Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 214 | Mayo 1999



Is the Cycle of Violence Interminable?

A search for solutions and crude manipulation. Sectors itching for a fight and pointless anarchy. Social conflicts and social decomposition. Economic problems that encounter no solution along neoliberalism's "right road." Non-negotiable presidential authoritarianism and the weaknesses of a society held hostage by its two caudillos. All this and more were present in the overlapping student and transport workers' protests last month, which once again paralyzed the country.

Nitlápan-Envío team

While around the world people of good will were following the perplexing Kosovo tragedy and the contribution by the United States and NATO to the violence in the heart of Europe, violence was again flaring up in Nicaragua. This violence, whose explanation, if not justification, can be found in the ongoing political drama of our tiny country, wracked the capital for weeks. Meanwhile, people around the country who had lost everything in Hurricane Mitch were battling to control their traumatic fear of water as the first rains of this season fell. With no other alternatives open to them, these impoverished victims have been waiting helplessly for six months, clinging to the hope that their government will indeed "represent" them at the international donor community meeting in Stockholm in late May.

University protests infused with artificial violence

The protests started on April 9, with groups of university students demanding—as they have to do every year—that the government actually provide the constitutionally mandated 6% of the national budget to the state universities. Normally the protests take place in December, when the upcoming year's budget is debated in the National Assembly, but Mitch's passage forced revisions in the budget that postponed the debate until now. The area surrounding the Assembly, which was the focal point of the first days' demonstrations, became a battleground between riot police firing tear gas canisters and buckshot and student demonstrators throwing rocks and shooting off homemade mortars. That activity would set the tone for the days to come, as non-students looking to provoke police incidents mixed in with the demonstrators.

On April 14, some 400 students took over the Foreign Ministry building for two hours, and five days later they took their protest to the grounds of the Central Bank. Although their leaders had reportedly negotiated a deal with bank authorities to demonstrate peacefully, the unfolding of events was anything but peaceful. In the ensuing melee with riot police and bank guards, a number of students were seriously wounded and seventy were jailed. Three policemen were also wounded. A protesting law student named Roberto González was killed when a rubber bullet fired from close range went through his heart; the funeral procession to the cemetery the next day was massive. The same afternoon González was killed, another group went on a rampage, setting fire to two vehicles at the headquarters of the governing Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) and a police patrol car near the Central American University.

In the days that followed, pitched battles took place between police and students—and presumably others—in the streets. At least some of the mounting violence seemed artificially inspired and student leaders repeatedly warned the demonstrators not to be provoked by infiltrators. Rocks were thrown at police headquarters, breaking several windows, and major urban arteries were closed for several hours at a time during the outbreaks.

It has become a tradition for students to accompany their protest for the 6% with mortars from which they shoot firecrackers into the air. But this time, a far more lethal weapon made its first appearance since the insurrection against Somoza in the late 1970s: a homemade contact bomb. On April 25, four children found one of these bombs—basically a wad of explosive the size of a hardball wrapped in tape—abandoned in the Central American University gardens. Not knowing what it was, they began playing with it. All four children were wounded when it exploded; one child lost an eye and mutilated an arm.

The annual 6% ritual

No struggle for a group's rights since 1991 has been more persistent or better organized than the university students' fight to get 6% of the national budget mandated by the Constitution for university education. The Constitution establishes fixed budget lines for other sectors as well—which the government also fails to honor—but even though the respective beneficiaries are aware of the illegality, they have failed to come together and fight for their rights like the students. The "6% struggle" has taken on virtually mythical proportions, becoming a mobilizing political ritual that pulls together a significant sector of youth year after year and continues to enjoy major popular support despite unending government efforts to pitch it as an elitist demand that would take money away from primary education for the masses.

Given Nicaragua's dire poverty, subsidized universities are essential if the majority of the young people who to aspire to be professionals are to have any chance of doing so. They and their parents intuitively know that in this competitive new globalized world the government's argument sets up a false dichotomy for the poor. They know that it is the government that is elitist, and that it has no more commitment to educating the children of the poor than it does to providing them quality health care.

