Seven Deadly Sins We’re Bequeathing Our Young People
Raised with no early stimulation, growing up in a mythic culture
unexposed to critical thought, and emotionally educated by macho
soap operas and Mexican ballads where sexual abuse is the norm,
with a concept of time that has us living in the past, prizing the old days,
children of a society whose cornerstone is family names and clans,
denying our color, despising what we are and
devoted to donations more than a decent salary and a job well done.
What development can we hope for when we’re this way because
this is how we are?
José Luis Rocha
Every new development guru swears they have diagnosed our deficiencies and have the remedy to rescue us from the sad shore of underdevelopment on which we’ve been washed up for centuries, perhaps forever. Some propose to skillfully reknit the unraveled fabric of commerce. Others talk about the public deficit and the existence of oligarchies and monopolies. A few still talk about unfair trade conditions. Those from abroad say the fundamental problem is low agricultural productivity. Those closer to home prefer to highlight the dependence of the agricultural and manufacturing margins on the industrialized center.
Depending on which seminar we attend, university we visit or Nobel Prize in economy a tropical talking head bows down to and parrots with uncritical servility and lack of imagination, the verdicts, condemnations and excuses continue, like recitations of a rosary: disregarded sovereignty, route dependencies, inconclusive synergy, information asymmetry, comparative advantages gone to waste, re-tooling waiting to happen, not enough export diversification, moving goalposts, a lack of or weakness in institutions that should reduce uncertainty and transaction costs, and many, infinitely many more theories.
I don’t know if all the gurus have a bit of the truth. Maybe. But I do believe most of them have left untouched fundamental obstacles to development that they would do well to incorporate into their works. I’ll mention a few of them, the fruit of decades of participatory observation as a member of the society that cultivates them, polishes them and hands them down. They are the entrails of our present. Let’s bring them into our consciousness so we can shake them off.
(Badly) brought up: Hammocks, The first obstacle has to do with genetic psychology, that branch of the sciences created by Jean Piaget, the Genevan psychologist. You don’t need to be an expert in it to know that something’s going very wrong in Nicaragua. Piaget’s whole explanation of how the basic categories of understanding are constructed in children looks like a counter-factual description of the Nicaraguan upbringing. Now that the benefits of early stimulation are indisputable, the effects of their absence are more obvious and shocking. The problem is that we’re dragging behind us a solid tradition of lack of early stimulation.
knocks, fears and over-protectiveness
When are concepts of order and grouping assimilated? Symbolic functions? Experimenting with putting together relationships that are the precursor to logic? Babies are placed on a bed or in a hammock, like they were a test tube baby, where they are expected to go on leading an almost fetal existence. The best child is one that drowses day and night. Its life goes by in the daily routine from nipple to hammock. Is it any wonder that child—mainly male—later goes from beer to bed with a little, although sometimes avoidable, technical stop in the workplace?
When they’ve grown a little, children get no explanations. They’re recipients of orders, backed up very often by nonverbal gestures or even physical coercion. They are forced to stay in the same position during mass or worship, change direction when walking. Go to bed or hurry up and finish what they’re drinking. Pursed lips point in the direction of whatever object they are expected to see, pick up and bring. It would be impossible to make a radio reality show in Nicaragua. Listeners would miss the greater part of each dialogue. Even if the participants were asked to express everything in words, they would never avoid the “right over there” or “just there” to instead specify “on the bed” or “under the third shelf.” Such an education stunts their verbal skills forever. The words “thing” and chunche (thingamajig), have been and will continue to be wild cards, words to replace anything from bottle opener to chair, affirmation, theory or ministry.
“Because it just is,” “because it’s Sentences are completed with onomatopoeia or gestures, damaging from the outset the capacity to assimilate abstract terms or understand instructions that include a minimal level of complexity. An example: my wife has taught at the Universidad Centro Americana (UCA) for more than five years. Her students must have received no less than ten years of schooling, some of them in upper middle class schools, of the type that now specialize in Paint Ball. But what early stimulation doesn’t provide, school doesn’t either; very often it doesn’t even try. When she asks them to “choose two of these five questions to answer in class and answer the rest at home,” she often gets an avalanche of questions: “Miss, do we have to answer number two and number five? Number two or number five? All five of them? Do we have to answer the ones we can and take the rest home?”
