Breaking Free of Fear To Defend Ideas and Rights
FSLN general secretary Daniel Ortega and Managua’s former Sandinista mayor Herty Lewites monopolized national attention for the entire week between Saturday, February 26, and Sunday, March 6, when they locked horns over the latter’s right to
compete with the former in party primaries to head next year’s presidential ticket. Below we offer one interpretation of
that week’s dramatic events.
Herty Lewites’ rebellion has put Daniel Ortega in check, leading him to display the worst side of his personality. In just one week, Ortega’s measures included ordering the physical intimidation of fellow Sandinistas, declaring Lewites and his campaign manager Víctor Hugo Tinoco “dishonorably discharged” from the FSLN, forbidding the use of party symbols by anyone unless personally authorized by him and prohibiting any political rallies not promoted by the party’s “owners.” In so doing, he trampled over the autonomy of three state institutions and humiliated the National Police.
The speed with which events have unfolded following Lewites’ challenge to the FSLN has not allowed enough time to reflect on its scope but this much is clear: it has far exceeded all forecasts. When Lewites announced his pre-candidacy, it was expected that Ortega and his cronies would launch a major campaign, including denouncing the supposedly imperialist nature of that postulation. No one doubted that the FSLN’s top leaders would fight hard to keep their most prized bone—the presidential candidacy—from being snatched from their jaws. But many also thought that those who have taken control of the main posts in that sad imitation of a party that is now the FSLN at least still had some scruples. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
A list of insults or another “miracle”?In a hastily called FSLN congress held in Matagalpa on March 6, Daniel Ortega saw to it that he was officially declared FSLN presidential candidate for the November 2006 elections. The event concluded a week in which he, his wife Rosario Murillo and a handful of other former revolutionaries not only decapitated a leader of Tinoco’s stature but used the full force of their considerable political power to prevent Lewites from holding a mass rally in Masaya and forbid anyone not in the FSLN structures from using the party’s symbols and colors. At one point in history those who would have felt within their right to do so covered 90% of Nicaraguans. Had the poet Murillo been on the outside, she would surely have used the adjective “abject” to describe this base display.
On Saturday March 5, the eve of the congress, she sent a singular missive to a number of journalists. Some may have expected another of her metaphysical writings or perhaps another string of insults against those who think differently than she. Given the atmosphere, others might reason-ably have expected another of her pro-Daniel apologetics, or—which amounts to the same thing—a new list of insults against whoever had come to her mind on some night of lunar significance. Some might even have expected the announcement of a new “miracle,” such as she circulated on January 14, following the agreements between President Enrique Bolaños and her husband. That text read: “Right from the start I new that a miracle would occur. When I woke up, four beautiful birds of an intense yellow, like fertilized eggs, landed on the guava tree. They fluttered around and sang… I knew it would be a special day. A day against fear. A day against affliction. A day against anguish. In short, a day of hope…” The litanies of that “miracle” went on and on.
But all such expectations would have been off base. This time Rosario was inviting us to pray. “Today,” ran her message, “the Movement of the Mothers of Sandinista Heroes and Martyrs will hold a Mass to pray for the unity of the Sandinista family and the successful outcome of the 3rd Congress.” The note offered two alternative prayer venues in Managua and another in Matagalpa. We would learn a few hours later what Murillo considered a “successful outcome” for the “unity of the Sandinista family.” The 600 Ortega supporters at the congress displayed the courage to “correct” the legal concept of the February 27 purging of Tinoco and Lewites: instead of “dishonorably discharge,” they were simply expelled. In addition, they decided to extend their own term as congress members until 2007, to avoid any “surprises” in the election of delegates for the following congress planned for February 2006. They also annulled one of the few democratic opportunities that had survived the 1998 reforms to the party statutes: the Sandinista grass roots would no longer be consulted on their choice for presidential candidate through primary elections.
As Daniel Ortega himself put it at the end of the event, “The congress is sovereign and made a decision. The truth is that primary elections cause a lot of problems due to the enormous erosion and friction they cause among Sandi-nistas. Why wear ourselves out and waste time with elections when at the end of the day those who ask us to hold them don’t even recognize the results? We are a party that has norms.”
Martínez Cuenca: Crushed and humilliatedThe decision to annul the primary elections and proclaim Ortega the presidential candidate not only cancelled out Lewites’ aspirations, it also crushed the hopes of economist Alejandro Martínez Cuenca, who had been the planning minister durinng the Sandinista government of the 1980s. Just two days before the congress he had released a “Manifesto for Sandinista Unity,” which outlined his plan of government and called for inclusive primary elections. It was backed by such distinguished Sandinistas as historian Aldo Díaz Lacayo and retired General Hugo Torres.
