Nicaragua: Four More Years of War?
As Nicaragua heads into its election period and moves to open real political space in the country, the Bush Administration has responded with full-scale political war, which is little more than the latest phase of the so-called "low intensity war" against Nicaragua. Spurred on by the serious deterioration of the Nicaraguan economy, Bush has opted to prolong the war for four more years, aiming, as did Reagan, to crush the Sandinista revolution.
During the first month of the Bush Administration, the Nicaraguan government softened the tone of its statements towards the United States, generally expecting that eight years of its unceasing hostility might give way to more rational relations between the countries. George Bush also toned down US rhetoric to a degree, even as the war ground on, but the change was primarily for public relations reasons, and represented little more than tactical changes in US policy towards Central America. The underlying goals of that policy are the same: block any possibility of the FMLN taking power in El Salvador and destroy the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
The commitments made by the Central American Presidents at the February summit meeting in El Salvador were to have been set in motion on May 15, but the bipartisan contra aid package passed in March effectively annulled the February accords. Today, not only are the contra forces not demobilized, as called for by the accords, they are not marking time in Honduras as stipulated by the bipartisan aid package. To the contrary, they are still active in Nicaraguan territory, using US money to continue their attacks, killings and kidnappings in the Nicaraguan countryside. (See "Nicaragua Briefs," this issue.)
A number of conditions favor Bush's goal of maintaining the war against Nicaragua. In the first place, it's clear that neither Washington, the opposition business grouping COSEP, the far right Coordinadora alliance or the contra forces will recognize a Sandinista electoral victory, even if achieved in free and fair elections. If the Sandinistas win, the US response will likely be to cry "fraud" and step up the war.
In addition, Central America has regressed to the levels of political dependency seen in 1982-83. Central American autonomy, most strongly expressed in 1985 and culminating with the August 1987 Esquipulas II meeting, now seems more out of reach than ever.
The other Central American countries are all hostage to serious economic and political difficulties. In June, Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo "governed" the country from a small estate outside of Guatemala City, in hiding after a series of coup attempts forced him to temporarily flee the city. President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica publicly admitted that his presidential campaign had received large amounts of money from international drug traffickers, who have an ever-expanding network in Costa Rica.
The Honduran government threatened in June to break relations with Nicaragua after Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto accused Honduras of being a "drug-trafficking state servile to the US.” In El Salvador, ARENA's ascension to power makes any negotiated solution to conflicts in the region more difficult. Given all this, it's unlikely that the Central Americans will offer any strong resistance to continued or increasing contra aid after February.
Finally, in the United States itself, the Democratic Party, which could have recognized the Nicaraguan electoral process, is much weaker in the wake of the Jim Wright affair. They have thus far proved incapable of presenting a clear foreign policy alternative in that could compete effectively with the Republicans. It is thus possible that the Democrats will be unable to muster any forceful opposition to continuing the military option in Nicaragua come February.
Bush fuels the political warThe road to upcoming elections in February is mined with an economic crisis that is increasingly polarizing Nicaraguan society. The next months will be made even more difficult by the fact that the Bush Administration has opted not only to aid an opposition group—in this case, the Coordinadora—but has initiated a full-scale political war against the Nicaraguan government. It is training all the weapons in its arsenal on Nicaragua.
Refusal to dialogue. In June, the US Administration took a series of steps that bared its intentions. In mid-June, President Daniel Ortega met with Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo to request that he serve as intermediary in two dialogues: one with the US government and the other with the Nicaraguan private sector and opposition. Ortega asked for Obando's intervention on behalf of the country, calling for all sectors to contribute constructively to resolving the country's economic crisis. Leaving the alternatives unspoken, Ortega declared that there is "still time to salvage our project of a mixed economy and political pluralism."
The State Department rejected Nicaragua's offer of dialogue, conditioning it on what it termed "Nicaragua's compliance with the Esquipulas peace accords." Following this, Obando said he could not mediate in a situation where one of the parties had conditioned any talks. By so quickly rejecting any role in a dialogue, the Cardinal, under strong pressure from COSEP and the Coordinadora parties, lost an opportunity to make an important contribution to peace.
