Simple Statements about Major Social Changes

Santa Fe    We always say that the most important thing about organizing is listening carefully.  That’s how we learn.

We were with friends and comrades having a good visit over an excellent home grilled meal and the conversation drifted, as it always should, to the state of play in social change and building power for the powerless.  Drummond Pike, founder and former head of the Tides Foundation and its family of organizations, who has a lifetime and legacy of supporting a catalogue of progressive efforts in myriad fields of endeavor, weighed in a one point with a summary statement as pithy as it was profound on this question of our progress.  He simply stated that progressive efforts to reform economic actors had been successful in “impacting the product, but had failed to impact capital.”

The real target of his remarks, supported quickly by others, was a reflection on the success – and failures – of the environmental movement and its pillar organizations.  The ability to mobilize consumers to eschew products with detrimental impacts on health and the environment has repeatedly delivered significant victories against obstinate corporations.  The success at protecting old growth forests came up quickly in the conversation with the work of the Rainforest Action Network (RAIN) being an outstanding example.

Of course, like any sweeping generalization, there are reality gaps.  The progress in ridding toxins like lead from soil and drinking water where there is no single dominant target, and even some like the paint companies have been able to successfully escape liability is one example.  Another is the still unfinished and often unengaged fight to rid carcinogenic elements diffused in some many products, including the impunity of the tobacco and alcohol industries, where even the settlements that might be termed victories, have not been successfully translated sufficiently into public health and consumer protections.

The list is a long one, but the larger point is Pike’s comment on the rapaciousness of capital that escapes any accountability and offers no excuses in its quest for maximization for short term gains and self-interest.  We have had some success in forcing accountability on some investments by institutional capital as represented by banks, but little in other areas.  At best we are always trying to catch up, even as inequity and wealth accumulation gallops forward with foreseeable and tragic consequences.

The crisis of unfettered capital has gotten so critical that recently large mutual funds like Vanguard and others are calling for minimum representation of women on boards of directors and threatening to require commitments to social responsibility as a prerequisite to their investments.  Will that make a difference?  Of course not, it’s cosmetic, but it’s symptomatic of the crisis that even the thieves are calling for some honor.

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Nicaragua Then and Now

IMG_1804Managua         The Organizers’ Forum delegation to Nicaragua rolled in by bus from Honduras and airplane from the US and Canada to the smallish, but surprisingly new and modern airport in Managua.  We picked up the last two of our group after midnight with the streets deserted on a Saturday as we traveled along well paved, smooth highways.  Nicaragua may be the poorest country in Central America, but no one would know it by first impressions.

Our week seems to be marked by a week of Independence celebrations.  Grandstands were being erected near the Revolutionary Plaza.  Giant yellow trees built like 30 foot tall erector sets were described by cabdrivers as public art designed by the President Daniel Ortega, but that’s simply another item on our list of questions in the week that we’ll be meeting with various organizations, unions, and social  movements in the country.

We started our first session together with some stories of interesting coincidences from 1981.  Yes, 1981!  It turned out that Drummond Pike, an Organizing Forum regular and formerly founder and CEO of the Tides Foundation family of organizations, had visited Nicaragua 33 years ago in August 1981, about 18 months after the Revolution, and that Toney Orr, Arkansas state director of Local 100 United Labor Unions, has also been in Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador from March to December 1981, overlapping each other on their visits.

Drummond had visited with some foundation executives and activists interested in learning firsthand how the revolution was creating change.  He remembered the excitement in the wake of the fall of Somoza, his dictatorship, and the National Guard.  They had visited farming areas in this country.  There was constant discussion and enthusiasm then about breaking up some of the large agricultural holdings in vacant land and distributing the land. There was talk of various institutes being organized to develop better practices and organic farming pilots.  Drummond mentioned that this was before the time of the contras.

Toney’s visit was different or as he said, he didn’t come into the country “last time through the airport.”  He came over in a convoy of trucks from Honduras as part of several teams from the U.S. Army’s to “train” civilians in Nicaragua and then later in El Salvador.  The training was in covert operations, sabotage, explosives, and counterintelligence.  They were getting the contras off the ground.

Their time overlapped and vividly described the contradictions that dominated the last generation in Nicaragua from the time of the revolution to the pushback and support of the counterrevolution by the United States, much of which, as Toney indicated, is still being declassified, and the ups and downs to governments from then until now when one of the Sandinista leaders, Daniel Ortega, the off and on president spanning these thirty years, is once again in office for successive terms.

We are looking forward to understanding what has changed and what has stayed the same, both in Managua and the rural areas where we will also be visiting coffee growing areas and sugarcane plantations.  Mainly we want to know as much of  the what’s and why’s as we can from organizers doing the kind of work we understand here in Nicaragua and why we are still visiting the poorest country in the region and what the prospects are for the future.

 

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