Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 98 | Septiembre 1989



CDS: Revolution in the Barrio

Envío team

"If we want a Community Center on this lot, we have to cut down the weeds first. Who'll join me on Sunday at 7:00 am? I'll bring the pinol drink, but someone else has to bring the sugar. Come on, my back hurts as much as anyone else's. Who's going to help?"

The fiery middle-aged woman in the flowered dress looked around at the group of neighbors and smiled as the hands went up, one by one. It was a sultry July evening in one of Managua's working class barrios, or poor urban neighborhoods. Barefoot kids of all sizes played tag in the unpaved street. A man sitting on a bench strummed his guitar. And, under the one streetlight, the local Sandinista Defense Committee (CDS) was holding a neighborhood meeting.

This gathering reflects the best of what the CDS movement was meant to be: neighbors working together at their own initiative to solve community problems. Since their founding over ten years ago in the heat of the insurrection, these grassroots neighborhood groups have experienced a series of dramatic changes that reflect the development of the revolution itself: from clandestine cells that provided logistical support to Sandinista combatants, to a mass organization that played a key role in ordering the new society, to a neighborhood-based extension of the FSLN made up of the party faithful, to rebirth as a genuinely grassroots communal organization.

In 1980, the CDS claimed 500,000 members—the largest mass organization in Nicaragua. Reagan Administration sources described it as an all-powerful network of Sandinista spies who informed on their neighbors and kept tight control over all aspects of life. Supporters hailed it as a model of grassroots democracy and popular power. Yet, only five years later, this once both reviled and revered mass organization was close to extinction. Participation had plunged, internal divisions festered and apathy reigned. In 1985 a revitalization campaign was launched, a kind of "CDStroika," as current National Coordinator Omar Cabezas called it. On the tenth anniversary of the revolution, these efforts have begun to bear fruit.

Interviewing Managua

Though the CDSs had their origin in the northern city of Estelí and exist in urban areas throughout the country, they have played perhaps their most significant role in the far-flung barrios of Managua. With close to a million inhabitants in 297 neighborhoods, the sheer size and geographical dispersion of the capital city have made the neighborhood a key social nucleus in both the struggle against the dictatorship and the fight for revolutionary survival.

With this in mind, envío interviewed local CDS activists in 16 Managua neighborhoods as well as regional and national leaders. Our goal was to analyze the successes, failures and future of community organization in the revolution. Our contacts are construction workers, teachers, domestics, medical students, musicians, psychologists, engineers, seamstresses, businessmen, soldiers, factory workers and housewives. They include both current activists and those who have dropped out for a variety of reasons. A number are members of Christian base communities. Some belong to the FSLN; others do not. They range in age from 20 to 70, though most are over 35. The majority are from the working class and poor barrios that make up most of Managua, though we also interviewed activists from three middle class neighborhoods.

Roots of community organization

Neighborhood organization began in Managua in the sixties as increased migration to the city created demands for land, housing and services. The Nicaraguan Socialist Party and the FSLN organized committees in the barrios that carried out struggles against evictions and for land and affordable basic services. Certain sectors of the Church played a key role through their work with Christian base communities.

In the seventies, the conflicts intensified. Flooding along 13 kilometers of lakefront in 1969 forced residents to move to higher ground on the outskirts of the city and enriched a new class of developers who speculated in land and housing, providing few if any essential services. Three years later, the massive earthquake that leveled downtown Managua destroyed 70-80% of the existing housing stock and pushed tens of thousands more into precarious living conditions in the new barrios.

The earlier isolated reform struggles took on a militant, anti-dictatorial character as the National Guard met them with increasing repression. Without a downtown as a focus, students and workers took their protests to the barrios where they gained broader support and injected a political perspective into local organizing.

Though the influence of the FSLN was felt in barrio organizing, the focus of Sandinista efforts at first was the development of the military struggle in the mountains, rather than the creation of mass-based urban organizations. To that end, clandestine cells were formed in a number of popular barrios to recruit and offer logistical support to combatants. Members of these groups carried out dangerous tasks: finding safe houses, collecting medicines to heal the wounded, hiding weapons and ammunition and carrying messages. They were made up of a few trusted people who took their leadership directly from the FSLN.

Ironically, victory did not come as planned. Comandante Humberto Ortega later reflected that the FSLN always saw the masses as playing a key role, "but we thought of them more as a support for the guerrilla [army], so it could smash the National Guard.... As it turned out in practice, the guerrillas served as support for the masses who destroyed the enemy through the insurrection."

Building barricades

As the Sandinistas recognized the vital importance of the urban popular movement and the insurrection spread, the small logistical support network expanded. Repression had reached such proportions, said Fermín Torres of Barrio Venezuela, that "people realized they would die either hiding under the bed or trying to do something." By the time of the final insurrection, what came to be known in many barrios as Civil Defense Committees (CDC) were made up of men and women, old and young, members of other left parties, women's groups and Christian base communities. They continued the rearguard role played by the early collaborators but with the battleground now in their own front yards. Enrique Norori, a former CDC member from Ciudad Sandino, said participation was such that in six hours, the population had surrounded the entire barrio with trenches. In Villa Rafael Herrera, a post-earthquake middle-class neighborhood where the CDC did not arrive until June 1979, residents enthusiastically built explosive barricades with their tanks of cooking gas.

