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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 147 | Octubre 1993



The New Transitions: Where are they Headed?

The right is attempting to impose their version of democracy and to control the transition process. We must deny the rightist thesis that insists that the worldwide transition is towards neoliberal capitalism. The left should have a clear strategy – otherwise, to avoid shipwreck we might take it into the enemy’s port.

Alejandro Bendaña

Recounting the experience of the Paris Commune, Marx noted that when the time comes to make revolutions, the moment of the greatest need for creativity, all the baggage of past generations weighs so heavily on the present ones that the new revolutionary era is "contaminated."
This was not a criticism, because Marx understood better than anyone that no human experience is pure. As historic and human events, revolutions are made concrete based on the perceptions that precede them, and these perceptions, in turn, have an impact on the new experience and give it form. From this emerges the importance of ideology. Marx did, however, criticize the failure to critically process all the elements of this legacy from the past. He insisted on establishing both the differences and the similarities between the present and all that preceded it, because only a critical filter can avoid repeating revolutionary dramas as farces.

The Weight of the Past

The symbolic forms that revolutionary action must take do not automatically emerge from the prevailing circumstances. These expressions must be built, the same way barricades are. The "revolutionary crisis" that Marx referred to is one of representation. Revolutionaries have to confront not only their adversaries but also themselves in order to give their revolution a correct expression.

The transitions from armed struggle to peace (as in El Salvador or the Philippines), from government to opposition (the Sandinista case in Nicaragua), or from clandestinity to open action (the case of the African National Congress in South Africa) put us all in a crisis of expression and identity. We have felt these crises at the core of our organizations, the product of so many changing geopolitical and social realities. In their most serious expression, these crises can take the form of internal divisions and incoherencies, though ones qualitatively distinct from those of the past, when they were over strategy and not objectives.

We are all in agreement that the current moment has no historical antecedents to help us situate ourselves. The debates are no longer classical ones about method, but go deeper. We ask ourselves what our organization is, what our proposal is and how we can materialize it. Added to the general questions that are never fully answered what is the left and what is revolution there is now an even tougher one: what is the left and revolution in this new stage. As revolutionaries, we must try to formulate an answer both at a world level and for each of our particular countries.

Our crisis in Nicaragua is not we hope one of values, but of the symbols that give expression to these values. And it is not we hope once again an existential debate, because the future of our organization and our country is at stake, as is the support that Nicaragua, whether it wants to or not, is called upon to give to the revolutionary transition experiences in this post cold war era.

If we on the Nicaraguan left cannot resolve this crisis, we will simply become a spectator, looking on from the stands as oligarchic authoritarianism following its own transition strategies and making use of "democratic" measures imposes economic and social "apartheid" and re-roots itself in the country's economic and political life. With its symbols and forms of expression carefully transmitted from the North, the right has the advantage of not having to go through an identity crisis similar to ours.

It is very important to clarify the nature of the new transition. Obviously, all historical periods are ones of transition and no transition is equal to any other; every era has those who say that we are living the beginning or the end of history, or civilization, or, slightly more modestly, "are witnessing such transcendental phenomena for humanity that they will be decisive and have unpredictable consequences." All of the past is a prologue for each new moment and all of the future is the development of what is currently unfolding. In no country, however, does the new transition follow a pattern comparable to past experiences, when we were debating the nature of the transition to socialism.

Transition is occurring in both South Africa and Nicaragua. It is also happening in their neighboring countries, in Mozambique and Angola, in El Salvador and Guatemala. Does a single analytical framework serve for all these countries, which share a common denominator of strong revolutionary forces that are emerging from war or from clandestine struggle and now have the potential to take power?
Democratic forces around the world have placed their confidence in these revolutionary organizations, which must put to the test and disprove the right's thesis that the great world transition is following eastern Europe's path: a transition to neoliberal capitalism, which the right identifies with democracy. No one can deny that the Soviet model's collapse constitutes a fundamental parameter of our era and an issue for each and every transition process. It is also a serious blow to those who were part of the armed struggle for democratic self determination. The USSR's disappearance as a geopolitical counterweight has allowed the world to become militarily unipolar, and many battles have been lost. But we must also recognize the liberating potential of what happened. The collapse of that model also makes way for new proposals not of principles, as the right would like, but of concepts and strategies applicable to new terrains of civic struggle, negotiation and elections. A critical and objective review can only help the left.

