Tag Archives: Nicaragua

Comunicación de riesgos en Centroamérica: La naturaleza, la colonialidad y la convergencia mediática

Lo que sigue es el texto de la presentación que di en Antigua, Guatemala el 20 de marzo de 2017, en el Taller “HazMap” financiado por el Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) y convocado por Eliza Calder, Alistair Langmuir, Neil Stuart y Julie Cupples de la Universidad de Edimburgo

Antigua, Guatemala Taller HazMap del 20 al 24 de Marzo de 2017

Muy buenos días a todas y a todos, es un placer estar aquí con ustedes, y agradezco muchísimo su participación en este evento. Mi nombre es Julie Cupples, soy geográfa cultural de la Universidad de Edimburgo, llevo muchos años trabajando en Centroamérica, sobre todo en Nicaragua, y también un poco en Costa Rica. Mi trabajo es de índole cualitativa, informado principalmente por la teoría posestructuralista, feminista y descolonial. Me alegro mucho de que estén aquí mis dos colaboradores de Nicaragua, Dixie Lee de URACCAN e Irving Larios de INGES. No podría hacer el trabajo que hago sin su apoyo tanto práctico como intelectual.

Yo no trabajo con los mapas de riesgo, pero sí trabajos en cuestiones de desastres y con los medios de comunicación. He trabajado con comunidades afectadas por el Huracán Mitch que afectó la parte central y occidental de Nicaragua en 1998, y con sobrevivientes de Huracán Félix que afectó la Costa Caribe Norte de Nicaragua en 2007. Desde 2007, he estado trabajando en un proyecto sobre la convergencia mediática, es decir estoy interesada en los cambios que hay en el entorno mediático, tanto los positivos como los negativos, y en el uso de los recursos tecnológicos en la lucha por la ciudadanía cultural sobre todo por los grupos indígenas y afrodescendientes. En el contexto nicaragüense y costarricense por ejemplo estoy intentando documentar el uso de los medios, sobre todo televisión y radios comunitarias y los medios sociales como Facebook y YouTube para los fines políticos y culturales. Debido a importantes cambios tecnológicos, resulta que muchos grupos sociales marginados ya tienen las herramientas para producir sus propios medios y compartir y modificar los medios producidos por otros. En la Costa Caribe de Nicaragua y Costa Rica, los grupos indígenas y afrodescendientes están creando su propia producción mediática para impugnar su exclusión social, para aumentar su visibilidad política, para luchar por la revitalización cultural o lingüística, y para poner en circulación contradiscursos y representaciones más positivas. Esta producción afirma la importancia de comunicar de una forma culturalmente apropiada y la importancia de poder controlar las representaciones que se ponen a circular. Entonces este trabajo requiere un enfoque descolonial, ya que el colonialismo significa que los conocimientos latinoamericanos se consideran como inferiores a los conocimientos eurocéntricos. Entonces trabajar de una forma descolonial significa someter la ciencia europea basada en la idea problemática de la universalidad a una revisión crítica. Estos son más o menos mis preocupaciones intelectuales principales.

Krukira en la Costa Caribe de Nicaragua después de Huracán Felix en 2007

Lo que pretendemos hacer aquí en este encuentro es una tarea importante pero al mismo tiempo sumamente compleja, entonces lo que quiero hacer ahorita es señalar algunas de las complejidades teóricas que en mi opinión deberíamos tener en cuenta. Son tres temas.

(1) Los desastres no son naturales

Hay un artículo muy bueno de Neil Smith publicado en 2006 que afirma por qué es peligroso hablar de “desastres naturales” y dice lo siguiente:

En cada fase y aspecto de un desastre – causas, vulnerabilidad, preparación, resultados y respuesta, y reconstrucción – los contornos del desastre y la diferencia entre quién vive y quién muere es en mayor o menor medida un cálculo social (Smith 2006, la traducción al español es mía).

Permítanme desarrollar estas ideas con más profundidad. Estamos intentando crear aquí una red interdisciplinaria, lo cual implica superar o por lo menos negociar las importantes diferencias epistemológicas que existen. Hay una división disciplinaria entre los científicos físicos que están enfocados en la cuestión de los llamados riesgos naturales y los académicos que trabajamos en las ciencias sociales o humanidades cuyo trabajo está enfocado en los desastres y en sus efectos en las comunidades y los seres humanos. Para nosotros, evocar la naturaleza es bastante problemático, porque la naturaleza en el pensamiento occidental constituye una forma binaria de ver el mundo, donde lo natural se ve opuesto a lo cultural o a lo social. Yo prefiero hablar de riesgos ambientales porque si echamos la culpa a la naturaleza, corremos el riesgo de no comprender a fondo los factores sociales, culturales, políticos y económicos, es decir los factores que no tienen nada que ver con la naturaleza, y que suelen ser más importantes en la creación del desastre. Cuando hay sufrimiento humano, pérdidas de vida o daños infraestructurales después de un terremoto, huracán o erupción volcánica, lo que más contribuye al sufrimiento es la exclusión social o el abandono político. Además tenemos que tener mucho cuidado con el concepto de la resiliencia porque se articula muy fácilmente con discursos neoliberales que expresan la opinión de que algunos lugares e incluso algunas personas no merecen ser salvados, o que los individuos son los culpables de sus dificultades como resultado de un fracaso de la auto-responsabilidad. La resiliencia no viene tanto de tener la correcta información científica o el comportamiento correcto en un momento específico sino de no tener que vivir en la pobreza, de tener un trabajo digno y una casa bien construida y titulada, de tener acceso a un sistema de salud adecuado, o de poder vivir una vida libre de violencia. Hay demasiados centroamericanos que no tienen acceso a estas cosas por los legados coloniales y por el modelo económico dominante. Prepararse para una erupción volcánica o un terremoto que puede no venir nunca o que vendrá en un momento no determinado no es prioridad cuando hay que ver cómo se lleva comida a la mesa hoy y cómo se consigue el tratamiento médico que un familiar requiere de forma urgente. Las personas de bajos ingresos siempre tienen que decidir cuales de los riesgos a que se enfrentan van a priorizar. Entonces, es muy importante pensar coyunturalmente – considerar el contexto cultural y político en que estamos trabajando – e intentar descentrar el evento de riesgo. Significa aceptar que estos acontecimientos se desarrollan dentro de contextos sociales, culturales y políticos particulares, contextos que pueden contribuir a exacerbar el riesgo que presenta el huracán o terremoto.

Además, tenemos que intentar asegurar que un enfoque cartográfico en los movimientos de lava o cambios en placas tectónicas no exima a los gobiernos nacionales o municipales de sus responsabilidades de crear políticas que reduzcan la pobreza o redistribuyan la riqueza. El punto de partida es un reconocimiento de que Centroamérica es una región muy desigual – hay una minoría superrica que vive como los ricos en cualquier parte del mundo, y una clase campesina y trabajadora desposeída que no tiene acceso a los componentes básicos de una vida digna. Hay personas que viven en zonas peligrosas que son propensas a deslizamientos o inundaciones pero lo hacen no porque no comprendan la información científica o oficial sino para tener acceso a fuentes de trabajo informal o porque han sido desplazados de otros lugares por grandes empresas agroindustriales. Además, aunque los grupos indígenas y afrodescendientes de Centroamérica han hecho importantes avances políticos y legislativos, continúan enfrentándose a múltiples formas de violencia, discriminación, desplazamiento y folklorización, procesos que son muchas veces respaldados por el estado. En Nicaragua, hay un discurso estatal que afirma la autonomía de la Costa Caribe como proceso positivo pero el gobierno hace la vista gorda a la falta de seguridad territorial en las tierras ancestrales.                Entonces es crucial que nos concentremos en la coyuntura, en el conjunto actual de circunstancias económicas, sociales, culturales y políticas y legados históricos que hacen que la vida cotidiana sea un desafío para la gente en un contexto propenso a riesgos. Porque las personas menos pobres y más saludables y con mayores niveles de educación y con casas bien construidas son menos vulnerables en el momento de un terremoto o una erupción volcánica. Entonces un desafío muy grande para nosotros es pensar como vamos a unir los mapas que producimos con las luchas por mejorar las condiciones de vida. Hay que conectar los riesgos ambientales con los riesgos políticos, económicos, sociales y culturales.