The legacy of the war left a definite mark on the character of popular consciousness and community organization. Though the barrios were indisputably the fundamental building blocks of the insurrection, their organizational development was uneven across the city and in most areas the experience of collective work and political education on a mass basis was a brief one in the last months before July 19. The military nature of their activities meant the CDC functioned according to a strict hierarchy and never developed their own autonomy. Everyone knew what they were fighting against, but many of those who joined late in the game had only a foggy idea of what kind of society was being fought for and what sacrifices it would require. Longtime collaborator Fermín Torres remembers, "When a compañera from the Church hugged me and said, 'We won!' I told her, 'Yes. Now comes the hard part.'"

Birth and growth: 1979-1983

In barrio after barrio, activists remember the tremendous sense of euphoria that swept the country after the revolutionary triumph. In many areas community organizations formed nearly spontaneously as people gathered on street corners to hear the latest news and organize the cleanup and reconstruction of neighborhoods that had been reduced to rubble by National Guard bombing during the insurrection. The FSLN sent organizers into each barrio to hold elections for the leaders of what they christened Sandinista Defense Committees (CDS). Coordinators were elected by the residents of each block and an open assembly chose an overall coordinator and barrio committee.

Though voting generally took place by hand raising or acclamation, not secret ballot, participants universally describe the process as democratic. The new leaders were not all Sandinista members, but, like most of the society, they were enthusiastic supporters. Few people questioned the use of the word "Sandinista" in the name of the new organization. In fact, the term served the purpose of giving the many people who had built barricades, cured wounded and fought in the insurrection, who felt part of the FSLN but were not actually party members, a way to participate in building the new society.

Defending, mobilizing, educating

The transition from the insurrectionary CDC to the CDS was not a linear one; the purpose and tasks of the two organizations were quite different. The CDC had served a primarily military function and only grew to include the majority of residents of each barrio near the end of the struggle. The CDS, on the other hand, was charged with organizing the entire population to carry out basic social functions, raise political consciousness, offer a channel for popular participation in decision-making and mobilize people to defend the revolutionary process.

With former National Guardsmen still on the loose and no organized police system to protect against ordinary crime, defense became a top priority of the new neighborhood organizations. vigilancia revolucionaria was organized block by block with residents taking turns standing watch all night long. In interviews, CDS activists reminisced about passing the hours sitting on the sidewalk talking with friends. Fermín Torres chuckled as he remembered the downpour that occurred his first night out. His working class neighborhood eventually had more than 1,260 volunteers doing vigilancia. Crime rates across the city dropped and the CDS took credit for nipping more than one counterrevolutionary plan in the bud by reporting mysterious movements and midnight meetings.

In 1980, local militias were organized and the CDS recruited men and women of all ages to attend Saturday practice where they learned to march, dig trenches and handle a gun. 71-year-old Rafael Gutiérrez laughingly described one exercise where a fellow CDS volunteer dove headlong into a newly dug trench, straight into a nest of biting ants, and administrator Marta Ferrey groaned as she remembered her sore feet after an all-night militia march to prepare for possible invasion of the city. But many observers feel these homemade militias ultimately deterred a hostile US administration from sending in the Marines, and they served as a seedbed for the reserve battalions that bore the burden of defense against the contras before the draft was instituted in 1983.

Along with military defense of the revolution came the political tasks of helping people understand and participate in the revolutionary process, honor its martyrs and celebrate its victories. One of the first acts of the CDS in many barrios was to erect monuments to those who had fallen in the struggle against Somoza. The neighborhood organizations took charge of getting people out for political demonstrations on important holidays and held frequent meetings to explain government policies and current political events.

Though there was a tendency for political education and information to flow from the top down to the barrio level, the CDS did have input into decision-making on a national level. With nine delegates on the provisional legislature, the Council of State, assigned on the basis of organizational membership, the CDS had more representation than any other force, including the FSLN.* The CDS delegates to the Council of State were elected by the organization's representatives at the regional level. These in turn were elected by zonal representatives who were chosen at the barrio level.

* The weight given to the popular organizations in the legislative body was one of the key objections that led the representative of the business-oriented MDN, Alfonso Robelo, to withdraw from the ruling revolutionary Junta in April 1980, claiming betrayal. Robelo later left the country and became a contra leader.

Beyond the presence of the CDS on the Council of State, in at least some barrios the organization held discussions of proposed laws on such issues as housing, the family and land reform. Opinions voiced in these local meetings were then transmitted to the organization's delegates on the Council of State before voting. María Antonieta Rodríguez remembered the discussions: "People wanted to participate. It was the first time we had ever been taken into account."

