Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 138 | Enero 1993



New Year, New US President, New Look in Nicaragua

The far right lost political space, and the FSLN won some. Does this mean stability? Are we possibly entering into a “superior stage”, which the Salvadorans call “bonsai”, since the left is reduced to assuming a minor, decorative role in the “pluralist” political society?

Envío team

At first glance, the contrast in Nicaragua between the last two months of 1992 and the first one of 1993 could hardly be greater. Although more months will pass before the new Clinton administration defines its position on Nicaragua, the US election results had an immediate impact in Nicaragua, reflecting the enormous weight of the United States in all aspects of Nicaraguans' lives.

Just before the elections, all the political currents and social forces began to harden their positions; in November and December they tested these positions and measured the strength of each others'. By January all were either claiming, or were forced to accept, a new position in Nicaragua's political equation at least for the moment.

In this new equation, the far right was relegated to a minority role, while the FSLN the party defeated in Nicaragua's 1990 elections by a vote percentage close to the one that gave Clinton the US presidency regained its quota of power in the legislative branch. Organized workers won some major battles with the government and lost others, while poor and landless peasants and the urban unemployed were thrown only a few crumbs, at best. The bigger winner, as the dust began to settle, was the government.

A Relegated Right

The night of November 3, the US Embassy in Managua held an election watch reception for Nicaragua's big business elite, rightwing UNO politicians and Chamorro government officials. In a mock vote by the invited guests, Bush won by a landslide. They were a sad spectacle as they then watched Bush's stinging defeat after 12 years of a viscerally anti Sandinista Republican government.

Undoubtedly very frustrated by the election results, the far right let fly with unprecedented anti Sandinista rhetoric in demonstrations and through the media they control. COSEP (the big business umbrella organization) and the "Group of Three" (then National Assembly president Alfredo César, Vice President Virgilio Godoy and Managua mayor Arnoldo Alemán) demanded jail or worse for Sandinista leaders and army chief Humberto Ortega. Alemán called FSLN National Directorate member Tomás Borge an "assassin" while Godoy referred to him as a "damned dwarf." Current COSEP president Ramiro Gurdián demanded the jailing of trade union leaders in the National Workers Front (FNT) while his predecessor in that position, Gilberto Cuadra, dubbed government officials who favor an understanding with the FSLN "suspicious" at best. This rhetoric reached its zenith when Arges Sequeira, president of the Association of Confiscated Property Owners, leader of Alemán's Constitutionalist Liberal Party and a skilled spokesperson for the ultra right, was murdered on November 23. Virtually every rightwing extremist immediately, indiscriminately and with no evidence whatever pointed the finger at Sandinismo as a whole. They were not the least bit restrained by the fact that Sandinista leaders from all sectors publicly condemned the assassination.

The message in these drums of war was clear: the government should interpret neither the adverse results of the US elections nor the probable failure of César's parliamentary board packing maneuver in September as an opportunity to force the extreme right to endorse its centrist project. Even less would the extremists accept a political understanding with Sandinismo, however acceptable this might turn out to be with the new Democratic administration in the White House.

It is not enough for these recalcitrants that the Chamorro government's economic policies favor their interests, permitting a reconcentration of economic power and properties in the hands of the wealthy elite. The attorney general has aided this process by providing certificates to recover legally confiscated properties to former owners who had decapitalized or abandoned them or were Somoza cohorts; buyable judges and credit policies that force cooperatives and small individual landowners to sell their holdings have abetted it. In the latter part of 1992 the government even agreed to lavishly indemnify or return the properties of some old Somocistas, particularly those who now have US citizenship and Embassy backing. The list of those "unjustly confiscated" has thus slowly gotten longer.

The extremists want a centralization of political as well as economic power, and they want it now; they believe they can get it if the FSLN is politically neutralized and Sandinista consciousness is eradicated from the army. Clinton's victory is thus a jarring reversal at a critical moment for them. Although the Nicaraguan government always expressed confidence that the crucial $104 million in 1992 US aid would proceed down the pipeline once the electoral period was over, Republican spokespeople had indicated that it would remain frozen as long as Chamorro "continues co governing with the Sandinistas." Each side was half right: Bush released $50 million before moving out of the White House.

It had cost Nicaragua's extremists a lot of work to convince the Bush administration to switch its support from the Chamorro government to them and help thwart the consolidation of what they have always called a Chamorro FSLN "co government." Now, with Clinton's victory, their hope of a "coup at the helm" that would permit them to pack the government with their own suddenly looked like it might no longer have Washington's support.

