Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 274 | Mayo 2004


Latin America

From Conqueror State to Nation State Is from Resignation to Citizenship

We can use Nicaragua’s history to reflect on Latin America’s history as a whole, particularly the paralyzing force still exercised in our countries by a “providentialism” inherited from the Conquest, the Colony and our Religion that generates the “resigned pragmatism” characterizing our political culture and helps explain our underdevelopment.

Andrés Pérez Baltodano

In Nicaragua, our historic present could be characterized as a long, almost retarded present relative to our era’srhythm, since it covers at least from independence right up to today without substantial modifications. All its activity seems to have been reduced to violent actions and reactions around a single point…. To be sure, there has been no lack of new contributions and conditions, almost all of them due to the impact of the modern world, especially the United States, on Nicaraguan life, but the majority of the problems posed by independence are still with us, almost in the same form and, of course, still unresolved. —Nicaraguan poet José Coronel Urtecho.

History: A jigsaw puzzle

Coronel Urtecho compares Nicaragua’s history to a jigsaw puzzle of facts, names, historic dates, events and counter-events. The problem, he says, is that “we are still missing the majority of the pieces,” adding that, “of course the design of this puzzle, if in fact there is one, is only known very vaguely and conventionally, if not merely arbitrarily. We don’t even have any idea how many pieces it has, which are in reality inexhaustible. The fact is that it is a design that to some degree must be guessed or invented ahead of time to be able to put the puzzle together with the few pieces we have at hand in a way that allows us to reproduce, and simultaneously reveal, the reality we are ignorant of.”
This perspective is complex and controversial. It could even be considered contradictory if the assumption is that history’s meaning can be clarified and reconstituted the same way one recreates a dinosaur’s skeleton. The argument could appear illogical, if one assumes that history is time that has died and that the function of thought is simply to discover and reconstruct its facts and their chronology.
Congruent with Coronel Urtecho’s constructionist perspective, I have sought to order some of the strands of the “thread” of our national history, based on a critical view of the present and a desire to contribute to the construction of a modern and democratic nation-state in Nicaragua. The reality is that at the beginning of the 21st century, Nicaragua is still closer to the Conqueror State inherited from the Colony than to the Nation-State, which is the most advanced expression of the National State. I am studying the nature and development of Nicaragua’s Conqueror State, which reproduces our country’s poverty and misery, in an effort to find out why it has persisted for over a century and a half of independent life. I am also doing so to subsequently ask whether it is relevant to aspire to the construction of a modern nation-state in the framework of today’s globalized and postmodern world? In so doing I want to make clear at the outset that, in attempting to offer a responsible rereading of Nicaraguan political discourse, I am a Nicaraguan Catholic Christian, which makes me part of the cultural framework I’m trying to analyze.

Progress toward the nation-state
varies from country to country

The main state model that oriented the gestation and development of Latin America’s post-colonial political societies was the National State that began to emerge in Europe in the 16th century and was consolidated between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The elites who headed up the initial phase of the formation of Latin America’s independent countries adopted this model of political organization as a norm for organizing their countries’ historical development.
The fundamental characteristic of this type of state is its tendency to base the organization of the demands and aspirations of the population living within its territory on a sense of collective identity rooted in a common structure of rights and obligations. The Nation State reflects the result of this tendency and expresses the consolidation of a national society that shares a set of rights and obligations to which the state’s structure and functioning respond.
To make the aspiration of the National State adopted by Latin America’s elites effective, Latin America had to surmount the situation in which it was living at the start of the 19th century—a reality conditioned by its pre-Colombian history, the conquest and the colonial experience. After independence, the region’s different countries began to construct and consolidate national states—with varying degrees of conviction, political capacity and progress from country to country. In general terms, the majority of Latin America’s political societies are still at different points of development between the Conqueror State—the model of social organization inherited from the colonial experience—and the Nation-State—the most advanced expression of this normative model known as the National State.

Conqueror State:
Behind society’s back and above the law

The Conqueror State is a power structure that functions within a model of traditional authority and a framework of patrimonial values. Just like the colonial authorities, who depended on the king and as the Crown’s representatives had enormous discretionary power to interpret the law and distribute the benefits of life in society, the individuals and governments that control the Conqueror State act arbitrarily and discretionarily. After independence, the Colonial State’s patrimonialism often degenerated into sultanism, a structure of domination characterized by the personalization and arbitrary use of power.

