Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 294 | Enero 2006



Is National Sovereignty Possible In These Times of Globalization?

The challenge that any democratic, renewed Sandinista Left faces is to learn and teach to act locally without thinking only globally. Thinking nationally to resolve the contradiction between a national and global perspective without renouncing sovereignty and identity is not ingrained in Nicaragua, but it can be done. Recovering the idea of sovereignty will help recover Sandinismo.

Andrés Pérez Baltodano

Arenewed and democratic Sandinista movement has to assume the defense of Nicaragua’s national sovereignty as one of its main tasks. But what does that mean in these times of globalization? It means adopting a position—without ridiculous stridency or absurd blood, sweat and tears—that unambiguously defends the inviolability of Nicaraguan territory from drug trafficking or the power of the United States or any other country, defends the environment and our natural resources and, of course, defends the right of Nicaraguans to decide our own destiny as a nation.

It also means promoting a new model of relations between state and society and a new local development strategy to integrate our disarticulated country socially and territorially. Sovereignty shouldn’t just be seen as a legal principle with territorial implications. It is a principle of political action with social implications. Without a state capable of organizing and developing the life of Nicaragua’s abandoned populations and regions, sovereignty is pure fiction.

Our state can’t develop without true democracy. And that means a state-society relationship that provides Nicaraguans and their local powers the capacity to domesticate the central government’s priorities and actions. Democracy is the anchor that allows the state to weather the storms of globalization, particularly the trend toward off-shore formulation of its policies and programs.

Globalization: A brave new world
whose map only Picasso could portray

The concept of “globalization” expresses the tendency of national political and economic structures to organize around axes of transnational power that condition and in some cases even determine what happens nationally. This kind of political, social and economic integration is qualitatively different from that expressed in the concept “international relations,” where the axes of power are basically national.

Globalization doesn’t represent the dissolving of US hegemonic world power, but rather its extension and its transformation into an indirect and abstract influence that now operates within a non-territorial arena of transnational power and economic and political action that revolves around a set of institutions: the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organization (WTO).

It must be seen as an extension of the transnational power of the states of the North, with the United States figuring prominently among them. According to Rita Laura Segato, the financial and information flows operating within the transnational space created by globalization are neither random nor even; they are massively concentrated in the countries that hegemonize the circulation of globalized goods.

Globalization represents a radical transformation of the relationship between territorial space and historical time that led to the consolidation of the nation-state in Europe and other parts of the world. The territorial space of the nation-state functions as a geographical framework that contains a national history. Seen from this perspective, modern political geography, particularly its maps and cartographic representations, represents territorially contained social periods. A graphic or sociological representation of today’s globalized world would probably have to resort to Picasso’s cubist perspective. Only a multiple yet harmonic perspective could give form and sense to the multiple tensions, fractures and contradictions created by globalization. Carl Einstein reminds us that Picasso’s genius and the basis of his esthetic truth was precisely his transcending of the contradictory.

Globalization has sown
insecurity around the world

Globalization—and the reforms of the state-society relationship accompanying it—have generated human insecurity throughout the planet. The intensity of this insecurity varies according to the different capacities of the world’s national states to filter and condition the external pressures on them without losing their ability to respond to their own national population’s demands and needs.

The categories “North” and “South” are useful for differentiating the capacity possessed by the world‘s states to condition globalization’s effects and create greater security in their own national sphere. The societies of the North developed the capacity to translate the principle of sovereignty into a real ability to create and reproduce their own history. Today, the transnationalization of capital, the productive processes and the apparatus of state administration, all of which form part of globalization, tends to reduce the modern state’s ability to create and reproduce spatially contained identities, communities and national histories and to organize the functioning of national economic life around domestic needs. The national states’ organizational and administrative structures, which in the experience of the North’s democratic liberal countries acted as communication circuits between state and civil society, increasingly act as conveyor belts for global pressures.

In the North democracy is losing its value

The growing interpenetration between national administrative apparatuses and the world economic system and its institutions reduces the ability of those apparatuses to respond to their own population’s needs and pressures when they contradict the logic of the world market. As society loses its capacity to condition the state’s functions and priorities, the idea of democracy, which facilitated the development of national histories based on “collective memories and aspirations,” is becoming devalued.

In the democratic liberal societies of the North, the transnationalization of capital and the state opened up a gap between public policymakers and those being affected by those policies. As David Held points out, that gap has diminished the value of democracy in the North, given that society is affected by decisions taken outside the political-territorial space of the nation state.

This has created a crisis of “ontological insecurity” in the North, which Anthony Giddens defines as a condition of permanent instability in the economic and social environment within which individuals operate in today’s globalized society. Examples of the new forms of insecurity include deregulation of the labor markets, the loss of union and working-class power, the export of whole industries facilitated by the transnationalization of productive processes, and erosion of the welfare state.

This crisis of security must be seen as resulting from the emergence of what Will Kymilika calls a deficit of society’s democratic power to condition the functioning and priorities of a transnationalized state. The solution requires creating democratic communication and control mechanisms that can help subordinate the functions and priorities of the state’s transnational apparatuses to society’s needs and aspirations. These transnational circuits would have to be built as extensions of the national processes that allowed the North’s societies to democratize state power in the national sphere.