Right Loses Assembly

One thing the FSLN and the government have always agreed on is that politically isolating the extremist right is pivotal to preventing an open confrontation that would destabilize the country and the government even more than it already is. The problem has always been that the extremists made up for what they lacked in domestic political weight with their support among US ultra conservatives, who have wielded significant clout in US policy toward Nicaragua up to now. For the past three years, this has resulted in a triangular stand off between Nicaragua's extremists; the Chamorro administration, whose power resides in its control of the executive branch far more than in a dedicated political base; and the FSLN, which has lacked support in either the official US power structure or the Nicaraguan one, but has far and away the largest and most active organized following in Nicaragua. It is precisely this stagnated equation that may now be giving way to some degree.

One of the first real signs of this shift occurred in the National Assembly in early January. The Sandinista bench and the self named Center Group in the UNO bench had maintained their September 2 walkout through the close of the 1992 legislative session in December, awaiting a decision from the foot dragging Supreme Court on their suit against César's September board packing maneuver. Since nearly everyone expected the court to find the maneuver illegal, neither the hardliners nor the government had shown any interest in negotiating a political settlement. The former preferred to keep making international waves with the institutional crisis and, meanwhile, push through all the dubiously legal anti Sandinista legislation it could with its hand picked replacement "quorum;" the latter chose to sit tight until the 1993 session began in January, when a new Assembly board was due to be elected. At the close of the 1992 session, the executive ordered troops to protect the Assembly building from any sabotage by UNO politicians aimed at preventing the real legislative majority from taking control to even hold those elections.

Thus, on January 9, a new governing board was elected for the next two legislative years by a 48 43 vote. The 39 member Sandinista bench plus the Center Group's 9 members voted in favor; the remainder of the UNO bench voted against. The new Assembly president, replacing Alfredo César, is Gustavo Tablada, legislative representative for the Socialist Party, which has now separated from the UNO coalition. For the first two years of the Chamorro government, Tablada also headed the government's Agrarian Institute; he resigned last year, saying he wanted to dedicate more time to his elected legislative post. The first secretary, the other key post, is also held by a Center Group member, Frank Duarte. Three members from the FSLN and two from the Center Group were elected to fill the remaining board positions. Hardliners were left unrepresented and the Supreme Court annulled all legislation passed by their pseudo quorum since September.

Two days after the board election, the 11 parties remaining in the original 14 party electoral alliance known as UNO announced that they were reconstituting themselves as an "opposition political alliance," with the aim of replacing the government with all due speed. This new alliance (promptly dubbed "APO," the Spanish acronym for its self definition) declared that the new board was the result of a "coup" by President Chamorro against the legislative branch, and that it would boycott the Assembly. It began calling street demonstrations around the country to demand a plebiscite on the current government.

A Fortified FSLN

Some weeks before the US elections, the FSLN gave clear signs of radicalizing its positions toward the government, as did the popular and union movements. There were even some moves in this direction by the army itself. The FSLN, and, to a lesser degree, the army had been increasingly forced to choose between their loyalty to the current political framework, which allowed an array of anti grassroots alliances, and the unions and grassroots movements, which were demanding that the FSLN really go to bat with the government over its economic policy.

As a party, the FSLN had begun to lean increasingly toward the second alternative. Little by little, the National Directorate's discourse had been adopting the same tone and content as that of the popular forces. As the latter increased their mobilizations in November and December, calls for Sandinista moderation in defense of a co government formula lost meaning and strength.

In two rounds of meetings with the government in December, the FSLN insistently demanded a response both to its July 25 proposed economic policy changes and to the overall property issue. Its July proposal only amounted to a request to slow up the application of the neoliberal plan and incorporate specific tax, legal and financial changes, as well as to include some social compensations. But even at that, it went radically against neoliberalism by insisting on a policy that would provide basic guarantees to the whole population and emphasize massive job creation.

Although the negotiations were never broken off, they were harshly polemical. The government claimed that there was no economic crisis and that unemployment and hunger were not so serious. It denounced the FSLN positions as "irresponsible," essentially trying to cover up its own inability or unwillingness to adjust its adjustment plan.

It also insisted that the FSLN could resolve the property problem all alone by making public the abuses committed during its administration. It accused the FSLN of manipulating information about the issue to create instability and appease its own "dissatisfied political clientele." "Neither the government nor the opposition will win in Nicaragua," argued the government, "with disorder, inflation, populism, excessive demands and strident rhetoric that belongs to other times and incubates great national crises."
"These declarations," warned the FSLN in a communiqué after the first round, "are nothing but a breeding ground for the ever more violent and vengeful attitudes expressed by the 'Group of Three,' which calls for the Sandinistas to be put up against the wall." Without abandoning its negotiating stance, the FSLN became even firmer and more direct in its critique of the government.

But, as with the army and the unions during that same period, the FSLN's show of strength was a prelude to negotiation. In the second round of talks, procedural accords were reached to definitively deal with the property problem by creating a joint team to gather the necessary basic information, and especially to review the Sandinista government's property assignations during its lame duck period.

Then in January, after the National Assembly board elections and new economic measures announced by the government, everything seemed even rosier. It even reached the point that Daniel Ortega recognized the "co government on the political plane, in the National Assembly."