The Myth of Negotiated Democracy

Keeping our sites trained clearly on our objectives of social justice and participatory democracy, we are conscious that we are entering into transition processes characterized both by negotiation and by insecurity about whether we will automatically move closer to our objectives. If transition leads to genuine democracy, it will be due not so much to personal skills at the negotiating table, but because we succeed in defining a strategy and effective methods of struggle that are in line with the determination and actions of the great majorities.
All conflicts end in negotiation, Amílcar Cabral once said. All wars are limited, there are no absolute wars, said Von Clausewitz maybe because he did not know about those in Bosnia or Cambodia. In any case, it is not an easy task for liberation movements to modify their image as guerrilla forces that turn to arms to take power by force. The sympathies of many Sandinistas with "Pedrito el Hondureño," who led the recent occupation of Estelí, and the many arms caches that have intentionally been "forgotten" illustrate this difficulty.

Despite everything, the Central American left has, in one way or another, begun to accept that, given the military stalemate, negotiations can offer a new path for promoting revolution. The time has past when negotiation was only a tactic to gain time and space in the prolonged struggle for total state power.

The left in both Central America and Southern Africa has shifted to civic struggle not because of ideological defeats or changes in the world correlation of forces. It has done so after paying a tremendous price to prevent total defeat in the times of the "old" order. It has also done so because it has worn down its adversary, forcing it to the negotiating table. Thirty years ago it would have been unimaginable that the revolutionary forces of Central America and Southern Africa could have the legitimate power they have today.
And the enormous sacrifices that made this resolution possible were also unimaginable then. It is a true historic achievement, even more so because it takes place at a time when the world's left is abandoned and in disarray.

The Reconciliation Trap

The right is suffering its own crisis, since it, too, has to make political adjustments. It is having to readjust and rearticulate its own strategy in order to put its anti democratic imprint on the transition processes.

Both the right and the left must differentiate between a change in conditions, the battleground and methods of struggle, and a change in objectives, or strategic goals of their struggle. They right as well as the left are forced to accept the challenge of transition without abandoning their more permanent objectives in other words, their class interests. The left generally went to war to achieve a just political solution, not to destroy the other social force as the right did.

Each force enters the transition and comes to the negotiating table to promote objectives that contradict the other's. But some get confused: they see the negotiation process as an end in itself and sacrifice their objectives in the name of stability. Although this tendency can affect the right as well as the left, it is the left that feels most tempted to make the concessions.

Where is convergence found? Peaceful transition, negotiations and elections presuppose that minimum common ground can be found between the principal opposing forces. Here in Nicaragua, as in South Africa, the left found an important convergence with the government in 1990 around the possibility of a stable negotiating process, which, in turn, would deeply affect national stability. That led to curious phenomena: an FSLN closer to the Chamorro government than are the very forces that brought her to power, or a National Party closer to the ANC than to its own radical white minorities, while retrograde black forces the Inkatha denounce the "co government" between Nelson Mandela's ANC and Frederick De Klerk's white government.

Politics aside, what are the class limits to convergence? In both countries and on both sides there are those who believe there are no limits because class no longer exists. They are the ones who in Nicaragua quickly came out in defense of the government's economic policy. But a dilemma appeared just as quickly: can national political stability be built on grassroots economic destabilization? The sizable resources that the international community has offered to South Africa can put off or cover up this contradiction, but in Nicaragua there have been no palliatives. We were given more promises than resources, but, without a grassroots or political convergence around an economic reconstruction program, more or fewer resources will not pull the country out of the abyss.

The great danger of the transition processes is the assumption that the right has the desire and ability to respect the new rules of the game, to act as loyal opposition, resigned to its partial loss of power. The danger is to believe that its economic reconstruction project is comparable to the people's. Class struggle does not disappear during the transition; it intensifies and purifies. As the representative of the wealthy class' interests, the right in Central America and the South in general countries whose population is overwhelmingly poor does not easily resign itself to the minority role that legitimately corresponds to it in an era of universal suffrage.

