As president of the Nicaraguan people and as a Sandinista leader, I take pride—and all Sandinista militants can take pride—in the greatest victory, which today, February 26, opens a new path for Nicaragua, like that which we opened on July 19, 1979. In this new path, the war and the contras will disappear, and national interests will prevail over interventionist policies.
—President Daniel Ortega Saavedra, February 26, 1990
When President Ortega spoke those words, at six o’clock on the morning the day after the elections, Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) had just announced the preliminary count from some 60% of the country’s polling places. The vote was 54.3% to 41.5% in favor of the US-backed opposition alliance called the Nicaraguan Opposition Union (UNO).
The CSE’s final vote count, published as a pamphlet in all three Nicaraguan news dailies on March 12-13, favored UNO’s presidential candidate Violeta Chamorro over FSLN incumbent Daniel Ortega by 54.7% to 40.8%, a 13.9% spread. Of the remaining eight parties, only the Revolutionary Unity Movement (MUR), led by Sandinista dissidents, even pulled 1% of the valid votes. The two historically dominant parties—the Liberals and Conservatives—had splintered into electoral insignificance, with some in and some remaining outside the UNO alliance.
The new National Assembly, whose members were elected the same day, will pass from having 96 members, 61 on the FSLN bench and 35 from 6 other parties, to 92 members, 51 of them belonging to parties in UNO, 39 from the FSLN, and one each from MUR and the Social Christian Party—the last actually a candidate from the Miskito organization Yatama, who won on the Atlantic Coast.* (“Just the Facts,” in this issue, provides the key electoral data at a glance.)
*The National Assembly has 90 directly elected representatives; an additional seat is given to any presidential candidate who receives at least 1% of the vote—in 1984 all six opposition candidates and in the current case only those of MUR and the FSLN.
The election results shocked almost everyone. In Nicaragua they stunned both the FSLN and UNO, and in the United States the UNO victory seems to have surprised even the Bush Administration. There were reports the previous week that the State Department was analyzing the possibility of changes in its policy toward Nicaragua, and on election night itself, Bush declared his willingness to negotiate with the winner, implicitly understood to be the FSLN.
Looking BackWhat brought about this unanticipated result? In hindsight, two key factors are apparent:
The War. Nearly a decade of grinding war has drained the population. As previously mentioned in these pages, Nicaragua has suffered proportionately more victims in this brief period than the United States did in the 60 years covering World Wars I and 11, Korea and Vietnam. And this does not even include those who died to bring down the Somoza dictatorship, which easily doubles the figure. Nor does it take into account that Nicaraguans have borne this war the length and breadth of their own territory, which the United States has not done in more than 120 years. A more subtle psychological factor is that, for the past two years, peace has been dangled in front of Nicaragua through the Esquipulas negotiations like the proverbial carrot on a stick, always just out of reach. Many sociologists argue that frustrated expectations create greater social discontent than no hope at all.
The Economic Crisis. We do not have recent data, but it is sufficient to recall that by January 1988 Nicaraguans’ real salary level had already fallen to 6% of what it was at the start of the revolution. That year registered a 33,000% inflation rate, one of the ten highest in any country this century. For those thrown into unemployment or forms of underemployment by anti-inflationary cutbacks, the issue is no longer one of cuts in health, education and other social benefits of the revolution, but of hunger.
Many less important factors—ranging from specific government policies and middle-level leadership styles to elements of the FSLN’s electoral campaign—are also being mentioned as Nicaragua debates the causes of the Sandinista defeat. Such post-election analysis, while critical to the party’s future, is, in electoral terms, about what the FSLN might have done differently, either during the campaign or earlier, to avoid losing the 100,000 valid votes (7%) that cost it the plurality required to stay in government. The more than 40% who voted for the FSLN showed themselves solidly with the revolution in spite of all these factors. It is impossible to measure the relative importance of the war and the economy, but Nicaraguan society is torn by these life and death issues. We believe they far outweighed all other factors in leading people to vote against the FSLN. Heard time and again on the street, the two themes are encapsulated in the comments of a middle-aged man who said simply, “I have five children, and I don’t earn enough to feed them. My oldest boy is 16, and will be ready for college soon. I don’t want him to be drafted and come home in a box instead.”
UNO candidate Violeta Chamorro, dressed in flowing white, arms outspread like an angel of peace, played the war issue very successfully, She promised to end the draft—the expression of war that touches even those lucky enough not to live in a conflict zone—in a tone that suggested there was no reason on earth why it ever should have existed. Francisco Mayorga, her economic advisor, took on his issue with similar aplomb, showing with charts and graphs but little else how he could put the economy on the road to recovery in 100 days. They made wavering voters doubt that a Sandinista victory would assure peace and economic relief as much as the candidate backed by the United States.
