A Project Offering a Future to the Nation and Sandinisimo
During, the campaign, the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) negotiated its participation in a pluralist alliance with the FSLN and other forces, MRS president Dora María Téllez, one of its main promoters, shared with envío some of her views on this new project called the "Convergence".
Dora María Téllez
The National Convergence emerged during an electoral campaign period, in alliance with the FSLN, but the idea from the start was to create and consolidate a new political alliance. It welcomed individuals without an organizational base, such as Antonio Lacayo, Miriam Argüello, Álvaro Robelo and Alexis Argüello, as well as forces with leadership structures and organizational links to their own grassroots base. The latter included the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), the Christian Unity Movement (MUC), the Social Christians, an important sector of the former Nicaraguan Resistance, the indigenous movement led by Steadman Fagoth from the RAAN and a movement that is organizing and taking shape under the leadership of PLC dissidents Eddy Gómez and Sergio García Quintero.
Even before the elections, the Convergence was presented as more than just an electoral alliance. We had already discussed and agreed to the idea of becoming a long-term political alliance and the need to work to that end. It was not just an electoral tactic, even for the last ally to join us, Violeta Chamorro’s minister of the presidency, Antonio Lacayo. His joining the Convergence was one of the most valiant and disinterested gestures I have seen in recent years. His open letter stating that he had joined in response to the meddling declarations by US government officials was a very brave step to take in Nicaragua, a kind of "détente," a good foreign policy starting point.
One of the big challenges for the Convergence is how to combine forces and individuals. This was also the challenge facing the Third Way in 2000, and one can view the Convergence as a kind of transferal to the FSLN of the proposals and styles we would have practiced then. Through the Convergence, the FSLN has to a certain extent adopted much of what the Third Way was putting forward.
There’s a history to the MRS decision to join the Convergence. We in the MRS believed that the PLC-FSLN pact had seriously affected national institutionality. The electoral law changes generated by the pact forced a bi-party system on the country, eliminating the participation of different political forces and dividing the Supreme Electoral Council along party lines. None of the pact’s consequences has been positive for the country. The MRS decided to oppose it, but we also adopted a pro-active attitude. We understood that it wasn’t enough to state that the two-party institutional model was bad, that the most important thing was to present alternatives to the institutional model left us by the pact.
But that wasn’t enough either; alternatives also had to be presented to the institutional model that had preceded the pact. The first few months of the Alemán government had demonstrated that our institutional model was highly susceptible to distortion from the presidency by a single man exercising almost absolute power in all of the state institutions. Alemán’s authoritarian vocation proved just how fragile our institutional system, inherited from the centralist presidential-based model of the 19th century, really was. This legacy still weighs heavily, despite the constitutional reforms we made in 1995.
Analyzing those reforms self-critically, we also have to recognize that we were more optimistic than we should have been. We’ve tried to analyze what was missing in those reforms, what made it possible for a figure like Alemán and the political party that decided to accompany him on his adventure to develop such total power in the rest of the institutions through coercion, co-optation, threats and corruption. The parliamentarians who drew up the reforms thought we were leaving the country covered against the risk of a presidential authority that would overwhelm the institutions. But we didn’t achieve this; too many legal gaps remained unfilled. Arnoldo Alemán proved this to us. He showed that the institutional apparatus was incredibly fragile, that he could manipulate it at his whim and successfully line up society according to his own will through confrontation. Alemán showed us that he could smother the Office of Comptroller General despite constitutional safeguards and plunge the Supreme Court into a serious financial predicament, despite the fact that the Constitution ensured it a fixed percentage of the budget. He showed that he could asphyxiate the Office of Human Rights Ombudsman, despite the fact that the institution was created as independent. He showed that the Caribbean Coast’s autonomy was fragile or null and that municipal autonomy was nonexistent because the decentralization and deconcentration scheme was not consolidated. Alemán also proved that he could make parliament dance to the tune of the presidential pipe.
