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Friday, June 06, 2014

A Nicaraguan travelogue—First hand look at 3rd world poverty

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of articles over the arguments over the first world proletariat  "parasitism" theory. As explained by Mike Ely of the Kasama Project:
“We have all run into theories that argue that the working class in the U.S. is a class of parasites that lives off people in the third world. It is argued that workers make more than the value of their labor power -- and that this fact proves that they must be living off the exploitation of others...
…This is a quite moralist and pessimistic view -- even if it mascarades as if it is just applying Marxist political economy (which it isn't).
I agree that the theory is wrong on many levels. However, I have been to some poor third world countries and this is about one of those countries, Nicaragua. It is not as important to compare poverty as it is to be in solidarity with those who do live in the deep poverty of the third world.
This is a part of a series I’m writing on life in third world countries, including attempts at political, economic and cultural liberation.
I went to Nicaragua as part of Witness for Peace tour, about 1993. There were about 20 of us who went to visit places and the country and make notes on what we saw. We spent nearly 2 weeks in Nicaragua. Of the cities we went to were Esteli, Quilalí, El Coco and the capital, Managua.


The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) successfully overthrew a US puppet government of Anastasio Somoza in 1979. He ran a dictatorship and dynasty. The Sandinista government or FSLN tried to build a Marxist revolution, but they did it by creating a Western style parliamentary government in which all political parties where legal and all could run candidates for elections.  
Through the 1980s the conflicts in Central America, mostly El Salvador and Nicaragua, were the main issues of then President Ronald Reagan. Reagan treated the FSLN as if they had created a Stalinist state and made the country his target for fighting the cold war. Saving the FSLN government was a main issue for the US left. At the same time the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) was attempting a revolution of its own in El Salvador.
Reagan sponsored the Contra guerrilla movement, a CIA rebel band of those who wanted to return Nicaragua to a puppet state.  The FSLN leaders were voted out of power in 1990. Reagan had provided massive aid to an UNO coalition, that came together to vote out the Sandinistas.
Today, the conflicts seem over. The FMLN agreed to end their revolutionary war and join the government as a political party. I wasn’t able to travel to those countries until the end of both conflicts, in about 1993. I still got a lot out of that trip. It was my first time to third world countries other than Mexico. I got to see what poor people and peasant people really live like in some of the poorest countries in the world. This article will be about my stay in Nicaragua.

The trip:

While we have poverty in the US and it is as real as molecules, the poverty in Nicaragua is deeper and effects more people there, including the middle class.  The differences are everywhere. Most restaurants, even the better ones, rarely have running toilets. Some had simple out houses. Even the nicer restaurants lacked working toilets. Those that had the actual toilets usually lacked working parts. Often a pale of water sat next to toilet bowels so that the water could be poured into the bowels to flush it.
Beer and rum were the most common liquor we found. Anything else was very difficult to find. There were several types of rum and two brands of beer. Even wine was nearly impossible to find. The only time I saw many different types of liquor was at the duty shop at the airport.
Bottles for beer or soda pop of any type were treated as gold. In shops where a person bought a bottle of soda, it was poured into a plastic bag with a straw for anyone wanting to take it anywhere out of the place it was bought.
Items in stores were sparse. In a grocery store there where two types of soap—that is two brands. I needed some film for my camera and there were two types, consisting of two brands. It isn’t like Wal*Mart where there is a full wall filled with different types and brands of camera film. For most of the people living there cameras were too expensive to own, so buying film was not really their biggest problem.
Maybe there were special stores where the wealthy could get more brands and variety of stuff to buy. But I never saw any of those.
Once outside the capital or other major towns, there is only one paved road, the Pan American Highway, which went from North to South. The rest of the roads are sand or dirt. One road we took came to a stream with no bridge. There was a shallow spot for cars to cross through. Some towns could not be reached if there were heavy rains. That meant that if we were in such a town and it rained, we were stuck there for a while. In the morning we went to a restaurant for morning breakfast. There were some people there who ate leftover food when people were finished eating. We were eating in the outdoor part of the restaurant. It was a little shocking to see that kind of poverty. These people seemed really hungry. They seem to eat anything they could and were not worried about people’s germs.
 Nicaragua has a small population compared to other countries in Central America. It has about 2 million people. We only spent one day in Esteli. It is a fair sized town and has paved streets. In larger cities as Esteli there is a variety of food in restaurants. Mexican restaurants seem to be the favorite of many people. In the most rural communities people ate mostly refried beans and flower tortillas. They do have platanos or baked bananas in the morning. There were an occasional egg, meat of beef, pork or chicken, that is cooked to the point of tasting like beef jerky. That may be due to avoiding health problems with undercooked meat. They usually had enough to eat, but not much variety.
It was peaceful while we stayed in Esteli. But two weeks after we left, the recontras (a left over group of guerillas that fought for the rights to land) fought a battle in the very streets we drove in.
We spent a lot of time in Quilalí. It had dirt roads and was a fairly sparsely populated town. It was in the mountains. The mountains of Nicaragua are not really that high, as compared to the Rockies in the US. The seemed more like the flint hills of Kansas. There were no peaks and no snow. But people in town told us that the mountains have been stripped of trees and local deforestation.
We stayed in a hotel. Most of our meals were at the motel. As with most towns we went to people cooked their food in wood stoves. The smell of wood smoke was everywhere.
We met with the town council. About half of them were members of the Sandinista (FSLN) Party. All the council members were involved in getting a single TV set that the town would share. It would be hooked up to a cable outlet and would receive TV shows, mostly from Mexico.
There wasn’t a lot of entertainment for us or the people of this town. At first a lot of the members of our group were shocked that Sandinista members would be involved in the TV acquisition when there were so many needs the people in the town had. By the time we left the town, we realized that entertainment is a need like anything else. They are people—and people want things such as TV. They want to enjoy themselves and I think some people in the group forgot that.
When the weekend came, a lot of workers walked into town, bought rum and walked around the town square drinking it, getting drunk and talking with friends.
There were two clubs in town. One had music and resembled a disco. The other was a simple tavern. We were warned not to go in the later because it was dangerous. Supposedly we could be killed in that place and we all took the advice and stayed out. For us foreigners there were times and places where it was just too dangerous to visit. We were told not to go out in the streets at night in Esteli.
The town did have electricity, but it was not always that reliable. One day the lights all went out in a storm and the innkeeper told is that they had no idea if it would be off one hour or a few days. Lucky for us it was only a few hours.    
El Coco is probably the most depressing town I have ever been to, or at least close. It was located on a cliff over a river. The day we went was in January and it was close to 100° Fahrenheit. For a winter day it was miserably hot. The buildings were mostly made of cinder block and almost none of the buildings were painted. Many ex-contra guerrillas were given land to work by the Nicaraguan government. However the people in the village lacked tools for the farming they needed to do. They had seeds, but lacked any tools. It was a poor dull town. There were very few businesses or stores. The town seemed to have a sense of hopelessness to it. In some ways it was barely a town at all—just a piece of land for people to live on.
This was the last town we visited. This trip to Central America, took me to the poorest country I ever visited. It gave me a look at a part of the world that most Americans never see. This is not a place where people worry about their I-pads color, or how many apps their phone has—at least not when I was there.
A commercial on my TV, recently, has this guy and his family worried about visiting their neighbor who doesn’t have the same TV bundle package and lacks the ability to watch or record 6 different TV shows at the same time. While in Nicaragua, there are people who want to share a TV and watch one channel, which is a big step up for them.
 Many people in Nicaragua fight a gritty battle to survive and meet their basic needs. Yet, as their American counter parts, they look for ways of entertaining themselves. Life is hard and most Americans never see that. When we read about people in such countries, we see statistics and political sound bites, but not the faces of the people who are forced to live there under corrupted dictators and squalid poverty.
But these people were usually very proud and they made the best of what they had. They were clean. In all the towns, most people took baths every day. If they had no soap, they just scrubbed hard. No one I met ever smelled badly.
They also understood the need for education and valued it way more than the US crybabies who moan and bitch about “having to pay for educating some one else’s kid.” Before the revolution, many people were illiterate and the Sandinistas tried to change that. They ran a national literacy campaign.
That attitude doesn’t seem to exist here. In Kansas and other states, education is being cut and people, especially conservatives, don’t seem to value it anymore.
And that is what people here in the US need to know about the other part of the world. I’ve met people who told me they had no interest in every going to a country that has such poverty. Even religious people I’ve met have said that. It seems a kind of “head in the sand” attitude. “See nothing, hear nothing, do nothing.”

Some of us can’t afford to travel. Those of us who can need to do so and remind US people that some people barely survive, while US people worry about how fast their computers are. But again, this should not be used to divide our own poor against them; we should be in solidarity with them all. We have the same enemy regardless of the degrees of poverty.
 - សតិវ អតុ.

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