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  Number 277 | Agosto 2004
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Central America

New Grassroots Movements Starting to Emerge

As an extension of the Porto Alegre World Social Forum, a Social Forum of the Americas was held July 25-30, in Quito, Ecuador. Around 150 Central Americans were among the 11,000 participants from over 800 progressive civil society organizations in 55 countries. A number of them discussed their experiences with envío.

William Grigsby

Twenty-five years ago, Central America was a political hotbed, and not just because of the budding Sandinista revolution—the result of a long guerrilla war topped by a massive popular insurrection, with vast sectors of Costa Rican society involved in solidarity actions. Powerful social struggles were also at their peak in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

But almost immediately upon election, the Reagan administration unleashed a fierce counterrevolutionary offensive against Nicaragua. In the three other countries in conflict, US military assistance and a protective imperial policy that allowed human rights’ abuses by their armies in the interests of “national security” almost annihilated the popular movement, murdering hundreds of union, religious, trade association and indigenous leaders, imprisoning thousands and forcing many thousands more, sometimes entire communities, into exile. By the end of the eighties almost all that remained of that combative contingent of men and women of all ages who had headed up Central America’s social struggle was memory. And experience.

During the next decade, following the Sandinista electoral defeat in Nicaragua, the peace accords in El Salvador and Guatemala and the electoral stability achieved in Honduras, grassroots organizations began to rebuild, to test out protests and strikes and learn to defend their rights in the new political circumstances. Today, halfway through the first decade of the 21st century, Central Americans are once again in the thick of struggle, with a new group of leaders, a different way of working and growing autonomy from political parties of all stripes.

Guatemala: An alliance in the Petén

Guatemala has seen the gradual creation of departmental and national networks consisting of hundreds of organizations of all kinds, with noticeable participation by indigenous people. One such network is the Alliance for Peace and Life in the department of El Petén, which spreads over a third of the national territory.

The Alliance is made up of over 40 members, including organizations representing returned peasants, cooperatives and former guerrilla fighters, as well as local networks, NGOs and even Catholic Church offices. We talked to one of its leaders, Jorge Mario Sub, who defines it as “a front in which we seek alternatives to capitalist exploitation. Our main actions have thus been aimed against neoliberalism in its two main expressions in our country: the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States and Plan Puebla-Panama.”

In 18 months the Alliance has become the main expression of the Petén social movement. “Due to the efforts of the 66 communities located along the Usumacinta River, the government has not been able to build the five dams it wants along the river,” explained Sub. The Alliance has headed up important mobilizations, particularly a National Anti-Dams Day on March 14; the annual Día de la Raza held every October 12; and the protests called by the Mesoamerican network against the World Trade Organization on September 9, 2003, in which they joined up with social organizations from Mexico and Belize. According to Sub, “The people who supported the protests used their own resources to get there, out of their own interests in strengthening the fight. At no moment have we filled trucks up with people who don’t know why they’re going. That’s one of the challenges for our organizations: that the people who go be committed and know exactly what they’re doing.”

Although it has only existed for a year and a half, the Alliance has already established what it calls strategic coordination with the networks from two departments immediately to the south. It has developed closer relations in Izabal with local organizations from the port municipality of El Estor, on the banks of Izabal, the country’s largest lake. Several Canadian companies are interested in taking control of both the water and mineral resources such as nickel, gold and silver in that region, and a strong local social movement is fighting to stop them from doing so. In Alta Verapaz, meanwhile, the Alliance has linked up with various organizations that are facing off against a large number of landlords in their struggle for land.

“It’s not about creating a power base to force negotiations with the authorities in El Petén,” explained Sub. “Our strength isn’t aimed at that. We mainly believe in forming the grass roots politically and as citizens. We’re focusing on the creation of a strong grassroots movement with a firm and clear political and ideological conception so that once negotiating arenas do open up, those of us who take part will have such determined backing by the people that we will win them. Negotiating arenas must be opened, but not until we have totally consolidated people with a very clear political vision.”

