Today's Political Crisis Is Good for Pushing Social Demands
Dora María Téllez, president of the Sandinista Renovation Movement, a 1995 split from the FSLN now allied with it in the National Convergence, analyzes the current political crisis and comments on some of its aspects, putting them in cultural perspective and offering some clues for understanding the crisis and taking it more in stride.
Dora María Téllez
The culture of cutting political deals, making pacts and then re-tooling them is now so much a part of Nicaraguan political life that we could be forgiven for thinking it’s the only dynamic there is.
Both the Right and the LeftThe first thing we have to accept is that Nicaragua’s political parties aren’t programmatic parties anymore. That’s the major problem of the two biggest parties involved in this crisis: they’ve been losing their programs along the way.
are bereft of a program
The Sandinista program of constructing a just society was much easier at the time of the revolutionary triumph because things were clearer. It was obvious enough that they had to create a new army or implement an agrarian or urban reform. At the beginning of the revolution, the program was beautifully clear and simple. But in the nineties, with the crisis of socialism, the crisis of paradigms, the Left no longer had a clear referent in trying to come to grips with globalization, the power of the market, the neoliberal and conservative ideology. Still casting about for a program, it’s immersed in a huge debate: what role should the market play in a leftist party’s platform? And what should the state’s role be? What kind of democracy are we talking about if we’re not going to differentiate between bourgeois democracy and popular democracy any more?
The Left has been tacking from one side to the other trying to find a new course. In Europe, we see the British Left, the Labor Party, aligned with the United States in the war on Iraq. In terms of international policy, which is critical in times of globalization, this Left is on the right, allied with the extreme Right represented by Bush’s group. In Germany, the Left has new problems, as does the reemerging Left in Spain. All these organizations have to come to terms with the challenges involved in governing in a world as complex as today’s.
Latin America’s Left is even more variegated than Europe’s, as are the situations in each individual country. On the one hand there’s Tabaré Vásquez in Uruguay, whose trajectory dates back to the sixties and who has consistency as a political leader with the great virtue of having constructed a party, built alliances and established a program for today’s Uruguay. He has been in public administration since he was mayor of Montevideo, always acting transparently, with human warmth and strong links to the people. On the other hand there’s Lula, one of the Latin American Left’s strongest symbols, who today finds himself governing a country as incredibly complicated as Brazil, which leaves little room for maneuver. He has to act very responsibly, and faces that great leftist challenge: not to govern only four or five years, but to keep his party in power. Because you can’t change anything if you only govern for a few years, only to be dislodged from power and see the pendulum swing back again.
Crafting a new program today takes gutsThe leftist organizations Latin America has had and has today are finding it difficult to come up with a program. One of the problems is that crafting a leftist program in this uncertain period takes guts, because it implies rethinking some very thorny issues. What role do you give the market in our societies? For some people on the left, simply mentioning the market brands you a capitalist sell-out. There’s not enough pluck among leftists to stand up to that and study these issues in depth, which is why much of the Left prefers not to work on programs at all but to stick to a strong, familiar, radical discourse, a “revolutionist” discourse, as Lenin called it, because it’s comforting to hear in these times.
That discourse is what feeds a broad sector of Nicaragua’s leftist electorate. But the same thing’s true of the rightwing electorate. It’s also being fed a discourse, in this case an anti-Sandinista one, but without a program. The Nicaragua Right’s program was the struggle against the revolution, and when the FSLN was voted out of power, it was left with just a neoliberal program. So now that neoliberalism has collapsed as an alternative in Nicaragua, it’s bereft. Who knows what the Liberal Party’s program is? What are the Liberals proposing regarding labor rights, social security? We have no idea.
But we also don’t know what a Sandinista, two Sandinistas, five Sandinistas would put forward on these issues. They could propose entirely different things. So, what then is Sandinista identity? What is it each one believes when affirming, “I’m a Sandinista”? Some would say they’re defending national sovereignty, but they have no answer to the next question: What does that mean in these times of globalization? And while we’re on the subject of national sovereignty, what will a regional customs union or economic integration or free trade mean to sovereignty?