The panorama of higher education has changed significantly since the beginning of the decade, acquiring a profile that is ever more exclusive. While 50,000 young men and women attend the 10 universities eligible for the 6% state subsidy, the 22 new private institutions (all called universities even though some are no bigger than a house) that keep sprouting up around the country like mushrooms after a neoliberal rain already have a combined enrollment of 30,000 students. It is not to hard to figure out that in the new "model," higher education is to be reserved for the paying elite from a class background that has molded them for professional life (largely in Miami in the 1980s as children of parents who fled the revolution and war). In a country whose foreign investment opportunities are now based on the attraction of cheap labor, there is no need in the government's mind to offer higher education to the children of urban laborers and the informal sector, much less the rural poor.

The 6% struggle is not only legal but also legitimate; it is one of many efforts to create a more equitable society in which all who aspire to quality higher education would have access to it if they qualify intellectually, without being hindered by their inability to qualify economically. But for a government based on a inequitable model that doesn't see things that way, and that furthermore is obliged by its international commitment to cut costs, the constitutional 6% mandate has become a recurring nightmare.

The government's arguments

The Alemán government has the financial resources to comply with the 6%; what it lacks is the political will to reassign them in that direction. Choosing international commitments over constitutional obligations, the government repeatedly allocates the subsidized universities far less than 6% of the budget, just as the Chamorro government did before it. It has even used the same arsenal of arguments that Chamorro administration officials used.

Their main "technical" argument has continually been that the 6% should be calculated exclusively on the basis of ordinary income (taxes), not on "extraordinary" income (which includes donations and projects financed by the international community). It is actually a fallacious argument, since the country draws up and executes only one budget. Moreover, both the National Assembly and the Supreme Court have already decided that question in favor of the universities. But the government technocrats don't end their arguments there. They also view the 6% as disproportionate to state spending for primary, secondary and technical education, on which they are justly putting a priority, and claim that the urban middle-classes are the ones benefiting from this subsidy, not the poorest. And, finally, the technocrats say there are clear indices of inefficiency and waste in the subsidized universities, and complain that the government cannot exercise controls over the resources provided due to barriers imposed by university autonomy. On this latter point, the Comptroller General's Office (CGR) says that the authorities of the National Council of Universities, to which the 10 eligible universities belong, simply send annual reports to the CGR, and admits that the 6% has not been audited "rigorously and systematically."
The "politicians" in the Liberal government are no less opposed to the 6%, but they have their own set of arguments. They dislike it because they can't figure out how to wring any political credit out of these resources, how to build any party clientele with them. Worse yet, this subsidy tends to strengthen the rival clientele, since universities are always, by definition, a breeding ground for opponents. Liberal politicians see influential remnants of Sandinismo lurking among the current staff of state university professors.

The transport strike and the youth gangs

On Thursday, April 29, with the university problem still unresolved and the fast-approaching donors' meeting in Stockholm increasingly occupying government attention, city and interurban bus cooperatives, cargo companies and some taxi cooperatives began the indefinite strike they had originally announced for the previous Monday. The passenger bus cooperatives had been demanding for over a month that the government share the 10% rise in Nicaragua's diesel price over the previous four months by shaving 5 córdobas (about $.45) off the tax. Other transport businesses joined in that demand. It was not an unreasonable one, since Nicaragua's taxes on all petroleum products have made them the most costly in Central America throughout the 1990s, independent of international price fluctuations. But the government refused. Asphyxiated by hefty, high-interest bank loans for the fleet of buses bought when the cooperatives were created in the early 1990s, the transport workers then demanded that the government authorize a fare increase to compensate for the new diesel price.

When negotiations broke down that Thursday night, some 10,000 angry drivers launched the strike by resorting to their own traditional protest methods, setting fire to stacks of tires at major intersections and prying up paving blocks to build barricades. They also leaned heavily on uncooperative taxis to stay off the streets; the pressure plus several trashed taxis soon had the desired effect. Since the strike had begun so late in the week and the upcoming weekend was a three-day holiday due to International Workers' Day on May 1, they could not afford to let the strike build naturally; they had to affect traffic circulation immediately to have the economic impact they sought.

The capital's most active youth gangs soon got into the act, some distracting police in support of the strikers, others attacking the strikers themselves. This frequently led to rock fights between opposing gangs, with cars stuck in the slow-moving traffic at blocked intersections sometimes getting caught in the crossfire. There are indications that the FSLN sought out gang members to "back the popular struggle" and that the Liberals did the same to discredit the strikers. (For an analysis of the logic of these gangs and their role in the recent events, see "Youth Gangs: Armed Rebels Without a Cause" in this issue of envío).

