Herty Lewites’ Movement Has a Sandinista Heart
Commander of the Revolution Henry Ruiz—“Modesto” in the insurrectionary years—is actively supporting Lewites’ efforts to
be the Sandinista presidential candidate. He explained this movement’s origins and shared his initial intuitions about it with envío.
I bout five years ago now, I explained to envío why I withdrew from the FSLN, or more exactly, why I became inactive. I recall some of the things I said at that time. I explained that when a few other Sandinistas and I concluded that Arnoldo Alemán’s victory meant the return to power of a Somocista-style government, I proposed that we mount a frontal opposition to Alemán and began to organize people to that end. I was a member of the FSLN National Directorate at the time. Very soon, I began to hear a rumor that the FSLN was hammering out an agreement on a property law with him. I spoke in private to Daniel Ortega about that persistent rumor, but he swore up and down that there was nothing to it and I believed him. When the property bill agreed to by him and Arnoldo Alemán became public soon after that, I left the party. I just couldn’t fathom how the Sandinista leadership could have made common cause with the Alemán government over such a crucial issue. That 1997 property law—the first concrete expression of the pacts of 1999 and today—was the first thing Ortega proposed to Alemán right after the latter took office and, as we now know, was a death blow to the agrarian reform. Much of the blame for the current tangle of property problems that the country is suffering can be attributed to its contents.
The 1999 pact paralyzed I withdrew from the FSLN right as that policy of alliances was beginning to be expressed, because it was already starting to affect the rule of law in Nicaragua and its predictable results went against the essence of the FSLN. I considered my efforts inside the party a waste of time. That law was the last straw for me. I opposed it and the agreements it contained from the very outset. Without being immodest, I think I was right. They said the agreements were “to defend the revolution.” What revolution?
the grassroots movement
I charged at the time that the FSLN was initiating a chain of pacts that would end up jeopardizing the nation. Once past the rushes and the brambleberries, as the poet Lorca put it, once past the property law, we got to the first pact, the 1999 one. Just recently, Liberal magistrate and former National Assembly representative Iván Escobar Fornos explained in an interview that when Alemán took office, the FSLN had the masses in the streets, it had a Sandinista movement with very powerful organizational muscle, able to prevent Alemán from governing the way he wanted to. Escobar went on to explain that immobilizing that muscle was the political reason the Liberals accepted the idea of reaching a political agreement with the FSLN. I’ve heard people close to the party’s upper circles admit precisely that: the 1999 pact immobilized, paralyzed the grassroots movement. I can’t conceive of a revolutionary party without that muscle, either in power or out of it.
A country full of lawyersToday we see that nobody shows up even when the grassroots movements are called upon to fight for causes related to them. And that’s not because the masses have lost interest in their own affairs; it’s because they’ve lost faith in the idea that any political force responds to and represents them. All the grassroots movements representing popular interests that fought for them in Alemán’s time always ended up with those interests being negotiated by the Alemán government and the FSLN, and the results invariably went against what the people were fighting for. Seeing that happen repeatedly demobilized the social movements. It produced a political scenario of continuous deals and pacts that are now expressed basically in the resolutions of the administration of justice.
loyal to either Alemán or Ortega
Today, all of Nicaragua’s courts are administered by either a Liberal or a Sandinista, or better said by an Alemán loyalist or an Ortega loyalist, not to confuse tallow with lard. And this has converted justice into merchandise, for sale to the highest bidder. The country’s full of lawyers, but if they aren’t with either Alemán or Ortega, they can’t resolve anything and they lose clients. It doesn’t matter if they’re topnotch lawyers; nobody seeks them out because what you have to do in the “big cases” is go to Lenín Cerna’s office and ask him how much the case will cost. The lawyer and client both know, in fact everyone in Nicaragua knows, that if they pay what’s asked, the court proceedings will be expeditious and the sentence favorable. If not, forget it.
The Nicaraguan state now administersThe state transformations initiated during Violeta Chamorro’s administration were necessary. During the Sandinista government, the state prioritized the war we were forced to deal with. Just between the army and the Ministry of the Interior, we had over a hundred thousand public employees who were sustained almost totally by international cooperation and not by what the national economy was generating. This and many other things in the state apparatus had to be reformed. But the transformations Alemán subsequently initiated were designed not to administer public affairs better, but to administer his own interests; then, with the pact, to administer those of both groups. To ensure that, they increased the number of top posts. If previously there were nine Supreme Court judges, they changed it to sixteen. Of course, one of their shared interests was to privately appropriate public funds, which this move also accomplished. Where there were previously nine juicy salaries and nine SUVs, now there would be sixteen. The same thing in the Comptroller’s Office: where before there was one comptroller general and his deputy, now there were five. And the same in the Supreme Electoral Council. All state branches and institutions became spheres of influence for the two groups that now do only what their “chiefs” order. These institutions have become a kind of meat grinder that makes mincemeat out of anyone who dares oppose these two chiefs.
