Henry Ruiz: The FSLN Has Lost the Strong Ethical Basis that Motivated Us
Henry Ruiz, the revolutionary commander known as "Modesto,"
a legend in Nicaraguan history, spoke with envío about the past, present and future of revolutionaries in a talk reproduced here.
Politics without ethics is neither valid nor right. When politics is ethical, it can reach many people’s hearts. But when politics becomes a process of traps and deceit, it loses its meaning and becomes a masquerade.
I still continue to understand politics as I understood it when I began the struggle. My generation decided to cross the Rubicon from civic struggle to armed struggle out of ethical considerations. Back in the 1960s, no one talked about economic growth; the term "gross domestic product" wasn’t even used. No one was demanding a different economic model. The economy was healthy if we compare it to today’s. Even the big plantations could be considered "friendlier" than what is now being restructured. The population was just a million inhabitants, growing towards two million. There was enough for everyone, and there were fewer problems. What we didn’t have was freedom.
Freedom was our main demand. Proclaiming himself "the hurricane of peace," Somoza inaugurated schools and roads and maintained that there were great opportunities in Nicaragua, and that only a tiny group of crazy subversives and communists was saying there was no peace or freedom.
Our political analysis of the path we had to take to attain freedom and begin Nicaragua’s transformation was elemental. If we threw out the dictatorship, we would create the space to bring about social and economic change.
I started out in the Nicaraguan Socialist Party (PSN) and had a few ideas about socialism; they had taught me that Marxism was good, and I was trying to understand it. But what the PSN didn’t say or do, the Sandinista Front said and did: that this dictatorship would only be brought down at gunpoint, that armed struggle was necessary to bring about social and political changes in Nicaragua. I easily came to agree with this position and joined the FSLN.
There were so few of us Sandinistas when the triumph came in 1979! Why did this handful of young people join the armed struggle? What moved us to risk everything, even our lives? We sought an ethics that would allow us to develop Nicaragua. We didn’t accept capitalism because we saw it as unjust and exploitative. We wanted justice; we sought an alternative and decided to reject capitalism to pursue socialism.
During those years, we only debated among ourselves about two main problems: how we were going to create justice and how we would deal with the United States. We were concerned about the fate of our country. We had great dreams; we thought that if we created justice, our country could go very far indeed, could even become a "Northern power." We didn’t worry much about what exactly it meant to be a "power." We just believed we had the capacity to fly. We wanted to solve all the great problems facing our people, with such huge vestiges of poverty and so much human poverty.
We never underestimated the United States. But we said, "We’re going to beat them like Sandino." We had a kind of empirical touchstone in that phrase of Sandino’s: "You don’t discuss a people’s sovereignty, you defend it with weapons in hand." We knew that national dignity always ends up getting negotiated away, in political compromises and backroom deals, and Sandino hadn’t done that.
That was our greatest lesson, so great that none of us thought about how big US aircraft carriers were and what was happening in the war in Vietnam, which was going on at that time. We were inspired by Che’s actions and weren’t afraid of anything.
What made us so "irresponsible"? We were motivated by a strong ethical basis. That’s why we weren’t worried about how many bullets or troops the National Guard had, or how we would improve the economy. Our political practice and our political thinking were one and the same. We lived as we thought. This coherence made us into a force that transformed the very idea of change in Nicaragua.
The Literacy Campaign will forever be recorded in history as the most powerful testimony of our effort to change Nicaragua. Literacy is the most universal symbol of our project’s humanist, ethical and revolutionary commitment, because the campaign went to the places where justice had to be done and it was the young people who went there. We went with both pedagogical techniques and a message, but the best pedagogy was the contact between those young people and the peasant families, who learned that there were young people willing to give their best in order to open people’s eyes and teach them to read. This transforming of darkness into light remains the best testimonial to what our dreams were all about.
We also wanted to carry out an agrarian reform and began to make some progress in it. But it was there that the contradictions began to emerge between the model we aspired to and the peasant population’s aspirations and needs. We were going to give them land, technology, capital; that’s what we said. And we did, but managed the credit with such generosity that we fell into an economic error. We also made mistakes in the distribution of land and technology. There was no lack of willingness or desire to make changes, no one can question that. But we failed to correctly manage market relations in a society like ours, with so many vestiges of the past and so many transformations ahead of us. We weren’t very "scientific," to use a presumptuous term.
Despite everything, we made progress in achieving economic independence during the years of the revolution. The nationalization of the banks gave us independence. Today, with neoliberalism dominated by finances and stock markets, it is even clearer that if you have a bank, you have an effective tool for transformation. We also made progress in independence in our international relations. Never has Nicaragua been as sovereign as in those years. It is often said that our relationship with the Soviet Union was one of subordination, but I know that’s not true, because I directly participated in many meetings with them. Not only that, we had to fight to get the Soviets to reach out to us. They knew what bad shape we were in, what it would mean to make a commitment to our country, so close to the United States. The last thing they wanted was another relationship like Cuba. They didn’t really begin to help us until 1985, and it was mainly with armaments and petroleum because that was what we needed and what they had. I’ll tell you just the first of many stories I could tell.