An Army Anchored

Since General Humberto Ortega is the highest symbol of the co government the ultra right decries, its cannons were again pointed against him in December, just before the executive was to submit the general budget and publicly defend the funds it wanted to assign the army for 1993. The political problem for the army as for Sandinismo, to a lesser degree was how and at what price to neutralize the executive's temptation to win points with the ultra right and the United States by cutting the army's budget, or making changes in the military command as it had several months earlier in the police.

The army took the initiative, anticipating the right's increased pressures to force General Ortega's dismissal which is also a condition of some in Washington for the release of the aid. At the end of October, General Ortega, flanked by the entire high command, publicly read a lengthy communiqué defending the army's institutional status, denouncing those who demanded the total abolition of the army and reaffirming his loyalty to the government and the Constitution. While the communiqué stressed the need for an economic policy favoring the people what it called a "pact against poverty" it also established a debatable equation between national stability and the success of the economic adjustment plan. It even laid out the need to correct the property "abuses" committed during the Sandinista government.

Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo knew of and, according to some, approved the speech before it was delivered. The minister of finances even extolled its divergences from the FSLN's "populist" pronouncements, stressing that the army "made a very clear call for stability and respect for the Constitution and the laws."
So far, so good. But in a press conference after the reading, General Ortega dropped a bomb that the executive had surely not okayed when he said that "the EPS [Sandinista Popular Army] cannot be changing command with the change of President, because that would go against the professionalization and modernization, which will not conclude before 1997." The ultra right immediately charged that Ortega's declarations and, by extension, the whole of the communiqué demonstrated that the government was "hostage to the Sandinista armed forces." President Chamorro reacted by saying that General Ortega's "tongue had run away with him." Although she and the general had agreed that no change would occur in the short run, she was shocked that Ortega could have made such a declaration in public, thus undermining her image as a President who always insists that he will go when she is ready.

The army chiefs of staff then sat down to negotiate with President Chamorro and several of her ministers. After a six hour meeting, a terse communiqué was released reaffirming that the armed forces would not be cut further, that regulations were being drafted for the Organic Military Law which will, in the future, limit the now undefined duration of the military command and that the military is subordinate to civilian authority. Responding to the extremists' pretensions, Chamorro firmly declared at the end of the meeting that "the army is part of my government and has the right to exist." It was guaranteed the same budget for 1993 as it had in 1992.

The permanence of this firmness will depend on the extreme right's future influence. For now, the UNO hardliners' defeat in the Assembly has lost them their most effective instrument for attacking the executive: cutting its budget. In this context, the transition in the United States and the demise of Alfredo César's project in the Assembly seem to have given the army a breath of fresh political air.

A Gutsy Grassroots

While the army was reiterating its full backing of institutional power, FSLN leaders openly predicted a "new revolutionary wave" given the government's failure to resolve or even cushion the worsening economic crisis. The grassroots mobilizations in November and December were far short of that, but the generalized demand for survival led the organized sectors to increase work stoppages, strikes, marches and even make use of symbolic moments such as the commemoration of FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca's death on November 8. The continuous waves of protest were led by the Sandinista unions, which focused on job creation even more than salary increases and property guarantees, particularly fulfillment of the commitments already adopted by the government to privatize businesses to the workers.

No one seriously proposed to provoke the government's fall, but nor was anyone in a mood to guarantee sustained, unconditional support for it. Popular mobilizations are necessary, for without them, as nearly three years had shown, the government is little inclined to fulfill its own agreements. Police commanders were removed despite accords about the armed forces; thousands of workers were thrown into unemployment despite accords about labor stability; now it seemed that next in line were those promised properties. There were accords, but would they be honored?
The protests multiplied alongside the negotiations between the government and the FNT or one of its affiliates. While union leaders met with government officials inside the presidential building, workers from all regions and sectors came to demonstrate their pressure. This protest negotiation dialectic, which had its largest expression in the November 25 "march of the poor against Somocismo," had by then become a veritable political style.

Workers, the FSLN and the government all agreed on the need for stability and for advances in the privatization process. But, once again, the problem was one of interpretation. FNT leaders said that the government understands stability to mean that "the workers shouldn't protest" while the FNT understands it to mean that "the workers should have jobs."
Among the unions' main demands were elimination of the new sales tax, fulfillment of the government's promise to generate 80,000 jobs, non privatization of the institutes of energy (INE) and telecommunications (Telcor), and compliance with the long overdue regulating of the civil service and teaching laws.

Property, however, topped the list. That was because some 120,000 families had received land through the agrarian reform; 90,000 had received urban lots; and 25,000 had gotten housing of some sort. In addition, several thousand demobilized army or contra soldiers have had access to agricultural properties and 35,000 workers were laying claim to their factories some by occupying them.

