The Roots of Nicaraguan Poverty
This was a short rant I penned in April of 2006 when I was still living in Nicaragua. It is about the roots of Nicaraguan poverty. It's also about the errors in the "liberal education" I carried with me from my Bachelor of Arts degree to Nicaragua and how my ideas changed.
For a year, I have been searching for a simple way to understand how Nicaraguan culture differs from American culture. I also have been searching for any written prose that accurately represents Nicaragua. I haven’t found any such written material. I conclude that the reality in Nicaragua is too complex, too baffling, too seductive, too infuriating to have been captured. Nicaragua is a black hole, an addiction: the deeper you delve trying to understand it, the less you are able to. It either eats you up completely, or spits you out in another dimension with a different apparent mass (bank balance).
Here is where I am on these questions now.
In liberally-educated circles, we note certain supposedly-recent additions to knowledge.
One is the subjectivity of truth. Those of us who are most highly educated speak of Schroedinger’s Cat and The Hawthorne Effect: the unveiling of the myth of observer-independent reality. Does reality exist; do “we” create or change “it” by looking?
A related liberal theme is cultural relativity. I remember thinking when I read Alan Bloom’s book The Closing of The American Mind, that he treats this theme well. According to cultural relativity, we as Americans are not to criticize another culture’s “values.” For instance, I might claim to have identified a Nicaraguan cultural characteristic: that if you attempt to teach a Nicaraguan person something, even something minor, he or she will resent you from that point forward. According to cultural relativism, I as an American am not allowed to mention this cultural characteristic in a critical way.
In liberally-educated circles, we pursue knowledge for its own sake. In Nicaragua in contrast, knowledge is only pursued if it seems useful in an internally-obvious economic or sexual sense. Similarly, Nicaraguan culture also does not share as a common basis with American culture the interest and skills of dialogue to identify common truth. Nicaragua has a saying, “Each mind is its own world.” Nicaragua actually incorporates what liberal Americans just think about. You cannot have a conversation here in Nicaragua attempting to find a common truth. One person has one truth that he believes is in his interest; another person has another truth that he believes is in his interest; and the conversation is not a discovery of what the truth may be, but a battleground to find who has designed his mentality in such a way that it can do battle with the reality of others and emerge victorious.
The Nicaraguan economy is one of the two poorest in the Western Hemisphere. I would like to see the figures for how much money is sent here by family, by foreigners buying land, and in the form of international donations, because I suspect that these ingresses represents more than ninety percent of the money spent in Nicaragua. There are essentially no exports from Nicaragua, and there is almost no internal industry. Almost all manufactured goods are imported, and a lot of the food.
What is Nicaragua? It is a country based on lying and thievery. The only people who make moderate or substantial incomes in Nicaragua do it by lying and stealing. Normal business does not pay in Nicaragua, because the employees and customers and government all lie and steal in cooperation with one another. And the lying and stealing are not solely outright theft but also sophisticated mafia games. A land investor, for instance, steals by buying property cheap that was confiscated by politicians, then resells it, making the land title seem more legitimate. A farmer, for instance, steals by buying agricultural equipment and animals that he suspects are stolen. Interestingly, if you do the math, you realize that if everyone steals equally and everyone works efficiently, then everyone still does fine. But the problem is that many lose desire to work when the fruits of our labor are taken from us by others who trick us. And so we work less on production, because what’s the use. And so we are more open to stealing and cheating, because it actually works. And it works especially well here because the others around us will gladly help, as long as they get their share.
The humanitarian organizations can’t make significant change here. I don’t know whether they can do it anywhere in the world. Because by attempting to reward the sick and stupid and those who seem destitute, they are only training the sophisticated criminals even better how to seem needy, or seem able to “help” the needy for a fee. It is impossible to create independence from outside. Those who work for the humanitarian organizations, whether foreigners or locals, don’t want to acknowledge this reality, because their only recourse is to fire themselves.
Nicaragua is at present a training ground for those who want to practice protecting themselves against lies and thieves. Here, a person like myself can come, and be presented with many learning opportunities that appear inexpensive but may end up expensive.
I sometimes think that the humanitarian efforts in the world are impeding, rather than helping, the development of the most valuable cultural development: an nonsubjective common truth, a truth that is the foundation of the success of American businesses.
Many liberally-educated Americans are pleased when they hear that the two richest Americans, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, both intend to leave the majority of their wealth for charitable causes. But I am not. I think it might be more charitable if they did not send humanitarian relief money.
I do not know whether Nicaraguan culture has any hope, or whether the obvious and covert crime will become more and more the modus operandi here. But the traditional ways of charitable help don’t seem to be helping.
I think it may be impossible for Gates and Buffet to do much good with their charitable foundations. If they tried to actually spend the money themselves, they might see this. Perhaps the most charitable thing they could do would be to cash out their shares and burn the money (I believe this essentially redistributes their wealth among all existing asset-owners).
I don’t know whether I have had any effect on worsening or improving the culture here, and if so, whether this has been because of how I spent money, or my ideas and actions apart from my spending money. Perhaps time will tell.
To sum up, Nicaragua is a culture where there is not yet a common, observer-independent truth, and because of this it is an economic nightmare. America, on the other hand, supposedly the place where we are most educated about the relativity of knowledge, is economically successful because we do have common truths and the tools to understand them. Maybe the Universities are not essential to our economic success?
I have been to a dozen underdeveloped countries, but I have spent little time in any of them except Nicaragua. But I bet the story is the same. These people are poor because they make themselves poor, and the poorest people in any country are poorest due to their own individual and collective choices.
If you are still addicted to Maslow’s victim-based analysis of “needs,” ask yourself a question. If the lack of food and shelter is the supposed impediment to the development of the higher values of aspiration for knowledge and fraternity, how come the most sophisticated and already-rich Nicaraguans are the most sophisticated liars and cheaters, least interested in human community, and most interested in ever-higher security walls and more armed security guards for their houses in Managua (and Miami)?
I’m sorry, but you’d be better off leaving Maslow behind.
I don’t know what these lessons will mean for me in the upcoming years of my life. I don’t know whether these lessons will be useful to myself or you, in achieving goals that are mine or yours.
I do know something, however. Getting to know uneducated people in a foreign culture, and employing some of them in an attempt to make a minimal profit, took me a lot less than a lifetime. And it had certain effects on me that I would not have been able to achieve in seventeen lifetimes at a university professor’s desk, nor in a dorm room with a wireless laptop, nor in a sofa in front of a TV, nor reading letters from friends pursuing adventures abroad, and not even in a cozy bed with access to the world’s greatest library.