Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 158 | Septiembre 1994



Crisis in the FSLN: Class Conflict

How is the crisis of the FSLN seen from abroad? How is it seen by a European intellectual who knows Nicaragua well and is faithful to the ideals and interests of the countries of the South?

François Houtart

After losing the 1990 elections to a heterogenous grouping of parties glued together only by their hostility to Sandinismo, the FSLN, now in the opposition, has done little to rebuild its forces beyond the 43% it got in those elections. In fact, some surveys indicate that, if new elections were held today, the FSLN would get only 23% of the vote and Managua mayor Arnoldo Alemán would be elected as Nicaragua's new president.

Crisis Framed by Mounting Poverty

During the four years since the elections, the government of Violeta Chamorro has carried out a neoliberal policy inspired, oriented, imposed and financed by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the US government. This policy fits within both the international current of contemporary capitalist reorganization and the framework of the US proposal to "normalize" political relations with Central America and the Caribbean.

The Chamorro government's economic measures have brought to Nicaragua the now customary effects suffered by the countries of the South. Local production has caved in to the market openings and more than 55% of the economically active population is unemployed (over 260,000 workers lost their jobs between 1990 and 1994). The state is being progressively stripped of its functions due to the helter skelter privatizations and the increasing limitations on its capacity to offer a minimum of social security or maintain the education and health institutions. Basic consumer goods prices have risen and hard cash from abroad goes to import luxury goods. Poverty is mounting dramatically while a minority gets richer, all in the name of monetary stabilization and payment on Nicaragua's debt service.

So Why Is the FSLN in Crisis?

The FSLN's crisis is the result of various factors. In the first place, the masses have lost interest in politics and fear a return to the "low intensity" war they lived through for nine years.

But the FSLN's internal problems have also played a role. These problems can be divided into three areas. One is the discrediting of some party leaders and members for their appropriation of state goods or for attending more to their own enrichment than to political concerns. The second has to do with the leadership's lack of internal clarity and the third to the divergent positions on important points of national policy.

The existence of different ideological currents within the FSLN is clearly the most fundamental problem. As a front, the FSLN has always contained within it groups of varying orientations. The three revolutionary currents that united, separated and reunited during the revolutionary struggle unquestionably shared strategies of struggle, but also had relatively different social conceptions.

Different Moments, Different Logics

By including a program of social transformations favoring the grassroots majority, the FSLN's social objectives represented the reverse of the Somocista dictatorship. Nonetheless, the movement's leadership was essentially made up of individuals from the urban middle classes (petty bourgeoisie) and a number of bourgeois intellectuals and professionals who chose to distance themselves somewhat from the interests of their class.

The result of this alliance within a front, which became a party exercising power after the 1979 triumph, was a policy to recover national identity, invest in health and education, and carry out social reforms particularly an agrarian reform. But the war progressively transformed the logic of these tasks, and defense ultimately prevailed over all of them.

The combined effects of the war and the restructuring of the international economic system led the Sandinista government to adopt a number of austerity measures and even a structural adjustment program toward the end of the 1980s. This disillusioned some sectors of the subaltern classes, and fed the mistrust of small and medium farmers who, unlike the landless peasants, had benefited little from the Sandinista agrarian policy.

This situation produced a new divergence within the FSLN in the 1990s. A small minority, dubbed centrist, came out clearly in favor of both an alliance with the Chamorro government and neoliberal economic measures to get production moving again.

The Document of the "Democratic Left"

Today's two currents, defined by those who explicitly put forward their respective positions in the documents debated publicly prior to the May Congress, represent a deeplyrooted reality. The current calling itself the Democratic Left affirms its solidarity with the grassroots movements, the need for immediate and ongoing struggle and an emphasis on the values of justice, denunciation and radicalness.

In its introduction, this current's document defines the FSLN as a revolutionary party that proposes to all of Nicaraguan society to progressively build a humanistic socialism, in which the rule of law would go hand in hand with economic democracy and grassroots organizations would have real participation in the exercise of the nation's political and economic power.

