Rescuing and Renovating Sandinismo: A Critique of Nicaraguan Heroic Culture
To be effective, transformative political activity needs to be guided by a line of thought rooted in a set of convictions and collective ethical principles. Its absence or the use of vague, nebulous thinking can only produce ambiguous, contradictory results. That’s what’s happening in Nicaragua’s MRS Alliance,
organized around the Sandinista Renovation Movement
and Rescue of Sandinismo.
Andrés Pérez Baltodano
While it presents itself as a leftist option, the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) Alliance hasn’t succeeded in putting together a body of thought and an alternative vision to transform Nicaragua’s reality. After all, who can explain what the renovation of Sandinismo consists of and, more concretely, the MRS Alliance’s new vision of sovereignty, social justice and liberty, all of which were central to the original Sandinista ideals? Who can clear up whether the MRS still follows the logic of the great majorities, once proposed as the guiding principle of the Nicaraguan economy by those in the FSLN who would later split away to found the MRS? What is the MRS Alliance’s vision of democracy? In its many communiqués, that organization has promoted an abstract democracy, but has never laid out a serious and critical analysis of the weaknesses and contradictions of such a system in a country like ours. More than the alleged organizational deficiencies chastised by the corrupt Supreme Electoral Council, it is the lack of substantive explanations and definitions in its program that make the MRS Alliance a fictitious political organization.
When politics becomes a betting gameIn the absence of any guiding thinking, the MRS has consciously or unconsciously acted in harmony with the dominant system of values, i.e. with the “common sense” that informs the definitions of good and evil in our country’s politics.
The valiant hunger strike to which Dora María Téllez, one of its top leaders, subjected herself is framed within these values. It is part and parcel of a heroic culture that minimizes and at times even deprecates the role of thinking in the construction of social reality. Within that culture, the future is perceived as a game of fortune, and politics as the value needed to place bold bets on the roulette wheel of history. In this regard, it’s no surprise that one participant in the June 27 march that sought to capitalize on the impact of Dora María’s actions declared to a local newspaper that a big blue ball being pushed by a group of MRS youth symbolized the party’s “testicles.”
The betting game that passes for politics in our country almost always leads to greater confusion. The June 27 march offered a sampling of the dangers derived from the absence of any political thinking to guide the efforts to transform the country. The MRS Alliance’s participation increased the level of confusion in the Tower of Babel that is Nicaragua and drove another nail into the Nicaraguan Left’s coffin.
When neoliberalism rides It became clear in the 2006 general elections that the MRS Alliance didn’t have its own line of thinking, much less an alternative program to replace the reigning economic and social system. Edmundo Jarquín, the alliance’s presidential candidate, recognized this when pointing out that the government plans of all parties running in those elections were virtually identical, differentiated only by the people proposing them. That gave the electoral race all the seriousness of a contest to pick the most congenial candidate… or the ugliest [as Jarquín sold himself], or the most stylish, or the best packaged.
on providentialism’s coattails
Jarquín was right. The visions of society and the government programs of the parties running in those elections were so similar because all were thought out within the dominant culture. None stepped outside the values that form part of the providentialist Christian tradition reproduced in Nicaragua for the past five hundred years. And none stepped outside society’s pragmatic-resigned political perceptions and attitudes toward power and history or the economic values that represent national and international capital’s interests in institutionalizing the market as the regulatory focal point of life in society.
Providentialism defines history as a process governed by God’s will. Resigned pragmatism is fed by such providentialism and perceives social reality as a historical condition determined by forces outside of thinking or reflective political action. From a resigned pragmatic perspective, the politically desirable must always be subordinated to what is circumstantially possible. Politics, in other words, is conceived as the capacity to adjust to the reality of power and “to temper oneself to the circumstances.”
The values of neoliberalism are currently riding the coattails of the religious providentialism and resigned pragmatism dominant in Nicaragua. Neoliberalism is a special form of capitalism, a model of relations among state, market and society that intensifies the market’s instrumental rationality to the point of converting it into the normative guiding axis of life in society. In Nicaragua, neoliberal rationality has ended up adapting to the social vices that form part of our country’s history of corruption and impunity, serving to justify the Nicaraguan elites’ historical egotism, political myopia and insensitivity.
