Yesterday he was arrested and jailed. They were clearing vines and shrubs from the coffee bushes when the former owner showed up with a policeman. They had an impressive looking document, a "letter of assignation" without much legal validity, but in the pastel colors of the government and signed by a commandant. The owner had a court order ruling that the estate not be touched before ownership was established. He was in jail four hours, then another judge was found who could be persuaded to release him.
This is all routine. These men have all been arrested many times during the last 18 years of land conflicts, demonstrations and barricades, ever since the revolution was lost. But still, a bit sad that this is still happening now that "we" are back in power again….
They were all young during the revolution. Farm workers that became men and leaders with the revolution: militia soldiers, reservists, party cadres, union leaders on the state farms where they worked and lived.
These were the stalwarts who could not stand idly by as the revolution lost the elections and Violetta Chamorro began returning estates to the old masters. Estates that they had given their youth to, and masters that didn´t even know that the word "master" had lost much of its meaning while they had been in exile in Miami.
They became land squatters and barricade builders. Some of them became "recompas" – re-comrades: went back to the hills with guns in their hands and backpacks on their shoulders, just to show Doña Violetta what it would cost her, if she went too far in demolishing the land reform. A small guerilla war in the middle of the fragile peace of the 1990s.
"Farms in conflict", they were called. Some sold their land as soon as they won title to it. Greed, insecurity, fear or debt won where the old landlords failed. Some of them stood the distance, got title, started farming, and stayed on the land instead of selling. Others had to work on as farm workers on estates that they felt were theirs.
They saw a unique opportunity when the World Bank and Vietnam together sent coffee prices crashing down in 2001. While the coffee consumers the world over cheered, hundreds of coffee plantations defaulted on their mortgages and went bankrupt. Thousands of farm workers suffered hunger, the streets of Matagalpa were filled with their children, begging and sleeping in the parks. 3,000 people went on the barricade, blocked the Panamerican Highway for months, demanding that not only rich people but also the poor should benefit from the government crisis relief plan. They were on the barricades in 2001. And in 2002. And in 2003.
Finally, something gave. Six estates – some of Matagalpa’s richest coffee plantations: mortgaged to the state, sold to the workers. "This is a whole mini land reform, maybe the last," their leader proudly said.
It was these men who organized the food, the logistics, the shifts on the barricade: One estate, one week at a time. And who negotiated the government representatives into the ground. The agenda of the meeting today is different: Today they talk about the legal status of the co-ops, courses for the book keepers, about seed corn and productivity, about loans from the Agricultural Fund and fertilizer from Venezuela.
Their movement is under pressure. All the legalities of the land ownership of the co-operatives are still not in place. Even though their party has been in power for two years now. The estates are still valuable and forces within the party look upon them with greedy eyes. Their leader was not "born" into the inner circle of the party. He has shoved himself in, backed up by the 3-5-10.000 votes that he advises and the mobilized force they represent.
There are forces that want to squeeze him back out again. He has lost some battles, has been outmaneuvered a couple of times. There are promises that he has not been able to keep. Some of the men at this meeting have had feelers out to UNAG – another farmers movement – about membership there instead: their situation is untenable if they can not run their businesses and they can not obtain loans on their land. Maybe they should find another platform to fight from.
This meeting is to recover strength, stand together again. The leader has maneuvered: mended bridges, done a good job for the party during the local elections, made some deals, some new allies. Now, to gather the scattered troops.
These seven men can get 3,000 families to move in the same direction when needs be. They know what they can do together. They also know what the key to their progress is, even within the party: "I have told the party: "You can count on us, if we can count on you. But one good turn deserves another. We give and you give.""
These men are the old guard, the class conscious fighters. These are men who have broken into power from the bottom and they don’t have many friends up there. They know that it is only the active support of their members that wins them a seat at the table. "Tiene gente"- "He has people": This is what they need both party leaders and class enemies to say when talking of them
None of these men are naive anymore. They have all made compromises. They have all let someone or something down in order to achieve a goal, all sacrificed something important: ideals, friends, their word, their honesty. They have all had to make a deal with the devil at some point. They maneuver, ambush, trick. They lead by being strong and loose when they show weakness. They never run for election without first making sure who will win.
They have all attended courses in sex awareness, they all know the strength the movement gains when the women are mobilized. But when push come to shove they are still male chauvinists. They are getting older and are thinking that it is time to own a well developed farm, have secure title, have a steady income. The movement needs more young leaders, but it is hard to let go: the distance from stepping aside to being out is very small.
Note: We are at a meeting of the cooperative movement of the Nicaraguan farm workers union ATC in Matagalpa. Present are leaders from six cooperatives, three from the land struggles of the 90s, and another three from the struggles arising from the coffee crisis 2001-3 (the Las Tunas conflict). All have participated in PROMAT 2 an organization building project, with support from the Danish Committee for Solidarity with Central America.