The Social Tidal Wave
The international media seldom consider third world countries newsworthy, and then usually only if the item is a disaster, natural or otherwise, as occurred in Nicaragua on September 1.
Just after 8 pm that evening, an offshore shift of continental plates, registering 7.1 on the Richter scale, sent a pair of giant tidal waves crashing to shore unannounced, along the entire length of the country's Pacific coast. The waves ripped the first ranks of both flimsy and well-rooted houses, seaside restaurants, hotels and trees from their foundations and swept their rubble inland in a violently tumbling mass together with people and animals fighting for their lives. Over a hundred people, most of them young children, did not win that fight.
Of all countries with a Pacific coast, why Nicaragua, a country that has already suffered enough earthquakes, wars, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions to traumatize two generations? "The only thing left is for it to rain shit on us," exclaimed one citizen, causing another, with typical Nicaraguan humor, to warn that this, too, could happen if another quake ever brings the waters of Lake Managua down over the capital.
But Nicaragua made other international headlines in September as well. The international media also dedicated space to the political tidal wave that crashed down on Nicaragua due to eruptions in Washington, sweeping Sandinista national chief of police René Vivas out of office. He was replaced by Fernando Caldera, formerly the police chief in Region IV, pleasing neither Nicaragua's extreme right nor its popular sectors. The right finds Caldera unacceptable simply because he, too, is a Sandinista, while the popular sectors challenge his human rights record. Soap-factory workers in Granada, in particular, will not forget the billy clubs he ordered his riot police to use on them some months ago. Police violence on that occasion was so excessive it elicited a public protest from FSLN secretary general Daniel Ortega—which was probably chalked up to Caldera's credit at the US Embassy. As required by Washington, a civilian deputy security minister in the Ministry of Government will supervised Caldera (whose title is now director general instead of national chief of police). Ronald Aviles, named to fill this new position, was once arrested by Caldera on charges of being a contra collaborator.
Another item that caught international media attention was the crisis in Nicaragua's legislative branch. The National Assembly was put on legal hold when an appellate court upheld a claim filed by the Sandinista bench and UNO centrists against Assembly president Alfredo César for holding a plenary session on September 2 without the quorum stipulated by Assembly statutes.
The Sandinistas and UNO centrists had walked out of the Assembly some days earlier to protest César's maneuvers to fill a vacancy on the executive board with his own supporter without an election as the statute requires. At the end of the month, the Supreme Court backed the appellate court ruling that the Assembly must nullify all actions taken in the September 2 session.
César, declaring that the court has no business intervening in internal affairs of other government branches, refused to do so, causing those who had walked out to stay away. César finally pulled together a quorum by calling in alternates of striking UNO benchers and even pulling one legislator out of his hospital bed.
With no opposition, César's allies reformed the Assembly statutes, allowing political parties to name alternate-alternates to the legislative body if necessary, and permitting new board members to be elected with only a majority of those voting, not of the total Assembly membership as now required. The Sandinista position is that no bill passed in these sessions has legal force since they are being held in violation of the court ruling. By virtually declaring himself a sovereign power, César has thrown the Chamorro government into the greatest institutional crisis since it took office, which many Nicaraguan analysts—but too few US ones—believe to be exactly what he aims to do.
Last but not least, military operations in Nicaragua were again in the news. To break up the regrouping of former contras and outright bandit gangs, the army launched one of its biggest sweeps to date, mainly in the northern rural zones of Matagalpa and Jinotega, and in Region V, in the center of the country.
Except for the natural disaster, all these news items are directly or indirectly linked to Washington's refusal to release the FY-92 aid funds approved by Congress. The Chamorro government seems to have lost favor with its main financial backer, and, as everyone in Nicaragua knows from recent and old history, a government not blessed by Washington is a government with a short lifeline. As a result, the struggle for power among the factions of the right moved into high gear, leaving the FSLN still trying to decide whether to join the competition or wash its hands of such banal politicking.