The CDSs were given responsibility for mobilizing people to carry out the health and education campaigns, which were the revolution's most immediate response to the desperate social conditions inherited from the Somoza era. Volunteers were trained to give vaccinations, teach hygiene and give classes in reading and writing to their neighbors. Polio was eradicated, infant mortality dropped and literacy rose largely by virtue of grassroots effort. The neighborhood organization took on other social functions that the new government could not yet handle: assigning empty land and abandoned housing to those in need, installing water and electricity, building schools and parks, keeping garbage off the streets, monitoring prices in local stores and managing the system of ration cards that guaranteed basic foods to all families at low cost.

The role of the CDS even extended to the individual level. "People looked at the neighborhood committee as if we were some kind of judges or police. They wanted us to resolve their personal day to day problems, their fights with their neighbors," said engineer Armengol Téllez of Villa Rafaela Herrera. "We had to solve all kinds of problems," said Dalila López of Barrio Manuel Fernández, "like 'My boyfriend hit me'; 'I don't have any land'; 'My kid is sick'; 'My husband left me'...." María Antonieta Rodríguez described intervening when a mother threw her daughter and infant child out on the street because the daughter was hanging around with the wrong boyfriend. "We weren't going to let that happen. The neighbors just came and moved her things back in and she stayed."

In some cases, addressing the problems of the most needy meant taking sides in a class struggle within the neighborhood. Angelita Reyes of Barrio Francisco Meza recounted how the CDS supported the tenants of a building with 40 rooms and one bathroom. The slumlord, who also lived in the barrio, allowed tenants access to running water for only a few hours a day. With the backing of the CDS, these renters broke the padlock on the water faucet and asserted their right to decent living conditions.

"A right we had won"

In the first three or four years, there was massive participation in the CDS. "People felt the revolution was truly theirs," said Armengol Téllez, explaining the broad community involvement. To most, the fruits of the triumph were clear, as was the need to mobilize to defend them. Besides, as Socorro Guerrero from Barrio Ricardo Siú put it, "Participation was a right we had won." The CDS offered a chance to resolve urgently felt needs and a democratic experience few had ever had.

One of the most striking characteristics of the CDS was the predominance of women. Often lacking a formal workplace where they could participate, the community offered their only link to the larger society. Women's responsibility—often as heads of household—for issues related to the home, education, health and the family economy led them naturally into involvement in the CDS. Once there, they extended their participation to new areas: the militias had a high proportion of female members. Then, too, machismo played a role. "The man comes home, makes himself comfortable in front of the TV and says, 'Where's my supper?'" said Dalila López. "If there's a CDS meeting, he says to his wife, 'You go. I'm tired from work,' as if the woman didn't work all day!"

But, though most block leaders and grassroots participants were women, men were almost always a majority on the barrio committee and among the full-time CDS staff at the zonal, regional and national levels. Local activists commented that women often contributed to this phenomenon by deferring to men for important decision-making roles. But, more fundamentally, many a wife was kept home from night meetings by the double standard of a jealous husband. "Men can come home at 2:00 am," said retired army lieutenant Socorro Guerrero. "We women have to be in bed by 8:00."

For many, involvement in the neighborhood organization was a continuation of the struggle to overthrow Somoza, a way to pay tribute to the dead, as one mother of a fallen combatant explained. But for others, CDS activity was a way to cover up a now reprehensible Somocista past. Fermín Torres describes CDS meetings where collaborators of the old regime were openly identified and denounced. The rest scrambled to blend in. "Those Somocistas were clever," said Torres. "They plunged in and tried to be the best CDS workers." Some of these sudden converts were later accused of undermining the CDS by using it for their own personal ends.

Besides the peer pressure to join ranks, the CDS role in issuing letters to verify residency played some part in assuring popular participation. At a time when government records were in chaos and geographical mobility was common, these letters were required for everything from getting a driver's license to applying for a job. Whether or not there were outright abuses, it is clear that CDS responsibility for such vital tasks drew in many who were less than enthusiastic about the revolution.

Be that as it may, most CDS members remember the first three or four years as the heyday of the CDS movement. On a practical level, at a time when the state was still virtually nonexistent, the CDS played a key role in keeping society running and organizing mass-based support for the revolution. But in an intangible sense, it did something more. Though in some areas class conflicts were heightened, other antagonisms were forgotten and a new sense of community was created. "Before the triumph everyone lived isolated from one another, in their own world. The CDS changed all that. Now we feel like family," said Socorro Guerrero. "It was a beautiful thing," said Angelita Reyes. "Everyone looking out for everyone else."

Decline: 1984-1987

Five years after the triumph, the barrio scene had changed. Those we interviewed nearly unanimously reported a severe slump in CDS activity beginning about 1984. "The communal flavor had been completely lost," lamented Socorro Guerrero. A 1985 study by the Nicaraguan Institute for Social and Economic Research (INIES) found that in the four barrios studied, grassroots participation was minimal. Neighborhood and block meetings were poorly attended, if they were held at all. People preferred to stay home and watch the 7 pm TV soap opera. Health campaigns still brought out volunteers, but vigilancia was a disaster. Though theoretically each barrio had five elected leaders, in practice one or two dedicated people stayed on in these positions because no one else wanted the job. Those few who did participate in the CDS were determined Sandinista partisans, though not even all party members were active in their neighborhoods, citing heavy responsibilities elsewhere. It was, as CDS national coordinator Omar Cabezas later put it, "a movement of activists, not a mass movement."