In the South we have
powerless states and societies

Globalization has exacerbated the already difficult social conditions historically suffered by the countries of the South. New forms of insecurity, social inequality and instability have been added to their unresolved tensions and contradictions. But unlike what is happening in the North, the crisis of human security in the South is the result of a double deficit: not only a democratic deficit manifested in the inability of those countries’ civil societies to condition the state’s power and priorities, but also a deficit of state power manifested in the states’ own inability to condition the structures, decision-making processes and functioning of the transnational sphere’s organization of power.

The sovereignty of the states of the South lacks the historical significance it has in Europe, for example. In most of the world’s “dependent” countries, the principle of sovereignty is strictly formal, precisely because the states can’t condition the organizations that govern conflict and collaboration within the transnational sphere of power created by globalization. The United Nations Development Program recognized this when it stated that the structures and processes for global policy formulation aren’t representative. It added that the most powerful countries in the world dominate the main transnational economic organizations (IMF, World Bank, G-7, G-10, G-22, OECD, WTO), leaving the poor countries with a limited quota of influence and little voice, whether due to lack of membership or lack of capacity to participate effectively in those forums.

With respect to the limited ability of the South’s societies to condition the actions of their own states, the vast majority of their citizens lack the necessary civil rights and instruments of political participation to articulate and reproduce democratic state-society relations. In the South, the states float above society and are almost invariably organized in line with the pressures and influences operating in their international and global context. Globalization has accentuated their foreign dependence and their weakness in formulating and implementing social policies that help structure order and security in the national sphere, and has emancipated them from societies without the capacity to condition them.

Globalization promotes the separation of some of the most important components of public policy formulation—especially economic policies—from the population’s political pressures. This further reduces the capacity of states in the South to respond to their societies’ needs and demands, especially when what is needed or demanded isn’t in keeping with market rationale. This deficit became evident in the eighties and nineties when most of the South’s governments were obliged to open up their economies to international competition, implement privatization programs, reduce their state apparatuses and introduce neoliberal economic reforms as a condition for receiving support from the international financial organizations.

This inability of the South’s states to respond to their populations’ needs and demands, plus the inability of the market in those same countries to generate the jobs society requires, has created serious human insecurity.

To repeat, the South faces a double historical-structural deficit: a deficit of state power, with states unable to influence the distribution of transnational power created by globalization; and an internal democratic deficit, with civil societies unable to condition the power of their own states.

This explains the Left’s resurgence

This situation is painfully ironic considering that the introduction of the neoliberal economic policies and state reforms that helped generate such insecurity and poverty in the South coincided with the start of the “Third Democratic Wave.” This dual process of economic and political reforms has generated deep tensions and contradictions between the idea of democracy as an inclusive political process and neoliberal economic principles that try to legitimize the exclusion of the losers in the social dynamic created by globalization.

Neoliberalism’s inability to dignify the misery it generates explains the Left’s resurgence in Latin America. It is happening under the same conditioning factors imposed by the neoliberal structures established in the region for almost three decades. Thus the same crisis scenario created both new contradictions and new hope.

Nicaragua: A hyper-dependent country
within the limits established by the USA

Globalization presents particularly difficult challenges for hyper-dependent countries like Nicaragua. We are a politically, economically, socially, culturally and geographically dislocated society now being forced to integrate into the transnational trade and cooperation schemes promoted by globalization. Worse yet, Nicaragua is facing the challenges of its transnationalization with a state unable even to integrate its own spatial base socially and territorially.

The hyper-dependency of the Nicaraguan state and society can’t be understood without reference to our country’s particularly difficult relationship with the United States. It’s no exaggeration to say that the United States has created the framework of conditions within which Nicaragua has organized its history. While the United States hasn’t determined every event that has taken place in our country, it has marked the limits of what is politically, socially and economically possible for Nicaraguans. This history has to be reviewed if we are to visualize our possible future.

1821-1857: In the filibusters’ sights

The first stage of the Nicaraguan state’s history runs from the end of the colonial regime in 1821 to the end of the National War in 1857. That period also corresponds to the first phase of the expansion of US power, between its independence in 1776 and the Civil War of 1860-1865, during which US expansion was organized within a spatial perspective that encouraged Americans to extend their territorial base. Some historians use the concept of “territorial imperialism” to refer to this process.

The US elites and governments of the period correlated their country’s national and transnational power with the size of their territorial base, a particular vision of power that explains the filibuster phenomenon. According to William O. Scroggs, the filibusters’ adventures were not simple accidents, but rather vital historical events symptomatic of the American spirit of the time. The anarchic conditions into which Nicaragua was plunged in the middle of the 19th century, the self-imposed US civilizing mission and the growing importance of an inter-oceanic route made the appearance of filibusters in Nicaragua practically inevitable. Scroggs points out that if William Walker hadn’t tried to take control of Nicaragua, others would have.

Up to 1979: Institutionalization
of the new American imperialism

The Nicaraguan state’s second stage of development covers just over a century, from the end of the National War and Walker’s expulsion to the 1979 Sandinista revolution. This corresponds to the institutionalization of the “new US imperialism,” which transcends the territorial vision of power to become a system of legal regulations that organize the functioning of countries operating in its sphere of influence.

