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  Number 276 | Julio 2004
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Nicaragua

25 Years After July 19: What Has Happened to the FSLN?

Twenty-five years after the triumph of the Sandinista revolution, many questions abouth the FSLN, its present situation and its future hang over the darkened skies of the leftist world everywhere. We will try to answer some of them, not without pain, but with renewed hope in the ethical and transformational strength of Sandinismo.

José Luis Rocha

In Nicaragua, the collapse of socialism in the Soviet bloc did more than shake up the world of ideas, leading to what some have called the end of ideology. Here it coincided in time with the end of a decade of Sandinista government and, with it, of our tropical socialist experiment: price regulation, state control over exports, land reform, a monopoly on ideological production and, as Marx explicitly proposed in the Communist Manifesto, “Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels. Centralization of credit in the banks of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state; the bringing into cultivation of waste lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.”

Some of the revolution’s important achievements

The state as the driving force behind accumulation, collective ownership of the means of production, and the promotion of large agroindustrial companies—set against a peasant economy perceived as backwards—were some of the specific forms of a model that was inextricably tied to the Left in the 1980s and for many years before. The Nicaraguan experience also lent its own flavor: a certain degree of mixed economy, an alliance with some sectors of the bourgeoisie who were offered positions in the Cabinet, respect for religion and even the inclusion of priests in government.

The revolution made significant achievements, giving the socialist experiment good grades in many areas. A radical land reform transformed land ownership patterns. In 1979, some 2 million of the 5 million hectares under cultivation, or 36%, were properties of over 300 hectares. Small farms of under 30 hectares represented only 17.5% of land under cultivation. In 1988, two years before the FSLN’s electoral defeat, 48% of these 5 million hectares were in the reformed sector, the private sector as a whole had been reduced to 2.5 million hectares and large properties of over 300 hectares covered only 6.4%. Nearly a quarter of Nicaragua’s farmland was being cultivated collectively, in cooperatives and state agrarian companies, in line with the model promoted by the revolution.

A huge literacy crusade cut the illiteracy rate from 51% to 13% in barely five months. Adult education continued the work the crusade began. These accomplishments along with the health campaigns and volunteer coffee brigades—in which students and even state officials from the cities participated, together with a healthy smattering of international solidarity—formed a massive national consciousness-raising school and succeeded in achieving the very just and necessary Marxist cause of bringing the countryside and city closer together. The democratization of credit access, health services and medicine, a tax policy aimed at equity and the dissolving of the repressive National Guard were other truly enormous achievements.

This is a very short list of what in the 1980s we tended to call “revolutionary conquests.” Now, stirred by their seductive memory, we ask ourselves, What went wrong? And why are we continuing to pay the price of the Left’s failure? Was Hölderlin right when he said. “What has made the state into a hell on earth is precisely people’s effort to transform it into a paradise”? On the Nicaraguan Left, the views range along a continuum from those who write the revolution off as a “huge swindle” to those determined to cull positive elements, distinguishing between the FSLN as a party and as a historical experience.

Marked by the vices of our political culture

Perhaps it is still premature to determine the overall reasons for the failure, if there are any. Perhaps we will never be able to separate out how much of the economic collapse of the 1980s can be attributed to the impact of the war and how much to misguided policies, both socialist and non-
socialist, but the US government’s strategic, technical and financial support for the armed counterrevolution was unquestionably a huge factor. The war had direct and indirect effects that forced the revolutionary government to veer off a steady course in many directions, sometimes intensifying the transformations, such as accelerating the land reform process, and at others halting them, such as when social spending was drastically cut in the late 1980s.

Still, we know that the war, despite its enormity, was not the decisive factor in all government policies. We don’t know, and perhaps never will, the extent of the other factors. Did, for example, all opposition parties to the FSLN really only want Somocismo without Somoza—as the Sandinista slogans had it—or did some aspire to more substantial changes that might have built consensus and been compatible with the revolution? Could the government have established a healthier relationship with the Catholic Church?
While some of these questions are unanswerable, others wait for clearer light, the ferment of time, new concepts, the angle of distance. Undoubtedly, the FSLN project to some extent exemplified the curse afflicting the Left in general, according to Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio: “Without revising its utopian vocation, the Left destroys itself at the very moment it tries to realize itself.” The goal is too high to reach by political means, which are essentially force and consensus. If you use force, you destroy freedom, which is the very purpose of the great utopia. If you try to rely on consensus, you are obliged to attenuate your proposals for the radical transformation of society until they become unrecognizable.
In government, the FSLN used force and was intolerant; now it seems to be ceding too much, even perhaps everything. But beyond the eternal curses of the Left, the FSLN’s main problem is that instead of analyzing and consciously starting to rectify our national political culture, its actions were and still are unquestioningly infused with it, sharing and reproducing all of its vices.

1944: The Socialist Party is formed

After the assassination of Augusto C. Sandino and the overthrow of President Juan Bautista Sacasa, Anastasio Somoza García assumed the presidency in 1936. Using as his platform the Nationalist Liberal Party, at the time considered the country’s most progressive party, he presented himself as a figure opposed to Sacasa’s center-right current, which represented the oligarchy and had little concern for workers, much less peasants.

The depression years had caused a drop in salaries, which sparked a series of strikes that accentuated government instability and created a climate propitious to the coup d’etat led by Somoza. As mediator in these strikes, granter of concessions to unions and administrator of doses of repression using the recently created National Guard, Somoza projected an image as a friend of the workers while at the same time encouraging the opportunism of some of their leaders. He also was able to exploit the expectations roused by a labor code that purportedly guaranteed the freedom to organize. During the first decade of his government, Somoza appeared to be the first political leader in the country who paid attention to the problems faced by workers.

