Our Youth Has Inherited A National Failure
In a talk at Managua’s Central American University, the author challenged a group of studentsto reflect on our failed society and on the role they could play in transforming their current political “apathy” into a personal and social authenticity that could change Nicaragua.
Andrés Pérez Baltodano
Like the generations that preceded it, I belong to a generation that failed to build a just and dignified Nicaragua for everyone. Asked to talk about the role of leadership in bringing about cultural change, I have to admit that I don’t have any answers on how to transform Nicaragua or how to achieve the cultural change our country so obviously needs. But I do have questions, concerns and a few ideas I want to share with you. I’m convinced of the need to recognize that, politically speaking, we Nicaraguans have failed. After almost two hundred years of independence, Nicaragua is just a caricature of a state, and the Nicaraguan nation a fictitious concept for sociologists and historians writing about the country. Nicaragua is neither a nation nor a real state. We’re a geographical jurisdiction inhabited by people with no shared vision of aspirations who therefore do not share a national political identity. We like the same food and sing the same songs, but we’re not a community of shared rights and obligations or of shared aspirations and collective memories.
Nicaragua: An implausible countryWe’re part of an enormous shelter containing millions of permanent disaster victims living on under a dollar a day. We’re part of a sad excuse for a state whose public institutions are about as authentic as the buildings housing them, like the “new” Supreme Electoral Council building, an immense elegant facade that attempts to dignify and elevate the status of what some of us remember to be the old Sears building. Or the new Cathedral, which has nothing to do with Nicaraguan esthetics or the Christian architectural tradition, but how can we complain to the owner of the US pizza chain who financed the building on the condition of having the last word on the design? Or the presidential mansion, donated by Taiwan and painted with Mediterranean colors on the whim of the then first lady who had just returned from a costly trip around Italy.
with a poor imitation of a state
That mansion is where our current President serves. He’s a strange man, with a strange look and smile, who publicly claims to be half German when trying to explain the origin of what he considers his “virtues,” implying that all of his defects are Nicaraguan. He’s a President who talks to the second most malnourished people in the American continent from a podium that’s a bad imitation of the one used by President Bush in Washington and with the comfort of knowing he’s earning a mega-salary and will be able to fall back on a lifetime pension that he seems to cherish more than life itself.
This is our Nicaragua, which was described a few years ago by a prestigious British magazine as “implausible” and a century before that by European traveler Jeffrey Roche as ungovernable, revolutionary and lacking the energy for either great vices or great virtues. I have read that odious characterization over and over again and wonder when we’ll finally prove it wrong. As a Nicaraguan it really pains me to point out and emphasize our failure, but I do so because, just as alcoholics first have to recognize they have a problem, we have to recognize our real condition if we are ever to bring about a cultural, material and moral recovery. The dilemma is whether to recognize our failure or refuse to and live like alcoholics.
The sobering results of Our country has high malnourishment levels despite abundant areas of fertile land and a relatively small population density. One in every three Nicaraguan children suffers from chronic malnutrition. Transparency International lists us as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. We also have high levels of teen pregnancy and a recent study stated that over 45% of our adolescent girls are either already mothers, are pregnant or have been pregnant at some point. And what can we say about primary and secondary education? According to some estimates, 800,000 children received no education this year in our poor schools, and some put the figure even higher. And that’s actually a very optimistic statistic, because it implicitly assumes that pupils who did enroll will receive an adequate education from teachers who earn what those who can afford it spend on a fine bottle of whisky in Nicaragua.
200 years of experimentation
We’ve failed despite having experimented with socialist models, military dictatorships and different shades of neoliberalism implemented by Conservative and Liberal governments, all of it to no effect. After almost 200 years of independence, our Caribbean coast is still as isolated as when we set off on our national adventure. And we haven’t even been able to rebuild Managua after it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1972.