(2)  Los mapas y la colonialidad

Una de las propuestas principales de la teoría descolonial es que el colonialismo formal ha terminado pero la colonialidad persiste. Es decir, las naciones centroamericanas son independientes pero persisten las actitudes y formas de exclusión creadas durante la era colonial, creando una especie de colonialismo interno. Una de las razones por las que los Costeños en Nicaragua quieren tener sus propios medios es porque han sido muy negativamente retratados en los medios nacionales. La televisión, la radio y los periódicos de Nicaragua son culpables de reproducir discursos coloniales, racistas o estigmatizantes de la Costa Caribe y de sus habitantes que hacen mucho daño. Una cosa parecida ocurre con la comunicación cartográfica, ya que la cartografía igual que otros medios tiene orígenes coloniales. Como ha señalado Jeremy Crampton (2016), muchos libros sobre la historia cartográfica afirman que mapear es un proceso universal, que la cartografía empezó antes de la escritura, pero en realidad la cartografía está implicada en el colonialismo y en la construcción del poder del estado. Es decir, los mapas han sido utilizados para emprender y legitimar el colonialismo. Entonces, tenemos que reconocer que los mapas no están divorciados de las relaciones de poder existentes, es decir crear una representación cartográfica de algo no es nunca un acto neutral ni uno meramente técnico.

Sin embargo, esto no significa que debiéramos no mapear, porque es posible contramapear. La cartografía comenzó como un instrumento colonizador pero también es cierto que las tecnologías cartográficas han sido útiles en las reivindicaciones territoriales indígenas y han permitido a muchos grupos afirmar su derecho a sus tierras ancestrales. Pero al mismo tiempo hay que reconocer que los pueblos indígenas y afrodescendientes en Centroamérica tienen una relación bastante difícil con los mapas, porque mapear significa tener que cumplir con las normas cartográficas eurocéntricas que son muy distintas de las formas indígenas de conocer el territorio. Además, como el libro reciente de Joe Bryan y Denis Wood (2015) ha señalado, la cartografía se ha convertido en arma utilizada por los militares estadounidenses para recopilar datos geoespaciales en las partes conflictivas o sensibles del mundo. Hace unos años, nuestra disciplina la geografía fue muy afectada por un escándalo. Hubo un proyecto Mexico Indígena que pretendía mapear tierras indígenas de Oaxaca liderado por dos geógrafos de la Universidad de Kansas. Pero resultó que el proyecto fue financiado por la Oficina de Estudios Militares Extranjeros en los Estados Unidos y una empresa de armas Radiance Technologies. Cuando los grupos indígenas oaxaqueños descubrieron que el proyecto cartográfico fue financiado por el ejército estadounidense como parte de su estrategia para recopilar datos geoespaciales de todo el mundo con fines de contrainsurgencia, lo denunciaron como geopiratería. Así que los mapas y la cartografía pueden provocar sospechas o ansiedad. Incluso si los mapas que ayudamos a producir buscan apoyar y no dañar a las poblaciones marginadas, el hecho de que dependen de modos de representación eurocéntricos significa que su utilidad puede ser limitada. Como ha señalado Michel de Certeau (1996), los mapas modernos se basan en la racionalidad científica o el establecimiento cartesiano de coordenadas, mientras que las tácticas espaciales utilizadas por los practicantes u operadores para moverse en el espacio a menudo obedecen a una lógica bastante diferente. Es posible que los habitantes que viven en una zona expuesta a un riesgo ambiental conozcan la zona que habitan de una forma culturalmente especifica y si un mapa de riesgo omite esta forma de conocer el espacio, puede fracasar. Como escribe de Certeau (1996: 132), “si se toma el “mapa” bajo su forma geográfica actual, aparece que en el curso del período marcado por el nacimiento del discurso científico moderno (del siglo XV al XVII), lentamente se libró de los itinerarios que eran su condición de posibilidad”. Entonces, si la idea nuestra es diseñar mapas de riesgo que fomentan un comportamiento más resistente entre las víctimas potenciales en áreas propensas a riesgos, necesitamos considerar como dice de Certeau “Allí donde el mapa corta, el relato atraviesa” (1996: 141), el relato es topológico en vez de topográfico. En Matagalpa, una de mis entrevistadas sobreviviente del Huracán Mitch me contó que antes del huracán había adoptado a un niño, Orlando, que había sido maltratado por sus familiares biológicos. Ramona vivía en un lugar peligroso a orillas del Río Grande de Matagalpa. Durante el Mitch el río inundó y llenó su casa con agua durante la noche. Todos sus hijos lograron salir con seguridad con su padre menos el hijo adoptivo Orlando. Ramona se quedó atrás para buscarlo. En este punto, la electricidad falló y el interior de la casa se hundió en la oscuridad. Los vecinos le gritaban que saliera, ya que toda la casa estaba empezando a moverse y estaba a punto de ser barrida. De repente, Ramona recordó que había un montón de leña de mango en el rincón de la casa, que ella me describió como un “mensaje de Dios”. Buscaba en la oscuridad hasta encontrar la leña, las piernas de Orlando salían de la madera pero tenía la cabeza enterrada. Lo agarró por las piernas, lo sacó y salió de la casa con segundos de sobra antes de que desapareciera por el río. Orlando fue herido pero sobrevivió. Y mientras Ramona se quedó sin hogar, se sintió feliz de haber rescatado a Orlando por segunda vez y también sintió una sensación de revitalización espiritual (Cupples 2007). Este es el tipo de comportamiento espacial que emerge durante un evento de desastre que no podría ser fácilmente fijado o anticipado en un mapa.