The FSLN campaign promise, “Everything will be better,” could not quell the doubts. The Sandinistas argued that, once they won internationally endorsed elections, President Bush would have to bow to pressure and demobilize the contras. Ensuing cutbacks in defense spending, they added, together with the unblocking of international assistance, would enable the new Sandinista administration to restart the economy. They backed up this thesis with promises of a new era of social services and economic recovery. But, given President Bush’s determination to keep 10,000 contras ready and waiting in Honduras, the FSLN stopped short of promising to alter the military draft. It was perhaps a crucial hesitation.
Thousands of observers pronounced the elections fair and democratic, dismissing inevitable anomalies as not affecting the outcome of the vote. Technically speaking, the Supreme Electoral Council, with suggestions from the international observers and the support of the Sandinista government, saw to it that a fraudulent victory by either side was precluded. But the more fundamental question was not addressed. Could an electoral process really be fair and democratic in the context of a decade-long military and economic war imposed by the United States on the Nicaraguan people, despite their government’s compliance with every peace agreement it entered into; in which the United States chose, financed and directed the opposition candidate’s political apparatus, Nicaragua’s government was powerless to resolve the two issues on which the vote swung; and the United States put the only hope of their resolution in the opposition’s hands?
So Why Such SurpriseThis exhaustion from the war and economic hardship was evident from the outset. Why then did so many of us still expect a Sandinista victory? Why was it believed that the people would still find the heroism necessary to defend their long-term interest in the revolution over their short-term desire to eat and stay alive?
One reason was the tremendous crowds the FSLN drew throughout the country, many of which overshot even Sandinista expectations. Although UNO demonstrations began to swell in size following Violeta Chamorro's return from the United States in a leg cast, the FSLN’s closing rally on February 21 was well over five times larger than the UNO one a few days earlier.
Analysts were diverted even more by the polls, both Nicaraguan and foreign, the most respected of which showed the FSLN the clear winner. The question puzzling pollsters and pundits alike is, why the discrepancy? Our “Close-up” article in this issue (“After the Poll Wars—Explaining the Upset”) evaluates the social-psychology hypotheses now being debated, although most are difficult to prove.
The day after the elections was truly one of national mourning, and not only for the Sandinistas. It was a work holiday, and the few people on the streets went about with long faces. Save for a small party in a restaurant, UNO could not turn its victory into a celebration; a spontaneous gathering of UNO activists the same night turned into a rock-throwing spree broken up by the police. Having cast a decisive vote against continued war and hunger, where was people’s feeling of triumph, or at least of relief, that it would all soon be over? The notable absence of any such reaction led even more analysts to enter into the slippery terrain of social psychology.
Looking AheadNicaragua has no historical precedent for the peaceful transition of power to an elected opposition party. More generally speaking, there is no precedent in any country in this century of a state being won through an armed revolution and then lost through an election. Only Nicaragua’s internal context can give us guidelines for how events may be expected to develop.
In his final campaign speech, President Ortega had announced that, following his victory, the FSLN would seek a national accord with the opposition in general and the large private business sector in particular. The FSLN was aware that such an accord would be necessary to move the country forward economically. But the problem has been turned on its head; UNO won. The question now becomes whether UNO can move the country forward without a negotiated accord with the FSLN. The answer is no.
Sandinista High CardsThe following is a list of the high cards in the Sandinista negotiating hand.
The Constitution. The Constitution of the Republic of Nicaragua was first drafted in 1986 by the National Assembly elected with that mandate in 1984. It was then subjected to a year of extensive public debate, revised and finally ratified in January 1987. It is the expression of the revolution's philosophy and the defense of its gains.
The Supreme Court. The seven judges to the Supreme Court, who serve a period of six years, were named in 1987. Thus, Violeta Chamorro will have to govern with an FSLN-oriented Supreme Court deciding on the constitutionality of her government initiatives.
Sandinista popular power. The 40% vote for the FSLN is recognized to be largely solid support. Much of it is also organized, under the leadership of the FSLN itself. The FSLN claims a party membership of 400,000; has the royalty of a women’s organization and a youth organization; controls the largest industrial union confederation, virtually the only agricultural workers’ union and the state employees union; and has solid support from the unions of teachers and health workers. Then there are the peasants, many of them in cooperatives, who received land from the revolution and are prepared, with Sandinista support, to defend it. (See “Grassroots Power: Defending the Revolution” in this issue.) Given the years of war and constitutional protection of the people’s right to “arm themselves in defense of their sovereignty, independence and revolutionary gains,” many Sandinista supporters have military experience, whether in the insurrection, the army or self-defense militias; many are still armed.
The military. The Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) is Nicaragua’s constitutionally defined army, with an institutionalized command structure made up of Sandinista officers (see relevant constitutional articles below). To dismantle it would require changing the Constitution. But UNO, even if supported by both other opposition party representatives, lacks the 60% vote in the National Assembly required to even partially reform the Constitution. If UNO were to try to dismantle the EPS in violation of the Constitution, it would free the FSLN from its own constitutional obligations, with predictable consequences.