the interests of the two power groups
My personal view is that if two capitalists steal from each other, it’s their business and there are courts to settle any dispute about it. What I can’t accept is anybody stealing from the Nicaraguan state, because that money comes from taxpayers; it’s stealing from the collective. What these two tyrants are doing now is not only divvying up posts but also stealing people’s money through the sentences imposed by the courts they control. One obvious case is that of AGROINSA, where they pulled resources out of the public insurance institution and accredited some $8 million more to the enormous domestic debt we already have, money they will ultimately split between them. This is the type of crime we are seeing in Nicaragua today, and it grows out of this tyranny the FSLN is participating in through its two-faced upper echelons, who always speak for the poor at the very moment they’re stealing from them.
Something had to be done…The situation has only gotten worse between the original pact and the one currently being forged. So what can be done? In May 2004, a group of friends—not politicians but concerned citizens—called me in Carazo to tell me that some solution simply had to be found. At the time, their idea of a solution was for me to tell them what to do. But, on principle, I rejected that. We talked. I asked them if they had a political project in mind or only wanted to participate in the municipal elections that were going to be held in November. They told me they wanted a political project, to which I answered that the first thing to do then was to come up with a platform of common ideas. I agreed wholeheartedly that something had to be done given such a dangerous political situation.
The same concerns had been floating around in my own head. I already saw the country as a budding dictatorship sustained by two columns: Daniel Ortega and his power circle within the FSLN and Arnoldo Alemán, who had all the power in the PLC even though he was still a prisoner on his hacienda. Both have taken popular sovereignty hostage. Haven’t we heard them say repeatedly that because their slates of legislative candidates won 90% of the votes between them, they now represent 90% of the popular will, which to them means doing what they want with the Constitution and the laws? And haven’t we heard Daniel Ortega badmouth civil society organizations when they speak out, trying to disparage them by saying, “So who elected you?” With the concept of “popular sovereignty” that these two men and their parties currently use, we see the emergence of new types of tyrannical expressions every day. Between them, they’ve taken charge of the laws and organized their armies, their legislator soldiers, to execute them. And in so doing, they’ve done away with the rule of law.
A possible alternative Those were my concerns. When my friends and I got together for the third time, I shared an idea with them: “Look, to engage in politics you need tools; ideas alone don’t work. You need communicating vehicles. And in Nicaragua’s case, we need to acquire power, so that from power we can transform public affairs. The Bolaños government has shown itself to be inoperative; its public incapacity is visible to all. But in the middle of all this incompetence, I see someone who’s doing a good job of things, who’s been making a name for himself, and he’s Sandinista to boot.” I was referring to Herty Lewites, who was still mayor of Managua at the time. They all agreed that people spoke well of Herty, and not only in his native department of Carazo. People seemed to take a shine to him in Managua and elsewhere; even peasants in the north spoke well of him and so did people from the coast. “There must be some reason why people like him so much,” I said. We tried to take a closer look at what was making Herty into a pole of grassroots attraction, why he was also getting on well with the middle strata and why not even big business was afraid of him. We decided then that we had to take advantage of this opportunity to do something, and had better do it quickly.
to a full-blown dictatorship?
After all they’ve done to Herty since January, I’m convinced that my idea of a budding dictatorship was short of the mark. We’re not witnessing a budding anything; this is already a full-blown tyranny, one exercised fundamentally in the courts. Anyone who goes there to stand up against either of the two power circles comes up against a brick wall. Thus, the next step we’re expecting is for Herty to be stripped of his political rights by the courts, just as they did to me.
Thanks to two judicial sentences handed down against me by those courts controlled by Daniel and his gang, I can’t participate in public activities or be a candidate for anything. I can’t vote or be voted for. After they convicted me and other board members of the Augusto César Sandino Foundation (FACS) for the second time on appeal, a compañero in the FSLN told me, “It’s to scare you off from promoting the candidacy of a public figure.” I responded that this “public figure” was Herty Lewites and that they couldn’t scare me because at my age I’ve got nothing to be afraid of. It may be because my suprarenal glands no longer generate enough adrenaline, but whatever it is, they don’t scare me. I believe that what I’m doing is right.
