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Postcard from Nicaragua, August 17, 2008: Day Two of the BPFNA Friendship Tour


August 19, 2008 | bpfna

August 17, 2008

I came to Nicaragua in great part because while I believe passionately in the power of nonviolence, I also know that I have seldom had that passion tested -- no one has ever directly threatened me or my family or the things I hold dear with a gun or a tank. I came here to meet people who have walked through fire and still believe in the power of nonviolent response. I wanted to see if the ideals of conflict transformation stand up to the realities of life within systems of violence.

At church my pastor Amy, after a particularly moving moment in worship, will stand up and say, "We could go home now." After two days in Nicaragua, I feel the same. After meeting peasant farmer and human rights activist Vicente Padilla and hearing the story of his courageous work to defend his rights and those of other indengenous people in the Matagalpa region of Nicaragua, I could go home.

Vicente began with a reading from Micah who, as he said, was also a peasant farmer and someone who, like him, defended the rights of small land owners against land grabs by the wealthy. And then he shared his story -

Vicente has a second grade education. He is a veteran of the revolutionary army. After the war, he and his family worked hard and at great sacrifice bought a small plot of land. Like many fellow farmers, he wanted only to be able to support his family. Wealthy land owners, however, wanted to create enormous coffee plantations and resented peasants such as Vicente and their small farms. One such man in Vicente's area was buying up small farms, often paying a pittance to the farmers whom he lured with promises of wealth that he would share with them. He came to buy Vicente's farm, but Vicente would only sell for a fair price, a price that would enable him to start again elsewhere. The land owner wanted no part in paying what the land wa worth. He came with armed guards and threats. Vicente refused to sell for less than  fair price.

And so began a struggle that has lasted for the better part of a decade. The land owner has tried every trick and threat possible. He has brought lawsuit after lawsuit. He has persuaded both army and police that Vicente was an armed threat and had him beaten and twice imprisoned - once along with his 16-year-old son. He has sent men with guns to threaten Vicente's wife and children while Vicente was away. He took part of the land by force and destroyed the crops, threatening the family livelihood. He has paid men to dress as thieves and invade the home. He has threatened neighbors who stood in solidarity. He has brought lawsuits against people who have stood with Vicente. Time and again, men with guns have surrounded the family home.

To all of this, Vicente has resolutely stood firm, always, always nonviolently. "Violence breeds violence," he says. "We have these tools," he explains, "truth, reason, and rights -- also I have a tape recorder and a camera." To face the men with guns, he trained his children to turn on a hidden tape recorder and he says, "I would turn my camera toward the guns." He is a practical man, "If I bring out a gun and they have guns, then one of the guns will be used." He is also a man of deep faith who believes that he and his family are following the way of God.

At the moment, the Padilla family is in possession of the land and all lawsuits have been settled in their favor. They know, however, that the one who opposes them will likely try again in some new way. Yet they carry on, having created a farm that is organic and sustainable, even their farming is intentionally nonviolent!

Vicente has not left it at defending his own rights. He is a community leader. "From conflict," he says, "we can grow in community or we can allow the conflict to destroy the community." He works to train his community in the practical techniques of nonviolence. He serves as a mediator in local disputes. His oldest son, a veteran of the long fight for the farm, is in law school and has been appointed as a local counseler to help people settle disputes by coming to agreement without the courts. Vicente works with him as well. He advocates for the rights of peasant farmers on local, regional, and national, even internatonal levels. He encourages others struggling to defend their land that is possible for the small to defend themselves against the powerful and to do so nonviolently. "Our experience becomes strength for many." He envisions and works for a world in which all people work as he has, using faith and truth to create a new reality.

"Personally I believe that we can transform the world if each and every one of us is working for peace. Evil breeds more evil but goodness brings goodness. It is obligatory that after a night of darkness the sun must come out."

Having stood with the guns pointing at his children and his wife, knowing as he says how to use a gun and how to wage violence, Vicente has chosen nonviolence again and again and again. If I came wanting to meet someone who has been through the fire and emerged with a strong belief in the power of nonviolence and the possibility of transforming conflict, I could go home now.

LeDayne McLeese Polaski
BPFNA Program Coordinator

The BPFNA Friendship Tour to Nicaragua continues through August 24, 2008. Watch for further updates from LeDayne McLeese Polaski.

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