Working for a Fairer Society: Reflections for Our Youth

To build a more just society, the first step is finding a way out of this dictatorship through peaceful, non-violent struggle.

To build a more just society

2 de agosto 2020


Introductory remarks to a forum with the Nicaraguan University Alliance

First of all, I wish to thank the youth of the Nicaraguan University Alliance for having invited me today to this informal conversation. I’m not a politician, much less a political analyst or anything of the kind. …   I address you today as an independent businessman.

I’d like to speak about leadership, democracy and justice, beginning with a history book entitled Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher Browning.

Briefly, the author, a historian who studied the Holocaust, examined the complete archives of a German battalion of 500 people that was formed in mid-1942 for dispatch to Poland. Without the reservists’ previous knowledge, the battalion was organized to collaborate with the [Nazi] solution to the Jewish problem.

In the span of more or less two years, these 500 people were charged with firing squad executions of 39,000 Jews, and with transporting another 44,000 to concentration camps where most of them were also killed. Remember, we’re talking about entire families of victims: women, men and children.

What intrigues the author when he reviews the documentation of the battalion is the discovery that these people weren’t really Nazis, but small business owners or professionals from Germany’s middle and lower middle classes. They weren’t previously politically active.

We could say, the author asserts, that the group was poorly selected for the activity that they were going to undertake. Maybe they were people like many of you, or like your brothers or fathers.

Gerardo Baltodano. File photo: Confidencial / Funides

The second astonishing thing is that the Head of the Battalion, recognizing from the beginning the horrifying nature of their assigned duties, offered them the opportunity to not participate in the executions. However, only twelve of them explicitly excused themselves, while around 30 others avoided the task through various excuses, ranging from being sick to simply losing themselves in other activities at the precise moment of the actions.

The first part of the book describes in great detail how they executed the Jews, including thousands of children. Initially, they do it without knowing exactly how, and with trembling hands, with feelings of guilt, with disgust over what they’re doing, and needing to fire several shots at different parts of the body, often leaving the person half alive.

The author is very descriptive about this, since he also had access to the tribunals that eventually tried these soldiers.  As they repeat these actions, though, they perfect them, and learn little by little where to shoot and how to do it cleanly in a single shot. Little by little, these Germans, common middle-class citizens, became cold, calculating killers.

The question then arises: Why did only twelve have the integrity, the character, the values to explicitly refuse to participate in such a massacre? How did the other relatively good people become living representations of evil?

The book presents several answers:

  1. From a global perspective, it notes that the world they lived in was one where racism, sectarianism – be it religious or ideological – and violence were omnipresent; and in which the powers of government justification and mobilization were powerful and growing. Thus, the sense or links to personal responsibility for our acts was increasingly allayed by bureaucratization.
  2. From a personal perspective, he mentions the preeminence of conformity as the reigning value in society; the peer pressure that pushes us not to separate ourselves off from our fellows. He also refers to deference to authority, the idea that orders should be responded to with obedience, falling into the falsehood of assuming that authority can sanction a specific crime.
  3. From another perspective, we could speak of systemic forces. This explains how, little by little, criminal deeds become banal events to the one perpetrating them, due to the context in which they’re carried out.

This last point was developed in a book from another author, which I haven’t read, but which is referenced in a number of courses on leadership.  The book is called The Lucifer Effect [by Philip Zimbardo]. It argues that anyone, given the appropriate influence, can abandon their morality and become violent, or collaborate with violence and oppression against innocent human beings. It goes on to demonstrate that this abandonment of morality occurs not only by direct action, but also by inaction in the face of the outrages, with which the majority succumb to their dark side.

How this relates to Nicaragua

These books led me to reflect on our history and lived experience in Nicaragua. We have grown accustomed, little by little, to being indifferent to evil. Some became accustomed, little by little, to using violence against the humblest, each time with greater force and impunity.

Initially, this was exercised against peasants deep in the country’s rural interior, but finally it was employed with complete naturalness before the eyes of the world, against young students in the streets. Others of us became accustomed to not standing up, to not protesting against that repression and violence. And so, little by little, that evil became part of our lives.

Violence, anarchy, the oppression of the weakest: we’ve had these in Nicaragua since before our independence. Don’t deceive yourselves – violence and evil are nothing new in our history. Sadly, they’re not the monopoly of the current regime. They haven’t been the monopoly of the left or of the right.

Our recorded history is a repetition of violent events; our heroes – who come and go in vogue, according to who’s in power – are individuals who have exercised violence: Fruto Chamorro, Zelaya, Sandino, Somoza, etc.