The FSLN’s thinking when it decided to enter into the pact with Alemán was that without a majority in the National Assembly and in the face of the Alemán avalanche, there was no way out other than to seek some kind of defense mechanism. But the mechanism it sought—the pact with Alemán—served only to further weaken institutionality, thus intensifying the crisis. The consummation of the pact definitively revealed the fragility of the whole system; it provoked the collapse of the whole model.
The MRS took a very critical position in response to this collapse, saying that the pact isn’t working, isn’t going to work and is going to have very grave consequences for the country. But we wanted to accompany our criticism with a proposition, so before the 2000 municipal elections the MRS took on the task of drawing up a model for an alternative political system, with in-depth changes in the institutional system that would guarantee the fight against poverty and corruption. At the same time, we decided to collaborate in forming a "third way" political force that would present the country with this project for institutional change.
One of the focal points we defined as essential for starting to transform the political system was changing the way parliamentary representatives are elected. We felt they should not be elected as part of a slate drawn up by the parties, so that voters can only select one slate over another, but that they should elected directly as individuals. We proposed an identical system for electing municipal councilors. This would force the political leaders to respond to the electorate and not just the interests of those groups able to influence each party and its political bosses.
We considered such a change to be strategic not just in confronting the caudillo system, but also in transforming the way power is exercised, allowing people to participate and express their dissatisfaction directly with their political leaders. If we understand the caudillo system as based on strong leadership, there’s no problem, because leadership can and should be strong. When leaders are elected by name, however, they have to attract voters, debate with them, be accountable to those who elected them, because they know the same electorate is going to take them to task and they will be reelected or rejected based on how they’ve acted. The National Convergence adopted this proposal and now we’re going to promote it from the opposition.
This is not the only important area in the alternative political model we presented. Others include the implementation of an economic policy with social justice, the prevention of corruption and the transformation of the judicial branch from local judges right up to the Supreme Court to create a serious, functional, efficient and truly free judicial system.
The MRS drew up an alternative program, but failed in its attempts to form a Third Way option. That project collapsed under the pressures exerted by economic groups, the PLC and outside forces. There was a conspiracy to eliminate any possibility of competition to the pact’s two-party system. Both the PLC and the FSLN felt threatened by such a possibility and neither wanted any other competitors interfering with their chances. By hook or crook, they had to liquidate the Third Way. How did they do it? The first step was to get Sandinismo—represented by the MRS—out of the Third Way. Then they got another sector of the Third Way to leave and endorse the Conservative Party. Finally, they tried to get the Conservative Party out of the game altogether, to get it to endorse the PLC.
I don’t know what the electoral scenario and the election results would have been had the Third Way participated. We didn’t get time to measure it, to imagine it, because that alliance was aborted too quickly, even before the municipal elections. The idea behind the pact was to move us to a polarized scenario, which was a risky strategy from a leftist point of view, because bi-party polarization isn’t in the interests of any leftist party anywhere in the world—not even the FSLN in Nicaragua.
With the Third Way destroyed, the MRS decided to join the Convergence for the same reasons that we opposed the pact. We wanted to open arenas in which to develop a platform of proposals in opposition to the institutional system growing out of the pact. We put this clearly to the FSLN and they told us that they, too, wanted to construct a different political system. Second, we told the FSLN that the MRS had always favored creating a broad, pluralistic alliance bringing together different forces to offer the country a national proposal. The FSLN responded that it was after the same thing, and the embryonic Convergence that existed at the time said it agreed. Third, we laid out to the FSLN that the MRS wanted participation at the decision-making table of a future government and in the National Assembly. The FSLN decided not to negotiate any representation in the National Assembly, but did promise that we would be represented in a future government.