The Conqueror State is distinguished from the National State by a series of structural and objective characteristics, the principal ones being its limited capacity for social regulation, the social and territorial fragmentation of its spatial base, its high degree of external dependence and a great level of autonomy from society. A state’s social regulatory capacity refers to its capacity to organize and institutionalize conditions of social order. The low social regulatory capacity of the Conqueror State impedes the establishment of a national system of legal norms and facilitates territorial fragmentation and the personalization of power. At the same time, the state’s high external dependency and its autonomy from society grant those in power the capacity to govern behind society’s back and above the law.

National State:
Rationality, legality and rights

The National State functions with a formal-legal rationality and a structure of values that transcend and exceed the power and personal will of those who govern, in fact conditioning their will. The rule of law—the depersonalization of power and establishment of abstract norms that regulate the functioning of life in society—is the most important historic product of this rationality.
The structural and objective characteristics of the National State are its high social regulatory capacity, the social and territorial integration of its spatial base, its external sovereignty and its dependence on a civil society that functions within a structure of citizenship rights. The National State’s social regulatory capacity facilitates the institutionalizing of abstract norms that do not depend on the governors’ will or physical presence. At the same time, the state’s dependence on society obliges the governments that control it to act within a legal framework that, in democratic conditions, represents a dominant vision of the “common good.” The legal-formal rationality underpinning the democratic national state and the development of its structural capacities are fed by modern political thinking: a mental capacity to articulate visions of power, of the social order and of history as processes and conditions determined by human action. The predominance of law, one of the main dimensions of this state model, can only be reached when social order expresses society’s capacity to condition its history.

The objective and structural barriers
and the brake on political thought

As mentioned earlier, Nicaragua is closer to the Conqueror State than to the Nation-State at the start of this new century. Many of the characteristics of the Nicaraguan State don’t even correspond to a state with the capacity and potential to constitute a nation. How can the persistence of the Conqueror State in Nicaragua be explained? How can one explain the long historic present that keeps Nicaraguans ensnared in many of the same problems their ancestors were grappling with in the first half of the 19th century?
Responding to these questions requires considering the presence of objective obstacles that have retarded the construction of a true modern state. The social, ethnic and racial divisions inherited from the Colony, the international economic framework into which Nicaragua emerged in the 19th century and foreign interventions are some of the most obvious obstacles faced by Nicaragua’s political-institutional development. It is no accident that most interpretations of this development emphasize precisely these obstacles.

Nonetheless, the persistence of the Conqueror State in Nicaragua cannot be explained simply by the existence of objective and structural obstacles that impede its transformation. After all, the processes of constructing the National State in Europe and other parts of the world also encountered huge objective and structural resistance. The consolidation of the National State in Europe had to face the power of the Catholic Church, the emergence of imperial political projects, powerful local interests opposed to any form of “national” integration and the multiple class tensions and contradictions generated by capitalism. In Europe, overcoming these obstacles was facilitated by the development of a reflective political capacity to deal with, organize and orient the meaning of history. Contradicting this argument would imply that the successes of Western European civilization have been inevitable or accidental historical products and that the construction of democracy and citizenship rights have involved neither political thinking nor human will. Nonetheless, highlighting the role of political thinking as a constituent force of European historic development is not to propose that the formation of the state in Europe was determined solely by the political ideas of the actors of this process.
We reject both the subjectivist interpretations that ignore the conditioning and limitations imposed on societies’ historic development by material reality and the materialist interpretations that minimize or ignore the participation of thought and ideas in humanity’s historic development. If we accept political thinking as a constituent force of history, we must also accept that any interpretation of the persistence of the Conqueror State in Nicaragua must include an explanation of the role played by the reflective capacity and political thought of the elites that have headed national development.

When the truth of reason and
the truth of faith drew their boundaries

In Europe, the consolidation of modern political thought took place when the development of humanist thinking displaced the mythical and religious thinking used by the societies of the Middle Ages to explain their existence. With the displacement of medieval theocentric cosmology, social order began to be perceived as a social construction rather than the creation of a providential God. The emergence of a modern vision of power and of history was institutionally expressed in the development and consolidation of the National State. In this regard, Hobbes’ Leviathan expresses the demarcation of politics as a field of action separate from God. This separation made way for the consolidation of a vision of history as social construction that culminated in the institutionalization of citizenship rights, the rule of law and the democratization of state power.

The secularization of European society did not put an end to religion’s influence on thought and human conduct. It rather delimited its sphere of action and created a universe conceived and explained by “two truths”: the truth of reason and the truth of faith.