It always surprises us in Nicaragua to see how the strongest adversary parties in the North always seek mutual understanding. One of the FSLN's problems is that there is no force to reach a real understanding with, since it is hard to figure out which of the two UNO or the government is the most depleted.
A collapse of the peaceful transition process in Nicaragua could be attributed in part to the lack of strong political machines like ARENA or the Democratic Convergence in El Salvador, which, given their strength, perhaps feel less need to play dirty. In El Salvador a political system could be established characterized by transactions between organized political forces committed to the constitutional political framework. Although it may appear contradictory, a central weakness in the transition processes so necessary for democratic transformation in Nicaragua is the right's inability to institutionalize itself and reach minimum consensus.

Reconstruction Is Not Neutral

At the same time, it is naive to think that the negotiated accords in El Salvador, the peaceful transfer of power in Nicaragua or electoral victories in South Africa automatically lead to real, much less irreversible democratization. In each case, reconciliation and stability should be the people's highest priority, but without forgetting that neither reconciliation nor stability, nor even economic reconstruction, are politically neutral.

We have seen many cases in which the more conservative sectors recur to violence (whether private or official), destabilization, or alliances with foreign reactionary political or financial forces, or manipulate the marginal, unemployed or abandoned sectors through populism all to improve their negotiating position and destabilize the democratic opposition.

In the end, there are two basic indicators to watch in these transition processes: that of property or wealth, and that of the armed forces. From these it can be predicted whether the transition will lead to the recovery of the old order or to democratic renewal. Is there true social justice, economic democracy, in Chile, Argentina or Uruguay after having made the transition from military to civilian regimes? Does it exist in the countries of eastern Europe that are moving from communism to neo-capitalism?

Stagnant Transition vs. Democratic Transformation

Transition theoreticians like O'Donnell and Schmitter argue that democracy is more a matter of methods than of objectives and thus that the left political forces should limit the popular sectors' demands and belligerent methods. From this perspective, the stability of representative democracy should take priority over the destabilizing struggle for participatory democracy. But while the right insists on denying the leftist parties their right to ally with the popular sectors, it does not cut off its own traditional alliance with the armed forces, or, in Nicaragua's case, the rearmed contras and its Washington allies.

Democratic institutions should be strengthened, but it is unacceptable to claim, as these two authors do, that social and union movements threaten these institutions just the same as the armed forces do. As the old revisionist Bernstein once said, democracy is as much an issue of goals as of methods. Events in both eastern Europe and Latin America's southern cone appear to confirm the existence of a democratic deficit. Working to assure a country's governability should not mean signing over a blank check. We want to know first who is governing and for whom. Or as the South Africans say: if we can't rock the boat with our demands, maybe we shouldn't get on board.

If we were to accept that the transition is limited to sporadic elections, we would be inviting the popular forces to wage fights only every four to six years, and submit to whatever policies might be imposed between each such electoral spectacle. And if we were to fall into the other rightwing trap, which reduces transition to political negotiation, we would be condemned to a struggle between a hobbled mule and a loose tiger or even worse, since, in this vision the left is only supposed to be a passive spectator of the unequal fight between the right and the people.

Negotiated accords are nothing more than cease fires that move the war from the military battlefield to the political one. But the methods of political struggle in our countries can be more violent than in those of the self proclaimed defenders of democracy , who forget that their history also includes stages when violence was necessary. These comments, it should be made clear, are not an attempt to undervalue the old democratic institutions, whether they be parties or parliaments, but to assure that they respond to the new democratic demands and, even more, that they open up to renovation.

Elections and negotiated accords provide guidelines but not final definitions. Rarely do they result in definitive victories or defeats. Promoting a change in government through elections and respecting the results is only a small step in democratic formalities. Elections constitute or should constitute steps on the road to full democratization. But the right reduces them to a mechanism to prop up its historic privileges, to maintain spaces of power (as in South Africa) or to re-conquer them (as in Nicaragua). There is no returning to apartheid or to the Somocista dictatorship, but there can be economic apartheid or a neoliberal dictatorship with a democratic facade, in which the negotiated accords remain on paper or in changed bureaucracies, but the true power relations remain tense and conflictive and the class struggle continues in the streets and in the countryside.