And what do we mean when we refer to social justice? It’s a fundamental question now, when everybody—the government, international lending institutions such as the World Bank, even the International Monetary Fund—is talking about the poor… Twenty years ago talking about the poor was considered radical and subversive. Now, if you talk favorably enough about the poor, you could even land yourself a consultancy job! Poverty is no longer a political affair. It has a statistical argument, not a political one. There are now offices for the poor, secretariats for the poor, strategies for the poor, millennium targets to reduce the number of poor...
When parties don’t have a program,Against this backdrop, Nicaragua is back in crisis, which has once again resulted in a dialogue, in this case a tripartite one, of only the top dogs. Caudillismo is still being expressed in this crisis. The PLC, having attributed its defeat in November’s municipal elections to the fact that Alemán wasn’t around to keep a firm grip on the process, is in the dialogue to obtain Alemán’s freedom. According to the Liberal analysis, “The procession went out into the streets without its saint,” and because of that the faithful all went their separate ways; the organization didn’t function. And they aren’t entirely wrong, because if the leaders are caudillista, so are the people. Because as a political phenomenon, caudillismo has the serious defect of eliminating the arenas and institutions in which a political force or social group can settle its conflicts and establish consensus. It eliminates the conflict resolution mechanisms, so when the caudillo is away, there are no effective means for resolving whatever conflict arises. And this leads to dispersion in the organized forces; there’s no recognition of other leaders, no way to structure agreements, no concessions between leaders over specific policies, no arbitrage. The absence of the caudillo scatters both the leaders and the grassroots. And this is what’s been happening in the PLC ever since Alemán’s arrest.
their elites just horse trade for power
The first major problem of the agreements that led to the tripartite dialogue is that they are elite decisions taken by the three power circles on issues that are fundamental to us all, to the whole country. These accords will come and go, because not all of us agree with Nicaragua’s current political system, but the problem is not that the system could change; it’s rather that the change results from elite agreements, which does nothing to help develop Nicaraguans’ democratic culture. A debate about such a key issue as the political system should have been open, transparent and developed over time in a debate broad enough to make an impression on the population’s consciousness, on the political culture.
Corruption as a political, not an ethical issueThe second great problem is that, thanks to these agreements, Arnoldo Alemán could go free. That would be a profound defeat in the war on corruption. Alemán could be released not because he’s innocent, but for political reasons—which is actually why he went to prison in the first place. Of course he committed crimes, but so did a lot of others and they aren’t serving time. Alemán was fingered because he chose to take on the Bolaños government. Our defeat as a society is that we can’t convert political motives into lasting justice. The sentencing and imprisoning of Alemán didn’t take root as an act of justice and few have fought over it as that. It naturally didn’t take root as an act of justice in the upper echelons because they never conceived of it that way from the outset. Bolaños and all those around him went after Alemán for political reasons. Otherwise, Bolaños would have pointed out the corruption back when he was Vice President. We have to recognize that we’re barely getting started on the fight against corruption in Nicaragua. While a genuine social substratum is insisting on that fight and demanding justice, it hasn’t yet penetrated the political apparatus.
The cost for those who finally decide to let Alemán walk will be extremely high from both the ethical and political standpoint. Because, after Somoza, Alemán has been the emblematic figure of corruption. His personal achievement was to contaminate everything, to bring corruption out of the woodwork all over the country. Many people who didn’t seem like they could ever sell out revealed that even they had a price.
Can the organized grassroots sectorsThe organized population and the social sectors have to try to take advantage of this tripartite dialogue to resolve some of society’s current problems. Their ability to do so will depend largely on how the civil society organizations regroup to pressure for their demands, putting the three in the dialogue up against the wall. I think it would be mistake for the organizations to want to participate directly in the dialogue, because then they would be forced to make concessions at the same rhythm as the political parties. What they can and should do is insist that the dialogue discuss key unresolved issues, such as social security, agricultural production, financing for health care and education...
make this elite dialogue work for society?