(3) Los mapas como medios y la convergencia mediática

También me gustaría que pensáramos en los mapas de riesgo no como medios aislados sino como parte de un entorno mediático convergente. La convergencia mediática es un concepto que estamos utilizando para pensar en las maneras en que los cambios tecnológicos puede utilizarse para fines sociales, culturales o políticos. En condiciones de convergencia de medios, los textos y los discursos cruzan las plataformas tecnológicas. Además los desastres sobre todo los más grandes son eventos muy mediatizados. Un artículo que publicamos en 2014 demostró el efecto de la mediación y la remediación del huracán Felix en Nicaragua y el huracán Katrina en New Orleans (véase Cupples y Glynn 2014). Durante los eventos de desastre, un conjunto de prácticas de representación que son ideológicamente conservadoras tienden a circular. No es infrecuente, por ejemplo, que la cobertura mediática dominante describan huracanes y terremotos destructivos como fenómenos altamente localizados, naturales, inevitables y como interrupciones que están más allá del control humano. Tales marcos tienden a pasar por alto el hecho de que los desastres no suceden de manera repentina, sino que se manifiestan debido a formas de abandono, marginación y discriminación establecidas. Además estos marcos tienden a privilegiar ciertos conocimientos y desestiman a otros, tales como los conocimientos indígenas o afrodescendientes. Además, la cobertura de los medios de comunicación dominantes tiende a exagerar el caos, el sufrimiento y la ruptura social. Muchas veces los reporteros se filman ante un edificio derrumbado. También hay una tendencia de celebrar la resiliencia humana o el heroísmo. Pero en el entorno mediático actual también circulan conocimientos alternativos y populares sobre las causas de a largo plazo de la devastación y la falta de la respuesta del estado, conocimientos que son informados por las condiciones materiales de la vida. La circulación discursiva de perspectivas alternativas o marginales significa que el potencial siempre existe para que estas perspectivas ganen tracción. El artículo demuestra cómo los comunicadores interculturales de Bilwi o los bloggers de New Orleans han destabilizado la idea del desastre natural – en ambos casos hubo un abandono social racializado por parte del estado, y la producción mediática de los pueblos subordinados se insertaba en los medios dominantes para generar nuevas formas de dar sentido al desastre. Así funciona la convergencia. Significa que los mapas digitales interactivos aparecen a través del entorno mediático y se puede acceder de diferentes maneras en diferentes plataformas. Como dije, los grupos indígenas y afrodescendientes en la Costa Caribe de Nicaragua han mapeado digitalmente sus tierras como parte de procesos legislativos de demarcación o titulación de tierras. La cartografía les facilita el reconocimiento legal, pero no impide la invasión ilegal de sus tierras por colonos violentos, no impide la tala de sus bosques o la contaminación de sus ríos. Así que estos grupos y sus defensores están usando la televisión comunitaria y la radio y medios sociales como YouTube para disputar la presencia de estos colonos en sus tierras ancestrales (véase Cupples y Glynn 2017, manuscrito en prensa). Entonces necesitamos considerar las relaciones y conexiones entre los mapas de riesgo y otros medios, tales como la radio, la televisión y los medios sociales. Es cierto que el arte de mapear se ha democratizado – los ciudadanos comunes y corrientes están creando mapas, mapear ya no está exclusivamente en las manos de los expertos o las agencias de gobierno, pero al mismo tiempo hay que reconocer que para muchos centroamericanos el medio que más utiliza es la radio local y comunitaria, aunque el uso de medios sociales tales como Facebook se está acelerando muchísimo. Nuestras investigaciones han revelado el papel muy importante de la radio y del uso de YouTube para responder a las crises ambientales, sociales y políticos.

Yo viví los terremotos de Christchurch en Nueva Zelanda en 2010 y 2011 y hay esta página de Facebook You Know You’re from Christchurch When …, que tiene miles de seguidores. Mezcla el humor y la solidaridad comunitaria con la información oficial sobre el desastre y el proceso de reconstrucción, incluye a veces los mapas de riesgo y clips de los noticieros y los usarios de esta página pueden contribuir a dar sentido al proceso de reconstrucción. Una forma convergente de compromiso cívico comienza a formarse alrededor del peligro sísmico, lo cual creo que es muy positivo. Entonces vamos a ver si los miembros de la red podemos generar ideas sobre cómo podríamos articular los mapas de riesgo con los medios más accesibles tales como la radio y el Facebook y así incrementar su efectividad.

Referencias

Bryan J and Wood D (2015) Weaponizing Maps Indigenous Peoples and Counterinsurgency in the Americas. New York: Guilford Press

Crampton J W (2016) Mappings. In N C Johnson, R H Schein and J Winders (eds) The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Cultural Geography. Malden: Wiley Blackwell, pp.423-436

Cupples J (2007) Gender and Hurricane Mitch: Reconstructing subjectivities after disaster. Disasters: The Journal of Disaster Studies, Policy and Management 31(2): 155-175

Cupples J and Glynn K (2014) The mediation and remediation of disaster: Hurricanes Katrina and Felix in/and the new media environment. Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography 46(2): 359-381

Cupples J and Glynn K (2017) Shifting Nicaraguan Mediascapes: Authoritarianism and the Struggle for Social Justice. Cham: Springer

de Certeau M (1996) La Invención de lo Cotidiano 1: Artes de Hacer. México: Universidad Iberoamericana

Smith N (2006) There’s no such thing as a natural disaster: Understanding Katrina. SSRC Perspectives from the Social Sciences http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org/Smith/

 

UK solidarity with Nicaragua: Let’s get real

I like staying up to watch electoral returns, but there is no point in doing so when the results are already known in advance and the election lacks any kind of popular legitimacy. Nicaragua goes to the polls tomorrow in an election that will produce a landslide victory for incumbent president Daniel Ortega. These elections are of interest to anyone who cares about revolutionary struggle, power, and social justice in Latin America. For solidarity activism with Nicaragua in the UK and elsewhere, it is important to understand the conditions that underpin this electoral contest.

I was an activist with the UK solidarity movement long before I started to research Nicaraguan cultural politics. In my early 20s, during and just after the Nicaraguan Revolution of the 1980s, my activist involvement, especially with the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign and the Central American Human Rights Committees, proved to be a wonderful political education and I am grateful for the insight and experience it gave me. As a result, I was able to work with and learn from Central American revolutionary leaders, human rights defenders, feminists, environmentalists and trade unionists both in the UK and Central America. While my efforts today are much more focused on research rather than solidarity organization, I appreciate the importance of international solidarity for making a difference in the world.

In the 1980s, when Reagan was in power, I believed in the FSLN and the Nicaraguan Revolution as a force for good, as an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggle that in the early years achieved some remarkable things but later became unstuck as a result of a multitude of factors, including but not limited to US foreign policy. As many people know, the FSLN, the party of the Revolution led by Daniel Ortega, lost the 1990 elections and then spent 16 years in opposition, attempting to return to power. Daniel Ortega remained the FSLN leader throughout those 16 years, losing two further elections in 1996 and 2001. In the late 90s, the FSLN did a dodgy deal (el pacto) with the ruling Liberals to weaken the safeguards in the electoral law to make it more likely that the FSLN could return to power. Thanks to el pacto, Ortega returned to power in 2006 and was re-elected (unconstitutionally as the Nicaraguan Constitution forbids re-election) in 2011. He is now running for a third consecutive term with his wife, Rosario Murillo, as his running mate. This means therefore that in the 37 years since the triumph of the Revolution in 1979, Ortega has been the president of Nicaragua for 21 years and leader of the opposition for the remaining 16 years. This is the 7th election in which he is running for president. The municipal elections of 2008 and the presidential elections of 2011 were widely denounced as fraudulent.

Like many revolutionary and progressive Nicaraguans, I ceased to support the FSLN a very long time ago. Indeed, many Nicaraguans, including many of those that fought in the revolutionary struggle, confirm that the existing FSLN leadership has betrayed its revolutionary principles, has embraced neoliberal capitalism, and has become increasingly authoritarian and repressive.