When fatalism and heroism ruleResigned pragmatism devalues thinking and generates a political conduct that favors action, sacrificing reflection. But in the end, devaluing thinking devalues the mind, which fails to perceive itself as a force capable of conditioning the sense of history.
In societies in which politics and state administration take place within a reflective culture, history is perceived as a social construction in which both thinking and action participate. For example, a recent report published by a Canadian research center stated that Canada’s economy has lost strength and dynamism in the past three decades, and then asked: “Does that mean Canadians must work harder?” “No,” it responded, “it means they need to work more intelligently.” The loss of foresight—the capacity to visualize, think about and theorize the future—was mentioned as one of the main causes of the Canadian economy’s downward slide and one of the main explanations for the growth of the world’s most successful economies.
The future is secondary in societies such as Nicaragua’s, in which history is perceived as a process not linked to thought or the reflective capacity of society’s members and what predominates is the impulse to live in the present. The shortsightedness to which Emilio Álvarez Montalván refers in his study of Nicaraguan political culture is a manifestation of the gap we perceive between thinking and reality.
Depreciating and misusing the power of ideas and thinking to condition the future, we assume that to survive we have to learn to live history as a process governed by chance. In this context, two types of behavior arise, which while apparently opposed reflect the weight of the same culture: the fatalism of those who resign themselves to God’s will and fate to survive, and the heroism of those who see history as a game of chance in which all we can do is respond to the present circumstances with lucky blows and extraordinary and transcendental actions.
In a resigned pragmatic culture, then, history becomes a fetish that is either respectfully adored or confronted and ambushed with improvisation. In both cases, history is objectified and thus separated from the source of its creation—ourselves and how we think about it and understand our role in the social construction of reality.
When the logic is short-termThe thinking and conduct of the groups within the MRS Alliance demonstrate the weight of Nicaragua’s resigned pragmatic culture. That movement keeps on acting within a strictly short-term and electoral-based logic, which constantly pushes it to react to the traps set by those controlling the country’s processes and public institutions. The most recent trap was the cancellation of the MRS’ legal standing by the electoral branch of state.
and focused only on elections
That was not, however, the first time the FSLN threw such an obstacle in the MRS’ path. The party first lost its legal status in 2000. Then in August 2001, shortly before the presidential elections in November of that year, the FSLN pushed the MRS to join the National Convergence forged by Daniel Ortega of rump parties and political figures bereft of a party. The MRS accepted and with that recovered its legal status. Adjusting to the circumstances, it helped get its executioner elected. This time around the MRS and its alliance reacted to the FSLN’s repeat performance with Dora María’s hunger strike, as well as anti-government mobilizations and “blue and white picket lines.”
When the future is not consideredThe burst of admiration and even adulation triggered by Dora María’s decision to go on hunger strike to protest the cancellation of the MRS’ legal status was surprising. I wrote to her to express my human solidarity and tell her that Nicaragua needs her alive. It needs her and thousands of other Dora Marías thinking and constructing the future we need every day, because that future will never be the result of dramatic actions divorced from a vision, from guiding principles and objectives built of a collective set of convictions. We don’t need such extraordinary actions; we need ordinary, everyday actions practiced in a constant and systematic way, an ongoing debate of ideas, thinking applied to daily action and, in the words of Edward Said, “the discipline of detail.”
The future we want won’t come enveloped in a ball of fire falling from the sky, as Víctor Tirado seemed to expect when, sitting near where Dora María was conducting her strike, he announced with prophetic certainty “a national explosion.” Nor will it be the result of an impetuous “eye-opening and awakening of consciousness,” as Víctor Hugo Tinoco announced dramatically to the media. We can only hope to attain the future we need by thinking it through and then acting in accordance.