“Beyond the ethnic question
and separate from the party”

The Guatemalan social movement is in the process of building a political project, although it is still embryonic. In Sub’s words, this is “because there’s still no national alliance-building process. As a social movement, will still face the challenge of achieving a strategic alliance with the different sectors, not just among those of us opposing the free trade agreement, but also those of us working against the privatization of public services and on the structural and ancestral land problem.”

Several organizations in Guatemala represent a convergence of Mayan peoples, which for Sub is the sector that currently has the most favorable conditions for mobilization. “As such an alliance takes shape, progress can be made in a strategy of unity of the Mayan peoples that seeks an alternative centered not only on the indigenous problem. We would have to go beyond ethnic questions to also look at class issues. We have to be inclusive and respect our country’s plurality, which includes a quite poor Ladino sector living alongside the indigenous communities in conditions of exclusion, totally abandoned by the state. I think that a sign of the maturity of the Guatemalan indigenous movement, and the Latin American indigenous movement in general, is that it does not see the indigenous population as the only one that is excluded. It’s obviously one of the most affected, but other sectors, such as the populations of African descent, are affected just as strongly. The greater the strategic coordination among us all, the more hardhitting our response, not just against neoliberal policies, but also in the search for an alternative life for the communities, with a form of development based on the cosmovision of the Mayan, Garífuna and Ladino peoples.”

Sub said that since the 1996 peace accords, “a number of changes have occurred within the social movement, including a separation from the leftwing party to a certain extent. Today nearly all expressions of the Guatemalan social movement have minimal links with any of the political parties. The social movement has sought its own path and its own ways of working and independent movements have emerged that reject any vertical linkage. The grassroots movements no longer accept lines of leadership coming down through the political parties.” At the same time, Sub believes that “there has been a broad, although rather slow, process of collective, horizontal grassroots decision-making.”

He also questions the leftwing parties. “We’ve seen how CAFTA has made significant inroads with minimal resistance from the leftwing political expression. Its anti-neoliberal positions aren’t very consistent.”

Honduras: Capable of checking the government

Honduras’ social movement is the one that has headed up the region’s most important struggles in recent months. Just over a year ago, Honduran environmentalists led by Salvadoran priest Andrés Tamayo staged marches against the anti-forest policies implemented by President Maduro’s government, demanding a stop to the felling of lumber-bearing trees, greater control over the multinational companies exploiting minerals and elimination of the current Mining Law. At the end of June, thousands of people took part in the National March for Life in defense of the environment.

The Grassroots Resistance Coordinator—including indigenous people, peasants, teachers, workers, environmentalists, some municipal governments, producers, small traders and students—is keeping Maduro in check. The Coordinator is fiercely opposed to CAFTA. On May 1, it gave the government a 12-point demand and 60 days to implement it. When the government failed to act, the Coordinator’s days of enormous mobilizations coincided with protests already being staged by teachers, those defending the country’s forests and those protesting the fuel prices (the region’s highest because Honduras doesn’t have its own refinery so must import processed fuels). One of the 12 points was the return of Honduran troops still in Iraq. “And we did it!” said Carlos H. Reyes, the social movement’s main leader, with real pride. “When the government felt it was losing the battle, it suddenly took up the cause of bringing the troops back from Iraq, and finally ordered their return.” Reyes, a veteran unionist, is president of the Union of Drinks Industry and Related Workers (STIBYS) and coordinates the Grassroots Bloc.

In terms of coordination and cohesion, the greatest mobilization during those days was the one by primary school teachers, who challenged the government on the issue of receiving their back pay. At the same time, union leaders held a nine-day hunger strike, demanding reduction of the fuel tax burden, controls on the purchase and sale of fuel and stabilization of the currency and price of basic products. Meanwhile, doctors working as interns or doing social service organized a pay strike. Even a group of mayors from the ruling party protested because the government had not made the required budgetary transfers.

