“We need a proposal that inspires hope”
This Liberal politician and parliamentarian
who has represented different Liberal parties
analyzes Liberalism’s present and future
and describes the opposition’s task
in the current political times.
Eliseo Núñez Morales
The results of last November’s municipal elections showed us once again that, aside from independent voters, the majority of whom didn’t vote, Nicaragua’s political spectrum remains divided between Sandinistas and Liberals. They also made clear that Liberalism would have won twice as many municipalities as it did despite the deteriorated electoral system had Liberals participated united and not split into the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) and the new Citizens for Liberty (CxL) party.
Liberalism’s proposal, albeit not a strictly ideological one, attracts a significant segment of voters in Nicaragua that is geographically countable and traceable. The Liberal vote is found in the north and central part of the country and extends into the Caribbean. We find it from Nueva Segovia to Río San Juan and also in areas of the Pacific side such as Masaya, a department with a Liberal tradition because all of us there make a living off the market.
The firm vote over time
The solid base of the Liberal vote is around 10-15% of the population, whereas that of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) is somewhat greater. We first measured the FSLN’s loyal vote back in 1996, when the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) split from it and the FSLN was at its lowest ebb. At that time it was about 15-20% of the population. With a record 24 parties and alliances presenting presidential candidates in that year’s chaotic elections, the PLC’s candidate Arnoldo Alemán won 51% and the FSLN’s Daniel Ortega just short of 38%, leaving the 22 other candidates to split the remaining 11%.
At the opening of the next presidential campaign, in 2001, we measured the FSLN’s solid voting base again, together with that of Enrique Bolaños, who ran on the PLC ticket. Both again started low—don Enrique with 12% and Daniel Ortega with 19%, because people were already beginning to consider other political options. Fear and polarization imposed itself again, however, and we saw a familiar photo in that year’s election, held less than two months after the attack on New York’s Twin Towers: 42% voted for Ortega, 56% for Bolaños and less than 2% for the Conservative candidate, the only other one allowed by the Supreme Electoral Council to run. I have the impression that’s the true division of votes in Nicaragua and believe that only at the start of an electoral campaign can the unwavering loyal vote be clearly measured.
Former Nicaraguan ambassador to the US Arturo Cruz characterizes loyal Liberal and Sandinista voters as very much like sheep dogs: both obey orders and only go where they’re told. It reminded of a woman in Acoyapa who said to me, “I’m Liberal and if they place a red cape on a pig, I’ll vote for it without question.” And on the FSLN side I’ve met many people who say terrible things about Daniel Ortega, but when I ask them who they’re going to vote for, they say, “For Daniel. I’d never vote for you all.” Those two sides of Nicaragua are still deciding for those of us who don’t think that way.
We need to challenge Nicaragua’s conservatism
What is Liberalism’s future? I believe it lies in finding a proposal that attracts the mass of young new voters who no longer buy into the discourse and proposals of the political parties, while hanging on to all those traditional voters who identify as Liberals even if their thinking is conservative.
From that perspective, I’ve insisted that Liberalism has to start challenging the establishment, debating some of the issues politicians are terrified to touch in Nicaragua: therapeutic abortion, legalization of drugs, same-sex marriage... But merely raising these issues in public makes one a heretic whose prestige is burned at a kind of virtual stake. The last survey I remember that asked about “values” was way back in 2001. I recall it was done by a researcher named Araquistan, from the National University, and it showed that 85% of Nicaraguans had conservative values.
What’s at issue here isn’t a double standard. My point is rather to acknowledge that taking on this debate is going to come smack up against those traditional Liberal voters, particularly older ones, who are actually conservative and religious to their core. But despite this I believe Liberalism has the responsibility, and the challenge, to start penetrating society with these issues, which have a lot to do with individual rights. We know they aren’t popular, but we need to discuss them and not remain silent.
Someone once said Nicaragua will prosper only once it abandons the expression “God willing.” Does God really want us to be poor? It’s not about not believing in God anymore, but about shedding the atavistic religiosity that’s been imposed on us and anchors us in a poverty we’ve been taught is God’s will and not due to unjust social conditions. Vice President Rosario Murillo exploits this religiosity very well every noon in her broadcast when she refers to the calendar of saints and the blessings God sheds upon our country. In these litanies she always speaks of “the family,” never the individual. Nor are her messages directed to the collective, because she knows that doesn’t work in Nicaragua, where the family—i.e. a male-headed extended family with its children, grandchildren and other relatives—carries more weight than any collective, neighbors or other broader community. We only need look at how many rural districts in Nicaragua are named “Los Vanegas,” “Los Centenos,” “Los Brenes”... because most collectives in Nicaragua tend to be built around family.