They were uncertain days and tense nights. The capital's poorest neighborhoods were particularly at the mercy of the riled-up gangs. With even more frequency than usual, a gang from another neighborhood would come in to attack the local gang with rocks, fists, knives and even firearms. In the public mind the distinction between the gangs' weapons and the students' mortars blurred as juvenile delinquents, demonstrators, strikers, gang members, snipers, frustrated and angry drivers, the ideologically riled and the simply curious and foolhardy all crossed paths on Managua's streets. It was an explosive mixture of interests that made it difficult to intervene, negotiate or impose any order on the situation. In the midst of it, the police began to do illegal house searches of dozens of community leaders from one sector of the FSLN, arresting them without due cause and taking them up before the courts without due process.

The day before the transport strike began, President Alemán ordered the army to join the police to deal with "a synchronized scaling up of the violence" and "provocative acts which may be inspired by outside interests." The army responded but with great discretion, keeping a very low profile.

The context of the transport strike

The economic and political context of the transport workers' demand is very different from that of the struggle for 6%, even though the two coincided. Since it is not just about reassigning funds from one budget line to another, it was harder for the government to resolve. Asking the government to take a cut in its huge tax revenue from fuel sales, the transport struggle touched a more highly sensitive chord for the neoliberal government: fiscal income.

To touch the fuel tax policy—central to overall tax collection levels—is to put in doubt virtually the whole macroeconomic scheme of current government policy. It is to touch the Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF) agreement with the International Monetary Fund. These "touches" are even more serious business today because Hurricane Mitch exploded the government's income projections, calling into question the possibility of reducing the fiscal deficit, cornerstone of the ESAF commitments. Even without Mitch's economic damage, the government's ability to collect either personal or business income taxes is limited due to the size of the informal sector. The high sales taxes on petroleum products, alcoholic beverages, soft drinks and cigarettes thus account for 45% of all fiscal income in the national budget. Almost 40% of the final sale price of fuel is government tax.

At the beginning, then, the government reacted drastically, with an explosive mixture of provocative authoritarianism and fanatic neoliberalism. It not only refused to lower diesel prices or permit fare increases, but also insisted on totally liberalizing the transport sector, currently regulated by the state. Making economic policy decisions in such an arrogant way, without taking the pulse of those affected, without exploring possibilities or seeking consensus, is a government style that risks triggering violence.
Some believe that the President threatened to liberalize transport because he had so little maneuvering room to reduce the diesel price. But provocation or no, government technocrats were also looking to do it because they believe in it. They think the transport collectives earn too much income and spend too little of it to maintain the fleet, which is admittedly in deplorable condition. This, they argue, wouldn't be the case if the market were totally unregulated and free for other companies to enter, thus forcing greater efficiency on the existing cooperatives. The transport market can only be analyzed this way from a fanatic neoliberal position, because not even in the most developed countries has public transport been totally liberalized. The neoliberal revolution underway for the past twenty years has been unable to substantively modify the strong state intervention in this sector. In Nicaragua's case, however, another, more political motive cannot be discarded: a so-far frustrated desire to financially break the huge and militant, FSLN-identified Parrales-Vallejos transport cooperative.

The results of these protests

On Friday, April 30, the day after the transport sector kicked off its strike, the student leadership together with the university rectors signed an agreement with the government, bringing the student protests to an end for the time being. The settlement, mediated by Carlos Tünnerman, minister of education during the Sandinista decade and currently head of the civic group Ethics and Transparency, guarantees that an increasing percentage of the budget will be earmarked for higher education between 1999 and 2002, although not 6%. The government also pledged to present projects to the international community for $152 million to improve university infrastructure over the next four years. The government further promised not to introduce or back any kind of legislation that would affect university autonomy in any way. To increase the university budget line for 1999 by $2.5 million the government also shelved construction of a coastal highway in the Tola zone. Public opinion already opposed the project since the President and his cronies are known to have bought land in the area.

The same day that the government signed its agreement with the students, it signed another with a patched-together minority of transport strikers that called themselves the Coordinating Body of Democratic Transport Workers in an attempt to halt the serious economic costs of the increasingly paralyzed city. But the vast majority in the huge association of transport collectives remained cohesive over the three-day weekend, and the strike continued, affecting shopping, restaurants and tourism in particular. Taxis removed their topknot to indicate that they were supposedly not taking fares; with that, getting around by taxi became a question of knowing someone, which of course everyone does. The strikers generally left individual drivers in peace, but would stop even a private car if they thought it looked suspiciously full of people.

