“We’re Independent Leftists”
At the end of April, presidential candidate Herty Lewites
met for over two hours with a huge gathering of envío readers.
While his MRS Alliance will release a full government program on May 21,
he answered over thirty questions, a selection of which we offer here.
Are you a leftist and is your alliance a leftist movement? The alliance we’re building is a modern Left, where we want things to function horizontally. Our alliance offers Nicaragua a Left rooted in our reality and in the reality in which the world is developing. I was a Sandinista, am still a Sandinista and will die a Sandinista.
I believe that Nicaragua, and we Sandinistas, are currently facing a situation that is more difficult than when we fought against Somoza. With the pact, the Ortega and Alemán supporters have organized a genuine dictatorship: the Supreme Court, electoral branch and National Assembly—three of the four branches of state—respond only to their orders. You’re either with them or you’re liquidated. In addition, we’ve had governments over these past 15 years that haven’t been at all concerned about the poorest of our population. Wealth has been concentrated in the hands of a few and poverty has reached an extreme we’ve never known before in Nicaragua. I will do everything in my power to change this, to bring equality to this country, so that we can all have the possibility of living like human beings.
If we don’t win the presidency and don’t get enough National Assembly seats to make an institutional reform, Nicaragua will be facing a tremendous crisis in another decade. We can’t go on like this. How can four in every ten Nicaraguans be living on seven pesos a day? How can we continue to live with so much injustice and inequality? I’m not against the rich, but I won’t let them get richer by making the people more miserable. I believe that thinking and acting in this way is being left.
Why do you criticize the FSLN so much? I’m not against the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which is sacred to me. I’m against those who are running it, against an elite handful of just 20-25 corrupt people. And I can demonstrate that charge. They criticize the wealthy, the bourgeoisie and the exploiters, but they themselves live like the rich and the bourgeois and they exploit people terribly. As long as this group keeps running the FSLN as if it were a private business, the party can’t be what it once was.
How did it feel to break with the FSLN? Nothing that’s happened has been easy for me, after 35 years of allegiance to the red and black flag. I was prepared to give my life for that flag. So many compañeros fell defending it; my own blood was spilled for it, the blood of my brother Israel, and now they forbid me from using that flag? How can anyone think that doesn’t make me sad? But that’s not enough to make me cave in to the corrupt interests of the clique running the FSLN. When I put myself forward as a possible FSLN presidential candidate, Miguel D’Escoto said, “We’d rather lose with Daniel than win with Herty.” What kind of a position is that? Those words sound to me like radical subservience.
I’ll die a Sandinista, but I’ll never go back to that den of “Danielismo,” where that inner circle has committed so many injustices. I pray to God for strength to sustain me in this struggle. Because there’s a lot of power and a lot of money behind Daniel. It’s true that I was with them for 35 years, but it’s also true that it’s never too late to change, never too late to love. The time came to break with the injustices they have committed and find a way to renew, to rescue the values of Sandinismo and get Sandinistas back into office again to change Nicaragua.
What relations would your government have with the IMF? We know what the International Monetary Fund is and that it has this country totally hogtied, with rulers signing everything the IMF asks them to. And that’s why we’re in such bad shape. Bolivia is an incredibly poor country, but even it dedicates 9% of its GDP to education, while we only earmark 3%!
What kind of future does this mean for us? A million children who don’t go to school? Classrooms with one teacher in front of 70 students, a teacher who only earns the equivalent of $70 a month and possibly walks seven kilometers to get to school? What mental capacity and enthusiasm does that teacher bring to school? When we’re in government, we’ll have to renegotiate many things with the IMF immediately, and we’ll do it from an independent position, based on our principles of commitment to social justice.
What changes would you make in the economy?
We’re going to focus the economy on supporting and defending small- and medium-scale producers. The Jalapa valley, for example, can produce 105 quintals of maize per hectare, but in 2005 the lack of production credits meant that only 1,400 hectares of the valley’s 24,500 were actually planted. We have to use technology and loans to change that sort of thing right across Nicaragua. We can save ourselves from the disadvantages of the free trade agreement with the United States as long as we defend small and medium rural producers, who right now are abandoned and down for the count. Our government’s responsibility will be to strengthen both them andsmall and medium urban businesses.