All sacrifice, no rewardWhile all the political maneuvering caught the eye not only of the media, but also of diplomatic circles and independent observers, something perhaps far more decisive for Nicaragua is taking place virtually without comment—other than by those directly affected. Despite the cooled relations between the Chamorro government and the Bush administration, and despite the institutional crisis among Nicaragua's government branches, the authoritarian neoliberal project is rolling along at an alarming clip. With each passing day, the social temperature rises because of the economic plan the government has imposed on the Nicaraguan people.
In reality, neither a release of US aid, nor a reestablishment of political-bureaucratic procedures, nor an understanding between César and Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo—should any of these come to pass—offer a hope of relief for the sectors that literally do not know if they will eat from day to day. The government's major concern about the aid freeze has nothing to do with social projects, or what is morally and politically owed the people, because none of that was ever the objective of US aid.
Those in power in Nicaragua are panicked mainly about the debt payments the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank require at the end of September if Nicaragua wants an "A" in fiscal-financial conduct.
The government could get a technical "A," but in social conduct it is a flunk-out. According to United Nations data, 53% of the economically active population is under- or unemployed; 70% of all Nicaraguans have trouble satisfying their most basic needs; infant mortality is 71.8 per 1,000 live births; social security only covers 18% of the employed population; rural illiteracy is an estimated 40%; 3 out of 4 Nicaraguans do not have access to sewage services or even latrines; 62.5% have inadequate housing and no consistent access to potable water; 12.5% live in dangerously overcrowded conditions; and 70% have a calorie intake below the minimum considered necessary for normal development.
Given all this, it should have come as no great surprise that, in the days after the tidal wave, the lines at the trucks bringing relief assistance had no end. People from neighboring towns and rural areas well beyond the affected zones queued up in search of any product they could eat, wear or sell. La Prensa disparagingly called these people "false victims," but that is wrong. They may not be victims of the tidal wave of seawater, but they are unquestionably victims of the economic tidal wave drowning Nicaragua's poor.
To make matters worse, the government cannot even proclaim a victory for all this sacrifice. The promised economic "takeoff" and national and foreign private investment are not materializing; the banks still implacably deny both credit and hope to small producers; and there are reports that Nicaraguan savers are again sending their money abroad.
Hunger strikesThe amazing and hopeful thing is that so many people continue to put up a fight, using every means within their reach. During September, three groups turned to hunger strikes: war disabled and mothers of fallen soldiers demanding increases in the Social Security Institute's pitiful pensions, which in some cases do not even add up to $9 per month; bank and telecommunications workers threatened with massive layoffs; and former army personnel determined to force the government to act on its commitments as part of the plan to reduce the army. Two pregnant women were among the hunger-striking bank workers in the Nicaraguan Investment Fund. Their physical condition and that of several of the war-disabled deteriorated seriously as both strikes wore on into their third week.
Those newly discharged from the army stuck to their fast for 26 days before forcing the government—in this case the Ministry of Government—to send a negotiating commission to hear them out.
Their demand was very simple, in appearance: compliance with the agreement to give them a tract of lots in Managua to build homes on. But the government's failure to act had complicated the issue, because the capital's anti-Sandinista mayor, Arnoldo Alemán, then promised the same tract to former contras, and made sure they got it. That made the former soldiers feel ridiculed as well as deceived. To drive their point home, several of the hunger strikers moved from the floor of the Red Cross to the sidewalk in front of the ministry, where they demanded justice while being administered IVs to control major renal complications.
"We are aware of what social wood this government is made," said a Barricada editorial, "but the fact that there are people at the top levels of power who cannot even act in a manner coherent with their own democratic and Christian discourse causes horror and repulsion."
The limits of conciliationThroughout most of the Chamorro government's first two years, its official actions tended to coincide with its discourse of tolerating the right of all citizens and groups to free expression and public dissent. The government proclaimed that this differentiated it from its Sandinista predecessor.