Many young Nicaraguans now live in a virtual world
Where are the majority of young voters today? They’re totally into the “hit parade” of the day, the YouTube video that went viral, what was posted on Facebook, the funniest memes, the beauty contests, the latest movie... Of the six TV channels owned by the governing party, only two discuss politics: channel 4 and to a much lesser degree channel 8. The rest are all about mind-numbing show business. They know there’s a mass of young people in the country who don’t buy the official paternalistic discourse or any other political party’s discourse and never will. They’re only interested in what happens in the social networks or in Hollywood.
Some years ago I would have bet the social networks were going to be a motor for change in this country, but it has been the opposite. They’ve instead become an anchor holding back change. The fact that today a young Nicaraguan with a cell phone using the free Wi-Fi connection in the public park has a friend in Thailand and can communicate with anyone in Europe not only creates a sense of erasing borders but also of erasing their own social surroundings. I once thought that communicating without borders would generate aspirations for something better here at home than we have today. But what it’s achieving instead is an uprooting, a total indifference toward what’s happening in Nicaragua, because over there on the other side they can have what they don’t find here. Today, 60% of Nicaraguans under the age of 30 say they want to live in another country, a figure that clashes with the 87% popularity the surveys give Rosario Murillo and the “nice” Nicaragua she talks about.
Why do so many want to leave the country? We need to be clear that it’s not just because they’re poor. It’s also because they don’t find their own aspirations in what we have to offer here. And that’s another challenge for Liberalism.
We live in a backwards society
What do we have to offer all the young people who want to leave? There’s a generation coming up that needs something different than this archaic society offers.
We live in a backwards society. The citizenry’s safety in Central America’s Northern Triangle (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) is the fruit of the social and economic inequality we’ve never been able to overcome. How did a great number of Central America’s guerrillas from the past decades end up? In Nicaragua, Ortega became a millionaire and in El Salvador, the FMLN is doing basically the same thing as ARENA. Our countries didn’t break free of the existing scheme of submission; it’s still there. That relationship of the colonial encomendado and his indigenous tribute payers, of the hacendado and his peons, which has marked all Central Americans, some as conquerors and others as conquered —or as the late political pundit Emilio Álvarez Montalván said, some as caudillo and others as his political underlings—has never disappeared. It’s still part of us.
It appeared to have been broken during the social struggle headed by the FSLN in Nicaragua, the FMLN in El Salvador, the unions in Honduras and the indigenous peoples’ movement in Guatemala. However, the social activists who in their own time offered a different proposal, who wanted a revolution, disgraced that proposal when so many of them turned into similes of their adversaries. They abandoned the social struggle and disparaged social activism. So today we have gangs and drug trafficking because people are still poor and the inequalities continue to widen. And how are the poor seeking a way out? Along the worst of paths.
The gap of social inequality is widening in Nicaragua
With the revolution of the 1980s and the abrupt departure into exile of Nicaragua’s business and professional classes, we’re now experiencing a sort of social rebuilding that has kept us somewhat isolated from the social violence that exists in northern Central America. At the end of the revolution and beginning of the 1990s, the social gap wasn’t yet as great as in those other countries, not because there weren’t a lot of rich people, but because there were a lot of us poor people and we all understood and spoke with each other. Today, paradoxically, the Ortega government, which claims to be a leftist one, has widened and deepened the gap of social inequality.
As Liberals, we need a proposal that will shrink that gap, because these times of being “the safest country in Central America,” of living in an “oasis of peace” are coming to an end. Within a few years we’ll be facing problems similar to those in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, because the economic gap between those who have more and those who have less is getting wider here. A study of salaries done by the Thomas More University indicates that the salary of those who earn the most in the seven largest private companies in Nicaragua is 208 times greater than those who earn the least. As a point of reference, when the salary differential in Japan reached 81 there was such concern that it almost caused the prime minister to resign, while in the US that differential has hit over 300.
Ways to halt this growing inequality
We need a proposal that will stop this increasing inequality in Nicaragua. As Liberals, we have the challenge of coming up with a proposal to counter the model that’s producing this inequality. That could attract voters who currently are apathetic and, with good reason, don’t believe in politicians.
One way to deal with the inequality is that the current tools of taxation must change. Monopolies and oligopolies have to be halted and more resources need to be invested in education and training.