Yet these painful and highly visible realities seem however to have escaped substantial sectors of the UK solidarity movement. Instead, UK solidarity appears to be recycling a narrative that is dangerously inaccurate and obscures the desperate situation facing the country at this particular moment. Ignoring the tragic and disturbing events that afflict Nicaragua in order to circulate a highly simplistic anti-imperialistic discourse is not a form of solidarity that serves the needs of Nicaraguan citizens fighting for a better life nor is it useful for young activists in the UK who are seeking to understand the complex political situation and to figure out how to act in solidarity through anti-capitalist activism.

One example of this disconnect was evident in a tweet I saw last week while I was doing fieldwork in Nicaragua. The tweet was sent by @latamerica16 and it announced that Paul Oquist, Nicaragua’s National Policy minister, would be a guest speaker at the Latin America 2016 conference (https://latinamericaconference.wordpress.com/). This is a conference to be held in London on Saturday 26 November and is sponsored by the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign and Unite. Even more disturbing was the accompanying photo (see Figure 1) that announced Nicaragua’s “phenomenal progress” with a bunch of quite astonishing statistics that would come as quite a shock to most Nicaraguans, including the idea that Daniel Ortega is enjoying an approval rate of 79%.

Figure 1: Poster tweeted by @latamerica16 on 26 October

Figure 1: Poster tweeted by @latamerica16 on 26 October

For all those organizing and attending the Latin America 2016 conference, here is a quick overview of the current political situation in Nicaragua. It contains elements that should be central to Latin America 2016.

For the past few months, the country has been seen numerous street and online protests about what is widely understood to be an “electoral farce” (farsa electoral), because the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Court has eliminated the only viable opposition. The other parties who appear on the ballot are run by co-opted people that nobody has heard of and that have no popular base of support. Ortega has banned international election observers, despite their presence being enshrined in the electoral law. I worked as an international election observer with the Carter Center in 2001 and 2006, and Nicaraguan elections are usually intense affairs, with high levels of passionate civic engagement, well-attended rallies, and visible campaigning everywhere. Usually campaigning material is attached to every available wall, lamppost and tree. This year nobody has really bothered to campaign and the urban landscape is unusually bereft of campaigning material. Plenty of party flags and posters do however appear on the walls of the state institutions, also in contravention of the electoral law, and public sector workers are expected to demonstrate their inked thumbs on Monday to confirm that they did go to vote. On 26 October in Bilwi on the North Caribbean Coast, a couple of FSLN posters appeared, some of them had been immediately destroyed (see Figure 2). It was no different when I returned to Managua on Saturday 29 October. It was indeed hard to believe that we were in the final week of an election campaign. I caught the tail end of the close of campaign by the Conservative Party and there were certainly no more than 100 people there. Some were possibly locals, happy to get a free t-shirt. A campaign in favour of active abstention has gained traction, as according to many Nicaraguan citizens, there is nobody to vote for. In response, the number of booths in polling stations will be reduced to create queues outside and generate an impression of civic participation. The hashtag #yonobotomivoto (I won’t throw away my vote) is trending on Twitter. Last weekend saw large protests against the farsa electoral in Nueva Guinea (see Figure 3), San José del Bocay, Jalapa and Pantasma and yesterday university students from the Central American University (UCA) also held a protest.

Figure 2: A tiny amount of electoral campaigning material appeared in Bilwi on 26 October

Figure 2: A tiny amount of electoral campaigning material appeared in Bilwi on 26 October

Figure 3: The tweet reads: We continue to mobilize against the electoral circus. In La Unión, Nueva Guinea, the campesinos and campesinas from the communities are here.

Figure 3: The tweet reads: We continue to mobilize against the electoral circus. In La Unión, Nueva Guinea, the campesinos and campesinas from the communities are here.

In addition to recognizing that the 2016 presidential elections have no credibility and legitimacy, solidarity activists should also be aware of the following. Since returning to power in 2006, the government has taken control of all four branches of government. Public employees and government ministers that openly criticize the FSLN leadership are removed from office. Daniel Ortega commands intense and unprecedented levels of police protection. The streets around his home in Reparto El Carmen are heavily guarded at all times. Five per cent of the police budget and 10 per cent of the police personnel are used to protect the president and his close entourage. Anti-poverty programmes that have reduced poverty to a small degree have been administered to supporters in clientelistic ways, making it hard for people to express open opposition. Venezuelan aid has been privatized, in the sense that it is absent from the national budget, and directed into private projects. The government has spent more than $3 million on adorning Managua with dozens of metallic trees (see Figure 4) and $80 million on 50 armoured T7B1 Russian tanks. They send out the riot police or groups of violent mobs (grupos de choque) every time the opposition organizes a peaceful protest. They have criminalized therapeutic abortion, putting even more women’s lives at risks. The government is also pursuing the construction of a $50 billion interoceanic canal with Chinese investment that will produce irreversible environmental damage and will displace hundreds of campesinos and indigenous groups from their lands. Furthermore, there is a serious environmental and social conflict in the North Caribbean region, where colonos, subsistence farmers from the Pacific, have settled illegally on ancestral lands belonging to Miskito and Mayangna populations and have become increasingly violent. More than 20 indigenous community members have been murdered by the colonos in the past year, but no state protection or investigation into illegal activities (murder, land trafficking, illegal occupation of indigenous territory) has been undertaken.

Figure 4: Dozens of metallic trees adorn Nicaragua's capital city Managua

Figure 4: Dozens of metallic trees adorn Nicaragua’s capital city Managua

So what we have in place is an authoritarian, repressive government that does not tolerate political pluralism and freedom of expression, does not respect or support the rights of indigenous peoples and women, is responsible through inaction (towards the colonos and rampant deforestation) and action (pursuit of a neoliberal megaproject such as the canal) for extensive environmental destruction. Ortega is in a precarious position – the fall in oil prices and the crisis in Venezuela along with the approval in the US Congress of the Nica Act are both likely to substantially reduce the external funds flowing into Nicaragua. The other pink tide governments that have been also been his allies are also in crisis to varying degrees. To compensate, Ortega is doing deals with Putin and Russian investment in transport, telecommunications and military hardware is already visible, but such an association is likely to isolate Ortega further. These issues are absent from the UK solidarity literature. If you read the latest news briefing from the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign (NSC), it seems to suggest that all is well, that the elections are free and fair, and that the vast majority of the electorate are ready to vote for the FSLN. I understood why Ortega wishes to make his regime and the electoral process appear legitimate, but I do not know why a UK-based solidarity campaign would wish to do so. As a long term NSC activist, I am disturbed by such blatant and extreme political irresponsibility. If they cared about those that gave their lives for the revolution in the 1970s and 80s, about the freedom to participate in politics without intimidation, about the fate of Nicaragua’s indigenous groups, they would endeavour to engage honestly and accurately with Nicaragua’s messy complicated politics. There are lots of Nicaraguans fighting for something better. There are lots of Nicaraguans honouring the sacrifices made during the revolution, denouncing corruption, seeking to address poverty and marginalization in sustainable ways, and speaking out in defence of human rights and the environment. We should stand with them, not with a corrupt and authoritarian caudillo.

 

May 2016 New Zealand talks

I am in Dunedin and Wellington over the next two weeks, speaking at the University of Otago and Victoria University of Wellington on my Marsden funded research in both Nicaragua and Aotearoa New Zealand.