“Transparent primary elections amount to internal democracy, and to victory in 2006,” said Martínez Cuenca. “The three things are closely linked.” But nothing came of his “vehement call” to end the “confrontation among Sandinistas,” to abandon the courts and streets and settle their differences within the party, to stop pushing “decisions made in the heat of the moment that only fuel the continuing victimization of compañeros and latter turns into a boomerang against unity.” Even less came of his call for “replacements at all levels, and that this change start now by making use of the transparent and credible mechanisms we have for choosing candidates that commit all parties.”
Martínez Cuenca’s conciliatory talent was of no use either. The same boots that went after Levites trampled him. In reaction, he announced that he would fight to recover the primary election mechanism. “That’s the most important thing for me,” he said after the congress, “defending that banner of dialogue, openness, giving an arena to the grass roots so their voices can be heard. What’s the point of saying we have a democratic party if the people at the neighborhood and rural district level have no place to express their problems and concerns? Why can’t there be instruments of communication that allow the poor at the bottom of the country, who have no way of articulating their participation, to make their voices heard? How else can we respond to them when they say, ‘We want to win and we want you to hear our opinions about what to do to win’?”
Evaluating the congress’ “successful outcome,” Martínez Cuenca declared, “With pain in our soul we must say that we’ve detected a sense of frustration and deep irritation among the grass roots over what has happened. And it’s not about defending my candidacy or rejecting Daniel’s, but rather that they feel disregarded. A right they had already won is being taken away from them.”
He also complained about “that congress where they don’t even let Sandinistas speak. They just ask us to vote and if people dare to raise a different idea they are questioned in a truly antidemocratic way, as happened with one compañero [Enrique López from El Tuma-La Dalia, Matagalpa] who dared to vote against a resolution [the expulsion of Tinoco and Lewites]. The way that vote was handled was truly antidemocratic: in wanting to impose a majority, you don’t even respect the right of the minorities. I asked to speak twice and they didn’t let me, but they did make way for those who came to acclaim Ortega. They let the Convergence speak twice, but denied me, and I’m a party militant.”
Jarquín: “Ortega’s the best”Social Christian Agustín Jarquín, who wants to repeat the 2001 ticket as Ortega’s vice presidential running mate, spoke for the Convergence. He called the decision to cancel the primary elections correct. “It’s a reaction against an external plot that is being produced. I respect the party’s decision and if I were in its shoes I would have done the same. When you see a latent threat you have to take quick decisions and that’s what has happened in this case. It was correct to proclaim Ortega [the presidential candidate]. The government of George W. Bush has demonstrated its opposition to the FSLN-Convergence program and Lewites’ pre-candidacy is nothing more than a strategy to divide this project. Herty is an instrument of the United States.”
Jarquín claimed that Ortega, despite having been defeated on three consecutive tries, “is the best candidate” because he has experience and is committed to democracy, although he did admit that winning this time around would be a “major challenge.” Two days later, the Sandinista Renovation Movement, led by Dora María Téllez, distanced itself from Jarquín’s declarations and the events that took place on the eve of the Congress.
Núñez, Arce and Cerna speakRené Núñez—one of the people closest to Ortega, for which he has been rewarded with the presidency of the National Assembly—argued that his leader’s candidacy guarantees party unity. A resolution Núñez read stated that, after FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca, Daniel Ortega had been “the most determined fighter for FSLN unity, marked by his identification with the poor and his firm anti-imperialist position, which have made him not only the best FSLN leader, but also the most suitable person to govern Nicaragua.” Núñez, too, claims that Lewites’ pretensions and the campaign in favor of primary elections are being promoted by “ultra-right US sectors that have undertaken aggressive and cunning maneuvers aimed at dividing the party. If they don’t succeed, they will resort to more hard-line measures such as assassinating FSLN leaders, especially Daniel Ortega. This is demonstrated by their visceral opposition to an FSLN victory in the upcoming 2006 elections.”
FSLN legislator Bayardo Arce stated that, faced with such a fundamentalist government in the United States, “there’s a need to close ranks, not only around Daniel Ortega but also around the programmatic and political platform that will be the underpinning of the FSLN. We legislators believe that Daniel Ortega is our best option for avoiding distractions within Sandinismo.”