The construction of our future will thus depend largely on the capacity of our political parties—of course including the MRS and MRS Alliance—to become parties of ideas, not personalities. During Sergio Ramírez’s leadership, renovating Sandinismo meant following Sergio Ramírez. During Dora María’s leadership, it meant following her. Later it meant following Edmundo Jarquín and Enrique Sáenz, and now Dora María again, all in a game of gestures that increasingly turn the party’s name into a meaningless abstraction. It could be called the Movement for the Renovation of Sandismo or the Movement for the Renovation of the Movement and it wouldn’t change anything, because after 15 years its name still doesn’t mean anything.
The MRS hasn’t even been able to decide on the fusion or permanent separation of the two groups that coexist within the Alliance under the names Rescue of Sandinismo and Sandinista Renovation Movement. What substantive differences are there between them? What do the rescuers really want to rescue (or toss out)? What do the renewers want to renew (or not renew)?
When there are no “high lights”At this point, we don’t need any more lyrical responses to these questions, saying that we need to rescue and renovate “the spirit of the General of Free Men,” “the legacy of Carlos Fonseca Amador” or that old standby “democracy.” Nor do we need the kind of generalities in MRS communiqués telling us that this organization is struggling for “the right to food, jobs and a decent life.”
Sandino and Fonseca are dead. Democracy doesn’t exist in Nicaragua. Food, jobs and dignity are hard to come by. The MRS has to make its vision of the nation explicit, explaining how the costs and benefits of that vision would be shared and how it anticipates convincing people to support it.
To sum up: Political action needs both low lights and high lights to be effective. Without high lights politics becomes a game of chance. We can advance and enjoy the dream of progress, without knowing whether or not we’re moving toward the abyss. Heroes make history too. But to be effective, heroism needs a rationale as well as explicit and legitimate objectives.
Gandhi lived out a philosophy and pursued concrete political objectives congruent with it. In the name of that philosophy and to achieve its objectives he swore never to eat again until Muslims and Hindus stopped killing each other during the traumatic partition of India in 1947. The heroic resistance of Martin Luther King and other leaders of the civil rights movement in the United States also had a guiding line of thought and a set of collective convictions and aspirations. More concretely, that movement had a legitimacy explicitly rooted in a way of thinking that was struggling for universal acceptance. It also had a normative vision transmitted to the people of the United States and the world and defended in action. And, finally, it was guided by a set of precise, clear and defined objectives. As a result, the civil rights movement in the United States was able to generate a collective dream that transformed the country.
The MRS’ actions, including Dora María’s courageous hunger strike, have only generated confusion, the greatest expression of which was the mishmash of the June 27 march.
There are many Nicaraguas, Whoever proposed that the June 27 march should set aside party colors consciously or unconsciously believed that such a disguise would hide the various Nicaraguas that marched that day of balls, noise, passion and sun. There is no single Nicaragua. Various Nicaraguas coexist in our national territory and outside it, many of them irreconcilably incompatible and contradictory.
some of them incompatible
Nicaragua isn’t simply a geographical space. It’s a multiplicity of experiences that generate a mosaic of visions of the country’s reality. The challenge of politics and political parties is thus to unify our sense of what it means to be Nicaraguan by promoting the construction of social consensus based on a structure of citizens’ rights and needs that fairly represents the interests of all.
That task implies recognizing that consensuses about what underpins the social order are always hegemonic and thus express and represent the interests and aspirations of the dominant classes and social groups. In societies marked by poverty, injustice and social inequality, the construction of order and peace must privilege the sectors marginalized by the power structures that have reigned in our country from its beginnings. This at least is expected of the MRS Alliance, which aims to be a leftist movement.
Marching “under the same banner” served to hide the contradictions related to our social reality, making it an ode to the misleading non-conflictive vision of politics that forms part of the neoliberal ideological arsenal. That vision assumes that the tensions and contradictions growing out of the existence of various Nicaraguas within and outside our territory can be resolved through non-confrontational dialogue in comfortable drawing rooms, divorced from the urgency of hunger and within the parameters established by the normative vision that feeds many of Nicaragua’s civil society organizations. If Sandino’s name still means something to the MRS Alliance, it cannot promote that vision.
