Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 104 | Marzo 1990



Grassroots Power: Defending the Revolution

Envío team

Two days after the elections, Daniel Ortega told supporters that, though the FSLN would no longer hold the reins of government, his party would go on “governing from below.” The message cheered grassroots Sandinista activists who feared that everything they had fought for might be lost. As Ortega made clear, it will take more than an election to overturn a revolution that has taken so many years and so much sacrifice to build. The FSLN will have a strong and unified presence in the National Assembly and, more importantly, Sandinista mass organizations are rooted in nearly every sector of society. Peasants, women, professionals, neighborhood residents, factory and agriculture, health and education workers are already gearing up to defend the revolution’s achievements.

For industrial workers organized in the Sandinista Workers' Federation (CST) and agricultural workers in the Farm Workers' Association (ATC), the major issue is UNO's plan to sell or return state farms and industries to private owners. “We are thousands of agricultural workers who have defended the land in state farms. Today we feel threatened by the people in COSEP [the rightwing big business association] and we're not going to allow them to privatize and take away our hard-won gains,” said José Jacinto Carazo, union leader at a state farm complex in Jalapa.

Union spokespeople fear UNO’s policy could mean layoffs and loss of benefits won in collective bargaining such as subsidized meals and transportation, health benefits, retirement pensions, and in the countryside, access to housing and land for family gardens. Workers at state enterprises enjoy a right to participate in management decisions largely denied to them in the private sector. They have won access to company accounts and play a role in deciding how profits are spent. According to ATC Secretary General Edgardo García, the organization has successfully demanded that 30% of state farm profits go to social benefits for employees and 50% be reinvested. These worker prerogatives are unlikely to last long under private, or even UNO state, management.

García says most state enterprises are more productive than private ones. In coffee, the private sector produces only three-fifths of what the state sector produces per acre. “It doesn't make sense to exchange a system that has been more efficient for one that hasn't worked,” said García. Privatization would hurt society as a whole by shifting profits earned in productive state enterprises away from social services and into private hands.

Union leaders say they will also defend their constitutional freedom to speak, organize, strike and bargain collectively, rights certain to be challenged by the new government, given its pro-business orientation.

With inauguration day still over a month away, former Somoza allies had already begun demanding the return of their confiscated property and threatening peasants and poor urban residents with eviction. UNO leaders have said they will return land and houses or compensate owners who were “unjustly confiscated.” “They want to return to the past with large landholders trying to expand their estates, big entrepreneurs trying to do away with small industry, and banks giving credit to the rich,” said Daniel Núñez, leader of the peasants' association, the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG). “The one with the biggest gullet swallows the most corn,” he summarized, quoting a rural Nicaraguan expression.

Beyond guaranteed security on the land, Núñez said farmers would demand “economic democracy in the countryside.” This implies the extension of victories won in the last ten years: land for the landless, generous credit for small farmers, guaranteed prices for their produce, construction of rural infrastructure and peasant education and training programs.

UNAG's members have been particularly affected by the US-sponsored war, and contra demobilization remains a key issue for the organization. “There can be no economic recovery while the contras are in the mountains, murdering peasants and destroying production,” said Núñez.

Women Confront Capitalism

UNO’s program has little to say about women's issues, but both Ppresident-elect Violeta Chamorro and her backers in the traditional church are known to have conservative views on the subject. Doris Tijerino, leader of the women's movement, AMNLAE, said women would defend social gains such as childcare centers, housing security and access to contraceptives, as well as fundamental legal rights. “The revolution eradicated forever the submission of women to men or of one sector of society to another,” she said. Education about legal rights will now receive top AMNLAE priority so women can become aware of what they have to defend.

The privatization and state budget cuts called for in UNO's overall economic plan are likely to have a disproportionate effect on the female labor force. “We already know the mechanisms capitalist regimes use to resolve the employment problem. Generally they resort to laying off women,” Tijerino said, vowing AMNLAE would take on this issue through its women's offices within the unions. She also expressed concern that UNO budget cuts would affect social programs of direct benefit to women and children such as child care centers health programs and the glass of milk a day now being given to schoolchildren.

The most basic common denominator issue for women, however, is still peace. Whether female voters chose UNO or the FSLN, peace was their primary objective, according to Tijerino. AMNLAE will continue to demand contra demobilization and the return of the thousands of kidnapped. Beyond these defensive struggles, AMNLAE, like other organizations, intends to push its gains further. Among other demands will be changes in legal codes to set stronger penalties for the crimes of rape and abuse.

From Ally to Adversary

For all the mass organizations, the Sandinistas’ electoral defeat means the loss of an ally in power. “What once took negotiation, now will require mobilization,” said ATC leader García, referring to the new adversarial relationship his organization will have with the government.

But the change also eliminates some of the contradictions that have faced pro-Sandinista organizations. Their alliance with a revolutionary administration under military and economic attack put them in the difficult role of asking their constituencies to sacrifice for the survival of the overall revolutionary process.

Now the mass organizations will be able to focus on defending popular interests, and leaders clearly have high expectations. “A government that has no economic blockade or military aggression to confront is a government with more obligations to workers,” said García. The ATC will insist on a minimum wage "that really compensates us," something rural workers have not had since the beginning of the war.