Approval of funds to the far right political parties in Nicaragua. As part of the political war, $3 million was approved for election-related activities, to be channeled through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Part of this funding will go directly to opposition parties in Nicaragua, while other money will go for computer centers to monitor the electoral process and the organization and mobilization of women's and youth groups in opposition activities. The NED appears to be attempting to set up a parallel electoral structure, as the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) will also carry out the first task. If the Coordinadora cries fraud, who will be believed?
The Bush Administration has also put tremendous pressure on Congress, seeking a green light for CIA "covert operations" in the electoral process. The hypocrisy of calling on the CIA to do its dirty work, allegedly in the service of "clean" elections in Nicaragua, was not lost on Nicaraguans. At the tenth commemoration of the FSLN's strategic retreat to Masaya, President Ortega lashed out against the CIA, warning the tens of thousands who had come to walk the 30 kilometers to Masaya that "the enemy continues to attack us."
The Congress voted 288-117 to condemn Nicaragua's electoral law as "inadequate to ensure fair elections," overlooking the fact that the Library of Congress had given it a clean bill of health less than a month earlier. The vote and the general attitude of US politicians toward Nicaragua’s electoral process contrasts sharply with the favorable response in Europe.
The so-called Bipartisan Committee for Free Elections in Nicaragua, based in Washington and linked to many staunch and long-time Sandinista opponents, continues its work. In a declaration to the committee, National Security Council advisor Peter Rodman said, "Ever since Manila, the US has begun to use elections as a new instrument to undermine well-entrenched regimes. We're learning to make efficient use of these techniques and methods."* Roger Miranda, a former Nicaraguan army major who defected nearly two years ago and has not been in the country since, has also given testimony to the committee.
*Retranslated from Spanish
Protecting electoral sovereigntyIt's clear that the Bush Administration does not intend to look for a negotiated solution to the regional conflict in its "backyard." The Bush Administration, like Reagan's, considers the revolution illegitimate and reversible, and will use any means—including the electoral process—to bring it down.
In the wake of this declaration of political war, the Nicaraguan government has taken a series of measures.
Observers. The Foreign Ministry has stated that only those invited by the CSE, the presidency or the Foreign Ministry itself, and accredited by the CSE may serve as observers of next year's elections. It also stipulated that no diplomatic mission in Nicaragua may serve that function, and warned that the elections should not be considered some kind of "international 'show' where everyone feels that they have a right to interfere in our affairs and declare themselves observers."
Financing. Bayardo Arce, speaking for the FSLN, underscored three points regarding the "economic assistance" that will be coming in during the electoral period. First, he emphasized that 50% of any money coming into the country for any political party will be used to finance the electoral process as a whole (the cost of holding elections will be a tremendous drain on the country's already strained economy). Second, that US aid coming in to entities other than political parties is illegal as stipulated by the law passed by the National Assembly in October 1988. Finally, Arce characterized all US aid as immoral as long as the US fails to comply with the 1986 World Court Decision ordering it to pay reparations of some $13 billion.
US Embassy personnel. The Nicaraguan government has asked the US to discuss the possibility of reducing personnel in the US Embassy in Managua, given that the Nicaraguan Embassy in Washington is currently operating with a skeletal staff. The inflated number of US personnel in Managua is essential to the Embassy's key role as the hub of opposition activities in Managua. Decreasing it would at least reduce the number of destabilizing agents residing full-time in Nicaragua.
Visas. Effective July 1, the Nicaraguan government began to require visas for all US citizens visiting Nicaragua. Since 1983, when the Sandinista government expelled three diplomats and the Reagan Administration closed all seven Nicaraguan consulates in the US in reprisal, Nicaragua has allowed US citizens to enter the country for 30 days without visas. The new policy gives the government at least a minimal control over the entry of US citizens.