The MRS joined the Convergence under this understanding, and these three points were reflected in the agreements that we signed with the FSLN. The FSLN had already signed agreements with the Social Christians and the Christian Unity Movement, both of which were allied with the FSLN when we joined. An agreement was subsequently signed with the rest of the groups and individuals from the Third Way that chose to ally with the FSLN. That’s how the National Convergence began shaping up as a political alliance committed to forming a pluralistic government with a platform aimed at transforming public institutions and promoting a program to ensure transparency and fight corruption.
Who needed whom most? Did the FSLN need the forces and figures of the Convergence more than the Convergence needed the FSLN? I think the need was mutual. Political forces always look for avenues of political expression and in some circumstances elections provide the best one. Political forces want to influence the exercise of political power and political proposals; it’s their very nature. Marginalizing themselves from an electoral process only makes sense if they are doing so to exert some kind of influence. If they express themselves through abstention, for example, the goal has to be to influence the community to abstain. There was a lot of debate in the MRS about expressing ourselves through abstention and we saw clearly that it wouldn’t have any influence, that it wasn’t an option. We’ve come a long way, because our position in the municipal elections was to try to influence people to annul their votes while at the same time filing suit against the Supreme Electoral Council over the illegal way we were excluded from the race.
The MRS’s concern as a political party in the presidential elections was to try to make way for the clear programmatic platform we had drawn up. Despite having done all we could to create our vehicle of choice, the Third Way, it was destroyed, and not by us. We then looked at whether we could create another vehicle, and that got us into this alliance with other forces—practically everyone who joined the Convergence originally allied with us in promoting and forming the Third Way—and with the FSLN, which shares our Sandinista identity. This presented us with an interesting option to think about, bearing in mind that only three parties—the FSLN, the PLC and the PC—were participating in the electoral process, and the Conservatives had rejected any pluralistic alliance scheme. We had to keep this in mind, because the MRS engaged in long negotiations with the Conservatives and they kept backing off. Paradoxically, the last Conservative Party candidate, Alberto Saborío, showed tremendous gallantry by focusing his campaign on proposing an alternative model of institutionality.
Allying with the FSLN and promoting the Convergence was a political decision to further our programmatic platform. The MRS came to the Convergence with a package of proposals that we had already thought out and that reflected what those of us in the Third Way had debated. It largely coincides with what we are now putting forward in the Convergence.
We thought we had a very good chance of winning the elections in the Convergence, but even in defeat we’ve made some advances and we in the MRS feel that having formed this alliance was a good gamble. The principal gain is the birth of the Convergence as a new project. The real test of a political alliance in Nicaragua is to survive electoral victories or defeats. No political alliance in Nicaragua has ever done that; all of them die on election day. The fact that this one hasn’t died is an achievement in itself.
What we are trying to do in the Convergence now, after the defeat, is work out a platform that unites our different forces. We are calling a convention for the first quarter of 2002 to define the Convergence’s program, establish its ground rules and define the mechanisms for the political forces and individuals interested in it. All of this will help transform an essentially electoral alliance into a stable political alliance capable of offering a proposal to the country and acting as an opposition force in the coming five years. Although there is a lot of work to be done, I think there are great possibilities of consolidating this alliance with these goals.
We’re going to link up the Convergence with the Sandinista bench in the National Assembly around the program we’re going to create. Programmatic cohesion will help give the Sandinista bench cohesion around proposals. We are thus working on a joint parliamentary agenda. The best linkage never comes through executive channels but rather through programmatic ones. Identifying the circumstances the country is living in and defining the position we’re going take to respond to them provides programs that create the deepest linkages.
We also want to coordinate the Convergence with the Sandinista-ruled municipal governments to back them and link them with the Convergence in preparation for the next elections. We’re already working on the 2002 elections in the Caribbean Coast and are also going to prepare for the municipal elections in three years time.
We’re going to push forward area by area: program, political agenda, discourse, opposition strategy and parliamentary agenda, as well as in the municipalities and on electoral issues. We’re taking the time now to debate and look deeper into defining what we want, how we want it, what mechanisms are available to us, how to act and what each force can offer.