The inequality is also related to the natural resource depredation that has always existed here. In the current model, all that’s needed to raise a cow on an acre of land is an illiterate man with a machete in his belt, while what’s needed to raise a thousand calves on that same acre is an agronomist and a couple of workers with at least a high school degree, some type of training and better pay. As long as this model of natural resource depredation is maintained in Nicaragua, we have no need for educated people, because they only complain and discuss working conditions. But far from being a problem, that’s a seedbed of opportunities. Changing this economic model is one of our proposals. Agriculture can’t keep being the center of our country’s economy without modernizing its production methods.
The penance we politicians must pay
We politicians have been no help in overcoming people’s apathy; in fact we constantly do things that add to society’s rejection of political participation. Let’s look at just one example: how does the current regime use Liberal lawyer and long-time politician Wilfredo Navarro, a former PLC National Assembly representative who made his adhesion to the FSLN’s electoral alliance official in 2016 and now supports everything Ortega says and does every time he opens his mouth? They keep him there to exact an ongoing price from the rest of us politicians. I pay a price, Violeta Granera pays a price, Victor Hugo Tinoco pays a price, we all do... People listen to Wilfredo and wonder: How long before Eliseo sells out? When will Violeta sell out? What about Victor Hugo? They hear Wilfredo, along with politicians of Sandinista origin and say: They all sell out; they’re all the same... Ortega has been very effective in getting people to view politics as only for personal enrichment.
Another thing Liberalism will have to do is convince itself that “there’s no sin without penance.” In the next elections we politicians are going to have to support a candidate, whether woman or man, who comes from outside of politics. In my view there’s no possibility in Nicaragua for a politician to make it into power during the next elections. I believe we Liberals need to understand that.
As I’ve described, we need a proposal that breaks down inequality, launches Nicaragua towards the future and is capable of exciting young people, but it will be worth nothing coming out of a politician’s mouth. We must be able to find not only the proposal but also someone from outside to present it. That’s the penance politicians must pay for everything that’s happened over the years.
We also need to beopen to new ideas
Moreover, we have to build internal democracy within the political parties, because we’re not democratic. And that has contributed to the population’s general disenchantment with them, because people feel they have no possibility of presenting their ideas and pushing them forward until someone is elected who can implement them.
The Spanish democratic transition, which only broke away from Franco’s caudillismo at the end of the 1970s, still hasn’t managed to change its closed political system. “Podemos” from the left and “Ciudadanos” from the right appeared recently, but they didn’t respectively manage to get inside the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) or the People’s Party (PP), the two big parties of the post-Franco transition. That caused a crisis that went for months without electing a government and in the end electing a weak one.
In the US democratic system, with its more grounded history, the two big parties, despite serious internal reticence, were open enough to take on Donald Trump in the Republican Party and Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party as primary presidential candidates, although incredibly the Democrats isolated Sanders from the beginning. Both parties tolerated the anti-system speeches of the two men, and the Republicans ended up embracing the choice of the majority of their supporters, Donald Trump.
A good political party system is capable of welcoming different ideas. In Nicaragua we haven’t been yet managed that. I’ve been through four parties. I was kicked out of the PLC because I broke with Aleman’s proposal. I went into the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) when it too split with the PLC, and when Ortega took the ALN away from us, I moved to the Independent Liberal Party (PLI). Then when Ortega took that away from us too, and the new PLI leadership broke up the Alliance for Democracy to form the CxL, I left it too. And my case isn’t unique.
Nicaragua’s political parties produce dissidents every day because they’re parties that don’t have leaders; they have owners. Once we can achieve parties without owners, they’ll be attractive to common folk, to the people who want to put their ideas into practice. We’re not aspiring to something as complex as what they accomplished in Iceland, where the most recently approved Constitution was written by consulting all citizens via internet. Each one posted his or her proposal on Facebook and if it got a certain number of likes or approvals it moved on to the official platform where a discussion period was then started. That was followed by a voting period and if it was approved by a majority it was put in the Constitution. There was a process to eliminate proposals if they were exclusionary or enrich them if they were complementary. Instead we aspire to something Sanders said in the US: “One person, one vote.” Nicaragua is where this happens least and we Liberals need to understand what the classic idea of one person, one vote actually means. No messianic leader is going to get us out of the mess we’re in, but each person with his or her own vote will.
How do we get rid of Ortega?
