Thursday, July 9, 2009

"The Street with the Bully Is the Safest One"


After almost 4 weeks in Nicaragua, it has become quite evident that it is an excellent time to be in Central America. With the Honduran Presidential Crisis/Coup D’√©tat underway, the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and the 30th Anniversary of Liberation Day (1979 NIC revolution) coming up in ten days, I couldn’t have picked a more exciting place to take my FSD internship (save maybe Iran).

Now that I have settled in, the degree of immersion has reached a whole new level. Conversations about school and weather have turned to politics and international relations. Questions of how to say useful words like “cool” and “goalkeeper” in Nicaraguan Spanish(“tuani” and “portero”) have shifted to questions of how to say “bribery” and “welfare” (“soborno” and “bienestar”). Luckily, I haven’t been able to get myself into too much trouble, since I’ve been listening much more than talking. Altogether, spending free time with Nicaraguans has been as educational as it is fun. In the past two weeks, I’ve experienced a few things for the first time. For your reading pleasure, here are a few:

1) Having a serious case of Language Barrier Syndrome (LBS):

Anyone who has lived in a foreign country (non-English) for an extended period of time can attest to this one. There comes a time when you need to express yourself in a certain way, perhaps to express your opinion or explain why you did something, and you lack the ability to do so effectively. Most of the time, we learn to deal with this and do our best. However, there are times when patience is lost or there is a sense of urgency, and one is left disappointed and frustrated. Needless to say, this happened to me at work. My limited command of the language made me feel foolish and incapable while I was describing my opinion on the direction of the shoe conglomerate project. I remember engaging in a 20-minute English rant after work about my frustration. Warning: this will likely happen to you someday

2) Encountering the teacher’s dilemma:

If you ever had to teach a class, you may be able to relate to this experience. I call it “The Teacher’s Dilemma.” The dynamic that emerges, often, is that there are 3 types of students: (1) excellent ones who don’t need additional assistance, (2) hopeless ones who can barely sit through class, and (3) the remainder, who are in the middle and have potential to improve. Teachers love type 1s, except for the fact that they didn’t become a teacher to watch these students excel. Type 2s create a world of problems and frustration. Most teachers want to keep 2s from distracting other students, and occasionally hope to pull students out of 2 and into 3. The problem that they find is that often 2s will always be 2s. It isn’t always a great investment of time to focus on pulling up the bottom of the class. What this leaves is the 3s, who are mostly willing to learn but perhaps need the right inspiration/instruction. Teachers live for 3s. This is where measurable progress can be seen. The teacher’s dilemma is about more than teachers. It is about society as a whole. The teacher’s dilemma is why people would rather invest in development projects in Latin America than in Sub-Saharan Africa. The teacher’s dilemma is why politicians pander to the middle class. The problem is- no one wants to go into a place where the problems are so severe and complex that there is a good chance they will fail in achieving any real progress. People see opportunity where there is potential. You can pour millions of dollars into saving the most destitute, or fractions of that to witness measurable progress in the middle/lower-middle. Politicians can do great things for the poor, but at the end of the day, their efforts just don’t pay dividends like the middle class does (in terms of voting).

3) Hiking up a 35% incline for miles to get to the top of a volcano:

No giant explanation needed here. Let’s just say my legs were sore for about 3-4 days after, but it was worth every step.

4) Real world/reality tv-esque group dynamic failure:

I began to realize that every FSD intern was here for a different reason, which makes it difficult to plan anything. It made me miss my amazing Dems family at ND. I guess learning to let others lead can be healthy at times.

5) Leading a business meeting in a foreign language:

This was a challenge that I knew I would have to tackle head-on. Monday, I had to present a document of regulations to a conglomerate of 12 businessmen for a business trip to Panam√° that they will be taking in early August. Not only did I have to write up these regulations in Spanish, but I had to basically conduct an entire meeting. Luckily, the businessmen were patient and amiable. Running a College Democrats meeting should be a piece of cake after this.

6) Witnessing a Socialist political rally:

Last, and certainly most exciting, was being able to see the Sandinista (FSLN) political parade that comes storming through Masaya every year. The event, called “El Repliegue,” (meaning “The Retreat”) is a reenactment of a journey that citizens of Managua took in 1979 when the city was being bombed during the civil war. An estimated 20,000 people make this 20km trip each year.

(INTERESTING FACT- Adolfo Calero, fmr. leader of the largest contra rebel group against the FSLN, who was probably one of the people bombing the Managuans who fled the city, is a Notre Dame alumnus. Small world, eh?)

The celebration, which happens from 8pm to about 2am, is exclusively Sandinista. Liberales and Conservadores stay at home. My host family, who self-identifies as Anti-Sandinista, remained inside as the madness hit the streets. In fact, I have heard members of my family call each other “Sandinista” as a sort of joking insult. Imagine calling your fellow Democrats/Lefties “Republican” or “Right-wing.” It hurts me to even think of doing so...

Anyway, the Repliegue was quite a sight, with families spread throughout Masaya’s main streets, people cheering, eating, drinking, lighting fireworks, singing Sandinista songs, and waving their red and black FSLN flags. FSLN leader/Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega spoke at a plaza just 100 meters from my homestay. The energy of the celebration was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the states, and I’ve been to plenty of political events. Don't worry, I was safe and made sure to keep a distance. Let’s just say, it was an ironic and fascinating way to spend my 4th of July. Happy Independence Day, America! Happy civilians running from civil war day, Nicaragua!

If you’re still curious about the title of this post, I’m glad you made it this far. The saying is one that I came up with the other day. Basically, when you have only one dominant force, there is no one to contest its power. However oppressive it sounds, that place is less dangerous, because the submitted stay submissive. I thought back to theories of hegemonic stability and realized just how true it can be sometimes. Speaking of that, I better get back to my business. The bully is doing rounds.
I’ll be sure to let you all know if anything else goes down. Until then, I’ll be watching the rest of the Gold Cup with Nicas and eating enough beans and rice for the next 2 lifetimes.

Good Day,

Henry “Enrique” Vasquez
Masaya, Nicaragua

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