Today, many of Nicaragua’s big companies only sell or package foreign products. They import Coca Cola syrup, add water and bottle it, and people drink it like crazy. Hardly anyone wants traditional drinks like tiste, barley water or pinolillo anymore. This spending of hard currency makes me sad. Can’t anyone produce and sell juices made from pineapple, pitahaya, guava, or our other fruits? The people who produce the wealth here are the ones who get their hands dirty laboring under the hot sun. We have to support them and protect and rescue our own values. Our government will assume this responsibility by doing everything humanly possible for the small and medium producers and to ensure we don’t lose our identity.
We want to set up a development bank to help Nicaragua’s small and medium producers and businesspeople. In Costa Rica, day workers, housekeepers or carpenters earn a decent income because there’s a government that protects them. Our government is going to generate jobs with policies that support the small and medium sector and we’re going to set up schools to train young people in carpentry, masonry, plumbing and many other trades needed to help Nicaragua develop. We’re not just going to think of attracting the sweatshop maquilas, that only offer a survival salary. Who can live on $90 a month? Who can put up with those kind of prison labor conditions for very long?
Does your program also have a place for tourism? Our government plan is going to include the large-scale development of tourism, but once again prioritizing small and medium businesspeople, their projects and initiatives. In that production and service development bank I mentioned we’re also going to support people who want to set up small hostels, loaning them seed money of up to $1,000 to get started. Rural tourism is increasingly attractive. Many tourists like to stay in small rural houses, as long as they provide certain comforts. We’re also going to promote investment by large tourist companies. Costa Rica generated US$3 billion last year just in tourism. It has 40,000 rooms for tourism while Nicaragua only has 3,000. Costa Rica has 18,000 rooms in the border area between our two countries, and we don’t have any. Is that because Costa Ricans are smarter? Of course not; it’s because President Pepe Figueres invested a lot of money in education in 1948, and this is the result. Our government is also going to invest in education on a grand scale so that 15, 20 years down the road Nicaragua will be a different place. It’s impossible to bring about such a change in just the five years we’re in office, but we’re going to get the ball rolling.
What will your energy policy be? We also want large-scale development of alternative energies. This is one of the priority points of our government plan. Nicaragua has major resources in its volcanoes, the wind, its rivers. If we had done something about this in the revolutionary years, we would already be totally independent of petroleum. But no government has concerned itself with developing alternative energy programs. Not the Sandinista government, nor the government of Violeta Chamorro, and hardly the Alemán government, which only went to ENRON to get some generating plants that consume enormous quantities of oil. This has to change. How is it possible that 83% of the energy we consume in Nicaragua depends on oil, on bunker, while in Costa Rica it’s only 35%?
What are your ideas about the
problems facing women in this country? It really hurts me to see 13-year-old girls on street corners selling their young bodies. It hurts me to see these girls going off with men in $60,000 SUVs. What are the millionaires in this country thinking? And what happens in the courts? A man who rapes a girl gives a few bucks to the judge and gets off free. I want to dedicate myself to stopping this violence against our children, to ending this impunity.
I know, I’ve seen that women are more loyal than men, that they’re more efficient and more responsible. We have to give them more opportunities. I always remember a phrase of my mother’s: “Mother for a hundred children, father for none.” A mother won’t let a hundred children die, but given all the machismo in this country, a father is capable of letting them all die. That’s why I wrote up the property title in the name of the man in five cases out of all the 20,000 urban lots I gave out when I was mayor of Managua.
What will your policy for the Caribbean coast be?
Nicaragua is divided in half. It takes seven days to get from Managua to Puerto Cabezas during the rainy season and taking a cargo truck from Managua to the coast costs over $1,700. People in the coast earn a lot less than here in the Pacific, yet everything costs 30% more. We live in two worlds due to lack of communications. This can’t go on. The Caribbean coast is an integral part of our country and has much more natural wealth than the Pacific. We have pledged to the coast that we’ll change this isolation and this division, but nothing will change as long as the coast doesn’t have real autonomy. Without that, it won’t develop. The two coast governors are going to be part of my Cabinet. We want them to defend their own autonomy and decide the investments made in the coast.
What will be the focus of your foreign policy? Our foreign relations are going to be respectful of all countries. I’m not the United States’ preferred candidate, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to have confrontational relations with it. Nor am I going to be confrontational with Venezuela, Cuba or with any other country. We’ll be fine as long as they respect us and don’t meddle in our affairs.
