After 100 Days: Still Three Roads Ahead
The Sandinista Front, in solidarity with the Nicaraguan people who are being victimized by neo-Somocismo, calls on all Sandinista party members, affiliates, collaborators, historic combatants and all Sandinista forces to put themselves at the disposal of the workers so that reason will win out over force in this new battle for the defense of grassroots and national interests. The Sandinista Front calls on the government to set aside positions of force and open a dialogue with the National Workers' Front with the goal of reaching negotiations that, without rolling back the revolution’s achievements, allow for the application of social and economic measures of benefit to all Nicaraguans.
—Statement by the FSLN National Directorate, July 3, 1990, after the government's refusal to negotiate led the National Workers' Front to call for an incremental strike.
The country has lived through an upheaval much greater than a strike, which has put the nation in danger... Now we’ve called for two dialogues and there can be as many dialogues as this country needs to solve its problems. We don’t stand on principle; you have to be very pragmatic to resolve this country’s problems.
—Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo, in a July 11 press conference to announce negotiations with the FNT.
The Sandinistas wanted to block the implementation of the economic plan and they’re trying to show that the country is ungovernable without them; they want to have elections before 1996, when Chamorro’s term ends.... We created the National Salvation Commission to support the government, which was weak and had virtually sold out to Sandinismo because of this weakness.... We are preparing for the third general strike, which is planned for September... Chamorro doesn’t have to give us permission to defend the Constitution.”
—Vice President Virgilo Godoy in an interview with the Spanish news agency ACAN-EFE after the strike.
In early July, even before UNO marked its first three months in office, social and political tensions were running so high in Nicaragua that many felt the country to be on the brink of civil war. A general strike paralyzed the country for nearly a week, sharpening conflicts within the government and deepening tensions in the already severely polarized population. The strike also underscored the considerable strength still wielded by the Sandinistas and highlighted popular discontent with UNO's economic policies to date. Although the strike ended peacefully, many of the issues that sparked it have yet to be resolved. Events leading up to the strike, the very nature of the strike itself and subsequent actions by all key actors demonstrate that the tremendous conflict Nicaragua is immersed in demands a long-term solution.
From instability to where? Any change of government requires a readjustment of forces in all areas until a new and relatively stable balance of forces is reached. In Nicaragua's case, in which contradictory social projects exist, each with significant weight, this process is necessarily accompanied by instability. In the wake of the February elections, three roads are open for Nicaragua's future.
The first is towards a genuine process of democracy and peace. If this option is strengthened, the battle between the government and the opposition will be one of wits and law, of patience and time, in which the cycle of war as the only way to resolve political problems will finally have been broken. Given the contradictory social projects, this first option will be viable only if, along with respect for the Constitution, the country’s principal social forces can agree on a basic accord guaranteeing political and economic stability for the whole nation.
In the March negotiations leading to an accord between the outgoing and incoming governments known as the Transition Protocol, both delegations demonstrated intelligence, flexibility and maturity. The protocol established the need for united efforts to achieve stable and lasting peace and democracy within a constitutional framework. Second, it reaffirmed the armed forces' subordination to the President, who in turn agreed to respect the internal structure and hierarchy of those forces. Armed forces members will not be allowed to hold leadership positions in political parties and the army is to reduce its size according to guidelines spelled out in the Contadora and Esquipulas peace plans for a “reasonable balance of forces” in the region. Third, it called for strengthening the integrity and independence of the different branches of government. Fourth, it guaranteed the property of both rural and urban families who had been benefited by revolutionary policies, as well as making provisions for those who had legitimate claims to confiscated property. It also extended guarantees that unions would be able to function and state employees' jobs would be secure. And lastly, both parties agreed to join forces in seeking the international economic resources necessary for the country's development.
The protocol came under harsh attack by the UNO's most rightwing sectors, precisely because of its measured nature. By Violeta Barrios de Chamorro's inauguration on April 25, these conflicts inside UNO began to emerge more clearly, increasing the possibility that the second road might be the one taken.
This second road is the resurgence of the military option. Former contras, the Sandinista army and US troops could well be the principal protagonists in this dangerous scenario. If the conflicts touched off by UNO's electoral victory are not resolved within a constitutional framework and if the correlation of internal forces turns unfavorable for the pro-US factions in the country, the US could be tempted to push Nicaragua into a civil war, thus facilitating a direct intervention of US troops.
As UNO finishes its third month in government, the hopes raised by the protocol have diminished significantly, replaced by bitter clashes between Nicaragua's classes and class fractions. This has pushed the country along a road of increasing political and social instability.