But that tolerance vanishes rapidly when the government has to deal with the contradiction between neoliberalism's civil discourse and its institutionalized economic repression. Neoliberal social policy—or lack of one—aggravates the already impoverished conditions of the unemployed majority.
Those at the bottom are demanding relief and the government is promising it, but after more than two years, patience is wearing extremely thin and the circle is closing. The alternative of repression and a rightward shift, demanded by the extreme right, the United States and the logic of the neoliberal program itself, looks ever more appealing to the government.
Debut of the new police Pressured by the US economic blackmail, the weakened Chamorro government seems to be shifting even more quickly to the right. It needs to show that it has the national situation under control and can guarantee "order." In the end, the government appears to have accepted US Secretary of State James Baker's unsparing logic enunciated during his January visit: Nicaragua needs investment; investment needs security; and to guarantee security for capital, the government must repress the social subjects whose protests put US tolerance and the possibility of investments in danger.
The government's discourse is now barely distinguishable from that of the extreme right. Humberto Belli, Nicaragua's moralistic education minister, welcomed this new emphasis, arguing that reconciliation cannot mean "simple accommodation with a rival incapable of renouncing immoral procedures...which would mean indefinite tolerance for crime and the most crass disrespect for authority."
The government's political requirements, however, are not limited to discourse. On September 14, the government ordered police riot squads to forcefully disperse students and war disabled who were protesting peacefully during the formal Independence celebrations. Evidently, the spectacle of demonstrators waving banners announcing the demands of the Federation of Secondary Students and the Organization of Disabled Revolutionaries during the parade of Managua's high school marching bands was too much.
The government seems to have prepared for the conflict. It had stationed anti-riot units at the door to the National Stadium, where the celebrations were being held, from the very beginning.
To some observers, it appeared to be another call to Washington to free up the aid, this time demonstrating publicly that the police can indeed get the better of noisy Sandinista groupings.
According to the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), "The order given by the President and her later declarations, in which she herself took responsibility, are evidence of an imminent institutionalization of violence as a measure to silence the demands of social sectors."
Several students and war disabled were hurt in the confrontation. But to President Chamorro, one disabled vet, photographed by the media as he was being hurt, had received nothing more than a "stupid little injury" while he and others like him were bothering people. In her opinion, they got what they deserved, because "they also prevented the diplomatic corps from seeing the nice parade that the boys and girls were making." For Minister Belli, all this simply reflects the nation's "spiritual and moral" crisis. Meanwhile the new police head offered his apologies, promising that he would meet with the diverse sectors to learn about their problems. His best defense, however, was that he was only following orders.
The methods used to repress the protest are reprehensible, but they helped reveal neoliberalism's true nature. The demonstrators were not pushed by a moral crisis but by crude economic reality. The students were protesting the fees charged in the public high schools—which are seen as unconstitutional—and the privatization of some schools, while the disabled vets were supporting the demand of their hunger-striking comrades to demand a pension increase that would give them a whopping $80 a month for themselves and their families.
The vast majority of students are unemployed or are children of unemployed parents, but the education minister is even insisting on eliminating the free student bus tokens inherited from the Sandinista government. He also announced that he would continue providing "bonds" to be sold to parents to subsidize teachers' measly salaries rather than give them a raise. Belli also repeated his argument that neither the universities nor the high schools should edge primary schools out of their privileged position. Despite its lofty-sounding sentiment, this thesis aims to keep the children of the popular sectors from getting beyond a free primary education, since their parents cannot afford anything more. They are thus locked into remaining as a cheap labor force for the rest of their lives. In the words of one teachers' union leader: "Primary for the poor, university for the rich; the poor remain peons and the rich the bosses."
The right wants moreOnly a few days after the stadium incident, the Nicaraguan Embassy in Washington sent a dispatch to US Congresspeople: "New head of National Police confronts Sandinista Activists and War Disabled," emphasizing that the President confirmed being the one to give the order for repression. The Chamorro government thus demonstrated that, if the price of US aid is police and political persecution of the Sandinistas, it is willing to pay. According to CENIDH director Vilma Núñez, Nicaraguans can only expect new repressive actions from the government, such that one will no longer be able to speak of isolated human rights violations.