The MRS resists thinkingNor can the MRS Alliance present decisions it has made as a consequence of its political weakness as virtuous, such as joining the June 27 march in a common front with Liberal figures such as Enrique Quiñónez and Eduardo Montealegre. That need was manufactured by its own inaction or, more concretely, its failure to build an identity, a philosophy and a program of action capable, clear and strong enough to capture the imagination of a starving people. By this point, the MRS Alliance should be able to mobilize the tens of thousands of poor and unemployed who have been repeatedly duped by the rightwing parties and the FSLN, without participating in tumults partly financed by the US Embassy.
The MRS cannot make need a virtue without digging its own grave. Nor does it have any right to complain of the dark narrowness of the national situation as if this were a product of bad luck. And it is a mistake to fall into the trap of desperate hyperactivity. When I criticized the MRS Alliance’s ideological, philosophical and doctrinal vacuum, a good friend of mine within it replied, “That’s over now. The past is the past. We didn’t create an identity or develop our thinking, but now we have to do something; anything.” Anything?
It creates confusionWe’re entering the next 15 years of life of the MRS Alliance, or at least of Nicaragua. It was the MRS’ resistance to thinking about itself and Nicaragua that led it down its present path alongside the Quiñónezes and Montealegres of this world. If it continues with this same resistance, the movement could end up representing a greater threat than the corrupt FSLN in power.
Does that seem an exaggeration? I say it because the FSLN today expresses, live and in full color, the corruption and degeneration resulting from the raw pragmatism its leaders have practiced in recent years. No one in the FSLN, except the gelatinous and irrelevant Tomás Borge, refers to Ortega as an honest, capable or even halfway intelligent leader. Those who voted for the FSLN did so out of need, and surely also because they sense that the alternatives could be even worse for the country’s poorest sectors. And who can criticize them, after the insensitivity shown by the social classes the government of Enrique Bolaños represented during the ephemeral “New Era”? Who can fail to understand them after the MRS Alliance’s heavily neoliberal campaign speeches during the last elections?
The current government is so illegitimate that in a not too distant future the Ortega-Murillo family could come to be remembered the way one remembers a bad toothache, nothing more, because the couple’s political project is more comic than tragic. It’s more a bad joke—albeit a very costly one—than a dramatic moment in our history.
But the members of the MRS are now all tangled up with the representatives of the country’s darkest interests and could end up creating a confusion that, if institutionalized, would take Nicaraguans a long time to sort out. The confused political vision the MRS Alliance is offering today already has an absurd and contradictory slogan in the motto of the June 27 march: United for Democracy, against dictatorship and hunger.” With that motto and its actions, the MRS Alliance is helping create the impression that Eduardo Montealegre’s democracy is anti-hunger, running against the most elemental leftist logic and all the evidence demonstrating that the neoliberalism of the Montealegres of this sad world has increased misery and inequality in countries with conditions such as ours.
The MRS is also already helping confuse the meaning of the struggle against corruption in Nicaragua. It does so when it marches with the corrupt who for one reason or another—almost always beyond their will—are no longer with the PLC-FSLN pact. It’s using its energy to fight against the corrupt ones in the pact in alliance with corrupt ones not in the pact, as if the problem consisted of the style of corruption and the way it’s practiced. Can the MRS vouch for Eduardo Montealegre’s innocence in the CENIs fraud?
Even the identity of Nicaraguan feminism—constructed with so much effort by so many brilliant and courageous women—was compromised by the June 27 march. The Autonomous Women’s Movement, which forms part of the MRS Alliance, marched under the same banner as Enrique Quiñónez, whom the Network of Women against Violence condemned in November 2006 for his verbal aggressions against women and Nicaragua’s feminist movement.
No one denies the need to build bridges among the country’s different parties and organizations as part of the policies of alliance indispensable to exercising democracy and building social consensus in our country. But bridges need firm foundations—in this case, a philosophical pillar, a doctrinal pillar and a pillar of ideas—or else they will collapse. There are no pillars in the bridges outlined by the MRS Alliance; they float on a gossamer weave that threatens to further tangle the thinking of the country’s poor masses.