This is the third, intermediate road, one of ongoing social and political instability, in which the diversity of, and antagonism between, the different political projects neither permits democratic stability nor leads to a new war. This instability will ultimately resolve itself by one of the other two options, but if it stretches into the medium or long term, Nicaragua will become an increasingly unviable country. This third option is the most likely route, at least in the near future, and has as a backdrop new forms of low-intensity conflict by the US, which the country’s revolutionary sectors will have to resist and confront.
A new military panorama With the installation of the pro-US UNO government, the armed contra forces were stripped of any justification for continuing their war. In June 1990, the United Nations and Organization of American States commissions entrusted with supervising contra demobilization announced that their mission had come to an end. Nearly 20,000 counter-revolutionaries handed over their weapons and prepare to return to civilian life. Between 7,000 and 9,000 were actual combatants, while the rest were family members or contra supporters who had functioned as couriers, donning military uniforms during the demobilization process to avail themselves of the many benefits promised the contras.
Officially, then, the counterrevolutionary war is over. But this is not yet real for much of the rural population in the central region of the country. Both Catholic and Protestant pastoral workers in the countryside state that it is not at all clear that the contras are definitively dismantled as a military force. They point to the fact that the contras control vast areas of land in what they call “development poles,” where they maintain their military structure and ranks and could reactivate their troops; it is open knowledge that they have large quantities of arms secreted away.
The contras today are facing many difficulties as the development poles get underway, including the fact that the poles may not be as well funded as they hoped. They must deal with strictly economic demands that may put them into direct conflict with the UNO' government and with the fact that many families of the contras want them home, rather than in the poles. These factors could erode the potential base of an ongoing contra army.
Which factors will finally have more weight: those that would consolidate the contra forces or those more likely to bring about their eventual disintegration? If the second prove stronger, the war will really be over. “I hope that happens,” commented one of the religious leaders, “As it stands today, though, the contra forces are demobilized-but not dismantled.”
As a corollary to the demobilization and in compliance with the Transition Protocol, on June 10 the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) presented a plan to reduce its forces to 41,000. Five days later, President Chamorro announced that she had accepted the plan, which she said would reduce troop strength by half as of April 25. The reduction affects primarily the draftees. In one of her first acts as President, Chamorro abolished the draft, fulfilling one of her most popular campaign promises. In announcing her acceptance of the cuts, President Chamorro also declared that any further reductions would depend on the situation in the other armies of Central America, thus upholding the Transition Protocol.
The United States is not pleased about the Chamorro government's compliance with the Transition Protocol insofar as it refers to military issues. In a meeting with US Secretary of State James Baker after the Esquipulas VIII summit in Guatemala in June, Chamorro was again warned that the continued presence of General Humberto Ortega and other members of the Sandinista High Command in the EPS is unacceptable. She had received a similar message in Managua from Undersecretary of State for Latin American Affairs Bernard Aronson even before her inauguration. In an attempt to put the EPS in a bad light as well as complicate negotiations between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN, the US State Department declared to The New York Times after Chamorro's meeting with Baker that the EPS “continued” to send arms to the Salvadoran guerrilla forces—a charge Chamorro immediately denied.
Executive consolidates power While the Transition Protocol has been upheld with respect to military issues, the new government has violated both its spirit and its letter in many other instances. The executive branch sought to assert its hegemony over the state, violating the agreement to strengthen the other branches (a key issue of UNO's proposed constitutional reforms before the elections). Its offensive had three key fronts:
UNO's Extremists. Ministerial and vice-ministerial positions were awarded primarily to people from INCAE and CORDENIC groups (see “The Two Faces of UNO,” envío July 1990), thus marginalizing UNO's far right sectors and creating what many have called a “technocratic” government. The key symbol of this move was Vice President Virgilio Godoy, who was given neither responsibilities in the new government nor office space in the presidential building. The teaming up of Chamorro-appointed technocrats against UNO's most politically conservative sectors almost immediately generated serious tensions inside the government.
The Legislative Branch. The executive branch has issued at least six major decrees generally considered unconstitutional by Nicaraguan legal experts because they never passed before the National Assembly. At the same time, the UNO parties in the National Assembly allied with Chamorro—led by Alfredo César—have consistently looked for alliances, whether with the Godoy faction or with the Sandinistas, to guarantee approval of executive bills.
The Judicial Branch. In May, the government reduced the judiciary to a mere 0.54% of the entire national budget, thus seriously affecting its administrative effectiveness and efficiency. Many political analysts saw the cut as an attempt to put pressure on the Supreme Court—in its majority Sandinista. Two of the Court's original seven members resigned for “personal reasons”; this gives the executive branch, which also increased the Court to nine members, significantly increased influence. When President Chamorro sent slates to the National Assembly from which the legislators were to elect the new justices, the Godoy faction was angered as nobody from the pro-Godoy Lawyers' Association had been included.