What it means to be young in NicaraguaI repeat: you, this country’s youth, are the heirs of a national failure constructed over almost two hundred years of independence. To be young in Nicaragua means being the heirs of a society where national institutions are dens of tie-wearing thieves and the main political parties act like youth gangs—if the Nanciteros, Comemuertos, Power Rangers and Mataperros gangs will excuse me, because at least they have greater consistency and clearer values, principles and objectives and a better idea of what they want to do than our so-called political parties.
Being young in Nicaragua means being the heir to a country that has to export members of the population to maintain the national economy. We expel Nicaraguans from the country of their birth then calculate the remittances they send home in dollars, without ever quantifying the pain of the mothers who leave their children behind in the search for survival or the indecent conditions faced by the thousands who sustain our fictitious economy.
Being young in Nicaragua means inheriting all these national tragedies, this failed society. But it also means being accustomed to failure, being socialized in failure. Socialization is a process through which individuals belonging to a given society internalize a set of values, principles and ways of perceiving and experiencing reality. We are socialized through our participation in the country’s institutional life, and in our own families, our schools, our political parties and our churches. These institutions are both socializing mechanisms and systems of habits and socialized routines.
What my generation People like me—those of us from the generations that created the country’s institutions and our prevailing family model or models—forged its disastrous educational system and built its political and legal framework—bequeathed young people like you our habits, values and political culture. We’ve socialized you in the institutions we constructed throughout our history, making you sing, pray and speak lies. We’ve made you sing a national anthem that says “The cannon’s voice no longer roars” in a country characterized by continuous war. In the last war, during the eighties, tens of thousands of young people like you lost their lives, meaning that we effectively caused many of you to beborn in a cemetery. And to date nobody has asked forgiveness or assumed responsibility for that disgrace. We make you sing a national anthem that says “work is our worthy laurel” in a land of unemployment and that “honor is our triumphant standard” when theft has become a national habit.
bequeathed today’s youth
The generation I represent and those I was heir to made you believe that we’re a Marian country, despite the permanent violence and abuse suffered by Nicaraguan women. And we taught you to call yourselves Darianos [from Nicaraguan national poet Rubén Darío] in a country that has waged an intense and prolonged war against education and culture, that shies away from abstraction and reflection. We made you repeat Darío’s words that “If the homeland is small, one dreams it big” in a country in which the governments negotiate international treaties under the slogan “if the homeland is small… you pawn it big time.” We’ve made you repeat lies until you got used to doing it.
We planted the seed of failure in today’s youthIf we accept that we are socialized entities and that you’ve been raised with lies, we also have to accept that each of you contains the seed of failure, the habit of failure, the capacity to live within a failure, and even the inability to recognize that we’ve failed. So you’ll have to forgive me when I say that I don’t share the hope that many place in the youth. We’re always hearing that the young people will get us out of this mess. Maybe, but it’s by no means a certainty, because each of you contains that seed of failure and has been socialized in a culture of failure. Age doesn’t mean anything. Arnoldo Alemán was young once and Daniel Ortega was a young man with noble ambitions at some point in his life. Byron Jerez was a classmate of mine and I remember him as a nice plump little boy sitting at a desk in the Calasanz High School… and look what he turned out to be. All of us—myself included—ended up embodying and reproducing the culture of failure that has got us where we are today.
To talk of the existence of a culture of failure in our country is to suggest that the values guiding our behavior and actions are largely responsible for the national disaster in which we find ourselves, that hunger, malnutrition, unemployment and all of the other objective manifestations of our national disgrace have a subjective cause. Our culture, our values, have indeed helped cause our objective misery, although I’m not saying they’re the only cause. I’m not defending a subjectivist explanation of history; I’m just trying to point out that culture is a causal force in the development of peoples, and that if we want to escape from the material and moral mire in which we live, we have to take a good look in the mirror and critically analyze why we’re the way we are.