Even before Somoza took power, however, the Nicaraguan Labor Party (1931-1938) had taken up the cause of Nicaraguan unions and fought for a labor code. Congress finally approved the code in 1944, the same year the Nicaraguan Socialist Party (PSN) was formed. During those years, the unions associated with the Socialist Party were very strong and active: cobblers, typographers, carpenters, masons and day workers dared to demand their rights, issue public statements and actively recruit members. The unions began to fall apart in 1948 as workers discovered that the code was not the panacea they hoped for and saw some of their leaders reach agreements with the Somoza regime. The code was never fully put into effect. In this context of weakened unions, Somoza decided to form a pact with opposition business groups and stopped being the “worker boss.” In 1950, he signed a pact with Emiliano Chamorro that gave him the alliance with the Conservative oligarchy that would perpetuate his control.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Somoza funded infiltrators among the PSN leadership and was thus able to keep informed of the party’s activities and derail them. From the ranks of the PSN—weakened and vying with the ambivalent and at times opportunistic Conservative Party to lead the opposition—came Carlos Fonseca Amador, the FSLN’s founder. In 1957, the PSN sent Fonseca to Moscow, where he was dazzled by both the economic progress and the progress made in social justice. In A Nicaraguan in Moscow, Fonseca didn’t scrimp in his praise for Soviet socialism.

1959: The Cuban revolution changes the script

The victory of the Cuban revolution against the US-supported Batista regime marked a turning point in leftist politics in Nicaragua and all over Latin America. The FSLN, established in 1961, decided not to wait for the stage of greater economic development—as the laws of historical materialism advised—and gave up the idea of taking power by means of elections, as the Soviet Communist Party proposed out of diplomatic necessities and the influence of the late Engels, who valued legal political struggle and parliamentary participation.

In the early 1960s, many members of the Nicaraguan Socialist Youth left to join the more promising FSLN as part of their questioning of the older generation’s “political petrifaction” and virtually ineffective “pacifism.” The success of the Cuban guerrillas encouraged a new model, in a tradition directly linked to Sandino’s guerrilla army. It was hard for a young socialist not to be attracted by the passionate rhetoric of armed struggle, which taught that change would come by means of arms or not at all. In 1967, a debate broke out within the PSN around the idea of armed struggle, which led to a split in the ranks and the emergence of the Nicaraguan Communist Party. Years later, this same Communist Party would be swallowed up by no less than Arnoldo Alemán’s Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC), in exchange for seats in parliament and other perks.

Although the PSN eventually created the People’s Military Organization (OMP), which engaged in a few skirmishes against Somoza, the FSLN quickly emerged as the indisputable vanguard of the armed struggle despite its reduced number of members. After the revolution, OMP members were absorbed into the Sandinista Popular Army, the Sandinista Police and the Sandinista Workers’ Union, with those who had not fought at a notorious disadvantage in gaining the trust of these structures.

The 1980s: The wheat with the chaff

The FSLN was skilled at forming alliances and succeeded in attracting prominent members of the Conservative Party, businesspeople, professionals and priests. “Los muchachos” (the kids), as the young combatants who joined the Sandinista-led insurrection were affectionately called, won the sympathies of a broad sector of the Nicaraguan population and the FSLN ultimately came to power through a military strategy that involved simultaneous attacks on several cities, as they incorporated this outpouring of civilians into the relatively small legion of seasoned combatants. Arms, which brought power, later brought the authority to claim positions and privileges, particularly since the National Guard fell apart with the Somoza family’s departure two days before the FSLN’s triumphant entry into Managua on July 19.

Once the FSLN was in power, it began to implement the elements mentioned above, but aberrations began to appear as well. The wheat was mixed with chaff. For example, the systematic condoning of debts and subsequent lack of credibility among savers dismantled the country’s financial system. Credit was an instrument the party-state used to create and solidify a political clientele.

The tardy and extremely partial recognition of the peasant economy’s economic contribution and cultural idiosyncrasies—which were virtually ignored in the rush to agricultural collectivism—and the abusive and arbitrary confiscations and distortion of national prices with respect to the Central American market helped create a social base for the armed counterrevolution in rural areas. The US government provided it with financial and other support. Finally, the imposition of the obligatory Patriotic Military Service in 1984 and the obvious deterioration in the economy ended up undermining the FSLN’s social base.

International pressures put the Sandinista government in check. The possibilities of transforming the country had been undermined from the start by the armed counterrevolution, the adverse US propaganda followed by economic boycott and the US-imposed break in relations with multilateral financial institutions. In search of external legitimacy that might improve its position, the FSLN offered to move up the 1990 elections during peace negotiations with counterrevolutionary leaders. It lost unexpectedly and spectacularly to the UNO, an opposition coalition of 14 parties led by Violeta Barrios, widow of business leader and newspaperman Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, who had been assassinated in January 1978 by Somoza’s mercenaries.

In the beginning, unassailable “mystique”

For those of us who supported the revolutionary project, the Sandinista government’s defects became clearer after its defeat. They were not only more visible but also loomed larger. Theologian José María Castillo was right on the mark when he said that “defects are like horns: they grow with age.” The FSLN’s defects grew and continue to grow, far too much.

The most scandalous of these was the party’s emulation of Somoza and so many other Nicaraguan rulers in appropriating public patrimony. The blatant post-election distribution of state goods among the FSLN leadership—commonly known as the “piñata”—degraded the FSLN’s ethical capital. The honesty of Sandinista militants during the fight against Somoza was proverbial. Legend has it, for example, that Jorge Navarro once walked from one end of Managua to the other to save the 25-cent bus fare while carrying 50,000 córdobas that an FSLN commando had “recovered” in a bank robbery.

