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  Number 444 | Julio 2018
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The open veins of Nicaragua

This message is for leftists everywhere, and is also a self-criticism, admits its author. Weighing the hard lessons he posits here may be the best and most lasting way to show solidarity with Nicaragua’s people and respect their dignity.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos

I belong to the generation of those whose heart throbbed to the beat of the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s, actively supporting it.

Latin America seemed
condemned to backyard status

At the time, progressive momentum revived by the 1959 Cuban revolution had stalled due in great measure to US imperialist intervention. The installation of military dictatorships in Brazil (1965) and Argentina (1976), the death of Che Guevara in Bolivia (1967) and Augusto Pinochet’s coup against Salvador Allende in Chile (1973) were the most prominent signs that the American subcontinent was condemned to remain the backyard of the United States, subjected forever to the domination of large multinational companies and the national elite who colluded with them. In short, the region was prevented from thinking of itself as a collection of inclusive societies focused on the needs of the great majorities of impoverished people.

The Sandinista Revolution implied the resurgence of a promising countercurrent. Its meaning came not only from the specific transformations it spearheaded (unprecedented grassroots participation, agrarian reform, a literacy campaign that earned the UNESCO prize, cultural revolution, improved public health and education services...), but also from the fact that all this was achieved in adverse conditions stemming from the extremely aggressive siege imposed by the government of Ronald Reagan through the economic embargo and his infamous financing of the “contras,” a numerous and well-armed guerrilla counterrevolution, fomenting a civil war.

Equally meaningful was the fact that the Sandinista government maintained a democratic regime, which in 1990 meant the end of the revolution with the electoral victory of a coalition of 14 opposition parties in which even the Nicaraguan Communist Party participated.

In the ensuing years, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), permanently headed by Daniel Ortega, lost three elections, until in 2006 he regained the power he has kept up to now. Nonetheless, Nicaragua, like the rest of Central America, fell off the radar of international public opinion and even of Latin America’s Left.

A country ignited by indignation

And so it remained until this past April, when social protests and their violent repression caught the world’s attention once more. The deaths are now in the hundreds, most of them caused by police forces and irregular militias loyal to the government.

The protests, led by university students, initially took aim at the government’s negligent response to an ecological catastrophe unfolding in the Indio-Maíz Biological Reserve: illegal deforestation and land invasions capped by an out-of-control forest fire. More student protests followed against social security reforms that imposed drastic cuts to pensions and levied additional taxes on workers and employers. With that, various civil society organizations joined the students.

In the face of the protests, the government withdrew its reform proposal. But the country was already aflame with indignation at the violent repression of the protestors, as well as repulsion at many other shady aspects of the Sandinista government, which were being increasingly openly criticized as they became better known.

No solution is possible without the
presidential couple’s resignation

The Catholic Church, which in 2003 reconciled with Sandinismo, once again distanced itself, accepting a conditional role as mediator of the social and political conflict. A similar distancing took place among Nicaragua’s business bourgeoisie, to whom for years Ortega offered substantial business opportunities and privileged operating conditions in exchange for political loyalty.

The future is uncertain and the possibility cannot be ruled out that this country, so scarred by violence, may yet again suffer a bloodbath. Today, opposition to the Ortega regime covers the entire political spectrum. As has happened in other countries (Venezuela and Brazil), it is united only to end the regime, not to create a democratic alternative.

All of this leads to the view that there will be no peaceful solution unless President Ortega and Vice President Murillo resign and free and transparent elections are convened early.

Democrats in general and leftist political forces in particular have reason to be perplexed. But more than that, they have an obligation to reexamine the recent options of government considered leftist in many countries of the continent. They must question their silence in the face of the long-standing trampling of political ideals. This text is thus in part also a self-criticism.
What lessons can be learned from what is happening in Nicaragua? Pondering the hard lessons I lay out below will be the best way to demonstrate solidarity with the Nicaraguan people and show respect for their dignity.

Why have these tensions
accumulated unanswered?

Lesson one: spontaneity and organization. For a long time social protests and their violent repression took place in Nicaragua’s rural areas with barely a peep from national and international public opinion. When protests broke out in Managua, surprise was widespread.

The movement that began in April was spontaneous, spreading via the social networks fomented by the government’s provision of free access to the internet in parks around the country.

University students, two generations after the Sandinista revolution, who up to that point had seemed alienated and politically apathetic, mobilized to demand justice and democracy.

A previously unthinkable rural–urban alliance emerged almost naturally, and a civic rebellion took to the streets in peaceful marches and with barricades that ultimately blocked 70% of the country’s highways.