Blue and White? or Red, White and Blue? This month, the Nicaraguan government revealed a US-sponsored plan for its allies, including those in COSEP, the Coordinadora and the armed counterrevolution. Known as the "Blue and White Plan for National Salvation" (for the colors of the Nicaraguan flag), the political, economic and military project was described by COSEP head Enrique Bolaños as "very good and capable of catching the attention of the country as well as of exiles and the international community.” La Prensa had been referring to the plan for some time in its editorial pages and the COSEP-affiliated coffee growers alluded to it in a large meeting held in Matagalpa in June.
The Nicaraguan Ministry of the Interior denounced it as a plan conceived of and drawn up by the CIA. However, who actually drew up the plan is perhaps the least important question of all. The key point is that it advances the interests of the US and its Nicaraguan allies, both armed and unarmed (the emerging triumvirate of COSEP, the Coordinadora and the armed counterrevolution.)
The 71-page Blue and White Plan proposes, in essence, a return to somocismo. It does not recognize Nicaragua's 1987 Constitution and calls for the Nicaraguan armed forces to be "gradually dismantled until they no longer exist, to be replaced by a police force." Eliminating the Sandinista army would constitute an irreversible step towards dismantling the entire revolution and returning to the past.
The plan also proposes a generalized re-privatization of the economy, including social services (health, education and transportation). It is firmly rooted in a neoliberal economic vision that would give such privilege to the private sector that nearly the entire economy would be in its hands.
A key point in the plan is an almost total rollback of the agrarian reform program, which would take Nicaragua back to the pre-1979 era in terms of land tenure. The plan talks of a "revised agrarian reform," with the emphasis on seeing "justice done for the legitimate original owners" of the land. In effect, that would mean giving back huge extensions of land currently in the hands of peasants, cooperatives or state enterprises. Although the far Right proposes returning the land "through peaceful means," any such move would obviously meet with tremendous resistance and the "legitimate" landowners would have to resort to force (See "Land Reform" in this issue).
Survey shows Sandinista winThe Nicaraguan elections have rapidly become the lens through which the country's political situation must be viewed. (See "Elections" in this issue.) Given the extremely tough economic and political situation facing the Nicaraguan government today, the question of the hour is: Why has the opposition opted for threatening a boycott of the electoral process instead of throwing themselves into an active campaign to win the elections?
The most obvious response would seem to be that, both within the United States and among the Nicaraguan Right, the consensus is that the FSLN will win in February. Given that, the bulk of the opposition parties have chosen to try to block a smooth and fair electoral process by challenging the legitimacy of the electoral law and the existing electoral mechanisms.
The sense that the FSLN will win next year was backed up by a recent opinion survey taken by INOP, the Nicaraguan Institute of Public Opinion, affiliated with the Managua-based independent research center Itztani. The INOP-Itztani poll, the first of six planned for the upcoming months, was conducted on May 13-14 in 15 municipalities in the departments of Managua, Granada and Masaya, using a sample of 1,500 people. It was published in the final June issue of La Crónica, a weekly paper published by a group of moderate opposition parties.
To the question, "Which party would you vote for in the presidential elections?," 31% said they would vote for the FSLN. The Conservative Party (listed as one party, although there are currently four different legal factions) and Social Christian Party each took 4%. The remaining 18 parties shared another 12% between them,29% said they didn't know who they would vote for at this point. and A full 20% said they would not vote for any party. This abstentionist trend is reflected in a number of the other questions and indicates that while the FSLN's support has decreased, no other party has been able to translate that into an advantage. .
When asked if they would vote for the opposition if it manages to unite in one bloc, 32% said yes and 49% said no. When asked if they would vote for "a candidate of the armed resistance," 14% said yes and 71% said no. This could indicate that of the 32% who said they would go with a unified opposition bloc, a good number might drop out if the slate included current or former leaders of the contra forces, such as Alfredo César or Alfonso Robelo. Asked if they thought the elections would be honest, 52% said yes and 19% said no.