“Like the saints,” as the title of a poem by Leonel Rugama put it. In that poem, he recounts the feats of the continent’s heroes, those of the first Sandinistas among them. Sergio Ramírez wrote that the first Sandinista combatants lived “with an unassailable mystique, with a sense of passage, of the provisional nature of their own lives, which required an almost religious conviction. Sacrifice made it possible to open the doors of paradise, but it was to be a paradise for others, on earth. They would not live to see the promised land, not even from a distance. But they had to live like saints.”
Not all can have front-row seats
The comandantes of the revolution quickly displayed the same greed as the capitalists they fought against. Uruguyan leftist writer Eduardo Galeano denounced their corruption with sadness but also with hope in the Sandinista movement and ethos: “Will Sandinismo end in a few leaders who have been unable to live up to their own example and settled for cars and houses and the other public goods they have appropriated? Surely Sandinismo is much more than those Sandinistas who were willing to give their lives during the war but have been unable to give up possessions in peacetime.”
The most serious result of these actions is that they shored up two unshakable columns of national political culture: impunity and the state-as-booty concept—that is, the idea of the state as a source of immeasurable and interminable income and compensation for those who have gained power. If it remains true that social position determines social consciousness, there can be no doubt that the FSLN’s leaders, now mostly wealthy businesspeople, know very little about the way of life and concerns of their poor followers. The hermeneutic site from which political thinking is done conditions political thought. Or, as Kierkegaard noted, we don’t think the same way in a hut as in a palace. If the Left-Right dichotomy remains a valid way to distinguish between those who want to perpetuate a society founded on exploitation and those who want to change it, an FSLN made up of businesspeople who have siphoned off the country’s public wealth to make their own fortunes does not quality as Left.

The political notions of Left and Right and the conflict between them arose in Versailles in August 1789, during the French revolution. The group that physically sat on the right side of the turbulent Constituent Assembly supported the idea of hierarchical structures and privileges, while those on the left wanted to do away with them. Today, the FSLN leaders appear to feel very much at ease in a world with clearly defined hierarchical structures. In the early 1990s, General Humberto Ortega made the following comment, recorded by Nicaraguan filmmaker Félix Zurita in his documentary “Nicalibre”: “There is a hierarchy,” military leader turned very wealthy businessman Ortega said, comparing society to a baseball stadium. “100,000 people come into the stadium, but only 500 fit into the best seats. However much you love the people, you can’t give them all front-row seats.”

No to pluralism, no to the search for consensus

Rejection of pluralism, a leftist fundamentalism that refuses to tolerate dissent from any side and the premise that revolutionary leadership is infallible—an assumption elevated to the level of dogma—were features of the FSLN throughout the 1980s that continue to this day. It is enough to see how the party still treats its own dissidents.

One of the FSLN’s vices has been its continuing attempt to suppress the plurality of positions that creates politics and, with it, politics itself. As Hannah Arendt wisely noted, “The philosophy of knowledge does not want to do away with knowledge, nor does cosmology seek to abolish the universe, but political philosophy seems to presume that it will genuinely succeed only when politics is suppressed.” The FSLN appears to fit into this characterization.

Clearly, the Sandinista revolution was able to inspire collective aspirations. But its negation of pluralism prevented it from translating these aspirations into a national consensus that would serve as the foundation on which to construct a nation-state. Even outside observers who viewed the revolution with great sympathy had to conclude that the dissent that was tolerated was purely cosmetic and that the censorship was wrong and dangerous. In the 1980s, the social sciences, music and even revolutionary poetry were subordinated to power. Ideological sensitivity and paranoia became burdens on the genuine leftist project. They always do, as French social scientist André Gorz noted: “A Left that loses its relation to freedom also loses its own raison d’être and becomes petrified, at the expense even of its promoters, in the apparatus of domination.”

Alliances that collapsed

The FSLN’s rhetoric, imitative of Marxism, was matched by opposition rhetoric imitative of US government officials’ Cold War anti-Communist rhetoric. The opposition groups were unable to articulate any substantive criticism of the Sandinista government, much less an alternative project. But they should not have been censored for this. When it came to the important relationship with producers, the Sandinista government was only open to considering—and not always—proposals from those they deemed to be “patriotic businesspeople,” excluding from the start organized opposition groups as well as individuals who did not belong to any organization.

The FSLN came to power with the support of wide sectors of society, starting with the Group of 12, which brought together intellectuals, businesspeople and priests. After the triumph, many of these alliances began to fall apart. The FSLN was very skilled at forming them before it came to power, but too intransigent to maintain them through its over ten years in government. Before the end of its first year in office, the Governing Junta for National Reconstruction lost Violeta Barrios and Alfonso Robelo, representatives of the opposition bourgeoisie. Very quickly, the FSLN began clashing with leaders and parties with long histories of opposition to Somoza: Virgilio Godoy and the Independent Liberal Party, Clemente Guido and the Conservative Party, Mauricio Díaz of the Popular Social Christian Party, the Nicaraguan Communist Party and the Nicaraguan Democratic Movement. These parties initially formed part of the Patriotic Revolutionary Front, which, according to Díaz, soon became “an accessory to official policy, conceived to sell to its allies in Eastern Europe as the equivalent of the patriotic fronts that existed there, rather than as a project for strategic alliances.”
In the hurricane following the 1990 election defeat, intellectuals and other prominent figures disappointed by the ethical bankruptcy of the “piñata” began to leave the FSLN. Fernando Cardenal, Ernesto Cardenal, Carlos Tünermann, Sergio Ramírez, Onofre Guevara and many others began breaking with the party. Their departure impoverished the FSLN’s ideological production and moral quality.