The grassroots pressure forced the minister in charge of the forestry management corporation to resign and debate on the new forestry law came to a grinding halt. Negotiations are also taking place to lower the cost of importing fuel, which has been privatized in Honduras. “This whole mobilization has created a new social and political scenario,” explained Reyes. “The government was taught a great lesson and Maduro was defeated in all areas. If President Maduro and his ministers had any dignity, they would have resigned, but they’re still there because they’re servants of the empire.”

One rogue for another?

Reyes recalled that during the struggles of June and July this year, the government accused them of trying to overthrow it. “For us, getting rid of one President to have another installed isn’t an objective. Why would we want to change one rogue for another, one thief for another, one scoundrel for another, one traitor for another? What we want is a solution to the problems we’re presenting.”
He insisted that the social movement’s aim shouldn’t be to bring the government down. “Sometimes social movements, revolutionary movements—or whatever you want to call them—are divided because they set about sharing a pie they still haven’t got their hands on. Experience shows that the important thing is to create grassroots power from below. That’s the key. You can’t change everything that’s happening just by putting in a President from the social group you belong to. That’s no way to resolve problems.”

He illustrated his position with an anecdote: “I work in a transnational company that bottles Coca Cola, beer, Pepsi Cola, rum and liquor. One day a compañero said to me: ‘Listen, we can’t stand these transnationals anymore. Why don’t you find a way to become manager so we don’t end up finished off by these problems?’ The same thing happens in the social movements. There are those who say, ‘Let’s get our own President in and put an end to these problems.’ But this is a structural problem and only from below can we destroy a structure built up over such a long time.”

“Not with parties or trade unions”

Today’s vigorous Honduran social movement has an historical past and Carlos Reyes experienced the political repression of that past first-hand, spending several months in prison for trying to organize workers. “Up until the end of the seventies we had a very strong and united union and peasant movement,” he explained. “But the eighties were terrible for us. Many of our leaders were killed in the low-intensity war in Central America.”

The second expression came at the end of the eighties with the creation of the Honduran Platform for the Struggle for Democratization. “Unfortunately,” recalls Reyes, “we bit off more than we could chew. It was a time when people still didn’t understand the problem coming down on them. Then came three union federations, which handled the country’s social matters, and did it so badly they left the country terribly immobilized. It wasn’t until the end of the nineties that what is now known as the Grassroots Bloc emerged with a different aim. We first started fighting after we saw how union and peasant leaders allowed the agrarian reform law to be eliminated. The union federation leaders had already prepared a new labor code in cahoots with the businesspeople and the government, and that’s what sparked the reaction. We said, ‘We can’t get behind this.’ The reaction sprang precisely from the rank-and-file of the union organizations and federations themselves, which fell into a crisis. So we started working against the privatizations. The union federations have been increasingly relegated and a whole grassroots movement has emerged that has transformed the Honduran people’s social awareness and already made inroads on their political awareness. It’s a process of resistance to the model itself and everybody’s clear about that.”

Reyes sees the social movement as a political movement. “For us politics doesn’t mean parties getting involved in an electoral process every four years. The social movement is the historical subject of change in Honduras and that process is underway, they can’t stop it. We’re building grassroots popular power. We believe that working from the base we can change what has historically been done to our countries, our people: betrayal by an oligarchic leadership allied with the US empire.

Costa Rica:
The historic fight against “the combo”

In March 2000, Costa Rica experienced what was virtually a grassroots insurrection. Tens of thousands of workers, housewives, students, peasants and even important sectors of the local bourgeoisie took to the streets to defend the state ownership of the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), which also administers the fixed and cellular phone systems.

The internet magazine Semueve summarized the events:“Marches, strikes and blocked highways characterized the culmination of a social phenomenon that went on for three weeks (the last week of March and the first two of April 2000), caused by the “Project to Improve the Energy and Telecommunications Services and State Participation,” known popularly as the “energy combo.” After five years of negotiations, two governments and four days of intense legislative work sessions, the upper echelons of the traditional political parties and the business world believed that the gradual process of opening up the energy and telecommunications markets to private investment was finally going to get underway...