What does this mean? UNO inherits a national armed forces willing to back it as the elected government but unwilling to defend any unconstitutional moves against the population. The new President’s only legal right is to name her defense minister and chiefs of staff. But due to factors that transcend the legal one, this is one of the points that must be negotiated with the FSLN.
In most countries of the world, whether due to multi-party systems that leave the ruling party without a clear majority, or to other complex power-balance issues, the post-election transition from one government another is usually accompanied by negotiated concessions among the contending parties. A well-known example is when Francois Mitterrand’s Socialist Party won the presidency in France in 1981, but did not have the votes in parliament to name the prime minister. A negotiated “cohabitation” agreement left Mitterrand with a Gaullist prime minister. Only in the United States, with its two-party system of shared ruling-class interests, does this process not attract public attention. One of the few that did was the bipartisan accord on Central America that grew out of Republican control of the White House and a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress following the 1988 elections.
In his speech to a spontaneous demonstration of thousands of cheering Sandinistas two days after the election, President Daniel Ortega promised that the FSLN would defend a series of revolutionary achievements, including “the integrity of the Sandinista Popular Army and the Ministry of Interior.” The FSLN also demanded the “immediate dismantling and disarming of the counterrevolutionaries and freedom for those kidnapped” by the contras. (The full text of this speech is found in this issue.) It is generally understood in Nicaragua that these are precisely the negotiating points on which the FSLN will bring all its pressure to bear.
Sandinista logic is that the Sandinista Popular Army is the only guarantee of the constitutionally institutionalized revolution. Given the historic antagonism of the two contending social and political projects and UNO’s direct ties to the armed contras, losing control of the EPS would mean losing the revolution as well as the government.
Nicaragua’s own history provides an example of what could happen then. In 1933, General Augusto César Sandino, after a successful seven-year war to end his country’s occupation by the US Marines, agreed to negotiate a peace with President Juan Bautista Sacasa. But Sacasa had only the formal support of the United States; the real power was Anastasio Somoza García, head of the National Guard recently formed by the United States. As a first step, Sandino agreed to an immediate cessation of hostilities and the disarming of all but 100 of his men in exchange for a complete amnesty and land where his supporters could settle. A year later, while still in negotiations, Sandino was ambushed and assassinated on Somoza’s orders. His followers—civilian as well as military—in the Río Coco region were then systematically hunted down and massacred.
Over the years, Somoza sharpened his National Guard into the repressive force that protected the half-century dictatorial dynasty. Many contemporary Guard officers became contra leaders. The lesson is etched deep in the consciousness of Sandino’s namesakes. They see Violeta Chamorro as the contemporary Sacasa and recognize that US support has consistently been with the interests represented by the contra leaderss. They believe that to make the same error would result in the liquidation of the revolution and the physical liquidation of Sandinistas and their families. Contra barbarities against unarmed peasant supporters of the FSLN in the past ten years reinforce this lesson. As revolutionaries, the Sandinistas would prefer to die fighting for their revolution, if necessary, than be murdered, defenseless, in their beds.
This does not mean that they will be inflexible on secondary issues such as reducing the size of the army, or will not permit the new President to name her defense minister, as long as both have confidence in the appointee. But the Sandinistas are not expected to relinquish their right and ability to defend Nicaragua’s sovereignty and the Constitution.
What Alternatives for UNO? A brief hypothetical scenario illustrates why it is in UNO’s interest to reach agreement with the FSLN during this transition period.
Let us suppose that, on April 25, Violeta Chamorro’s inauguration day, FSLN-led unions called a national strike, demanding, for example, a 300% salary increase and guaranteed job security—petitions to which they have a constitutional right. President Chamorro would receive the presidential sash together with a country in which government offices would be empty, and schools, health centers and hospitals would be unstaffed. Buses would not run and factories would not operate. The agricultural cycle begins with the May rains, but farm workers would refuse to prepare the vast plots of land—both private and state—for planting the export crops, such as sugar and cotton, that bring in dollars. Airport workers would probably join the strike, and in any case, there would be no one in the immigration booths to check the passengers.
How could the new President run the country in such a situation? The economic resources with which to respond to the workers’ demands are already virtually nil and would shrivel further each day the country remained paralyzed. She could not call out the military, because the army and the police would also be on strike.
Will emergency economic aid resolve the crisis? In mid-March the Bush Administration asked Congress for $300 million in economic assistance to Nicaragua, including $21 million in emergency aid. But this amount would not go far, particularly in the face of massive strikes. The United States, pressured by too many other demands for assistance, is not in a good position to bail Nicaragua out of its existing economic crisis. US-installed President Endara went on a 13-day hunger strike in early March because the United States was not responding to Panama’s urgent needs following the two-year US economic boycott and destructive military invasion. El Salvador needs immediate economic aid and continued investment, and its army is demanding more funding to fight the FMLN. Most importantly, if the United States wants to have significant political weight in Eastern Europe, it has to divert funds from other projects to invest heavily there, too.