God’s will,” “because the devil made it”…
Inanity forms a chain. What replies can a father give to questions when as a child he received monosyllables, grimaces, “because that’s the way it is” or a slap upside the head for an answer? When those fathers and mothers were boys and girls, they gave up looking for reasons for things and thus give stupid, lazy, vague and uneducated answers to incisive questions. Even before they had their wits so dulled, they received replies they would relay later on without changing them in the slightest: “because it just is,” “because it’s God’s will” and “because the devil made it.”
Arbitrariness, fatalism and fear of occult, supernatural and inescapable powers are invoked as the source of all happenings. The absurd, the divine and authority were wired into their skulls as the great powers that rule the world. The power of authority: the reason behind caudillos. Absurdity and chance: the reason for fatalism, conformity and indifference to changing one’s surroundings. The power of god: the reason behind the belief in divine intervention that Andres Perez Baltodano has disemboweled with his incisive scalpel in so many of his writings.
Are we really modern?No one looks for logic and procedure. No one observes regularity in order to discern a pattern. No one appeals to general principles in order to transform reality, only to reinforce custom, which persists unquestioned because general principles aren’t used as a tool to understand reality and thence as a basis on which to build another possible reality. As these principles refer to the will of divine or diabolical forces or absurd proceedings, all is possible. Every event is a flower of capriciousness.
The discourse constructed with the few words available corresponds to the same vision of reality: an amorphous ball, occasionally tragic, sometimes hilarious but almost always inexplicable. These days, toting a mobile phone, the Nicaraguan is in a good position to appear as postmodern and relativist, when really he’s no more than premodern and superstitious. His speeches are incoherent and so full of digressions that anyone can pick a central issue to their taste without fear of getting it wrong. Each speech is a text with thousands of links. Politicians, television presenters and any man who lives by the word, including of course evangelical pastors who these days are the model for the rhetorical style most imitated, are applauded more if they jump from topic to topic, inserting images of fire and brimstone, telling personal anecdotes, alluding to the divinity in whichever of his forms and peppering their discourse with popular maxims.
The basic principle of modernity, that reason can transform a given situation into a new reality by first visualizing it and then putting it together using abstract principles, simply doesn’t apply here. Developmentalists will come to study the farmer’s logic or the rationale of politics according to a model of the human being, economic dynamism and the metropolis that in our reality only appears as a very pale reflection. The reality of their logic has very little to say about the logic of this reality. The first problem is that most of the heads that came together to produce this social reality weren’t configured in many of the categories generally considered essential to producing a modern mentality.
The myths of (bad) upbringing Instead of rational knowledge we cultivate myths and pass them down from generation to generation. This is the second obstacle. And it has as many tentacles as the myths that exist. “If you give vitamins to babies, their teeth fall out,” some say; “If you get soaked in the rain, you’ll catch flu,” say others. Garlic is bad for you, laziness is natural, leftover rice should be re-heated for six minutes in a microwave, you shouldn’t eat shark or ray because they’re poisonous, if a menstruating woman walks past a bean field she’ll burn it…
There’s no denying them. A devastating common sense knocks down the best constructed arguments. On insisting on the need to save water because it’s an increasingly scarce resource, an acquaintance got a contrary reply from her neighbor: “What about Lake Cocibolca and the River Escondido, when is all that water going to disappear?” It’s not about a cynical “After me the deluge” here. It’s about how an array of myths, profound scientific ignorance and a flattened logic are guiding common sense.
Given that they weren’t helped to develop essential notions of logic and critical thought, these people will be easy prey for sellers of illusions, political leaders with verbal diarrhea, sensationalist news, recipes for living, self-help books, the latest gossip and theories that blame Bush or Chávez, the Jews, satanic music or communism for all the planet’s ills. They’re not credulous by nature but rather by the artifice of the culture in which they were raised. Even many professional people with a high educational level don’t understand that “explaining” how street gangs operate and their motives isn’t the same as “justifying” their behavior. Sociological ideas don’t penetrate their skulls because they haven’t yet been penetrated by much blunter distinctions. Put it to the test with a well known childish leg-pull. Ask “Which is heavier: a pound of lead or a pound of cotton?” Even after the trick has been explained, at least up to a certain age, many of those asked will insist that the pound of lead is much heavier.