What happened to this once vital popular organization? Was its decline the inevitable result of the passage of time and the exhaustion of the fight for revolutionary survival? Or were other factors at work?

Outside forces

Certainly there were objective forces that worked against community organization in Nicaragua. While a broad spectrum of people supported the overthrow of Somoza, not all shared the Sandinistas' goal of social justice for the poor majority. By the mid 1980s, the revolution had clearly defined itself on the side of the masses, and sectors of the middle and upper classes were pulling away, claiming betrayal. A political opposition had begun to organize and offer a voice, albeit a weak one, for those who could not accept the social changes. Sometimes the conflicts were played out in the CDS itself. "In the working class part of the neighborhood,” reported Angelita Reyes, a local CDS founder, "there were social resentments. People who had felt oppressed had the right to express themselves for the first time. And they did it in a way that was contemptuous of the wealthy people. They talked about 'those bourgeois types who go around in cars and never ride the bus.'" It was in the wealthier part of the neighborhood, where she lives, that people were most unwilling to do vigilancia or get their hands dirty cleaning the street.

But even in poorer neighborhoods, there was disenchantment as war and economic crisis forced cutbacks in social projects and scarcity began to be felt. Several activists agreed with Socorro Guerrero who said, "Many people thought the revolution was going to be a piñata, that they were going to get a house, a car, money, that they were going to get and get and get.... When they saw that the revolution wasn't going to give them these things, that there was still unemployment and poverty, people became disillusioned."

As the contra war escalated after 1982, most resources were channeled into defense and the state could no longer respond to community needs. With dramatic events such as the invasion of Grenada as an all-too-clear reminder of the imminent danger of attack, the CDS shifted further away from social development into digging trenches, recruiting for the army and exhorting the population to sacrifice for the war effort. These tasks made the CDS less than popular among those fearful for the lives of their draft-age sons.

With most of the youth mobilized in the war, the CDS lost some of its most enthusiastic and politically conscious participants. Other potential activists were shifted out to lead the many other new mass organizations—of women, workers, peasants, farm laborers and youth. The economic crisis took its toll, as people took second jobs or extra work to survive and were left with little time to dedicate to communal work. The female backbone of the CDS carried the special burden of shopping and juggling family finances to make ends meet. The resulting tensions and resentments sapped women's enthusiasm and earlier commitment.

Then, too, by this time the state had grown and was capable of shouldering many former CDS tasks. Activists, who were often blamed for state failings, resented being used to solve someone else's problems. "We were like government employees without a salary," said Armengol Téllez. There seemed to be little point to losing sleep doing night watch or making enemies enforcing price controls on local merchants when police and other institutions were now in place. Besides, in many barrios, some of the most urgent needs had been solved and, given the lack of resources for more ambitious plans, a kind of apathy set in. As in community organizing anywhere, it was difficult to maintain enthusiasm for the long haul, particularly when dramatic gains were no longer easy to come by.

Political choices

But, as activists on all levels freely acknowledge, the causes of the decline went deeper than the external forces of war, class struggle and economic crisis. Political choices about organizing style, a rigid organizational structure and narrow conception of the character of the organization played a key role in diminishing participation.

The experience of the insurrection had taught people how to resist repression and fight a military struggle, not how to develop a democratic movement based on creative popular participation. The top-down style inherited from the necessities of the pre-1979 situation left its imprint on the CDS. While popular enthusiasm and local initiative held sway at the start, over time an organizational structure with national, regional and zonal offices became a one-way conveyer belt carrying orders downward from the upper levels. "We just received instructions," reflected Socorro Guerrero. "They didn't leave room for creativity in the community. If the zonal office didn't give us instructions, the local CDS didn't do anything. If the barrio committee didn't do anything, neither did the block committees. We were all waiting passively to be told what to do."

As the war intensified, too often the tasks assigned to local CDS responded to overall political and defense priorities, rather than to neighborhood concerns. The INIES study quoted Sister Margarita of Batahola who observed, "When there were meetings, instead of listening to community problems, they made speeches about the aggression. I know it's important to talk about the yankis and all that, but people get tired and when they have problems with schools and food supplies, they're not in the mood for speeches...." Vaccination and neighborhood cleanup campaigns still called forth enthusiastic participation because they addressed keenly felt problems. But social needs took second place and many residents shared the impression of the block coordinator in Barrio Grenada who said CDS tasks amounted to "putting up signs, making bonfires and going to the Plaza."

To some degree, the difficulties in the CDS may have reflected broader problems in the relationship between the FSLN as a party and the mass organizations. For Sandinista militants working in the mass organizations, there was often confusion as to where political authority lay: with the party or with the mass organization. In the case of the CDS, since most of the paid staff were also party members, FSLN directives tended to take priority, whether or not they were appropriate in the concrete circumstances of organizing.