Then in mid-July, Chamorro abruptly replaced Supreme Court Chief Justice Rodrigo Reyes, a Sandinista, with Orlando Trejos, Labor Minister during the Somoza regime. Reyes accused Chamorro of trying to politicize the judicial branch. Some legal scholars called the move unconstitutional, although the Constitution is not explicit about the duration of a Chief Justice's term.
The President also came into conflict with the fourth branch of government, the electoral branch, when she transferred the civil registry from the Supreme Electoral Council to the Ministry of Government. With this broad offensive, then, the Chamorro group assured executive hegemony and made significant inroads into the three other branches of government.
Economic policies hit hard Parallel to this political offensive, the executive branch launched an economic assault, quickly implementing the plan designed by Central Bank president Francisco Mayorga. The assault included constant córdoba devaluations, salary adjustments that did not begin to keep up with inflation, interest rates to the productive sector exceeding those in the rest of the region, plans for massive public sector layoffs and privatization of state land and industries, reforms to the Labor Code that hurt workers and the issuing of Decree 1190 authorizing the review of confiscations carried out since 1979. “Water Utility to Charge in Córdobas Oro,” “Another Blow to the Pocketbook: Bus Rates Soar to 40,000.…” Every day the population reads of new economic blows and with each one, the UNO's economic plan goes forward.
The plan requires a first phase of drastic measures—a “purgative,” in Mayorga's words—necessary to achieve a minimal level of economic stability and attract the economic backing crucial to the longer-term success of the plan's reactivation stage. But it is a vicious circle, because without some initial international aid, the government cannot soften the blows of the adjustment measures enough to make them socially acceptable. The government launched its flurry of measures immediately, without even waiting for the US aid package to be approved in Congress or the Rome donor's meeting in June.
In May, state employees reacted with a strike, through which they forced the government to grant wage increases and conditions favoring labor stability. Nevertheless, once the accords were signed, the government wasted no time in breaking many of them.
FSLN leaders, from their new position as the country’s political opposition, tried to make the government's economists realize that their policies were bringing the country to the point of social explosion. But the government neither slowed the pace of its economic policies nor tried to cushion the drastic measures it was taking day after day.
The economists preferred to take advantage of the “honeymoon” period, however short, accorded every new government. They also calculated that the Sandinistas were already considerable weakened in the wake of the elections and the exhaustion and economic deterioration of 10 years of war. Working from this vision, they imagined rapid economic stabilization, without having to engage in serious rapprochement with the Sandinistas. An inflated sense of its own force and popularity and a serious underestimation of Sandinista strength lulled the government into a false security as an explosive situation was developing.
The government did send out some signs of coexistence with the Sandinistas, however. Among these, it emphasized the demobilization of the contra forces—obviously in the government's own interests since it is key to the country's ongoing political stability. The pro-Chamorro camp in the National Assembly worked with the Sandinistas on reforms to the University Autonomy Law, approving some by consensus and negotiating others. Dialogues also took place with the workers in the May strike, albeit later rather than sooner. In essence, the new government had two faces—one of dialogue and coexistence and the other of harsh implementation of its economic plan. It turned one face to the Sandinista sector and the other to maintaining good relations with the Godoy faction—for example, introducing legislation in the Assembly favoring this group and its allies who were returning after years of exile in Miami expecting quick and thoroughgoing economic privatization.
FSLN unites for round 11 In the government's push to dismantle many of the revolutionary gains made over the last 10 years, the FSLN at some moments responded like a boxer, worn out after 10 rounds, facing a new opponent for round 11. As it picked itself back up after the electoral defeat, its fresh opponent pummeled it with blows to the face and body, hoping for a definitive knockout.
This image of a strong government was so convincing at the outset that UNO extremists, particularly Virgilio Godoy himself, all but ceased the aggressive criticisms that had characterized the transition and Chamorro's first days in power. In similar fashion, COSEP claimed the new government as its own, declaring that, despite some disagreements, it was doing a very good job. In addition to the economic and political punches, the government media undertook an endless propaganda campaign against the former Sandinista government for what they called a “piñata”—the transfer of state goods during the transition period, which in some cases were understandable, in others unjustifiable and in others truly scandalous.
The FSLN's problems mounted. A debate is raging inside the party about the reasons for the electoral defeat and about the party's response to the current moment as well as plans for the future. At the root of these discussions were two tendencies—one proposing at least a minimal understanding with the pragmatic sector of UNO, the other emphasizing combative struggle as the key tool with which to confront the rightwing onslaught.
As envío pointed out in the July issue, a dialectic—the essence of revolutionary methodology for understanding and transforming reality—is being recreated within this new internal dynamic. It is only through employing this dialectic rather than staking out exclusive positions that a solution will be found. envío also stressed the need for greater autonomy and initiative among urban and rural workers and other pro-revolutionary organizations.