Despite this new show of force, however, the Nicaraguan right, with backing from the US right, began to demand still more changes in the police and, with renewed insistence, the removal of army chief General Humberto Ortega. At the end of August, the Republican staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a 153-page report, written by Sen. Jesse Helms' top staffer, Deborah DeMoss, compiling all the Nicaraguan right's charges and suspicions. The State Department officially made known that it shared the report's conclusions and would send a special mission to Nicaragua to reiterate its concerns.
Alfredo César, returning from one of his mysterious lightning visits to Washington, during which he spoke with his "colleagues" in the Senate, announced in Managua that the 1993 aid to Nicaragua would also be frozen and that US legislators were dissatisfied with the changes in the National Police. The New York Times reported that the Bush administration was even considering the possibility of blocking the release of multilateral lending agency funds to Nicaragua. However, no amendments conditioning aid were actually written into the FY-93 legislation, which was passed without incidence in September.
To add fuel to the political fire, César and Vice President Virgilio Godoy stoked Region V's mayors—the same ones who took over the highway to Rama in October 1990—to demand President Chamorro's resignation, and, of course, her replacement by Godoy.
Some observers link the former contras who took up arms again in those same days to this campaign. The government was forced to create a tripartite commission with participation by the government, Cardinal Obando's verification commission and CIAV, the Organization of American States' commission in charge of overseeing contra disarmament and reintegration into society.
This new commission, presided over by Cardinal Obando himself, would "analyze the situation of violence" in the countryside. With this decision, the position of the anti-Sandinista zealots improved considerably.
FSLN dilemma now clearerDespite all this, some Sandinistas continue to give the government's "good intentions" the benefit of the doubt, attributing all the country's ills to pressures from the United States and Nicaragua's ultra-right. These Sandinista centrists appear to believe that an alliance with the government is the best way to "win over" the United States.
Given the open battle of the United States and César to reduce the Sandinistas' quota of power, the government has responded by shifting in that same direction. This is creating a dilemma for Sandinismo about whether or not to enter into the fray over a redistribution of power by allying more openly and closely with the government.
Some Sandinista sectors, however, already feel that the FSLN is too absorbed in the problem of relations with the government and in the parliamentary maneuvers of the ultra-right opposition, and that it is naive to hope that the government can hold firm against domestic and US pressures. They believe that the issue is to assure the fundamental changes put in place during the Sandinista government, and that, to this end, the mobilizing influence of the National Workers Federation (FNT) is greater than the parliamentary negotiating of the Sandinista legislators.
In the final analysis, neither parliamentary negotiations nor maneuvering nor calls by the FSLN to respect the civil route and seek consensus for a common front against the vengeance-seeking right have had any affect on the government's economic conduct, or, more recently, on its repressive behavior. The FSLN could do little to keep the government from making concession after concession to Washington, openly violating all the formal and informal understandings that had been established between the FSLN and the government. The latter has provided neither stability, nor sovereignty, nor economic survival. In these conditions, should the FSLN as a party continue lending itself to prop up a government and a stability framework that has increasingly destabilizing consequences?
Like the FMLN in El Salvador, the FSLN, as a legal party that respects the Constitution, has acquired a commitment to the institutional political framework of which it is a part. But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, as in the rest of Latin America, the rules of the institutional game do not favor the popular sectors and the political organizations that represent them when it comes to implementing structural adjustment programs.
This leaves the FSLN two options, as became very clear in September. One is to abandon its representation of the interests of the disfavored and opt for the neoliberal program, yielding to the defense of political stability and the protection of "national" interests, assuming its full responsibility as a legal party and joining political society as a member in good standing, dropping any pretensions of leading the social movements. The other is to opt for a clearer identification with the diverse popular organizations in struggle, responding firmly to the multiple calls to support their mobilizations, even at the price of sacrificing the interests of the legal party, which publicly proclaims the idea of pulling together all those who offer it their vote. The second option, in other words, would mean assuming the position of a "movement," leaving aside strict adherence to the rules of the game that should govern "civilized" party relations with the government and other parties.