This “new imperialism” began during the post-Civil War period of reconstruction and reorganization in the United States and ended in the 1980s with the rise of neo-conservatism in Europe, Canada and the United States, which articulated the political rationale underpinning globalization. The American Civil War displaced that country’s aristocratic landlords and curbed US territorial expansion. Harold Faulkner explains that the “new imperialism” that emerged after the end of that war wasn’t aimed at acquiring and physically controlling new territories, but rather at developing the US power of legal transnational regulation. Historians such as Hedley Bull and William Ashworth point out that the most important manifestations of that power were US participation in organizing the system of international cooperation, which started to materialize during the second half of the 19th century, and in the implementation of social engineering projects to reorganize countries located within the US sphere of influence socially, politically and economically.

Thus the post-Civil War efforts by US governments to build an inter-oceanic canal through Central America didn’t involve formally annexing the territory required for that purpose, but rather establishing legal accords based on international law to control the canal’s functioning. President Rutherford B. Hayes expressed this new policy when he stated that the canal had to be turned into a “virtual” part of the US coastline.

1898: Cuba as an expression
of the new US economy

In this new context, the military force that the United States had used to occupy and control new territories prior to the Civil War was used during this new phase to support the new expansionist strategy. Eventually, armed interventions would be replaced by a control structure based on international law.

This new US imperialism was consistent with the needs of its new economy and with the growing complexity and interpenetration of the world economy. The US war against Spain waged in Cuba in 1898 expressed the new US economic reality. The head of the US Commerce Department’s Foreign Trade Office recognized the economic and commercial imperatives pushing his country toward a military face-off with Spain when he explained that the Spanish-American war was merely an incident framed within an expansion movement triggered by the development of an industrial capacity that exceeded US consumer capacity. He explained that in such circumstances it was necessary not only to find new buyers for US products but also to establish easy, economic and safe access to foreign markets.

US might turned right

One of the clearest expressions of the manifestation of US transnational power in Latin America during this period was “Pan-Americanism,” a US-driven international legal order designed to condition the way the region’s states functioned. Among the obstacles to the consolidation of this order were the interminable wars and revolutions in Central American countries in the early 20th century. That instability reinforced the tendency of US governments to impose their vision of the world on our countries, which were considered uncontrollable and backward. At the time, The New York Times referred to the Central American countries as “republics,” or worse still, the five comic opera “states” (its quotation marks in both cases).

The government of José Santos Zelaya emerged precisely at the moment in which the United States was working to impose an international order in the continent that was coherent with its interests. Zelaya’s international adventures and his ambition for power within the Central American sphere were inconsistent with the international order desired by the United States. According to Carlos Cuadra Pasos, Zelaya proved unable to interpret the importance and implications of the new “Pan-Americanism” or to understand that a substantial change was taking place in politics in the Americas. Zelaya not only swam against the current of changes promoted by the United States to reconfigure the international order, but did so without understanding the waters in which he was moving.

It’s important to point out that one of the defining characteristics of the US and European efforts to condition the historical development of Asia, Africa and Latin America in that period was the centrality of the idea of the national state.

US transnational power in Nicaragua was manifested at the time in the establishment of a social engineering process designed to reconcile the country’s political and economic organization with the functioning of the Pan-American regime, designed to impose US influence on Latin America’s historical development. The construction of the new Pan-Americanism was supported through the use of US military force and the institutionalization of an international legal framework. Through this structure, US might was turned into right and the Latin American countries’ obedience into a sense of legal obligation.

The international moment
of the Sandinista revolution

The third stage in the development of US transnational power corresponds to the period in which globalization has been crystallizing. Nicaraguan history corresponding to this same stage runs from the Sandinista revolution to the present day. That revolution would jump-start a process of social changes aimed at consolidating the Nicaraguan national state precisely at a moment in which the world order and the nature of international power was changing. The revolution would not succeed.

Within this new stage, globalization has devalued the national state as the model of social organization that served as a reference point for the development of Nicaragua and other countries during the first and second stages of the development of US transnational power. Starting at the end of the 20th century, the idea of a national state as a sovereign entity in which a history and national identity were territorialized has begun to be displaced by transnational models of organization. The Free Trade Area of the Americas is one of the most concrete and ambitious expressions of this trend.

Today, the transnational integration of a disarticulated country like Nicaragua puts national sovereignty and the possibility of building real Nicaraguan political identity at risk. And by national political identity we mean a set of rights, obligations, aspirations and collective memories internalized by the members of a national state as the result of the experience of belonging to a shared arena of political action.

Within this arena of political action, the state functions as both the central object of the conflict over the distribution of the benefits of living in society and as a regulatory and social integration mechanism that organizes this conflict and harmonizes the cultural, socioeconomic, gender, linguistic, racial and other differences that coexist in any national society. Through these two agglutinating functions, the state actively participates in establishing the pillars that sustain modern political identities: nationality and citizenship.

What is to be done?
The resigned, the voluntarists and the creators

Given Nicaragua’s uncertain entry into the 21st century, we must ask ourselves whether our organized political thought can transcend the limits imposed on us by our state’s historical development and respond successfully to the enormous challenges of globalization. Is sovereignty and the construction and preservation of a Nicaraguan political identity possible in the globalizing times in which we live?

Some “determinist” views of history assume that the structural transformations suffered by Nicaraguan society as the result of globalization inevitably determine our future. This vision is expressed in the pragmatic-resigned neoliberal economic positions of rightwing groups and parties associated with Nicaraguan liberalism. The Right assumes that the social role of individuals is restricted to acting and deciding within the limits imposed by a historical logic—the logic of capital—that transcends volition and organized political action.