I am attending the Space, Race, Bodies II: Sovereignty and Migration in a Carceral Age conference at the University of Otago where together with Kevin Glynn I am presenting a paper (on 7 May) that explores the intersections and interactions between indigenous people, the criminal justice system and the media through a focus on innovative reality series Songs from the Inside broadcast on Māori Television and on Tame Iti’s mediated activism. I am also going to pick up on these themes at Victoria University of Wellington in the Social Theory Spatial Praxis workshop . I am also running a master class on decolonial theory with a group of geography postgraduate students at the University of Otago on 5 May.

I am speaking about our Nicaraguan research in the Department of Geography at Otago University (Monday 9 May at 1pm) and School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington (Thursday 12 May at 4pm) and giving the following paper (co-authored with Kevin Glynn).

Shifting Nicaraguan mediascapes: Authoritarianism and the struggle for social justice

Abstract

There are two main threats to the authoritarian rule of the Nicaraguan government led by Daniel Ortega: the first is the Managua-based NGO and civil society sector led largely by educated dissident Sandinistas, and the second is the escalating struggle for autonomy and land rights being fought by Nicaragua’s indigenous and Afro-descended inhabitants on the country’s Caribbean coast. In order to confront these threats and, it seems, secure indefinite political tenure, the government engages in a set of centralizing and anti-democratic political strategies characterized by secrecy, institutional power grabs, highly suspect electoral practices, clientelistic anti-poverty programmes, and the control through purchase or co-optation of much of the nation’s media. The social movements that threaten Ortega’s rule are however operating through dispersed and topological modalities of power and the creative use of emergent spaces for the circulation of counterdiscourses and counternarratives within a rapidly transforming media environment. The primary response to these mediated tactics is a politics of silence and a refusal to acknowledge or respond to the political claims made by social movements. In the current conjuncture, we can therefore identify a struggle for hegemony whose strategies and tactics include the citizenship-stripping activities of the state and the citizenship-claiming activities of black, indigenous and dissident actors and activists. This struggle plays out in part through the mediated circulation and countercirculation of discourses and the infrastructural dynamics of media convergence.

Thanks to everyone for the speaking invitations, especially Marcela Palomino, Christina Ergler, Tony Binns and Holly Randall-Moon and to the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand for the funding that has made this research possible.

Coloniality, masculinity and big data economies

This is the text of the paper I presented at the recent AAG conference in Chicago on spatialized information economies in a panel entitled ‘Where’s the Value? Emerging Digital Economies of Geolocation’ convened by Jeremy Crampton and Agnieszka Leszczynski and also including Elvin Wyly and Rob Kitchin. Jeremy has placed a link to the audio of the entire panel on his blog and you can find it here. The text of Rob’s talk can be found here.

So I’d like to make a few points about cultural studies, media convergence and some of the masculinizing and colonizing fantasies that I think accompany the digital economy. For the last few years, I’ve been working on a collaborative research project on the geographies of media convergence and in particular the expanding interactivity between media technologies, sites, users and production processes. The project aims to understand how changes in the media environment are facilitating new relationships between politics and popular culture, in the context of persistent but increasingly contested neoliberalism, intensified forms of securitization and heightened political effectivity of various decolonial and indigenous movements. So questions of spatialized information economies are pertinent to this project, although initially I thought of them as marginal. It’s apparent that we can’t explore the democratizing and decolonizing dimensions of the new media environment, without also exploring the potential dark side of media convergence, the convergences between online tracking and targeting, RFIDs, predictive analytics, geodemographics, VGI capture, video surveillance, the Internet of Things and urban sensor networks. Cultural studies has tended to resist a ‘what media do to people’ model to focus instead on what people do with media, an approach that has often revealed interesting forms of popular pleasure or oppositional cultural politics. New modes of algorithmic sorting, surveillance and tracking complicate to some extent that approach. Furthermore, I’ve also become increasingly interested in these questions in the context of the neoliberal university where a hierarchy has been created between so-called big data and other kinds of research data.

Westernized universities, academic funding agencies, neoliberal governments and for-profit corporations seem to be uncritically embracing concepts such as big data/smart cities in ways that potentially undermine the groundwork put in place by feminist scholarship. As a number of feminist GIS scholars have noted, it tends to be largely men who are the main contributors and legitimizers of geospatial information, but spatial media technologies are also embraced by and for women and progressive social movements in empowering ways (see for example Stephens 2013; Leszczynski and Elwood 2014). Research became less about extraction and more about working with and allowing participants to shift the focus of the research agenda. It’s quite likely that many big data scholars never engaged with those perspectives in the first place, but we do appear to be experiencing a masculinist revival of post-political positivism (see Merrifield 2014: 3). Not only do contemporary big data discourses replicate and indeed celebrate the presumed universality, “view from nowhere”, neutrality, stable ontology and no need for social theory position of much conventional GIS, they also mobilize a teleological sense of progress and inevitability and are accompanied in the words of Boyd and Crawford (2012:666) by a “sweeping dismissal of all other theories and disciplines” which as they note “reveals an arrogant undercurrent”. There is also something quite masculinist in the privileging as Nafus and Sherman (2014) write, of size over substance. The ‘big’ in big data doesn’t just refer to the size of the datasets used, big sometimes means big funding, big promotions, and big space in ways that rework the gendered hierarchies and old boy networks of the contemporary academy and that deny the same privileges to those working with theory or with ethnographic or qualitative data and furthermore often produce work that stigmatizes and simplifies far more than it explains. We could say that the mobilization of big data by scholars, corporations and governments is often underpinned by what Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2007) refers to abyssal thinking. For de Sousa Santos an abyssal line divides metropolitan societies from colonial territories, the human from the subhuman, and it is only in metropolitan societies where the regulation/emancipation dichotomy has any purchase, while the other side of the line is characterized by appropriation and violence. There is evidence that the data doubles of certain social groups are located on the wrong side of the abyssal line. The streets of Bilwi and Bluefields in Nicaragua, where I do much of my research, are filled with small businesses, places to eat, market stalls and shops that have no digital footprint. Yet young Afro-descended people from these cities deprived of adequate economic opportunities are often forced to migrate to the capital to work in call centres – to participate in the digital economy even as that participation is fuelled by poverty and racial exclusion. Geographic digital exclusions and inclusions often work together in simultaneously negative ways. For low-income and racialized populations around the world, surveillance is nothing new, but it now takes on insidious new dimensions as it becomes harder to prove that you are a victim of discrimination because an ad for predatory pay day loan has appeared on your social media site or that you were stopped and searched not because the police had reasonable evidence that you had committed a crime but as a result of a convergence between your geographical location and Facebook likes. Such outcomes produce a tension between our growing collective resistance to being secretly surveilled and counted, even among populations whose relative affluence has been able to buy them privacy, and the contrasting demand as articulated by Eric Swyngedouw (2015) “to be counted, named, and recognized, theatrically and publicly staged by those ‘that do not count’”.