This dearth of basic intellectual concepts combines with a compulsive need to offer opinions on a huge variety of subjects far from one’s own field of experience. This propensity is encouraged by reporters who ask Cardinal Obando to pronounce on the human genome or our ex-foreign minister, Emilio Álvarez Montalván, who, in his prologue to Eddy Kuhl’s book Nicaragua y su café (Nicaragua and its coffee) relocated the city of Bruges from Belgium to Holland, to comment on the conflict in Bosnia. Watching legislator Edwin Castro Jr. on television disguised as a gnome and cooking with the chef Nelson Porta or contemplating Humberto Ortega’s illustrated “history of the universe” from the Big Bang to neoliberalism, is a good example of this vice.
And, as ignorance is bold, it is assumed to contain science, which ultimately turns out to be no more than diffuse, confused junk. Those asked for explanations resort to myths, foggy knowledge and a reckless bravado that appears to paraphrase Tula Cuecho, the gossip from León immortalized in popular song: “What use is science? What use is information? With my gob I know everything.”
Emotional education: Rape, Despite all efforts to the contrary, emotional education in Nicaragua is imprinted with two definitive stamps: masculine dominance in its most oppressive manifestations and the fictions of mass consumption: soap operas and music that reinforces male oppression.
Mexican ballads and soap operas
Nicaragua is a country where more than five rapes occur every day. The National Police statistical yearbook for 2007 registered 1,657 accusations of rape, equal to an average of 4.5 a day. And these are only the reported cases. Many victims and their families prefer to hide the facts due to shame, fear of reprisals, culturally induced tolerance and/or ignorance of how to report a crime. The number of rape cases must be far higher. In most reported cases, 72%, the rape victims are minors, including young girls. Most of the victims are between the ages of 13 and 14, the age at which male domination tells popular wisdom that girls are “ready” and “unmarried,” meaning nubile. Or in other words, available. Many, perhaps most, of the rapists are not part of a group of mentally ill, at least not in the style of those caricatured as always lying in wait with a lecherous look, but are often relatives or people very close to the victim’s family circle, those who in their internal domain feel they have a right, or at least are not perpetrating such a despicable act.
More than five rapes a day imprint a very visible, audible and tangible character on a country so small in size and population. Something must be rotten to the core for a society to produce and live side by side with this barbarity. The rottenness must be related, among other factors, to practices of emotional education and discourses that incite rape, license it in some way, promise impunity, guarantee the victim’s silence, if not absolution, and induce a certain degree of tolerance.
This is where we meet up with the cultural productions for popular consumption. If our parents and grandparents grew up with “You’re so young” and “I’m not old enough,” we’ve listened to Eddy Herrera’s merengue “You’re just a little girl” till we’re sick of it: “If you weren’t such a little girl / I’d take you with me / if you weren’t so angelical / I would dare give my love to you. / But you’re too little a girl / to start loving. You’re like a new fruit / that shouldn’t be picked. / You’re barely thirteen and don’t know how to kiss. / Fruit that’s picked too soon / will never give a good taste.” Incitement to pedophilia is disguised as restraint on the man’s side and insistence on the girl’s side, who in the video of this hit parade merengue is played by a hardly angelic model of more than 20 years old, with the thighs and breasts of an African Venus.
What hope is there for Songs—Mexican ballads, salsa, vallenatos, merengue, regueton—and soap operas are the big educators. The patriotism that fosters devotion for Rubén Darío will never get his “Sonatina” to compete with “Rosita Alvírez” or “Let him hit me but don’t let him leave me.” Without quality control or academic efficiency monitoring. these productions inculcate the predominant vision of relationships between men and women day after day. They are fantasies that describe a part of reality but, with the twist of a feathered serpent biting its own tail, they also shape it.
development with all this?
In the community of El Tanque, home to most of the victims of the Casitas volcano landslide that happened in 1998 during hurricane Mitch, many families watch eight soap operas a day and in the intervals listen to radio. The romantic intrigues, the feats of the irresistible macho men and sometimes of pathetic cuckolds too, and the stories of pubescent girls who spend hours seducing their middle-aged teachers, arguing over their stepmother’s husbands or fighting tooth and nail with their classmates over successive boyfriends, fall like hail in songs and soap operas and have reproductive effects in the image of girl sex bombs, Lolitas all of them.