It is dangerous to overemphasize the fragility of the transition processes, to the point of converting them into a goal unto themselves, forgetting that they are a means to an end, a terrain where the democratization process can advance or retreat. We also should not confuse peaceful transition with democratic transformation.
The first does not guarantee the second, as the right would have us believe. The negotiated electoral transition should not be subject to blackmail from the right, which insists that the choice is between stability and chaos by the left, since it is not a bit timid about unleashing its own chaos if it fails to get its version of stability. There are no military coups or Fujimori style self coups in Nicaragua, but there are "market coups" and economic sabotage, which can be just as effective.

We have also seen, both in Central America and in South Africa, that civic mobilization which is what the right labels chaos determines the government's fulfillment of the accords and even its ability to govern. South Africans are the first to insist that popular mobilization is not something that the leaders conveniently turn on and off when the negotiation process is stagnated. It is a permanent phenomenon that, from below, forces negotiations to take a democratic turn.

Organization and Institutionality

Nicaragua and South Africa also show how the left can even fall victim to its own superiority over a right unable to pull together a coherent political force that can vie for power through elections and negotiations in this new framework. The FSLN is qualitatively superior to Nicaragua's 27 other parties (it took a coalition of over half of them to win the 1990 elections, but that coalition was so broad and incoherent that it was untenable as a governing coalition).
In South Africa, the alliance headed by the ANC is both qualitatively and quantitatively superior. The fact that their competitors are so small and fragmented paradoxically becomes a "disadvantage": to impede the collapse of this pluralistic game, which defines itself as open to all forces, the ANC and FSLN self impose negotiations and constitutional political limits on an eventual electoral victory. All of this is part of the transition and the construction of national democratic projects. As an FSLN representative said, "We will not accept that the country be divided into little pieces."
Another issue that highlights the double edged nature of the transition process is that of who benefits more from the transactions and the negotiation of a national project. Nobody opposes the idea of national stability or would deny that the popular forces also have to pay a price for it, but we have to clarify how great a price. Blackmailing people to choose between hunger and crumbs, between stability now and jobs later, between chaos and limited democracy, between national identity and US imposition, is unacceptable.

Our liberation movements tend to be the first to fall into the trap of this blackmail, which is accompanied by the illusion of access to quotas of government power. In Latin America we have seen many times how leftist leaders are allowed to be elected as legislators only to "domesticate" them.
And we remember the experience of old radicals in the European and Latin American Social Democratic parties of the 1970s, who reached government in the 1980s only to turn into loyal executors of the same US policies aimed at reinforcing capitalist hegemony that they opposed when the conservatives were in office.

To keep this history from repeating itself with the revolutionary movements of the 1990s, it is imperative that democratic institutions, including the left institutionalized as a party, be organically nourished from outside political society concretely from below, where the democratic social movements, those who neither sell out nor give up, are in action. Each group with its allies. The right today will perhaps ally more with the media than with the military barracks.
Capital's control of the media at the national and international level and its ability to impose its agenda and mentality on all sectors of the population is a transcendental theme. If the Leninist left visualized the party as the great vehicle of revolutionary transformation, the right sees the press as the great vehicle for exercising its counterrevolutionary influence over the majority.

Pushed both by defeats and victories in the negotiated transition, the legalized revolutionary left now has to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. It has to help transform the very system it is now playing within. Many would lose at this game. By accepting the peaceful process, has the left fallen into what we will one day call revisionism or reformism? What must be revised are methods, not principles. The danger is that revisionism could occur at the level of principles, that we, as "new moderate revolutionaries," could abandon our commitment to human solidarity and structural transformation and limit ourselves to putting a progressive mask on the neoliberal model.