What hope is there for challenging the colonizing, racializing and universalizing processes that accompany the digital economy? In the past, elites saw popular television as a threat to democracy, while cultural scholars documented how ordinary people consumed mass media in oppositional ways. As John Hartley (2003) noted, indeed the masses seen from the outside as amorphous were actually increasingly sovereign. They could act in politically consequential ways. To what extent do new data mining technologies undermine this state of affairs? To what extent does it matter that we/they don’t know how the algorithms that track and target us work? The economy used to criminalize and to sell us stuff is also used to foment revolution and to refuse capitalist exploitation, smart city technologies fail as often as they succeed and they are increasingly vulnerable to being hacked from below, datasets are fragmented by tactical and unruly resistant practices and by highly selective modes of online self-presentation. We are also constantly confronted with the failures of surveillance. Some of these failures are quite mundane, such as when Facebook describes my ex-husband to me “as someone you may know” or when Sainsbury’s keeps texting me in Costa Rica with concerns that I’m forgetting to swipe my loyalty card, while others are quite serious and sinister, from whole airplanes that disappear without trace to London schoolgirls who communicate with known jihadis on social media and then travel to Syria on false passports without detection or interception. Big data economies also produce the resurrection of guerrilla technologies, molecular activities, reverse surveillance, the rehabilitation of secrecy, WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, Anonymous. So I don’t really have any conclusions except to say that I am both seriously worried and tentatively hopeful.

References

boyd d and Crawford K (2012) Critical questions for big data. Information, Communication and Society. 15:5, 662-679

de Souza Santos B (2007) Beyond abyssal thinking: From global lines to ecologies of knowledges. Review 30(1): 45-89

Hartley J (2003) A Short History of Cultural Studies. London: Sage

Leszczynski A and Elwood S (2014) Feminist geographies of new spatial media. The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe Canadien 59(1): 12-28

Merrifield A (2014) The New Urban Question. London: Pluto Press

Nafus D and Sherman J (2014) This one does not go up to eleven: The Quantified Self Movement as an alternative big data practice. International Journal of Communication 8: 1784–1794

Stephens M (2013) Gender and the GeoWeb: divisions in the production of user-generated cartographic information. Geojournal 78:981–996

Swyngedouw E (2015) Insurgent urbanity and the political city. In M Moshen (ed) Ethics of the Urban: The City and the Spaces of the Political. Zurich: Lars Müller (in press)

 

 

 

Collaborating with a Muddy Road and an Ailing Forest: The Construction of Ecological Citizenship in San Francisco Libre, Nicaragua

This article is now published in  the Journal of Latin American Geography and available here. If you don’t have access to the journal and would like a copy, please email me. Special thanks to my co-author Lauren Sinreich and to Irving Larios and the  Instituto de Investigaciones y Gestión Social in Managua, Nicaragua for all their practical and intellectual support
Abstract

This article explores the emergence of ecological citizenship in the Nicaraguan municipality of San Francisco Libre. After decades of dealing with economic, social and environmental risk, the inhabitants of the municipality’s communities began to enact a more empowering kind of citizenship by enrolling nonhumans including trees and legal texts in their struggles for development and justice. While this struggle is fraught with setbacks and complexities, it is apparent that those involved are beginning to move beyond nature-culture binaries, recognizing that political rights and ecological rights can and indeed must be simultaneously pursued. Drawing on fieldwork in the community and analysis of key documents, we outline the political responses and participatory processes engendered by economic and environmental risk that have taken place in San Francisco Libre in the past decade-and-a-half to frame the contours of a relational community forestry that enables a democratizing form of ecological citizenship to emerge.

Resumen

Este artículo explora la aparición de una ciudadanía ecológica en la municipalidad nicaragüense de San Francisco Libre. Después de unas décadas en las cuales los habitantes de las comunidades de la municipalidad se enfrentaban a riesgos de índole económica, social y ambiental, empezaron a crear una forma de ciudadanía más potenciadora mediante la inscripción de los seres no humanos tales como los árboles y los textos legales en las luchas por el desarrollo y la justicia. Aunque esta lucha está marcada por retrocesos y complejidades, está claro que los involucrados empiezan a superar las binarías de la naturaleza y la cultura, reconociendo que los derechos políticos y los derechos ecológicos pueden y deben ser asegurados simultáneamente. Basado en el trabajo de campo en la comunidad y en un análisis de documentos claves, esbozamos las respuestas políticas y procesos participativos generados por el riesgo económico y ambiental que han ocurrido en San Francisco Libre en la década y media pasada para enmarcar los contornos de una silvicultura comunitaria relacional que permite la aparición de una forma democratizadora de la ciudadanía ecológica.

Keywords
ecological citizenship, community forestry, climate change, Nicaragua, Nicaragua
Palabras clave
ciudadanía ecológica, silvicultura comunitaria, cambio climático, Nicaragua

Indigenizing and decolonizing higher education: From Aotearoa New Zealand to Nicaragua to Scotland

sjtgI work at what could be called a mainstream Enlightenment university. Like many old universities in the western world, the University of Edinburgh is proud of its Enlightenment tradition. It names prestigious lecture series after the Enlightenment as if it was a good thing. While the Enlightenment undoubtedly had its merits in terms of calling into question the tyranny of royals and God, and in the notion that we could as human beings think for ourselves and by so doing create a better world, all to be applauded, it was abysmal in its treatment of women, people of colour and indigenous peoples, whose epistemologies were deemed too irrational, too emotional and too superstitious. Their perceived incapacity for rational thought was a key justification for sexist, racist and colonial practices. It made it justifiable to exclude them from franchise, to deny them access to spaces of economic or educational opportunity, to take their lands and resources and to kill them when they got in the way of “progress” and “civilization”. And it had profound implications for knowledge and for the administrative organization of knowledge in the academy, splitting the natural and physical sciences off from the humanities and social sciences.

As many indigenous scholars have noted, including Sami scholar Rauna Kuokkanen (see for example Kuokkanen 2007) and Māori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith (see for example Smith 2010), the mainstream Enlightenment university is a colonial and monocultural institution that functions on a basis of epistemic ignorance regarding indigenous cultures. For indigenous faculty and students, working or studying at such an institution means therefore being engaged in a struggle against racism and coloniality. It is this experience that led a group of Miskito and Creole intellectuals on Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast to create URACCAN or the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast (www.uraccan.edu.ni ), a university in which indigenous ways of knowing form the basis of scholarly and pedagogical practices. URACCAN’s project forms the basis of a recent article that Kevin Glynn and I (Cupples and Glynn 2014) have just published in the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, an article that forms part of a special issue on Advancing Postcolonial Geography, edited by James Sidaway, Chih Yuan Woonan and Jane Jacobs at the National University of Singapore (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/sjtg.2014.35.issue-1/issuetoc ). Drawing on insights from the modernity/coloniality/decoloniality (MCD) paradigm and focusing in particular on research and teaching in both communication and health, we outline how western epistemologies are displaced and indigenous ones productively foregrounded. We are inspired by what we have seen as URACCAN. Indeed, we wrote this paper after working for a decade at a New Zealand university that has repeatedly failed indigenous staff, students and knowledges. In the late 1990s, a doctoral student in education, Hazel Phillips, recruited a group of Māori students at the University of Canterbury. Her thesis documents their struggles to succeed in a hostile and colonial institution that repeatedly invisibilized or silenced their perspectives. Sadly, none of the research participants recruited at the start of the study completed their degrees. In the decade since Phillips’ thesis was completed (Phillips 2003), there is no doubt that the University of Canterbury is undergoing an indigenization of sorts. There is a visible indigenous presence on campus, strategic planning documents and appointments articulate aims to strengthen linkages with Māori communities, support Māori research initiatives and enhance the capacity of Māori researchers (see for example www.canterbury.ac.nz/theuni/documents/uc_research_plan_february_2010.pdf) and there are institutional opportunities available for non-indigenous staff and students to become proficient in Māori language and protocol. Such attempts to indigenize the university are however constantly undermined by vertical and undemocratic modes of governance, particularly “line management” (see Cupples and Pawson 2013; Johnston, Sears and Wilcox 2012) and by the privileging of western science and engineering over interdisciplinary and critical cultural and area studies, which are undermined through closure, attempted closure and downsizing through attrition.[1] Such managerial moves compromise the indigenization of the university, for as both Kuokkanen (2007) and Smith (2010) write, it was the development of critical and anti-positivistic cultural, feminist and area studies that emerged from within in the academy that provided an opening for indigenous knowledges to gain legitimacy and flourish (see also www.kaupapamaori.com ).