A just-concluded trip to Japan by UNO's economic team failed to get even a verbal commitment for economic assistance and Europe has been equally slow to respond. All are prudently waiting to see whether the new government will be able to assure stability. President Ortega has pledged to continue his own efforts to bring new funding into Nicaragua. After meeting with Ortega this month, President Felipe González of Spain quickly responded with an offer of $45 million in immediate aid. Ortega’s cooperative stance is in stark contrast to that of COSEP business sectors over the years. In May 1989, during a critical government meeting with European funders in Stockholm, Sweden, COSEP even sent a letter urging that no aid be approved.
Some two-thirds of the new US aid package is reportedly earmarked for petroleum purchases. Since 1985, Nicaragua has received nearly 100% of its petroleum from the socialist countries, mainly the Soviet Union, Cuba and East Germany, on extremely generous terms. At the end of last year, Nicaragua received a Soviet commitment to supply 300,000 of Nicaragua’s 740,000-ton petroleum requirement, enough to last through April. Almost that entire contract has already been filled. Other Eastern European countries did not agreed to pick up the slack.
Latin America’s two oil-producing countries are not expected to give significant amounts of oil on similar terms. Venezuela’s own economic crisis has already produced one social explosion, just after President Carlos Andrés Pérez took office. Mexico, too, must sell its oil to finance its own huge foreign debt; it has neither the capacity nor the willingness to donate it to the UNO government. A crucial question, then, is whether the Soviet Union will agree to send more oil and under what conditions. This makes credible the report that Bush asked Gorbachev to continue providing oil to Nicaragua and suggests that the Soviet Union may have at least an indirect role in the transition negotiations.
Not All Are Face CardsGiven the balance of forces described above, any sensible government desiring to restore peace and economic stability would sit down with the Sandinistas and discuss ways to guarantee a smooth transition to a governable country. And, in fact, this is the option now being sought by Violeta Chamorro and Daniel Ortega. Both have named transition negotiation teams—hers headed by Antonio Lacayo, her son-in-law and chief personal adviser, and his by General Humberto Ortega, his brother and current defense minister. The two additional members of the UNO team are Socialist Party representative to the National Assembly Luis Sánchez Sancho and Carlos Hurtado, a member of the Social Democratic Party and the team’s national coordinator. For the FSLN they are Jaime Wheelock, Minister of Agricultural Development and Agrarian Reform, and General Joaquín Cuadra, the Defense Ministry’s Chief of Staff. The climate of the first meeting, held on March 7, was officially described as ”constructive and friendly.”
Agreement will not be found easily. UNO is an alliance of 13 parties of varying sizes and ideologies, and severe internal contradictions. Three fundamental currents can be distinguished, only one of which appears pragmatic enough to see the value of making concessions that favor Nicaragua’s stable future.
One current, represented within a few of the parties but a force in its own right, is that of COSEP, the extreme right-wing business association. During the campaign and since, COSEP representatives have said they want to go back to the past, to return lands and other properties to their original owners. Somocistas who return to the country will surely join this sector to try to reverse the revolution’s social gains.
A second current is found in the parties representing the radicalized rightwing sector of the petty bourgeoisie. Its visible spokesperson is Vice President-elect Virgilio Godoy, backed by a majority of UNO’s 13-party political council. As can be expected given their varied ideological roots, differences emerge among the political council members. And, though this sector shares strong anti-Sandinista sentiments with COSEP, many of their other views do not coincide. There is also fierce competition between the two groups for personal power. Shortly after the elections, for example, various party leaders within UNO's political council began publicly jockeying with those of COSEP for key ministry posts. Harmony between them in the new government is unlikely.
The third line, espoused by Violeta Chamorro and Antonio Lacayo together with the rest of Chamorro's advisory council, is the most moderate and sophisticated one. While it has some echo among the political parties in UNO, it is possible that it has even more in common with the centrist parties that decided to enter the electoral fray as independents. In many aspects, this current represents the views of what is known in Nicaragua as the real “opposition bourgeoisie,” those who actively opposed Somoza in the last years of his dictatorship. The FSLN, had it won, planned to initiate its negotiation with them, and broaden it from there. Likewise, this group is most inclined to negotiate with the FSLN. But it is not yet clear how flexible it will be in the negotiations the FSLN is proposing. Since it is only one sector among three, it could have the will but not the strength within UNO's correlation of forces to gain the necessary support of the others.
The tensions between and within COSEP, the political council and Chamorro's advisory council should not suggest that UNO will fall apart. If it has managed to stay united up to now, albeit mainly due to US financial assistance, each party will be even more motivated to stay within the alliance once it controls the government. Both before 1979 and afterwards, many of these leaders illicitly enriched themselves with US aid, whether in the political or military camp.