On the other side of the fence, “voluntarist” historical perspectives put great value on the role played by volition and human actions in constructing history. The voluntarist Left, for example, doesn’t recognize the structural limits that condition and limit freedom and assumes that the world is infinitely plastic and can therefore be molded into any shape we decide. Intellectuals of the voluntarist Left criticize any gradualist approach to social change and denounce as pro-capitalist any political vision that doesn’t demand the immediate institutionalization of a pure form of socialism. Such intellectuals are incapable of understanding that utopias are absolutely necessary as a social goal, but that it takes time to reach them, admitting no shortcuts.

A third position regarding the challenges imposed by globalization in countries such as ours is a vision of the Nicaragua we want and need, based on a social goal, that accepts the existence of objective limits to human action but can also see and even create opportunities to transform and extend those limits. In the words of Alberto Guerreiro Ramos, this position views history as a process resulting from permanent tension between objective possibilities and human decisions.

The world of the Left:
Pushing the limits of possibility

From this third perspective, the course of Nicaraguan history would be conditioned by both the national power structures and those organizing the development of globalization. But based on an understanding of the historical limitations and possibilities within which we live, a democratic and renewed leftist movement would set about pushing the limits of social reality and the frontiers of political possibility. This vision of the relation between individuals and their structural reality recovers the role played by ideas and political thought in the creation of society and history.

To extend the limits of Nicaraguan reality, political thinking needs a vision of the nation’s future that organizes society’s energy and aspirations. This vision can’t be established from a utopian perspective that fails to take into account the historical limits within which Nicaraguan reality has developed, but neither can it be built within a pragmatic-resigned orientation that accepts history as a process removed from the volition of those who experience and constitute it.

Between the voluntarism of Nicaragua’s Left and the resigned pragmatism of its Right is the world of reality that is socially constructed through the mental and practical modification of the historical limitations that define what is possible and in what time frame. This world of action guided by political thinking uses reality in order to transcend it; it’s the world within which a democratic and renewed Sandinista force can develop and consolidate.

Transcending Nicaraguan reality means escaping the socio-territorial disarticulation generated by globalization and assuming that Nicaragua can build and consolidate a national identity that gives us a framework of common aspirations within which to work. It means building a political thinking that helps us mold reality to our objectives.

It means the responsable use of social theory to highlight our risks and opportunities and achieve an authentic representation of what we are and could be as a society rather than a-critically employing the social theory currently imposed by the international financial and cooperation agencies.

Concepts transplanted from the North
don’t defend our sovereignty and identity

The international institutions that generate the rationale within which globalization operates influence not only via their important political and economic power, but also via their capacity to give a name to things. They can impose the conceptual basis on which countries’ governments and institutions act.

This conceptual basis fundamentally consists of linguistic representations of the historical development of the advanced democratic capitalist societies. Transferred to other societies with different histories, it imposes false historical premises on any social interpretation, given that the transplanted concepts neither express nor represent the historical development of the societies in which they are implanted.

Examples abound of the problems generated by use of the conceptual vocabulary imposed by the international financial organizations in Nicaragua and the rest of Latin America. We could explore, for example, the theoretical and practical dissonances derived from the a-critical use of the concept of social policy in countries where social rights don’t function. Or the analytical distortions derived from using the concept of “civil society” in a region without real citizens. Or the social consequences of the “targeting” strategies adopted by certain governments to fight poverty in societies where the majority is poor. Or the contradictions that arise from socio-territorial and local development visions promoted by the international financial organizations that aren’t geared to politically and socially consolidating the region’s national territories.

One of the pillars of a socio-territorial vision for defending our sovereignty in the 21st century consists of local development and democracy. Our country’s social and territorial integration requires strengthening, democratizing and integrating the local powers, but this crucial issue of local development currently risks becoming another semantic incongruity that falsifies Latin America’s reality and historical possibilities. The theoretical distortions derived from a-critically using that concept hinder the urgent task of elucidating our countries’ social reality and our historical possibilities.

Think globally, act locally:
A slogan formulated in the North

The concept of local development can be defined as the set of actions, programs, strategies, policies and visions aimed at improving the standard of living of inhabitants of given sub-national spaces. But with the internationalization of capital and other processes that are part of globalization, this concept has acquired a transnational dimension popularly expressed in the slogan, “Think globally, act locally.”

This slogan encapsulates a whole vision of relations among the local, national and global spheres, but it was formulated in the countries of the North. It doesn’t mention the national sphere because it assumes the existence of consolidated states with the required capacity for social regulation to harmonize and integrate nationally the local development that occurs within their territorial bases. It also assumes the existence of civil societies that—despite globalization’s anti-democratic effects—still function within an effective civil rights framework and thus have the ability to domesticate their state’s actions. The northern states’ strong capacity for social regulation and the existence within them of civil societies with political and social power counteract any disintegrating effects caused by the participation of governments and local actors in the transnational power arena generated by globalization.

A consolidated national state
is not the sum of local development

The concept of local development in Latin America often tends to assume that, as in the countries of the North, governments and local actors can and should “think globally, act locally.” We tend to assume that local development can and should occur within our national states’ political and territorial spaces in the absence of a positive theoretical and practical effort to ensure that this development helps socially and territorially integrate the state itself. This tendency should be critically rethought, because consolidating Latin America’s political identities and promoting and defending national sovereignty rely on that integration.

We should also be aware that our socio-territorial integration, sovereignty and the construction of national political identities are not issues that occupy an important place in the local development visions that the international financial organizations promote in the documents, measures and projects they impose on us. These visions lack theoretical articulations that recognize the need to orient local development towards the consolidation of the region’s national democratic states.