The library at URACCAN

The library at URACCAN

URACCAN, like other intercultural and indigenous universities that are starting to emerge in Latin America and elsewhere, provides important lessons for those of us working in postcolonial settler nations such as New Zealand, Canada, Australia and the United States with indigenous populations organized in pursuit of decolonization. It also provides lessons for those of us working in the UK, where funding regimes and the pressure to get grants undermines the kind of long term, in-depth and ethnographic work required for doing research with indigenous communities and where our students are mostly (but not exclusively) very privileged and so one of our most important tasks as educators is to help them unlearn their privilege (Spivak 1988) so that they might become more than individualized and compliant consumers when they graduate[2]. In my experience, students are receptive to anti-capitalist, feminist and decolonial thought but they need to have time to think through their implications and be exposed to them over the course of their degrees. URACCAN also provides important lessons for those of us who are deeply concerned at the intense neoliberalization and corporatization that has taken hold of our public institutions in ways that are profoundly damaging. Neoliberalizing threats to humanities and social sciences and the privileging of STEM subjects are therefore also threats to the necessary indigenization and decolonization of the university. At URACCAN, with far fewer resources than both Edinburgh and Canterbury, they have quite a different approach. You can find the article here. If you don’t have an institutional subscription to the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, and would like a copy of the article, please email me. This article is part of the project Geographies of Media Convergence funded by the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Notes

[1]Over the past few years, the management of the University of Canterbury has closed American studies, Religious Studies, Gender Studies and Theatre and Film Studies, subjects in which critical, cultural, and non-positivist perspectives could be found and in which some faculty were working on and with Māori. I do of course acknowledge that in New Zealand there are Māori scientists and engineers (see Victoria Guyatt’s Masters thesis on Māori female scientists for a discussion of how competing worldviews are reconciled (Guyatt 2005)) and that there are a small number of non-indigenous scientists and engineers who are trying to incorporate indigenous worldviews into their teaching and research, but they are few and far between and are hindered by their embeddedness in western scientific epistemologies.

[2]I am however delighted that I have a Masters student, Laura Mariana Reyes, who is about to depart to do fieldwork with Unitierra, a similar initiative in Oaxaca, Mexico.

References

Cupples J and Glynn K (2014) Indigenizing and decolonizing higher education on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 35(1): 56-71.

Cupples J and Pawson E (2012) Giving an account of oneself: The PBRF and the neoliberal university.  New Zealand Geographer 68(1): 14-23.

Guyatt V (2005) Reconciling Multiple Identities: Māori Women Scientists in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Unpublished MSc thesis, Department of Geography, University of Canterbury.

Johnston J, Sears C and Wilcox L (2012) Neoliberalism unshaken: A report from the disaster zone. Excursions Journal 3(1): 1-25.

Kuokkanen R (2007) Reshaping the University: Responsibility, Indigenous Epistemes, and the Logic of the Gift. UBC Press: Vancouver.

Phillips H (2003): Te Reo Karanga o nga tauria Māori: Māori Students, their Voices, their Stories at the University of Canterbury 1996 – 1998. Unpublished PhD thesis, Department of Education, University of Canterbury.

Smith LT (2010) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. 2nd edition. Sage: London.

Spivak G (1988) Can the subaltern speak? In C Nelson and L Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. University of Illinois Press: Urbana, pp. 271-313.

 

Nicaragua: Travels in hyperreality

I first visited Nicaragua on a solidarity brigade in support of the revolution and the FSLN, just after Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas had lost the elections to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in 1990. Like many people around the world, in the 1980s I was inspired by Nicaragua’s revolutionary struggle against Somocismo and US imperialism and by the political possibilities that the Nicaraguan Revolution enabled us to imagine. It turned out to be a long-term commitment.  For the next twenty years, I came back to Nicaragua many times to do research.  I loved working here for many reasons, but mainly because Nicaragua was a country that had had a revolution, and that collective historical experience made Nicaragua an intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving place to work. I’ve been here for the past month doing fieldwork, my first visit since 2009. Today, politically speaking, Nicaragua is a bizarre and frustrating place. Daniel Ortega and the FSLN have been back in power since 2006, but within the government currently in power there is nothing left of that inspirational revolution.  Since 2012, centre right newspaper La Prensa repeatedly refers to Ortega as ‘el presidente inconstitucional’ because he was re-elected in 2011, in spite of the fact that the Nicaraguan Constitution did not permit re-election. In the early 1980s, Sandinista Nicaragua aspired to be a participatory democracy. The National Assembly passed constitutional reforms this week that not only do nothing to strengthen participatory democracy, but weaken and undermine representative democracy. The reforms have several dimensions to them, but essentially they allow for indefinite re-election, which means that the current president (who has now spent a total of 18 years, 1979-1990 and 2006 to date as president) can continue to be president for ever. The reforms also eliminate the threshold required to be elected and therefore the second round of voting. An inadequate and restrictive electoral law has just become more inadequate and more restrictive.

In 1990, the Sandinista defeat was totally unexpected, but it was clear that the Sandinista leadership had made a lot of serious mistakes during their time in power. Tens of thousands of people, many of them still teenagers, had died on both slides of the conflict and daily social reproduction in the face of chronic shortages and hyperinflation was tremendously difficult. Economic and emotional exhaustion generated by the war, the military draft and the US trade embargo had clearly contributed to the electoral defeat but they were compounded by FSLN verticalism and abuses of power.  Internal and external critics were calling for greater internal democracy and better engagement with ordinary people.  The party needed to appoint new leaders, new faces. But they didn’t do that, instead they purged the party of dissidents, many of whom were prominent Sandinistas, pushing people with integrity and political experience, people who had made enormous sacrifices to create a better world, into civil society organizations, NGOs and into a rival Sandinista party, the MRS.  And throughout all this time, Daniel has clung onto power, fighting off any challenges to his leadership and refusing to pay attention to any criticism. At the end of the 1990s, the FSLN did dodgy deals with the liberals to make it electorally possible for them to return to power.  I was here in 2006 when the FSLN returned to power after 16 years in opposition, winning the elections with fewer votes than they had lost with in 2001.  There were serious concerns about the integrity of that election, many people were disenfranchised for example as they had been unable to receive their cédulas or voter identity documents in time. Despite these worrying trends, I still felt quite optimistic about the state of democratization in Nicaragua at that time (see Cupples 2009). I no longer feel that sense of optimism although Nicaragua triumphed over Somoza and a brutal National Guard against the odds and can probably do so again.