The demand for the right to property joined that for the right to a job. The minister of the presidency even admitted that, in compliance with the World Bank's "recommendation," the government is trying to reduce the labor force to a minimum in all state enterprises on the privatization list. "No one is interested in a factory with the quantity of people they now have," he said, leaving unstated that the political "quality" of those workers is probably not too attractive to investors either. Some business sectors have been known to give the government a hand in this task by pressuring union leaders or offering them money to renounce their struggle for ownership of these enterprises when they go on the privatization block.

During November, there were two hunger strikes (8 lottery ticket sellers and 21 former army personnel); teachers reached the seventh consecutive week of one day work stoppages; secondary students mobilized several times to request that dismissed student leader María Ester Solís be reinstated; health workers began work stoppages and demonstrations that culminated in an indefinite strike in Managua and other departments; workers at INE and the Amerrisque slaughterhouse mobilized; and port workers initiated a national alert. The FNT also called two mass mobilizations on November 13 and 25, respectively demanding job creation and government compliance with its agreements.

This movement's offensive peaked in December. The links in that month's long chain of strikes and work stoppages included hospitals, customs warehouses, INE and the banana companies. The focal point of the protests, which threatened to evolve into a national general strike, continued to be the property issue: unions and poor urban dwellers, people from the city and the countryside all demanded compliance with the deeding promised months earlier by the government.

Though the protests combined with proposals at the negotiating table, the government rejected both. It may have interpreted the change of US government as a green light to break with the ultra right and deal with Sandinismo at the negotiating table, but it responded to the workers' demonstrations by sending out its "new" police. Street clashes and a verbal war between the government and various Sandinista organizations ensued, with each party accusing the other of encouraging the violence. Things reached the absurd point of sending army tanks and anti air units into the streets of the capital to "protect property" during some demonstrations. In the midst of the growing tension, COSEP leader Arges Sequeira was murdered and a bomb went off in COSEP's offices. The FNT repudiated the killing, but took the opportunity to also assure that it would not stop the workers from escalating their struggle until the government sat down to seriously negotiate.

By the end of January, however, the negotiation confrontation between the Sandinista Workers Confederation (CST) and CORNAP (the government holding company for all enterprises to be privatized) over the future ownership of a long list of industrial enterprises was concluding on a positive note for the workers. An overall accord was reached on a total of 88 state factories that will be privatized with worker participation as stockholders; in 36 of them, the workers obtained 100% of the shares. A lesser number of factories will be returned to their prior owners or sold to entrepreneurs. The Area of Workers Property (APT) now comprises the shares in these 88 factories as well as some 240,000 acres of agricultural lands dedicated to the country's main export crops, more than 14 agroindustrial units and 5 service units already privatized to 18,437 farmworkers. The number of workers who will benefit from the new privatization of the industrial sector has not yet been evaluated.

FETSALUD, the healthworkers' union, also signed an agreement with the government in January, after two months on strike. But, unlike the one with the CST, the agreement reached with FETSALUD won little for the union. The health minister was changed and there were new promises of cooperation with the health workers although still within the framework of a skimpy budget. While protests were heard by everyone from orderlies to doctors, whose absurdly low salaries were barely raised, it had become clear to the FSLN, and perhaps also to the FETSALUD leaders, that the long strike had been very costly in terms of public opinion. The effects of the changes will only be seen as the months pass.

A Hostage Government

Nicaragua's hardliners are partly right in claiming that the Chamorro government is held hostage. But it is hostage to the country's need for international financing, not to either the Sandinistas or the army. The donations and credits on which the national economy depends defray between a third and half of all government spending and national consumption.

The government's vulnerability to all that undermines the confidence placed in it by its foreign creditors and governmental donors was exposed again at the beginning of December, when a new meeting was held with donor nations and organizations. Just as the ultra right's anti Sandinista rhetoric was reaching fever pitch and Sandinismo was using its confrontation negotiation technique to affect policy, the Chamorro government had to present the donors with an image of consensus and dialogue with all of Nicaragua's political, business and union forces.

Part of the government's strategy in the meeting consisted of urging the donors to exert pressure on the US to release the pending funds. It no longer used only the argument about social stability, but added another that is better understood by the bankers: Nicaragua needed this money to comply with its promise to the IMF to make its foreign debt payments. The government's own use of the confrontation negotiation dialectic with the FSLN, the army and the unions during that period may have been because the government knew that, although an understanding with the FSLN may favor it, the outgoing Bush Administration did not see things that way.

More Tit For Tat

Be that as it may, once the donors' meeting and the Assembly fight were over and Bush's remaining days in office were being counted in single digits, the government shifted at least its discourse. On January 10, Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo announced the "second phase" of the structural adjustment plan, which he called on all Assembly representatives to back. The plan included what he called a "solidarity reactivation" program for 1993, in which the social sector would supposedly have greater importance, particularly in job generation. (For details of the economic plan, see "The 'New' Economic Measures: Reactivation Solidarity?" in this issue). Suffice it to say here that the plan was a little short on solidarity, since it included a 20% devaluation with no corresponding wage adjustment.

