This morning we met with Dora Maria Tellez, a remarkable woman. She went underground when she was a medical student in the 70s and was second in command of the Sandinista Military when she re-emerged and they surrounded and held hostage the National Assembly while it was in session during the Revolution in 1979. She was the minister of health in the first Sandinista government. She ran that ministry with integrity and organized it to deliver on its mission. After the transition in power, the person from the other party who followed her into office praised her for the state of the ministry. She has broken with Daniel Ortega, the first Sandinistan president, who was voted out of office in 1990, re-elected in 2007, and just stole a second consecutive election (consecutive terms are not allowed in the constitution, so even his running was a violation of the contract with the people) last November. She started her own liberal party that is dedicated not just to the issues of the poor, but also to the ideals of democracy when she realized that Ortega had become a despot and had lost track of the idea that the people should decide what is in their best interest.
Dora Maria is slender, almost wiry, and she has salt and pepper close cropped hair that looks very easy to care for. She wears rimless glasses and no make-up. She sat in a circle with the seventeen of us at an outdoor cafe. We did not meet at the offices of our hosts because they are about two blocks from Daniel Ortega's house within an area that is guarded by police. It would be complicated to explain what she was doing there, so we went to see her. The Cafe was on a busy street. We were to go to the air conditioned room, but some people were using it, so we sat on the outside terrace next to a very busy side street with trucks and motorcycles noisily going by, and at one point, a vehicle with a loudspeaker blaring drove past.
Dora Maria started by giving a broad brush history of Nicaragua and condemning Daniel Ortega for subverting the democratic process. She then asked us to give her questions - and to give them to her all at once. She was the second presenter on this trip who did that and, like the first, she wrote down all the questions and then spoke for 45 minutes, masterfully weaving together the apparently disparate questions into a synthetic response that was a masterpiece.
She started by addressing a question of how Daniel Ortega, who fought for democratic elections and a pluralistic, inclusive process could have become a despot. Her response was that the interesting question is not how he became a despot, but how could he not? She started by talking about personal character and cited Nelson Mandela and George Washington as being the exceptional people who did not crown themselves king when they could have. She acknowledged that Daniel Ortega was pulling the political levers and weaving power for himself within the party from the beginning and that he was now doing the same thing outside the party. She cited the corrupting influence of Two Billion Dollars over the course of the past five years that Hugo Chavez, head of Venezuela who is flush with oil money, has given Ortega for discretionary spending (The entire exports of Nicaragua in a year are about two billion dollars). Ortega has used this huge amount of money to build an empire for his family and to buy votes to consolidate his power.
Dora Maria characterized people like Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, and by extension Daniel Ortega, as people who believe that the world begins and ends with them. They don't engage in succession planning because they cannot envision a world without them in it. This is an interesting kind of immortality. And, paradoxically, it will keep these men from the kind of immortality that George Washington and Nelson Mandela - leaders who will be remembered long after Chavez, Ortega and even Castro are historical footnotes. And Washington and Mandela achieved immortality by giving up power rather than by hanging onto it.
She went on to talk about how the culture of Nicaragua invites and supports despotism; it is a country where power politics has been the norm, and he played to form. Dora Maria was very critical of the culture that supports this and she sees it as arising from within the diocesan Catholic world that is loyal to the church, regardless of the qualities - good, bad, or heinous - of the priest. She espoused a vision of the Protestant Churches as being places where congregants can choose where to worship, and if they don't like the priest, they go elsewhere. Now this view, from my perspective, leaves out the positive cultural consequences of the Catholic structure and values. In particular, it glosses over the stable family structure that supports what is predominantly a culture of happiness - of course there are also huge costs associated with that stability. Dora Maria, however, when told that she has betrayed her President, replies that she never promised loyalty to a person, which is how politics is built in this culture, but to ideas, to concepts. If any person is no longer loyal to those ideas, she is no longer a colleague of that person, nor can she be personally loyal to him.
You might think that, after addressing the issue of Ortega, she would be depressed about the future of her country. Far from it - she is incredibly hopeful. Her view of the movement towards democracy is that it is like a river - it meanders. And there are moments when the river actually runs away from the goal. And this is one of those moments. But she is heartened by the young people, people who are educated and ready to take on power. Women among that generation who are getting the necessary support from their husbands, a new phenomenon, and one she feels is incredibly enlightening.
She said that the most important political tactic is tenacity. When they knock you down, you need to bounce back up, like a Bobo doll. Don't complain about the defeat, focus on the next task. Keep working towards your goals and you will succeed, the River will finally arrive at the destination - in her case, a democratic state.
Dora Maria went on to speak about many other things, but when she had addressed the questions we posed, a member of the group invited her to tell us why she decided to go underground as a 19 or 20 year old girl. Dora Maria paused, and then she told us of being raised, with her brother, by her father, who worked one and one half blocks from their home, and by her mother, who worked as a seamstress in her home, and she told of eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner together every day in her childhood and talking during those meals. Her father was knowledgeable and taught her about the world. He encouraged both children to go to University and study whatever they wanted to, and to enter into a profession, not to become rich, but to earn enough that they could be autonomous and would not have to compromise themselves in order to keep their work. Her mother, a devoutly Catholic woman, taught her to be concerned about those who had less than she.
We also asked her whether she was afraid. Afterward, we agreed that we were afraid as we were speaking with her. We were in a very open space, with people walking in and out to place orders and people drove and walked by while she criticized the despot in office. She stated in response, "No one wants to die. But when your fear prevents you from talking, they have won." She takes precautions, not keeping to a set schedule, etc., but when a man called and threatened to blow her up, she said that she responded, "Send me your fax number and I will send my schedule so that you will know where I will be and can do that more easily." Essentially telling him, tell me who you are and I will cooperate. She received no more calls. She said, never tell a bully when he has hurt you because he will use that information to hurt you again.
My sense is that, when the river that is Nicaragua gets further down the path towards democracy, they will do well to have a president like Dora Maria. She is not interested in having power, but in creating a government that can empower the people. I believe, and I think it is possible that she would agree, that the country is not yet ready for such a leader. I know that I hope that they are evolving to the point where they would be able to elect such a leader.
To access a narrative description of other posts on this site, link here. For a subject based index, link here.
Additional posts about this trip to Nicaragua can be found here:
Anticipating Travel to a Third World Country Preparing for Nicaragua
Fear and Loathing in Nicaragua First day in Nicaragua
In The Hall of the Incest King Daniel Noriega and Day two in Nicaragua
Mass in Nicaragua Day three in Nicaragua
Talking with Peasants about Birth Control Day Five in Nicaragua
Talking Business in Nicaragua Day Six in Nicaragua
Nicaragua on the Couch Processing the trip as a whole