Another common practice was for discussions of strategy and evaluations of work to be carried out in FSLN base committees, rather than in the mass organizations themselves. Organizational skills and political understandings were thus not developed much beyond the Sandinista ranks, and non-members were not involved in decision-making about policy to the extent that they could have been.

Dedicated party militants were loaded down with tremendous responsibilities. Fermín Torres describes how he used to work with the CDS all week, do vigilancia in his barrio until 4 AM on Sunday morning and was then expected to appear at 7 AM for a weekly evaluation of his work as an FSLN member. He ultimately left the party because "my children no longer knew me." CDS work alone was more than a full-time job. Dalila López told of lines of people waiting for her with their problems when she arrived home from work.

As times got harder and motivating participation became more difficult, the vertical tendency intensified and a vicious circle ensued. Worse yet, in their zeal to defend the revolution at the height of the contra war, many organizers became sectarian. "People who weren't with the revolution were largely excluded from the activity of the CDS," said Comandante Cabezas. In time, only the red and black flag wavers, and not even all of them, were left. The label "eyes and ears of the revolution" adopted by the CDS made some uneasy and there were accusations of vigilancia in fact being used as an excuse to snoop into neighbors' personal lives and snitch on legitimate opposition activity.

Without the popular participation that would guarantee accountability, some local coordinators dipped their hand in the community till and others practiced favoritism or pursued personal vendettas in the distribution of goods. Perhaps more common, some just sat back and let others do the work. "He talks pretty, but there he is watching TV in his shorts while he orders us around," said one bitter participant, describing how people viewed the local CDS leader. "We need sacrifice, love and dedication, not demagogy and promises," he added.

As mistrust grew and the numbers dwindled further, the barrios became dependent on the full-time professionals at the upper levels. "The zonal office turned into a salaried negotiator, working like crazy to solve problems," said Cabezas. "Back in the barrio, the masses said, 'Fine, thanks.'" Though many full-time CDS workers were hardworking and committed, there were no clear mechanisms for evaluation or accountability of zonal offices to the barrio or vice versa. Regional and national leaders had little contact with the day-to-day work at the neighborhood level.

Rebirth: 1988-1989

By 1984, the signs of decline were all too apparent. Evaluative meetings at the national level recognized that the CDS was "a strong organization at the central level, but weak at the grass roots," according to national executive member Ronald Paredes, and there was a call for "more creativity and less sectarianism." Local meetings were held, where activists discussed the problems in the CDS and offered solutions. A process of secret ballot elections open to members of all political tendencies was launched across the country in the fall of 1985 with the goal of replacing corrupt and opportunist barrio leadership.

But the problems went deeper than bad leaders, and these efforts at rejuvenation did not meet with much success. In April 1988, in another attempt to revitalize the neighborhood organization, the FSLN nominated a new CDS national coordinator, Comandante Omar Cabezas, whose best-selling autobiography, Fire from the Mountain, chronicles his experiences as community organizer and guerrilla recruit in the struggle against Somoza. Cabezas, who is known for his earthy language and easy rapport with ordinary Nicaraguans, spent the first several months after a national assembly of grassroots leaders approved his appointment making surprise visits to neighborhoods around the country, observing meetings and talking with participants.

Criticizing and recreating

Cabezas went public with his findings, frankly discussing the organization's failings while giving credit for all the efforts and accomplishments of local CDS over the years. At open meetings between Cabezas and neighborhood leaders, the room echoed with the laughter of recognition as he analyzed the mistakes that had been made. Activists say they felt a tremendous sense of relief to hear criticisms expressed that reflected a reality they had long confronted alone.

While recognizing that many CDS faults—such as taking on government functions—were strategies that made sense at an earlier historical moment, Cabezas called for dramatic changes. "We propose to make the CDS a...vast community movement where people organize to resolve their problems," Cabezas told a gathering of CDS leaders in July 1988.

No longer would the CDS be called on to carry out tasks such as military recruitment or political mobilizations, which were the responsibility of the government or of the FSLN as a political party. Rather than being passed down from on high and uniformly applied in all areas, projects should be initiated in the neighborhoods according to "the tastes of the customer and the interests of the barrio," Cabezas said.

Saying that "the flies that breed disease are not sectarian," the national CDS leader appealed to "evangelicals, Christians, communists, brunettes, blondes, Sandinistas, priests, atheists and people with or without a political party" to unite around concrete projects such as neighborhood cleanup campaigns and the building of health centers. The organization must be apolitical, he said, or risk divisions.

As part of the renewal process, Cabezas called on neighborhoods to elect new coordinators and hold assemblies to review finances and evaluate past activities. The organization was to include everyone concerned with the good of the community from Alcoholics Anonymous to local sewer repair committees. Each barrio was urged to choose a name for its organization that would attract the broadest possible constituency. If calling the group a "Sandinista Defense Committee" would alienate those who were not party loyalists, then another tactic should be chosen. The National Coordinator cautioned local leaders that there were no "universal formulas" for success. "Don't wait for instructions; invent your own solutions!" he urged.