In these difficult moments, the FSLN held an assembly of 300 members in El Crucero, about ten miles south of Managua. The key resolutions of this June 16-17 assembly were summarized in a public proclamation, including the announcement that the FSLN will hold its first Congress in February 1991. The assembly voted to form an Ethics Commission headed by René Núñez, entrusted to review any charges of economic corruption or abuse of power. The assembly also unanimously ratified the National Directorate as the party's “axis of unity and authority,” although elections to be held in the Congress will be for all leadership levels.
The FSLN assembly came together behind the sentiments of the Sandinista rank and file, who were pushing for a more aggressive position vis-à-vis the government, with the caveat that all actions should take place within a constitutional framework. (See “FSLN Discussion Papers,” Documents section, this issue.)
Build-up to a general strike While these internal debates were taking place inside the FSLN, the unions and other pro-Sandinista mass organizations stepped up their organizing activity and their mobilization levels to defend themselves against the government onslaught. The first land takeovers began on May 18, along with work stoppages in some agroindustrial enterprises in the countryside, primarily protests against presidential decrees 10-90 and 11-90. Decree 10-90 permits the leasing of state lands to private producers. Decree 11-90 offers the expropriated bourgeoisie the possibility of recovering these or other lands or businesses, “for productive use.”
Although the land takeovers and work stoppages took place throughout the country, they had most strength in León-Chinandega's prime cotton land—cotton being the cornerstone crop of the government's economic plan. The rural workers' actions took place amid ongoing negotiations between their unions and the Ministry of Agriculture. Beginning June 1, the workers upped the ante, taking over private farms and haciendas for the first time, rather than sticking to state lands. The workers argued that if UNO, through a series of illegal decrees, refused to recognize the existence of rights related to social property, then they as workers would refuse to recognize private property. UNO supporters have attacked workers taking part in land takeovers, attempting to throw them off the land.
Meanwhile, union demands in the cities—including wage hikes, job security and compensation for those laid off—were on the rise. Although in different ways, a dialectic of pressure and negotiation very similar to that underway in the countryside was also taking place in the urban areas.
The most militant pro-Sandinista workers were the agricultural workers belonging to the ATC, the urban workers in the CST and the public employees organized in UNE. University and high school students joined them, particularly once students were hit by the suspension of government subsidies for transportation to and from school. Other problems affecting university students included issues of university autonomy and a decrease in grants and scholarships. By the end of June, a number of different social sectors had found common ground, as the government remained unresponsive to their different demands.
By June 25, as UNO marked two months in office, the situation had become increasingly tense. The government's continuing avalanche of measures generated an onslaught of union demands and criticisms, with the central point a call for the government to negotiate. The problem was one of content, but also of form and style. The authoritarian manner with which the measures were presented only heightened tensions.
The government predicted at the Rome conference that inflation would not surpass an annual rate of 950% for 1990 (it was nearly 1,700% in 1989), yet the cumulative inflation of the Consumer Price Index through July 1990 was already over 650%. The dizzying price spiral, including a drastic increase in rates for electricity, water and telephone services, brought the urban population into the current of protest headed up by the urban and rural unions, state workers and students. Utility rates, which were doubling and tripling, also began to be billed in córdobas oro in June. Thus, although payable in old córdobas, the bill would be calculated at its dollar price on the day of payment—the old córdoba was being devalued twice a week by 4-5% each time.
Even more profound concerns lay beyond the workers' economic demands. Article 1 of Decree 11-90 says that a national commission will be charged with reviewing “all of the confiscations carried out by the previous government under confiscation and expropriation laws and decrees, or the agrarian reform.” Decree 10-90's first article states that those lands “appropriate for agriculture or cattle ranching and at the moment of the issuing of the decree were in state hands, assigned to it by expropriation or confiscation decrees or which by whatever other arbitrary form were confiscated by the previous government or belong to third parties who are not their legitimate owners” may be rented.
With these decrees the stage was set for recovery of political and economic control by the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie—with the exception, perhaps, of the Somoza family itself—who lost power with the 1979 triumph of the revolution. In June, a number of Somocistas who had fled to Miami in 1979 returned in search of the property and goods guaranteed them.
The decrees represented a qualitative threat to the key gains made by the revolutionary process over 10 years. For all these reasons, UNO's economic and political offensive touched off strong and varied reactions among the revolutionary forces. Daily needs and long-term consciousness dovetailed and by the end of June, popular pressure was both growing and becoming increasingly organized. The government's continuing arrogance and intransigence removed any remaining obstacles between a short- and long-term vision, between militancy and negotiation, between mass organizations and the party itself.