Is the Convergence about revitalizing the FSLN? Naturally, the Convergence offers the FSLN advantages, just as it does to each of the other forces involved. This is an alliance in which the FSLN wins, the MRS wins, the MUC wins, Antonio Lacayo wins, Miriam Argüello wins and so on. Everyone’s a winner and we all have a role to play in the gains made. The Convergence is an opportunity for the FSLN and all the rest of us to do politics differently. It’s a challenge aimed at renewing the way politics is done and how we communicate and interact with people.
The Sandinista Front is not going to be absorbed by the Convergence because it has its specific weight in the Convergence. The success of this kind of alliance lies in recognizing the specific weight of each force, its capacity to contribute and its particular logic. Neither the FSLN nor any other force involved is going to dissolve. We’re talking about creating a model in the Convergence in which all forces retain their identity and organizational mechanisms but which will also have supra-party mechanisms, political forces and figures common to all that will govern the Convergence’s behavior as a political unit.
Daniel Ortega has played a real and important role in creating and organizing the Convergence. His position has had a major influence in opening up spaces within the FSLN for understanding and supporting this new project. There are differing opinions about the Convergence within the FSLN and Daniel Ortega’s position has been to systematically favor increasing and extending the possibilities of the Convergence.
Will Danielismo affect the Convergence? What happens within each different political force inside the Convergence will depend on the internal correlation of each. The MRS related to the FSLN maturely and respectfully around a common objective in this alliance. We stopped debating the FSLN’s internal affairs years ago. The discussions for the alliance always focused on programmatic themes, on what to do with the country and never on the FSLN’s internal problems. We follow the principle that any transformations within the FSLN are its business. The MRS no longer has any identity problems and is uniting around a programmatic proposal. Daniel Ortega’s weight within the FSLN is a matter for the FSLN. I personally don’t see Daniel Ortega abandoning the FSLN leadership in the near future. In any case, whether Danielismo exists or doesn’t, whether it creates problems or not, is a matter that the FSLN has to sort out for itself.
Any alliance not based on this kind of relationship between the different parties would quickly become unsustainable. Although one is always informed about what a certain person is saying or what another is doing or thinking in this kind of alliance, I can’t go sticking my nose into the contradictions or debates of any of the other political forces involved. That’s the only position to take if we are to strengthen an alliance in which each party has its own internal discussions and resolves its own problems or debates by itself. The FSLN had no problems about our identity as the MRS either. For some time now we’ve all been clear that we are two separate forces establishing an agreement and acting according to our own logic and our own dynamics.
Campaigning in favor of the Convergence throughout the country, I saw that Sandinistas were very enthusiastic about the establishment of joint actions between the FSLN and the MRS, between fellow Sandinistas. This is an essential fact for me, because we’re talking about the grass roots of a Sandinismo that the FSLN and MRS share. The Sandinista grass roots have always aspired to the unity of Sandinismo.
People were enthusiastic about the joint work we were proposing and about our collaboration; they identified with that plan. We didn’t come across any great jealousy or accusations. There was a willingness to dedicate time and effort to develop the best electoral campaign possible, with some using one style and others using another. Naturally, we were coming together in a favorable and very specific moment defined by the electoral campaign.
We found that Sandinistas were open to the idea of the Convergence and understood the logic of an alliance involving a group of organizations, each one with its own particular hat, initials and identity. Starting to think in terms of such a project and accept it is in itself a great political novelty in Nicaragua, because Nicaraguan alliances tend to fuse together all of the different elements involved, so that each one loses its own identity. As a result, all political forces in the country are afraid of being watered down, of being absorbed by the strongest party when they enter into an alliance. The MRS was afraid that it would be watered down by the FSLN and the FSLN was worried that it would be absorbed by the Convergence; this fear exists in all. It will take time to understand that this is about different forces with political unity and certain points in common, but that preserve their own spaces, social sectors, specific weight, different levels of representativeness and sectors of influence. This alliance therefore represents a learning process for the FSLN, the MRS and all of the different groups and individuals involved.