“After two weeks characterized by the closing of roads, the paralyzing of various public services and levels of tension that threatened more violence, the media started to report on a supposed reconciling of positions between the opposing sectors. Pressured by that convulsive panorama, which included a national strike, government leaders, parliamentarians and representatives from the sector opposing the project met on April 4. An agreement emerged from those negotiations in the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to postpone passage of the bill, send it instead to a special mixed commission that would incorporate reforms or even draw up a new text... The commission finished its work in November 2000 and the law responsible for triggering the conflict was shelved. Given the lack of consensus on the issue, the different sectors presented their own reports. The Social Representation presented its final report along with a proposal for an alternative draft law to strengthen the Costa Rican Electricity Institute.”

Four years on, what remains of the social movement that organized the Costa Rican people’s most important struggle since the revolution of José Figueres in 1948? According to Carlos Aguilar of the Ecumenical Research Department (DEI) and member of the Network Against Free Trade and Militarization, known as Grassroots Encounter, “The most important thing to understand is that, at its peak, the struggle was halted by the leaders of the country’s unions, who got behind the government’s objectives, thus pulling the plug on the enormous social movement generated by the struggle of different communities. The young people and rest of the population dismantled their protests when the union leaders reached an agreement with the government to remove the project from the Legislative Assembly if the union movements would call for the demobilization of the country.”

A more balanced leadership

Carlos Aguilar believes that while the people stopped the project from passing through the Legislative Assembly in 2000, “the privatization of telecommunications is still going forward. That particular project no longer exists but others were implemented with the complicity of those union sectors.” Nonetheless, Aguilar claims as a great victory the emergence during that struggle of “of more communal, more regional leaderships... A certain degree of organization is beginning to develop, or is starting to be seen, in places like Limón, Guanacaste and Punta Arenas. Efforts like ours are trying to help these initiatives get back on their feet.”

According to Aguilar, “in the past four years we’ve been involved in reconstruction work. At the moment there are very good elements in the fight against CAFTA, though we still haven’t reached a level of mobilization like the one in defense of communications.” He mentions the work of grassroots organizations and certain unions, “including those that reached agreements with the government in the fight against the combo. Those sectors discovered that the privatization of telecommunications is still going ahead, because it’s a government objective, and now most of them have joined the fight against CAFTA.”

Aguilar feels that the movement’s leadership is now more balanced and that the whole burden no longer rests on the public sector unions, which have considerable strength in Costa Rica: “They are the sector with the greatest mobilizing, although that doesn’t mean that their capacity is so great in itself. The union of the Electricity Institute’s Internal Workers Front linked to telecommunications is the one most able to mobilize people. But the fight against CAFTA has a multisectoral coordinating body called the National Liaison Committee, which includes multisectoral networks, the Unity Front of the teachers’ unions, the ICE’s Internal Workers Front and other nationally important groups. It’s a plural coordination that is now more horizontal.”

As in Guatemala and Honduras, no leftwing parties have any real grassroots support in Costa Rica. The two hegemonic parties—the ruling Social Christians and the opposition Social Democrats—are both on the right. Citizens Action, which emerged in the last presidential elections with a center-right position, is the only party with links to the social movements and its parliamentary bench is the only one opposed to ratifying CAFTA.

“We can stop CAFTA”

Aguilar admits that the most difficult thing at the moment is establishing shared political objectives. “We‘ve managed to agree on one concrete thing: preventing CAFTA from being approved in Costa Rica. And in certain cases, in networks such as ours, we’ve agreed to promote this in the rest of Central America. But beyond that it’s been difficult to hammer out a more political proposal because we’re a convergence of very diverse sectors with equally diverse political and ideological positions, and getting into a debate of that magnitude right now could blow apart our existing unity. Unity in action is something that’s essential for us.”