Kenneth D. Wald divides this process into four dimensions. First, the differentiation of religion as an institution that operates according to a certain rationality and within a self-contained sphere of action. The Church-State separation is the most common and most important expression of this process. Second, the privatization of the religious phenomenon, which represents an “internal secularization” process through which the believer assumes faith as an intimate affair relatively separate from the social sphere. Third, the desacralizing of natural and social phenomena, which cease being explained as the result of supernatural forces and start being interpreted as the product of material conditions and forces. Finally, the liberalization of religious doctrines expressed in the “relaxing of orthodoxy” and the growing tendency for dialogue between religious organizations. In any modern society, these dimensions appear combined and superimposed.

Europe and the United States:
Two different secularization processes

In the “classic” case of Europe, it could be argued that the initial support base for secularization was the differentiation derived from the emergence and consolidation of the Modern State, as a sphere of action functioning within its own rationality, separated from the religious rationality that underpinned the medieval power structures. The secularization of European society was simultaneously nourished by the cultural, economic and scientific transformations initiated with the Renaissance and materialized with the Enlightenment. The result of these transformations was the desacralization of the explanations for social and natural phenomena that formed part of Europe’s historical development.

The history of the secularization of the United States is rooted in a differentiation process that for fundamentally political reasons established a separation of church and state from the outset of that country’s republican development. The religious pluralism that characterized the colonial experience there and the need to establish an institutional framework that would reduce the multiple tensions and contradictions that could result from this plurality contributed to the development of a vision of social order, power and history as processes and conditions subject to humanity’s reflective action. The differentiation process in the United States was also accompanied by an impressive scientific, political and economic development that helped desacralize the explanations for social and natural phenomena.

This process was less profound than in Europe and thus the main basis of the secularization of US society is the political need to separate the spheres of action of the state and the churches in a context marked by religious pluralism. This helps explain why references to God in the political discourse of the United States are nearly always generic and ceremonial. Compare, for example, the brevity and generality of “God bless America,” used by Ronald Reagan and other US Presidents, to the intensity and Catholic particularism of Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños’ reference to God and the Virgin Mary in his first Message to the Nation: “We have won, Nicaragua has spoken, it has spoken clearly and forcefully, and you have honored us with your vote. I have always had faith in the will of our Lord God and our Mother the Holy Virgin, which protected and guided us in this campaign.”
Important religious privatization and liberalization processes have grown out of the differentiation and desacralization processes in Europe and the United States. In the European case, religious faith has suffered a “personal secularization” that has facilitated the state’s consolidation as a sphere of social action independent of the religious institutions. This in turn has facilitated interaction and dialogue between the members and authorities of these institutions. The privatization process in the United States has been less profound than in Europe, as demonstrated by the significant influence of national organized religious groups in US public policy formulation, but there is strong religious liberalization within its pluralist religious context.

Chile advanced by incorporating
the idea of “progress”

In general terms, Latin America’s historical development reveals a significantly lower level of secularization than that of Europe and the United States. Nonetheless, it offers significant differences that can help us appreciate the Nicaraguan case better. In Chile, to cite an advanced example of Latin American secularization, the country’s relatively high level of economic and cultural development has counteracted the weight of the religious cosmovisions of power and history, and of providentialism in particular. One of the consequences of this development was the modernization of Chile’s political discourse and practice, and more concretely the ideological and institutional development of its parties. Not even the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet could destroy Chile’s party structure.
During the first decades of the 19th century, the Chilean and Nicaraguan Conservative parties were equally rooted in providentialism and the disparaging of theoretical thinking. In 1851, a Chilean Conservative Party manifesto echoed Nicaraguan Conservatives in stating that it “does not need programs that make its spirit known. The country has seen it advance imperturbably against the tempests of anarchy for twenty years.” During the second half of the 19th century, however, it began developing its body of doctrine and making the premises of its thinking explicit. A centerpiece of this development was the thinking of “Liberal Conservatives” who incorporated the idea of “progress.” Thus, by 1901, the Chilean Conservative Party had incorporated the principle of Social Christian order into its program. In Nicaragua, to offer a comparative perspective, this principle continued to be controversial among Conservatives well into the second half of the 20th century.