If the dialogue offers this opportunity, it will also put our political culture to the test. Taking advantage of it will depend on how civil society acts. It will have to organize and gather around the problems, not around the three parties to the dialogue. We have some deficiencies here as well: the civil society organizations or social sectors promptly take sides with one of the three. Their position must be firm, never based on whom they have lined up with at one pole or another. And it must be coherent: a struggle against corruption, but with none of the nuances the political parties set. It must be a struggle to reform the political system, just as the political forces are discussing, but demanding democratic changes that help build civic participation.
I believe the tripartite dialogue could produce some much-needed laws for the population, some positive agreements for society., because, albeit for very different reasons, the three parties in the dialogue aren’t going to leave the table. The dialogue could result in a bank for small producers, an agreement that ensures that coffee producers won’t sink next year or a pay rise for health and education workers. I just suggested to National Assembly representative Agustín Jarquín, of the Convergence, that now was the time to submit a bill prohibiting the importation of corn flour. Because if people in our cities continue massively consuming imported corn flour, our corn producers won’t have anybody to sell their harvest to in ten years. I think it’s an ideal moment for such economically reasonable legislation that is strategic for the peasantry. Impeding the privatiza-tion of water is another issue with an excellent chance of being pushed through right now, but it has to be lobbied for; it won’t go anywhere by itself. Nothing moves without a shove. There is now a very peculiar majority in the National Assembly that could approve some economic policy changes and adjustments in the investment plans, and it’s hard for the government to refuse popularly backed projects.
How to get self-interested politiciansAre the three parties to the dialogue really thinking about benefiting the population economically and socially? I think that in politics the protagonists’ intentions are the least of it. The most important thing is what politicians are obliged to do. In the end, they do what they are forced to do, not what they set about to do. What are the three in the dialogue obliged to do right now? To appear to be concerned about the nation’s problems. President Bolaños already demonstrated that his real interest is to finish out his term. The PLC group wants Alemán freed. And the FSLN group wants to strengthen its quotas of power. But, independent of their other intentions, all three are interested in polishing up their image. The interesting thing for everybody else is that this particular political moment in which the three find themselves is a good opportunity to push for certain social demands. Who cares if they’re after something else? Politicians are always interested in power. And in Nicaragua, it’s... well, it’s power in spades! Nicaraguan politicians are obsessed by it and they have a formidable instinct to guide them along the way.
to work for the good of society
That’s Nicaragua’s political culture: the politicians aren’t interested in programs. But then again, nor are most Nicaraguans. For example, many people are going around saying that a Herty Lewites-Eduardo Montealegre ticket would be “good.” Good for what? It would be about as good as rice with a mango. How would Herty Lewites go down with a Montealegre, representative of the financial oligarchy? But many people are saying it would be good, which demonstrates the depths to which we’ve fallen, a great political backsliding that we’ll have to start resolving with formation and education.
We’re politically behind the timesThe concept of citizenship in Nicaragua is a recent one; so recent that not even the political parties’ great and not so great leaders are clear about it. We also have to learn many new concepts related to the new form of democracy. Many Nicaraguan politicians still believe that it’s the democracy of the majority, as in the 19th century and a large part of the 20th, when the democracy of the majority was imposed on the minorities. But in the democratic concept of the 21st century, minorities preserve their rights. Because our parties are still working with the old concept, they always insist that they are the majority, that they have the majority of votes and, as such, they’ll do this or that. But minorities have a right to express themselves. The right of the majorities and that of the minorities have to coexist. That’s modern democracy.