It is evident that the best thing for the government is an FSLN with a foot in each camp. That allows the government to require legal "responsibility" of it but also to expect it to coopt the rebellious popular sectors. One problem with this scheme is that the FSLN's ability to neutralize the unions and social movements is eroding since it is costly to stop their protests in favor of a dubious stability. Some base leaders are already wondering what side the FSLN is on, and if it is not more committed to the government's stability and to political society than to the needs of society as a whole.
The lack of consensus within the FSLN cannot be hidden. In declarations to the media in September, Daniel Ortega made it understood that the FSLN should not become a retaining wall and that it is not the FSLN's problem if the government falls. According to Ortega, it is not his party's task to rescue the government if it does not fulfill its commitments to the International Monetary Fund, if it accepts all of Washington's impositions, and if it continues to implement economic policies that generate popular protest.
For Ortega, the FSLN cannot continue being blackmailed by the extreme right, now clearly joined by the US government. In this situation, Sandinismo has to stick by its historic social base instead of trying to stay on the good side of all social sectors. Previously, the extreme right's offensives led the FSLN to make concessions in favor of stability, accepting all the violations of the concertación accords. Sandinismo found it particularly repugnant to witness the government's tolerance of the efforts of returning Somocistas to carve out new political and economic spaces and to advocate the imposition of their old police methods. If the government falls due to pressure from the right, which continues demanding President Chamorro's resignation, or at least that of her presidential minister and son-in-law Antonio Lacayo, or if it falls due to pressure from the popular organizations, which continue demanding modifications in the economic programs, the government will be more affected than the popular sectors, whose crisis cannot get much worse than it already is, at least not economically. From the popular perspective, the FSLN's declared identification with the hungry is less subversive than its tolerance of Alfredo César's openly illegal institutional machinations, or of a government that promotes frankly inhuman economic policies and is frequently tripped up by revelations of generalized corruption.
The Sandinista "right" goes on the offensiveIf Washington's offensive has moved the government to the right, it has also made it easier for Sandinismo's right wing to push its case. "Sandinismo's worst enemy," warned Ortega in recent days, "is neither the Yankees, nor Alemán, nor Virgilio, nor César, but the opportunism that could be arising in our own ranks, the move to the right, the proposal to turn the FSLN into a party of the rich." The Sandinista "right" has launched an offensive against the line defended by Daniel Ortega and the most combative sectors of the party and popular organizations. The spearhead of this offensive is made up of a number of parliamentarians who, unlike the older group of centrist Sandinistas ("Sandinistas for a national project"), had never before joined in public demands that Sandinista leaders, Ortega in particular, abandon their "radical" rhetoric, their defense of the union sector and its methods of struggle, which, at times, end in violence. Both currents of "non-radical" Sandinistas are making their proposals increasingly public. Among them are those most known for their business skills and those who defend the idea of seeking national consensus—in other words, an understanding with the government.
Although the one trade unionist on the Sandinista bench readily admits that the National Assembly has not protected people's economic rights, a majority of Sandinista parliamentarians have thought that, with César's days counted as Assembly president, a real co-government could become effective in the next period with an FSLN-UNO "center" majority. Politically speaking, this vision requires protecting the government's stability at all cost, with the faith that, once César is gone, things will get better. In party terms, a change in the composition of the National Directorate is necessary to buttress this position within the organization's leadership. Thus this group's campaign has taken the form of promoting an extraordinary FSLN Congress to elect new leadership. In doing so, it is taking advantage of the general unhappiness with the way the National Directorate was elected during the First Congress (by slate rather than by individual candidate).