On Tuesday, May 4, the government caved in to the transport sector, signing what appeared to be a surprisingly concessionary agreement. After ten hours of negotiation, it agreed to reduce diesel prices from 16.50 córdobas to 15 for public transport, keeping Managua inner-city bus fares at 1.40 córdobas (at the current, fast-climbing exchange rate, $1 equals about 11.6 córdobas). It also agreed to shelve Ale- mán's threat to open up the bus service to competing companies. The Central Bank agreed to provide credit, and reportedly progressive tax exonerations as well, to import buses and parts to improve the extremely deteriorated vehicular park. The strike forced the President to back down from both his authoritarian methods and the essence of the proposals behind which he had entrenched himself to avoid negotiations.

This strike had other major successes as well: the unity reached and maintained within the sector despite their strong ideological rivalries, the negotiating capacity they demonstrated, and the autonomy they managed to maintain from the manipulations of the FSLN leadership. This was in part due to the fact that a majority of the overall transport sector is now of the Liberal stripe, but also because even the Sandinista-affiliated cooperatives avoided falling into the traps.

This is the second strike to have remained independent from the manipulative ambiguity with which the FSLN has been appropriating—or even fabricating—outbursts of popular struggle since 1990. The first was the four-month doctor's strike in 1998, also strongly Liberal. This manipulation and ambiguity is part of what has put the FSLN's opposition role into crisis.

The National Assembly crisis

As a whole, the FSLN has always backed the 6% fight, although with greater energy some years than others, according to what else is going on around it. It was in fact the FSLN that, upon leaving government, established the issue as a constitutional mandate.

This year the sector controlling the FSLN had three reasons for supporting and manipulating the 6% ritual with special fervor. The first is the crisis in the National Assembly around the whole 1999 budget. The second is the national crisis motivated by the government's unbridled corruption, which has begun to generate new consensus and new leadership figures. And the third is the crisis within the FSLN itself.

So far this year the National Assembly has had trouble making it through a whole week at a time with any normalcy. For a variety of reasons, political debate has turned into sterile verbal violence. One reason is the scant political and ethical qualifications of a significant number of elected legislators. Another, more fundamental factor, but exacerbated by the first, is that President Alemán has turned the Assembly into a wholly-owned subsidiary of the executive office since coming to power in 1997. He uses his permanently loyal representatives, plus those whose loyalty he garners ad hoc when needed to round out the necessary majority, as mere rubber stamps to approve his projects. Alemán implicitly justifies this behavior with his constant argument about the results of the 1996 election: winning at the polls means I can do what I want. That erroneous interpretation of an electoral mandate dominates his relationship with the legislative branch.

If that weren't enough, the FSLN legislators have been yielding to the two-pronged strategy—alternatively threaten and cut deals with Alemán—being played out by the party's secretary general Daniel Ortega, who has personally headed the bench since January 1999. By so doing, they have contaminated themselves with his ambiguity and politically impoverished the role of parliamentary opposition. While a sector of FSLN representatives could extend the walls of consensus with proposals and alliances, Ortega monopolizes the stage, turning the Assembly into an institutional barricade behind which he reaffirms his leadership and counterbalances the see-saw movements of the fluid "pact" he has established with President Alemán.

"Anti-democratic attitudes aren't resolved with democratic formalities," said Conservative political commentator Emilio Alvarez Montalván, Alemán's former foreign minister, in his analysis of the diverse institutional crises that cyclically affect the country. All of them—the Assembly crisis being only one—are expressions, each time more violent, of a non-democratic culture that the institutions of democracy have not yet managed even to moderate much less reverse.

They need each other

The eerily similar political styles of Alemán and Ortega have riddled the country with tension. The two strongmen have done the same to the parliament, turning it into an arena in which, like fighting cocks, they periodically measure their strength. The extreme polarization this has brought to the Assembly has seriously derailed the legislative functions, aided and abetted by the inability of a large number of both Liberal and Sandinista representatives—not to mention those from the other parties—to think for themselves.