Chilean Liberalism learns
to question Catholicism

The secularization of Chilean society was also facilitated by the intellectual role played by many religious figures who, with solid theological formation, promoted the modernization of Catholic thinking. Teresa Pereira mentions Monsignor Crescente Errázuriz, archbishop of Santiago between 1918 and 1931, who worked for the separation of the Catholic Church and the Conservative Party and fought to impose the concept that the Church must not intervene in group politics. In the 1930s, the Jesuit priests Fernando Vives Solar and Jorge Fernández Pradel, active participants in the doctrinaire incorporation of Social Christianity, also stood out. It is important to highlight, as does Iván de la Nuez, that these priests’ work was not simply political but also “ideological and theoretical, since the interest of the priesthood that fostered them was the formation of an intellectual elite with solid theological and philosophical knowledge that would echo the Church’s doctrinaire development based on the orientations of the Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno encyclicals.”
During this same period, intellectuals such as Manuel Garretón and Eduardo Frei came in contact with the great Social Christian philosopher Jacques Maritain. The modernization of Chilean religious thinking was propelled by the challenge that the development of the country’s Liberal thinking represented for the Church. Unlike its Nicaraguan counterpart, Chilean Liberalism did not simply oppose the institutional-political power of the Catholic Church authorities, but also criticized the philosophic and theological foundations of its organization. In the second half of the 19th century, one of its currents—organized in the Radical Party—fomented a critique of Catholic doctrine and dogmas. Hundreds of books, pamphlets and propagandists emerged in that period questioning the theological foundations of Catholicism.

The cultural development
and ideas of lay education

Chile’s political and cultural development was also accompanied and favored by a relatively strong economic development that promoted the formation of a broad working and middle class. Suffice it to say that, upon entering the 20th century, the development of the mining industry gave Chile the highest per-capita income in Latin America. The presence of a working class in Chile gave the content and language of the Rerum Novarum encyclical social significance. This was made clear in the pastoral signed by Archbishop Mariano Casanova to introduce this encyclical of León XIII in 1891: “The Pope, interposing himself as mediator between the capitalists and the workers, asks the former to moderate their thirst for wealth and not deduct from the workers just remuneration for their work, or impose on them a greater burden than their strength can bear; at the same time reminding the proletariat of the extremely high dignity of the poor in the eyes of the Gospel and the example of the Savior of the world, who for love of the poor was the most humble laborer of Nazareth, though he could be the most opulent king on earth.”
The Rerum Novarum had no significant political impact in Nicaragua. Nor could it have in an eminently peasant country whose clergy lacked the reflective capacity to contextualize the essence of its message. It must also be noted that Chilean cultural development was favored by massive English, German and French immigration, which brought with it the ideals of secular and positivist education. Along with Chile’s own economic and cultural development, this immigration promoted the de facto differentiation of the spheres of action of Church and State and even the modernization of the Church’s own thinking in Chile.

Education is the basis of
Costa Rica’s modern political culture

Within the Central American region, Costa Rica offers an example of secularization without formal differentiation, which helps explain the specificity of the Nicaraguan case and the possibilities for Nicaragua to shake off its providentialist and resigned-pragmatist culture. The Costa Rican state is confessional. Article 75 of its 1949 Constitution, still in effect, establishes that the State will assume the Catholic religion as its own. Nonetheless, Costa Rica’s greater cultural development compared to the rest of the Central American region has generated modern political visions of power and history.
This process has helped consolidate a de facto differentiation between the spheres of the Catholic Church and the State. Dagoberto Campos Salas notes the existence in that country of numerous legal and executive-administrative dispositions that could easily be interpreted as contrary to confessionalism, in that rather than being tied to the constitutional precept, they are at least partly related to a lay mentality in some cases and to the right of religious freedom that the Church itself currently promotes.
The basis of Costa Rica’s secular political culture is education. As far back as the 19th century, Costa Rica was articulating an educational discourse captured perfectly in the motto “more teachers than soldiers.” This was translated into public actions and policies that were much more effective than those of other countries in the region. The educational reform of 1886, for example, was buttressed by an allocation of 15% of the national budget. This reform facilitated the articulation of Costa Rican identity and contributed to the development of a national consensus that served as the basis for that country’s democracy. Thus despite the confessional legal condition of the Costa Rican State, the development of education and democracy in Costa Rica facilitated the institutionalization of a political culture that operates on the basis of modern, secular values in which a non-providentialist vision of power, history and society clearly predominates.

Chile and Costa Rica are two Latin American countries that illustrate the profound relation between education, cultural modernization and the modernization of state and society. More concretely, these experiences suggest that the transformation of the Conqueror State requires a modern political thinking that can overcome the providentialist and resigned-pragmatic visions of history that have dominated Nicaragua’s national development.