The survey shows that the FSLN still has a broad base of support, and with a dynamic campaign, the Sandinistas could win an absolute majority of votes cast. One question the survey raises is why the economic crisis hasn't translated into open rejection of the government and its policies. A partial answer is that an economic crisis doesn't mechanically trigger a political crisis. Looking for a solution to the former doesn't necessarily imply demanding a change in political power.
Clearly, the Sandinistas have suffered a serious loss of support—most likely to be expressed in February as abstention or blank ballots. Nonetheless, they still have a strong base, further strengthened when issues are framed primarily in terms of nationalism rather than as "revolutionary" issues per se. And though people don't entirely excuse the government for the economic crisis, most people place the bulk of the blame on the US war against Nicaragua. In addition, there is a sense that no party has an edge in guiding the country out of the current economic crisis. Responses to this crisis to date have been individual—emigrating to other countries, increasing dependency on dollars sent by family members who live abroad, a rising incidence in robbery and small-scale corruption and the like.
Inflation threatens austerityBy May, the severe austerity program implemented by the government early this year had made significant advances in two of its key objectives: breaking the hyperinflationary cycle and spurring production in the agroexport sector. Inflation had dropped from a monthly rate of 126% in December to 12% by April, with a slight increase to 15% in May. This achievement, made at the cost of far-reaching cuts in basic social services, suffered a serious setback with a weeklong series of devaluations in early June that led to a frightening surge in inflation (See "The Economy" in this issue).
May and June are traditionally months of increasing inflation as large amounts of agricultural credit enter circulation in national currency during the crucial planting season. They are also the months when Nicaragua receives its payments for exports from the previous year's agricultural cycle.
This year, a third factor was involved. As part of its ongoing concertation with the private sector, the government agreed to give the large coffee growers extra payment for coffee already sold. The government's error in giving them far too much stemmed largely from a very realistic fear that Nicaragua would slip into an irreversible recession, but it seriously affected the already hard-hit poorer sectors. Then a 100% increase in gasoline touched off price increases in all products, further deteriorating Nicaraguan workers’ buying power. Once again, wage increases lagged far behind the price hikes.
Since 1981, the real wage of Nicaraguan workers has fallen by 92% and the annual per-capita GDP is only $300. The government's attempts to redistribute the few resources available more justly has somewhat softened the dramatic decrease in the population's standard of living. However, these attempts, while feasible several years ago, are barely possible today.
Shock waves from devaluationThe June devaluation sparked serious tensions among a number of sectors, including the country's taxi drivers. After the devaluation, taxi drivers in Managua and other cities stopped working, a response to the overnight hike in gasoline prices and the sudden drop in customers. The drivers demanded that the government defuse the crisis and come up with a solution, but that was not easily done. The government initially agreed to extend credit for gasoline for 15 days, in addition to one month for tires and parts. Police responded harshly against those drivers who wanted more. Riot police in full gear used tear gas against the angry drivers. The government later made further concessions to them, including lifting fixed rates.
The kind of pressures that touched off both the teachers' strike in May and the taxi drivers' strike in June are latent among many social groups and it is getting harder and harder to keep them from exploding.
As tensions grew in the poorer sectors this month, they were also increasing among the large private producers. In the case of the coffee producers—a privileged minority in Nicaragua—the Sandinista leadership said it was willing to continue the concertation but would take a hard line against those who refuse to produce and instead dedicated themselves to destabilizing the country and taking advantage of the political space created by the government. The government followed through on this, confiscating the lands of three coffee growers affiliated with COSEP after the growers made it clear they had no interest in making the concertation work.
This minority of producers has faithfully adhered to the pro-US line taken by COSEP over the last years. President Ortega reminded the private producers that the workers and public employees (especially in key areas like health and education) in Nicaragua are bearing the brunt of the crisis and called on the private sector to pull its own considerable weight.