President Alemán has Ortega checked by the request filed with the Assembly by Ortega's adopted stepdaughter to remove his parliamentary immunity on grounds of sexual abuse and incest—Alemán can deliver the votes to grant it. Alemán, knowing Ortega has been weakened by the charge and is increasingly attacked within his party because of the pact, also has him trapped into the pact's ups and downs. Alemán enjoys playing with Ortega: he threatens then softens up; he makes promises and doesn't keep them. He insults the Sandinistas in his speeches, calling them "thieves, jerks and scoundrels."
In the other corner of the ring, Daniel Ortega knows that Alemán has no choice but to execute an economic policy that hurts the poor, that Alemán's many errors have whittled away his original popularity and that he is surrounded by cowards. Ortega thus enjoys playing with him too. Aware that Alemán has to show the international community he can keep the country governable and safe for investors, Ortega likes to shake him up with street destabilization and speeches threatening to "take up arms to overthrow him."
Ortega's dual game, menacing one day and pacting the next, is increasingly obvious. By the same token, the President's schematic game of blaming anything bad that happens in the country on the "dark night" of Sandinismo is increasingly crude. The truth is that the two caudillos need each other. Both feed off their ideological conflict, because only within it does their leadership shine. Alemán needs a discredited revolutionary leader as a rival and uses his anti-Sandinista discourse to keep his base together. Ortega needs a weakened rightwing President as a rival and uses his 1980s' anti-Somocista discourse to keep his base together. Both reduce their respective references to "democracy" and "revolution" to victory at the polls—in the recent past for one and in the future for the other.
People are starting to tire of being caught in the sterile crossfire between these two. In survey after survey, poll after poll, a growing majority of Nicaraguans have been saying that they don't identify with either Alemán or Ortega today, don't feel represented by them, don't consider either one credible, and think both are corrupt. For that reason, no bilateral agreement between Ortega's FSLN and Alemán's PLC can guarantee stability in the country or lead to a national solution. That is why it is urgent to structure a pluralist movement of honest people who would do politics differently and promote a genuine project for the nation as a whole and all of its citizens.

The budget crisis

With the National Assembly's activity paralyzed by authoritarian styles and secret agreements cooked up between the FSLN and PLC leadership behind the Assembly's back, President Alemán tried to push through the long delayed 1999 national budget with his now standard string-pulling methods. But he had missed his window of opportunity; by then the student protest was already underway right outside the Assembly windows. The April 13 legislative session ended in shouting matches, threats and even blows. The budget was not approved.
As a result of the Assembly crisis around the budget, the government of Nicaragua had already been functioning illegally since March 31. It continued to do so until May 5, when the last protest ended and the budget was finally approved. That the government could go right on functioning reveals the weakness of the country's new institutionality and the ineffectiveness of its reactions to the use of de facto power and the impunity that accompanies such abuses. Nicaragua's deep-rooted caudillo culture is politically stamped by the rule of power, not of law, and by the defenselessness of those without power.

The budget was finally approved in a session full of unknowns about what realignments may have taken place in the FSLN-government pact after three and a half weeks of parliamentary conflicts and street violence. The final budget contained no wage increases for teachers, police, soldiers or judges, as had been hoped. The Comptroller General's Office applauded the elimination of huge unitemized budget lines for "contingencies" that the Presidency wanted to control at his own discretion; the monies were reallocated to other categories. On the other hand, it criticized the transfers that both the Central Bank and the Presidency would continue to receive—the latter as earnings from the few remaining state enterprises—without specified objectives.

What Mitch laid bare

If the passage of Hurricane Mitch revealed the fragility of Nicaragua's prevailing development "model," political events following the hurricane uncovered the government's own profound weaknesses, inefficiency, incapacity and insensitivity. Government corruption, that structural evil that has permeated the nation's entire history, was also laid bare for all to see, though it is impossible to say whether the Mitch tragedy increased it or not.

Six months after Mitch, most urban Nicaraguans have nearly forgotten that its torrential rains devastated a good part of the countryside, that thousands of people are utterly without options. But the new social perception of corruption that Mitch awakened among various sectors of society seems to be growing rather than fading. People are beginning to understand that there are links between squandering public goods and economic backwardness, between the extreme wealth amassed by those who govern and the extreme poverty suffered by the majority who are governed. With increasing lucidity, people are beginning to recognize the contradiction between the governors' private well being and the public good they promise to uphold when elected.

An anti-corruption convergence

The struggle against corruption has the potential to become a banner behind which a good percentage of Nicaraguans, so dispersed on other issues, can march. Honest leaders do exist, both in institutions and outside of them, within Sandinismo and within anti-Sandinismo, and within that amorphous but sizable center that identifies with neither of those two groups. And in this setting they have the potential to forge a broad alliance desirous of putting a viable end to the exhausting cycle of political, social and economic violence, and to domestic violence, the violence of private life that is the breeding ground for all other kinds.