Meanwhile, former army colonel Lenín Cerna, who heads the pro-Daniel organizational apparatus, described Lewites as having “thrown himself under the horses’ hooves so he started to squeal, and that’s as much as he can aspire to.” He played down Lewites’ accusations of a plot to kill him, supposedly led by Cerna himself, describing the idea as ridiculous and illogical. “He knows well enough that I don’t do that kind of thing,” said Cerna, to the surprise of many. In a mocking tone alluding to the former Managua mayor’s history of heart problems, Cerna added, “Lewites is slightly unbalanced and let’s hope that he reflects on the state of his own health. He’s a sick man and should take care of himself.”
Deaths foretoldRosario Murillo’s texts are nearly always some sort of a guide to the decisions the FSLN is about to make. Ever since she “discovered” Lewites’ aristocratic characteristics, her epistles have included forewarnings for the wary and unwary—“he seems like a CIA agent,” she wrote in May 2004. Having now taken over the FSLN’s Communication Office, Murillo wrote a communiqué on March 1 in which she said the expulsion of Víctor Hugo Tinoco and Herty Lewites was a done deal and described Lewites’ administration of Managua’s municipal government as “one of the greatest shams suffered by Nicaraguan society and the FSLN.” For that reason she announced the FSLN’s “determination to reveal, expose and sue Lewites” while proclaiming that the party will recur only to legal means “to defend ourselves and wage our fights. That’s how it must be in a rule of law such as prevails in our country.”
All of Murillo’s forecasts have been fulfilled. The very day after she released that particular statement, the wheels began to turn on two different paths and everything was accomplished in record time, only hours apart. First, at 4 pm the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) issued a resolution based on article 10 of the Electoral Law instructing the National Police that “the only citizens who may request permission to hold political activities and use the symbols and flags duly registered as patrimony of the political parties are the party’s legal representatives in each area.” Two hours and forty minutes later, civil bench 2 of Managua’s Appeals Court issued a decision upholding an appeal filed by the FSLN against a rally Lewites was planning to hold in Masaya on Sunday March 6 and ordering the National Police to withdraw the permission it had already granted. The judges on that bench, consisting of Perla Arróliga, Gerardo Rodríguez and Juana Méndez—both of the latter die-hard Daniel supporters—also ordered the national and departmental police chiefs to reverse their decision refusing Ortega permission to hold a demonstration in the same city on the same date.
FSLN: A brand-name partyThat night, Edwin Castro—an FSLN legislator and parliamentary bench chief—explained his boss’ arguments as follows: “We are defending our symbols and our political organization. On the commercial level, nobody would dream of calling a march in the name of Coca Cola. All legally registered political parties such as the FSLN, with registered authorities, organizations and party symbols, have the right to stop others from using those symbols. No Tom, Dick or Harry can try to hold rallies in that party’s name, using its symbols. That’s why we’re resorting to the law.”
To round out the institutional harassment, Comptroller Luis Ángel Montenegro took care of what Murillo had described as a “sham” by resurrecting the Iván Avilés case. Right after taking office as municipal mayor, Lewites had appointed Avilés, a leader of the FSLN’s Business People’s Bloc, as director of the Managua Municipal Markets Corporation (CONMEMA). After only two years, 10 million córdobas in Avilés’ budget had evaporated. Off the record, several municipal officials say that Lewites discretely fired Avilés so as not to damage the FSLN’s image and somebody had the bright idea to cover up the theft with false audits. Avilés was not out of work for long. Daniel Ortega sent him to the party’s Managua departmental committee, where he headed the party’s command post during the 2004 municipal election campaign, a position he still holds free of any accusation. According to Comptroller Montenegro, Lewites is the person solely responsible for the loss of the 10 million córdobas.
State branches against Lewites;Ortega used all the power he has accumulated in the branches of state in recent years, including the Supreme Electoral Council, the Managua Appeals Court, the Office of Comptroller General and the National Police, to freeze out Lewites. Two revolutionary guerrilla commanders who were also distinguished leaders of the FSLN’s Democratic Left tendency during the nineties have strongly challenged the nature of Ortega’s institutional decisions. Mónica Baltodano believes that actions “are putting us on the path to new dictatorships; these measures are dictatorial in nature,” while René Vivas considered that the resolutions “should be rejected because they’re barbarous.” For its part, the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) concluded that “the CSE decision and the Appeals Court’s resolution are eminently political decisions, without legal or constitutional foundation. Both appear to respond to well-known arbitrary and anti-juridical behavior that is deepening the crisis and institutional disrepute affecting both those branches.”
important Sandinistas against measures
Meanwhile, fighting against all odds and ignoring all these obstacles, Herty Lewites repeated that “Masaya’s still on,” just as Agustín Jarquín and Miriam Argüello had insisted in 1989 that “Nandaime’s still on.” The irony is that while that rally landed both of them in prison for six months under Ortega’s presidency, the two are now among Ortega’s closest collaborators in the National Convergence currently allied to the FSLN.