The document considers the poor and unemployed, which make up the majority of the population, to be the center of the party's concerns. In the economic terrain, the group condemns liberalism and neoliberalism and declares its respect for public and private property, the democratization of property and the consolidation of social property.

It stresses that the party should pledge itself to the creation and democratic development of local, municipal, territorial and social power without exclusions of any kind. It states that the army and the police should respect human rights and submit to the laws of the Republic and the Constitution.

The document also states that the FSLN's functions should include both respect for and the democratic strengthening of the political institutions and values that most represent national culture: administrative honesty, universal suffrage, separation of power within the state, sovereignty and national independence. The party should represent all sectors of the nation that struggle for peace, stability, security and the political rights of all citizens.

The FSLN, it says, should push for consensus among its members, engaging in dialogue and debate to resolve its internal problems. Finally, it stipulates that renovation, change and internal democracy are indispensable to the party's consolidation.

And the Document of "The Majorities"

In a document signed by dozens of well known personalities, the second current which defines itself as "For a Sandinismo that Returns to the Majorities" puts the accent on the efficacy of economic measures, democratic processes, human rights and collaboration with other political formations. It declares that the FSLN is not outside of the national crisis and that only by recognizing this can it contribute to solving this crisis.

It proclaims that the FSLN should be an open party with flexible and truly democratic structures, and that its leaders should be accountable to their constituency for their actions, without any kind of "strongman" behavior. It advocates putting aside all sectarian and exclusionary attitudes and calls on all former sympathizers to return to the party ranks to make it truly "the party of the majority."
This current's document categorically rejects armed struggle and all violent activities, stressing that this is the moment to unequivocally condemn these methods: "One cannot say one thing and do another." This attitude aims at winning the confidence of the majority of the population, which expects the FSLN's political discourse to be accompanied by a consequential practice.

The signers pledge to respect private property as well as all other legitimate forms of property ownership communal, social and cooperative and condemn all forms of expropriation. The document is self critical about the FSLN's behavior during its period in government and, although it does not vacillate in recognizing the gains made during the revolution, it concludes that "we have committed serious errors of conception and political action which have divided the society and in the end made us lose power."
The signers condemn neoliberalism and criticize the government for having accepted the decisions imposed by the international lending institutions: "If it is true that the dogma according to which everything should be in state hands has not functioned, the one that says that everything should be privatized cannot continue to be imposed." The document concludes by declaring that Sandinista unity should be preserved so as to win the 1996 elections.

Class References

Going beyond these two texts and the emotional and injurious name calling engaged in by both currents before the FSLN Congress in May, a clear difference appears with respect to the class references of the two groups.

There is no doubt that the Majorities current is supported mainly by well off sectors of the middle class and elements of the bourgeoisie that have opted for the FSLN. A survey of pro Sandinista professionals during a meeting of their association held a few days before the Congress showed that over two thirds supported the Majorities current. It is equally undeniable that the Democratic Left holds sway among grassroots organizations, particularly the unions and agricultural cooperatives, and that Daniel Ortega, this tendency's leader, enjoys the trust of these sectors.

For all that, it would be a danger to oversimplify. Personal and subjective positions at times cross over class lines. A number of grassroots Sandinistas and even leaders of their social movements identify with the Majorities, while some individuals of bourgeois origins are firmly committed to the Democratic Left current.

Little Deep Analysis

The leaders from around the country who participated in the FSLN Congress in May are, generally speaking, members of the lower middle class who had an opportunity to study during the Sandinista government period and thus have a relatively high educational level, but are now economically very vulnerable. Most of those with grassroots origins have only recently emerged as leaders. This contrasts with the general population, largely made up of popular classes whose already low educational level is now slipping further due to the neoliberal policies.

Few FSLN members, or even leaders, have ever been known for a very profound level of analysis. To the contrary, shifts in the dynamic of struggle have generally found them scrambling to catch up with events.