For example – Does anyone know who Father Diego Alvarez de Osorio is? He was the first advocate for indigenous rights in Nicaragua.  And do you know anything about Franciscan Pedro de Chavez?  He was the first religious figure killed for defending the rights of the indigenous people. Where are the statues of them? Where are these figures remembered?

For whatever reason, for over 150 years we haven’t been interested in recognizing the values that these figures represent. With rare exceptions, in our politics no one glorifies wisdom, talent, the defense of peaceful solutions.  Instead, what we glorify here is violence, sectarianism, loyalty to the caudillo (strong man) the party man, as some would say.

You must convince yourselves of the need for a change in attitude. Among his first words as head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis said that we all should participate in managing our society; that we must participate, even if it means beginning with simple organizations like neighborhood organizations, school organizations, professional ones or even sporting organizations. That we must go on learning how to do good. To promote kindness, because kindness, like evil, is learned through practice.

Pope Francis invites us to become leaders; but to be leaders who defend the causes of the vulnerable, of the poor, of those who don’t have any possibility of competing. He says to us: this leadership is learned by practicing it.

To do this, the first step is to accept that human responsibility is an individual matter. That each one of us is individually responsible for our actions. And in the case of Nicaragua, in the case of all of you, leadership is simply assuming the responsibility that has fallen on your shoulders to change the direction of our history. Just as evil can penetrate our lives, you have the responsibility to promote kindness, little by little, by practicing it.

In Nicaragua, that implies abandoning conformity and participating the way you are already doing. Having your own voice; not being part of the herd; learning to stand up to the pressure of your companions when they take paths that aren’t yours and you don’t follow them; not bending your principles in deference to the de facto powers that have taken over our country. But it also means totally modifying the methods used to defend your values and vision of a just society.

I suggest to you that a really novel and constructive national vision for Nicaragua should include two basic points:

  1. The commitment, the promise, that we won’t impose particular national visions by force and through violence; that the notion of armed struggle between Nicaraguans as a solution to our discrepancies must be completely jettisoned; that we’re not going to continue killing each other.
  2. The conviction that the definition of State and of Justice must be arrived at in a democratic way; that we’re going to transfer the ideological battleground from armed conflict and repression to the discussion floor of Parliament.

All of you want and struggle for a more just society. However, what you must not do is to believe that your vision is absolute and should be imposed by force on society, because that action will bring us to more of the same in Nicaragua.

You have to struggle so that the concept of a just society becomes a concept in permanent construction, to be built through the citizens’ reasoning in a democratic process. We must construct a society that is friendly to reason and to discussing the vision of the society we want.

The First Step

To build a more just society, the first step is to get out of this dictatorship. Many Nicaraguans, myself included, believe that the form of struggle defines to a certain extent the type of society that will replace the current regime. As such, those of us who seek to construct a democracy believe in the peaceful way out.

We believe that violent and armed solutions don’t promote democratic leaders nor ideas of tolerance. But it’s also important not to become confused. Dictatorships don’t leave of their own volition. Non-violence doesn’t mean the non-existence of personal costs, much less of economic costs for the country, and it’s very probable that it implies a powerful social destabilization.

Precisely, what a peaceful way out seeks is to deepen yet further the crisis of an authoritarian State. It must succeed in weakening the regime’s capacity for administering the State powers; their extractive capacity; their capacity to collect the taxes and rents that finance them. And in the end, the most difficult: it must weaken their repressive capacity to be the guarantor of order and the stability imposed by the regime.

Non-violence, in the end, aims at weakening and delegitimizing the State, and that has a very high cost for all. I suppose that these processes of change leave no options for soft landings.

In conclusion, my perspective is: first, to put an end to this regime and to do so without the use of violence. Second, in developing our vision of a nation, to propose how we’re going to manage the interests that we don’t have in common, and the visions that are the opposite of what we believe should be a just society. That is, how are we going to manage the social conflicts?

Third: if we’re going to manage these social conflicts democratically and peacefully, through the joint reasoning of the citizens, you youth must develop your intellect, your comprehension of society. In other words, study continuously.

Finally, a leader must be constructed out of the political activity and daily citizenship: participating, building character, giving back positively to society from many fronts, so that it can be seen that they’re doing so.

Do what Pope Francis counsels: invite kindness by acting kindly and for the common good. Don’t allow evil to consume you. It gets in little by little, so be careful with it. Violence invites it in, little by little.

Thanks very much for your time and may these thoughts be of some use to you.


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Gerardo Baltodano