“I think they're sexual deviants,” my traveling companion said, leaning over a fruit salad at breakfast.
The not unexpected comment came after a night of alternately delightful and terrifying conversation with a couple who, over the course of three liters of Toña – Spanish for “Bud Light” – explained that they were in Nicaragua to swab frogs (for science, not pleasure). And that they had been more or less locked up in a ranger's station on the side of Ometepe's Volcan Maderas for the past six months with next to contact with anyone who spoke their language.
Which was Dutch. They spoke Dutch. They were Dutch people.
Sexual deviance, including a horrifically detailed discussion of what perhaps happened to Eva Perón's missing corpse? Explained. Left unresolved: whether the tale of a traveling Frenchman they met who got high smoking Mexican scorpion tails and decidedly poisonous secretions from the frogs they were swabbing had any basis in truth. I like to think that it did.
You meet a lot of interesting people in Nicaragua, from die-hard Sandinistas who fought as child soldiers during the 1979 revolution against the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship to the aforementioned couple from Holland in the country to track down an apparently deadly, amphibian-based fungus. Oh, there are boors too. In the beach town of San Juan del Sur, you'll have to put up with the pressed-at-an-Abercrombie-factory bros and a few nausea-inducing, not-a-word-of-Spanish-speaking in town only to pick up a young Latin hunny, under-age if they can manage it. And in Grenada, a city burnt down 150 years ago by an asshole American, you can find his modern-day successors and the prostitutes and signs saying “no dogs” – and don't give money to the homeless kids – that they've brought with them.
Refreshingly, the Ugly Expat is not to be found in tranquil Ometepe, the pot-smoking “ex-CIA” man I met there last time the one possible exception. A tropical volcanic island located an hour's ferry ride out in Nicaragua's Lake Cocibolca, Central America's largest, Ometepe is lush year-round, with Quetzals and Howler monkeys filling the vacuum left by the lack of loud bars and nightclubs . The last time I was there, the active volcano that makes up the more populous and developed northern half of the island, Volcan Concepción, almost – in a complete dick move -- killed me after by tour-guide-who-wasn't forgot how to get back down from its sulfur-spewing crater. Fun times!
My trip to the island this time around didn't result in any near-death experiences, sad to say, but I did get to leave the main port town to the see the rest of the place, spending most of my time at the base of Volcan Maderas, the inactive volcano that forms the much-less traveled southern half of the island, where nice paved streets turn into Oregon Trail-style, boulder-filled “roads” barely navigable by SUV. While I did spend one day biking out to the Ojo de Agua, a man-made lagoon filled with volcanic water that felt like swimming in a pool of Perrier, most of my time was spent at a hostel on the grounds of Finca Magdalena, a cooperative coffee farm that 28 local families expropriated from their wealthy, absentee landlord during the early years of Sandinista rule. A stately, century-old wooden house at the center of the estate, the hostel is surrounded by beautiful gardens full of butterflies of all colors and provides hammocks so you can lay around and watch them, which isn't a bad way to spend a day; if I were dying, I'm pretty sure I'd like to do it here. It's also the chief source of income for the coop these days, which might surprise you when beds go for just $3 a night.
Radical, anarcho-syndicalist credentials? Bolstered.
Say what you will about the Sandinistas today – I've met many a former member disenchanted with the party's drift towards neoliberalism and the personalty cult that's formed around its leader and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega – the party did institute several much-needed reforms upon taking power after the 1979 revolution, chief among them the redistribution of the country's land, the majority of which was in the hands of the ruling Somoza family and its cronies. It's that revolutionary reform, taking land from wealthy and politically-connected land owners and handing it to the poor peasant farms from whom it was originally stolen, that seems to have had the most visible lasting impact on the country today; it's also the one that helped spur the Reagan administration to fund and arm a right-wing insurgency that left 50,000 Nicaraguans dead over the course of the 1980s. It's that reform that made Finca Magdalena and thousands of other coops possible.
Land redistribution was a major issue not just for the FSLN, but for the man the party's named after: Augusto Sandino, an anarcho-syndicalist rebel leader made infamous for refusing to accept the legitimacy of the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua in the 1930s; he was ultimately martyred by the first in a 40-year line of U.S.-backed dictators from the Somoza family, making him a tragic hero not unlike Emiliano Zapata in Mexico – a man who died for his principles rather than conveniently compromise them for political power.
Even the popular red-and-black flag used by the FSLN today is none other than a slightly modified version of the red-and-black flag of anarcho-syndicalism that Sandino hoisted 80 years ago . As one would expect of a ruling government party, however, the colors have been stripped of their original meaning, no longer signifying “syndicalism” (red) nor, obviously, “anarchism” (black), but rather “blood” and “death.” And that makes sense: as a political party defined not but its eradication of state power, but by its capture of it, its leaders wouldn't want to be bound by any actual principles and political concepts that might be seem at odds with their penchant for centralized power; the more vapid, pliable notion of “sacrifice” will do just fine, thank you.