The Dangers of Newness

It may be that we in the democratic left are being swallowed up by the transition processes. In Nicaragua, some sectors of the FSLN are in danger of being absorbed by the right's project and the concept that the transition process is limited exclusively to negotiation and modernizing the system of exploitation, discarding, at least for the foreseeable future, the possibility of a democratic system with social justice.
To navigate the waters of transition, plagued by dangers but also by possibilities, it is fundamental to have a strategy and a clear orientation, so we do not find ourselves taking refuge in the enemy's port to avoid shipwreck. It is true that the great changes in Europe have put progressive movements, intellectuals and institutions on the defensive around the world, but these same changes have forced us to make healthy and necessary changes to our strategies.

The internal debates of the past have little in common with those of today. For one, we now do not focus our discussions on political military strategy, but on objectives. While some sectors reflect a loss of faith in the socialist option, the divisions also appear deeper in part because they are more public. As Shafick Handal said, "There have always been differences in the FMLN. What is different now is that they appear daily on television."

Without a Model: An Advantage or a Disadvantage?

Designing a strategy to move us from transition to democratic transformation and not to anti democratic regression requires rethinking the nature of power, the state, parties, social movements, and capitalism in its current forms. The classic ways of taking power, such as Russia in 1917, Cuba in 1959 or Nicaragua in 1979, have perhaps passed into history. The issue is not that the military cannot be defeated, but that, in this turn of the century unipolar world, a revolutionary government, however it comes to power, will be the target of economic strangulation and foreign subversion promoted by Washington.

Some ANC members think that a government in South Africa headed by Nelson Mandela could be the exception. Let's hope so. In any case, most Central American and African revolutionaries seem convinced that there are more possibilities to promote structural changes through coexistence and the pluralist game than by the monopolization of power and class exclusion.

In light of recent events we ask ourselves if "power was taken" in as many countries as had revolutions. We ask if governments are where the real power is, and whether revolutionary processes that go beyond governmental parameters can survive in this era of US military unipolarity and market economic unipolarity.

The future of Nicaragua could add much to revolutionary theory. There is no historic precedent for what took place here, in which a revolutionary party in power with a revolutionary army turned over the government, army and all, to the forces of the right. There is also no precedent for what is happening in El Salvador and South Africa, where national liberation movements are turning into political parties and opting for access to power, even though the enemy is still armed and in control of the state. Then there is the case of SWAPO in Namibia, which won in UN supervised elections, but only after South Africa decided to let go of its colony. The ANC, even with its tremendous domestic mobilizing force and international solidarity, does not feel assured of state power, and even less is it convinced that it could guarantee social justice if it won it. It is not being pessimistic about the model of negotiated revolution, but is trying to stress that this model is only just being forged and only in practice can it fill an important gap in the thinking and action of the left in this post cold war era.

Clear Objectives and New Strategies

Fortunately, most revolutionary movements have a rich tradition of constantly reviewing and adapting to reality. They would not have survived otherwise, as they did not survive in eastern Europe, where they simply decreed that the very visible problems did not exist. Or if they saw them, they sought the corrective formulas in manuals drawn up by people long dead and not in the imagination of living workers. The new models are under construction and we do not share the criticism that the problem of the FSLN, the FMLN and the ANC is that they are living in the past, locked into models of clandestine armed struggle and the obsolete Soviet order. That criticism simplistically treats us as though we think history has nothing to teach us and have learned nothing from it; as if we are not obliged, as the left, to develop our own interpretation of the collapse of the European socialist model, from a revolutionary perspective and not from the perspective of Boris Yeltsin or Ronald Reagan. We are forging new ground, which does not mean starting from scratch intellectually or disarming ourselves ideologically in the face of neoliberal triumphalism. What it does mean is outlining an alternative to neoliberalism in these new circumstances with the greatest possible political and analytical rigor. In other words, it means determining how to express and protect popular power and clear a path for it.
The very experience of people in struggle is now offering us indicators. The search for alternatives is not only the task of intellectuals or technicians, it is everyone's task. In Nicaragua we have learned and this is our contribution to the theory and practice of transition that power can not be reduced to the state or party apparatus; it is based on the relations between men and women and on the social relations that are expressed in the daily struggle, both at high political levels and those that occur in every corner of the country and city.

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