What kind of Sandinismo do we want to see in the 21st century? Nicaragua is going to be governed for the next five years by Enrique Bolaños—a man who has lived almost all of his life in the 20th century but whose mindset is from the 19th century. Sandinismo thus has to respond to the challenge of drawing up a program for the 21st century, to update itself and its program. This is something we’ve been discussing in the MRS for some time now. Sandinismo has to take a position in response to globalization, neoliberal proposals, Central American integration, regional markets, the environment, gender and ethnic issues. It has to take a position on what kind of economic model can be developed in this country and on an economic development strategy that eliminates poverty, bearing in mind that the strategy of recent years has only served to increase it.
Sandinismo last had a program in the 1980s, in a world that no longer exists. Following that experience, Sandinismo has redefined certain electoral programs, but we now have to work on a long-term platform with clear positions. Today, if you talk to five different Sandinistas, all of them might think differently about the same matter. We have to work to create a common identity. I don’t see this as an inter-party process involving just the FSLN and the MRS. I see it as a much more open process in which all the different springs of Sandinismo should participate. Nor do I see it as holding a kind of workshop or seminar to hammer out some sort of an agreement. I see it as a process in which different themes are debated over time. I’ve always believed that any process to redefine Sandinismo must involve a new program and changes in the national political system. Finally, it has to include new organizational structures, which is more complex. In any case, I think the foundations exist for just such a process, many of which were in fact established by the Convergence. The Convergence could do a lot to help update the Sandinista program and the debates within the Convergence could do a lot to help Sandinismo in taking up new positions.
I don’t equate the FSLN with Sandinismo. Sandinismo exists in the FSLN, in the MRS and in the dispersed expressions of Sandinismo that don’t necessarily identify with either party. Sandinismo is currently facing problems similar to those other parties are facing and is affected by the structural problems affecting the national political institutional structure. All of Nicaragua’s political parties have to face the challenge of modernizing, including the FSLN, the PLC, the PC and our party. We have to make sustained progress with stable organizational work that will lay the foundations for greater dynamism, participation and democracy.
I prefer to view the required modernization process as starting with the country and spreading out to the parties, rather than starting with the parties and spreading out to the country. In this regard, changing the way parliamentary representatives are elected is an important factor in modernizing the parties. It will be very difficult for the parties to modernize as long as we keep the current political system, which tends to concentrate all power in the hands of the party’s top leaders. If they decide the lists of parliamentary representatives, then power is concentrated in those leaders and everyone tends to orbit around them because at the end of the day they are the ones who make the final decisions and confer or take away power. If we change the political system and establish different rules, this will change the shape of the political stage on which parties move.
Parties can also be forced to modernize by public opinion, through public opinion surveys, and its influence on party leaders and structures and on the different models of organization and relations with people. Another way of modernizing could be through the linkage between political parties and civil society organizations, which is virtually nonexistent today. This does not have to be an organizational linkage, but rather a programmatic one based on public policy debates.
The November 4 elections signaled the collapse of the tradition political model and conduct. The Convergence represents the emergence of a different political model with a multiple and pluralistic leadership. This could only barely be appreciated during the elections because the Convergence emerged with greater force at the end of the campaign so it didn’t have the time to fully deploy its forces, though it did offer multiple voices and a pluralistic leadership.
I’m optimistic about the Convergence project. People who never wanted to work with the MRS have called me to say they want to work with us. And people who have never wanted to work on anything at all have called me to say they want to work with the Convergence because they feel it’s offering a new identity. It’s as though they’re saying, "I wouldn’t want to work with any of you alone, but together I like you all." These are good, novel signs, and that’s why I feel optimistic.