In the current period this sometimes has serious consequences. Have we not seen General Humberto Ortega defend public order against social or student demands, arguing that they are an obstacle to transnational investment? Days before the Congress, Comandante Victor Tirado said in a newspaper interview that, given the evolution of the world economy, it is necessary to plug into the existing capitalist system and try to humanize it. An official Congress document proposed that attention should be paid to assuring equal advantages for both sides in the framework of the Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Central America, but offered no critical vision of what the treaty would mean for the recomposition of the continent's economic forces. Tomás Borge has published a glowing biography of Mexico's President Salinas de Gortari, whose neoliberal positions are strongly challenged by the left in Mexico and Latin America as a whole.

In practice, what some call "co government" with Violeta Chamorro has not been just a myth. The argument some FSLN members use to justify this which is similar to the one used by the European left is that this alliance is necessary to stop the advance of the ultra right and force a center position. It is quite logical that this tendency emerges particularly among the Sandinistas who hold parliamentary posts, with Sergio Ramírez at their head.

The Symbolic Value of Words

While class is an important distinguishing factor in the orientation of the two FSLN currents, it should not be seen as determinant. It is also important to underscore the cultural dimension of both currents.

The Majorities current puts democracy, political realism and efficacy, rationality and stability ahead of all other values. To these they add a series of considerations linked to their conviction that power should go hand in hand with ability, that a certain vocabulary is inadmissible, that the forms of social expression implying disorder should be eliminated, that conflicts should be resolved through dialogue and that legal solidity assures the legitimacy of institutions.

The Democratic Left's most frequent references are concrete: poverty, the deterioration of health, lack of work, malnutrition, the eviction of peasants from their land, the rollback of education, and the like. The vocabulary is more radical and directed more against the country's leadership classes now in power than against the imperialism of the North.

This current's base defends the FSLN's traditional vocabulary such as National Directorate to refer to the executive group, or vanguard to define the party's role. Words have strong symbolic value for those at the bottom. They see how society is dualized, always to their disadvantage, and perceive that the means to defend themselves are becoming diluted.

There is, however, general agreement within this tendency to give another content to the traditional concepts, particularly that of vanguard, redefined as being at the forefront of social struggles and not so much as the exercise of a hegemonic leadership. The other current is suspicious of this redefined vocabulary, given the FSLN's past top down tradition and determination to run civil society's organizations in the service of political objectives.

The FSLN is already an Alliance

The FSLN's situation is truly complex. On the one hand, though some do not want to recognize it, the accentuated class divergences that are the fruit of the neoliberal policy in Nicaragua today also affect the FSLN itself. On the other, the FSLN has traditionally unified around a social and political project that favors the majorities and representatives of various social classes, the result of which has been a national and social politics based on a number of compromises between divergent interests. The current differences between the currents are largely an expression of this contradiction.

Looking toward the future, political realism obviously requires alliances, probably among different parties, as in other countries. In any case, the FSLN will likely have to consider this kind of formula for the 1996 elections.

The FSLN already represents an alliance which, in the country's situation today, it would probably be more valuable to continue than to break. The Democratic Left enjoys grassroots support while the other current has the support of a greater number of specialists, intellectuals and administrators. If the Majorities current were to become the superior force, could it avoid a fate similar to that of Mexico's PRI? And if the Democratic Left ended up alone within the FSLN, does the party not risk isolating itself around positions that are ideologically clearer but not very efficacious in relation to the current state of public opinion?
Public opinion in Nicaragua today is culturally dominated by middle class symbology, a result of the individualism promoted by both the economic policies and the need to develop survival strategies. It is polarized by incomparably different levels of consumption, and among the grassroots sectors some are quite ready to support populist adventures of an authoritarian stripe in exchange for seeing their immediate needs satisfied.

Neoliberals and Socialists?