Maintaining equilibrium, building democracyWinning the 1990 elections in a process internationally recognized as free and fair is the FSLN's response to the US strategy of combining a political war today with the specter of a stepped-up military war tomorrow. With such a victory, the FSLN hopes to limit Bush's options and force him into a strategic change in US policy towards Nicaragua, finally ending US assistance to the contra forces and thus definitively discarding the military option. If that option were shelved, a political war would be less feasible, given that no further elections are scheduled in Nicaragua during the rest of Bush's term in office. That factor also complicates the option of a full-blown destabilization campaign by the Bush Administration. The question then is whether the US would finally agree to negotiate with Nicaragua or would instead opt to carry out a “cold war” of sorts through 1992.
As Nicaragua moves full swing into its election period, two conflicting ideological poles exist. One is represented by the US and its Nicaraguan allies, who are waiting for a Sandinista victory in order to challenge its legitimacy and use it as a springboard for continued war. The other is the perspective of the Sandinista government, which hopes that a February victory will bring such a degree of legitimacy to its government because of the caliber and quantity of international observers that US plans for further war are effectively blocked.
One possibility is that election day comes and the day's events define how the conflict is played out. Another is that, in the context of heightened and dangerous political polarization and social tensions—largely provoked by US meddling in Nicaragua's domestic affairs—the elections will not be held.
In the coming months, the Nicaraguan government may well be forced to implement new emergency measures as a response to the ongoing economic crisis as well as the ultra Right's attempts at internal destabilization. That would make it nearly impossible to hold the elections as currently planned.
Daniel Ortega has already said publicly several times that if the current concertation program doesn't work, the only option would be to implement a "wartime economy." Such an economic decision would almost certainly require a state of emergency or exception, which in turn would affect democratic freedoms inside the country.
The third possibility is that the Nicaraguan government might find itself forced to take more radical steps without negating the essential revolutionary model. Faced with an increasingly aggressive US administration, it may well be necessary to rein in the US allies inside Nicaragua in an effort to avert further deterioration within the country. This would mean neutralizing the private sector’s destructive economic power. It would also mean strengthening the concertation with small and medium producers as well as with those large producers willing to work with the government in its efforts to salvage the economy. The vast majority of the Nicaraguan people would no doubt warmly welcome such a move. As Managua textile worker Félix López says, "We see that the contras keep attacking, keep killing people, carrying out atrocities. And wasn't this Bush the second in command for Reagan? Now they say the CIA is going to get involved... I'm a Sandinista, but I think that we need to be a little more hard-line here, less flexible with some of these guys who, even if they're Nicaraguan by birth, are Yankis at heart."
What will the coming months look like? The complex and profound crisis facing Nicaragua and the Sandinista plan to confront it will shape Nicaragua's domestic scene in the months to come. With serious tensions emerging across the political spectrum, the government must be able to walk a fine and delicate line as it deals with these tensions and tries to respond to the needs and demands of very distinct groups.
Powerful minority sectors like COSEP will do their best to pressure the government with the goal of forcing its economic plan to fail. It can also be expected that the poorer sectors of the population, who have already made tremendous sacrifices, will be increasingly vocal in their discontent and willing to take action if their demands aren't met.
Will the government be able to move forward with the concertation process, neutralizing the destabilizing elements inside the country and at the same time taking concrete measures to demonstrate the long-term revolutionary objectives of its economic plan? The revolution today has to attempt to maintain economic equilibrium and its founding principles against the backdrop of mounting tensions and bitter political polarization.
Nicaragua has lived through ten years of revolution. It has resisted a long and drawn-out military war waged against it by the strongest military force on the planet and is now digging in for a prolongation of that conflict. The international community must take note that for many Nicaraguans, the only solution is to strengthen and further consolidate the revolution, not turn back on the principles taken up so enthusiastically in 1979. If the most progressive sectors of the international community respond to the challenge posed by Nicaragua, perhaps the country will be able to withstand four more years of an already too-long war.