In some cases, Latin America’s consumers and users of the transplanted vision of “local development” assume that adding up the different local development efforts will automatically translate into consolidation of the state and national political identity. They assume that the region’s national states have the capacity to harmonize and integrate the economic and social transformations generated by local development occurring within their territorial bases. Or graver still, they tend to reject national political arenas as the main reference framework for local processes and assume the transnational arena created by globalization as the framework of action into which the local should be inserted.

Globalist, de-nationalized visions

For example, the introduction to the book La Construcción del Desarrollo Local en América Latina: Análisis de Experiencias [Building Local Development in Latin America: Analysis of Experiences], published by the Latin American Association of Promotion Organizations (ALOP) and the Latin American Human Economy Center (CLAEH) in 2002, minimizes the local-national relationship, arguing that local development is a new way of looking and acting from the territories in this new context of globalization. It adds that the challenge for local societies lies in competitively inserting themselves into the global sphere, fully capitalizing on their local and regional capacities through the strategies of the different actors involved.

Other organizations participating in local development in Latin America are more explicit in assuming the global arena as their main sphere of action. In 2002, the Latin American Federation of Cities, Municipalities and Associations (FLACMA) stated, “In the era of globalization the countries’ municipal associations and the international organizations of local government—such as the International Local Authorities’ Union and the World Federation of United Cities—are increasingly important. They express the municipalities’ legitimate interests and act as their voice to make their approaches and their development and autonomy proposals known to the international cooperation organizations, national states and United Nations. The concerted action and unity of the municipalities throughout Latin America and the world is therefore highly important.”

The premises of the International Seminar on Development Perspectives in Latin America, held in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in May 1999, are another example of the preponderance of the global sphere in Latin America’s local development visions.

The rationale of this seminar is clearly expressed in the following statement: “Faced with the great challenges presented by the globalization and internationalization of productive and financial relations, the local space is strongly reviving as the most suitable geographical framework for implementing development policies and programs. This space is becoming another agent that either favors or hinders the creation of competitive advantages that influence the establishment of attractive territorial alternatives. In this framework, the spaces enter into competition and those that offer viable alternatives for the creation of such advantages will be in a position to insert themselves into the context of global relations.”

One last example of the dominant globalist and de-nationalized visions of local development in Latin America is the conclusion to CLAEH’s 1999 local development and globalization seminar, which argues that there’s no point in continuing to work with the economic instruments used by national states because they don’t “reflect reality, which is crosscut by transnationalization.” Graver still, it suggests defining new “geo-economic” units that transcend the national level and criticizes the “political visions” and “trade union visions inherited from the previous period that continue to see the nation state as a unit of intervention.”

An illusion that abandons the challenge

The World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) actively promote this globalist, de-nationalized vision of the “local sphere.” The IDB’s Sub-national Development Strategy (2002), for example, expresses support for local development without even referring to its relation to the national state: “The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) are rising to the challenges of promoting social and economic development in an increasingly global economy. In their quest to accelerate the socioeconomic development process, they place great hope in capturing the development opportunities of their subnational territories. They foresee dynamic subnational economies able to provide employment opportunities and services to the population. To this end, they seek to improve government services and infrastructure and make subnational governments more attuned to the needs of local economies and better able to work with local entrepreneurs and civil society organizations in enhancing the competitiveness and promoting the growth of local economies.”

The above visions of local development offer a perspective of the state, national political identities, sovereignty and the challenge of the Latin American countries’ socio-territorial integration that is sanitized of all problems. They assume that the formation of national political identities and the socio-territorial integration of these countries could occur as the unplanned, untheorized and unregulated result of multiple local efforts.

Worse still, some of these visions surrender to the illusion of a transnationality devoid of theoretical foundations and historical precedents. In many cases, they abandon the challenge involved in constructing national political identities and national social and territorial spaces, concentrating their energies on the search for democracy and rights in the transnational power arena generated by globalization.

We must resist the temptation
to trade the national for the global

Many Latin American intellectuals and organizations assume that we can build the democracy and levels of justice and solidarity in the transnational arena that we have been unable to build nationally. We must resist this temptation of abandoning the fight for democracy and justice in the region’s national arenas to seek them in the transnational arena, because there are no theoretical or historical underpinnings for this possibility.

While it’s true that this transnational space has increased interaction and communication among transnational social actors and movements of the North and South, these exchanges don’t necessarily promote the expansion of an inter-subjectively shared world, as Habermas put it so well. As Benno Werlen pointed out, an arena of power can only operate democratically when it functions as a mental space generated by the collective experience of people who share a similar set of life opportunities, and the statistics are conclusive: the societies represented by the social movements and actors of the North and South that participate in the sphere of power and transnational conflict created by globalization don’t all share the same opportunities in life.

The South’s transnationalized
movements have minimal power

According to UN figures, the societies in the countries with the highest income, which represent 5% of the world’s population, controlled 86% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) at the end of the nineties, while the poorest 5% controlled just 1%. The richest 5% controlled 68% of foreign direct investment and the poorest 5% just 1%. And the richest 5% owned 74% of the world’s telephone lines while the poorest 5% owned just 1.5%. The transforming power of the transnationalized social movements and actors is minimal because, as Werlen also points out, power only exists when it’s put into action, and that requires materiality. The transnationalized social actors and movements function within spaces organized around de-territorialized power axes and the institutions that form part of those axes are virtually immune to the exercise of force.