The March 25 march against corruption was an incipient and hopeful demonstration of the new winds that are blowing. It was unexpectedly massive, totally peaceful and undeniably pluralistic. While its support for Comptroller General Augustín Jarquín and what he and his institution stand for suggested a new course, many elements remain to be analyzed and decided based on this first step.

One sector of the Sandinista movement began to analyze the possibilities of increasing the civic struggle, of accumulating forces and establishing alliances with the non-Sandinista opposition (not to be confused with the anti-Sandinista forces in power with which another sector of the Sandinista movement is pacting). The objective would be to put together an anti-corruption alliance and confront the government at its moment of greatest weakness. The project excludes electoral considerations and candidacies for now, limiting itself to the not insignificant goal of organizing public opinion and getting the country genuinely on the road to democratic institutionality.

The pact's economic "core"

Ortega's sector of the FSLN opposed the march against corruption. Both its characteristics and its success worried this sector, first of all because the struggle has never been nor can be a banner they can get behind. Among the recent evidence of this is that the FSLN bench has shown no interest in promoting a National Assembly hearing to prove that the staggering increase in Alemán's wealth since holding public office has been illicit, even though proof exists. The bottom-line reason corruption cannot be an FSLN banner, however, is the trade-off at the economic core of the Alemán-Ortega pact: valuable agricultural and industrial properties still in dispute will remain in Sandinista leaders' hands and certain corrupt acts will be swept under the rug in exchange for a cover-up of the Liberal government's own corruption.
Given those stakes, the government's current weakness and the emergence of this new cause, the dominant FSLN sector needed to take back the streets. The struggle for the 6% provided the best conditions. With the budget debate bogged down in the Assembly, Ortega saw the opportunity to turn the parliamentary barricade into street barricades, appropriating the ritual university struggle for the party despite the perennial effort of many student leaders—including Sandinistas—not to politicize the issue. But Ortega and the sector of the FSLN that supports him had the traditional call and the grassroots base assured. To some degree this explains the violence sprinkled through both protests, though the sector of the party that opposes such gratuitous violence also supported the student struggle.

The FSLN and Sandinismo

The FSLN crisis is no secret. Most of the party's members are outside of the structures and do not feel represented by the leaders those structures keep electing. The interminable squabbles that have been tearing at the structures are mainly over party posts, not ideological debate or even political strategy. Party posts are ends in themselves, not a means to be effective, because there is no program to implement. In a country with so much joblessness and badly paid jobs, being a "politician" has a lot of appeal: good salary, status, travel, importance¼ So those elected to a given post at a given level spend their energies jockeying for better posts at higher levels, always with an eye on candidacies in national elections, where they get paid by the state, not the party.
Dora María Téllez, once a high-ranking FSLN member—in fact a comandante—and now head of the breakaway Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), shared her reflections on the FSLN crisis with envío. "The Frente's problem," she said, "is that it has perverted its purpose as a political force because it no longer has either a program or a body of principles and has collapsed as an organic grassroots expression, dissolving in order to follow a leader. It is ethically fragile and still tied to the social reality of the 1970s, which has nothing to do with the next century. We're talking about a total crisis, one that could take years to resolve."
If all that were not serious enough, she sees an even more serious problem in the FSLN's crisis: the party's failings have been dragging the whole Sandinista movement down with it, including sectors within the FSLN that increasingly oppose this situation. She believes, as any intelligent person in Nicaragua would, that it is impossible to find a way out of the national crisis without Sandinismo. For that reason, she thinks the time has come to pull together what she calls the "refounding" of Sandinismo. As she explains, "If we cannot refound it politically, ethically, philosophically, programmatically and organizationally and forge new linkages with the social movement, Sandinismo and what it stands for will sink into history, dragged down by the anchor of today's FSLN. With that, the conditions will be created for another force to appear, one that will make a revolution against the new `historic parallels': Liberalism and the FSLN that made a pact with it."

FSLN: the weight of the pact

The pact between President Alemán and FSLN Secretary General Daniel Ortega and the sector that supports him—so gingerly initiated close to a year ago—has now been consummated as a strategic agreement with various initial measures. It was set back by Mitch's unexpected passage, aggravated to the extreme by all the never-resolved problems in the FSLN, and forcibly prioritized on the party's agenda by a sector of its leadership to get greater economic and political advantages out of the Liberal government.