The government also announced the creation of a "super ministry" to execute the new social programs. The foreign donors had threatened to suspend their disbursements for social projects given the reigning bureaucratic confusion and enormous embezzlements in that area in the past two years, the highest expression of which was former presidential vice minister Antonio Ibarra.* Thus, even more important than the structure created or the social intent behind it is the person named to head it. The new "Minister of Social Action" is William Báez, a Nicaraguan whose past positions include heading up COSEP's Economic Development Foundation (FUNDE) in the 1970s and working for AID in Bolivia afterward. FUNDE's task in the COSEP spectrum of economic activities has largely been to finance small entrepreneurial activities such as credit and service cooperatives and, more recently, a taxi cooperative. In his first press conference, Báez stated that a family of six could eat three times a day on 54 córdobas a week (less than $10 following the devaluation).

* Ibarra fled to the United States in early 1992 after embezzling at least $500,000 from the social compensation programs he was administering. Nicaragua has instituted extradition procedures against him. Though Ibarra is a naturalized US citizen, he was recently discovered living in Cochabamba, Bolivia, under a false name. From there he is accusing Antonio Lacayo of thievery, links to drug traffic and responsibility for the killing of former National Guard colonel and top contra leader Enrique Bermúdez as well as of Arges Sequeira. Needless to say, his declarations favor the ultra right.

The government seems to have prepared the ground in December for its new economic package, starting with a speech by Lacayo at the donors' meeting. On that occasion, the minister of the presidency requested that the financial organizations "very carefully" review their structural adjustment recommendations with an eye to stabilizing the country, because "all the sacrifice has fallen without pity on the people." This, of course, was precisely what the workers were repeating with increasing force in the streets at that very moment.

Does all this mean new influence from Sandinismo, or perhaps the putting into practice of General Ortega's call to establish a "pact against poverty? Or is the emphasis on social concerns just an expression of the "new sensitivity" of the international financing organizations, who, after strangling the poor, are now spinning another fairy tale that a "stabilized" Latin America can assure growth "with equity"?
There were also changes in the Chamorro Cabinet in January. On January 9, the same day as the Assembly board vote, Chamorro announced the change of five ministers and eight vice ministers, as well as the creation of the ministry of social action. One of the most notable Cabinet members to be replaced was Minister of Health Ernesto Salmerón.

To complete this confusing picture, the party defeated in the 1990 elections assumed a new quota of power, both in the legislative body and in the executive branch. Some Sandinistas were invited to form part of Chamorro's new government and others were given lesser bureaucratic posts. The impression of co government is almost inescapable now, although Daniel Ortega declared that this "convergence or co government" only exists in the National Assembly.

What's the Public Pulse?

Some may have thought that the new loss of purchasing power caused by the January 10 devaluation would detonate the crisis, but, if so, they were wrong. Growing economic deprivation only increased the sarcasm with which the majority of the population contemplates the sad spectacle of political in fighting. With a more difficult economic situation than ever before, many politicians appear to people as ridiculous characters in a third rate novel.

All the media speak daily of corruption cases. Comptroller General Guillermo Potoy, guardian of public sector ethics, was challenged on his own ethics. The losing UNO parliamentarians denounced the new distribution of posts on the Assembly board as a "new edition" of the Somocista parliament. César himself "ordered" Antonio Lacayo's dismissal whereupon President Chamorro promptly asked the new Assembly majority to dismiss the comptroller general. Her wish, at least, was immediately granted.

For their part, many Sandinistas find it difficult to separate the new economic measures from the FSLN's new role in the National Assembly and the appearance of some Sandinistas in the new Cabinet. To them the FSLN comes out sharing responsibility for this recent economic package.

It is not easy for anyone to assimilate what the Sandinista leaders are proposing: "co government," is only occurring in the political arena, not in the economic one. The Sandinista Assembly representatives seriously, creatively and abundantly questioned the new economic measures, but received no concrete response from the government's economic Cabinet. Politicians of both right and left are asking themselves who has sold out to whom, and in exchange for what.

The extreme right unquestionably lost political space in January, and the FSLN, as party, seems to have won it, but this FSLN government convergence does not augur an era of stability. No one is unaware that the pro government majority in the Assembly hangs by a thread; the smell of a payoff could send some of the centrist representatives back to the UNO extremist bench, leaving Sandinismo and the executive again in the minority.