How could these social tensions have accumulated unnoticed, their sudden explosion taking everyone by surprise?

It was certainly not for the same reasons that volcanoes give no warning. Can we expect conservative national and international forces to refrain from taking advantage of the errors committed by leftist governments?

What will the boiling point be for other countries on the continent where social tensions are caused by rightwing governments, such as Brazil and Argentina?

Where do the Left’s
“tactical alliances” end up?

Lesson two: the limits of political pragmatism and alliances with the Right. The FSLN lost three elections starting with its defeat in 1990. One faction of the party, led by Ortega, concluded that the only way to regain power was through an alliance with its adversaries, including those who had most viscerally harassed Sandinismo, such as the Catholic Church and big business.

The rapprochement with the Catholic Church began in the early 2000s. For a good part of the revolutionary period Cardinal Obando y Bravo had been an aggressive opponent of the Sandinista government and active ally of the Contras, and throughout the 1990s, he dubbed Ortega a “dying viper.”
Nevertheless, Ortega showed no shame in later cozying up to the cardinal, even asking him in 2005 to officiate his wedding to his long-time companion, Rosario Murillo, today the country’s Vice President.

Among many other concessions to the Church, one of the first laws Ortega’s new Sandinista government passed after taking office again in 2007 was the total prohibition of abortion, even in cases of rape or danger to the mother’s life. This, in a country with an alarming rate of violence against women and children.

On the other hand, Ortega’s chumminess with the economic elites was made possible by subjugating the Sandinista program to neoliberalism, including deregulating the economy, signing free trade agreements and creating public–private partnerships that guaranteed juicy deals for the capitalist private sector at the public’s expense. Years earlier he had made a pact with President Arnoldo Alemán, considered one of the world’s most corrupt heads of state.

Can a government that follows
neoliberal ideas be considered leftist?

While these alliances guaranteed a measure of social calm, it should be underscored that the policies Ortega adopted also enabled economic growth. But it was growth typical of the neoliberal formula: high concentration of wealth, total dependence on international prices of export goods (in particular, coffee and beef), growing authoritarianism in the face of social conflict generated by expansion of the agricultural frontier and by mega-projects (the biggest, the interoceanic canal, with Chinese financing, which has yet to happen but triggered the creation of a strong peasant opposition movement), and uncontrolled increase in corruption among the political elite in government.
The social crisis was only tempered thanks to generous donations and investment aid from Venezuela, which facilitated some compensatory social policies. The situation should have erupted with the drop in international prices, the change in economic policy of Nicaragua’s main export destination (the United States) or the evaporation of Venezuelan aid, all of which happened over the last two years.

Can a government continue to call itself leftist—much less revolutionary—despite following to the letter the conditions capitalist neoliberal ideas require and the consequences they generate? How long can these tactical alliances with the “enemy” go on before they become second nature to those who enter into them? Why do alliances among diverse forces on the Left always seem more difficult than alliances between the hegemonic Left and forces on the Right?

Why the complicit silence?

Lesson three: political authoritarianism, corruption and de-democratization. The policies Daniel Ortega and his faction adopted created serious divisions within the FSLN and generated opposition among other political forces and the civil society organizations that had found in the Sandinismo of the 1980s their ideological and social nurture, as well as their will to resist. Women’s organizations played a special role.

It’s a well-known fact that since neoliberalism deepens social inequalities and generates unfair privileges, it can only be maintained by authoritarian and repressive means. This is just what Ortega has done, using all available means, including co-optation, suppression of internal and external opponents, monopolization of mass media, constitutional reforms that guarantee unlimited reelection, instrumentalizing of the judicial system and creation of repressive paramilitary forces.

The 2016 elections perfectly portrayed all these factors. The “Christian, socialist and solidary Nicaragua” slogan poorly papered over society’s deep divisions.

In an almost pathetic but perhaps foreseeable manner, political authoritarianism was coupled with growing “patrimonial appropriation” of the State. The Ortega family accumulated wealth and flaunted its desire to perpetuate itself in power. Are authoritarian temptation and corruption a deviation from or constituent elements of governments in the neoliberal economic matrix?

What imperialist interests explain the Organization of American States’ ambiguity toward Ortega, in contrast to its radical opposition to Chavez and his followers? Why has a large portion of the Latin American and global Left maintained the same complicit silence?

How long will the memory of revolutionary conquests overshadow our ability to denounce the perversions that ride on revolutionary coattails, knowing that the charge nearly always arrives too late?

Boaventura de Sousa Santos is a professor of Sociology at Coimbra University in Portugal and the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Light editing and subheads by envío.

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