In the absence of force as an instrument of pressure, the political action of the transnationalized social movements loses its transforming capacity, as the immateriality of the transnational power axes makes it hard to identify a common point of reference around which to create solidarity and cooperation structures among those social movements.

David doesn’t know where Goliath is

The anti-globalization protests that started in 1999 in Seattle have an important symbolic value for the work of the transnational social movements but they also clearly demonstrate the difficulties and enormous limitations of a de-territorialized political practice with no Bastille or Moncada Barracks as a target for the transforming energy of force and organized political action. As Néstor García Canclini has so accurately stated, in today’s globalized world David doesn’t know where to find Goliath.

The increasing possibilities of social movements and actors contacting each other within the new transnational spaces—the famous networks—don’t necessarily translate into the construction of new democratic political arenas and the articulation of new civil rights structures. This forces us to critically examine the transforming and democratic potential of local actors and movements that have chosen the transnational arena created by globalization as their main field of action, and should oblige us to revalue the national space as the main reference framework for local development.

Bolaños’ PND: global and local
with no thought for national

In Nicaragua, the government’s now-failed National Development Plan (PND) palpably expressed a problem-free vision of the state, of political identity and of the challenge of socio-territorial integration. Its socio-territorial vision in particular needs to be reviewed not because of the plan’s historical value, but because the Nicaraguan Right associated with home-grown liberalism still accepts its premises and objectives.

The plan’s central argument is that the promotion of business competitiveness should be the independent variable to which all elements of Nicaragua’s social equation should be adjusted. Thus the plan treats social justice, unemployment, income distribution, local development and the organization of the national territory as dependent variables that should respond to the market-centered logic to which the plan is geared.

To promote competitiveness, the Bolaños government proposed facilitating the articulation of business “clusters” in different territories in the country. The competitiveness of those territories was considered the PND’s operational mechanism.

As a part of that mechanism, local governments had to adopt a “business vision” to “generate cluster processes that lead to the territory’s competitiveness.” The central state in turn would gear public investment to “fostering the creation of a microeconomic setting that decidedly increases the private companies’ competitiveness and productivity.”

The formation of “human capital” through housing, water, sanitation, health and education services would aim to “reduce private sector costs” and facilitate “the territorial integration of the economy and the social nuclei.” In one of the draft versions of the plan, the government technocrats stated that “investment in human capital without economic growth could become an expense.” Presumably the reason this phrase didn’t appear in the final document was that some consultant felt it might sound a bit callous.

A frightening idea:
A “migration map” for the poor

And what would become of the poor who don’t happen to live in the country’s competitive territories? The PND’s masterminds quite simply suggested that they move to the competitive ones: “The zones with the greatest poverty and vulnerability will continue being attended through universal social programs, while emigration will be promoted to zones with greater productive potential.” The final objective of the PND’s proposed social policy was to facilitate the “poor population’s sustainable insertion into the market.” To aid the anticipated population movements, the government proposed establishing a “migration map” that would allow the “imprinting of dynamism” onto the PND, enabling it to “adapt in line with changes in the economy’s dynamic patterns.” Competitiveness—the main “pattern of change” according to the PND logic—“is neither absolute nor permanent; one wins or loses according to competitors’ actions and game strategies.“

To sum up, the distribution of the Nicaraguan population and the organization of our national territory would depend on market ups and downs within a competitive system organized by the state. This idea is truly frightening if we bear in mind the Nicaraguan state’s incredibly poor capacity for social regulation or the regulating and ordering of social relations within the national territory.

The same Nicaraguan state that has proved unable to build a decent highway linking the Caribbean coast to the Pacific, still can’t establish a stable banking system and hasn’t been able to rebuild the capital city’s urban area following the destruction caused by the 1972 earthquake is the self-same state that proposed a massive territorial reorganization in which the poorest and most malnourished population in Latin America would move around the country following market and business competitiveness.

The technocratic model in Nicaragua:
The dream of reason produces monsters

The Bolaños government’s neoliberal technocracy irresponsibly and superficially adopted the basic premises of the state and market-centered model of society promoted by the main international financial organizations in the PND. That model was crystallized in the countries of the North during the eighties, when the mobility of capital reduced the state’s power to domesticate the market’s actions, facilitating the emergence of a new model of relations among state, market and society that proposes applying market rules to the functioning of the state. This model also assumes that the people in any national society are essentially consumers seeking to maximize their well-being.

Despite this market-centered model’s strictly utilitarian and anti-democratic essence, its historical-institutional premises are valid for the North’s states and societies. The model assumes the existence of four things: central governments with a strong social regulatory capacity that can organize a system to order the competitive functioning of local territories and governments; competitive local governments and sub-national territories; a similarly competitive business sector; and, most importantly, citizens who enjoy rights and have the information and capacity needed to participate in the market game. According to the premises of the market-centered development model, citizens can make use of their rights and their economic capacity to punish local governments with democratic votes, or “vote with their feet” by moving from the least competitive areas in their country to the most competitive.

Globalization is not a done deal

None of these premises has any value in Nicaragua. First of all, our central state’s capacity for social regulation is very weak as it has minimal territorial penetration, administrative efficiency or political legitimacy. Second, the vast majority of our local governments lack the necessary administrative and economic capacity to participate in a competitive game. Third, we don’t have truly competitive private enterprise. And fourth, our population does not have the rights, the information or the mobilization capacity assumed by the model.