“Sending down the line”

A top-down style was another expression of the Sandinista leadership’s infallibility and distaste for open dialogue. Instructions always came from above, from the leadership to the “base,” whose role was to wait for the leaders to “send down the line” and then act accordingly. The “leaders” of social movements also waited for the party leadership to “send down the line,” since they served more as the representatives of that leadership than of their purported constituents.

The Farm Workers’ Association (ATC), the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), the Luisa Amanda Espinoza Women’s Association (AMNLAE) and the Nicaraguan Teachers’ Association (ANDEN) were among the organizations in which this led to a static division of labor: a few spoke, most listened. The damage that this inflicted on the social movements is immeasurable. The pattern persists and continues to cause harm, as when for example the demands of transport unions and university students are manipulated to prove that the FSLN still dominates the streets.

Final blow to pluralism

All the vices we timidly and insufficiently denounced in the 1980s have intensified under the next three governments. The 1999 pact between Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán, the respective political-boss leaders of the FSLN and the PLC, was the final blow to pluralism. It excluded virtually all other political parties from the elections, slashing the admittedly gluttonous electoral banquet of 1996, with 24 parties and multi-party alliances, to only 3 parties in the 2001 presidential elections. It also barred independent candidates from running at the municipal level, which had allowed for greater competition.

This maneuver sharply reduced political pluralism. While the 1997-2001 National Assembly had 15 representatives not formally affiliated with the FSLN or the PLC, the current Assembly has only one. In the pact, the FSLN and the PLC also divvied up all the top posts of the Comptroller General’s Office and Supreme Electoral Council among Ortega’s and Alemán’s most loyal followers, and went so far as to create new Supreme Court justice seats to annul any vote by the independent justices whose term was not yet up. As a result, no independent professional or member of any other political party holds a single important post in any state institution other than those appointed directly by the President in the ministries and other executive branch institutions.

A government post: Like a house or a farm

These elements of the pact reinforced the patrimonial political culture that views government posts as personal and party property. As Liberal analyst León Núñez suggested, “People look at a government post like a house or a farm... The sense of property rights over posts is so deeply rooted that it can even be said, without fear of equivocation, that there is a pathological feeling that the post is ‘mine’... In this country, it has always been the case that anyone with a post tends to cling to it, to remain in power.” Through the pact, the FSLN and many of its members bought and own their posts in the courts and in government offices as they would a house or a farm.

On the eve of the last presidential elections, in 2001, the FSLN created the National Convergence, an alliance of former party members and former opponents, in an attempt to increase their social capital—perhaps more in the eyes of outside observers than among Nicaraguans. The least malicious within the FSLN consider it more like a “club of prominent figures” than a way to win votes. The Convergence will not be an example of pluralism so long as its members are not placed high enough on the electoral slates to actually win seats, their criticisms of the pact fall on deaf ears and they are allowed no real input into the FSLN platform.

Caudillismo in the FSLN: Nothing new


In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx recalled Hegel’s remark that all great events and figures of world history appear twice, but that Hegel forgot to add that they appear first as tragedy, then as farce. In the view of many Nicaraguans, Daniel Ortega appeared as tragedy in the 1980s. Many of us believe that he now persists as farce.

He has been discredited on many counts: the piñata, the pact with Alemán, three consecutive election defeats, the break with respected FSLN members and even long-time leaders, the erosion of his personal image after his stepdaughter’s accusation of sexual abuse, and more recently the lack of clarification regarding the murder of journalist Carlos Guadamuz, once one of his closest friends. In this light, his stubbornness in remaining as the FSLN’s eternal general secretary and presidential candidate is only explicable by the caudillo syndrome, another feature of national political culture that the FSLN helps keep alive.

Caudillismo is a version of what Marx called the “cult of Caesar.” It involves the persistence of a medieval conception of power, when social relations were dominated by the physical presence of the individual who exercises power and there are no distinctions between the concrete image of the leader and the abstract idea of power. Power is inextricably tied to the one who incarnates it.

The FSLN leadership shares concrete expressions of caudillismo with the leadership of the PLC. These expressions include the recurring under-the-table agreements and two-way divvying up of power and perks, the stubborn determination to maintain a two-party system by devious means rather than natural selection and the insistence on closed legislative candidate slates, which prevent selection of the fittest in the eyes of the constituency rather than the whim of the caudillo. Once elected, these representatives respond only to the caudillo, never consulting their constituents about the laws that affect them. The system persists because the national political culture continues to be afflicted by the cult of “the man,” as the one who gives the orders in any area is invariably called.

Caudillismo is a constant factor in the destruction of Nicaragua’s limited institutionality and turns the FSLN into an agent that reproduces the vices of our political culture. The intolerance of alternative visions and leadership figures within the party is just another example of the party’s intolerance of other political and social leaders and their positions. As Marx observed in reflecting on the end of the early 19th century Napoleonic cult in France, a spiritual revolution was required to abolish the cult of Caesar. Until the FSLN overcomes this caudillismo, there will be no possibility for other Sandinista leaders to arise, nor will we see any changes in the organization’s political behavior. In the end, Nicaragua will be the loser.