Television programming has become saturated with soap operas about pubescent schoolgirls. Girls sell. They’re there for the macho men who imagine themselves Casanovas willing to satisfy the incipient or still latent feminine lust. When Nicaraguan men pass girls on the street, they let fly their flirtatious remarks without any tenderness. They treat them to lascivious looks, comments and gestures that represent pure aggression. They feel they have a right to some sort of primitive coquetry, without softness or adoration.
What development can one expect from a country where one of the forms of human relationship most resorted to is rape, even incest? How can one build communal wealth if the other person is seen as a flesh and blood object to be used for masturbation?
What concept do we have of time?The notion of time varies from one culture to another. The origin of the Western obsession for measuring, dividing and managing time can be found in a particular historical moment. Some writers insist on the concept of time as a key element in development. Lewis Mumford in Technics and Civilization shows that the clock, not the steam engine, is the key mechanism of the modern industrial era… In its relationship with measurable quantities of energy, standardization, automation and finally its own special product, accurate time, the clock has been a pioneering mechanism of modern technique and in each era has continued to point the way ahead: it marks a perfection to which other machines aspire. Building on Mumford’s thesis, David Landes wrote a voluminous study about this transformation in the perception and use of time.
Without doubt, insertion into a highly interconnected world requires a certain level of coordination and this in turn demands synchronization. Time is a culture shock issue. It’s tough for Europeans to deal with ideas about time as indifferent and easygoing as those encountered in Latin American and African cultures. The Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski perceptively described the contrast between European and African perceptions of time in his book Ebony. The European and the African , he explaine, perceive time in contrasting ways and their attitudes too are different. “In the european concept, Time is something objective, it exists independantly from Man, outside him, it is absolute, measurable and linear. According to Newton, 'The absoulte, real, mathematical time flows by itself thanks to his own nature, uniformly and without any external influencing factor'. The European man feels like he is a slave of Time, he is conditioned by it, he is actually his subject in any sense. In order for the Man to exist, he has to strictly obey Time's iron and unchangeable laws, its severe principles. He must respect dates, deadlines, days and hours.”
Africans, on the contrary, explained Kapuscinski, “think about time in a completely opposite way. To them, it is a much more flexible category of mind: open, elastic, subjective. It is Man (a man who of course acts accordingly to the will of ancestries and gods) who influences the form of time, in its flow and rythm. Time is something that Man can even create: in fact, time existence shows up through events, and whether an event occurs or not it depends on men.... Translated into a concrete situation, it means that if we go to a village, where in the afternoon it is supposed to be a meeting, and when we arrive we find nobody there, it does not make sense to ask "When is the meeting going to start?" The expected answer is obvious: "When everybody is here."
We Nicaraguans are closer to this African laxity in time management than to the slavery of the European. But this isn’t the obstacle to development; it’s just one of its variations. The appearance of this particular variation on the Nicaraguan scene has a serious impact on development conceived at its most basic level. The obstacle consists of having taken to extremes the will to dominate time, creating and stopping it through one’s own acts in a desire for eternity, a return to illo tempore, bygone days, when everything was better, or an eternal return to the same.
Firmly anchored in the pastEvery society possesses a conservative streak. The “that’s how it’s always been and how it should carry on being” and “Things were always better in the old days” are principles to which most cling in their old age. It’s all a question of time. What’s surprising in Nicaragua is that fans of the past are in the majority. It couldn’t be any other way: there’s a structural compulsion that it should be this way.
“Phantom” addresses are a work of compulsion par excellence towards the past. “Where’s the new computer shop?” From where Lozelsa used to be, two blocks towards the lake. “But there’s an enormous hospital there now.” It doesn’t matter. Lozelsa made history and was there before: the winner is the one who gets there first. “Where’s Los Zopilotes law office?” From where the little tree used to be, half a block east and a block toward the lake. The little tree grew to an enormous size, was cut down and after a time another was planted. It doesn’t matter. The little tree is and always will be the reference point, so much so that it’s not even necessary to mention the neighborhood. Apparently it was there since time immemorial. Perhaps Diriangén or his great-great-grandfather planted it. “But I’m 19 years old, I was born when both the little tree and Lozelsa had already disappeared.” Well, let’s see “if you can catch up” and learn where things “are.”
Only those who have lived in Managua for the past 50 years and know so many of the deceased monuments and shops can find their way around securely. If someone is determined to live in the present, it’s all the worse for them. The Managua of the past, visualized in the imagination, persists and guides your steps. It’s frozen at some moment before the war in the eighties, the insurrection of 1978-79 and the earthquake of 1972. The Managua of memory survives by denying these three historic cataclysms.