Aguilar believes that CAFTA can be stopped in Costa Rica: “Without underestimating the power of the government and, above all, of the economic groups here, which are trying to push CAFTA through, the truth is that there are real contradictions and serious political problems related to approval of CAFTA. It’s not a question of making overly optimistic promises or appraisals, but rather that the right conditions exist to put a stop to CAFTA. This is going to depend on what those of us in the social movements and their grassroots base do, and on the stance we succeed in pushing the country’s leadership to take. If the movement doesn’t back off again in the negotiations and if it makes organizational and mobilizing progress, this, added to the different positions in the US Congress, could create a national agitation that would enable us to halt the ratification of CAFTA.”

El Salvador: Lethargy and “two tracks”

The two countries with the greatest tradition of grassroots struggle and with strong leftwing parties, El Salvador and Nicaragua, are today the two with the least developed autonomous social movements. In El Salvador, although it has just lost the general elections, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) is still the country’s second biggest political force and the largest opposition force in the parliament. It has also managed to increase the level of backing for its proposals. But social struggle is only beginning to emerge from a prolonged crisis period after the army and death squads murdered thousands of peasant, worker, teacher and religious and other social leaders. Many felt left with no choice but to join the armed struggle.

The social movement thus fell into a period of lethargy—or aguanacamiento, as Salvadorans put it—after having led historic mobilizations of over half a million people in the late seventies and early eighties, including peasants, workers, slum dwellers, teachers, students, professionals and technicians, who took to the streets to demand their rights and challenge the repression.

Raúl Moreno of the Sinti Techan Network is also president of the Consumer Defense Center, which is part of the Central American Grassroots Bloc. According to Moreno, El Salvador has gone through a two-track process since the peace accords, involving the construction of a constitutional and legal framework that is supposed to create the foundations for a formal democratic state, while at the same time implementing the structural adjustment programs.

“In the first track,” explained Moreno, “the repressive army and military police forces were demobilized and a national civil police force appeared. The Office of Human Rights Ombudsman and the National Judicature Council were also created and it seemed that the foundations had indeed been laid for a democratic state. But at the same time the state was beginning to be reduced on the other track, leading to the deregulation of the economy, unstable employment conditions for Salvadoran families and the conversion of the Salvadoran model into one that expels labor to the United States. The country’s main source of hard currency is now the family remittances sent home by emigrants—over $2 billion a year, or nearly 65% of the value of our exports. Although this track affected important public services responsible for guaranteeing the people’s economic, social and cultural rights, the social movement did react with any demands.”

The “white marches”: A healing experience

The most important social struggle following the 1992 peace accords took place in 2003, when doctors, nurses and workers from the Salvadoran Social Security Institute took to the streets in a seven-month protest to defend people’s right to health. The “white marches”—called that because they were led by medical professionals in their white coats—shook national awareness and forced Francisco Flores’ government to negotiate a political solution to the conflict. “The most notable result of that struggle,” recognized Moreno, “is that it was the beginning of the end of the lethargy, and not just among social security doctors, because they weren’t the only ones promoting the movement. It wouldn’t have been possible to keep it going without their leadership, but women, environmentalists and consumers, as well as workers from other sectors also joined the struggle. It was a salutary event that seems to have marked a hopeful turning point in the recent history of the social movement, giving us confidence that the Salvadoran social movement is alive and kicking.”

Moreno believes that this successful social mobilization in defense of the right to health represents “an awakening that identifies all the new trade and investment projects—CAFTA, FTAA, Plan Puebla-Panama—as serious threats to basic public services, principally education, health care and water. Our assessment is that the Salvadoran social movement is going to coalesce around the legitimate demand of preserving public water provision and defending the concept of water as a public asset.”