Herty maintained the call for his rally because the National Police had granted his permission on February 21 and resisted fulfilling the Ortega-dictated Appeals Court order for 48 hours after it was issued. It finally succumbed, as Masaya police chief Julio González explained, because “a judicial order has to be honored and we are not a deliberative body that can determine whether it’s a good decision or not.” González had already fallen from grace for daring to deny permission for the pro-Daniel faction’s march, having already authorized Lewites’ rally.
The reversal of the police decision, authorizing Ortega and denying Lewites, persuaded Lewites to back down, “to avoid the shedding of blood among Sandininstas.” There would appear to have been some basis for his words, particularly in light of what had already happened on Saturday, February 26, the opening day of this particularly intense week.
February 26: Sticks and stonesThat day, Nicaraguans were shocked to see images of a violent a clash between Sandinistas on national TV. It was a truly shameful, horrible and sad moment. Lewites had announced at noon the previous day that he planned a march to the Managua site of a quasi-secret session of the Sandinista Assembly—the FSLN’s highest decision-making body between congresses—and the top pro-Daniel leadership decided to “teach the s.o.b. a lesson.”
Lenín Cerna commissioned Managua departmental secretary Elías Chévez, the FSLN’s national election monitor Juan José Úbeda and Lewites’ former deputy mayor Evert Cárcamo to organize the “defense” of the Assembly site. The four decided to call on the heads of the Sandinista bus cooperatives, foremost among them the feared Parrales Vallejos cooperative, to facilitate enough vehicles “to take our people to defend Daniel Ortega.” All of the cooperatives placed their members at the operation’s disposal. On the Friday night, Cerna assigned tasks for the next day. Cárcamo, known for his close links with gang members from southeastern and southwestern Managua, was to have a word with his young friends. Chévez would give the “political” orientations and Úbeda would draw up the plan of operations, which included handing out cash as well as aluminum tubes, iron bars and other useful tools of dissuasion.
Cárcamo, Chévez, Úbeda and their followers started arriving at the site in dozens of full buses in the early morning of Saturday 26. Cell phones in hand, the three organized an equal number of military-style “rings.” The first consisted of 500 of Cárcamo’s gang buddies, many of whom would later complain publicly that they hadn’t been given the 100 córdobas they were promised. The second contained bus drivers, mechanics and other members of the transport cooperatives, most of whom were former soldiers. The third and largest ring was made up of some 1,500 political activists from all of the capital’s districts. Together the three rings contained just over 3,000 people.
Later, around 700 Lewites supporters turned up in 30 hired buses and dozens of private vehicles, headed by Tinoco and Lewites, together with former National Directorate members Henry Ruiz, Luis Carrión and Víctor Tirado. Some 200 meters from the gates of the “Olofito” convention center where the Sandinista Assembly was meeting, they were stopped by the larger pro-Daniel demonstration. Daniel’s followers shouted out, “Sandinistas yes, opportunists no!” to which Herty’s followers replied, “Democracy yes, dictatorship no!” Both groups sported the red and black bandanas typical of the Sandinista struggle and both were mainly made up of poor people.
Soon people in the Ortega group began throwing stones and the Herty group responded in kind. For approximately 15 minutes both bands literally went at each other with fists, stones and even clubs. “Don’t throw stones, they’re brother Sandinistas,” shouted a Lewites activist through a megaphone, “Don’t throw stones; let’s set an example, compañeros! Calm down, we’re going to show that we’re better!” he shouted in front of Cárcamo. According to Lewites, Cárcamo gathered together a number of youngsters with the intention of inflicting physical damage, adding that the youngsters were paid to confront his group because they couldn’t attract Sandinista militants. He also accused the new Managua municipal administration of paying for the buses that transported the youngsters.
The clash was so sizable that nearly 20 police officers had to intervene, placing themselves between the rival bands. The scuffle resulted in seven injuries—five of them to Herty supporters—as well as several destroyed vehicles and the brief detention of three Herty supporters. The police confiscated several rucksacks full of stones from the pro-Daniel supporters, as well as sticks used for the flags they were carrying. After calming down the situation, the police recommended that Lewites leave because tensions were running too high and they could not guarantee his safety. Lewites said he had also been warned that there were armed people in Ortega’s group, which put his life at risk, and he agreed to withdraw.