A number of circumstances converged to favor the success of Cabezas' efforts. The 1987 Esquipulas peace agreement and the accords signed with the contras in Sapoá in March 1988 marked the beginning of the end of the military war. The breathing space that this offered eased the anxiety about criticism that had dominated when the country was under full-scale attack. In 1988, along with the revamping of the CDS, dramatic economic reforms were launched, the women's movement began to address more controversial issues such as abortion and abuse and the space for opposition activity expanded.

Then, too, the full effects of the economic crisis were beginning to be felt. The state could no longer afford the subsidies and high employment levels of the first few years. As government jobs and neighborhood services were cut, the gap had to be filled with grassroots volunteer effort. "We have to forget about 'Daddy Government,'" said Cabezas.

Even natural disaster played a role in the broadening of the CDS. The hurricane that struck in October 1988 brought forth an outpouring of grassroots energy. Groups ranging from the Sandinista Youth to the Boy Scouts joined civil defense preparations beforehand and the cleanup and relief effort afterwards. From the national to the neighborhood level, the disaster brought together forces that had never collaborated before and reawakened the community spirit in many jaded hearts. The new CDS movement sowed seeds in this fertile ground.

From the bottom up

Almost a year later, the results were beginning to show in barrios around Managua. Though there were varying degrees of success and it often took months to reawaken interest, all but two of the sixteen neighborhoods where interviews were conducted reported that participation had grown over the last year and hundreds of locally initiated projects had sprung up. The movement had begun to attract new sectors of the population, particularly youth, for the first time.

Most, though not all barrios had held elections for new leadership in the last year. In the middle-class neighborhood called Centroamérica, these were quite elaborate. Eighteen candidates were nominated from different sections of the neighborhood and each created their own campaign platform and propaganda materials. An electoral council made up of respected community members oversaw the process. A committee of seven was chosen by secret ballot; the member who received the most votes became the coordinator.

Elsewhere, the solutions were different. In Barrio Manuel Fernández, a self-appointed revitalization committee held balloting for block coordinators. Overall barrio elections will come later when enthusiasm has rekindled. In Villa Rafael Herrera, the longtime coordinator of one block tried in vain to convince residents to hold elections. They insisted that they felt well-represented by him; besides, one neighbor argued, if now the power lay in the grassroots, it didn't matter so much who the coordinator was.

Though some had problems generating community interest, most neighborhoods had held a public accounting of funds to dispel old suspicions. At a meeting of some 70 residents in the Ricardo Siú neighborhood for example, the former coordinator detailed the financial state of the organization and turned over the communal property: the CDS seal, two benches, a broken stereo, an umbrella
and some banners. In many areas, this process has been institutionalized as a regular event aimed at maintaining community trust.

Though different neighborhoods have adopted different strategies depending on their particular history and social composition, all those interviewed insisted on the importance of working from the bottom up. "Now we're not waiting to resolve our needs until someone gives us instructions," said María Antonieta Rodríguez.

"We don't tell people what they have to do. They tell us what to do," said local coordinator Armengol Téllez, explaining the new concept of leadership. "You’re the guide. The people do the rest," added Gilberto Barberena of Ciudad Sandino. Grassroots activists roundly rejected the concept of armchair leaders. "You have to grab the wheelbarrow and the shovel. You have to share the work like everyone else," said Téllez.

Over and over, activists stressed the importance of starting with concrete projects that respond to immediate needs and achieve immediate results. In Barrio Manuel Fernández, it was paving a street; in Barrio Venezuela, it was demanding property titles for long-time occupants; in Centroamérica, it was a garbage-recycling project and a community garden. Elsewhere, CDSs are building parks, installing electricity and water service, repairing schools, planting trees, running food cooperatives, vaccinating children and dogs and organizing baseball teams. A number of them are developing projects to offer alternatives to disaffected youth and draw them away from the gang activity that has sprung up in recent years.

In some neighborhoods, projects were proposed and organized by residents; in others, where community spirit lagged or skepticism toward the CDS prevailed, local organizers themselves took the initiative, convinced that once people saw results they would participate. House-to-house visits were made to former activists and respected members of the community to urge them to get involved; block and neighborhood assemblies were held and people from other barrios were brought in to talk about successful projects.

Organizers have succeeded in attracting earlier dropouts from the CDS movement as well as apolitical residents with a genuine concern for the common good. In one neighborhood, a conservative Mormon joined in, saying she felt comfortable because the CDS wasn't trying to involve her in politics. In another, local activists convinced a man they describe as "reactionary" to take charge of the sports teams.