The FMLN forces supported the medical profession’s struggle, but didn’t lead it. That wasn’t precisely of their own volition; it was rather the wish of the medical leaders, who knew how to defend their autonomy. “We very jealously guard the social movement’s independence,” assured Moreno. “The FMLN obliquely participated in the struggle against the privatization of social security and health, without proposing work or action guidelines. Moreover, when the FMLN asked to be included in the process it was told, ‘Welcome, but you’re going at the rear; the social movement’s going to set the standards.’ We believe that autonomy is what guarantees the social movement, and the social organizations are the lead actors in this process.”
Moreno believes they are building a political project during this stage. “Our reaction to the neoliberal model,” he explained, “is to build alternatives from below, from society. And that implies asserting some basic principles: democratic participation and people’s full involvement in those processes; an effort to reduce inequalities based on age, gender or social class; the concrete sustainability of national projects; and, above all, defining and affirming our own development strategies. One issue currently being discussed in the social movement is the identification of the political subject—both male and female—in this process of building alternatives.”

Nicaragua:
An incipient and weak social movement

Paradoxically, given all its history of struggle and the fact that it has gone through a revolution, an autonomous social movement is only just beginning to emerge in Nicaragua. Without mentioning the revolutionary struggles of the seventies and eighties, the intense struggles staged by Nicaraguan workers in the early 1990s in defense of the revolution’s achievements, which almost brought down the government of Violeta Chamorro, have been left behind and sometimes even erased from memory. The once powerful Sandinista Workers’ Federation (CST) is now split and no longer represents the country’s main union organizations.

The force with the greatest capacity for mobilization, albeit very limited, is the National Workers’ Front (FNT), which groups together the health union federations, teachers, public employees, agricultural workers, university workers and a piece of the CST. In fact, the main social struggles of recent years have been led by the FNT-affiliated teachers’ and health workers’ union federations, which are hegemonic in their respective sectors. The FNT’s coordinator is FSLN parliamentary representative Gustavo Porras, who is also a member of the Sandinista National Council, which is the party’s main executive body. Porras, a practicing doctor, has repeatedly tried to organize the FNT territorially, but despite his weight as a party leader he has not succeeded, among other reasons because he hasn’t been backed by the FSLN structures.

Beyond this quasi-party structure, Nicaragua’s autonomous social movement is incipient and very weak. The most visible structure—due to the coverage it receives in the media—is the National Consumer Defense Network, whose main leaders are former Sandinista militants Ruth Herrera and Jeannette Chávez, who distanced themselves from the FSLN after its political leadership veered it off to the right. In a recent interview with the BBC, Herrera argued that “the parties have shown themselves incapable of exercising any real influence on the problems facing citizens, whether in power or not. The party agenda is tainted by the interest of maintaining areas of power.

Many citizens feel that the parties have backed off from their commitments and from the need to seek alternative solutions, so they easily cave in to pressure from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and have no conception of where they want to take the country, complaisantly allowing themselves be swept along. They have no economic or social focus and no serious proposal about natural resource management, for example. In such conditions, remaining within the parties amounts to continuing to legitimize that utilitarian way of doing politics, using public arenas just to keep reproducing their own group interests. The social movements are banking on somehow getting back to discussing the issues that most concern large sectors of the population. It’s a question of creating mechanisms to pressure the government and parties, of becoming a pressure group that forces them to debate issues that don’t seem to interest them. We think the multiplier effect of this work on people’s awareness is quicker than working with the parties.”

A growing number of activists and leaders of neighborhoods, rural and urban unions, consumers and women have separately been trying to mobilize people for years now. But a couple of years ago, encouraged by certain NGOs and former Sandinista leaders, they started looking to establish an instrument to foster coordination and consensus. They have taken up social causes (the struggle to prevent the privatization of drinking water or stop the abuses committed by the transnational companies running the electricity and fixed and cell phone systems), political causes (resistance to the FSLN-PLC pact, opposition to the war against Iraq, solidarity with the peoples of Cuba, Venezuela and Palestine) and economic causes (opposition to the Free Trade Agreement between the Central American small fry and the US whale). But they have had scant success: all agree that most people don’t want to mobilize; they are disenchanted with politics and tired of fighting.