The FSLN and Cuban experiences, as well as those on the other side of the ideological equation, demonstrate that at least six to seven years are required to structure a new state and achieve efficient levels of government management. It is open to question whether UNO, given its corruption and serious internal tensions, could still govern the country if it also engendered the FSLN’ unbridled opposition.
Bush Administration PivotalWhat this very preliminary analysis shows is that the UNO government, even with US backing, cannot govern without FSLN support. To gain that support, it must negotiate a series of issues; the fundamental ones for the FSLN are that the Constitution be respected and that military power not pass to UNO.
Key to all this is the Bush Administration’s position. Will it endorse the pragmatic approach of negotiations to avoid UNO’s inheriting an unstable, even ungovernable country, satisfied that it can bring its considerable advantages to bear in a continued low-intensity war—now of a more political stripe—against the revolution over time? Or will the most extreme rightwing line prevail, closing off negotiations in the hope of finally wiping out the revolutionary organization that has been such a thorn in its side for the last decade?
Initial signals are mixed. In a rapid-fire series of events in mid-March, President Bush lifted the five-year trade embargo against Nicaragua; asked Congress for an aid package that included $32 million for contra demobilization; and proposed that the United Nations peacekeeping force in Central America (ONUCA), ensure the contras’ security when they disband. According to the new proposal, which President Ortega endorsed, ONUCA would extend its mandate and remain in Nicaragua a year to assuage contra fears for their personal safety.
The most surprising signal of all was the series of direct and reportedly cordial conversations between President Ortega and US Vice President Dan Quayle during the presidential inaugurations in Chile and Brazil, also in mid-March. Only once during the entire Reagan Administration was there any high-level exchange of views—the 1984 “Manzanillo talks”—and they were far from cordial. Unavoidable protocol encounters between Nicaraguan officials and both US presidents over the years have been marked by an arrogant US diplomatic tone bordering on the grotesque.
The current conversations were all the more significant because Quayle is known to represent the hard-line pro-contra forces in the United States. He reportedly indicated to President Ortega that the Bush Administration was working on ideas to get the counterrevolutionaries out of the picture by April 25. Quayle, according to Ortega, “expressed to me his political desire to do it and I consider his position very constructive.”
On the six-hour flight to Chile from Venezuela, President Ortega participated in a “mini-summit” with the Presidents of Spain, Venezuela, Costa Rica and Honduras. All five heads of state “are in total agreement that the contras should be disarmed and demobilized immediately, “Ortega said. Spain’s President González declared while in Chile that disarming the contras “is a necessary condition, though not a sufficient or exclusive one, to guarantee the peaceful transition of government.” After meeting with Quayle in both Venezuela and Chile, President González said he was heartened by the US “predisposition” to disarm and demobilize the contras.
For his part, President Ortega was reported by The New York Times to have told Quayle that the transfer of power would take place “with the utmost normalcy,” with “no conditions,” and “with or without the contras.” He added, however, that “the best thing ...would be that the contras cease to exist by April 25.” Quayle told reporters that Ortega had guaranteed that “Violeta Chamorro will appoint all of the ministries, including the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry.”
But counter-signals came only days later. In Venezuela on his return home, President Ortega reacted sharply to reports that Quayle had backed off. Quayle is reported to have said that the contras must not demobilize until the new Chamorro government demonstrates that it can “institute democracy” and citing continuing “Sandinista aggression” as a second reason. Such statements not only propose that the contras remain an armed threat for an indefinite period after April 25, but deny the Sandinista government the international legitimacy it has finally won, paradoxically, only by losing the elections.
Responding that such statements “completely undermine what was agreed to in Santiago and Brasilia—that the contras should be demobilized immediately,” Ortega added that the main theme of the next Central American summit meeting, scheduled for March 31 in Nicaragua, would be to specify how to accomplish this. He added that the task falls particularly to the Honduran army and the US government. He referred to Nicaragua as a powder keg that the contras could ignite if they are not demobilized before April 25, and warned of the possibility of civil war.
In recent meetings with Cardinal Obando y Bravo regarding the possibility that he and President-elect Chamorro might travel to Honduras to urge them to demobilize immediately, Defense Minister Humberto Ortega made clear that there is no basis for negotiations with the US-financed counterrevolutionaries. “They should comply with the mandate of Tela and San Isidro Coronado,” said General Ortega, “and should have done so last December 5.”
Contra leaders are reported to have told Quayle that, rather than turn over their weapons to ONUCA, they want to move their fighting force from bases in Honduras to enclaves inside Nicaragua. “Presumably,” reported the March 18 Miami Herald “the contras would lay down their arms and leave the enclaves after becoming convinced that they faced no reprisals from the Sandinistas.”