Thus the population displacements that could have been generated by the business competitiveness game at the heart of the PND would have ended up replicas of the hunger marches caused by the coffee crisis, which the same Nicaraguan state that proposed a large-scale reorganization of both territory and population has been unable to resolve.

The PND’s normative principles are based on the market’s instrumental logic. According to this plan and to neoliberal thinking in general, market hegemony is inevitable, given that the globalization of capital is a done deal. The PND basically says, “Like it or not… globalization is here to stay. It would be an error to deny this. What Nicaragua has to do is recognize this reality and develop a strategy that allows it to take advantage of it and minimize its negative impacts.”

This vision of globalization has no serious theoretical or historical basis. Globalization isn’t a done deal, but rather a process involving social forces trying to subordinate the dynamic of capital to a democratic political rationale just as much as interests opposed to any kind of ethical or political conditioning of capital accumulation, and even those with a pragmatic-resigned vision of history that assume the only thing a country like Nicaragua can do is to bow down in reverence to the market and its commandments. Which of them will end up dominating this process? The answer to this question is the great challenge facing the Left today.

Seven neoliberal axes and
seven alternative left axes

The PND revolves around seven axes:
1. A business vision of government’s function.
2. A vision of the state as an administrative apparatus that must be adjusted to capital’s needs.
3. A vision of the market economy as the system that orders Nicaraguans’ life.
4. A vision of democracy as a social consensus predetermined by the imperative of business competitiveness.
5. A vision of social policy as an alternative to citizens’ social rights.
6. A vision of the national arena as one of business competitiveness.
7. A vision of local development as an instrument facilitating the reproduction of capital.
The socio-territorial vision of a renovated and democratic Nicaraguan Left should revolve around seven alternative theoretical and conceptual axes:
1. A political vision of the function of government.
2. A vision of the state as a power structure that should respond to the aspirations and needs of the different sectors of Nicaraguan society.
3. A vision of the market economy as a system that should help protect the common good of all Nicaraguans through ethical, political and legal conditioning.
4. A vision of democracy as a social consensus that includes the needs and aspirations of Nicaraguan society.
5. A vision of social policy as an extension of citizens’ social rights.
6. A vision of the national space as the material basis for constructing an identity, a culture and a national future.
7. A vision of local development as an instrument for promoting and defending Nicaragua’s national sovereignty, democratization and socio-territorial integration.

The North’s political development
and our political underdevelopment

Local development in a country like Nicaragua should help articulate visions and strategies that facilitate the country’s socio-territorial integration and the democratic construction of its sovereignty and national identity. The main slogan should be “Think nationally and globally, act locally.”

“Thinking nationally” is thinking “historically” to determine the role local development should play in surmounting the deficiencies of our state, social and territorial development. To appreciate the Nicaraguan state’s historical specificity, its essential characteristics need to be compared with those of the consolidated states of the North which, thanks to Latin America’s imitative inclinations, have served as the main normative model for our own political development.

The current political-institutional structure of the countries of the North has resulted from three complementary processes: the development of a sovereign state power based on socially integrated territorial spaces, the development of the state’s capacity to condition social relations within its territory and the evolution and institutionalization of a civil rights framework alongside market-promoted social inequality.

Nicaragua’s political-institutional evolution has been marked by the opposite processes: our state’s external dependence, disarticulation of our territorial base, the development of state structures with a limited capacity for social regulation and the creation of fragile and partial civil rights structures.

Democracy is an anchor that
guarantees national sovereignty

Globalization intensifies the basic characteristics of state-society relations in Nicaragua as it transnationalizes the state apparatus, weakening its capacity to develop and reproduce the integration levels on which nation and citizenship are established. This transnationalization of the state also hinders the possibility of developing real civil societies based on structures of citizens’ rights.

In these conditions, national development can’t simply be conceived as a sum of local development efforts. Local development must be explicitly integrated into a national vision and, more concretely, into an explicit and positive effort to consolidate institutions and a social consensus that integrate the aspirations and interests of Nicaraguan society’s different sectors. If this doesn’t happen, instances of local development can help fragment the country’s spatial and social basis.

One of the main objectives of a leftist government in Nicaragua must be to integrate the country socio-territorially to condition globalization’s nature and impact. Furthermore, the chief objective of an alternative to neoliberal socio-territorial policy should be the reduction of our vulnerability to globalization through the intensification and consolidation of democracy in our country.

The world’s democratic states are precisely the ones that are best navigating globalization’s waters today, because their ballast is organized civil societies that oblige them to take society’s needs and demands into consideration in the transnational arena. Even small countries like Uruguay and Costa Rica have demonstrated that a structure of citizens’ rights helps counteract the state’s vicissitudes and anti-democratic transnationalization.

Decentralization and local power:
A vision from the Left

Mónica Baltodano of the Movement for the Rescue of Sandinismo has articulated the main elements of a virtuous relation among local development, national socio-territorial integration and democracy. In her 2002 book, Democratizar la democracia: el desafío de la participación ciudadana [Democratizing Democracy: the challenge of citizens’ participation], Baltodano recognizes that the Latin American Left has not succeeded in articulating a vision of local development geared to the defense of national sovereignty, socio-territorial integration and the democratization of our countries. She argues that “the postulates of numerous organizations about the municipality aren’t enough; they have no coherent discourse and lack an innovating and consistent democratic proposal for local power.”