Dishonorable discharge in a “black mass”Hours after Herty Lewites and his political team had announced they would march to the Sandinista Assembly to protest their right to participate in primary elections, Murillo engaged in more of her particular brand of auguring. “They showed claws, but dirty and bitten,” she wrote. “And we already knew them. They looked unpresentable. They spoke like good skulls. They talked and talked. Did they say anything...? Yes. They said they were others. That they no longer were. And that really is the truth. They no longer are. They are not, nor will they be. It’s obvious. They are the ex. One ex. Another ex. Another ex. Ex-Sandinistas, of course. Dishonorable discharge. Dishonorable! Low flying crows. Crafty. Nothing more.”
Once again she had again anticipated the forthcoming events. Following the embarrassing street brawl, Miguel D’Escoto read the “unanimously” approved resolution “dishonorably discharging” Tinoco and Lewites. While there is no mention of “dishonorable discharge” in the Sandinista statutes, it’s a loaded term for Sandinista militants, synonymous with treachery and cowardice. In the words of the official resolution, “By separating from the FSLN, breaking its postulates and becoming agents of the empire and oligarchy with the intention of eroding and dividing the FSLN, they have brought this dishonorable discharge upon themselves.”
And as Tomás Borge had described their actions as a “war against the imperialist offensive to take control of the party of the poor,” then any means are justified. Nobody knew how many of the 200 Assembly members—chosen by the congress or representatives of a determined structure—actually turned up at the Sandinista Assembly meeting and how many were replaced because their “loyalty” was in doubt. Murillo even presided over that “black mass” and voted as though she were a Sandinista Assembly member.
“Judas will end up hanged”Víctor Hugo Tinoco’s first reaction to the Assembly resolution was that “regardless of who was there, and there was no way of confirming it, they simply met with compañeros they knew would think the same and imposed that resolution on them.” He recalled that, according to the statutes, the Sandinista Assembly may only meet when called by the National Sandinista Council, successor to the original National Directorate, and that no such convocation had taken place—or if it had, he was not invited, which would violate the subsequent Assembly and all its resolutions. It was of no help to Tinoco that he had pulled the second highest number of votes after Daniel Ortega in elections for the National Sandinista Council during the previous congress.
Only minutes earlier, Ortega had branded both Lewites and Tinoco as “Judas” in his speech to the Assembly, saying that “the imperialist Yankees, in their irrational attempt to erode, confuse, divide the Sandinista Front, resort—as they always do—to he who gave Christ the kiss of death, they resort to Judas. And if once again there is a Judas or two Judases who want to join the other Judases who left the FSLN a while ago, then we don’t care! Judas is there to be the instrument of the empire, of the oligarchy. And the saddest thing is that the same thing happens to those Judases as happened to the one that sold Christ for 30 pieces of gold. They end up hanged by their own shame!”
Henry Ruiz, a Sandinista commander who went by the pseudonym “Modesto” during the insurrection, and is now suffering a similar fate because he dared to blow the whistle on one of Daniel’s powerful adherents, believes that such words contain a death threat. “This a logical connection,” he explained, “First they give you a dishonorable discharge, which is a really strong army term: the person can’t use the insignia, and leaves with no rights, stripped of everything. In our times, during the guerrilla struggle, this was decreed for desertion or providing information to the enemy. Nowadays, they tell us it’s because we supposedly received money from the [US] Embassy, the CIA or ARENA [the Salvadoran extreme right]. This merits the death penalty, but as that doesn’t exist, the figure of Judas is used so we hang ourselves in our own shame. I must insist: this is a code for political murder, which might apply to Herty or any one of us. They are sending out the signals for a high-level assassination. I’m not afraid of that, because ideas are stronger than the life in your own body.”
General Hugo Torres, an old friend of Daniel and his brother, the former head of the army, seconded Modesto’s interpretation. “I don’t agree with using that kind of image,” he said, “because it seems to me that it appeals to a religious feeling about an eminently political issue. Comandante Daniel Ortega should be a bit more careful, because with the weight he currently has as undisputed leader of the FSLN, the order—if it comes to be translated that way in the mind of many militants—could lead to precipitous and dangerous instructions. I hope he acts more prudently and with a greater sense of responsibility.”
Zionist, capitalist, pro-yankee...