How can we evolve if we only look backwards? This fondness for the old days extends to musical territory. Visiting Pochomil beach with one’s ear cocked to the juke boxes, the bathers’ radios and tape players or CDs gives an idea of the songs eternally in fashion: the hits of Leo Dan, Los Bríos, Leonardo Fabio, Juan Gabriel, Sonora Matancera, Aniceto Molina, Sonora Dinamita and Lucho Gatica.
The musical palate is contagious and is passed down from generation to generation. It’s a cultural legacy. Today’s young people heard their songs since they were children and assimilated them as part of their era, although it was perhaps their grandparents who heard them for the first time. They will ensure that their grandchildren listen to them. Every Christmas and New Year’s Eve you’ll continue to hear El año viejo by Tony Camargo—it’s lasted for more than half a century; Ven a mi casa esta Navidad (Come to my house this Christmas) by Luis Aguilé, battling on for more than 40 years, Feliz Navidad (Merry Christmas) by José Feliciano (39 years old); Faltan cinco pa’las doce (It’s five minutes to 12) by Néstor Zavarce and Mi burrito sabanero (My little savannah burro), over 30 years old, among many, many other Christmas and New Year’s Eve songs. There’s no way any modern song could compete with them and win. New classics will be added, but it’ll be hard for them to get there and they’ll only have a stale feel, like Navidad sin ti (Christmas without you) by Los Bukis, which has already passed 23 years as a fixture on juke boxes and radio stations called, with the purest irony, Futura or New Radio Ya. The relatively new Nicaraguan groups such as Los Mocuanes, La Nueva Compañia and Macolla are obliged to include a potpourri of hoary old songs at the least, or even throw themselves into singing lots of them to please the great public.
The result is that the past is never old; it always forms part of the present. All the pieces have been put in place so that the past won’t be transitory; rather a series of events and happenings always going on, but never updated. We go along always looking back, with our sight “lost between the being and the going.” All these things are symptomatic of stagnant options.
What sort of evolution can one expect from those who continually seek to reproduce the past in its tiniest detail instead of setting out along new paths and imagining a different future? What space is there to let in and implement new undertakings and innovations? What new developments can one expect where youthfulness and senility are but a step apart or united in a dusty embrace. In the land of gerontocracy the dinosaurs impose their culture… even in politics. The country’s last two presidents are old political leaders: Enrique Bolaños and Daniel Ortega. The two strongest parties refuse to leave decisive space for new voices. Reproducing Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán, like Emiliano Chamorro and Anastasio Somoza before them, is imposed as a consequence the principle “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
Family names are the cornerstoneAlso in Ebony, Kapuscinski describes the African ritual of making someone’s acquaintance: When two strangers meet, they start off by saying: “Which one am I? I’m Soba, of Ahmed Vahadilla’s family which belongs to Mussa Arave which in turn belongs to the Hasean Said clan which is part of the union of Isaac clans, etc. After this sort of introduction it’s the turn of the other stranger who will proceed to give details of his origin and define his roots and this exchange of information, which can go on for a long time, is extremely important since both strangers are trying to work out what unites or separates them and if they will hug each other warmly or hurl themselves at each other with knives. In all of this the personal relationship between the two, their mutual empathy or antipathy, is unimportant: their attitude towards each other, friendly or hostile, depends on how the relationship between their respective clans is going at that point. The private person, the individual does not exist; they only count as part of this or that lineage.”
This description rings a bell for me given that I’ve lived it a thousand times. People from Granada can’t resist the temptation to ask any stranger whose face reminds them of a certain family likeness: “Are you related to Mrs. So-and-so? Who’s your grandfather? Who’s your father?” If a surname should appear that doesn’t fit into the register of the city where the conversation takes place, for example Morales, the next question will be: “Are you a Tipitapa or Chinandega Morales?” Very often, fitting into one geographical location or the other means belonging to one social group or other: the Morales from one place are stinking rich while those from the other place are dirt poor or else bourgeoisie fallen on hard times.