Even giving the new legislative majority the benefit of the doubt by considering it permanent, it remains to be seen what the grassroots have to gain. For the time being it seems to have contained the ultra right attack against the achievements of the revolution and the army, but this does not translate into solutions to the profound social and economic problems. That depends less on the legislature than on the executive, and on its negotiations with the FSLN. What social orientation and content will new Assembly legislation have? And what will the government's specific policies now be? Are we entering a stage some Salvadorans call "bonsai" in which the left dwarfs itself by assuming a small and decorative place on the "pluralist" political society's coffee table?

The Sandinista Wager

Apparently pushed by the tide of circumstance and opportunity more than by a deliberate strategy, the FSLN has assumed the political cost of co governing with no guarantee that it will win anything politically by so doing. If the government's "social programs" fail, the FSLN could be seen as co responsible, but if they are successful, which is doubtful, the government will not share the credit. After two years of pure neoliberalism, neither foreign investment nor reactivation are on the horizon.

The FSLN leaders believe that everything that has occurred is a means to stabilize the country, not an end in itself. They officially pointed out the negative aspects of the new measures which are just as neoliberal as the previous ones but did not attack their essence; to do so would have been to open themselves up to accusations of destabilizing the government. But wide ranging grassroots sectors, particularly the unemployed and those who are not now property holders, see little benefit from such stability.

Unlike Clinton, the FSLN does not have an electoral mandate that would allow it to force the neoliberal structures, mentalities and interests with which it must coexist to accept its adjustments to the adjustment. The government is even insisting that the FSLN exercise its influence to get the unions to stop their protests and to convince the popular sectors of the need to sacrifice still more to achieve Nicaragua's economic "take off."
The real problem is that to achieve social economic stability, and perhaps even that of the grassroots sectors, the FSLN and the government cannot work separately. It has been shown that the relaxation of tensions will not emanate from the other political parties. After three years, both the government and the FSLN have reached the conclusion that only based on a minimum understanding among the productive sectors including those who are now worker owners can stability be achieved. As with the FMLN in El Salvador, the FSLN seems to be betting on patriotic accords to isolate the extreme right both politically and economically and strengthen the government's ability to get more foreign aid, without which the economy cannot reactivate.

Unions New Economic Subject?

Does the privatization of factories to the workers indicate that the "co government" is bearing real fruit for those below? The CST declared that 80% of its demands had been met and both government officials and union leaders who led the negotiations described the results as an "alliance" of the "new economic subjects" to "reactivate" business activity.

Independent of these first returns on co government for the union sectors, however, there is no room for triumphalism. Right up to the eleventh hour of the negotiations, the government haggled over each business in each sector, in a feint and parry process occasionally accompanied by repression. Nor have credits or flexible payments been sufficiently guaranteed to allow the new "worker bosses" to administer their companies and assure their survival. Is strengthening the co government, in fact, equivalent to strengthening the interests of big business? Lacayo himself said that the economic measures had been requested by UNAG and the FNT, as subjects interested in reactivating their own businesses. But, just as access to credit discriminates against the small and medium producers, it will probably also discriminate against the new worker owners in the privatized factories.

The government or, said another way, the market will continue dictating its narrow rules of the game, dividing the popular sectors, establishing differences between worker bosses and non boss workers and buttressing the privatization process itself, so that, in the end, that process will strengthen those it was meant for the old bourgeois economic subject. Having conceded some of the CST's main demands, the government is now free to privatize other public entities light, telecommunications, water even though their own workers are resolutely opposed to letting this happen.

The new economic measures mentioned nothing about the crisis of the cooperatives, the small and medium producers, or even the landless rural population or those without titles and/or credit. The announced job creation programs offer them no real alternative, both because the jobs are temporary and because they are essentially urban. Picks, shovels and brooms could offer the unemployed in the cities some relief, but in the countryside the fundamental issue is access to land and credit.

Pushed by the Sandinistas, the government did promise to set up broad negotiations with the productive sectors, including the unions and small and medium sized business representatives, giving particular attention to the CST and the Union of Ranchers and Farmers (UNAG). Here again, the Sandinista challenge will be to prevent the criteria of "productivity" and "competitiveness," so stressed by the international bankers, from overshadowing the popular sectors who, though lacking full competitive capability in a market economy, do not thereby lack rights.

US The Absentee Vote

The government decided to take maximum advantage of the lame duck period in Washington and the following one of US indefinition toward Central America to put the national political forces in their proper places in Nicaragua's power structure. In redefining its alliances, it apparently counted on a wink and a nod from the Clinton team, which must have let it be known that the aid freeze was now a thing of the past.

Those political changes unquestionably broadened, at least temporarily, the Chamorro government's room for maneuver. And as the FSLN knows only too well, the change in Washington favors the government more than it does the FSLN. In December, the FSLN inaugurated what it called a new stage of "understanding" with the United States. Two National Directorate members traveled to the United States, and Daniel Ortega sent Clinton a letter expressing the FSLN's willingness to reopen the dialogue begun during the Carter administration and interrupted by 12 years of Republican government. But neither the FSLN nor Nicaragua nor even the United States are today what they were in 1979 80. When, a few days after Clinton's victory, Daniel Ortega received the US business attache in Managua, the State Department took it upon itself to declare that the visit had been at the FSLN's request, not on US initiative, and that, in the meeting, the US representative had reiterated the "official" US government position on the issues of property, the police and the army. As before, official was a synonym for hard.