“let’s see their true colors”
To a certain extent, Herty Lewites’ own erroneous discourse has facilitated Ortega’s accusations. On February 21, during an act of remembrance for General Augusto C. Sandino, Ortega challenged Lewites—without actually naming him—to declare himself anti-imperialist and Herty fell into the trap. He distanced himself from a discourse he defined as “confrontational” then challenged Daniel to run against him in primary elections “where the Sandinista grass roots can choose between one candidate who is always going to be fighting with the United States and another who wants to work with everyone, including President Bush, who was elected by the vast majority of the American people.” A couple of days later, Herty tried to rectify his mistake. When a journalist asked if he considered himself an anti-imperialist Sandinista, Lewites replied, “Yes, yes, yes. I am anti-imperialist. General Augusto César Sandino demonstrated it. But being anti-imperialist does not mean living in confrontation all your life, so that a population like ours starves to death. I’m anti-imperialist and I maintain my position.”
But Lewites has not only been labeled pro-Yankee. Edwin Castro also accused him of using money from “Zionism and imperialism” to finance his campaign. And in private, businessman Manuel Coronel Kautz, a member of the pro-Daniel inner circle who is of German origins, said that the February 26 brawl reminded him of Kristalnacht when Hitler’s supporters destroyed the Jewish neighborhoods of Berlin. Lewites is of Jewish heritage.
Former Vice President Sergio Ramírez, who left the FSLN in 1995, had the following retort for Castro: “For a Sandinista leader to talk of Zionism and imperialism smacks to me of anti-Semitism and racism. Accusing Herty Lewites of being Jewish [as if it were a negative thing] is very dangerous. Does that mean that the blood of his brother, Israel Lewites, who fell trying to take the barracks in Masaya, was impure? Saying that is an atrocity.”
Herty Lewites reacted furiously to being labeled “Judas” and accused of being capitalist. On Sunday February 27, during an event attended by hundreds of militants in the municipality of San Rafael del Sur, he dished the dirt on various leaders. “Tomás Borge has just sold a piece of land in front of his house for $1 million,” he said. “Where did he get that land from? I can give you the names. He’s also selling a farm on Mombacho volcano for $1.5 million. That’s two and a half million there alone. He sold another piece of land for $800,000, which is getting on to four million. Rosario Murillo bought three Mercedes Benzes in the same day, and I’m going around in a ten-year-old pick-up truck.
“Let’s see everyone’s true colors; the population has the right to know. Bayardo Arce has been irresponsible all his life, even in his private life. He falls down drunk in canteens. I’m a serious man in my own life; I’ve only been married once and he’s been married five times. That gives you some idea of the kind of a person who’s accusing me. He goes around in a car that costs $90,000, he has apartments and other large buildings in Los Robles [one of Managua’s more affluent neighborhoods] and is the biggest importer of rice from the United States.”
Herty might be able to destroy the FSLN,How far we’ve come since 2000, when Herty Lewites was promoted as the Sandinista candidate for mayor of Managua by all those same figures. Ortega “could be among my first two friends. It’s a good friendship,” Lewites said in an interview at that time. Now, Lewites denounces Ortega as a dictator and Ortega brands Lewites as a renegade.
but its leaders have already done the job
Julio López was one of the main architects of the Democratic Left, the FSLN tendency that helped Daniel Ortega become party general secretary in 1994, but was forced out of the party structures following his tenacious opposition to the first Ortega-Alemán pact in 1998. He offers the following opinion on the recent events: “It’s very hard to argue the current decisions being taken by the FSLN leadership from a revolutionary perspective. It is absolutely unsustainable to pretend that an individual can destroy the FSLN. If one bald man [Herty Lewites] is capable of destroying the Sandinista Front of Carlos Fonseca, it means the party was destroyed a while ago. Or from another perspective: can imperialism really destroy the FSLN from within, and without even waging a struggle? Because we’re not going up against it here the same way they’re doing in Cuba or Venezuela. Doesn’t the FSLN have the force, the capacity, the profound convictions, the message, the ideology, the banners to take on an inside attempt to alter the party’s internal, political and ideological life? If it doesn’t have the capacity to resist the Right’s efforts, then the current leadership will have demonstrated its incapacity and ineffectiveness.”