It was our first exploratory mission to the socialist camp, with Luis Carrión, Gioconda Belli and a couple of others. Our meeting in Moscow was with an alternate to the Politburo, not even a full member, but he was in charge of party relations with liberation movements. I was picked to explain the Nicaraguan process, I guess because of my experience in the orthodox, pro-Soviet PSN, but when we got there he told me I had half an hour, including simultaneous interpretation! When I ran out of time, he very graciously gave me…fifteen minutes more! When it was over we went through all the cordialities, but since it had been so difficult for us and they had given no indications, I turned to him when I got to the door and just blurted out, "Excuse me, compañero, are you going to support us or not?" "Yes," he said, "we’re going to support you." And they did.
We made our best efforts in the struggle for sovereignty, dignity and national independence. And the revolutionary leadership was always united in this. We knew that by moving closer to Eastern bloc socialism we were facing an unknown monster, but we also knew that it was the only one able to counter the other monster in the North, which we knew much better. We decided to play this game with all the integrity and conviction we could muster. We played it, and I believe we played it correctly.
Today everything has changed. Illiteracy is back. The land reform has been practically demolished. To continue talking about defending cooperatives is merely a vain piece of the FSLN’s demagogic language. The few cooperatives that still exist can’t hold out much longer. The land reform has been dismantled and the big land estates have been reestablished. The lands distributed through the agrarian reform are now in the hands of foreigners and a group of Nicaraguans of all political stripes.
Does the country need an agrarian reform today? Of what kind? We have to be self-critical: the model of large agroindustrial companies that we proposed for national transformation was wrong; it couldn’t modernize the country then and it can’t today. In light of the international economic transformations that have occurred, it appears that modernization takes place through small productive units in which small, highly educated and skilled population groups start the agroindustrial chain of production. Today’s revolution must involve education as well as land ownership.
Today everything has changed. There are now almost five million Nicaraguans. Our country faces tremendous challenges and its future prospects are increasingly limited in this new world order, unarguably monopolized by a historically new form of capitalism that contains all the virtues and all the evils of monopolies.
The panorama has become extremely complicated. In our time it was easier: the majority of land was in the hands of Somoza, the Somocistas and a few Conservatives. All we had to do was confiscate it. And now? If we confiscate, we’re stepping into a minefield because we would be affecting Nicaraguans who are US citizens and US law would immediately come down on us. And the World Bank and the whole world move in step with US law. Today, the desire to carry out revolutionary transformations like we did in the 1980s can make us appear to be the aggressors, rather than the victims.
The setting has indeed become much more complicated for us. Revolutionaries from third world countries are faced with a great challenge: thinking of ways that are possible today to carry out the revolutionary transformations we continue to need. We have struggled to find ways to bring about human development with solidarity. There is no more important mission on our planet, which suffers from so many problems and paradoxes.
There are paths, there must be, and we have to find them. Human experience is too rich to believe that human history has come to an end overnight. The changes we imagine in order to build a better world for all imply constant searching and commitment, searching for bold new ideas and broad-based, dynamic forms of organization.
The struggle that NGOs are now carrying out, for example, is significant. It is possible that, based on their accumulated experience, new alternatives for achieving justice will emerge, along with balance in economic growth and political forms of civil or grassroots activities that will undoubtedly help create and enrich the new organizations our world is crying out for.
Our struggles are difficult and sometimes seem impossible and absurd. But we have to remember that "if in the beginning an idea isn’t absurd, then there’s no hope for it." None other than Albert Einstein said this. Our ideas today must have this tinge of "absurdity."
The neoliberal "utopia" that believes the planet can function with 40% of its population excluded is not viable. In the past ten years, there has been an extraordinary increase in social inequality, poverty and exclusion in most countries, including the United States. This system’s limits are not economic or technological but rather social, political and ecological. Because state institutions increasingly lack legitimacy, social movements and social explosions now pose the only limits to this highly dynamic and creative, but also highly exclusionary and destructive system.
Rubén Darío, a seer whose pen created new forms in the language while his predictions about the future of the impoverished masses of his time fell short, said: "I fail to understand know how the mine that menaces the world has not yet exploded, because it should have blown up already. The same fever burns everywhere. The spirit of the lower classes will be incarnated in an implacable future avenger. The wave from below will overthrow the mass above. The Commune, the International, nihilism, these are nothing; the enormous, vanquishing coalition is yet to come."