Our backwardness can’t be Unfortunately the main explanations for our national history have emphasized the objective dimension of our problems. Those of us studying our national historical reality have looked outward, seeking the reasons for our failure in the outside reality, without ever taking a good look in the mirror. As a result, we have identified as the causes of our woes the clash of civilizations starting in 1492; ethnic and racial divisions inherited from colonial times; the particular poverty of Central America within the Spanish colonial structure in the Americas and the even more particular poverty of Nicaragua within Central America; Nicaragua’s role as an exporter of indigenous slaves during the consolidation of colonial power in the Americas; the dependency under which the Nicaraguan national state was constructed after we achieved independence from Spain; capitalism; imperialism; etc. These are all certainly valid objective factors that have affected our development and must unquestionably be taken into consideration when it comes to explaining why we’re the way we are.
explained by objective obstacles alone
But the brutal backwardness we’re suffering and have grown accustomed to, and the failure we’ve passed on to you young people can’t be explained by these objective obstacles alone. History provides many examples of how other countries have overcome similar and even greater objective obstacles. Europe faced huge historical impediments from the mid-16th century on, including the enormous power and profoundly anti-democratic nature of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, the predominant culture of resignation in medieval Europe, apocalyptic plagues and territorial disarticulation and fragmentation, yet modernity, modern state institutions and democracy emerged precisely as a response to those obstacles. What we now know as modernity and modern political thinking emerged precisely out of those enormous crises.
Modernity didn’t just fall from the sky and it didn’t come easily. The rule of law, democracy and citizens’ rights that were consolidated in Europe responded to enormous objective problems. The development of European modernity did not happen during a time of peace, but rather at a moment of great crisis, during which a form of political thinking, a vision of power and history emerged that developed the capacity to condition, domesticate and overcome the negative effects of all of those obstacles. So the existence of objective obstacles in Nicaragua, such as our condition as a conquered and colonized society or the plague of imperialism, cannot explain our backwardness, because all societies, including those that are currently most successful, have had to confront equally gigantic objective obstacles in order to develop.
Resigned pragmatism and providentialism:I don’t want to imply that the European model should be followed, just that not all the misery in which we live can be explained by the objective problems we’ve had to face. One of the main causes of our national failure has been our incapacity to face up to and surmount our problems. Any explanation of our national political failure has to include an analysis of the way in which we Nicaraguans have tackled our history and mentally envisioned power, history and our role in history.
Two reasons for our inability to transform
How have we envisioned it? How have we Nicaraguans tackled the obstacles in our history? In my own work I’ve tried to answer these questions by pointing out that we’ve done so with a “resigned pragmatic” vision of the world and history. “Resigned pragmatism” is a way of thinking, a culture that pushes us to adapt to reality, to accept it as it is. So resigned pragmatic thinking has no transforming volition and leaves us unable to be so shocked by our reality that we move to transform it. Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Alfaro, one of the rulers of Nicaragua during the 30 Years of conservative rule in the second half of the 19th century summed up resigned pragmatism when he said, “The good politician is he who knows how to temper himself to the circumstances.” Nicaragua as a whole has been tempered—or accustomed—to its circumstances, to its misery, to the brutal levels of poverty suffered by our fellow citizens. And we have been accustomed and tempered to the impunity and corruption of our so-called leaders. Where does this resigned pragmatism, this Nicaraguan culture, this way of envisioning power and history come from? I believe that one of its main roots is the providentialism that has dominated Nicaraguan religious culture. Providentialism is a vision of history in which God organizes every move made by anyone. It’s a way of viewing life in which God is responsible for what happens to my uncle, to me, to Nicaragua, to Iraq and the rest of the world. In a providentialist vision of history, it is God, not us, who regulates, administers and oversees everything that happens in history.
Some theologists differentiate between meticulous providentialism and general providentialism, arguing that different forms prevail in different societies. In meticulous providentialism God is in charge of everything: rain, droughts, the appearance and curing of cancer, the direction taken by each hurricane... Some advocates of general providentialism say that God created the world and then left it to us, while others argue that He acts from time to time. But general providentialism always includes room for freedom.