The objective of getting rid of Ortega goes way beyond the Liberals. I believe there are two civic ways out of this state we’re in. Violence is another way, but we believe we must try the peaceful way up to our last breath. And there’s consensus here on this. Even with more than a decade of Ortega’s authoritarianism, we’ve had our country’s longest period of peace in the two centuries since Independence. We have the obligation to safeguard that peace we’ve had since 1990; we’re obliged to do this.
What are the two ways to get rid of Ortega? One is the appearance of another messianic leader who enchants everyone, thus unifying the opposition and freeing us from Ortega... but the chances are that this messianic leader will probably seem a lot like Ortega once he reaches the presidency. The other way is to build a platform we can all embrace, something like those “Lego” platforms made of interlocking pieces, on which a building is put together, each one placing their piece... To build this platform in which each one feels they can place their piece and does so is the political parties’ task. And each piece has to have a way of connecting to the other pieces. I believe that’s the healthiest way to get rid of Ortega.
It could happen that during this process a charismatic leader appears, but it needs to be one who agrees with the platform and is directed by and from it. Finding such a leader doesn’t depend on us, but we can all influence the building of the platform. What’s important today is what we can do and not what we hope happens. In Spain, during the final days of Franco’s dictatorship, there was a moment in which the opposition, instead of sitting down to hammer out a way to get rid of Franco, had only one discussion point: When will Franco die? I don’t believe we’re at such a low point that all we can do is wait for a biological solution to our situation.
The characterization of today’s opposition
Even though I know our weaknesses well, we politicians are important in the construction of that platform because we know how the system works. It’s more difficult for someone from outside. Today, a group of us politicians is concentrating on building that platform. The United Liberal Force (FUL), which I now belong to, is part of this group. We’re Liberals who dispersed when Ortega eliminated the PLI then the CxL excluded the MRS from the Alliance. In the middle of that crisis a mix of spontaneity and need led us to unite after discussing whether it made more sense to continue based on individual efforts or all come together and see what we could do that way. As FUL, we’re also part of a more plural effort, the Broad Front for Democracy (FAD). The FAD is up against an impassable wall: the current electoral system. If we were to decide to make FAD an electoral option we’d have to transform it into a political party under the current rules. We aren’t going that way, but if the electoral system were to change, the FAD would act as that “lego” platform that would welcome everyone, including Liberal pieces, pieces from the MRS, from civil society, etc. to present as a proposal.
If the MRS weren’t in the FAD, Ortega could quickly portray the opposition struggle as a face-off between right and left, with those opposing his regime painted as the right and Ortega as the left defending the poor. But with the MRS on board within the FAD, the struggle is between democracy and dictatorship. On one side are Liberals and Sandinistas and on the other side are Ortega and his authoritarianism. The MRS gives us our democratic identity and we appreciate that a lot.
We need to rethink how to interconnect segmented interests
The main problem Nicaragua’s political parties have is that they maintain the post-French Revolution model, based on territoriality, leadership and ideology. One of the lessons of the Trump campaign was how it took advantage of the extreme segmentation in today’s society. The social networks and the interconnectivity they’ve created have increasingly divided societies. They show us that there are a lot of people interested in Rock from the 1960s and another bunch of people who are into Rock from the 1990s; that there are groups of people interested in equine health and others in vegan food… The divisions are so micro that the challenge is to find what’s common among all those threads to then weave them together. Even though interconnectivity in Nicaragua isn’t as great and the divisions not as small, our society is now quite divided. So another challenge for our political parties is to interconnect interests.
Let’s look at how territoriality-based legal requirements work. Based on territoriality, a political party in, say, the municipality of San Juan de Oriente, with its 10 districts and 2 barrios, has to have 5 board members in each community and 5 in each barrio. These 60 people then elect someone as their municipality’s board member for the party as a whole. However, San Juan del Oriente is largely made up of traditional potters who make a living producing ceramics and those who grow flowers. So, instead of organizing the party territorially, why don’t we organize them around their economic activities with proposals that would allow them to improve their living conditions through those activities? By doing that, the party would have to respond better to the guilds’ interests rather than focusing on the interests coming out of the party’s central board. This is today’s challenge for the FUL as well as for the FAD: to learn how to weave networks around the interests of different groups.
Trump based his victory on dividing the voter market through proposals for its different segments. And to do this he took advantage of the social networks using an old Machiavellian principle: one doesn’t win in politics by uniting but by dividing… and he knew how to do it. After dividing to conquer, he made sure he kept the larger pieces for himself until all his pieces were greater than everyone else’s. I recommend Moises Naim’s book, El fin del poder (The end of power), which explains how traditional power has buckled under the great division of society and how that is now forcing us to weave proposals for each group, abandoning general proposals that no longer bring anyone together.
