaders: members of the tribe who tend to be heard with greater deference but have no formal authority and can only persuade but never order. When an anthropologist asked members of the tribe if they had leaders in the sense of powerful chiefs, they told him, "Of course we have leaders. In fact, we’re all leaders. Each one of us leads himself." So not all forms of social organization necessarily imply hierarchical differences.

Some people aspired to pass from being a leader to being a big man. The candidate had to work hard and abstain from consuming many goods so he could become a great provider. The privations to his personal enjoyment allowed him to accumulate wealth to give parties in which he provided his followers with meat, reserving just the bones for his own personal consumption. He accumulated enough to give huge parties that would later have to be reciprocated. If his followers had an unlucky streak and eventually found it impossible to reciprocate, the big man fell, his search for prestige sacrificed. Every now and then, another person aspiring to be the big man would make a challenge. The contest involved providing parties and gifts to each other’s followers, more or less what happens between the new and the old majordomos during patron saint festivals in Nicaragua. It amounted to buying people in the quest for prestige and reciprocity.

The tribal members turned to the big man in times of shortage and expected him to feed them and organize them to obtain food. This system was supposedly maintained because it guaranteed greater production and protection for the group. The big man prided himself on being the great tree whose shade covered everyone. In exchange for his protection, he demanded that the tribe members pay him according to their particular abilities, such as making him clothes, canoes, ornaments and food that required particular culinary talents. This way he increased his conspicuous consumption and thus reinforced his prestige.

Thus it was that in the end he did not have to work in the fields to build up, win or maintain his status as a big man. As Harris observed, the administration of the harvest surplus, a portion of which continued to be supplied to him for his use in communal banquets and other commercial expeditions and wars, was enough to validate his status, which people progressively came to look on as a post, a sacred charge that passed from one generation to the next according the rules of hereditary succession. When this happened, the great man turned into the chief. With the support of voluntary contributions, chiefs and their families enjoyed lifestyles that increasingly separated them from their followers. But that no longer mattered. Their position was guaranteed and it was already too late for the people to realize that their chiefs now consumed the meatiest cuts while they were left with just the bare bones.

Somoza and the FSLN: Sound familiar?

Exactly the same story was true for Somoza, who presented himself as the "worker chief" to create the right conditions for an alliance with the embryonic union movement. It was also true for the FSLN, whose project proposed a redistribution of all national wealth. Both cases followed the notion that he who cuts and doles out the cake gets the biggest slice. They incited the support of the popular sectors, not eternally, but certainly long after the caudillos had showed signs of only being interested in their own benefit and that of their followers.

The top-down unions should have expected "worker chief" Somoza to indicate what they could demand and when they could demand it. In the same way, during the 1980s the workers and peasants’ organizations should have expected that the FSLN, their vanguard, would tell them what to do. Thus, just as the unionists initially appealed to President Somoza to apply the Labor Code (passed in 1945), ignoring the fact that their strikes were affecting the dictator’s interests as a capitalist, many Nicaraguans still believe that the FSLN represents a popular project opposed to big capital, ignoring or minimizing the interests of its leaders as owners of companies they stole and promoters of businesses organized around the absolute power they unlawfully exercised.

This centralizing leadership exercised by the Somozas and the Sandinistas has facilitated the co-optation and administration of social unrest by the great party apparatuses that indicate when, where and how the disturbances and mobilizations are unleashed. The problem is not so much that such leaders emerge, but that people buy into them. And there is a whole system designed to force the people to do so.

Frutos Chamorro was the first caudillo

Frutos Chamorro was the great architect of the modern version of Nicaragua’s centralizing caudillo system. It was he who in the mid-19th century dismantled all of the local power structures and centralized all decisions in the presidency, thus ending the period of anarchy that followed independence from Spain and laying the foundations for the "strong man" figure that has become an essential part of Nicaragua’s organizational imagination. The strong man created the structure and the structure perpetuated him. Any trade or union movement and all political activity in the municipalities was forced to shelter under one of the great party umbrellas, which in turn had to revolve in an orbit that reinforced the status of the strong man.

In time we passed from the oligarch who emulated "I am the state" to the vanguard party that sent "the line" down to its rank and file. More than just an embedded syndrome, centralism is the solid structure on which the functioning of the state apparatus and of the political parties is mounted. Nicaragua’s many caudillos have set themselves up on this structure, which is the same one that the FSLN mounted to checkmate autonomous popular organization and mobilization.

The Sandinista revolution, which many of us esteemed and expected to be an educational process in itself due to its capacity to generate social awareness, developed into a powerful instrument for castrating the social organizations it professed to encourage. The damage that the FSLN inflicted on the popular movement is incalculable. A decade of mass demonstrations filling main squares and shouting out " National Directorate, give the order!" could not be called progress in popular mobilization. This facade sheltered favor-seeking leaders who unconditionally and uncritically followed the top leaders’ dictates, even when they ran against their own interests. No initiative spontaneously sprouted from the grass roots. Even the "divine mobs" were calculatedly orchestrated by the state security apparatus. The base-level organizations, converted into legitimating party instruments, were limited to executing their vanguard’s strategy.

The women’s movement was one of those most affected by this model, having to absorb female leaders imposed by the top FSLN leadership and quickly losing representativeness. The National Farmers and Ranchers Union (UNAG) only truly started to distance itself from the Agrarian Reform Ministry’s policies and win some autonomy in the last years of the revolution, by which time it had already lost several of its most valuable leaders. The National Association of Nicaraguan Educators (ANDEN), which provided such support during the fight against Somoza, became just another of the FSLN’s "yes men" and has now been whittled down to its minimum expression.