With the family name, the interrogator obtains highly valuable information about the person they’re questioning. The family name is the cornerstone to a whole edifice of information. In small societies family names are social maps, indicators of caste. In big societies such as the United States, being a Kennedy doesn’t necessarily mean being related to JFK. But in a society such as Nicaragua being a Bolaños, Barrios or Pellas is an almost surefire indicator, especially in the case of the former two, of sharing a reasonably close blood tie with Nicaragua’s previous President Enrique Bolaños (2002-2006) or ex-President Violeta Barrios (1990-1997) or in the latter case with the country’s richest family.
Children of a clannish societyAs far as I know, Spanish reporter Manuel Leguineche was the first to comment on the clannish divvying up of jobs and businesses that came into view in the eighties, the revolutionary years. There were two deputy ministers named Coronel Kautz in the Ministry of Agrarian Reform and a third was minister of the Nicaraguan Fisheries Institute. Their cousin, Richard Lugo Kautz, was head of the Sandinista navy. In the Ministries of Culture, Education, Justice and External Trade: the brothers Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal and their cousins Ernesto Castillo Martínez and Alejandro Martínez Cuenca. The three daily newspapers belonged to the Chamorro clan, situated at opposing ends of the political spectrum: Jaime Chamorro in the rightwing La Prensa, his brother Javier at El Nuevo Diario and Carlos Fernando, their nephew, in the FSLN daily Barricada. The Baltodanos, father and son, were appointed ombudsperson and to the Ministry of Industry, respectively.
Later, at the beginning of the nineties, Argentine sociologist Carlos Vilas, in his article Asuntos de familia: clase, linaje y política en la Nicaragua contemporánea, (Family Affairs: class, lineage and politics in contemporary Nicaragua), analyzed the formation of Nicaraguan society and the Sandinista Cabinet of the eighties along clan lines as a swing towards re-empowering the traditional elite. In addition to those mentioned, Vilas talked about the cotton farmers’ clan: Gurdián, Icaza, Vijil and Terán, among others. He revealed the regional clan structures: Picado in Matagalpa, Guevara in Río San Juan, Talavera in Rivas and Baltodano in the hills of Managua. He evoked the powerful names behind the BANIC (Banco de Nicaragua) group in the seventies: Ramiro and Alfredo Sacasa Guerrero, Xavier and Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, Alfonso Callejas Deshon, Alfonso Lobo Cordero and Alfonso Robelo Callejas. And those loyal to the Pellas family: Manuel Ignacio Lacayo, Adolfo Benard, Duilio Baltodano, Carlos Hollman and Eduardo Fernández Hollman (he forgot Carlos and Felipe Mántica).
Further on he emphasized how many members of the established elite held posts in the government: the General Joaquín Cuadra (cousin and brother-in-law to Coronel Osvaldo Lacayo Gabuardi), Housing Minister Miguel Ernesto Vijil, Supreme Court president Roberto Argüello Hurtado (whose brother represented the Association of Nicaraguan Clergy on the State Council, his nephew was minister of finance, a sister was the consul general in the United States and later ambassador in Costa Rica and another sister was consul in Mexico), National Police Chief René Vivas Benard, Deputy Minister of the Interior Luis Carrión Cruz (son of Luis Carrión Montoya, one of the leaders of the BANIC group and nephew of Arturo Cruz Porras, President of the Central Bank and member of the Government’s Board of National Reconstruction), Domestic Commerce Minister Dionisio Marenco, Central Bank president Alfredo César, and among many more, the cohort of Barrios, Hollman, Talavera, Fiallos and Mayorga that made up the Agrarian Reform Ministry.
What sort of development will we achieve The generation that followed them in Violeta Chamorro’s Cabinet was closely related to all of them. Power passed from some members of these families to others. Vilas emphasized the web of connections between all these dramatis personae of the Sandinista revolution and their successors and the non-classist nature of the conflicts and transformations in order to throw into relief the rigidity of the traditional structure of family networks and their resistance to incorporating new elements.
if we don’t pave the way for a meritocracy?
We can verify the persistence of this rigidity in the members of the banks’ boards of directors, the managers of the most powerful companies and the emergence of important new businesses. Only the sons and grandsons of the powerful are given substantial long-term loans at preferential rates in the banks controlled by the powerful. The clan structure reproduces itself because the Pellas group prioritizes the Solórzano, Barrios and Lacayo families, among others, in their business dealings. Every clan does the same, likewise the whole caste sitting atop the Nicaraguan social pyramid. Social mobility remains restricted to a rather modest horizon, with the exception of those who manage to dig their claws into the state’s booty or enter into shady businesses, which are common denominators of the new elites loyal to Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán, whose web of relationships will end up reinforcing the clan dynamic.
