Happier-est Country in the World

men smile face El Porvenir (1)The World Happiness Report came out this week, showing that Nicaragua is the country with the largest gains in happiness over the past 12 years.

When I saw this news, I wanted go right over and knock on our house guest’s door and crow, “See? I told you so!”

I’d just been having a conversation with a young German house guest who has been volunteering in Nicaragua. As with many foreign visitors, she is idealistic and quick to criticize the current government in Nicaragua –for quelling protests against the proposed Canal, for putting a stranglehold on opposition parties, for electing the President for a third consecutive term, for electing the First Lady as Vice President, and most inexplicably, for decorating Managua with brightly colored tree sculptures.

Paul Willcocks.jpg
Photo by Paul Wilcocks

Though I started off the conversation being non-committal, I found myself defending the Sandinista administration. Not because it’s flawless, far from it, but rather because to me it’s worth the price of being called an apologist for the Nicaraguan government in order to make the more important point that Westerners might not be right about everything.

Here’s what I mean: when we who belong to the culture of the Global West – United States, Canada, Europe, Australia etc. – hear of a place that is not run under the same political system or the same standards of democracy that we are used to, we immediately leap to the conclusion that a tyrant is oppressing the people. In the case that those who are being “oppressed” live in an oil-rich country and the “tyrant” is not controlled by the West, our nations will send in military force to topple the tyrant and return those people to their natural condition of “freedom.”

But is our natural condition freedom? I recently heard John Gray on the BBC radio program “A Point of View” argue the idea:

“Freedom is a learnt practice…Most human beings want security from violence and a decent level of subsistence more than they want freedom of choice.”

And yet we Westerners cling to the belief that it is categorically wrong for the same person to govern for more than one or two short terms.

Of course there are many places where it is a bad idea – Nicaragua with its 43-year Somoza family dynasty is a leading example of how long rule of one family can go horribly wrong for the people of a country –

But is it inherently wrong?

ap_5701010679First Fidel Castro, and now his brother have governed Cuba for nearly sixty years. Has the Revolution been bad for Cubans? Cuba is poor and isolated, but shares its well-trained doctors and medial workers to benefit the Third World, has the best educational system in Latin America, and has mastered sustainable agriculture for both rural and urban areas. Its people recognize mistakes and limitations, but remain fiercely loyal to their leaders and their revolution. Whether or not it’s our kind of government, it seems to have worked well for the Cubans.

f459534df2e6563833a883c6dd6c6a1c.jpgWas Gaddhafi a tyrant? As with most things, it’s complicated. His military dress, ostentatious mustache and aviator sunglasses offended our Western sense of what a leader should look like (suit, tie, flag lapel pin), but Libya under Gaddhafi enjoyed stability. He ruled a country with many different religious and ethnic factions with extreme repression of any opposition; but when Gaddhafi was in charge, Libya had one of the highest female literacy rates in the region, with more women in university than men, and more women in the Libyan workforce than in most Arab countries. Since the West intervened in Gaddafi’s demise, Libya is a fractured country with no central government. Constant clashes, a failed economy and non-existent medical care make the country unsafe for its own citizens.

impactI’ll even be so brash as to play the true devil’s advocate: what about North Korea? Sure, the matching uniforms and regurgitated propaganda we see in limited reports are creepy to us Westerners and its leader is an off-kilter megalomaniac, but who are we to say what the right type of government for the North Korean people is? I suspect the fact that it’s entirely shut off from the West offends us because we believe that everyone should have the right – maybe even the privilege – to be exposed to Western thought and culture. But more objectively, given that the West has spent the last many centuries imposing its questionable political model on countries we clearly don’t understand, mightn’t any nation with the well-being of its people in mind try to protect them from the West?

In the case of Nicaragua, I won’t take up space extolling the virtues of the current administration, nor will I enumerate its shortcomings. I’ll simply say this: I’ve been here during these years when Nicaragua’s happiness has been on the rise, and I was here before that too. I remember what it was like for the poor with whom we work under those previous administrations, and I see what it’s like for them now. Argue what you want about political models, high-minded idealism, transparency…but all the intellectual arguments in the world can’t change one fact: Things. Are. Better.

El Porvenir boy happy face Their Bucks Visit coffee Richard.jpgNicaraguans have told the world that: for three terms in a row they have voted in overwhelming majority for Daniel Ortega and have now also voted the First Lady in as Vice President. Ask Nicaraguans what they think of these leaders personally and they will likely admit their flaws. Ask then why people vote for them and they’ll say, “They get shit done.”

So I’ll go tell my German house guest that the World Happiness Report isn’t wrong, because Nicaragua is a better place now. People have security from violence, and most are reaching a decent level of subsistence… Nicaraguans are willing to overlook a lot of flaws to be able to count on a government that gets shit done. Who are we to say they’re wrong?

In fact, if we’re honest with ourselves, how many of us Americans wouldn’t be happier if we’d voted Barack Obama in for a third term with Michelle as VP? That ticket might have even won the popular vote. – Becca


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