The God we need and the gods we’ve createdI personally believe that what we need in Nicaragua is not the death of God, but rather the transformation of the idea of God. In other words, we don’t need to take God out of the game, but rather to move from the meticulous providential-ism in which we are trapped to find a place both for God and our own freedom. And if someone decides to be atheist on the way, then so be it, as long as they take it seriously.
Being authentic Christians forces us to reflect on the idea of God that we have both personally and as a society. It forces us to admit that there are many ideas of God, many possibilities of living with the idea of what we call God and that certain ideas are better than others.
We Nicaraguans have somehow transferred our mental dependence on an omnipotent God who governs our lives to our perception of the forces that dominate the world political and economic order, particularly the transnational power of the United States and ultimately, why not say it, the power of international cooperation. We have transferred the responsibility for intervening in and resolving our poverty to international cooperation, which is taking responsibility for the most needy in our country. International cooperation has had such a material and cultural impact on our national life that we should promote an in-depth discussion on its consequences, because the role played by foreign cooperation in our country has never been debated and critically analyzed.
In summary, resigned pragmatism is a way of envisioning the reality that pushes the members of a society like Nicaragua’s to assume that the politically desirable must always be subordinated to the circumstantially possible. The political expressions of resigned pragmatism vary among the different sectors of our society. It is expressed among the upper classes through indifference to the generalized poverty affecting most of the population, and among the impoverished majority through resigned and fatalistic attitudes toward life and their own misery.
Resigned pragmatism among the youngAnd how is resigned pragmatism expressed among the young? Here I have more doubts than certainties. We constantly hear about the “apathy” of today’s Nicaraguan youth, particularly its political apathy. A survey by the Central American University and the Nicaraguan NGO Ethics and Transparency during the 2004 municipal elections found that 44% of young people between 16 and 25 didn’t vote and 49% weren’t interested in politics. A full 80% said they would leave the country if they had the chance.
Other studies have explored the weight of providential-ism among the young. In a survey by CINCO in October 2002, 96.8% of the young people interviewed agreed that “God is a superior being who created everything and on whom all depends,” while 98.3% accepted that “God is our bountiful father who cares for and loves us.” In addition, 97.1% agreed that “God is the supreme judge; we depend on him and he will judge us,” and 77.6% that “there are forces or energies in the universe that we do not control and that influence the lives of men and women.”
Many results of the CINCO survey confirm the findings of another study published in 1997 by the feminist NGO Puntos de Encuentro, which shows that young people view history as a process dominated by forces over which they have no control. “From our point of view,” it concludes, “the survey’s results appear to indicate that young people have gone from being a transforming and revolutionary force—an image that prevailed for several generations—to a population group with limited power to transform the social processes they consider relevant.” Furthermore, young people identified “social change mainly with national economic and political changes. In such changes, and even in cultural and relational ones, they tend to place themselves on the sidelines or see themselves as ‘receivers’ of the influence of the transformations, rarely identifying themselves as actors or protagonists.”
Youth “apathy”: I’m not sure if what is referred to as our young people’s “apathy” is necessarily a defect or deficiency. Their rejection of politics could also be interpreted as the beginning of a positive break with our country’s cultural past. This apathy could be a rejection of models of life that should indeed be rejected, a show of dissatisfaction with a society that we should rightly be extremely dissatisfied with. In fact, it would be tragic if our youth were anxious to register with the current political parties and follow their current leaders.
The first step towards authenticity?
This youth apathy could either be a calamity for Nicaraguan society or the start of our country’s cultural renovation. Nicaragua would collapse if 80% of its young people abandoned the country. It could also collapse if young people ended up reproducing the culture of failure they inherited or even decided not to do something about it. But Nicaragua could be reborn if youth “apathy” triggered the beginning of an individual and social search for something we desperately need in this country: authenticity. Nicaragua could be reborn if that apathy were a manifestation of the vital need for a more authentic individual and social life.