“In the 1994 crisis we didn’t expel; López went on to say that “according to Daniel Ortega, there’s an orchestrated campaign against the FSLN in all the media, and that this is the clearest evidence that it’s an imperialist project. They argue that this is why they have to do what they’re doing. This isn’t the first time in the FSLN’s history that we find ourselves in such a situation. The last was the 1994 crisis; the confrontation between Sergio Ramírez’s tendency and the Democratic Left. At that time, all of the rightwing media were behind Sergio, Ernesto Cardenal and the group of prestigious cadres who lined up behind their group’s positions. And was that situation confronted with expulsions? No! It was dealt with in discussions with the FSLN’s grassroots units, in municipal and departmental assemblies. There was a political and ideological discussion within the FSLN.”
we debated and discussed”
“We never said that if all of the rightwing media were backing Sergio Ramírez, then it was a project promoted by imperialism and had to be expelled. What the FSLN did was open up an internal process to get people interested in understanding, discussing. So the compañeros in Sergio’s tendency presented their positions, met with the people, and we took our turn. The two position papers were even printed in Barricada. We weren’t afraid of discussion, even though the opinion polls said that people were backing the Ramírez group’s positions. We went to dialogue and discuss with the people, to exchange ideas, debate and dialogue.
“And how was the problem resolved? In a congress, but not like the one just held. There were congress members there who supported the positions of Sergio’s movement and others who supported those of the Democratic Left. And during that congress, we again engaged in democratic political discussion. And we voted. Sergio’s people got over 30% support, but most of the grass roots opted for the Democratic Left’s positions, through their congressional representatives. So it’s not true that opposition from the media means we have to clamp down on political debate and start taking authoritarian measures.”
Daniel Ortega: Like a wounded animalIs it possible to avoid a split in the FSLN? At this moment the answer would appear to be no. Up to now it has been an uneven battle. A party supposedly covers all of its militants and its authorities should maintain internal harmony. If Ortega had assumed such a role, then as soon as Lewites announced his intention he, as general secretary of the FSLN, could have called Lewites and arranged the ground rules. He could have established, for example, that these were not yet electoral times and it would be better to resolve the country’s political crisis first, then discuss the government program with the grass roots and finally hold primary elections. He could have done all of this had he acted as general secretary. But instead he felt threatened as the party’s perennial presidential candidate and like a wounded animal pounced to defend something he considers his personal patrimony.
He was so furious that he even expelled Víctor Hugo Tinoco, a militant with a faultless record—a student leader and guerrilla leader before 1979, deputy foreign minister during the revolution, legislator and member of the FSLN leadership since the nineties—for daring to back Lewites’ aspirations.
Herty and Daniel: Ideologically similarHerty Lewites and his colleagues face an enormous challenge: to turn the objective discontent among a large part of the Sandinista grass roots—who are furious about their leaders’ undemocratic actions—into a real movement of grassroots rebellion that not only reestablishes internal democracy, but also produces an alternative political line to neoliberalism.
The FSLN’s underlying problems are not only procedural but also ideological, because when Ortega decided to dismantle the grassroots movement and hole up in the state institutions to do politics and business, he took a turn to the right. It doesn’t matter that he’s maintained his fiery anti-Yankee rhetoric, because in practice he was co-opted by his former enemies, has legitimized both the bourgeois political system and the neoliberal regime and made pacts with the most corrupt forces of national politics to guarantee privileges, perks and personal political power. Sadly, this is an effective summary of his last seven years on the political stage.
Herty Lewites, meanwhile, was right beside him, encouraging and participating in that shift to the right, because that’s exactly what he was seeking when he hung out with Sergio Ramírez’s tendency. Lewites and Ortega are so similar following that shift that a day after the Matagalpa congress Lewites told journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro that “the problem isn’t ideological, because Daniel is as revolutionary as I am, this cause has cost him as much as it has cost me.”
The ideological deformation of Ortega and those around him has led to the combination of personal economic interests and unbridled ambition, with which Lewites is himself familiar. In fact, he has been one of their most emblematic representatives. There are still doubts about who really finances Lewites’ activities and it’s just not good enough to explain that his funds come from a group of about thirty compañeros, each of whom gives between $1,500 and $2,000.
While a potentially winning candidate for the 2006 presidential elections, Herty is far from being a Sandinista leader, with all that this term implies. It’s one thing for the government hypothetically to attempt respectful relations with the United States and quite another to renounce anti-imperialism. Lewites has clearly stated that although he likes capitalism, he will govern for the most dispossessed sectors. It’s a very eloquent contradiction.
There’s also confusion in the group of people surrounding Lewites. With the exception of Modesto, whose leftist socialist thinking is unquestionable, and perhaps Tinoco, his team is full of self-defined “centrist” Sandinistas who have been wedded to social democratic ideas for some time.