All currents agree that this cannot be repeated and that some members of the Directorate must go (although very few include Daniel Ortega in that category). In essence, though, the issue is not now one of personalities, but of positions; not of who goes off the Directorate, but of who goes on, and of what the real correlation of forces is in the FSLN. The latter is not easy to discern, considering that a good number of Sandinista intellectuals are considered to be among the "centrists," with disproportionate weight in Sandinista media, and even with access to the rightwing newspaper La Prensa.
Numerically, however, they are still a minority among the FSLN membership, particularly if the sentiment of the regions, where "radicalism" reigns among grassroots Sandinistas, is counted. This contradiction between the spirit of accommodation and the confrontational positions within the FSLN is not new; it comes through easily in the discrepancies in the leadership's own discourses and in their shifting political tones. At moments of crisis and social confrontation it hardens, then later softens as the cycle begins again. Within this context, measuring the forces again through a Congress is attractive to all sectors of Sandinismo, in the hope that new definitions will emerge. National Directorate member Victor Tirado, an open advocate of reconciliation with the FSLN's old antagonists in the country and with the United States, argues that those who support this position cannot be "discounted," since "what they want is order and stability in Nicaragua so as to be able to help, to cooperate." A recent National Directorate pronouncement did not discard the calling of a new Congress, but put it off. The problem is not whether the FSLN should or should not be multi-class—it is and always has been—but is rather which class should receive its fundamental attention. It is natural that, given the collapse of Eastern Europe, the FSLN's electoral loss, the accumulation of personal and collective erosion, not to mention the multi-class nature of the party itself, not all Sandinistas believe in class struggle, or have stopped thinking in terms of exploited and exploiters to focus on the search for electoral majorities and consensus with the government and so-called centrist groups.
Distinctions without a difference Nicaragua and Sandinismo, as seen through the prism of the National Assembly, are perhaps not the true nation or party. The distribution of Assembly board seats among the party benches, or César's arbitrariness regarding legal procedures, are simply not life or death issues for most Sandinistas and the poor in the country, even though they may appear to be to the professional politicians. How much fondness can there be for the Chamorro government's stability? How important is the commitment that the President carry out her term to 1996 among the majorities who are battling family and emotional instability, more worried about surviving the coming week or month than about the survival of an economically, and now politically, cruel government? Meanwhile, armed actions by the recontras are coinciding with the increased volume of the declarations by César, Godoy and Alemán.
César went so far as to publicly announce that a "political tidal wave" is building in Nicaragua that could generate "gigantic waves that will entomb the black Sandinista past forever." From the vantage point of the impoverished popular forces, the distinction between the economic tidal wave that has already swept them under and a forecasted political tidal wave is elusive. Despite the right's anti-government discourse, the popular sectors correctly suspect that there is not a lot of difference between the extreme right in the opposition and the right in the government when it comes to economic issues. The leaders of COSEP, who are extremely critical of the government, admit this, calling the government's "stabilization" policy a "success."
The dividing line between the government and its old UNO electoral coalition is even more diffuse now that the government is turning to force and washing its hands of its commitments to the worker organizations. Union after union claimed that the government was dragging its feet in negotiating privatization to the workers, economically smothering the businesses to make privatization to the large economic interests easier. A good example is what it did with the public bus enterprise and the supermarkets. On the other hand, the discourse of Godoy and César, which attributes co-responsibility to the FSLN for everything the government does, cannot be discounted. For many Sandinistas, including the union forces, defending the government does not guarantee any benefits that justify the cost of this policy.
The Sandinista losses due to grassroots frustration with unfulfilled government commitments, evasions and duplicities are too high. There will thus be a new round of mobilizing struggles by the popular movement and palpable moves to the right by the government, which will lead many Sandinistas in the National Assembly, the army and in business to conclude that their true political base is in Sandinismo and not elsewhere. But this battle will not take place in the top levels of Sandinismo, nor in its old nomenclature; the social movements related to Sandinismo are the ones called upon to demand new combativeness to defend revolutionary and radical positions, because the right's offensive and the model it is trying to impose are also radical.