Nicaraguan political culture:
Resigned pragmatism

The persistence of the Conqueror State and the failure of the Nation-State in Nicaragua are largely due to the way the country’s elites have “conceived” the country’s historical development. Any interpretation of Nicaragua’s political history must therefore necessarily include an evaluation of the political thinking that has shaped the participation of these elites in that history.

Nicaraguan political practice has virtually always been oriented within a pragmatic-resigned cultural perspective. With few exceptions, the governing elites have accepted the country’s internal reality and the outside conditions operating on that reality as inevitable. In fact, they have perceived Nicaragua’s history as a process determined by forces that Nicaraguans do not control.

The root: Providentialism
and a determined idea of God

One of the main roots of that resigned pragmatism is the providentialist cosmovision reproduced by the Catholic Church ever since the conquest. Providentialism expresses a vision of history as a process governed by God, in harmony with his plans and propositions.
This vision is found in almost all of the world’s institutional religious expressions. With important variations, providentialism has remained one of the main doctrinal focuses of Catholicism since the patristic period of the Catholic Church right up to the present. Despite its persistence, however, Catholic theology has been obliged—by the same modernization of the world’s more advanced societies—to nuance and problematize this doctrine’s discursive articulations.

Some contemporary interpretations of providentialism refer to God as a general historical influence and not as the force that regulates and administers the meaning, form and nature of each of the events and circumstances that mark the passing of time. But even in its most problematized articulations, the essence of providentialism remains invariable: God is the supreme force and intelligence that governs the destiny of individuals, nations and the world. The persistence of this fundamental principle is comprehensible, since a substantial reinterpretation of providentialism could easily undermine the power of the Catholic Church.

The cult of the saints:
A cultural feature with political consequences

The Catholic Church reproduces the essential elements of its providentialist doctrine through both written and oral language. Its discourse also includes symbolic representations that express a vision of the world as a space governed by God and of the history of individuals and nations as processes determined by supernatural forces. The Church’s saints, both male and female, represent one of the most important of these symbolic representations.
The canonization process begins with recognition of a person that the Church considers especially virtuous and ends when the ecclesiastical authorities confirm that this person has created at least two miracles, or in other words has realized two supernatural acts of divine origin. In this way, the elevation of someone to the category of saint assumes the confirmation of the presence in the world of a providential God who functions as the administrator of history through sainted people endowed with supernatural powers that he has conferred. Once canonized, these people continue exercising miracles and intervening in history to guide it in harmony with the objectives of a plan determined by God.

In Nicaragua, the cult of the saints forms part of the “magic meaning of life” that political scientist Emilio Alvarez Montalván sees as part of the country’s political culture. To Nicaraguans, he writes, “natural phenomena and social and human events have a mysterious, impenetrable origin, the product of extraordinary forces.” In politics, this cultural feature is expressed in the tendency of Nicaraguans to deposit their faith in the powers of the particular caudillo in office at the time. And, he adds, “That permanent expectation of subjecting life to a providential being is unquestionably religious in nature since the relationship involved is one of blind faith, of the total submission of the devout to their patron saint without being able to set any condition.”

El Nicaragüense
and his “Papa-Chú”

In his book El Nicaragüense, writer-poet Pablo Antonio Cuadra confirmed—and praised—the providentialist vision of history that dominates our country’s entire culture: “Blasphemy does not exist in Nicaragua. Nicas make constant reference to a respectful dependence on God. ‘God willing’ and ‘If God so desires’ are never absent from their statements. Nicaraguans have to their credit one of the most beautiful providentialist expressions in Spanish: ‘God first!’”
For Cuadra, the Nicaraguan’s image of Christ is fundamentally that of a providential father. With penetrating acuteness, he states: “In fact our most familiar religious language is laced with a child’s expressions: the ‘Mama-Virgin’ or ‘Papa-Chú’ of all Nicaraguans’ childhood. This has been working a very acute filial note into our image of Christ. From the child’s ‘Papa Chú’ one moves to ‘my Father Jesus,’ which is the most general and reverent name that our people gives to Christ… Trusting providentialism underlies this treatment of the ‘Father’.”

Providentialism inhibits identifying
the obstacles to development

From his profound traditionalist Catholicism, Cuadra admires the providentialism of the popular masses. We, however, believe that providentialism, so dominant in the visions of history and power held by Nicaragua’s elites, has contributed to the development of a pragmatic-resigned thinking and political culture that have limited the capacity for political action required to identify the objective-structural obstacles to national development and to articulate the collective visions and strategies needed to surmount them. In this regard, resigned pragmatism represents the political derivation of the religious cosmovision expressed in providentialism.