The deepening of Nicaragua's political crisis in the last months of 1992 culminating with the conflict between the legislative and executive branches was largely the fruit of the stimulus Bush gave the extreme right by withholding the aid to Nicaragua. Those most optimistic about the Clinton era have predicted lower levels of political and economic conditioning by the US Agency for International Development (AID), but there is no guarantee that Washington's policy toward Nicaragua will become more open today than before. In any case, the amount of aid, whether conditioned or not, can be expected to shrink. And even the optimists do not expect AID to applaud privatization to the workers or the broadening of credits to include small producers. There is also no indication that the change in the US administration will lessen CIA suspicions of the Nicaraguan army.

No one should underestimate the continuing political weight of last decade's anti Sandinista bureaucracy in the CIA, the State Department, AID, the National Security Council or the Pentagon. It is even possible that the influence of that bureaucracy will grow, since the Clinton team's main concern will be the domestic economy. Even in foreign affairs, Central America and, within it, Nicaragua is not a priority. If anyone continues to oversee these affairs, it will be the bureaucracy, above all in the near and medium future.

Furthermore, the new administration's acid test with respect to Nicaragua and to a large part of Latin America goes much deeper than who heads the governments. The current economic and social problems in many countries of the continent issue forth from a political problem, not necessarily a governmental problem per se. The real problem is a structure that can neither reflect nor guarantee the economic pluralism that civil society, and concretely the grassroots sectors, is demanding. This structure cannot administer the conflicts and contradictions of a society in which the "wretched of the earth" refuse to hang their heads and defer to authorities on the decisions that affect their lives. It is a structure that reflects the failure of an anti pluralist and anti democratic economic system, because it leans toward the reconcentration of economic power, thus putting at risk the system of political pluralism that it claims to uphold.

Ultra Right Down But Not Out

As with the US anti Sandinista bureaucracy, it would be a serious error to underestimate the capacity of the ultra right, even in its current fragmented state, to undermine any political, social or economic pact produced by the government and Sandinismo. Its power and influence in various media is sizeable, and its messages are often more coherent than those of the Sandinistas.

The Damocles sword of confiscated property owners turned US citizens is also still hanging over the Chamorro government's head. During his Senate confirmation hearings, Secretary of State designate Warren Christopher had to respond to an unusual number of questions about Nicaragua from Senator Jesse Helms. Christopher skirted the majority, but he could not fail to take in the concern about properties claimed by US citizens.

And Nicaragua's far right business interests under the COSEP umbrella are still not limiting themselves to the economic pressure they have exerted for years by refusing to significantly invest their own funds in Nicaragua. They continue to move politically to prevent the arrival of funds from abroad, now seeking to blunt the image of social and political consensus that the government is so avidly trying to sell to potential donors.

A War Front?

The ultra right constantly projects the image of an "unstable" Nicaragua, using not only infantile parliamentary sideshows such as those of last September, but also turning to methods that go dangerously beyond civil bounds. With increasing armed confrontations and the propagation of false rumors about "an imminent war" and the "reinstatement of the draft" as expressions of the "new dictatorship," the extremists are back on the attack, seeking to improve their newly weakened position. Their efforts currently center on linking peasant discontent with political discontent, usurping representation of the militarized peasant opposition in a new "war front."
Actions by those who have again taken up arms principally former members of the Resistance (or recontras) have become a constant in the country's northern and central mountains. Diverse and complex reasons encourage this armed struggle, but it awakened greater concern in December and January by moving from pressure, armed propaganda and takeovers of lands and highways to vandalism and increasingly atrocious crimes against the civilian populace.

Ultra right politicians in both Managua and Washington use army and government threats against these groups as a propagandistic confirmation of their co government thesis. They say that this "co government" is systematically persecuting all civic opposition, including the armed "freedom fighters" who, together with the UNO parties, "defeated" Sandinismo. According to them, these "freedom fighters" are demanding or should demand a restructuring of the armed forces, elimination of the army, the return of all expropriated properties, President Chamorro's resignation in favor of Vice President Godoy, a plebiscite on the current government's direction and active United Nations intervention to pacify the country.

A Municipal Front?

Then there is the municipal front. Alfredo César continues to explain to anyone who will listen though he did not get much of an audience in Washington during his latest visit that the issue is no longer one of co government but of a government usurped by Sandinismo. "The only thing left to us is the municipalities," he declares.