The only opposition party reportedly doing community organizing is the small leftwing Popular Action Movement—Marxist-Leninist (MAP-ML) whose members occasionally work with the CDS on issues—like anti-eviction struggles—where they feel popular interests are being defended against the encroachments of the propertied classes. The MAP-ML's general view is that the Sandinistas' choice to maintain the mixed economy and its alliance with the "patriotic" private sector puts limits on how far CDS demands can go in challenging private property. Though they sometimes collaborate with the CDS, the opposition party sees little future for the organization. According to MAP-ML member Francisco Gutiérrez, the CDS is a "dead and buried corpse," killed by bureaucratic government control. Gutiérrez coordinates the party's effort to establish its own organization parallel to the CDS, the Committees for Popular Struggle, which function in a few neighborhoods in Managua and elsewhere, working around community grievances and trying to recruit dissatisfied residents.

None of the other 19-odd political parties were reported to be active on neighborhood issues, perhaps because they lack platforms that address people's concrete needs and feel unable to compete with the FSLN, particularly in the popular barrios from which it has historically drawn its base of support. "It doesn't interest them to get involved in foolishness like planting trees or cleaning up the garbage or saving people in the hurricane. What does interest them is getting back into power so they can repress the people again. They're idiots. They should get involved to gain some moral authority," said María Antonieta Rodríguez, herself a member of the FSLN.

Pluralism and popular interests

The CDSs have come a long way from the party and state appendages they once were: new leadership has been democratically elected, social improvement projects based on broad outreach predominate, and many groups have adopted more neutral names like "Committee for Community Development." But for some activists, it has been hard to give up the "Sandinista" in the CDS. For many, the links between the Sandinista struggle and the freedom to organize and develop the community that it made possible are too strong to be denied. "Whether we like it or not, this community center is Sandinista," said Socorro Guerrero, waving around at the building decorated with murals of revolutionary heroes.

Nevertheless, in a pluralistic CDS where a political line is not handed down by decree anymore, the role of a Sandinista militant is often less than clear. When asked, rather than suggesting that they offered a unique radical perspective on community problems, most FSLN members active in the CDS simply said their job was to win adherents by demonstrating their dedication to the community. Said María Antonieta Rodríguez, "They elected us to lead the barrio first because we have identified ourselves with the community, and second because they know we are Sandinistas. Through the mass organizations, the FSLN is going to win next February's elections because we are responding to the community’s problems."

The shift in the character of the CDS reflects a reaffirmation of the Sandinista project of political pluralism and a mixed economy with all the limits that implies. The CDS is now seen as an
instrument for reconstruction based on national unity, rather than as the force for political education and mobilization that it once was. The political pressures on the revolutionary party in power demand that community organizations that support the revolutionary process represent popular interests but, at the same time, that they mediate the class conflicts that inevitably arise in a mixed economy and channel popular discontent into constructive action.

In April 1989, a number of former landowners, including several Ex-National Guardsmen, took advantage of the reconciliation process currently underway to go to the Nicaraguan courts and demand the return of their property, which in some cases had never been formally confiscated. When the courts ruled in their favor, the neighborhoods exploded. In Barrio Juan Emilio Mendocal, a group of residents, led by the local CDS, occupied a community health center located in the former home of a Somocista now living in Miami. The group, mainly women, faced down the judge who came to serve an eviction order and defied chain-swinging thugs who tried to reclaim the property on behalf of the former owner.

After more than three days of occupation, the government issued a decree freezing all evictions on behalf of former Somocistas for a period of ninety days while a new law is developed. The house in Barrio Mendocal was declared in the public domain so the health center could remain. The community celebrated their victory.

The CDS participation in defending squatters' rights put them squarely at odds with at least one branch of government, and feelings ran high. "The justice system is not doing justice in favor of the poor," commented Fermín Torres, whose neighborhood also faced similar conflicts. Yet, though these anti-eviction struggles demonstrated a new CDS autonomy vis-à-vis the government, the communities expressed a faith in, not a rejection of, the revolutionary process. The CDS members involved simply assumed the state was on their side and would meet their demands without repression. They wanted to "fix the laws, not the government."

But, though the CDSs may be confident of the government's good intentions, they are not willing to sit on their hands. "We couldn't wait for someone else to do our work," said one of the occupiers in Barrio Mendocal. "If we as a people hadn’t moved, we wouldn't have achieved this victory."

There is other evidence that the relationship with the state is no longer one-way and top-down. As neighborhoods have organized to address their needs, the demands on government institutions have multiplied and the bureaucracy has been forced to respond. When the mayor of Managua failed to come through on his promise to pave a street in Barrio Manuel Fernández, the community invited him to a public assembly and insisted that he commit himself in front of all 500 in attendance. When the Ministry of Housing (MINVAH) tried to tell the neighborhood who was to be given plots of newly available land, the CDS rebelled, saying it already had a list of needy people. "We knew the reality here and we made MINVAH respect us," said Mario Zavala. "The CDSs are not a blind tool of the revolution like they say in other countries," said Zavala. "They act to strengthen and modify the state to make our needs its main priority."

The mayor's office in Managua has already adapted its structure to become more responsive, creating six district offices throughout the city where local groups can come to request services or material support for their projects. Councils are being formed in each district, made up of elected representatives of its 30 to 40 neighborhoods, to make proposals, decide on projects and oversee the distribution of resources. CDS leaders welcome the development, but point out that it is not clear whether the councils will have decision-making power or will be merely consultative bodies. Neighborhood representatives must speak for community interests, rather than becoming "spokesmen for the mayor's office," warned Mario Noguera of the Managua CDS office.