The consolidation of resigned pragmatism and its reproduction throughout Nicaraguan history have not depended exclusively on the subjective conditioning imposed by the providentialist doctrine spread by the Catholic and Protestant churches over the course of our history. The material conditions imposed by the influence of the United States have also helped perpetuate the providentialist vision of history as a process determined by forces that Nicaraguans do not control.

The influence of providentialism and resigned-pragmatic thinking has been interrupted more than once by reformist or revolutionary movements and governments that have tried to expand the limits of Nicaraguan reality. These movements and governments have adopted fundamentally voluntarist positions that are unable to recognize the structural obstacles conditioning human freedom. None of them could develop the reflective capacity to identify the framework of historical limitations and possibilities within which society was operating.

No responsibility for history,
whether by indifference or fatalism

The resigned-pragmatic cultural framework conditioning the political action of the Nicaraguan elites is one of the main elements responsible for our backwardness in all areas.

Resigned pragmatism is a way of thinking about reality that pushes the members of a community into assuming that what is politically desirable must always be subordinated to what is circumstantially possible. The political expressions of resigned pragmatism vary according to the power of the groups that make up national society. In the dominant groups, it is expressed through indifference toward the phenomenon of poverty and the social marginalizing of the masses. And in the marginal groups, it is manifested in fatalistic attitudes regarding their own misery. Both the indifference of the elites and the fatalism of the masses express a sense of irresponsibility with respect to history.

Both attitudes assume that power and poverty are social conditions determined by forces beyond the control of Nicaraguans. From this perspective, the historic limitations imposed by the current reality are accepted as the fundamental frame of reference for human action. In turn, this reality is perceived as a historic condition determined by forces removed from thinking and organized social action. Thus, from a resigned-pragmatic perspective, politics is conceived as the capacity to adjust to the reality of the constituted power and especially to the power of the international forces that condition the national reality.

Conservatives, Liberals, Socialists:
All pre-modern thinkers

The resigned-pragmatic thinking dominant in Nicaraguan political development is essentially pre-modern. Modernity is an attitude rooted in a political thinking that expresses society’s confidence, capacity and will to make itself the “architect of its own destiny.”
The resigned-pragmatic political thinking of Nicaraguan Conservatism has simply expressed an instinctive attitude to defend an “order” based on particular traditional interests. The normative voluntarism of Nicaraguan Liberalism has expressed an anti-oligarchic position, but has been unable to articulate a democratic thinking that expresses and meshes the interests and aspirations of the different sectors of Nicaraguan society. Nicaragua’s revolutionary socialism has attempted to represent the interests of the masses, without managing to articulate a thinking that explicitly defines the values that unite the diverse social, ethnic and cultural groups that make up this country’s marginal society.

All three have superficially and uncritically adopted the principles and conceptual vocabulary articulated by European political thinking. The discursive expressions of this imported thinking do not constitute an authentic representation of Nicaraguans’ interests and aspirations, but rather their falsification. This is one reason why the reformist and revolutionary efforts in Nicaraguan history have ended up crushed by the weight of a reality that has remained pre-theorized and therefore independent of the political will of Nicaraguans themselves.

The tensions buried in the
mythic-religious self-vision

The construction of an identity and a modern state implies articulating a social consensus of interests and aspirations that should be politically articulated and reproduced through society’s political-reflective action. Nicaraguan political thinking, which is imitative and superficial, has not even succeeded in specifying the primary social tensions growing out of the varying social, racial, religious and gender distinctions of the different members of society. These tensions feed the country’s political conflict while their significance remains buried in our society’s mythic-religious self-vision.
The reality of Nicaraguan racism toward the population of African origin is ignored. Our social sciences continue to ignore the “African sprinkle” in Nicaragua’s racial and social composition. The disdain for all things indigenous expressed in the insult “You Indian!” also remains latent, without the appropriate analytical expressions that would permit its critique and analysis. The religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants are expressed at the level of prejudices and nourished by the absence of any enriching dialogue between the two religious groups. Likewise, the sexual dimension of social life retains its condition of taboo or is expressed through humor, as if the “kingdom of lovelessness” into which Nicaraguans are born and raised is cause for laughter.