She explains the reasons behind this as follows: “The weakness of the reflections by important sectors of the Left on the model of society being sought is linked to a pragmatic and in some ways opportunist approach to the struggle over government. The competitiveness pretensions in the field of classic liberal (electoral) democracy makes them assume a good degree of the neoliberal discourse which, while including the proclamation of decentralization and strengthening participation, has no new formulations on known conventional mechanisms such as civically initiated legislation, referenda and consultative bodies like local social and economic councils, town hall forums and grassroots assemblies.”

Without ignoring the real and potential risks and defects that form part of local reality, Baltodano proposes strengthening local governments as democratic and participatory bodies and defends participatory democracy as a complement to liberal electoral and representative democracy. “Formal democracy continues to play a key role, but it should be complemented with real, substantial or social democracy, whose fundamental aim is the search for solutions to the problems most affecting the population: bread, land, work, education and housing, all of which allow progress towards a more egalitarian society.”

The vision of local power Baltodano defends is radically different from the one offered by neoliberal decentralization programs. She proposes the real democratization of state power through the expansion of local power and national and local grassroots participation. For Baltodano, the neoliberal vision of decentralization and local governments sees participation simply as a “mechanism for transferring a series of social functions formerly implemented by the state to citizens, individuals and the market (through privatiza-tion) and for overcoming the new and recurrent crises of legitimacy created by capital.”

Surmounting the gap that
separates our state from society

Mónica Baltodano’s vision is consistent with the premises, analysis and conclusions of a study on decentralization in Nicaragua conducted by Sofía Montenegro and Elvira Cuadra of the Communications Research Center (CINCO) in 2003.

Based on the neoliberal perspective dominant in Nicaragua since 1990, Montenegro and Cuadra state that “decentralization should recover the essence of its political nature and become an opportunity of national scope and historical importance, not just for national purposes but also to strengthen the country’s negotiating capacity in the globalized setting.” They specify that the “establishment of a new type of relation between the state, particularly central government, and the local level necessarily involves the decentralization of political power, recognition of the legitimacy of local governments and actors, and the creation of intermediary bodies and/or structures that serve as a communications bridge among the different levels of power. This is valid in two spheres: central government-local government relations and the different levels of state-civil society relations.”

The political rationale proposed by Mónica Baltodano, Sofía Montenegro and Elvira Cuadra could help reinforce our state’s capacity for social regulation, counteract its foreign dependence, reduce its fragmentation and close the gap separating it from Nicaraguan society, all historical deficiencies that characterize the Nicaraguan state.

The strategy we need to
confront international pressure

It is worth remembering that the historical experience of the countries that have successfully institutionalized effective democratic systems demonstrates that development of the power of civil society and of local political and administrative bodies favored the development of the state’s social regulatory and integration capacity.

The extension and consolidation of civil society and local state power also facilitated the articulation of communication circuits that connected the state not with an atomized and disarticulated population, but with structures of social organization that the state could use to implement its regulatory and integrating functions. At the same time, civil society and the local powers were able to use the communication circuits created by the central state to channel their own demands. This dual development facilitated the consolidation of “popular sovereignty” as the expression of a democratic political power capable of conditioning the central state’s actions.

The momentum towards consolidation of a democratic relation between the state and civil society through decentralization is also an effective measure for combating the disintegrating effects of globalization. The proposal by Baltodano, Montenegro and Cuadra to decentralize and strengthen participation and local governments is one of the few political-institutional strategies that could stop the weak Nicaraguan state from continuing to transnationalize itself anti-democratically, adjusting itself according to pressure from international organizations and the world market to the detriment of its capacity to respond to Nicaraguan society’s own needs and aspirations.

We have to paint the mural
of our hopes like Picasso

The call to recover “the national sphere” shouldn’t be interpreted as a nostalgic proposal that ignores the reality of globalization. We live in a fragmented, interconnected, multidimensional and multicentric reality. We live in the world of Picasso, where territorial political spaces tend to become transit stations through which capital, information, knowledge and even values circulate.

In such conditions, the actions of national and local governments and actors should be oriented to identifying and articulating strategies that allow us to take advantage of that circulation, in the full knowledge that they will always be only partially and fleetingly valid. Sovereignty thus becomes a permanent process of defending and constructing a political space and a national identity.

The construction of our historical reality must consider the nature of the new world context in which Nicaragua is operating, but should also consider the sovereign aspiration of our people, the same people represented and symbolized by Sandino. We have to paint the mural of our hopes within the incredibly recomposed reality of today’s globalized world. We have to resolve the contradiction between the national and global perspectives without renouncing our sovereignty and identity.

Surmounting the contradictory is precisely the basis of the esthetic truth expressed in Pablo Picasso’s painting, a truth accurately described by Carl Einstein as resulting from “the tension between opposite poles.” The aspiration for peace is present in the warlike horror of Guernica in the same way that the aspiration for sovereignty is present as a historical need in today’s transnationalized world. The territorializing of our history—fundamental to the consolidation of our national identity—can only be achieved if we include the sovereign aspiration bequeathed to us by Augusto César Sandino in that mural of hopes.

Andrés Pérez Baltodano is a Nicaraguan professor
of political science in Canada and an envío collaborator. Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this study were published in the August, October and December issues of envío (volume 24,
numbers 289, 291 and 293).

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