One disastrous post-revolution continuation of the caudillo style was the pact between the FSLN and the PLC, which was sold to the Sandinista grass roots by Ortega followers as a brilliant tactical move that would surely lead their party to victory in the 2001 elections. Activists swallowed this line in a disciplined and uncritical way with very little fuss. "They know what they’re doing," most said. First the FSLN absorbed the popular organizations and then placed them at its service. It faithfully followed the route of the leader willing to generously give everything—even his or her life—and finally turns into a chief who hoards all the wealth.

Other forms of protest?

During the last decade, FSLN manipulation of mobilizations and violent protests has worked like a vaccine. Are there other forms of protest left to try? Attempts have been made, but they have been mocked by power, just as it mocked the collection of signatures in support of electoral options that threatened to offer a viable alternative to the bi-party system forged by the PLC-FSLN pact.

Intellectuals, who would theoretically be commissioned to provide the ideological ingredients to orient, explain and provide solid form to the social unrest, have opted—rightly or wrongly, but in keeping with the mood of the times—for more aseptic methods or for a neutrality esteemed to be more in line with their technical role as professionals who offer services as analysts or consultants. On the other side of the street are the experts in agitation, clinging to age-old stereotypical phrases. Fossilized discourse engenders political apathy. No mobilizing discourse can come out of this aristocratic vision that the base is an "unthinking rabble" incapable of coming up with a consistent project. Nor can it now be constructed with the seal of populism at the service of the myth of the people.

Right and Left? Other dichotomies

Do we need to look again to the great mobilizing dichotomies? In an essay that became a world bestseller, philosopher Norberto Bobbio vindicated the distinction between Right and Left, at least as an expression of the confrontation between the eagerness of those who want to preserve tradition at all costs and those who want to free their neighbors from the injustices imposed by the privileges of gender, race, caste, class and age. Bobbio is clear that the detailed definition of both extremes (Right-Left) changes with the historical context. He emphasizes that there will always be divergences, because believing that an agreement can be reached on the only possible solution when concrete problems are discussed is the result of the habitual technocratic illusion.

Perhaps other dichotomies are acquiring more weight. Maybe the new dichotomies are not fundamentally defined and pigeonholed according to the classic Left-Right divide, but others such as complexity-simplification, tolerance-intolerance, inflexibility-adaptation, profit motive-work ethic, austerity-waste, opportunism-coherence and honesty, and measure-extremism. One relevant distinction could be between those who tackle vital questions in all their complexity and those who reduce everything to a slogan. Unfortunately, the political programs that can be simplified into a slogan are most likely to be sold to the voters. We are living in the reign of the market, after all.

Perhaps the brave and unquestionable actions of Judge Gertrudis Arias—who used the law to confront Arnoldo Alemán himself in recent weeks—will allow Nicaraguans to regain hope, motives, optimism and initiative. Perhaps her actions, along with an authentic counterculture among state officials, will spark the creativity to attempt new forms of protest. If this happens, it will hopefully be a result not only of her dedication to work and her timely and coherent non-party handling of the issue, but also her dignified and valiant words and even her appearance, which she herself knows identifies her origins with the masses, not the elite. This is one way—that of example—and this woman has let us know that it does not have to exist just as a remote legal dream.

There are other ways. Maybe we are on the threshold of other kinds of mobilization, not like those of the Jacobin revolution, the sans-culottes model that Gramsci considered a washed-up revolution, but rather of the model he himself termed the "passive revolution" when he said, "The concept of passive revolution seems true to me not only for Italy, but also for other countries that modernize the state through a series of reforms or of national wars without passing through a radical Jacobin-style political revolution." In a passive revolution there is limited intervention from the popular masses.

Are we living a "passive revolution"?

Gramsci used the term "passive revolution" to refer to an ideological and political offensive modeled after Gandhi and primitive Christianity, peaceful transition processes that did not use military means. The passive revolution is one form of political reaction to a system’s organic crisis. It produces an "innovation-conservation" process in which the group in power, knowing it does not have everyone behind it, assumes part of the opposition’s demands so that a change is produced that does not totally overcome the old order.

According to Gramsci, that kind of political transition—which we are perhaps witnessing with the new government of Enrique Bolaños—reveals that the opposition has a certain weakness and lack of popular support. This makes way for "transformism," a process in which the least radical demands and their organizations are absorbed into a more moderate program, winning over and integrating leaders from rival political groups. The National Economic Social Planning Council (CONPES), a new arena for seeking consensus between public authorities and civil society, represents a good attempt at this process. It is not the most transforming option, but is perhaps the only possible option in today’s Nicaragua. Opposition intellectuals need to show more creativity if greater transformation is to be achieved.

Jonathan Swift, best known for the adventures he narrated in Gulliver’s Travels, launched a controversial but well-reasoned proposal in the 18th century. He argued that the foreign debt of his country, Ireland, should be paid off using part of the money from the sale of land belonging to the bishops, who were then big landlords much of whose lands were lying idle due to the high rents. Who would currently dare to say something similar about ecclesiastical assets or even question what is happening with property belonging to the Catholic University? This is just one example. Is the silence due to fear or shortsightedness? Are we, like Gulliver, living in a land of little people? Are we suffering mental and social paralysis? The fact is that we are not transforming, and are left with transformism.

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