FSLN, Sandinismo, Danielismo:
Essential distinctions

In Nicaragua, we have to make a distinction between the FSLN and Sandinismo, the widely shared values of the many people who still call themselves Sandinistas but may have long since left the party. And we have to distinguish between Sandinismo and Danielismo, the cult of Daniel Ortega. Within the population, then, definitional lines from broader to narrower can be drawn between those who will vote for the FSLN over the Liberals, independent Sandinistas, card-carrying FSLN members or sympathizers, and Danielistas.

The FSLN wins more votes in elections than might be expected given the number of Sandinistas in the population because of a desire for a political option other than the Liberal “Right” and its irrational anti-Sandinista position. Some of these votes are the result of thoughtful consideration, cast for ethical or political reasons, a history of activism, emotional ties or the memory of and longing for years past. Others are the result of a desperate desire for change, the hope for something different, and still others the proverbial lesser of two evils.

A tally encompassing the broadest definition of Sandinista might amount to perhaps a third of the national population, and includes those who remain tied to party structures in one way or another, those who have broken with it for various reasons and those who never belonged to it but feel politically and ethically affiliated with Sandinista ideals. Many of these are highly experienced, natural leaders of the Left, who make up a strategic and ethical reserve for a renovated FSLN and for Nicaragua.

FSLN: Populists and businesspeople

Two groups coexist within today’s FSLN: businesspeople and populists. The Danielistas, led by Ortega, are the populist group. They control the party structures and are thus the visible Sandinista faces in all of the party’s official institutions, as well as all state institutions. Having managed with some degree of success to turn Ortega himself into the foremost symbol of the revolution, they also control the hearts and minds of most of the FSLN’s grass roots, many independent Sandinistas and a large number of FSLN voters.

The businesspeople have more capital and a discourse more amenable to the multilateral organizations, while the populists’ discourse remains anchored in the 1980s, with more social content. The populists also control the streets, less through their own mass demonstrations than by activating certain sectors—such as university students—and social movements, which they invariably co-opt, putting all new organizations and fresh demands through their old mill. For all this, there are no significant breaches between the populists and the businesspeople. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship, spiced with brief periods of instability and even hostility. The populist face wins votes among the poor and desperate, while the business face draws up attractive budgets for the international community and Nicaraguan businesspeople. The populist hand holds power—with posts in the courts and government institutions—to ensure that the business hand has a favorable climate for its affairs.

Three challenges to the caudillo

In the FSLN’s upcoming primary elections, Herty Lewites, Dora María Téllez and Alejandro Martínez Cuenca have all announced—the latter most explicitly—that they will challenge Ortega for the right to run as the FSLN’s presidential candidate in the 2006 elections.

Lewites possesses a healthy combination of populist charisma and business brain. His popularity in the poor neighborhoods of Managua, earned by his current work as mayor, suggests that the city could represent a gold mine of votes for the FSLN, which has always depended on votes from the capital. But Ortega and his cohort view even Lewites’ small degree of independence with extreme suspicion.

Little by little, Lewites has been gaining ground for his plan, making skilled use of the media, where he invariably comes off well. In light of a recent heart attack, he first said that he would give up politics for health reasons once he finished his term as mayor. Then he surprisingly announced that he would like to run for Vice President on the ticket with Ortega. Next he said that although it was premature to talk about the elections, he was ready to cover the whole country house by house: “I know how far I can go now,” he explained. “I’ve got 70% approval ratings as mayor, but I don’t know what’s going to happen to me in a year. If I stay this popular among the people, come December 2005 I’ll tell Daniel Ortega, ‘Listen, Comandante Ortega, it’s not what I say or want, it’s what the people want. What can we do?’”
In February, Alejandro Martínez Cuenca, finance minister during the Sandinista government, announced that he would challenge Ortega in the party primary. His moderate discourse, aimed at creating consensus and tempered by his university education in the United States, inspires calm and confidence in neoliberal ears. Through the journal El Observador Económico, he provides useful information to businesspeople and news about the permutations of their businesses, combining commentaries on their practices with mild criticisms of the political Right, big business and the government. Since he is a professional and a businessperson rather than a political leader or former combatant, many Sandinistas see him as akin to the technocrats that have filled the Chamorro and Bolaños governments, and it is presumed that his government program would not stray far from theirs. He lacks the charisma to capture the votes of the FSLN grassroots and his lack of credentials as a combatant, his position in the upper-middle class, his lack of skill as a communicator and his technocratic bent all stand in marked contrast to the kind of leadership built and promoted thus far by the FSLN.

Unlike these two men, Dora María Téllez announced her candidacy in a totally direct way, with little fuss. She doesn’t aim to win. She knows it is impossible to demolish the caudillismo that props up Ortega for now, but feels it would be an achievement to put up a fight, to show that it’s possible to challenge him and to do it in a way that shows people how: by proposing an alternative program. Her goal—a challenge for herself, as she said—is to begin to erode the caudillismo and formulate a new program, which the FSLN has not done since it lost the 1990 elections.

Undermining the secular state

In this rundown of the ways in which the FSLN has failed to renovate and modernize itself, we must add that the party has shored up the dependence of national politics on the religious caudillismo exercised for some three decades now by the Archbishop of Managua, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo.
To make up for the tense relations between the Sandinista government and the Catholic hierarchy in the 1980s, FSLN leaders run pious and contrite to talk with the cardinal each time the constantly changing national political scene grows especially tense and one of its recurrent crises erupts, especially during election campaigns. They ask for his advice or prayers, share their concerns with him and kiss his rings, as the country’s rightwing politicians have always done and continue to do. Former General Humberto Ortega made an especially memorable visit to the cardinal, to present himself as a champion of the free market.