The classic definition of authenticity is the capacity to be honest and true to one’s own principles and convictions, to live in keeping then despite the external pressures, forces and influences that affect both us and our surroundings. Nicaraguan society tramples on the religious and political conviction we claim to have on a daily basis, but fails to be scandalized by misery. A society that allows its neighbor to die of hunger cannot be Christian; nor can a society moved to tears by Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” but not by the children watching cars outside the cinema for a few cents.
Our youth’s “apathy” could be seen as a rejection of the social lie we have lived as Nicaraguans, making it a possible starting point for the construction of a more authentic social life. Authenticity, some degree of authenticity if even just a little, is the starting point for ceasing to be weathercocks blown around by history. It’s the starting point for developing a truly modern thinking. Modernity doesn’t mean carrying a cell phone around wherever you go. It’s an effort to take control of our history.
The individual and social The search for greater authenticity doesn’t mean we all have to have a determined political orientation or become more or less leftist, Christian, rightwing or feminist. But it does imply that we should all be more authentically rightwing, leftist, feminist, anti-feminist, Conservative or Liberal. It means abandoning that unbearable Nicaraguan social and political lightness of being; stopping being “lite” Nicaraguans to assume our individual and social responsibilities with all due seriousness. That’s the challenge. It’s a process that implies both individual and social transformations. True authenticity inevitably leads us to the social sphere. According to philosopher Charles Taylor, identities are built through dialogue. We are what we are depending on how we relate to others; as the result of a dialogue and not a monologue. The search for authenticity has a personal, individual dimension that leads us to reflect and critically analyze what we say and do, but if we are and want to be authentic, that individual reflection has to lead us to analyze and deal with the social sphere.
dimensions of authenticity
Imagine what Nicaragua would be like if our young people learned to be authentic, to be real Liberals, Christians or Socialists. Imagine the cultural shock it would imply in a country where Liberal, Conservative or Socialist politicians have no idea or interest in learning out about Liberalism, Conservatism or Socialism. Imagine the power our youth would be if they were given the power to reason in a country devoid of it.
A place for ideas and political thinkingWill we be able to turn what some term youth apathy into a culturally renovating force? Can the thinking and organized political will of young Nicaraguans overcome our culture of failure and tackle and survive the challenges of this uncertain 21st century? Determinist and fatalistic historical perspectives assume that the weight of Nicaragua’s culture and structures will inevitably determine our future. In this sense, determinism is consistent with resigned pragmatic visions of history that assume the social role of individuals to be limited to acting and deciding within the limits imposed by a logic that transcends volition and organized political action. On the other extreme, voluntarist historical perspectives fail to recognize the structural limits that condition and limit freedom. They are just as dangerous as determinist fatalism because if reality and its limits are to be changed and transcended you first have to recognize them, rather than pay homage to them.
in the creation of society and history
There is a third position that I learned from my old teacher Alberto Guerreiro Ramos, which accepts both the existence of objective limits to human action and the existence of opportunities to transform and extend the limits of what is possible. This third position provides a vision of history as a process resulting from permanent tension between objective possibilities and human decisions. Although the course of Nicaragua history is conditioned by the weight of the culture we have created and accumulated over almost 200 years, this third perspective allows us to recognize that those who establish and reproduce the very structures that condition us are also social actors like you and me with a capacity for reflection and action.
From this perspective, it is possible to assume that we Nicaraguans can extend the limits of social reality and what is politically possible based on an understanding of the frameworks of cultural and objective limitations and possibilities within which Nicaragua operates. This vision of the relationship between individuals and their structural reality recovers the role played by ideas and political thinking in the formation of society and history.