Incremental work stoppage: A day by-day account June 26. The government unilaterally suspends previously scheduled negotiations with the workers.
June 27. In protest, the National Workers' Front (FNT)—which includes all pro-Sandinista unions, but not students or the urban population per se—announces an incremental work stoppage, with the key demand that the government return to the negotiating table. By announcing that it would escalate the strike in an incremental manner, the FNT leaves the door open for the government to negotiate at any point and thus avoid greater and ever more dangerous tensions.
June 28-July 1. Day by day more workers join the strike. In the countryside, land takeovers increase dramatically, particularly in Region II. In the city, the first stoppages begin in the textile and construction industries. The FNT continues to insist on the need for a dialogue, but the government's attitude is symbolized by Labor Minister Francisco Rosales, who sneeringly calls the strike “stillborn.” “I'm not paying any attention to it,” is President Chamorro's first comment about the strike.
July 2. Some 50,000 workers have walked off their jobs, including 18,000 in the cotton and rice fields. Most workplaces are taken over by striking workers. A number of ministries completely suspend activities, and university students take over the Central American University, converting it into a center of protest activities. At the same time, a strong campaign of pressure and threats against the strikers begins.
July 3. The workers, who have already made their mark on the FSLN assembly at El Crucero, score another victory as Daniel Ortega, speaking for the National Directorate, declares the FSLN's complete support for the strike.
July 4. FNT leaders are detained for two hours and warned that they could be imprisoned if the strike continues.
July 5. A government delegation meets with the FNT, but claims it is not empowered to negotiate. Its members later say the strikers did not present labor demands, but were pushing for nothing less than a “co-government.” “The strike is political,” government officials declare, trying in this way to challenge its legitimacy and present it as something concocted by the Sandinista leadership. The government announces that it will only discuss 5 of the 18 points presented by the workers—thus tacitly recognizing that they did present demands—and conditions a dialogue on the prior end of the strike. It uses government media to continue to threaten the strikers with massive layoffs.
July 6. The government issues the strikers an ultimatum after making some concessions, including restoring the transportation subsidy to students and teachers and declaring a wage hike.
July 7. With some 85,000 workers out on strike, Labor Minister Rosales declares the strike “illegal, illicit and non-existent.” Seventeen-year-old union activist Marvín Alvarado is killed as he takes part in a neighborhood meeting called in support of the strike. ATC activist Pedro Pablo Castillo is killed in another attack. Two more deaths will come in the following days.
July 8. The World Cup final, broadcast on state television, is interrupted a number of times as government ministers exhort workers again and again to return to work on Monday if they want to keep their jobs. July 9 is presented to the country as a dramatic test of force for both the government and the strikers.
72 hours that shook Managua July 9. On Monday, Managua awoke to a sea of barricades making most of the city's principal thoroughfares impassable by vehicles. Into the wee morning hours, people in the neighborhoods had thrown up the barricades, reminiscent of the 1979 insurrection, thus casting their lot with the strikers. The atmosphere was extremely tense throughout the country. Public transportation came to a complete halt, effectively paralyzing the capital city and inter-urban transportation as well.
More than 100 agricultural workplaces were taken over by workers in the country's northwest region, where some 35,000 workers were now on strike. The strikers held all the ministries and many factories in Managua; many workers in private factories walked out in sympathy, joining the barricades in their neighborhoods. As the strike took on national dimensions, the government's characterization of it as “non-existent” became the butt of many jokes.
Throughout the day, radio stations with a revolutionary orientation broadcast programs supporting the strike, while the government stations tried to discredit it. The state-owned radio and television stations were in the hands of the strikers for a number of hours. The ideological confrontation between the two sides increased.
With the capital and other cities bristling with barricades and huge areas of the countryside in the hands of workers, the Sandinista position was to maintain an active and militant strike and force the government to negotiate the 18 points laid out by the FNT, which ranged from salary increases to annulling Decrees 10-90 and 11-90. The FNT emphasized time and again that its key demand was negotiation, and that it was in no way trying to topple the Chamorro government or even question its legitimacy.
The official media spent the day harshly criticizing the strikers, characterizing the strike as eminently “political,” and therefore somehow illegitimate. They called for a normalization of the situation based on concessions already made unilaterally by the government—principally wage hikes.
The ultra-right Radio Corporación, located in Managua's Ciudad Jardín neighborhood, began a campaign not merely against the strikers but against President Chamorro as well, calling her “wishy-washy.” UNO extremists went on the air to demand that Chamorro turn power over to Vice President Godoy and declared that only US troops could restore order in the country. Radio Corporación also strongly criticized those government ministers closest to Chamorro, and accused the police—called out by Chamorro to maintain order in the streets—of being allied with the strikers.