Providentialism must be identified as a structure of religious values that has made it difficult to articulate social consensus on interests and aspirations. It has contributed to the retardation of Nicaraguan political thinking, and, more concretely, to the reproduction of the pre-modern and resigned-pragmatic visions that have dominated the country’s political-institutional development. With a brief interruption in the second half of the 1970s and first few years of the 80s, the Nicaraguan Catholic Church has maintained an essentially providentialist discourse that helps legitimize and reproduce the resigned pragmatism that dominates the national political culture.

The providentialist and resigned-pragmatic visions have been bolstered by the preponderant role of the United States in the nation’s historical development. Nicaraguans have transferred their mental dependence on an omnipotent and providential God to their perception of the forces that dominate the world political and economic order, especially the transnational power of the United States.

In the times of globalization:
A vicious and paralyzing circle

Globalization represents a radical transformation of the relation between territorial space and historic time on which the National State was consolidated. It represents an unprecedented challenge even for those societies that succeeded in developing the capacity to translate the principle of sovereignty into a real capacity to create and reproduce their own history.

The transnationalizing of capital and of the apparatuses of state administration tends to reduce the capacity of the modern State to create and reproduce spatially contained identities, communities and national histories. It also limits the State’s capacity to organize the functioning of national economic life on behalf of the nation’s needs. The State’s organizational and administrative structures—which in the experience of the West’s democratic liberal countries provided communication circuits between the State and civil society—are increasingly acting as transmission belts between global pressures and domestic structures. The growing interpenetration of the national administrative apparatuses and the world economic system and its institutions reduces the capacity of these administrative apparatuses to respond to national needs and pressures that contradict the logic of the world market.

In such conditions, the idea of democracy, which facilitated the development of national histories based on “collective memories and aspirations,” is devalued insofar as society loses the ability to condition the State’s functions and priorities. For Nicaragua, the challenge of globalization is still greater in that it intensifies the structural characteristics of the Conqueror State and the cultural framework within which it has been reproduced. Globalization tends to reduce the Nicaraguan State’s social regulatory power and to widen the gap that has traditionally separated the State from society. The sense of powerlessness generated by this process feeds the providentialism and the pragmatic-resigned thinking that forms part of Nicaraguan political culture, thus creating a potentially paralyzing vicious circle.

Worse yet, globalization tends to devaluate the National State as the model of social organization that served as the reference for the development of Latin America’s countries in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries. Starting in the final decades of the 20th century, transnational models of organization have begun to displace the idea of the National State as a national identity and as a sovereign entity within which history is spatialized. One of the most concrete expressions of this tendency is the creation of free market zones. In such conditions it is worth asking whether the Nicaraguans have the political capacity to transcend the historical limits imposed by the Conqueror State and successfully confront the enormous challenges of the 21st century.

History: A permanent tension
between possibilities and decisions

“Determinist” perspectives of history assume that the institutionalized social relations and structural transformations experienced by society as a product of globalization are forces that will inevitably determine Nicaragua’s future. In this regard, determinism is congruent with pragmatic-resigned visions of history, which assume that the social role of individuals is limited to acting and deciding within the limits imposed by a historic logic that transcends will and organized political action.

“Voluntarist” historical perspectives, in contrast, respond to this question by emphasizing the role played by human will and actions in the construction of history. Voluntarism does not, however, recognize the structural constraints that condition and limit freedom.
A third position accepts the existence of objective limits to human action but also admits the existence of opportunities to transform and expand the limits of what is possible. This position allows a vision of history as a process resulting from a permanent tension between objective possibilities and human decisions. This perspective would see the course of Nicaraguan history as conditioned by both national power structures and the international ones responsible for organizing the development of globalization, without forgetting that those who create and reproduce these structures are themselves social actors with the capacity to reflect and act.

It is thus possible to assume that we Nicaraguans can expand the limits of social reality and extend the frontiers of what is politically possible, based on an understanding of the historic limitations and possibilities under which the country operates. This vision of the relationship between individuals and their structural reality redeems the role of ideas and political thinking in the constitution of society and history.

An ethics of responsibility
that rejects coercion and pacts

To expand the limits of Nicaraguan reality, political thinking must be nourished by a vision of the national future that can organize society’s energies and aspirations. To shed the unwanted Conqueror State, we must begin to rebuild with an eye on the modern and democratic Nation-State that we want to reach. This objective cannot be attained within a utopian perspective that fails to consider the historic limitations within which the reality of a country such as Nicaragua unfolds. Nor can it be achieved within a resigned-pragmatic orientation that accepts history as a process beyond the aspirations of those who live it and are a part of it.