Various levels of analysis must be distinguished in order to be objective. The first and most fundamental is the political analysis, which cannot be separated from its socioeconomic context. The two currents in the FSLN really correspond to distinct class positions within a movement that defines itself as progressive. Even in a non industrial society such as Nicaragua's, the neoliberal policies accentuate the social differences and contradictions. The logic is always the same: isolate the macroeconomic phenomena from their social context, and try, given the disaster, to patch the holes.

But the political conceptions that divide the FSLN are not opposite poles representing the neoliberal and socialist options. It is more an issue of differentiated options within a single project of social transformations. Nonetheless, those who have a certain economic and social level, whether acquired some time ago or recently, tend to want to reproduce it for themselves and future generations. This is even more true now that the revolutionary euphoria has passed and the loss of power and recomposition of the economic camp seem to give the neoliberal project a space in the world for some time to come.

The ownership of visible material goods is linked more than ever to practices of daily life, cultural and intellectual interests, children's schools, free time, international contacts, consumption levels, relations within one's social class both with non Sandinistas and with members of one's own family and the rank or status symbols that must be upheld in society. All of this ends up blurring political conceptions.

For many, in fact, the peasants' world or that of the urban poor is reduced to an abstraction, even though it is present through the street children selling gum or washing windshields for a córdoba at all the traffic intersections or through the uniformed servants in many houses. This social fact is hard to avoid.

The Logic of the Poor

The worries of the very poor are on a completely different level: the unavailability of credits for individual peasants and cooperatives to buy seeds, the dearth of medicines in the health centers, the multiple fees involved in sending children to school, the growing family violence sparked by degrading living conditions, the increasingly generalized unemployment, and the sheer survival strategies that guide not only economic practice in general but every single decision of daily life. In some regions, the greatest worry is constant hunger; many children are forced to eat roots. The political world appears very far away to these people and the adjustment measures seriously hit their most vital interests. They are unreceptive to those who argue that the measures offer the advantage of reestablishing certain macroeconomic balances.

The victims of social conflict are always the poor. They have different reference points, different cultures, different world visions and different practices, all of which are based on divergent realities.
Cooperativized peasants who are seeing their lands recovered by old owners are all set to occupy the lands and resist by force, even though Managua politicians occasionally including Sandinistas propose dialogue and warn against violence. The job losses linked to the austerity measures lead some labor sectors to turn to social struggles, which sometimes end up violent. Those who consider this form of struggle to be illegitimate and unacceptable focus their efforts more on the means than the causes, and generally belong to other social classes.

Even though the subaltern classes make up the majority of the population, they virtually never directly act in the formal political arena. How could they? Many of them once believed in the Sandinista revolution, but now their skepticism about politics runs deep. They resentfully watched some Sandinista leaders civilian or military appropriate collective goods for themselves or benefit from their membership in or chumminess with the possessor classes to create the conditions for their own material and cultural reproduction. Meanwhile, the majorities sink further into misery. With the absence of a more popular power leaving the field open to politicians, they are again the victims.

This does not mean, however, that all hope in the Sandinista revolution has been extinguished. To a sector of the grassroots, Sandinismo represents the only credible alternative, and an important fringe is ready to revive the revolutionary call at particularly emotional moments, such as during an electoral campaign.

This is where the problem of violence comes in. To some, violence is anything that disturbs the social order. This is obviously not the conception of Nicaragua's poor, who can be quite coarse in their reactions, outspoken in their language and symbolic expressions and less than cordial in their relations, but they know they are the ones suffering the majority of the brutalities.

No one wants to relive a war like the 80s, fed and spread by external forces. Even some grassroots sectors are ready to accept any political compromise to prevent it. This was the sentiment expressed in the 1990 elections. Nonetheless, the violence of that war has continued in a limited fashion right up to today in some regions. While that violence makes no sense in the current period, the hypothetical conditions exist for a renewal of armed struggle in the not too distant future.

From the Poor or Option for the Poor?