Given the degree of confrontation and polarization Nicaragua has lived through in the last 15 years, it is nearly impossible to distinguish clearly between political and purely economic demands, making the government's pejorative use of “political” essentially irrelevant. For example, COSEP, which faithfully represents the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie, said during the Sandinista years and continues to say today that, although it is a group organized around economic concerns, it will act politically when it considers it necessary to do so. Thus the government's line made no sense to most people, since they believe that workers have a right to reflect politically and to act with political intentions. To limit themselves to purely economic demands would have been an ideological—and political—step backwards.
On Monday afternoon the FSLN leadership issued a second communiqué, expressing continued support for the strike but also asking the strikers to facilitate traffic throughout the city as a sign to the government of flexibility on their part—flexibility that would in turn make it easier for the government to negotiate. On the heels of this came an announcement that an important message by the President would be made public in the afternoon. The message, however, was nothing more than another resounding “no” to dialogue. Violeta Chamorro, calling on the strikers to assume a new attitude, spoke of a generic “national dialogue” between all the country's different social sectors as a solution to the conflict. She also announced that she had called on the army to join forces with the police to restore order in the streets.
Before President Chamorro's announcement, she met with UNO's Political Council, COSEP and the unions belonging to the CFT, the rightwing counterpart to the FNT. Given the make-up of this meeting, many felt that her message—calm in tone, but firmly rejecting negotiations—meant she had given in to pressure by the most extreme sectors of the UNO coalition.
July 10. On Tuesday the barricades were up again and the confrontational tone in the rightwing media had worsened. The strikers—now 100,000 strong—continued to pressure for negotiations, while the UNO extremists continued to criticize the government for not taking a harder line against the strikers. The police and the army cleared the streets of barricades, but took no repressive measures against the strikers themselves.
In the afternoon, tensions rose dramatically when Vice President Virgilio Godoy called a press conference to announce the formation of a “National Salvation Commission,” made up of leaders of the most extreme parties in UNO, COSEP and the CPT unions and presided over by Godoy himself. (See “Thunder on the Right,” this issue)
Chamorro promptly issued a communiqué rejecting Godoy's National Salvation Commission. In a July 11 press conference, she declared that “Virgilio Godoy has a right to do what he wants, but I'm the President of this country.”
Radio Corporación quickly became headquarters for UNO extremists. Over a hundred armed people took the area in Ciudad Jardín in and around the station. They attacked the civilian population and nearby strikers, sacked vehicles belonging to pro-Sandinista media and attacked homes in the area. In light of this, and given the activity of UNO-sponsored strikebreakers, the Sandinista forces—both the strikers and the population on the barricades—sought to arm themselves against possible attack. The tensest days of the strike left 115 wounded, 49 of them due to firearms. The majority of the wounded were strikers or strike sympathizers, wounded by UNO extremists.
Gunfire echoed throughout Managua, armed confrontations took place in different areas of the city and the country seemed on the brink of civil war, That night, after talks between government representatives and the armed rightists surrounding radio Corporación, the latter were pulled out of Ciudad Jardín, which had essentially lived through a mini-civil war for 48 hours. The armed UNO extremists took refuge in the Archdiocesan Seminary, with the promise that they would not be imprisoned.
Again on Tuesday, the police, now with help from the army, tore down the barricades during the day, and the people built them back up again at night. That same night, an FSLN mediation commission succeeded in establishing conversations with the government.
July 11. The number and height of the barricades—made out of the octagonal bricks used to pave Managua's streets—had increased significantly, but the first signs appeared that an accord was being negotiated. An FNT communiqué called on the strikers to facilitate movement throughout the city and proposed a meeting with the government for 2 pm.
Even with the barricades still up, the ministries in the hands of the strikers and one sector of the Cabinet reportedly threatening resignation if negotiations went forward, tensions eased considerably. At 5 pm, at the same time it was announced that Radio Corporación's transmitter west of Managua had been blown up, President Chamorro announced in a press conference that her government had decided to hold talks with the FNT. She also invited all of the country's social sectors, including the FNT, to a broader national dialogue to discuss the government's economic policies. The members of the government most attacked by Radio Corporación during the strike—Antonio Lacayo, Minister of the Presidency, and Carlos Hurtado, Minister of Government (which oversees the country's police forces), appeared at the President's side along with General Humberto Ortega and National Police Chief René Vivas. Other government ministers were seated behind the President. This scene was itself a symbolic response to the UNO hardliners.