Both Nicaraguan and US sources agree that hundreds of armed contras are infiltrating back into the mountainous northern regions of Nicaragua. There are reports that some 5,000 are now inside the country. A Nicaraguan Defense Ministry spokesperson said they are coming in from Honduras with enough resources and weaponry to carry out a broad offensive. The spokesperson said that ten peasants had been killed by contras the previous weekend, adding that they appear to be specifically targeting peasants who detect their movements. Contra attacks against civilian Sandinista supporters in the countryside have reportedly stepped up since President Ortega re-imposed a unilateral cessation of offensive actions following the elections.
The Defense Ministry official calculated that the goal of a contra offensive would be to occupy territory and on that basis negotiate significant military power in the new government—an even more unacceptable version of the enclave idea. The Defense Ministry spokesperson added that the army is prepared not only to repel such an offensive, which it is permitted to do within the cease-fire conditions, but to launch a counteroffensive that would liquidate the contras once and for all.
US newspapers suggest that the contras are becoming more autonomous from the United States, given changes in top leadership and the shrinking of US financial assistance. While there is some logic to the idea that the contras have become a kind of paramilitary class with its own set of interests, their reticence to give up their arms and return is more appropriately understood as part of the larger negotiation scenario being designed by the US and UNO.
Much of the confusing give-and-take among key actors in the post-election period can be seen as maneuvering for position in the upcoming negotiations. In this context, the contras become an important pawn. Whatever autonomous notions they may in fact harbor, the US has the clout, if it chooses to use it, to persuade or force the majority of the contras to lay down their arms. A key signal to whether more moderate forces in both the Bush Administration and the UNO alliance have prevailed will be if US verbal commitments to demobilize the contras are backed with effective action.
Calm Before the StormIn his article on the meetings in Chile, New York Times reporter Andrew Rosenthal noted the contrast between President Ortega’s statements there and those he made the previous week in a speech to thousands of supporters in Managua on International Women’s Day. In that speech, the Sandinista leader warned that he could not guarantee a peaceful transfer of power if the contra army remained intact. He said that Nicaragua was experiencing “the calm before a storm.”
It is an apt phrase. Nicaraguans at all levels are waiting with increasing anxiety to see what the negotiations will bring. Will the contras finally be demobilized? Once the new government takes over, will there be reprisals against Sandinista activists and government workers, even sympathizers who voted for the FSLN? In contrast to the reassuring language used by Nicaragua’s outgoing and incoming Presidents, others have struck a far less conciliatory tone, exacerbating already widespread fears. UNO-identified youth gangs in Managua have already killed at least two Sandinistas since the elections.
Nicaraguan supporters of the FSLN are not the only ones who feel under attack. Vice President-elect Virgilio Godoy warned recently that foreigners who come “wearing red and black bandanas will have to go back and demonstrate in their own countries, because we are not going to permit any foreigner to interfere in our domestic political problems.” This inflammatory statement made the thousands of internationalists who are here working on grassroots projects supported by the Sandinista government nervous not just about their future but even about their personal safety. Numerous foreigners reported receiving threatening phone calls even before the elections. A North American and his Nicaraguan friend were accosted and beat up by UNO supporters in the provincial city of Estelí on the night of March 11. The North American, who escaped and ran for help, was nearly run down by the attackers in their pick-up truck.
Both to comply with the letter of an Esquipulas accord and to ease the mounting tensions, the Sandinista bench pushed a bill through the National Assembly granting unconditional amnesty to the contras and to Nicaraguan military personnel and civilians who may have committed crimes in pursuing or investigating offenses against state security. It also covers any government employee who may in the future be accused of having committed criminal or administrative abuses of their position between July 19, 1979 and March 1990. (See “In Brief,” this issue.)
Grim Alternatives No signs have emerged from the FSLN-UNO negotiating rooms yet, but optimists see President Ortega’s statements in Chile as suggesting that a general agreement has been reached about who Violeta Chamorro will name as her new defense minister.
On the more pessimistic side, the alternatives are grim if the transition negotiations do not bring the desired results. One such alternative would be that the Sandinistas make good on their implicit negotiating card by calling a national strike. This could destabilize the UNO government through legal means, with the FSLN applying all the pressure at its disposal to force the government back to the negotiating table, albeit in much less cordial circumstances.
If this were to happen, another dynamic could unintentionally be unleashed alongside the intended one—a spiraling of the threats and attacks between FSLN and UNO supporters currently taking place in the urban low-income neighborhoods and in the countryside. What would begin as a controlled political move could degenerate into a social phenomenon that would be very difficult to bring under control.
In such a case, various things must be remembered. First is that many civilians are armed. Second, if the situation were not resolved, it could degenerate into all-out civil war. Third is that, given the military situation in several other Central American countries, such a war could eventually involve the region as a whole.