Who do you depend on for your campaign? If there’s one thing this movement is fighting for, it’s independence. You won’t see us standing in line at the US Embassy. No one is going to tell us what country we can have relations with. Nor are we going to go cap in hand to Nicaragua’s big capitalists who’ll finance the campaign on the condition that they get to name ministers or to continue evading millions in taxes.
We’re doing everything possible to be as independent as we can, so that afterward we can govern independently and work toward the social justice the country needs. When I took office as mayor of Managua, we were only collecting 300 million córdobas in taxes, but precisely because I had no commitments, I ended up collecting 930 million. I made the rich pay the taxes they should be paying. I didn’t want any confrontation, but I spoke with them, told them that they had to pay and I made them pay. Some 3 billion córdobas in taxes go unpaid every year. What could we do in education with that kind of money? It would change the country!
One of our proposals, for example, is to put an end to the mega-salaries so we can dedicate that money to social investment. But even before passing this law, our alliance is going to sign a commitment that anyone who ends up in the Cabinet or National Assembly will cut their salary in half.
What do you think of the proposal for
a Lewites-Montealegre alliance? Eduardo Montealegre and I think differently. He has a banking education and a different social sensibility. He and I don’t have anything in common in our thinking or ideology. If he maintains his struggle against the pact, we can agree on that. I’ve spoken with him and proposed that the two of us sign an agreement in September that the legislative candidates elected on our respective slates join their votes in the National Assembly to start undoing the pact. I hope that he’ll follow through on that commitment, because the reality is that neither the MRS Alliance nor the ALN-PC can win 56 legislative seats alone, which is the qualified majority needed to reform the Constitution in a way that puts an end to the pact. So in that particular effort, we can and must join forces.
Does your project extend beyond the elections? Our alliance is made up of the Movement to Rescue Sandinismo and two parties, the Sandinista Renovation Movement and the Civic Action Party. It also includes other Socialist and Social Christian political groupings and several social organizations. After the elections, we don’t want to lose the potential we’ve accumulated across the country in these months. We now have a national presence, with directive boards in all municipalities. We’ve proposed unifying into one party after the elections to deal with the pact, the Danielista elite, Alemán’s Liberalism and Montealegre’s neoliberalism, and to struggle for social justice. This will be the next stage, because we haven’t made all this effort just for the electoral moment.
In your tours through the country, what
limitations have you seen to your project? People have been so betrayed by politicians that it even makes me embarrassed to go into people’s houses. A little old lady said to me the other day, “What do you think you’re doing, son? I don’t believe in any of you anymore. Young Daniel came here; he ate over there and I gave him some coffee, then he turned right around and made deals with that fat guy. And you expect me to believe in you?” What can I say to that lady? People have lost all belief in politics and in us politicians, and with good reason. When you approach a house they have every right to kick you out! Restoring faith in politics isn’t going to be easy.
Do you really think you’ve got a chance of winning,
given your campaign’s financial limitations? I do. We’re going to win. No one in the history of Nicaragua had a political machinery like the FSLN’s in 1990 and we lost the elections to Violeta Chamorro, who went around with a cane just waving and smiling at people. At that moment people were tired of the war and understood that she could bring peace, so they voted for her. Now people are tired of so much poverty and so much pact, and I think they’ll vote for us because they’re going to understand that we offer the chance of improving life and changing Nicaragua. I’m not afraid of the big machines or the hugely wasteful electoral spending. Money helps an electoral campaign, but it doesn’t define it.
I want to be everybody’s President; I don’t want to confront anyone. But I also believe that we have to tell the truth, whatever the cost. If we want to change this country’s political culture, we can’t have double standards of any kind on any issue. If somebody doesn’t vote for us because we tell people the truth and are honest, so be it, but we’re not going to go around lying just to get votes. I repeat: I’m not going to accept a million dollars from big capital if they want to name the treasury minister and the Central Bank president in exchange. Big capital has made and broken Presidents in Nicaragua and that has to end. Money isn’t going to define this electoral campaign. I have resources for the campaign, but I’m not going to squander them. If we want austere governments, we have to demonstrate that austerity and our desire to achieve it right from the electoral campaign. I trust that you’re going to help me change Nicaragua. Please trust me.