There are strong divergences within the FSLN between those who back Ortega and those who think it is time he and the rest of his generation—the old comandancia—be put out to pasture. But for all that, it is notable that the whole party converges around the pact's "political heart." The political essence of the pact is the imposition on society of the interpretation that, as the second electoral force, the FSLN has the right to certain quotas of institutional power. This vision sees the state as a pie that should be "divvied up" into two pieces proportionate to the vote in the elections, with party loyalties of course prevailing over professional merits in assigning posts in the state institutions. This political vision impedes any alliances between the other opposition sectors and the FSLN, and renders the FSLN as a whole unable to really work for national consensus.
But the pro-Daniel sector doesn't stop there. The central objective of Ortega's strategy is to turn all episodes of national life into a constant pulse taking and test of strength with Alemán. Ortega's personal goal is to shore up his increasingly questioned leadership so he can challenge Alemán or Alemán's handpicked presidential candidate in the 2001 presidential elections, and win. "I am disposed to take up the challenge of a candidacy," Ortega declared during the university protest. "I believe that the possibilities of victory are much more favorable than in 1996 and that a Sandinista triumph in the next elections is inevitable."

Violence with deep roots

The university students' struggle is a just one, as is that of the transport collectives. The students had the energy to occupy the streets and the transport workers knew how to organize to demand what they considered rightfully theirs. In today's impoverished Nicaragua there is no lack of extremely serious social problems that can be taken up as banners of protest by the most diverse sectors of society, but the crisis has found them unorganized. There is hunger and unemployment, and poverty has been transformed into misery for the whole country. Wages have been frozen for years, while food prices and electricity and water rates climb constantly. Public health and education services get more deficient by the day for the poor who cannot pay for anything better. The avalanche of taxes, applied with wanton discretion, is smothering the middle class, small businesses, and even the wealthy if they are not Liberal. There is no longer any community in the country whose survival does not depend to a great extent on the small remittances sent back by those who have emigrated to the United States or Costa Rica for lack of any opportunity here.

In many rural zones where conflicts over land and forests abound, and where producers are still being robbed and kidnapped, Mitch was just one more assault. In the cities young people with no opportunity to study, work or even channel their energies into sports activities, healthy leisure or a collective commitment, form gangs to gain a sense of identity and purpose. In this sea of extreme poverty, the islands of extreme wealth for a minority with no compunction about flaunting it are a siren song to violence. But it is violence made up more of social decomposition and anarchy than of an organized response.

Last month's violence has its deepest roots sunk into age-old social injustice, growing inequalities, the extreme inequity that has followed the extreme violence of the war in the 1980s, and the lack of solidarity that characterizes our political and economic system.

Overthrow the government?

Some grassroots Sandinista sectors have been predicting for several months that Alemán won't make it through his term. Asked how they envision that he will be deposed, who they think will take his place, or what they believe any new head of state would do differently, the confident forecast dwindles into silence. When the transport collectives added their strike to the student protests and the generalized despair, it was logical that some would feel the conditions existed to bring down the government now, with one fed-up sector after another joining in the streets until the whole thing culminated in an uncontainable insurrection. One sector of the FSLN had this reading, and actually believed it was possible to topple Alemán. Ingenuously, irresponsibly and/or as an act of sheer will, it decided to push things in that direction, falling back on a conception of vanguard that no longer works. It acted without establishing alliances with other non-Sandinista opposition sectors and without fully assessing the problems of "the day after." One group inspired by this conviction sent a pronouncement to envío claiming that "the conditions exist for an indefinite general strike, for massive civil disobedience, for a popular insurrection without weapons but with all the transforming capacity required."
As always, the sector that controls the FSLN structures played a double-edged game. While Daniel Ortega was quietly meeting with President Alemán, this sector wanted the people in the streets to believe that overthrowing the government was possible. It manipulated this interpretation of events to achieve a number of self-interested goals: re- adjust the pact by further cornering the President, wear down the government, impose Ortega's leadership on the party and the nation, and "burn" the other FSLN sectors. The massive detentions of Sandinista community leaders in the days of the crisis do not appear to be separate from this internal FSLN conflict between bureaucratic structures and grassroots activists.