These gestures not only undermine the state’s secular nature but also reinforce every one of the notions resulting from the idea that power and history are the result of providence. Such notions enslave the minds of too many Nicaraguans: rulers chosen or condemned by God, a society waiting for divine intervention in social and economic processes, the interpretation of the Sandinista movement’s collapse as the triumph of good over evil and its later redemption through its leaders’ submission to the cardinal.

The multiple faces of exclusion

Hampered by these vices, the FSLN must also face new challenges. History has shown that other factors, including the environment, gender identity, the defense of human rights, ethnic and religious demands, can sometimes be more powerful than class interests. Given the evidence that the class struggle is not the only motor of history and that the Left should shake off all static definitions, the Left now faces the more complex and demanding task of representing the diverse interests of all of those who are excluded.

Some years ago, the Italian philosopher Salvatore Veca wrote of the “multiple faces of social exclusion, invisibility and voicelessness.” The changes in the apparatuses of power and forms of domination also change the objectives and forms of the liberation movements promoted by leftist politics. The proletariat is not the only oppressed sector. In Nicaragua, the unemployed form a larger universe than any other social group and have no organization, party or social movement to represent them.

At the start of the 21st century, the FSLN is unable to deal even with the traditional demands on the Left. And after backpedaling on them, it has been caught completely off guard by these new challenges.

Shadows over the FSLN’s legislative agenda

If we look at the FSLN’s actions in the National Assembly, where it should be responsible for representing the marginalized sectors, we find a situation that belies the energies spent by the movement’s founders to get close to workers and peasants and win them over to a just cause. The Sandinista representatives are as lazy in their legislative work as the members of other benches, and their distance from the voters is surely greater.

Nicaragua has the best-paid representatives in Central America. The $4,000-a-month salaries of our 92 legislators take up 0.88% of our total annual exports, while in Costa Rica they take up barely 0.03%. The percentage of the National Assembly budget that goes into salaries and other personal benefits for the representatives grew from 25% in 1997 to 76% in 2003. Looking just at laws approved, we can calculate that each one cost the country nearly half a million dollars in 2001. And the FSLN appears to luxuriate, entirely at ease, in this legislative country club.

Of the 70 representatives elected to represent the country’s departments (another 20 are elected on an at-large national ballot), only 4 introduced bills in the 1997-2001 period and none were from the FSLN bench. The party not only fails to represent the country’s different regions, it also fails to represent its different sectors. For example, Sandinista representative Nathán Sevilla is the perennial spokesperson of the country’s miserably paid teachers, who earn less than $50 a month, 80 times less than him. Not once in his nearly 22 years in office has Sevilla presented a bill to benefit the teachers whose interests he ostensibly represents.

“The people”: An abstract principle

Instead of representing real interests, the FSLN invokes an abstract principle: “the people.” As was said of Philippe Buchez (1796-1865) and his Christian Socialist followers during a period of civil war in France, “They are convinced they speak in the name of everyone because they don’t speak about anyone in particular.” In some key struggles, the PLC has even taken the lead over the FSLN. In the Assembly’s debate over decentralization, for example, it was the PLC that introduced the bill to assign municipal governments their share of the budget. The FSLN does not have a single representative under the age of 25 even though 65% of the country’s population is under 25 and many FSLN leaders were under 25 when they filled high posts in government. This FSLN is growing old and making no room for a younger generation.

The party is more interested in managing and expanding the power it holds than in putting it at the service of the poor. Of the 19 bills the Sandinista bench presented in 2003, only 4 were aimed at modifying social policies. Most merely serve to expand the FSLN’s share of power: two bills to regulate public sector contracts, three in response to proposals to release Alemán from jail—which allows the FSLN to renegotiate its quotas of power with the PLC—and five related to disputed properties, the regulation of sales of state goods and granting of state concessions. These bills are a good indication of the priorities on the FSLN’s legislative agenda.

With respect to women?

The struggle for true gender equality is, without any question, an issue that transcends the Left-Right dichotomy and one in which women and men must participate side by side. Leaving aside theoretical debates about whether any political party can claim this struggle exclusively as its own, there is no debate that it forms an essential part of an authentic Left.

There are not now and never have been any women with significant power in the FSLN leadership. In the current legislature, women make up 37% of the FSLN’s representatives (14 of 38), a figure that reflects some improvement over previous years but is still far from the demographic proportions in the country, which has more women than men who are old enough to serve in the legislature.

More important—and more decisive—is the lack of alternative ethical, revolutionary gender awareness in the attitudes of FSLN leaders. In the 1980s, they made a habit of sexually abusing their subordinates in offices, ministries and institutions. They would select young women in the towns and neighborhoods they passed through as “vanguards of the people” so they could abuse them the way the Dominican dictator Trujillo did, according to Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel La fiesta del Chivo. And they were no strangers to the community of wives that Marx censured so strongly in the bourgeoisie: “Our bourgeois, not content with having wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other’s wives. Bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common.”
FSLN leaders continue to enjoy impunity for such criminal behavior. What’s more, in addition to kissing Cardinal Obando’s hand, they echo the Catholic hierarchy’s most retrograde positions on sex education and sexual and reproductive rights, backing whether by action or omission public policies that seriously harm Nicaraguan women.

The Caribbean Coast’s ethnic groups?