At the press conference, General Ortega spoke of a “communion of ideas” between the EPS and the President regarding the philosophy of the armed forces in Nicaragua: “We will never take action against the Constitution, we will never carry out a coup d’état against any government here, much less against doña Violeta's government, but this army and this police force will never fire on the Nicaraguan people.” René Vivas, whose police force was accused of complicity with the strikers, spoke of the “sensitivity, patience and maturity” displayed by the police. “We avoided the excessive and dangerous use of police violence, of repression,” he stated.
The talks between the government and the FNT began late at night, ending at 4:30 am with concessions on both sides. During the negotiations, the FSLN delegation continued to facilitate an understanding between the government and the FNT, using its mediation powers to persuade both sides.
Who's who: The test of the barricades The crisis demonstrated more clearly than ever precisely which political forces are important actors in the wake of February's elections. Those in the UNO coalition who demanded that the government take stronger action against the strikers were hoping to provoke a confrontation between the strikers and the armed forces—both the police and the army.
Such a confrontation could well have divided both the armed forces and the strikers and would have ended up strengthening the UNO hardliners. But the result was exactly the opposite: the strike deepened the existing fissures in the UNO government.
The Armed Forces. The police and the army—except in several cases where the strikers attacked the police—opted for patience and moderation and avoided a direct confrontation, though they complied with the presidential order to clear the streets. For the first time, people saw the armed forces obey the orders of an adversarial government, at the same time refusing to engage in repression against the people.
The Revolutionaries. The general strike bolstered the revolutionary sector of the population. While it did not perhaps attract many new forces to the revolutionary cause, it gave strength and a morale boost to those already firmly in the revolutionary camp.
The Sandinista workers allowed the FSLN to reaffirm its popular roots, and gave a healthy shake-up to the petit-bourgeois sector of the party, which—not with bad intention—had taken the “realistic” position of supporting excessive concessions to the UNO government. They also shook up some Sandinistas still in high and relatively privileged positions in the state who were pushing for a modus vivendi with the government without taking into account the pressures coming from the popular sectors. The militancy of the rural and urban workers, the students and the population around the barricades was a rejuvenating, if somewhat jolting, breath of fresh, cold air for the FSLN as a party. The dialectic between mass organizations and the vanguard party functioned fully with the natural tensions of this relationship playing a healthy and, in the end, positive role for the renewal of the Sandinista project.
The Moderates. President Chamorro's image as a conciliatory figure was strengthened among important sectors of the population, particularly the so-called "silent majority”—an essential component of the 55% who voted for UNO. This silent majority did not put any barricades up, but neither did they tear any down. They did not actively support either the strike or the Godoy supporters. Theirs was essentially a wait-and-see attitude as the strike progressed.
The position taken by the president and her closest advisers, however, was in no way one of sweeping concessions to the strikers as the Godoy group tried to paint it. The government did not sit down to negotiate until the country was virtually on the brink of civil war. The FNT's warnings that the incremental strike could spread into a general strike and paralyze the city were not sufficient to force the government to the negotiating table any earlier.
Although they did not negotiate until things reached a dangerous point, the President and her closest advisers generally displayed moderate attitudes, took no repressive measures against the population and maintained a fair degree of national dignity in the face of severe pressures from the United States. “The problems in my country will be solved among Nicaraguans,” was Violeta Chamorro's response to a US journalist who asked about the possibility of US intervention. “I do not accept any [foreign] forces to solve my country's problems.” Taking a position combining inflexibility with moderation, the Chamorro group distanced itself considerably from the UNO extremists.
UNO Extremists. Both those who hold positions inside the government and those who do not define themselves more clearly and searched for more legitimacy, all in the name of fighting “Sandinista terrorism” and “governmental slackness.” Their National Salvation Commission is in effect a parallel government, and they were anxiously waiting for the crisis to become so acute that Violeta Chamorro would be forced to resign. As the new organization strongly attacked her government for not being hard enough with the strikers and the population on the barricades, it began to create networks of paramilitary groups that included pardoned National Guardsmen and former contras. If Chamorro had resigned, Godoy would no doubt have ordered the police and army to fire on the strikers, which in turn would have led the country—whatever the decision of the armed forces—to a civil war. “As authorities we cannot permit this, even in embryonic form,” General Ortega said on July 11, speaking of the paramilitary National Salvation Brigades. It now falls to the armed forces to take the necessary measures to stop the formation of these groups, which could well be the prelude to death squads like those seen throughout Central and Latin America.
The US. During the strike, rumors flew that US Ambassador to Nicaragua Harry Shlaudeman strongly supported Godoy's group. It would seem that Washington still places top priority on dismantling Sandinismo as a viable political force in Nicaragua even if doing so endangers the Chamorro government's stability or puts regional peace at risk. As Godoy announced the formation of the National Salvation Commission, news arrived from the United States that US troops in Panama and at Fort Ord, California, were in an emergency situation, with those at Fort Ord on 15-minute alert.
