For several days I’ve been sifting through blogs and comment pages about the Habacuc installation in which the Nicaraguan artist tethered an emaciated stray dog in a gallery for three hours, with the words “Eres Lo Que Lees” (You are what you read) written on the wall in dog biscuits. The misplaced outrage over the piece by Habacuc, also known as Guillermo Vargas Jiminez, is remarkable. With crazed anger they suggest that he be tied to something and fed to dogs. Others demand that he produce the dog, and take his lack of denial as proof for a chain e-mail’s claim that he allowed the dog to starve to death. (All credible evidence suggests that the dog was emaciated when captured, and was fed before and after the exhibition period before escaping.) Still others acknowledge that perhaps it is true that he fed the dog before and after the three hour exhibition period, but that even three hours was cruel, and that allowing the dog to escape back to the streets is also cruel. The Humane Society’s site laments the fact that he couldn’t be punished because there are no animal cruelty laws in Nicaragua. Most, if not all of these people live in privilege. They are from the United States or England or Europe. Indeed, they seem ignorant of the conditions in Nicaragua.
A country can only implement animal welfare laws when most of the humans in that country enjoy a certain standard of living. UNICEF reports that Nicaragua is the third poorest country in the Americas. The per capita gross national product is just $453. The disparity between the distribution of the nation’s wealth is significant: forty-five percent of all income goes to the richest ten percent of the population and just fourteen percent goes to the poorest. The CIA’s site confirms these facts and further states, “While the country has progressed toward macroeconomic stability in the past few years, annual GDP growth has been far too low to meet the country’s needs, forcing the country to rely on international economic assistance to meet fiscal and debt financing obligations.” The CIA also states: “The US-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has been in effect since April 2006 and has expanded export opportunities for many agricultural and manufactured goods.” However, the Nicaraguan economy is much more dependent on the service industry; agriculture represents only about seventeen percent of the gross national product. And, the rising costs of both energy and grain, including corn, a main staple in the Nicaraguan diet, are further hindrance to any economic growth.
Indeed, many Nicaraguans are dependent upon La Chureca, a massive garbage dump, for food and income. Almost a third of the people who work in the dump are children between the ages of seven and eighteen. They scavenge for items to sell and for discarded food, over which they often fight with dogs and carrion-eating birds.
Americans should also recognize the United States government’s role in perpetuating poverty and violence in Nicaragua with the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980’s. The Contras refers to insurgent groups that opposed Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, a leftist political party supported by the people of Nicaragua in the 1970’s and 80’s. The Contras, short for contrarevolucionarios. operated out of camps in Honduras and Costa Rica and included remnants of the Somoza guard, which had a history of censorship, intimidation, torture and murder. Their actions, condemned by the World Court, included planting underwater mines in Nicaragua’s Corinto harbor in order to disrupt shipping. The United States, unhappy with the idea of the Marxist Sandinistas, imposed a trade embargo on Nicaragua. Furthermore, the Reagan administration began to secretly and illegally support the Contras, funding them with money from arms sold to Iran in what became known as the Iran-Contra affair.
Many individuals and organizations, including the Humane Society, argue that if Habacuc wanted to expose the plight of stray dogs in Nicaragua, there were better ways to do it; he should not have exploited this one stray. But, alerting the world to the fact that there are so many starving, emaciated, homeless dogs wandering the streets of Nicaragua was just one small component of Exposición #1. The installation is also about the starving people of Nicaragua. And even more so, it is about the fact that people with the power to act fail to do so when directly confronted with the opportunity. The artist did not stop anyone from feeding Natividad, the dog in his installation. No one tried. People are more content to feel outraged, to sign petitions, to ignorantly protest from the comfort of their heated homes, or air-conditioned offices, than they are to actually intervene. Think about this the next time you see a stray cat scamper through your neighborhood. Or the next time you pass by a homeless person begging for money or food. Or as you drive through a neighborhood with a women’s shelter. Are you a hypocrite?