Starting over

The effort to return the CDS movement to the people has already made a significant impact across Managua, but no one expects change to come overnight. Though 100 people now come to community meetings in Barrio Venezuela, old-timers remember when there was standing room only. In the Jonathan González neighborhood, turnout for vaccination campaigns is encouraging, but participation in building the new preschool is erratic and some think workers should be hired instead of relying on volunteer effort. In Ricardo Siú, there is enthusiasm for acquiring property titles for individuals, but the food cooperative hasn't generated much interest and someone pulled up all the trees planted by the youth club. "It's going to take a lot. To create something new is easy, but when it's already created and it falls through, starting over is very difficult." said Socorro Guerrero.

One of the greatest trademarks of the Sandinista revolution has been its willingness to honestly assess errors and change strategic course. The history of the communal movement in Nicaragua reflects this self-critical practice, as well as the revolution's commitment to the popular majority. Having taken steps to transform its relationship to the CDS, the challenge to the Sandinista government is to continue supporting the growth of an independent, critical communal movement, even when it clashes with official policies in the defense of popular interests.

Early Sandinista rhetoric made much of the CDS as an organ of popular power. While the organization had its own representatives in the country's legislative body, there were grounds for that claim. But now that the Council of State, with members representing all organized sectors of society, has given way to the National Assembly, a more traditional parliamentary structure, the CDS as an organization no longer has direct access to decision-making power about major national issues. Its role now is more that of providing for needs the state cannot meet alone and defending the popular interests within the push and pull of a pluralistic society. The decisions it makes are most often immediate and practical, rather than political and strategic.

Still, the CDS' new independence and its emphasis on community self-reliance may open up possibilities for grassroots empowerment that did not exist when a benevolent state called all the shots. The greater space given to the forces of private enterprise and the political opposition may ironically stimulate a more militant communal movement by threatening popular gains than when the right wing was on a shorter leash.

This depends largely on the political education work done by grassroots Sandinista activists within the CDS. As Father Rafael Aragón of the Monseñor Lezcano church told the INIES researchers in 1985, "...it's important to develop a critical, analytical and participatory consciousness in people. Now people see the revolution as a fact, but not an experience that is felt and lived." If organizers succeed in creating this new kind of political awareness, the revolutionary state is likely to face more and qualitatively different demands from a renewed grassroots community movement.

Excerpts from an Interview with CDS National Coordinator, Comandante Omar Cabeza

envío: What is your evaluation of the work of the CDS over the last year since the revitalization campaign began?

Cabezas: My evaluation is quite positive if we take into consideration some elements. One: the pitiful state of decline of the CDS before this new period because there were barrios where there was nothing and there were barrios where, worse yet, the people didn't want there to be anything. That is to say, we began in some places from zero and in other places from less than zero....

The other element to take into account is that the new conception is less than a year old because we announced it a year ago, but we began to train people--the community leaders--about three months later.... This has been a year of very hard work, nine months of introducing the new guidelines and training leaders so that the dynamic of the movement won't come from above, but from the base, that it will develop in the base without needing constant guidance. The community must be trained and must generate its own dynamic and its own processes. We think that we've laid the groundwork in the whole country.

envío: hat is the new relationship between the communal movement and the government, now that the CDS are no longer an extension of the state?

Cabezas: Now it is, or it should be, a beautiful relationship. Because now the community is no longer the instrument of the state; the state is the instrument of the community. For example, the barrios are making their health plans and going to the Ministry of Health (MINSA) for support. No longer is MINSA making the plans and going to the barrios for support. The same is happening in other spheres. We're inverting a relationship which was distorted before. I think that there have been advances, but that...there's still a lot of work to do.

envío: Beyond the practical value of community organization, what political value, in the general sense, does it have?

Cabezas: I think that the greatest political value is the exercise of real participatory democracy, where people participate not as objects, but as conscious subjects who exercise power and use it to transform their reality.

envío: What impact will the CDS have on the national elections?

Cabezas: The role the communal movement will play vis a vis the electoral process is determined by the role the different political parties play within this movement....

envío: Until now the opposition parties have had little participation in the barrios. How do you explain this?

Cabezas: I'm not [an opposition] leader who can respond to that. But I have some hunches.... They are so small that they asked that the electoral law be reformed so they could register as parties and the law was changed. I don't see how these poor parties that are so small they can't even form leadership slates for each municipality could have a great impact on the community movement when they don't even have a great impact among themselves. But this is a subjective, superficial, somewhat impudent opinion. So I think that you'd have to ask that question of the leadership of those parties.

envío: If peace comes at last, what effect will it have on the communal movement?

Cabezas: It could have an effect of greater revitalization, a positive effect, because the war has always been a disturbing element in everything, in the educational system, in production, in health and I don't think community organization is any exception. Peace will strengthen even more the participation of the population in the solution of their problems.

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