The world around us will slowly, irredeemably perish if those of us who inhabit it today do not react energetically and in time. A morality based on the capacities of the strongest, on the notion that self-esteem means defeating the weakest, on the idea that if my neighbor is a millionaire, why shouldn’t I should be one too, necessarily leads us to envy, frustration and crime. Personal consumption levels based on those of developed countries, and "progress" conceived and guided in this direction, will aggravate the ecological conditions, and the environment that still remains habitable will lose the qualities that make life pleasant. Extreme poverty, aggravated by unhealthy conditions and lack of education, is also destroying the environment. Fighting against sub-human ways of living is to fight for a world in which our species can survive.
In this setting, Nicaragua’s future prospects seem very limited. Nonetheless, one of the struggles that most unites people in the country, and that has become a global struggle, is the fight against the foreign debt. The critique of poor countries’ foreign debts has become quite powerful. But we have to recognize that neither the World Bank nor the IMF really has any interest in resolving this problem. They set dates, postpone them, call technocrats to meetings, reach agreements in the G-7, say this, say that, and nothing happens…
In June 1999, they made their conditions more flexible to favor 33 countries defined as "highly indebted poor countries" through the HIPC initiative. Some 430 million people live in these countries, or 7.16% of the world population. Their debts total US$127 billion. One of these countries is Nicaragua, which owes some $6.5 billion. Our debt represents 1.67% of the poorest countries’ debt, while our population represents only 0.083% of the world population. Figures are bandied about, and the World Bank makes decisions, sets conditions, reaches agreements… But where’s the relief? Which countries’ debts have really been pardoned? None. When a country submits to a structural adjustment process, as Nicaragua did, the only thing that happens is that several rich countries give it donations that it can use to continue to pay its debts to the bank. The bank is sacrosanct and the debts are paid, as the banks are unwilling to lose a single cent. Capitalism has become our religion.
It is within this restricted panorama that we have to find ways to bring about change on behalf of this people and this country. There are many obstacles, but we have to fight. And once again, as in my generation, we have to face the challenge of freedom.
Being free today doesn’t only mean not being persecuted and being assured of certain political rights, as under Somoza. Now, being free means that our right to education is respected, since human beings cannot think freely if they are not well educated. Being free also means being well fed, since human beings cannot act freely if they are not well fed. If our right to food and health care and education is not respected, we will not be free. We have to develop these concepts and make people more aware of them so they begin to envision grassroots struggles in another way, using other methods.
In Nicaragua we also have to learn that laws and institutions, when consolidated, serve to defend citizens’ rights. In Nicaragua, we have never believed in either laws or institutions. In our history, conflicts have always been resolved through guns, through violence. During the revolution we said we wanted a country with a rule of law, but in reality we didn’t believe in laws. This explains why we made transformations that required legal support without providing them that support. This is what happened with the agrarian reform. We confiscated property from the Somoza family and the Somocistas—with authorization from the OAS and an international agreement legitimizing these confiscations. But after doing it, we didn’t bother to take the necessary legal steps in the registry books. Such omissions are inexplicable in a culture that respects the law.
When we lost the 1990 elections, I always thought we could win in 1996. I interpreted our 1990 defeat as something that would shake us up, allow us to end the war and give us the political opportunity to return to power as a party that would cleanly win the next elections. But to win them, we in the leadership had to take on the task of organizing the FSLN as a dynamic political party, bringing its historical principles up to date. That didn’t happen. We all began to do what we saw fit, and there were really only three of us working politically. The leaders went in different directions, on paths that have still not been set straight. In 1996, only the threat of the return of Somocismo made it possible for us to regroup as an electoral force, but even then we couldn’t make ourselves into a political force with a program and new forms of struggle.
At this point I don’t see any way for the FSLN to put itself back together. Neither my head nor my heart nor my commitments allow me to believe there is any possibility of this. During Violeta Chamorro’s government, the FSLN played a more coherent role as an opposition force. We waged a more systematic, more sustained opposition. More recently, facing the Liberal government, the FSLN has not acted as an opposition but rather as a collaborator.
It is inexplicable that the FSLN leadership has come to agreements with this government, that they have formed a pact with it. These agreements began to take form in the 1997 Property Law, which dealt the final blow to the agrarian reform. It seems to me that the FSLN’s change in direction began with the negotiations between the FSLN and the Liberal government over that law, which was the first thing that the FSLN proposed to Alemán after he took office.
That law was the last straw for me, the one that exhausted my patience. When Alemán won, I proposed that we undertake a profound analysis of the Somocismo that was returning to the country. I always maintained and continue to maintain that the current government is a Somocista government, that it seeks bring back Somocismo. What is Somocismo? It is public theft, nepotism and favoritism in public management, an administration that is not transparent. Transparency also has to do with freedom. If I seek freedom, if I fight for freedom, I have the right to know how the public money, which belongs to everyone, is being spent.