“It’s hard to cut the umbilical cord”

Participation in the coordination of the social movement has so far included groups working on community development, the Rural Workers Association (ATC) and some local organizations from certain municipalities, such as the association from El Arenal in Masatepe, the peasants challenging the Bocana de Paiwas dam project or the neighborhood associations opposing the installation of cell phone antennae in urban locations. Among those promoting the social movement are many Sandinistas excluded from the FSLN due to their political positions or who don’t feel represented by the current leaders. One such person is William Rodríguez, who is about to graduate in business administration and is now working in an NGO called the Center for International Studies. His main function is to help strengthen the social movement. “It’s lamentable,” he says, “given Nicaragua’s history of struggle, that with each passing day the FSLN is allowing the decapitalization, the mortgaging and handing over of the country to the transnationals. That’s sad. We should compare ourselves to Costa Rica, where there’s consensus on vital issues such as defense of the public nature of social security, electricity, water and the telephone system. There’s still no consensus on that in Nicaragua because we’re used to mobilizing according to the party line. If there’s no party line then people don’t mobilize. Breaking that umbilical cord is proving very hard.”

Rodríguez severely questions the official FSLN line, which is cut off from the social struggles: “The party’s political position is totally removed from the social and economic interests of Nicaraguans. In practice, it has been supporting International Monetary Fund policies and promoting privatization. It has supported the rightwing governments.”

He feels that the emerging social movement is building its own national agenda, and highlighting as a central element the consensus to fight the intended privatization of drinking water sources and distribution companies. He believes that this fight will mobilize people and that opposition to CAFTA is beginning to be felt as well. “There are certain efforts,” he explained, “certain small organizations that are trying to get together. It was hard for us to reach any consensus at the beginning, because each one is working in line with our own profile, the contents of our particular organization, and we haven’t achieved any joint mobilization. Where we’ve achieved greater consensus and mobilization is in opposition to the war against Iraq—because it was an issue linked to the sending of Nicaraguan troops—and in opposition to CAFTA. These are the only two issues we’ve united on.” Rodríguez quotes the experience of León, Nicaragua’s second city, where demonstrations against the war in Iraq led to the establishment of the León for Peace social committee in which organizations as diverse as the Rural Women’s Committee and the Subtiava indigenous community are participating.

“We have to get people out of this atomization”

Cecilia Cruz was until recently a main FSLN leader in one of Managua’s five districts. But she got fed up with the leaders’ authoritarian top-down style and decided to work independently organizing poor neighborhoods in the area where she lives. While doing so, she came across the Popol Na Foundation, through which she is now working to encourage coordination among the many small organizations throughout Nicaragua, each of which is working according to its own particular reality and without any coordinating even on the ground.

Cruz believes that “social mobilization is difficult in Nicaragua. Despite everything we’re going through, all the negative effects that CAFTA will bring, the privatization of electricity and the price hikes, there’s no organized expression of protest. It often exists on an individual level, but it isn’t organized at all on the neighborhood, municipal or departmental levels. The idea of such coordination is to shake off that atomization and channel people towards concrete struggles.”

Cruz believes that the example of the Jorge Dimitrov neighborhood in Managua, whose residents stopped the installation of a cellular phone antenna out of justifiable fear of its negative health effects, needs to be multiplied. “The community just rose up and didn’t allow it,” she recalled. “There are isolated expressions like this, but there’s still a lack of organization. What we have to do as a movement, and we’ve been discussing this, is to strengthen our organization and define a strategy.”

William Rodríguez believes that the main reason for the apathy of Nicaraguan citizens is a lack of grassroots work. “It isn’t that people don’t want to mobilize. When we have gone into the neighborhoods with a particular issue, the people have mobilized. And there are some very clear experiences of this. What happens is that people want to mobilize, but they’re afraid of being politically manipulated, because they’ve often been deceived in the past. We’ve had some very sad experiences and people don’t want to expose themselves any further to being exploited and used.”