The FSLN perpetuated the myth of a mestizo Nicaragua in the 1980s as it repressed the Caribbean Coast’s indigenous organizations, a policy that grew out of ignorance and a lack of understanding of indigenous issues. This myth reinforces the tendency to neglect and marginalize the country’s indigenous peoples, their history and their role and is expressed in national policy through multiple forms of exclusion.
The myth starts by ignoring the demographic weight of indigenous peoples. There are 338,300 indigenous people in the country, 7% of its population. These tens of thousands of Miskitos, Mayangnas, Ramas and Garífunas who live on the Caribbean Coast represent 25% of the population in that region, home to only 11% of Nicaraguans but nearly half of the national territory.

Transnational companies and businesspeople from the Pacific have been systematically plundering the natural wealth of the Caribbean side of the country—in fisheries, forests, mineral deposits and perhaps oil—with the blessing and to the benefit of the central government. The FSLN was no exception: it not only exploited the coast’s mines and fisheries, but also saw the region as a purgatory where it sent its most undisciplined, corrupt officials to punish them. Now, while the plunder goes on, illiteracy is the norm among nearly half of the region’s population over the age of 6 and electricity reaches only 40% of homes.

The inhabitants of the Caribbean Coast cannot make their voices heard or defend their interests in the National Assembly. The FSLN bench does not have a single indigenous representative from either the Atlantic or the Pacific, or an Afro-American from the Caribbean Coast. The Liberal-Sandinista pact cornered the coast’s inhabitants, offering them a diet in the last two elections that was based on only two dishes, PLC or FSLN, with no Caribbean flavor. This led to political apathy and the elections’ lack of legitimacy among people on the Coast. In the 2001 elections, the country’s highest abstention rates were recorded on the coast, with over 50% abstaining in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region. Opening up political spaces for ethnic minorities—or legally institutionalizing the spaces they already have—should be a priority for the Nicaraguan Left. Most of the municipal governments on the coast, all of which are in the hands of the FSLN or the PLC, continue to bypass the Councils of Elders and other indigenous structures.

The appraisal made by social scientist Andrés Pérez-Baltodano of the relationship between the FSLN government and the Caribbean Coast’s inhabitants in the 1980s remains valid today. He concluded that the tragic relationship between the Sandinistas and the Miskitos “since 1979 was based on a theoretical Marxist tradition, imitative and Eurocentric, that was unable to recognize the historical reality of this people and therefore unable to understand their singular cosmovision. In their determination to institutionalize a socialist revolution, the Sandinistas treated the ethnic minorities of the Caribbean Coast as a backward and reactionary segment of a fictitious national proletariat.”

The necessary “greening” of the FSLN

The Catalan sociologist Manuel Castells has observed that it is hard for any party or candidate in Europe or the United States to be elected without “greening” their program, without addressing environmental issues. Castells believes that the public debate about these and many other issues, along with the growing awareness of their global interdependence, establishes the basis for addressing them and perhaps even for reshaping institutions and policies to create an environmentally responsible socioeconomic system.

The concept of environmental justice, which affirms the value of all forms of life against the interests of wealth, power and technology, is increasingly influential and present in the political programs of many leftist parties. But not in the FSLN and its leaders. Environmental struggles form part of an increasingly diversified movement, and there is no doubt that the struggles of marginalized sectors and environmental struggles intersect in innumerable ways. Poor and ethnic minority communities are more affected than the general population by environmental irresponsibility: toxic substances in land and water sources, soil erosion, degradation of their habitats, increasing health problems. For this reason alone, the Left must be more closely connected to environmental movements.

Instead of taking up this banner, which the FSLN has not even tried to do apart from a few rare proclamations and speeches, some FSLN leaders have made their fortunes by devastating the Caribbean Coast’s forests. Others enthuse over dry or wet canal projects they present as the “solution” for Nicaragua’s development without ever paying attention to even minimal environmental considerations.

Undermining institutionality

A top-priority struggle in Nicaragua today is the struggle for institutionality. These efforts, if successful, would improve society’s ability to withstand the threats posed by neoliberalism. The struggle must be and is being undertaken by people on the Left and Right. But it has been undermined by people on the Right and by people who claim to be on the Left.

In their 1999 pact, the PLC and FSLN came to an agreement to distribute state powers. The FSLN found it highly profitable to damage the country’s fragile institutionality because in exchange it won not only certain key posts in government, but also an electoral reform that reduced the percentage of votes Daniel Ortega would need to win on the first round to just 35%.

The next step was to exclude other parties from the elections by arbitrarily invalidating the signatures they had been compelled to gather to qualify, even if they already existed. Once Bolaños took office, the parliamentary seat and accompanying immunity that Ortega gave Alemán in exchange for the 35% caused a debilitating crisis. The maneuvers used to remove Alemán from his seat and strip him of his immunity made a farce of what little was left of the country’s institutionality.

Finally, the game played by Sandinista judge Juana Méndez of alternatively putting Alemán in jail and releasing him dealt the final blow to whatever faith Nicaraguans might have still harbored in the country’s institutions and the idea that politics involves consistent positions, convictions and principles. All of these actions reveal that Nicaragua’s institutions are at the service of the two caudillos and have thus lost their legitimacy. All are explained by a purely instrumental rationality aimed at expanding the power of each group.

Making the country more fragile
in a time of globalization

When this institutional weakness comes up against globalization and neoliberal powers, the result is extremely pernicious for Nicaraguan society, especially its poorest sectors. Pérez-Baltodano noted that “the increasing interpenetration of the national administrative apparatus and the global economic system and its institutions tends to reduce the state’s capacity to respond to domestic needs and pressures, especially when they contradict the logic of the global market.”
Globalization’s negative effects are heightened in countries like Nicaragua, where appropriate relations were never established between the state and society. There are no adequate institutional protections because the breach separating the state and society makes it hard to “develop a social force able to use the state as a filter to neutralize or condition the negative effects of globalization,” according to Pérez-Baltodano’s analysis.