In very little time these new elites will obtain their credentials in the family name market, through liaisons such as marriage, engagements, becoming godparents and corporate boards. These are already being consummated after being wangled in high schools, universities, clubs, restaurants and discos where the clans’ offspring graze and gambol.
This society’s clannish nature is an obstacle to development because it blocks the path to a potential meritocracy. Those who want to get ahead on their own merits find a labor market indifferent to their attributes. They don’t have the right credentials for this market. Neither academic excellence, intellectual production nor business skills are as important as the applicant’s family connections when seeking a position. When a firm or a party employs a Solórzano, it’s buying a package of relationships: its social capital. This happens to a certain degree in all societies and markets. It becomes a problem when it’s the predominant dynamic and the elite gets used to offering nothing more, barring the way to those with new things to offer. The clannish society stakes itself to tradition and self-perpetuation.
Whiteness and blacknessThe clannish society is also sustained by an enthusiasm for whiteness. The family names that have been degenerating in the seats of power are carried by relatively few Nicaraguans with white skin in a society where bronzed pigmentation predominates, in various and beautiful shades. They are the surnames of whites or “cheles,” the label given to fair-haired people in Nicaragua, equivalent to “canche” in Guatemala and “fulo” in Panama, the latter a country in which precisely because of the coinciding and mutual reinforcement of skin color and economic prosperity, the members of the elite are called “rabiblancos” (white tails).
The colonial past reproduces itself by means of a colonization of power that, appealing to racist self-images perpetuates the dominion of the colonizers’ descendents. Nicarao’s palette doesn’t paint much. The nouveau riche tries to lighten itself by marrying middle class white girls with good appearances. Thanks to this adulation strategy by some of the dominated, one becomes white by having money: if a very dark man appears with a fancy SUV in the car park of a shopping mall, it’s only a matter of seconds before a boy turns up and asks him “Chele, shall I look after your car?”
In the story El profesor de inglés (The English teacher) by the Salvadoran writer Francisco Herrera Velado, an English teacher appears whom all the pupils punish by calling him after black things: Mr. Bean, Mr. Vulture or Mr. Black Pudding. Blackness is always obvious and an opportunity for mockery: blackbird, shoe polish, burnt cakes, Kunta Kinte, monkey... Skin color is an irresistible muse for those with a sharp tongue and the need to make facile jokes to the taste of an extended racism. Another Salvadoran, Salarrué, in one of his most successful children’s stories, tells us the story of Punce Negroide who wanted to be white, because it’s “unfair that they make some white and others black” and that the “fathers and mothers to cut corners go making one cheap,” and so he went to ask his mother to “make me over again as a little white boy with yellow hair like the son of the shop owner and with blue eyes and golden teeth.”
What hope is there for those From all sides culture sends messages that define hierarchy, longing and frustration around skin color. White people’s contempt for black people, explains Frantz Fanon in his book Black Skin, White Masks is internalized by those dominated, who end up despising what they are. So one is alienated from one’s own identity, a stolen identity, a whitened mask, feels shame about one’s own.
alienated from their own identity?
In Nicaragua this dynamic is taken to the extreme in the contempt for the inhabitants of the Caribbean Coast. Culturally the Pacific lives with its back to the Atlantic. Stories about witchcraft practiced by people from the coast are symptomatic of the desire to punish ethnic groups who wound national narcissism. The “all coast people are witches” has lately become “all coast people deal cocaine.” It’s the same thing. They used to be superstitious, now they’re delinquents. They seek, and he who seeks always finds, a feature, an event, a rumor that gets exaggerated in order to highlight that the ethnic groups presented as inferior in the social hierarchy are equally so in intellectual and moral domains and for the same reasons.
The cult of whiteness is palpable in all social strata and all spheres: professional, academic, religious… because even cherubim are little blond boys. This brown edge aspires to be as white as the centre. That’s why the doors were opened to immigrants from Europe and the United States in the 19th century. This racism that creates self-rejection is one of the most forgotten issues when discussing possibilities for development. But it’s crucial. It’s engraved on the cultural nerves. What can you hope for from those who despise what they are? Or from those who don’t know what they are? What is development if not an unfolding of the best of what we are and the possibilities created based on what we are?
