"These Elections Are Devoid of Ideology"
Historian Aldo Díaz Lacayo was a diplomat under the Sandinista government and is still an FSLN activist. The following are some of his reflections on the electoral process that culminates in November.
Aldo Díaz Lacayo
What is the fundamental problem with November’s elections? That most voters are negatively motivated. The Liberal Party is encouraging a ‘vote of fear,’ the notion that a vote for the Liberals is a vote against the FSLN, while the FSLN is trusting in a ‘punishment vote,’ that a vote for the FSLN is a vote against the ruling PLC.
Both the national and international Right are stressing fear of a return to the FSLN’s ways of exercising power during the eighties. They are cultivating it on different levels, from the threat of a return of war to the threat of a revival of political control through partisan social organizations. In between is a whole range of fears fed by different sectors, including religious, national finance capital and the national capital now linked to globalized commerce.
The emphasis on fear is aimed at providing continuity to the neoliberal policies of the international financial institutions and delivering a deathblow to the FSLN as a political organization. The Right trusts this strategy because it worked in the 1990 and 1996 elections, but last year’s municipal elections demonstrated that fear may not have disappeared among most of the population, but it has been considerably reduced. All the Sandinista candidates who won in the most important municipalities cultivated styles that contradict the arguments of the vote of fear: they were tolerant, conciliatory, pro-active and open to a national and local project, putting the past behind them. Those election results were so favorable to the FSLN that it provoked the Liberals into a more insistent and sophisticated fear campaign. Enrique Bolaños may not be personally appealing to the vote of fear in his campaign, but other Liberal spokespeople clearly are, and international actors, particularly US government officials, are as well.
At the other extreme, the FSLN is more or less explicitly appealing to people to use their votes as punishment. Convinced that the population is sick of these past ten years of neoliberalism, first under the Conservatives and then under the Liberals, they trust that the population will use its vote to punish the candidate of the incumbent party. The FSLN has done little if anything to counteract the vote of fear. The polls contradict the FSLN’s triumphalist belief that the punishment vote will outweigh the campaign based on fear. After all, if the punishment vote really had the motivational weight the FSLN is assigning it, Enrique Bolaños would not be moving up in the polls, continually narrowing the gap between him and Daniel Ortega. This indicates that the Liberals’ fear campaign is more effective than the FSLN calculated.
Why is the FSLN leadership apparently not responding with determination and ability? Basically because these elections are political in nature, not ideological. The November 4 elections are taking place in a global context in which revolutionary sentiments are on the wane, which favors the Right. The political parties and other organizations of the left around the world have not managed to come up with an ideological reformulation of revolutionary thought. We are living in a time of both ebbing revolutionary sentiments and revolutionary disorientation, fragmentation. It is a time in which everyone on the Left has a great desire for unity, but cannot bring it about. It is a juncture that keeps us fragmented, compartmentalized, with everyone swamped by their national situation, by the search for ways to formulate new revolutionary theses for their own country or locality, while neglecting the needed retooling of revolutionary thought with global consensus. It is a time when there is no international convention of leftist forces.
This has turned the elections into an eminently political event in which the important thing is getting into power, literally capturing power, because that at least creates the possibility that some things can be done, and that’s enough. As in the rest of the world, this simple and limited idea is prevailing in Nicaragua’s elections and is what is creating such strange and ephemeral alliances among all of the country’s political parties. The lack of an organized leftist force with a structured way of thinking has unbalanced both the Nicaraguan Left and Right.
All the above, however, is not the only reason there is no ideology in this election. Since the fall of the socialist bloc countries and the loss of the strategic rearguard that they represented, leftist parties have not only lost their conventional and globally accepted ideological reference points, they have also had to do the impossible to survive. That is what happened to the FSLN, with the aggravating factor that other parties adapted to the new ebbing situation more easily than the FSLN precisely because it was in power. The collapse of the socialist bloc on the eve of the FSLN’s 1990 electoral defeat in Nicaragua was a terrible psychological trauma, but it was even more a material, economic trauma. We were working within a revolutionary power with no economic support and our loss of power and support initiated a process that all leftwing parties experienced in one way or another, but was particularly acute for us. The crisis provided us with a new motivation that was different from the revolutionary one: how to adjust to the new circumstances economically and on the individual and family level.
That was when solidarity began to be lost within the FSLN. The capitalist spirit started to take root among us again, generating a gigantic contradiction. On the rational level, we were saying that we would remain committed to finding new ways of making revolution under the new circumstances, but we were assuming another commitment in our daily lives, which was not to perish as individuals. This contradiction has blocked us from debating ideological problems right up to the present day. From that time on, we have had more questions than answers but it has been impossible for us to sit down inside the party and discuss the new ideological challenges. How can we rescue the process of the 1980s, reformulate it, update it, make it viable again in the eyes of the Nicaraguan people, stimulate them to participate? All of these gaps were reinforced by the fact that the leftist forces in other countries were also immersed in trying to ensure their local survival and similarly hindered from tackling the ideological problem. We have reached this moment with the ideological factor still pending and thus absent from the electoral process.