The health workers union recently asked for 500% wage hikes, increased food subsidies and retirement benefits for employees. It also demanded free medicine for the entire population, air conditioning in the hospitals and guarantees that not one child will die for lack of resources. “UNO said the dollars were going to flow,” said one FETSALUD member, “so there is no reason not to demand everything from them.” The union is opposing the privatization of clinics and insisting that current administrators retain their posts.

Popular organizations, particularly the unions, have a fine line to walk in pressing the new government and the private sector to respond to their demands. The Sandinistas hope to return to govern “from above” in 1996 and have no interest in destroying an economy they have fought hard to maintain. “We are willing to participate responsibly in a period of reconstruction, but a reconstruction based on social and worker rights and benefits,” said ATC leader García. “If they move against our rights, worker discipline and production could fall. That’s not in anyone's interest, neither ours, nor theirs.”

Despite the new conditions, Núñez says the traditionally independent small farmers' organization will take the same approach it did with the Sandinistas: "support the government when its policies benefit our sector and fight when its policies diverge from our interests." In the past, UNAG has criticized Sandinista credit policies, bureaucracy, system of land distribution and pricing for farm produce. Núñez said his association would take a wait and see attitude, but warned, “If they try to ignore us, they’re going to find out we're a hard bone to chew.” Though organizational forms will not change, Núñez says the leadership in Managua will spend less time “struggling from within,” and more time in the countryside in contact with UNAG’s base of support.

A thorough evaluation of the mass organizations' work has not taken place since the elections. But, over the years, the top-down work style and lack of independence from the government that characterized some groups was blamed for widespread apathy at the grassroots level. Beginning several years ago, a process of self-criticism had produced dramatic changes in community organizations and AMNLAE, for example. The electoral campaign brought these changes to a temporary halt: differences and criticisms were submerged in favor of campaigning for the political party that, if elected, would create the most democratic conditions for future work.

The FSLN campaign effort failed, but ironically, adverse conditions may offer possibilities for renewed involvement and democratization from the bottom up. The legitimacy of the popular movements will now depend on their responsiveness to their base, not their institutional standing. At the same time, people who had become complacent about the benefits won through the revolution will have to fight for them or lose them. As Tijerino said, “We may have lost the elections, but we will win back the vitality of the masses.”

Preparing for Struggle

Representatives of mass organizations have put the elections behind them and are planning future strategy. They stress the importance of unity and working with UNO voters who share the same economic interests. “The vote is not the problem anymore,” said Lucío Jiménez, Secretary General of the CST. “That's over. The real problem is whether we are capable of uniting to defend our victories.” Within a workplace, he pointed out, everyone is subject to the same employer and the same threat of eroded benefits no matter how they voted.

Tijerino emphasizes that AMNLAE's goal, as it has been in the past, is to represent the interests of all Nicaraguan women. That may mean, for the time, continuing to restrict discussion of controversies issues like abortion to sectors of the population who are ready to deal with them. “What we will never do,” said Tijerino, “is limit the access of Nicaraguan women to the movement in the name of feminism.” There should be room within the movement to work on all issues, whether general ones such as peace and community development or more gender-specific concerns.”

In the two-month transition period, some organizations are moving to make structural changes that will help them face future challenges. Unions are electing new, often more militant, local leadership, securing their legal status and negotiating salary and benefit increases to leave themselves in a more advantageous position. Federations of unions are being formed within the CST to allow the possibility of negotiations and strike action across an entire industry, a possibility that already exists in the different branches of agriculture. Changes in the labor code and a new worker participation law will be discussed in the National Assembly before the new government takes office.

According to a previously conceived plan, AMNLAE has begun to strengthen its grassroots network by forming municipal women's councils made up of representatives from each neighborhood who will press women's concerns at the local government level. Once these councils are established, AMNLAE will hold a national convention to define its leadership structure and areas of work and to hold elections. A new research center will take the pulse of Nicaraguan women, using surveys to pinpoint issues of concern to them. The ongoing work of women's centers that offer free legal, medical and psychological services will be increasingly important as women confront personal and job-related problems in a more hostile social environment.

Despite the obvious difficulties, the mass organizations are in a relatively favorable position. The ATC, for example, represents the workers in a key sector of the economy where the new government will have to tread softly. “If UNO tries to violate our rights, it will face a solid force of 100,000 rural workers, capable of paralyzing agricultural production," said García. Short of strikes and takeovers, even slowdowns could provoke a serious loss of export income.

Organizers are generally confident of their members' ability to see through management's divide-and-conquer tactics. “UNO might be more sophisticated, but the people of Nicaragua are not the same as they were in Somoza's time,” said Núñez. Precedents in terms of decision-making power and social benefits have been set in the last ten years that will be hard to undo without provoking resistance. The Sandinista legal framework provides important protections. “No other rightwing government in Latin America has had to govern within such a democratic system,”' commented Jiménez.

In this context of organized popular power, the UNO government will either have to negotiate or resort to repressive force to impose its agenda and defend private interests. This has made the future of the army and the contras a key issue in transition talks. UNO would like a reorganized army, possibly with contra participation, which it could use to quash popular protest. ATC leader Julio César Muñóz made clear where his union stands. “To preserve workers' achievements we need the army to remain as it is.” The broad network of radicalized mass organizations backing the Sandinistas at the bargaining table is one of the reasons this demand will be difficult for UNO to refuse.

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