Like Eric Fromm’s definition of love, political alliances are genuine and effective only when both sides unite without losing their own characteristics. The rest is the leather and lash sadism the FSLN practices so well with its allies and the Social Christian masochism that keeps Agustín Jarquín in a state of ongoing excitation.
Sheer emotions...Nicaragua’s political history has been marked by confusing and superficial visions of reality. Ours, to paraphrase Shakespeare, has been a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury in the plaza, explosions of emotion that after nearly two hundred years has signified nothing and produced nothing more than misery, corruption and stupid vanity. We have produced countless heroes and martyrs in the defense of a territory we haven’t managed to make productive enough to at least kill hunger. We haven’t even been able to stop our rivers drying up and our lakes dying, together with our hopes. But for all that, we cling to Sandino and Rubén Darío, preaching our increasingly inexplicable pride in being Nicaraguans.
We—particularly our so-called political parties—have been “nothing but emotions,” as “the comandante” in Fernando Silva’s novel acutely notes. Such emotions kill because non-reflective political passion, the kind not shaped by thinking and reason, almost always ends in tragedy and confusion.
To build the future...We only need to take a look around the world to see that you have to dream the future—I would say theorize it—before you can build it. European liberalism triumphed over the power of the Church and the monarchy. Martin Luther’s vision triumphed. And Mandela triumphed, armed with a vision of human rights against which apartheid could not survive in the end. Feminism triumphed because its activism was armed with a vision, a justification and a new philosophy of life. None of these successful movements achieved their objectives by chance, a stroke of luck or simple audacity.
Even in Latin America we can observe that the most successful societies are those that have best thought out their future. Or put more concretely, those that have had business, union, political and religious elites capable of building their future after first dreaming and theorizing it. The relatively major achievements of our neighbor Costa Rica would have been unthinkable without the vision that oriented Pepe Figueres’ transforming government after his forces triumphed in 1948. Even today, Costa Rica has studied the opportunities and risks associated with regional integration more than any other Central American country—in Nicaragua it’s treated with a terrifying superficiality and ignorance. That difference helps explain the broad grassroots mobilization that the Central American free trade agreement with the United States (CAFTA) unleashed in Costa Rica and the passivity with which Nicaraguans—permanently bewildered and up to their necks in their immediate problems—greeted the decision of the Bolaños government and the FSLN to approve that treaty.
The success of Chile—thanks not to Pinochet but to its enviable economic and cultural development initiated in the 19th century—would have been unthinkable without the reflection that the Chilean Left and Right have both managed to imprint on their political actions. Comparing the cultural level of the Chilean political elite of both Left and Right with the Nicaraguan one confirms our country’s brutish backwardness. That comparison can be made easily by contrasting and analyzing the discourse and the mental and verbal articulation of our political elites with their Chilean counterparts. I’m not referring to a difference in how well they speak, but to the two groups’ differing capacity to understand the future based on an understanding of the reality in which they are operating.
The disappearing LeftEven Nicaragua’s sorry history offers examples of the importance played by political thinking in efforts to transform reality. The Sandinista revolution would have been unimaginable without an alternative social vision to the Somocista one. One needs only to recall the role played by the pluralist vision, mixed economy and nonalignment in creating a broad opposition movement to Somocismo. The FSLN torpedoed that program, but that’s part of another history. The point I want to make here is that the 1979 triumph had a lot to do with the construction of guiding thinking and a vision expressed in the Program of the National Reconstruction Government.
It’s also necessary to remember the role played by the socialist vision and thinking and by Sandino’s patriotic example in articulating a vision of nation that served as a framework for the development of the FSLN’s armed struggle. The superficiality of FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca Amador’s Marxist thinking can be criticized, but his capacity to understand the need to frame his revolutionary action within guiding thinking and a doctrine cannot be faulted.
Fonseca’s spirit has died because the Nicaraguan Left that claimed his political and intellectual legacy through the FSLN and the MRS Alliance has failed to recognize the value of thinking and social theory in constructing reality. From this perspective, the Nicaraguan Left has disappeared along with Fonseca’s spirit.
Andrés Pérez Baltodano, a Nicaraguan, is a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario, Canada.