What remains to be doneThe main problem is that it will not be possible to open up internal party spaces without engaging in industrious organizational work. There are many chiefs in Lewites’ movement but very few are willing to break away from the mother party and work at the base to build a parallel structure that forces Ortega at least to negotiate a political solution. This reality should lead Henry Ruiz, Víctor Tirado López and Luis Carrión, and also Tinoco, to outline a formal tendency, organized like a party, from which they can build a political proposal with objectives defined beyond the electoral competition; in other words, an organic tendency that transcends the legitimate struggle to democratize the party.
The only way to ensure a revolutionary profile for the Lewites phenomenon is to give it a revolutionary setting. And one way to do that would be to incorporate the still-influential Democratic Left tendency into his project. But neither Baltodano, Vivas nor López, its three most visible representatives, want to stick their necks out and head off on an adventure whose final objectives are unclear.
The blood of brothers?This is no bed of roses for Daniel Ortega. While he still controls the FSLN seals, which by virtue of his influence in the state branches ensures he will continue to act as the party’s official custodian, he controls ever fewer Sandi-nistas. The meager crowd that turned out to his Masaya rally on March 6 was a demonstration of his weakness. Ortega drew a lot less than 1,000 sympathizers from Masaya itself and had to resort to his most loyal activists from five neighboring towns to scrape together just over 5,000 supporters.
His friends aren’t helping very much either. The interference of his wife Rosario Murillo—with her diatribes, her insistence on choosing the party’s campaign colors, her messages of love for certain opponents and hate for certain Sandinistas, her arrogance and her ideological mood swings—have led Ortega to commit his share of political mistakes. The same has happened with Cerna, who tends to resolve any differences in the best style of any military apparatus: repression. Others, such as René Núñez, Bayardo Arce and Tomás Borge, can offer little support as, in addition to being tired of providing an example of revolutionary behavior, they now have personal or family economic interests to defend against Lewites or any other possible threat.
And the rest—people like Edwin Castro, Elías Chévez or Juan José Úbeda—just want to stay in favor so they can run again for legislator in the coming elections, or to hang on to whatever other juicy post offers financial and political perks. None of them are really interested in anything other than their own interests. Several of these “friends” are advising Ortega to shed blood in order to settle this crisis. Some sources suggest the possible assassination not only of Lewites, but also of Modesto. It is also rumored that the axe will fall on other heads, particularly people who have used their microphones to fight against the positions Ortega has taken, even if they haven’t actually backed Herty.
The calmest, most lucid people surrounding Ortega are Managua Mayor Dionisio Marenco and sociologist Orlando Núñez, a former Democratic Left militant. They are cooler and less intense, but at the same time more astute. They feel that things could have been resolved differently, and Núñez even dared to propose an Ortega-Lewites ticket for President and Vice President. But they evidently haven’t been listened to. Meanwhile, some of Ortega’s allies in the Convergence, ruled by their self-interest, are haggling over the number of FSLN legislative seats, as promised by Ortega, and are unwilling to risk those posts by defending the democratic rights of others. So far only the MRS has come out against the manipulation of government institutions to get at Lewites.
This crisis is weakening Ortega with respect both his partners-in-pacts, Arnoldo Alemán and President Bolaños. A number of key national decisions are approaching, such as whether to approve the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and whether to bow to US pressure and destroy all of the Army’s SAM-7 missiles. Although the votes of FSLN representatives will be decisive in this respect, they could end up voting any which way if Ortega feels that a particular result would help guarantee his control of the FSLN seals.
Most important of all, how can Ortega honor the promise he made to the Liberals to free their caudillo? Doing so will only fuel the rebellion against him, as the Sandinista grass roots still haven’t recovered from the shock of seeing the photo of Ortega posing with the Alemán family during the infamous January 7 meeting in the latter’s El Chile hacienda. But if Ortega doesn’t free Alemán, the Liberals have enough weapons in their armory to hit Ortega where it hurts him most. Will those consequences be enough to annul the outcome of the congress and put Ortega on the edge of the cliff?
Herty Lewites’ insdisputable meritThe main factor behind the events to come will be grassroots mobilization. Lewites has announced rallies in Masaya and all of the country’s main cities. And so has Ortega. But the battle won’t be decided by who gets most people out on the streets, but rather whether those people are organized and willing to fight to defend determined positions. The fact is that the FSLN is already divided and Ortega’s leadership has been almost fatally wounded—it must be particularly hard for him to be publicly accused by Sandinistas of being a dictator. It is still too soon to come to any definitive conclusions, but his chances of being elected President in 2006 have been seriously eroded. If Herty Lewites will be remembered for anything, it will be that he helped thousands of Sandinistas lose their fear of defending their ideas and rights.
William Grigsby Vado is a Nicaraguan journalist.