Lying between utopia and resigned pragmatism is the world of reality, which is socially constructed by mentally and practically modifying the framework of historical limitations that define what is possible within temporal limits. This is the world of reflective action; that is, action oriented by a political thinking that bases itself on reality in order to transcend it.

The articulation of a modern political thinking able to create and consolidate a shared national future must be seen as an attempt to create a contractual and democratic vision of politics. Such a vision aims to discard the use of coercion, the main instrument of voluntarist and exclusionary thinking, and “pactism,” the political technology of resigned-pragmatic thinking and culture, both of which have formed a part of Nicaragua’s historic experience.

Coercion and pactism rely on two value-based frameworks: the “ethics of conviction” underlying voluntarist political action and the “instrumental ethics” identified with resigned-pragmatic action. The ethics of conviction, expressed in the inflexible and unconditional defense of absolute values, dominated the governments of Zelaya and the FSLN.

Instrumental ethics is expressed in a relativist and pragmatic vision of politics in which anything “advantageous” is good. This ethics dominated the political practice of the Nicaraguan elites during the Thirty Years of Conservative government, the period of US intervention and Somocismo, and is again doing so during the neoliberal period initiated in 1990.

The ethics of government that is congruent with the modern, contractual and democratic thinking that Nicaragua needs to push beyond the limits of both normative politics and resigned-pragmatic politics is what Weber called the “ethics of responsibility.” This is an ethics that attempts to harmonize the tensions and contradictions that arise from the multiple interests, rights and aspirations that coexist within Nicaraguan social reality.

A modern and humanist political
culture is compatible with God and faith

Institutionalizing a contractualist political system rooted in the ethics of responsibility requires modernizing Nicaragua’s thinking and its political culture. This process must be conceived of as an effort to develop Nicaraguans’ capacity to control their own destiny and translate into a humanist—not providentialist—vision of power and of history. This vision is not anti-Christian or anti-religious. A modern, humanist political culture is not incompatible with the idea of God or faith. It simply expresses a reconceptual-izing of the relationship between God and humanity.

The Christian churches, especially the Catholic one, are called upon to play a crucial role in modernizing Nicaragua’s thinking and political culture since churches function as mechanisms of socialization. The providentialism they reproduce is the conceptual representation of the set of anonymous rules that condition and regulate how Nicaraguans—nearly always unconsciously—visualize power and history. Providentialism, in other words, is a theological model that uses concepts and metaphors to induce Nicaraguans to perceive history as a process they do not control.

The “God willing!” used so frequently by Nicaraguans and the references to Providence articulated by the country’s elected leaders in speeches and documents are linguistic constructions whose semantic content must be deconstructed, theorized and reconstructed. These expressions form part of the “common sense” that orients Nicaraguans’ conduct and helps legitimize and reproduce the structures of power and the social order that generate today’s poverty and inequality.
This does not mean that modernizing Nicaragua’s thinking and its political culture is strictly a religious problem. We are obviously facing a challenge that demands the conscious participation of the formal education mechanisms at all levels. It is equally obvious that the media has a crucial educational role to play in a country in which formal education operates in an extremely limited territorial and social sphere.

It is further evident that Nicaragua’s political parties and civil society organizations have not only the possibility but also the responsibility to initiate a debate about the underpinnings and premises of their practice and political thinking. For its part, the Nicaraguan State must use its policies and programs to help increase the population’s participation in constructing its own history. It could, for example, promote the development of contractual social experiments that demonstrate our ability to control our own destiny.

It is possible to initiate the cultural breakdown

If it is evident that all these actors and institutions have the responsibility—and possibility—to initiate the cultural breakdown that is so important if Nicaragua is to pull itself out of its misery and survive in today’s world, it is also evident that nothing is harder than initiating cultural change from within the very framework of values to be transformed. Nothing is more difficult than changing the “common sense” that is precisely what prevents us from seeing the need for change.

While difficult, it is not impossible. History shows that societies can create new value frameworks capable of generating new realities. It also shows that social theory can contribute to the construction of capacities to elucidate and condition history’s evolution. Many books are written with that hope, this one included.

Nicaraguan political scientist Andrés Pérez-Baltodano
is a researcher associated with the Central American University’s Institute of Nicaraguan and Central American History. The above is taken from his book
Entre el estado conquistador y el estado nación: providencialismo, pensamiento político y estructuras de poder en el desarrollo histórico de Nicaragua (Between the Conqueror State and the Nation State: Providentialism, Political Thinking and Power Structures in Nicaragua’s Historical Development), presented in Managua on April 14, 2004.

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