In the wake of the strike, three key sectors can be defined in the country’s shifting correlation of forces:
* The pragmatic sector of the UNO government, which is looking to implement a neoliberal capitalist project in the country.
* The Sandinistas, who in the long term are interested in a project of democratic socialism based on the hegemony of popular interests.
* The Godoy group, which brings together the country’s extreme right wing—political, economic and religious—and believes that Nicaragua will only be viable when the Sandinistas are annihilated as a political force
A fourth distinct sector is the orthodox Left, with its traditional communist model; this group is far weaker than the other sectors.
Promises made and broken The accord signed between the government and the FNT on July 11 was positive, if not sweeping. Most importantly, it froze the renting of productive lands through Decree 10-90 at just under 15,000 acres, thus preserving most of the 157,000 acres of state lands. It also gave the workers a 43% wage increase, although that was rapidly eroded as prices for basic goods continued to skyrocket.
In addition, the strike brought the country to a much-needed dialogue, in which the government's economic plan will be discussed by all the country's social sectors until at least a minimal accord is reached. The fundamental reason for the strike was the government's authoritarian imposition of its economic plan, with absolutely no consultation with the workers. The social costs of this plan demand that it be carried out in full consultation with all the country’s social sectors, and particularly the Sandinistas, given that they are the country's principal opposition force. The goal of the national dialogue should be to reach an accord whereby the weight of the economic plan falls more equally on everyone's shoulders.
However, with the government systematically violating the strike accords, the FNT has refused to take part in a national dialogue until it can be assured that promises made are promises kept. On July 30, it charged the government with “not complying with the most important points of the accords signed on July ll.”
The violations include the firing of hundreds of' state workers since July 11, despite the fact that the government pledged in the accords to "strengthen an atmosphere of confidence and job stability in workplaces” and not fire any workers in reprisal for strike participation. FNT spokesperson José Ángel Bermúdez said political firings have taken place in the Foreign Ministry, the National Institute of Culture, the Ministry of Construction and Transportation, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Agriculture, among others. Freddy Cruz of CONAPRO, the association of professionals, said workers identified as Sandinistas in a number of ministries have been told that they are on black lists and will soon lose their jobs.
A violation of particular concern to the country's rural workers is the unilateral decision by Minister of Agriculture Roberto Rondón to continue leasing out state lands, using administrative mechanisms rather than decrees. He more that quadrupled the amount agreed to in the accord, to a total of 66,000 acres.
In addition to violations of the letter of the accords, the government is effectively violating their spirit by inaction. It has done very little since the general strike to try to facilitate an authentic climate of negotiation and reconciliation, either in the countryside or the city. A dangerous situation is again developing in the countryside as supporters of Virgilio Godoy organize land takeovers, directed primarily at cooperatives. ATC leader Edgardo García says that “the economic concertation and dialogue proclaimed by the government cannot happen as long as this climate of social instability exists.”
The violations are of great concern as they indicate that, for all its moderate rhetoric, the Chamorro government is willing to let the same problems that led to the July strike build again, leading the country to the brink, yet again, of a potentially explosive situation that might not be resolved so peacefully this time. As Sandinista Workers' Federation head Lucío Jiménez says, “It's a vicious circle: unfair government measures, we demand dialogue, no government response, we strike, that forces negotiations, the government violates the accord, more unfair measures, another demand for dialogue... How do we break the circle?”
It is clear that the strike in no way resolved the country's key contradictions. Real and potential conflicts remain—some are beginning to be resolved through negotiations, while others could explode at any moment. The ongoing presence of UNO extremists both inside and out of the government indicates that tensions and problems could become much worse.
The FSLN and the pragmatists within UNO are the two sectors that could bring stability to the country and build a nation based on accords that reaffirm and strengthen the Transition Protocol. If this does not happen, Nicaragua in the short and medium term will become completely unmanageable. A constitutional and democratic road for Nicaragua will be possible only if the extremist rightwing sector is effectively neutralized and limited to functioning within a constitutional framework.
This is not to suggest that the pragmatic sector of the UNO government is somehow Sandinista, which is what the extremists claim; nor that Sandinismo has been converted into a bourgeois movement, as the ultra-Left would have it. The difference between the neoliberal capitalist project of the moderate UNO group and the democratic socialist project of the Sandinistas is quite large, but given Nicaragua's current situation, where there are relatively few economic alternatives, these are the only two groups capable of arriving at even minimal accords.
The coming months could well see significant shifts inside the government with the increasing instability that implies. Continued militancy of the unions and mass organizations, combined with the necessary maturity and flexibility, is critical if the current correlation of forces is to resolve itself in favor of the people and their long-term interests. Isolating the extremists is the key task in Nicaragua today.