Indeed, the reasons for the co-option would soon become clear after the Sandinistas took over. Rather than maintain strict fidelity to the principles of the man whose name they adopted as their own and simply hand over land to poor farmers, the FSLN chose to install a state intermediary to administer the land. According to the operators of Finca Magdalena, it wasn't until the early 1990s that their land was legally recognized as an independent cooperative; before that, when the land was held by the Sandinista government, “the members' lives did not improve.”
With little apparent help from the government outside of the original land reform, which ultimately only removed the threat of state violence should local farmers reclaim that which was rightfully theirs, the Finca Magdalena coop has managed to raise the standard of living of not just the families who run it, but the surrounding community. Their livelihood, as far as I can tell, isn't dependent on the benevolence of politicians or capitalists. While the country is nominally socialist, there are next to no signs of government involvement on the island to begin with; on the south side where the coop is located, there's not even much in the way of infrastructure.
The life is a simple life – and a largely self-sufficient one. There aren't any flat-screen TVs. There's no Internet, outside of a few cafés. And there's not much if anything to do once the sun goes down. But people seem happy. And why not? They live on some of the most fertile land in Central America on an island made up of two beautiful volcanoes. If you want some food, you grow it or catch it from the lake. If you're bored you play baseball or go swimming. You watch a sunset. Who the hell needs HBO?
Of course, there are no doubt problems that I as a glib, know-it-all gringo backpacker am not going to pick up on. But in contrast to some places I've lived – North Philly comes to mind – the people here, though poor, seem content with their place in life, none of the visible brutishness of daily violence that characterizes a lot of major cities. Largely left alone, with absolutely no police presence in the more rural communities, meaning 95 percent of the island, the people of Ometepe in a lot of ways show the possibilities of working together collectively toward a common goal, rather than acting as the atomized capitalistic competitors that a lot of conservatives and libertarians appear to see as the only sane alternative to statism.
Whoa now, I hear you say. Let's talk about the pot-smoking CIA guy, not all this oh-glorious-syndicalism talk, crazy anarchist guy. And don't let ideology blind you, silly: Have the people abolished the state? Has capitalism been eradicated? Has a glorious workers paradise been established? Have the means of producing reggaetone been seized and destroyed for the good of the proletariat? Well, no, not exactly. But anarchy isn't just a utopian end goal, dear reader. It's a mundane reality.
Whenever people work together cooperatively without the need for coercion, that's anarchy in action. Twenty-eight families collectively working the same farm for their mutual benefit? That, my friends, is anarchy; a small window into a world where peoples lives are bases on consensus and cooperation, no coercion. And it's why I think every decent person ought to be anarchist. Hear me out: While we can argue and bicker over how to get to anarchtopia, or how long it might take or the details of who will deliver the mail and make sure the neighbor kid stays off your lawn, why shouldn't every person's goal be a society that minimizes the use of violence? Go ahead, say pure anarchy is unworkable, incompatible with human nature – to which I'd rejoin that governments with their mass murdering wars and nuclear weapons seem to be incompatible with human kind – shouldn't we at least strive to create a society that minimizes the use of violence to the greatest extent possible?
Anarchism is not about Molotov cocktails and car bombs, it's about cooperation; it's about order built from the bottom up, rather than imposed from the top down. And the people at the bottom have to want it for it to succeed. An anarchist society, if it is ever to come about, won't be the result of a mere political revolution like in Egypt or Libya, where the institutions of power are maintained, just staffed with different people. It will come from a social revolution -- from creating a society of anarchists who reject the notion of coercive power and the use of violence as a means of material and political gain. It will come from people coming to see, like the families of Finca Magadalena, the empowerment that comes from voluntary collectivism and from learning to appreciate the wisdom of devolving power from states and presidents to communities and individuals.
Already, most people reject the use of violence not because the government tells them that, say, murder is bad, but because they believe in their hearts it is wrong. It's why the vast majority of people don't ever kill anyone. It's how places like Ometepe, and most of the rest of the world, frankly, exist in harmony without the need for a uniformed officer with a handgun and a Taser on every corner.
The next step, and it's an admittedly difficult one that won't happen overnight, is convincing a critical mass of people that violence isn't just wrong in their personal life, but in their political life too. Murder by proxy – murder by politician – is just as evil as if you personally bashed an Afghan child's head open with a rock. Don't support and don't enable it. And that means rejecting the idea that any person or institution can or should claim a monopoly on the “legitimate” use of violence.
For a more cooperative society to succeed, people will also have to develop faith in themselves and in a world without leaders. And they'll need to know that anarchism isn't an ideology for some far-off utopia, but something they already take for granted in their own lives, whether its working at a coop like the one in Ometepe, helping out at a soup kitchen or just not killing that pesky neighbor kid when you know the police aren't around.
Put it like that, and I think you might be surprised how many anarchists there are – and how many acts of anarchy you commit everyday.
In the next installment, I get slightly less preachy and write about watching a stray dog chew on a horse's leg in the center of León, Nicaragua.