Since 2007, the Nicaraguan government has received millions of dollars in aid from Venezuela, a flow of petrodollars that is now coming to an end, given the death of Hugo Chávez and the severe economic crisis in Venezuela. This money has been partially privatized through a bi-national company, ALBANISA, which keeps it out of the national budget (for a good overview of ALBANISA, see Riley 2010).  Many low-income Nicaraguans feel the government is more present and responsive to their needs. The neoliberal governments that were in power from 1990 to 2006 were truly horrible, depriving people of economic opportunities and hope. The current FSLN is however a party of image rather than substance, indulging in a clientelistic, paternalistic, and authoritarian populism.  They promised a new oil Venezuelan refinery that would bring jobs, and Chávez even came to lay down the first brick. Beyond that first brick, it has never materialized.

The current FSLN leadership describes Nicaragua as ‘cristiana, socialista, solidaria’, – Christian, socialist and in solidarity, it talks about ‘vivir bonito’ or living nicely and Daniel’s face is all over billboards along the highways, as if we were in the middle of an election campaign. The latest ones announce that in 2014 the government will be “haciendo patria” or making the nation whatever that means (see Figure 1). This past week, the president sacked the head of the Nicaraguan Central Bank without saying why, and the vice-minister of education.  The police also opened fire on a group of protestors in Chichigalpa and Juan de Dios Cortés, a 48 year old man was killed. The protestors are workers of the Ingenio San Antonio which produces the sugar for Nicaragua’s famous Flor de Caña rum who are suffering from kidney failure as a result of the pesticides to which they have been exposed. Thousands of them have already died (see Figure 2). The Ingenio is owned by one of Nicaragua’s wealthiest capitalist families, the Pellas.  There has been no official government response to the plight of these workers. In an article in Spanish newspaper El País, Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Salinas Maldonado (2014) recently asked Comandante Ortega why he remains silent. Salinas wonders why Daniel as a self-professed Christian and socialist is not speaking out in favour of workers harmed, exploited and seriously unwell as a result of ‘savage capitalism’.

Figure 1:  The latest billboardsFigure 2: A banner in Managua protesting sugar cane workers with chronic renal insufficiency

Given just how much Venezuelan aid has flowed into Nicaragua, things really should be a lot better for ordinary people. But in this ‘Christian and socialist’ country, there are still children begging at the traffic lights in the capital.  Half of the population still lives below the poverty line. There are high levels of urban insecurity.  A few days ago, I was in a store while the two women in the clothing boutique next door were held at gunpoint and forced to hand over their cell phones and the day’s takings.  Wherever there is affluence, there is privatized armed security, so that the rich can be protected from the poor. Managua remains a city built for cars. It is virtually impossible to walk around Managua because of heavy traffic, roads that are almost impossible to get across and the risk of being mugged. But getting a taxi isn’t necessarily a safer option, because taxis routinely take additional passengers, and then you run the (admittedly small but terrifying) risk of the driver picking up an accomplice and being hijacked.

Despite the urgent need for some urban planning (regulation of the taxi industry, some decent footpaths and some more pedestrian crossings would be an excellent start), instead the government has invested in large amounts of decorative lights. There are Christmas lights in central Managua, lots and lots of them.  Although the time for Christmas lights has now passed in most of the world, much of the city in early February is still ablaze with electric Christmas trees, angels and reindeers. The government has also created large permanent electrified metallic structures called “árboles de la vida” or “trees of life”, estimated to cost US$20,000 each.  They stand tall over much of Managua but they are concentred in particular along the Avenida Simón Bolívar. There is also a large electrified tribute to Hugo Chávez here too (see Figures 3 and 4).  When I arrived in early January, there were also lots of state-sponsored nativity scenes – not just a few but lots and lots and lots. It is a very strange use of public money in a country with so much poverty. Especially as there are communities in the eastern part of the country that still don’t have electricity in their homes. People who do have electricity struggle to pay the bills.

arbolesFigure 4: An electrified tribute to late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez

Not far from here is the redeveloped Puerto de Salvador Allende or El Malecón on the edge of the lake. This is one clear visible improvement to the urban landscape. There are new bars and restaurants but there are also picnic tables and playgrounds for kids. It’s a nice place in the central city where you can go whether or not you have money to spend (although there is an entry fee if you go in by car).  But the Sandinista hyperreality is here too, the brightly coloured painted benches announce things like “Yo vivo bonito” “I live nice” or “Yo hago patria” “I make nation” (see Figures 5 and 6).

Figure 5: Yo vivo bonitoYo hago patria

Of course, Nicaragua’s most important hyperreality is the imminent or possibly not so imminent interoceanic canal. The government has awarded a 50 year concession to Chinese company, Jing Wang, to build a canal across Nicaragua which would rival the Panama Canal.  If built, the project promises to create economic growth and half a million jobs.  But there are huge concerns about the project. There is no publicly available environmental impact assessment and there are justifiable fears that such a project would devastate Nicaragua’s environment and natural beauty, its forests, flora and fauna, and could seriously pollute or drain the beautiful Lake Cocibolca, the largest freshwater lake in Central America, of water.  While many Nicaraguans are concerned, many others are not because they don’t believe it will ever be built.

Control of the  media has been central to the Sandinista strategy of simulating a prosperous nation. Sadly, critical and independent media are shrinking in Nicaragua. Most of the country’s radio stations, television channels and newspapers are either owned by the government, owned by the family of Daniel Ortega, or owned by business interests that have no interest in criticizing the government and probably benefit because they don’t.  The government is able to starve those that remain of state advertising as well as of some private advertising.  In an age of media convergence and media democratization however, the attempt to control the political economy of the media will only get so far. El Nuevo Diario has been purchased by Ban-Pro so has lost its critical edge but La Prensa remains a critical if conservative source of news. For the minority of Nicaraguans that have access to the Internet, the critical voices of opposition to Orteguismo are very loud, both in online journalism and in social media, especially Twitter. Here people repeatedly say that Nicaragua is becoming a dictatorship and note the many similarities between Somocismo and Orteguismo. There are many differences of course, there are no political prisoners, assassinations or people being forced in exile like there were under Somoza. There is no state-sponspored torture. But for León Nuñez (2014), dictatorship is when legislative, judicial and electoral power is subject to the will of the ruler, there can be dictatorship “without killing, imprisoning or sending people into exile”. The FSLN knows that if it did go down that route, it would all be over for them very quickly. Hence the investments in creating a hyperreality through officialized media, billboards, painted benches and urban electrification. In other words, if you keep telling people how much progress the country is making, and if you see pretty lights all over the capital, maybe they will start to believe it, even if everyday life continues to be characterized by multiple forms of precarity.  Of course, in Gramscian terms, the people’s good sense can never be extinguished by the hyperreal and manufactured common sense. The government knows that people are organizing, the opposition is becoming more coherent, even though how it will change is not all clear at this stage. What is clear is that Nicaragua and Nicaraguans deserve something so much better than this.

References

Cupples J (2009) Rethinking electoral geography: Spaces and practices of democracy in Nicaragua. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34(1): 110-124

Nuñez L (2014) La dictadura. La Prensa. 27 January http://www-ni.laprensa.com.ni/2014/01/27/voces/179990-dictadura

Riley B (2010) Nicaragua and Albanisa: The privatization of Venezuelan aid. COHA 13 August http://www.coha.org/nicaragua-albanisa-the-privatization-of-venezuelan-aid/

Salinas Maldonado C (2013) El nuevo símbolo del poder en Nicaragua. El País Internacional 18 December http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2013/12/17/actualidad/1387303716_871550.html

Salinas Maldonado C (2014) ¿Por qué se calla, Comandante Ortega? El País Internacional 22 January http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2014/01/22/actualidad/1390352905_814181.html