Cruz agrees, but adds that people who are identified with a political tendency—half of the national population is either Sandinista or Liberal—“are afraid either of being used or of not responding to their party specific line. They have too much respect for their party’s structure, be it the FSLN or the PLC, and thus refrain from participating in the social movement, even when they realize that their party isn’t leading any struggle to defend them.”

“People don’t want to know
anything about politics”

At 55 years old, Gladys Manzanares is a veteran of Nicaraguan union struggles. Two years ago, she lost her job in one of the many maquilas for the crime of trying to organize a union. She is still supporting the struggles of her compañeras in the Managua free trade zones and has now become an activist in the social movement. “People are disillusioned,” she said. “They don’t want any more demagogic discourse. They feel let down, particularly the young people. They don’t want to know anything about politics, and they think that everything is politics, that everything people want to do for them is politically motivated. I think that we leaders are somewhat at fault, because we haven’t yet found a different way of reaching the grassroots, being in touch with them and making them see the real problems that are evolving, but in a new way.”

Manzanares believes that one way to buttress social organization is to bring maquila workers into the neighborhood organizations. “What we want is for communities to get involved in the social movement,” she explained, “so that when something has to be done, it’s not just the members of organizations who go along, but the population in general.”
Going deeper into this vision, she says, “The emerging social movement needs to explain clearly that it’s there for all Nicaraguans, regardless of their political colors, ideology or religion. If 60% of our population is unemployed, why not hold a great protest in which those unemployed people demand work from this submissive puppet government, from the United States? What we have to do is to open ourselves up and give this social movement a new identity.”

“The politicians plant people to control us”

Rodríguez believes that the political parties are afraid of the autonomous social movement, and when they sense that a certain sector has a cause to fight for, they try to co-opt it, as has happened with the student movement and their fight for 6% of the national budget or with the peasants and their marches demanding government solutions to their land, employment and hunger problems.

“As our agenda contains eminently social issues,” he argued, “we have to separate ourselves from party matters, because people don’t believe in party politics very much. The politicians want to interfere in our affairs in order to control us. They are even planting people in our organizations who really generate internal problems to try to stop us strengthening on the social level. Instead of strengthening the social movements, the parties are further fragmenting them. The Nicaraguan political system forces you to negotiate with political institutions, which is why many social struggles end up co-opted due to the influence of the two main parties. They don’t resolve people’s problems; they just co-opt them. Their way to resolve struggles is by negotiating privileges, and such actions only weaken and discredit the social movement. Politics is discredited in Nicaragua. And when the parties then discredit the social movement, it loses support and consensus.”

“The day will come when we change things”

Cruz agrees that party actions damage the social movement. “Personally I’m a Sandinista and always will be, but I understand that I’m also a Nicaraguan and a resident of a neighborhood. And there in my neighborhood I have concrete problems that we have to face as a social movement. We’ve never seen anyone from the party involved in our social struggles, whether from the grassroots level, the leadership level, or any other level for that matter! We Sandinistas should join the struggle as residents. There should be people with different ideologies in the social movement; that won’t do it any harm. What affect it are atomizing and castrating decisions from the top leadership.”

“I also think,” said Cruz with hope for the future, “that this very reality, in which the parties are indifferent to social issues, provides guidelines for the emergence of an autonomous social expression in Nicaragua. Victory is achieved through people’s struggle. We’re not about trying to change the political system, because you take power through parties. But the social movement goes further, and with a defined ideology. At the same time, what’s happening now is undeniably a legacy of the social movement that brought down the Somoza dictatorship. The revolution was also a great social mobilization, as was the national literacy campaign and the defense of our sovereignty. And in that history lays the seed of the social movement. It’s true that we’re few, but we have hope and confidence in the people, who have that seed buried inside them. By learning from everything that’s happening and continuously improving our organization, the day will come when we can change things.”

William Grigsby Vado is a Nicaraguan journalist.

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