Frailties before Stockholm

All this exploded too close to the Stockholm meeting in late May for the government's comfort. In that meeting the Central American governments will be negotiating agreements with the international community regarding the amounts of financial aid that will be guaranteed for reconstruction of the areas devastated by Hurricane Mitch.
Nicaragua's government will be requesting massive amounts of funds—only some for reconstruction and even less to give the hurricane's genuine victims a chance to stand on their own two legs again—after investing little or nothing in the emergency and rehabilitation stages. In Posoltega, the emblematic disaster site, people are still looking for dead relatives, living in plastic tents and complaining of hunger, a situation repeated in dozens of rural districts in the extensive devastated area. People throughout these areas lack even the basics, while food, medicines, clothes, bedding, even bottled water, are still in customs warehouses spoiling due to inefficiency, centralism and the most cynical politicking.

The government was unable to formulate, much less start implementing, a rehabilitation program for the agricultural economy devastated by the hurricane. And the rehabilitation of roads and bridges—the achievement for which the costly official propaganda most toots its own horn—has already been called into question with the first rainstorms, at the beginning of May. Those rains destroyed stretches of the "reconstructed" Pan-American Highway, and revealed the fragility of the "rehabilitated" rural roads by leaving entire communities of the Segovias, Matagalpa, Jinotega, León and Chinandega isolated. As the director of an aid agency working in the most forgotten districts hit by Mitch confided to envío, "If the rains are as copious as forecasts have warned, the disaster in many poor rural areas will take on the proportions of another tragedy."
The government will be arriving in Stockholm with frailties similar to those of the roads it rehabilitated. It will be presenting not a coherent reconstruction strategy with clear priorities, but a portfolio with a "menu" of some three hundred projects for the next three or four years. Many of these projects are molded by the PLC's dream for the next municipal elections of "converting Nicaragua into a single red stain," as President Alemán described it in one of his recent speeches, referring to his party's solid red flag. It is the same "electoral dream" that explains many of the inconsistencies and discretionalities of the budget approved for 1999. This exclusionary voluntarism, this permanent campaigning, also polarizes and generates violence.


Recent polls by two different survey organizations illustrate the weakness of the two national leaders and the issues that have undermined them. Alemán and Ortega both cavalierly shrugged off the results and for the same reason: they have no reason to worry about popularity polls, because they (supposedly) aren't in an election campaign.

According to the survey done at the end of February by the Institute of Nicaraguan Studies (IEN), 55% of Nicaraguans disapprove of Arnoldo Alemán's handling of government, and 59% feel the same about Daniel Ortega's political role. While 56% think that the Sandinista government did not act according to the law and 61% said it was not honest, the response of those polled to similar questions about the current Liberal government was slightly worse: 59% and 62%, respectively. On related topics, 73.8% reject violence as a method of protest and 68.4% believe that the difference between rich and poor is a factor that can generate violence.

Two very eventful months later, the polling firm CID-Gallup released the results of its 29th study of Nicaraguan public opinion, done on April 20-26, at the height of the disturbances. More than half the sample of 1,248 Nicaraguans considers that President Alemán is either "hardly honest" (25%) or "not at all honest" (27%). Only 20% said they sympathize with the FSLN and another 20% said they sympathize with the governing Liberal party; 55% do not sympathize with any of the parties. A full 80% stated that they totally reject violence as a method of struggle, while 10% said they would be willing to "take up arms" following Daniel Ortega's call. Although the latter is obviously a minority group, it would have the ability to destabilize the country; the majority of those who responded affirmatively are men over 40 from Managua.

Trapped with no way out?

No amount of international aid, however huge, will eradicate the roots of the violence. Nor can one national group eradicate it, no matter how great its desire or how just the program that it defends.

A government that only governs for one group, particularly one dedicated to accumulating wealth, generates violence. An opposition controlled by those who only aspire to "flip the tortilla" of this situation, so they are the ones governing, generates violence. In a society rent by war only ten years ago, a good part of the people have been marked by violence, and an excessive number of them have crossed the forbidden line of having intentionally killed someone. A political culture based on the impunity of the powerful, ensuring that they'll get their way, is violent. A country in which male violence over women and adult violence over children reigns in the home is a sick country and augurs more violence.

There are many reasons for the violence in Nicaragua, perhaps more and better reasons than the wanton violence wracking the United States. And there are many daily tasks for those who have decided to try to halt it. The cycles of violence will only be stopped with sacrifice and personal exemplariness, virtues that are not only absent from neoliberal culture but scoffed at by it. A way out of these cycles can only be found if many, many people take this step.

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