Instead, national needs are pitted against international perceptions in this election. The international circumstances growing out of the global development of neoliberalism mean that Nicaragua is governed from outside, like the other countries of the South. Independent of the different political positions in all these countries, there is a collective consciousness—or collective unconsciousness—that convinces us we are up against the external factor. But as we don’t have the ideological tools to deal with it, we also have no way to incorporate it into the electoral campaign. We can’t even verbalize the formula for counterattacking this adverse international avalanche, let alone actually do it. We also have to live with the aggravating fact that as we are basically committed to getting into power, we are also willing to turn a blind eye to, negotiate or accept the economic policies imposed by the international financial institutions without so much as questioning them.
What does a leftist party in any country of the South do in an electoral process when it has no solid, universally shared ideological arguments? This is the problem currently facing the FSLN. Until 1990, for better or worse, we had a structure, a guide, a reference point that the whole Left systematically or universally accepted, independent of whether we were divided at the local level. Today we have none of that. What does a leftist party do to successfully oppose a rightwing one without that reference point? What does it do to stop this vacuum from negatively influencing its ambitions to take power? This election pits national concerns against international influence, despite our lack of arguments or appropriate elements to take advantage of this confrontation "in favor of" anything. Never before has the North’s confrontation with the South been so radical, so visible, so obvious. Yet we cannot take advantage of it.
In spite of everything, the Nicaraguan elections are being read ideologically in the international field. Even at this international juncture, broad outside sectors, particularly in the United States, see the FSLN’s return to power as a serious threat. Precisely because this is Nicaragua, at the center of international attention just a decade ago, a perception still prevails that, notwithstanding the lack of ideology and the moral and ethical cracks produced by the capitalist values that individual Sandinistas have assumed, a return of the FSLN is a threat. The international Right analyzes an FSLN electoral victory in ideological terms and fears it, despite the fact that it is an utterly contradictory perception. The FSLN has not reformulated its own leftist ideology and there is no international one that would enable its return to government to change the correlation of forces between Right and Left on the international, Latin American or even Central American level. Nonetheless, an ideological fear of this return exists in the world. It is as if an FSLN-governed Nicaragua could somehow turn itself into a new and dangerous base for the universal Left. That’s why they are starting to talk about the Castro-Chávez-Ortega alliance and throw in Khadaffi and Hussein to paint the danger in even more ominous tones.
This perception explains why the US government is meddling in Nicaragua’s electoral process with its saber-rattling discourse, offering such negative judgments about a possible FSLN victory. It seems crazy for officials of such a great power to be worrying about such a small country as Nicaragua, which will mean nothing at all even with the FSLN in government. But the ideological ghost terrifies them and is making them react disproportionately. It is because of this exaggerated US fear that these elections are being viewed as ideological in Nicaragua and the rest of the world, when in reality they aren’t at all. The Sandinista Front has no capacity to confront this perception much less reverse it. In fact, it isn’t even trying. Given its lack of ideological resources, it prefers to talk about an "understanding" with the United States, though its discourse is unconvincing, without substance and not welcomed by the Bush government.
Even with all of these shortcomings, however, a vote for the FSLN is a vote for the best-organized political force in the country, with an organizational presence across the nation and the greatest discipline and political cohesion. Above all, it still has its revolutionary spirit. This spirit is the only revolutionary thing it has any more, since it lacks the concrete tools even to express it in any way other than moral conviction. The FSLN cannot take up arms to raise the idea of a revolution again. What revolution? Based on what principles? The same proposals of the 1980s? That would be impossible, but the Sandinista grass roots still represent great capital in terms of revolutionary spirit, which would allow the development of a better government. And just being a better government would be enough.
A better government would essentially mean reconsidering the negotiating terms of our economic policy with the international organizations. We cannot modify the terms, but we can reopen them. If, for example, the international financial institutions favor subsidies to the financial sector, the sector producing nontraditional products and the assembly plants, we could re-discuss these priorities. We could look at how to transfer or share the subsidies with productive sectors that are more in need and more essential for social development. If the leaders of international financial institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and the IDB say they favor canceling the social debt of countries from the South, prioritizing education, health and housing, we could take them at their word. We could rethink the operational terms of these institutions, which in reality, forgetting the speeches, are actually worsening the social debt. If it revives its revolutionary spirit—which means justice and equity—an FSLN government could reopen the negotiating terms with the international financial institutions with a focus on national interests. That would make a better government and that would be enough.