Social networks are currently our main gateway to access a majority of voters. We need to turn them into our main ally. We need to learn to speak their language. We must identify what the youth are talking about and what environment they’re immersed in, which is a different culture we still don’t quite understand. But even without yet understanding it, I refuse to believe that today’s youth, despite the heavy dose of entertainment anesthesia they receive, don’t have within them that feeling all young people have of believing themselves capable of changing the world. I’m sure today’s young people carry it inside too, even as they’re immersed in the social networks. Awakening that feeling, the feeling of wanting to change things, is the challenge.
We need to be ready for when theFSLN’s internal succession crisis peaks
Ortega will be facing the peak of the succession crisis within his party from here to the next general elections in 2021. This crisis has already begun and we need to be ready to identify when the cracks start opening up within the FSLN so we can start pushing for concessions. Ortega isn’t afraid of the opposition. It’s why I can call him a dictator a thousand times and nothing will happen to me, because I’m insignificant to him. But he’s terrified of internal fights within the FSLN, and that’s the fighting we must take advantage of. We won’t be able to do that unless we construct a proposal and a platform, unless we seek a different leadership.
It’s still not clear how fast the governing party’s internal crisis will advance, but Ortega knows what all dictators know: that a time will come when he’ll have to use force to stay in power. He’s started already. And he also knows that the main risk of remaining in power by force is turning his children into pariahs. If Ortega feels he’s going to sacrifice his children for the sake of staying in power, maybe he’ll opt for an opening we can take advantage of.
That opportunity doesn’t depend on us, which is a big problem for planning strategies, but building a platform, generating a proposal and internal leadership and starting to inspire people do depend on us. The apathy keeping Ortega in power isn’t sympathy for him or dislike of us as opposition. It’s the lack of any proposal that mobilizes them.
Who we need to target
I believe the opposition’s discourse needs to focus on the middle class. And not because we don’t care about the poor, but because we have to help pull them out of poverty and the first step to doing that is to broaden the middle class.
Nicaragua’s poor have less than 20% social mobility, a figure that hasn’t changed in decades. When Violeta Chamorro took office in 1990, social mobility in Nicaragua was at 18%. It then went up a little and has stayed there ever since. That means that whoever is born poor has a 4 out of 5 chance of dying poor. We can’t overcome this if we don’t build an intermediate platform based on the middle class. Our proposal has to be based on creating a middle-class platform to eradicate poverty through the quickest route.
The sheet metal roofing and the pigs or sacks of food the government hands out are just local anesthesia for amputations. None of that will pull anyone out of poverty. Poverty eradication social policies must be gradualist. Initial assistance is necessary, but after that the next level that’s needed is to make it possible for the poor to achieve a level of economic sustenance by their own means that pulls them out of poverty. That demands policies that create a middle class.
Dictators, Ortega included, fear the middle class. Lenin, the first person to create a revolution in the 20th century, wrote to the Bolsheviks during the 1911 riots in Russia telling them they’d failed that year because they didn’t get the middle class involved. The middle classes are the motor that sustains revolutions, be they social, cultural or religious, from the right or the left. Thinking is always the motor for change. There’s little space for thinking among people who earn $2 a day, because the inequality has left them without the possibility of thinking about the future. If they’ve had breakfast, all they can think about is whether they’ll be able to have lunch. That degree of poverty prevents their horizon for planning from extending beyond their immediate needs. We can’t ask these people to head towards another future alone, we must ask that of the middle class, the generator of ideas.
We need to inspire hope
Until we manage to attract a massive vote on the Pacific, inspired by a proposal, and add the solid Liberal vote from the north and center of the country to it, Ortega will continue in power backed by an imposed minority. And as that minority decreases, the repression will escalate and insecurity in the country will increase.
The solution is to inspire hope. Professors of political strategy tell us people never vote out of gratitude. The two reasons that move them to vote are either resentment or hope. If they are resentful, they want to exact a price from the person in power. If they are hopeful, they back the person who has inspired that hope in them, in the current case a spokesperson who’s not a politician but presents an inspiring proposal that we politicians can construct. In sum we need a platform with a spokesperson announcing a better country and a proposal for achieving it. Accomplishing all this requires democratic parties that see the people and don’t wait for the people to see them.
Eliseo Núñez Morales is currently a member of the United Liberal Force (FUL), an organization that forms part of the Broad Front for Democracy (FAD).