Thursday, August 17, 2006


Hi Everybody,

Well, it's election season here in Nicaragua. There will be elections
for a new president on November fifth, and the possibility of a change
of government somehow ends up playing a part in almost every
conversation I've been having lately.

There are three major candidates and three or four minor ones. The
two leaders are pretty much tied in the polls, the last I saw, both
getting around 30 percent of the vote, and the third major candidate,
from the Liberal Party, gets about 15 percent. I'm counting the
Liberal as a major candidate because the last three presidents have
been Liberals, although the current president is widely agreed to be
an ineffectual failure and his predecessor is technically a prisoner
(although he's really under a very mild house arrest) for corruption
and money laundering.

The two frontrunners are Daniel Ortega and Eduardo Montealegre.
Daniel Ortega, as you may or may not know, was the president of
Nicaragua from 1979, when the socialist Sandinistas took power after
an armed struggle to oust the U.S.-supported dictator Somoza. Daniel
and the Sandinistas lost power in the elections of 1990, after a
decade of war and hyper-inflation left the country exhausted. Some
people will emphasize the U.S. economic blockade and (illegal but
well-documented) CIA support for the rebel guerrilla groups of Contras
in explaining this loss in 1990. Others talk about mistaken
Sandinista economic policy, the widely-resented military draft, and
governmental unilateralism. Eduardo Montealegre is the U.S.-supported
candidate (although foreign intervention in the elections is
technically illegal), and represents an alliance between a dissident
branch of the Liberal party and the conservative party.

By the way, the word "Liberal" in Latin America means pretty much the
opposite of what it means in the U.S. In the U.S., a Liberal is on
the left of the political spectrum. It is the Conservatives, or the
right side of the political spectrum, especially Neo-Conservatives,
who are currently in favor of unrestricted free trade, the
privatization of state services, and the reduction of the jurisdiction
of government in favor of the supposed economic benefits of letting
The Market solve all problems. In Latin America, on the other hand,
it is the Liberals who want to do these things. The conservative
party in Nicaragua is not politically viable by itself except on a
local level.

So, one really interesting thing about all this to me is WHY people
seem interested in the possible change of government. They almost
always relate it to the direct benefits they themselves expect to
receive, or not to receive, from a given government. For example,
people say things like: if the Liberals win, the candidate has
promised to fix the road that goes to our community; if the
Sandinistas come to power, they will halve the salaries of all the
government officials and put the proceeds into a development bank
which will give us loans at low interest; if Montealegre wins, the
U.S. will send more development aid projects to us; if the Sandinistas
win, the U.S. may cut off aid, but Venezuela, China, and Cuba will
give us help instead. And in this context, aid doesn't mean loans
made to the government, but rather specific projects that will come to
benefit the exact individuals I'm talking to.

Many people are very cynical about the promises politicians make, just
like in the U.S.. Oh, politicians make beautiful promises, but once
they get into office they forget all about us. However, the
interesting thing is that everybody seems to accept the premise that a
GOOD politician would bring projects and direct benefits to the poor.
I've been asking people, especially the cynical ones, what the country
would be like if the politicians kept their promises, or were honest.
And they say, the politicians would be working hard to bring us
development aid from foreign NGOs. They would execute other projects
themselves. And we wouldn't be so poor. Nicaragua would become

I started out thinking that this sounded very strange and almost
naïve. But lately it's been seeming more and more natural. And I've
been asking myself, what do people in the U.S. want from their
politicians that a proposal for direct improvements to conditions
sounds illegitimate? For example, a politician who promises "job
creation" is absolutely run of the mill. But a politician who
promises the creation of a specific job for a specific someone sounds
corrupt. A politician who is interested in improving infrastructure
sounds responsible and down-to-earth. But a politician who wants to
improve a specific road in his or her specific district is accused of
sordid motives.

Am I right about this? And if so, what makes this distinction
meaningful? Is it that we want our politicians to be impartial, and
not to care about us, specifically? Or do we have so much disdain for
government—the hardy/hearty, independent, self-sufficient frontier
pioneers that we all are—that when we bother to participate in
politics we just pick the guy that we'd most like to have a beer with?
Is this difference connected with my earlier entry about the
differing attitudes towards charity? If in the U.S. there is a lot of
stigma connected with accepting charity, or government hand-outs, do
most people then feel that since they're not planning on accepting
anything from the government, they think it is demeaning or sleazy of
politicians to promise, or even follow through on, specific benefits?

If this is accurate, it strikes me as bordering on delusional. I've
read some fascinating science fiction in which the government is
shrunk to really doing nothing (Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, eg.),
but it is very, very clear that this is fiction. And that it is not a
world that even the most fervent NeoConservative would ever want to
live in. Although it might appeal to some Libertarians (are they
still trying to take over New Hampshire?).

Anyways, here I am, working away, having a good time in general. I'm
getting a lot of interviews done, having some great conversations, and
feeling like I really could probably sit down and write this
dissertation right now, if I weren't so interested to see what happens
next. Of course, that probably means that I'm oversimplifying. Which
is why it's so much fun being an anthropologist.


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