In 1990, UNO won 99 of the country's 143 mayoral elections. The most recalcitrant parties now hope to call their followers to "municipal insurrections." In many cases, the mayors' offices, particularly in conflictive areas, are in direct communication with the recontras; in others, the rebels have already gone on to form part of the local police force, which makes communication even easier and more effective.

Like the national UNO politicians, the UNO municipal mayors' offices are officially moving into the opposition, making use of their autonomous rights and local political networks. Among them stands out the illustrious mayor of Managua, Arnoldo Alemán, who is using the millions he receives in income from ubiquitous tax collection and the foreign aid he controls to create a political base for his party and himself for the next election.

The provincial UNO mayors, members of the anti government "Let's Save Democracy" movement, are visited almost religiously every Sunday by the extremist politicians. The call of these politicians, however, seems to be earning an ever fainter response, except in Chontales and Boaco, in the center of the country, where UNO municipal councils began actively organizing against the Chamorro central government soon after it took office.

In the final analysis, no municipal authority can forget that projects and financing are managed by the executive, not by the tiny UNO parliamentary political factions. Some small municipalities do not even take in enough in taxes to pay the mayor's own salary. This precarious situation would explain the interest of AID and other rightwing foundations in strengthening municipal power and providing resources to them directly.

These occasional economic resources are a double edged sword, though. By assuming an openly opposition role, UNO's strategy appears oriented to politically capitalizing on the population's growing economic discontent, to making people believe that the crisis is the result of the executive's political understanding with Sandinismo. If the municipalities were to improve economically, this message would lose its clout.

Beware of False Dichotomies

Is it really possible to converge the objectives of social transformation with those of neoliberal economic policy not to mention the tough application of that policy dictated by the international banking institutions? Sandinismo is wagering that it can use the political space it has gained to make way for an economic project of the workers that will benefit not only them but all the poorest sectors, and that this economic base will allow the creation of a social and political project in the longer run. It assumes that this new economic subject, linked to the new worker owned properties and those of the small farmers, will find its normal political organizational channel more in the framework of a socially oriented market than in a capitalist one. Lacayo undoubtedly thinks so too, and has wagered on dividing the grassroots movement through conflicts between its diverging economic interests.

In any of the various hypotheses or interpretations, one thing is undeniable: the practical understanding between the government and the FSLN, begun in 1991 and strengthened visibly as 1993 begins, to further the common goals of economic reactivation and political stability has given the government the space to promote key aspects of its structural adjustment. This has taken place even if the government has not advanced with the speed the most recalcitrant sectors of the right would like or in the direction they want in other aspects.

Perhaps the fundamental thing in this new stage is to avoid falling into the false dichotomy of either a Sandinized neoliberalism or a neoliberalized Sandinismo. Co government is not equivalent to ideological capitulation, nor has it made social classes disappear. And given Nicaragua's economic crisis, social conflict will not go away.

Political pacts are occurring all over the world, but in Nicaragua, where the room for maneuver is severely limited by the magnitude of the economic stagnation, the areas of coincidence can and should be only temporary. In any case, this will not depend only on the FSLN as a party, but on Sandinismo as a whole. And the latter, more than the sum of its parts, is taking shape as the sum of the struggles being waged against such an adverse situation for the poor.

With or without Sandinistas in government, and independent of whether they are effective or merely decorative, grassroots claims will continue to be heard. Even if the extreme right were to vanish from the political map, which will not happen any time soon, the economic instability provoked by real objective contradictions will continue to destabilize the daily life of the poor until they are resolved.

Data on the Military Situation

* Army data shows that 26 armed groups, totaling some 720 men, currently operate in Regions I, V and VI. Between December 22 and January 5 of this year, the army clashed with these groups in 29 battles and 26 other military actions. The EPS claims it suffered 7 dead and 19 wounded, while inflicting 50 dead and 35 wounded on the armed groups.

* According to data of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), 490 assassinations that, by the circumstances surrounding them, can be classified as "political" were carried out between September 1991 and December 1992. Of the dead, 204 were former Resistance combatants, 113 were civilian peasants, 73 FSLN militants, 49 members of the police or army, 9 trade unionists and 3 UNO militants. The political affiliation of the remaining 39 cases is not clear. These figures, especially those of civilians, climbed substantially in December
and January.

* In a public communiqué, the President's office announced that between January and October 1992, 81 armed groups, totaling 22,824 individuals including both recontras and recompas, turned in their weapons. In all of 1992, 42,447 rifles and another thousand weapons of war were recovered from civilians or demobilized from both sides. It is calculated that 30,000 such weapons still exist and must be recovered.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


New Year, New US President, New Look in Nicaragua

Nicaragua's Real Property Debate

Why Social Conflict?

Rigoberta for President?

El Salvador
Controversy Swirls Around Armed Forces

El Salvador
The National Dialogue--What's in Store?

Nicaragua's New Economic Measures: Reactivation Solidarity?
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development