At any point along the way, the newly installed President might ask for US military intervention. Two factors could favor the Bush Administration's decision to agree—political justification and military necessity. President Bush is in a good international position right now to argue that he is coming to the defense of a legitimate government. Under such conditions, he may even have initial backing domestically as well, if the support he received for his invasion of Panama holds up. The Defense Department, too, may see advantages in such an intervention; following the decline of the East-West conflict, it is preoccupied with finding a new excuse to maintain its existing budget and level of power. It is a concern shared by congressional members from states dependent on defense spending. Military leaders have said repeatedly that the Pentagon “should now focus greater attention on third world ‘low-intensity’ threats rather than traditional European-type battlefronts,” The Miami Herald reported as recently as March 19. The subject of that article was a just-released report by Congress’ General Accounting Office, which found that the US military “is not adequately developing the weapons needed to meet those threats.”
The main factor weighing against this alternative is its cost. An invasion of Nicaragua would not be as relatively easy as Panama was. According to the Pentagon's own calculations, occupation forces could get bogged down for several years, and suffer high human and material losses in the interim. A country with an experienced army like the EPS and a solid 40% of the votes favoring the revolution does not augur well for an easy victory, particularly when the initial bombing necessary to cover the invasion could even turn a large part of the population that voted for UNO against it. The international solidarity movement would react immediately, and, particularly in the United States, would broaden as the casualties mounted. Such calculations become even more serious if the situation in Nicaragua were to unleash a regional war.
Among these three possibilities—negotiations, intervention and civil war—only the first leads to the peace and development that all sides espouse. The other two go against the democratic current that is sweeping all parts of the world except the US-dominated countries of Central America. Both would lead to massive physical and human destruction and the likely installation of a repressive regime such as those that still exist in El Salvador and Guatemala.
The reasons to promote the first option, with all the acute political confrontation it implies, are not just rhetorical. They are eminently pragmatic, and are as crucial to the United States and Nicaragua’s own capitalist class as they are to the FSLN. The option of war, particularly of a US invasion, implies the damaging or destruction of key economic targets, which would throw Nicaragua back into the 19th century. For the bourgeoisie, to use an image from that historical period, it would mean having a President who governs in the morning and sells cheese in the afternoon; technically speaking, the capitalist class as such would cease to exist. Would it not be more effective for the United States to pay a lesser price now and continue its low-intensity war in a political context? In a better world than the one we live in, the best idea of all would be for the United States to learn to live by its words, to coexist with a truly democratic and pluralistic Nicaragua, in which the FSLN is pitted only against the internal opposition and not against the arrogant abuse of US force as well.
It is impossible to predict the rhythm by which the current situation will unfold or in which direction. This tense moment in Nicaragua recalls another, in another Central American country, not so long ago. There, an ailing elderly man with the appropriate famly connections was admitted to the excellent military hospital in the country's capital. A few political analysts who knew the old man prevailed on him to keep his ears open to any discussion in the corridors that would provide a clue to military plans in the coming period. Several days later, the group paid the old man a visit. They helped him into an empty visitors' lounge, and leaned close to hear as he whispered cautiously, "I have been listening very carefully, and I have the information you asked for. It is this: In this period, anything can happen, and at any moment Now, don't tell a soul where you heard this.”
The Nicaraguan Constitution*
President Ortega read an FSLN statement on February 27 vowing to defend the rights of the poor majority and the gains of the revolution enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic (see this issue). The relevant articles are printed below, as well as those pertaining to constitutional changes.
Article 49. In Nicaragua workers in the cities and countryside, women, youth, agricultural producers, artisans, professionals, technicians, intellectuals, artists, religious persons, the Communities of the Atlantic Coast and the population in general have the right to form organizations in order to realize their aspirations according to their own interests, without discrimination, and to participate in the construction of a new society. Such organizations may be formed by the voluntary participation and free will of their members. They shall have a social function and may have a partisan character, according to their nature and objectives.
Article 53. The right to peaceful assembly is recognized; the exercise of this right does not require prior permission.
Article 54. The right to public assembly, demonstration and mobilization in conformity with the law is recognized.
Article 66. Nicaraguans have the right to accurate information. This right includes the freedom to seek, receive and disseminate information and ideas, be they spoken or written, in graphic or any other form.
Article 67. The right to provide information is a social responsibility and shall be exercised with strict respect for the principles established in the Constitution. This right cannot be subject to censorship, but may be subject to retroactive liability established by law.
Article 68. The mass media is at the service of national interests. The state shall promote the access of the public and its organizations to the media, and shall prevent the media from responding to foreign interests or to any economic power monopoly. The existence and functioning of public, corporate or private media shall not be the object of prior censorship.
Article 83. The right to strike is recognized.
Article 87. Full labor union freedom exists in Nicaragua. Workers may organize voluntarily in unions, which shall be constituted in conformity with the law. No workers are obliged to belong to a particular union, or to resign from the one to which they belong. Full union autonomy is recognized and the legal rights of organized labor are respected.