It would be fallacious to say that the Democratic Left mainly comprises elements of the grassroots sectors with their own logic and culture. It is easy to point to those who claim this current but have nothing in common, either in their life style or in some of their declarations, with what could be an expression of the interests and culture of the poor. But this is not the locus of the problem of political analysis. What is required is to know if the political project responds to the real needs of the subaltern classes as they objectively exist in today's Nicaragua.

Only a radical criticism of neoliberalism and its concrete applications can respond to that imperative. Only support for the genuinely existing grassroots struggles not manipulating them but giving them a political dimension can faithfully reflect the interests of these social groups. Only anticipating what will be a future alternative to the current economic model and proposing concrete democratic and grassroots alternatives can lead to appropriate changes.

Are the positions of the two currents contradictory on this point? Yes and no. Yes, to the degree that they do not just represent a simple problem of social sensibility. The existence of a class component makes them incompatible to some degree. But it can also be said that they are not contradictory, in that positions can converge in the current situation, either because a national project is necessarily anti imperialist or because common positions can be defended, for example around legal recognition of ownership of those who received property thanks to Sandinismo, or around health, education or some economic measures.

For these positions to be compatible within a single party, the second tendency, culturally and materially tied to sectors of the bourgeoisie or comfortable middle class, must put itself at the service of the direct interests of the grassroots masses, whose political expression should predominate. If this does not happen, there will be a progressive deviation toward using the social force of the masses for the other classes' reproduction. This could even lead to their manipulation by the new world model of accumulation. The PRI example in Mexico is sufficiently clear. Even more recently, the fate of El Salvador's FMLN, with Joaquín Villalobos and his tendency which is very similar to that of Nicaragua's Majorities shows a similar orientation.

The Lure of Political Efficacy

If what is at issue were nothing more than internal FSLN squabbles over methods of political action or even incompatible personalities, one could believe that a dose of self criticism on the one hand and good will on the other could solve the problems. But the differences go much deeper.

It is hard to imagine that the divergences can be easily settled. Various outsiders have tried to set up some sort of mediation. Although the FSLN maintains itself as a united political formation, there is a risk that the tensions could paralyze its activities and soon lead it to be politically less effective. And if the FSLN actually splits, the political balance could also be negative.

This suggests a series of theoretical problems that Antonio Gramsci pointed out in his analysis of Italian politics in the between war period when he reflected on the role of intellectuals and their class origin. While class origin is not completely determinant, it plays an important role in Nicaragua, as it does in other countries of Latin America.

There is also the issue of the state, which in Nicaragua is in a process of full recomposition in favor of bourgeois interests. It particularly favors the interests of the consumerist, financial or commercial bourgeoisie, the country's intermediary with the exterior. Some Sandinistas from this class who were strongly sympathetic to the grassroots democratic liberals who struggled against Somocismo and had leadership functions in the state during the Sandinista administration now find it hard not to get sucked into this game of retooling the state, even when they feel that their role is to act as a brake on it. Their greater inclination toward political efficacy than toward social radicalism also enters into the overall logic.

To all this must be added the orientation of the army, now very reduced numerically but which, as it institutionalizes itself as a national professional army, is increasingly defining itself as the guarantor of order without discussing the content of this order. This is very clear in numerous declarations by General Humberto Ortega. To assure its reproduction in the new society, the army has clothed itself in institutional logic, the logic of order, although trying at all times to continue protecting the FSLN and Sandinistas in general.

Looking at Society

It seems evident that, for the sake of political efficacy that is, to assure participation in power the FSLN must either restore its unity, or else look ahead toward alliances with other organized progressive political forces. If it manages to maintain its unity and wants to be a party that continues being the expression of the grassroots masses, the FSLN cannot do so by sacrificing the interests of the poor. This requires that the organization's members belonging to other social classes recognize the priority of grassroots interests.

The party can only get a second wind by radically turning itself around, fixing its sights not on the interpersonal rifts and the sometimes clear, sometimes obscure, maneuvers for power, but on the problems of Nicaraguan society.

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