With their blows against institutionality, the FSLN and PLC have widened the gap between the state and society, increasing the country’s fragility and vulnerability to the negative tendencies of globalization and neoliberalism. Many social sectors and movements, NGOs and individual citizens feel that, since the rules of the game change at the whim of the caudillos, they have no input into important decisions and their participation in politics is limited to legitimizing elections through their votes in what has become, in Pérez-Baltodano’s words, “a five-year raffle of the right to impunity.” There is a crisis in democracy because citizens suffer the effects of decisions they don’t control. The FSLN and PLC are responsible for the political apathy from which all this derives. And the results are obvious: greater apathy, less representation of diverse interests and less democracy.

So many challenges, so many faces

Since the Left that the FSLN pretends to be does not get to the heart of things, but rather speaks about this abstract entity called “the people,” it has no official position on the Nicaraguans who have left the country. Neither populism nor technocracy has found adequate responses to the problems of those who, unable to change the country, change countries. Nicaraguans who reside permanently or temporarily in Costa Rica already make up 10% of that nation’s population. In an M&R poll conducted in June 2003, 65.3% of those surveyed said they would emigrate to another country if the opportunity arose. More troubling still was the fact that 57% of Nicaraguans surveyed in another poll earlier in 2003 said they wished they’d been born in another country.

The migrants and the transnational networks and identities they create form a kind of social movement that poses a challenge to the Left. Other challenges are posed by youth gangs, landless peasants fighting to obtain land, the victims of the depredation of natural resources in indigenous areas, the producers involved in organic agriculture and fair trade. So many challenges, so many faces. They are not numbers. All have something to say and a role to play in building collective identities and gaining social recognition, as well as a practical role in challenging the existing institutional accords. Both are essential to create a viable democracy and develop congruent policies. But the FSLN doesn’t transform these issues into laws, nor does it represent the interests of these groups.

NGOs are addressing many of these movements, groups and issues. Their agendas include the challenges that the FSLN has failed to take up: gender, the environment, ethnic issues... The Left in the diaspora, made up largely of intellectuals and professionals with Sandinista roots, are also taking up these issues. As Pérez-Baltodano lucidly explained, “This representation is voluntary, based on ethical principles rather than shared interests between the organizations and the sectors they speak for.” Nevertheless, despite their difficulties, they often serve as political intermediaries who defend the needs and demands of voices not heard in the public sphere and connect them to state institutions, bringing the state and society closer together. They are pushing towards a leftist democratic project, which will be fully achieved only when the various sectors—the groups of organic and fair trade producers, the migrants and their families, the young gang members and many others—make their demands and break all the barriers our national political culture places in front of them.

The Left is an ethical position

Communism mistakenly tried to turn socialism into a political and economic imperative, rather than a moral issue. Capitalism and other forms of human egotism will be overcome by decisions made by human beings based on ethical criteria. The victory over capitalism, now in its neoliberal mode, is not guaranteed by economic laws. It is essential to demand ethical proposals to combat the asepsis of the technocracy that is one of the most dangerous aspects of neoliberalism, and one of those that has most contaminated the Left. Technocratic rationality and rhetoric package poverty in a mathematical formula, emptying it of its tragic nature and reducing the fight against it to a dispassionate, vain manipulation of variables. Fernando Savater said that “there is no sadder and more repugnant rightwinger than a recycled leftist bureaucrat.” Now we can find Sandinista bureaucrats in all kinds of places—NGOs, the government, the multilateral institutions—parroting the language of neoliberal technocracy with pious ends.

The Left should strive to ensure that the poor are not figures in bureaucratic texts, but rather faces and above all voices in the National Assembly, in party conventions and in the media. The Left could make a major contribution by refusing to use the language of technocracy, thus undermining the neoliberal technocracy’s ability to give names to things. This is especially important since these names, the terms they use, are conceptual representations based on a study of the historical development of advanced capitalist societies, transplanted to societies with different histories.

Clinging to the power once won

The two characteristics that most clearly distinguish the Nicaraguan Left from the rest of the Central American Left are the success it had in gaining state power and its persistence in holding on to large shares of this power, above and beyond any other priority related to its own identity or to leftist actions and projects. From these two characteristics—the power won and the determination to cling to it—come the vices that now create a burden for all the leftist forms that more or less coexist in Nicaragua.

From the conquest of power and its exercise for over ten years, the FSLN inherited a centralized control of the various sectors of society and the ability to co-opt any other social movement or grassroots organization, even to capitalize on spontaneous bursts of popular discontent. It also gained a monopoly over the Left in the country, assuming the place of the sole leftist party and claiming to represent the Left ideologically. These factors reinforce the FSLN’s dominant position and allow it to tactically distance itself from its old programs and align itself with the most anti-Sandinista Right—its political nemesis, the Liberal Constitutionalist Party—through a strategy inspired by an instrumental conception of politics.

The FSLN is too caught up in its leadership’s miserly battles for power. It has neither the time, the energy nor the will to fight neoliberalism. It rarely proposes any laws on social policy, it neither rejuvenates nor “greens” itself, it fails to maintain a secular position, it doesn’t fight for the nation’s institutionality or try to shake off caudillismo or verticalism. It reproduces all the vices of the nation’s political culture. Let’s do Nicaragua a favor: let’s put an end, once and for all, to the myth that the FSLN is a leftist party.

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for Nitlapán-UCA, member of envío’s editorial board. He prepared this presentation for the Latin American Left Congress held in the United States at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in May 2004.

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