Article 88. In defense of their individual or organizational interests, workers are guaranteed the inalienable right to negotiate with their employers, in conformity with the law: 1. Individual contracts; 2. Collective bargaining agreements.
Article 93. The Nicaraguan people have the right to arm themselves in defense of their sovereignty, independence and revolutionary gains. It is the duty of the state to direct, organize and arm the people to guarantee this right.
Article 94. The defense of the Homeland and the Revolution rests on the mobilization and organized participation of all the people in the struggle against their aggressors. The state shall promote mass incorporation of the people into the various structures and tasks of the country's defense.
Article 95. The Sandinista Popular Army has a national character and must protect, respect and obey this Political Constitution. The Sandinista Popular Army is the military arm of the people and direct descendant of the Army in Defense of National Sovereignty (Sandino’s army). The state prepares, organizes and directs popular participation in the armed defense of the Homeland through the Sandinista Popular Army. No armed groups may exist in the national territory other than those established by the law, which shall regulate Military organizational structure.
Article 96. Nicaraguans have the duty to bear arms to defend the Homeland and the gains of the people against the threats and aggressions of a foreign country, or of forces directed or supported by any country. Patriotic Military Service is established in accordance with the terms of the law.
Article 97. The struggle against externally promoted actions to undermine the revolutionary order established by the Nicaraguan people and the confrontation with criminal and anti-social actions are integral to the defense of the Revolution. The state creates the internal security forces, whose functions are determined by law.
Article 99. The state directs and plans the national economy to guarantee the protection of the interests of the majority and the promotion of socioeconomic progress. The Central Bank, the National Financial System, Insurance and Foreign Commerce, instruments of the economic system, are irrevocable responsibilities of the state.
Article 101. Workers and other productive sectors have the right to participate in the creation, execution and control of economic plans.
Article 102. Natural resources are national patrimony. Preservation of the environment, and conservation, development and rational exploitation of natural resources are state responsibilities; the state may formalize contracts for the rational exploitation of these resources when required by the national interest.
Article 103. The state guarantees the democratic coexistence of public, private, cooperative, associative and communal property; all these form parts of the mixed economy, are subject to the overriding interest of the nation and fulfill a social function.
Article 104. Enterprises organized under any of the forms of ownership established in this Constitution enjoy equality before the law and the economic policies of the state. The economic plans of enterprises must be prepared with the participation of the workers. Free economic initiative exists.
Article 105. The state is obligated to regulate the supply and distribution of basic consumer goods fairly and rationally, in both the countryside and the cities. Speculation and hoarding are incompatible with the socioeconomic system and constitute serious crimes against the people.
Article 106. Agrarian reform is the fundamental instrument for achieving a just distribution of land and an effective means for revolutionary transformation, national development and the social progress of Nicaragua. The state guarantees the development of the agrarian reform program, to fulfill the historic demands of the peasants.
Article 107. Agrarian reform shall abolish landed estates, rentierism, inefficient production and the exploitation of peasants. It shall promote forms of ownership compatible with the economic and social objectives of the nation, as established in this Constitution.
Article 108. Land (ownership) is guaranteed to all those who productively and efficiently work their land. The law shall establish specific regulations and exceptions in conformity with the goals and objectives of agrarian reform.
Article 109. The state shall promote the voluntary association of peasants in agricultural cooperatives, without sexual discrimination. Subject to resources, it shall provide the material means necessary to raise their technical and productive capacity in order to improve the standard of living of the peasants.
Article 111. Peasants and other productive sectors have the right to participate through their own organizations in establishing the agrarian transformation policies.
Article 191. The National Assembly is empowered to partially amend this Political Constitution and to review and approve its total revision. The President of the Republic or one-third of the Representatives to the National Assembly may initiate a partial reform. Half of the total number of Representatives to the National Assembly plus one are necessary to initiate a total reform.
Article 192. A proposal for partial reform must specify the article or articles to be reformed with a statement of the reasons for the modification. The proposal must be sent to a special commission, which shall render an opinion within no more than 60 days; the initiative shall then follow the same process as for the creation of a law. A proposal for partial reform must be discussed in two sessions of the National Assembly.
Article 193. A proposal for total reform shall follow the same process as in the previous article, except that upon its approval, the National Assembly shall establish a time for holding elections for a Constituent National Assembly. The National Assembly shall retain jurisdiction until the installation of the new Constituent National Assembly. This Constitution shall remain in effect until the Constituent National Assembly has approved a new Constitution.
Article 194. Approval of a partial reform shall require a favorable vote by sixty percent of the Representatives. Two-thirds of the total number of Representatives is required to approve a total revision. The President of the Republic must promulgate the partial amendment, which is not subject to veto.
Article 195. The reform of constitutional laws shall follow the procedure established for partial reform of the Constitution, with the exception of the requirement of discussion in two legislative sessions.
*Translated by the Nicaraguan Embassy in Washington, DC, published by the US State Department.