The very thought that Alemán could win the next presidential elections if he’s set free and runs as the PLC candidate is a measure of just how backward we are in Nicaragua today. It is demonstrated by the mere possibility that he could pull votes, even if not enough to win. Is the PLC prepared to tell Alemán that he can’t be its candidate? Hardly. Is the FSLN prepared to tell Daniel the same thing: “You’re our leader, and we want you to continue to be, but don’t run for President”? Hardly. Would any of our party leaders be happy to lead their party without being candidates? Is there any president of an NGO who isn’t also the executive director? It’s very hard to resolve this contradiction in Nicaragua. It’s our political culture. So, is caudillismo in the caudillos or in us? It’s in both.
The best thing that could happen in Nicaragua would be for the political parties to begin democratizing, put limits on the exercise of their power, learn to work with their social bases, rely less on the patronage system and become less authoritarian, less dominated by caudillismo. If the PLC democratizes as a party, it’s a good thing for the country, just as it is if the FSLN democratizes internally. We can’t conclude that it’s bad for me or bad in any other way if my adversary democratizes. It’s a good thing, because it’s good for the country! The ideal would be for the parties to fight, to compete over eradicating poverty. How can it possibly be a problem for me as a leftist if the Liberals eradicate poverty? I’m fine with it; there are plenty of other issues for me to take up.
We can’t decide that a good thing is bad. If we see it that way just because our adversary is doing it, we’re lost as a country. We have to conclude that good is good, no matter who’s responsible for it. Who cares if it’s done by Tom, Dick or Harry, , or that it’s done in God’s name, or in any other name come to that? The real issue is just getting it done, because 70% of the people in this country are trying to live on $2 a day, and this generates utterly dramatic problems that we have to resolve. We have to reach beyond the destructive energy that politics gets us into and then destroys us, because the desire to harm our adversary leads us to harm ourselves. We work under the logic that “It doesn’t matter if I end up screwed as long as I can destroy you! I’ll get him before they get me!”
Democracy is debate and crisis is goodIn the latest Latinobarómetro poll, 70% of Nicaraguans said they would be willing to accept a de facto government provided it resolved the economic crisis and 69% said they would even be willing to turn the government over to private enterprise if that’s what it would take. This shows that we have reached the desperation point, not to mention that our concepts of democracy indicate a still very backward political culture. While 70% agrees that democracy is the best form of government, half of those polled dislike the fact that there’s so much political discussion.
But political discussion is democracy! We’ve been de-educated; we don’t want crisis. But we have to get used to the idea that the essence of democracy is ongoing debate. There wouldn’t be any debate if we were all exactly alike, all thought the same thing. But we don’t, so there has to be constant discussion, conflict, sometimes even crisis. If people don’t cause a crisis over the privatization of water, they’re going to wake up and find it privatized!
Crisis is a good thing, not a bad one. The teachers are saying they’ll go on strike if they don’t get a salary hike: is that crisis bad? It’s good! Crises show that society is alive, that it’s fighting for its well being, that social groups are struggling for their interests. And the political groups are fighting for theirs, too. What we have to aspire to is that these conflicts unfold transparently, that the citizenry increasingly intervene in them, that they less frequently get resolved as elite deals, and, finally, that they increasingly reflect the reality faced by the population.
We have to avoid falling into the trap of dramatizing this or any other crisis, particularly when they are elite ones. Because drama is the politicians’ source of power; they thrive on filling people’s head with crisis. In Nicaragua, the politicians look for ways to talk about crisis so they can then appear as saviors. In an economic situation as difficult as ours, neither side has any real margin for coming up with a solution, and because they know that, they go after the fear factor. A politician’s power lies in the capacity to manipulate our emotions. Let’s not let them do it. They want to create a crisis? Okay, go for it! They can undo it the same way they create it. Is this crisis going to lead to a war? Get serious. Haven’t you noticed that everyone caught up in this crisis is well over 40? Are any of them really going to want to get on a first-name basis with a backpack and boots, much less a weapon? And those under 40 don’t have the power to create crises. So stripped of all the amateur dramatics, those who trigger the crisis will always end up around the same table.