The challenge for Nicaraguan youth…The future is built first of all through thinking. The construction of an authentically just, democratic and modern Nicaragua starts with the articulation of ideas, values and just, democratic and modern visions. As one of Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy’s songs puts it “To build the future you first have to dream it.”
The objective of a different, just, democratic and modern Nicaragua can’t be built within a utopian perspective that doesn’t take into account the historical limitations within which our country’s reality is developing. But nor can Nicaragua’s future be built within a fatalistic, resigned pragmatic orientation that accepts history as a process divorced from our own will.
Between utopia and resigned pragmatism is the world of reality, which is socially constructed through the mental and practical modification of the framework of historical limitations that define the temporal limits of what’s possible. This is the world of reflective action, actions oriented by political thinking nurtured in reality so as to transcend it. The challenge for our youth and universities is to develop our capacity for reflective action. This is the only thing that will allow us to transform the apathy of young Nicaraguans into the start of a cultural renovation process.
…and the possible price of failureIf we don’t manage it, we’ll probably end up with the kind of reality narrated by Gioconda Belli in Waslala. This sociological novel paints the picture of a possible Nicaragua of the 21st century, when we’ve disappeared as a country, the name Nicaragua has no political or moral connotation and we’re just a territory used as a nuclear waste dump by developed countries and as a drug trafficking operationscenter.
It would be a mistake to believe we could keep on living in our culture of failure for eternity, that we’ve touched bottom, are what we are and already know how we’re going to be and live. It would be a fatal error because the world is going through a process of accelerated change that is opening new chasms into which a directionless country like Nicaragua could easily fall.
How can we avoid ending up like the Nicaragua Gioconda Belli so graphically describes in Waslala? Where do we start to pull ourselves out of the cultural mire in which we currently find ourselves? How can we develop our capacity to be shocked by and reject the unacceptable? How can we transcend our culture of failure, our resigned pragmatism, when we’re all products of the very culture we need to break with and transcend? We’re sick and yet we have to heal our own illness… and there’s nothing worse than cultural diseases, because they don’t even let us realize we’re really ill. A mental patient who says he’s Napoleon really does think he’s Napoleon. And we Nicaraguans, affected by the culture of failure, are capable of driving through the streets of our ruined Managua in SUVs believing we’re modern, that we’re advancing, like Napoleons on a battlefield where in fact we’ve failed time and time again.
Whichever way we look at it, Nicaragua is one of the most vulnerable and unstable societies in the world, with a culture that encourages us to reproduce the failure we’ve experienced. We’ve entered a new historical stage with this culture, the indicators mentioned above and incredible levels of poverty. The most popular and even abused label for referring to this new stage, this tendency of which we’re now a part, is “globalization.” This term refers to the tendency of political, economic and even cultural structures to organize themselves transnationally around powers that are not nations or even territorialized. Countries like Nicaragua are among the most vulnerable, the first in line to suffer the worst consequences of this new stage.
At the end of each century we’ve witnessed the appearance and disappearance of political societies and have to ask ourselves if Nicaragua will be able to survive this century. I believe it’s important to develop what someone termed the ability to imagine the disaster. We have to recognize that we’re in bad shape, that we’ve failed and that this could turn out really, really bad. This isn’t defeatism; it’s simply recognizing a real condition in order to do something about it and prevent the possible disaster we could confront this century. A good pilot has the ability to imagine disasters. We’d refuse to get into an airplane if we knew the pilot didn’t believe an accident could happen. We’d only fly with someone who knows that accidents are a daily reality and therefore have to be prevented.
How can we find a way out of the madness in which we’re living? How can we transcend the culture of failure? How can we achieve the authenticity we need? Perhaps by reflecting on what we say, the words we use to define ourselves, the national anthem we sing and the prayers we say. Perhaps even by accepting a quota of silence, some time alone every day. Maybe that could be the first step.
Andrés Pérez Baltodano is a Nicaraguan professor of political science in Canada and an envío collaborator.