Devotees of the redistribution ethic Barring the way to a meritocracy is related to rejection of the fair pay ethic. In the dominant culture the principle that “workers are worth their wage” has been replaced by “everybody, whether they work or not, is worthy of alms.” Nicaraguans are fonder of receiving an arbitrary present than a salary proportional to their efforts. It’s no coincidence that the most important religious festival, and in fact the only one that mobilizes hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans in just one night, is Purísima, the Festival of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, celebrated with much fanfare on the night of December 7 and to a lesser extent during the nine days leading up to it. Many people even start celebrating for up to a month before. And in these years of crisis a little mid-year Purísima has appeared.
and allergic to the culture of fair pay
The main Purísima, celebrated according to all the traditions, consists of a series of prayers and songs which in the classic recording, part of that eternal return to the same that has us anchored in the past, is sung by old women with quavering voices, at the end of which sweets, fruit, toys, nacatamales and drinks are handed out. The devout person shares. They don’t celebrate an indoor faith. Faith implies sharing a little of what one has. Faith obliges you to redistribute.
But this idyllic vision fades away if we change the perspective. Frequently the devout are traders, the neighborhood shopkeepers for example, who all year round have bled their neighbors with high prices. Sometimes they are bosses who have paid starvation wages 365 days a year, but on December 7 they feel generous, obliging and open-handed. And this is precisely the point at which this festival, symptomatic of the national idiosyncrasy, spells disaster for development: it puts into practice the choice of the redistribution ethic over the fair pay ethic.
Politicians have known well how to exploit this cultural bias. The popularity of the FSLN is based on its renown as redistributors. Arnoldo Alemán is jokingly known as a thief, but is forgiven because he shares. Politicians who play a bit at Robin Hood are absolved of all their abuses. Just like the traders and bosses who share their wealth at Purísima in order to legitimate their capital, the politicians ride the same cultural wave, dividing up and sharing out, in order to prop up their position as caudillos, keeping the biggest and best part for themselves. Politicians who don’t have money or positions to hand out will never fulfill their aspirations.
Casinos, sinecures, legacies, donations...This fondness for hand-outs that have nothing to do with progress at work conspires against the institution of a culture of productivity and pride in a job well done. One doesn’t achieve a good salary for one’s professional merits or union pressure. One expects a present, a donation. A good survey on work culture would reveal that very few workers and professionals recognize that a connection must exist between their salary and the quantity, effectiveness, efficiency and quality of their work.
When this connection is recognized, trickery is resorted to, with greater alacrity in times of crisis, in order to modernize some elements of what economists call the Shapiro-Stiglitz model: if salaries fall, the probability increases that workers won’t put in their best efforts, especially when the business finds it hard to determine exactly how much effort the workers do make. In Nicaragua the reaction to low salaries is to steal, avoid the bosses’ control mechanisms and simulate a nonexisting effort. Workers choose their own level of effort and cling to a job, instead of choosing a place where their efforts are better rewarded and their professional and existential aspirations are more fully satisfied. This tendency is widespread in a context of high unemployment, due to a real absence of alternatives.
A combination of the old conformity and the relatively new consumerism has resulted in one of the cultural cocktails most harmful to development. Where one spends more of what one produces and earns redistribution is desired even more. Some seek it in casinos, others in a party sinecure; these look for a legacy and those for donations.
Our future’s pastThese deadly sins against development are not the only ones. But they are deeply rooted in the entrails of what each one of us is. They are also Nicaraguan instructions for under-standing and for use. Some raise their voices against these obstacles, a few hands work to move them out of the way. But they’re like voices in the desert and aren’t yet enough.
Youth, that divine treasure, always fluent although rarely influential, has been the object of attention in recent years: venerated in the form of the demographic dividend, saluted in presidential speeches, its unemployment channeled into subsidizing public works in the “Young builders” movement created by the FSLN. Its integral development is said to be promoted by laws and state bodies commissioned to this end and not least to harvest the applause of international cooperation and their pots of money.
But this youth has already inherited these sins; it’s already enmeshed in these obstacles and many others. They weigh them down like a burden. They are the past of our future.
José Luis Rocha is a researcher at the Jesuit Service for Central American migrants (SJM) and member of envío’s editorial council.