Understanding the nature of public theft is essential to understanding Somocismo. And it is precisely in theft and corruption that Arnoldo Alemán’s government excels. All the traffic circles, the public works, the "works of progress" they constantly publicize—"works, not words"—serve to cover up the theft committed by the President and his circle of friends, who find many opportunities in this "progress" for illicit enrichment through organizing and institutionalizing a system of bribes.
When along some with other Sandinistas I came to the conclusion that Alemán’s victory had brought a Somocista government to power, I proposed that the FSLN oppose it full on—even militarily, if necessary. And I talked with a lot of people to prepare us for that possibility. I was fully involved in that project. Very soon, however, I began to hear rumors that a property law was being agreed to that would put an end to the agrarian reform. At that time, I was a member of the Sandinista directorate and I knew we had not agreed on this issue. Since the rumor persisted, I spoke with Daniel Ortega in private. He told me there was nothing to it. I insisted that I had to know the truth because, out of self-esteem, I could not appear to be an idiot, calling people together, working with them and organizing them in another political direction. He swore up and down to me that there was nothing to it. I believed him. When I learned shortly after that the property law had been agreed to by Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán, I walked away from it all.
Why should I continue in the FSLN? If they did not respect a comrade who deserved respect, why continue? Such disloyalty pained me. I had no choice. This explains my withdrawal from some political actions and the fact that I dedicated myself to another kind of politics. When all this happened, I didn’t say anything. Now after everything else that has happened, it is no longer important. I have established my position. Does it serve the interests of the right, as some FSLN leaders claim, to tell things as they are? I don’t think so. The pact is what is serious, what serves the interest of rightwing politics.
I’m convinced that in the current situation, recovering the FSLN’s franchise is a heroic, virtually impossible mission. There is no debate within the FSLN; the only weapon used by those holding the FSLN franchise is to disqualify those of us who think differently. The political and economic powers defended by those who control the FSLN explain why they have come so far as to form this pact.
I am not renouncing my belief in the need for revolution or social commitment, or in working in accord with this social commitment. What I refuse to do is remain in an institution that no longer bears any resemblance to what it was, to what we saw in it.
The pact between the FSLN and Alemán’s government presents us with a dilemma. The pact is not a project; it is already written into the Constitution. I am convinced, as are many others Sandinistas and many people who are not Sandinistas, that if the pact is consolidated, it will run roughshod over the opinions of young people, and many young people will scorn politics and become increasingly apathetic and weak-willed. This is dangerous, because politics is the way to resolve the nation’s problems, and needs the efforts of the young. A heavy shadow is rising over the heads of young Nicaraguans today. The pact has once again put Nicaragua in a situation in which old, arrogant people have decided to close the doors to the young, just as in our time. What can Sandinistas do who disagree with the pact? Will we stay home? Organize a new force? All that unites those of us Sandinistas who oppose the pact is the search for a force against it. This is the meaning I see in the "third way," which is not so much that as an alternative to the two forces that have in effect become just one after the pact. We must quickly oppose this single force with another force, to prevent the consolidation of the pact.
The third way is an effort to bring together organizations, groups and individuals against the pact. The Electoral Law has defined the frame we have in which to do this. The third way is a means to reach the municipal elections of November 2000. The day after these elections, we’ll think about what to do if there are presidential elections. If there are no presidential elections, the third way is done for. It is just a tactic, one involving neither political nor ideological principles, but one that can help us get this country out of the situation we have been left in by the pact. The third way is still a sketchy force, struggling to make its way through problems, subject every so often to attempts at internal sabotage. This is understandable; it would be strange if the third way were to make a sudden, massive appearance in this Nicaragua. It wouldn’t be real. I’m going to support the third way because I oppose the pact. And to oppose the pact is to work to prevent the civil war that follows political acts as negative as the pact.
The world has changed a great deal. But yesterday as well as today, the most valuable resource we have in Nicaragua is our people. The most valuable resource of a country is always its people. This is why we have to keep fighting for social justice and national dignity, because this means fighting for the people, and they deserve new opportunities.
Ethics is not a dead doctrine, nor is it written in stone. Ethics responds to the evolution of ideas, to changes in people’s concrete situations. Ethics is always dynamic. What do revolutionaries do in Nicaragua today, when they see that the land is in the hands of foreigners, that the country is economically governed from outside, and that the number of poor people is increasing everywhere? Do I accept the idea that we should wait for wealth to reach such levels that it runs out of room and overflows onto the poor? Or do I continue to believe that history is always made of struggles to achieve freedom and be able to fly?
My political option continues to be socialism, a socialism we must revise based on the little historical experience it has had. I continue to believe in a society in which human dignity is measured by work. I prefer this society to any other. I think that human freedom is a permanent conquest, that we have not finished the job in Nicaragua, and that we will always be committed to fight for justice as well as freedom, because I believe that justice and freedom must always be balanced in the same equation.