Articulating the desire for changeAfter taking those first steps with my friends, I began to talk to Herty about running as a presidential pre-candidate in the FSLN primaries. As it turns out, he’d already had the same idea. At the beginning, he just saw it as quixotic, but I started discussing it with him seriously. He didn’t say anything at first. He seemed to like the idea, but he didn’t say he’d do it. While waiting for his answer, we continued working. We began to travel around looking for discontented Sandinistas and started pulling people and ideas together. We didn’t find any major differences among us.
When Herty told me in October that he accepted the idea, I said, “Don’t say anything about this publicly until you’re out of the mayor’s office.” I figured that if he did, they’d respond with strikes, or at least attempted strikes, charges, claims… because we’d be treading on Daniel Ortega’s sacrosanct right to be the FSLN’s only candidate. “I’ll be quiet as a mouse,” said Herty. “No,” I responded; “even better if we play possum. If they come and ask you, even if they beat you with a stick, you don’t know anything.” And that’s what we did.
We kept moving forward. When we asked Herty how he was going to “come out,” his idea was to gather a couple hundred comrades from the FSLN in Jinotepe, Carazo, to propose his pre-candidacy. Jinotepe was symbolic; it’s his town. Local boy turned Mayor of Managua returns home triumphant, with all his achievements. As the one instigating all of this, I wondered how we were supposed to gather all these militants, because up to that point those we’d met with were dispersed Sandinistas who weren’t active in the party or involved in politics; in fact they were demonized by the leadership. At the end of October, a Conservative friend of both Herty’s and mine joined our group. It seemed to him that if the meeting only included Sandinistas, and only 250 of them at that, it would feel very weak. He suggested attracting non-Sandinistas and proposed a rally with five thousand people, like a grassroots movement to launch Herty’s pre-candidacy. As time went on, the idea gathered strength, and we ended up setting the bar at ten thousand. And that was what happened in Jinotepe in January. That was the opening move of this game.
What we’ve found in all the people we’ve talked to is a desire for change. We’ve also encountered a demand: we’re demanding the right to choose the FSLN’s presidential candidate from the Sandinista bases. And we have a hope as well: we hope we’ll win. We want to win the next elections.
The history of Nicaragua’s Conservative Party demonstrates that a political force with a huge national presence over many years can still totally extinguish itself if it lets itself be shoved out of the real exercise of power through the application of incorrect policies. The glories that the Conservatives still talk about happened over a century ago, during the famous Thirty Year period of Conservative rule. Today it’s virtually extinct. The same could happen to the FSLN, which has been out of office for 15 years, and with Daniel Ortega the candidate in the 2006 elections that’s likely to stretch to 21 years. Ortega has shown himself to be the most rejected politician in Nicaragua, after Arnoldo Alemán. What happened in Jinotepe on January 30 can be explained mainly by the fact that Sandinistas want to return to power and reject Ortega as a candidate. This grassroots expression is being fueled by a combination of these two elements. Masaya on March 13 was another step, a real step forward: a political quality that we intuited but didn’t think would appear so soon.
We want to be a good governmentWhat’s at stake today in Nicaragua is whether there’s enough democratic strength in the country to oppose and stop the current tyranny. We’re struggling to democratize the country. In this “project” we initiated in May 2004, Víctor Tirado, Luis Carrión, Víctor Hugo Tinoco, Mario Valle and I make up the central team around Herty. We’re organized in a structure that’s still very new and fragile, but already has a presence virtually throughout the country.
One major hole is that we don’t yet have a program, though in this is one aspect we’re not very different from either the Liberals or even the FSLN! The FSLN only has an electoral platform, which it drags out for each election, and party statutes that establish norms for its militants, but it has no program. We’re going to construct one. We want to produce something like a decalogue, to synthesize ten major ideas that are realizable, allow the development of good government and take into account the limits imposed on us by today’s world that we can’t ignore. We want to come up with ten ideas that allow us to be an effective government, so that people will end up saying: they haven’t resolved everything, but they already told us they wouldn’t be able to and they haven’t tricked us. We want to be a good government, and by being that, have the credibility to be reelected in 2012. And I don’t mean reelecting the same people, but reelecting the government platform. If we achieve five years of good government, we can achieve ten. And we believe that in ten years we’ll already be able to see some of the transformations we’re looking for.
We urgently need to draft a program, and we’re asking for the collaboration of Nicaraguan intellectuals and professionals who know the national reality, have sound ideological positions and can write well and synthesize, because there are few of us and we don’t have much time. We’ve given them a profile of our ideas so they can work on this “decalogue,” not as something we can then impose but a document that will allow us to take the discussion to the grass roots. We want to establish a new way of doing politics in Nicaragua. I think Herty’s cut out for that, because he likes to be at the base, to fly low. He’s demonstrated that by doing what he’s done, putting himself out there and having the success he’s had. These are the qualities of political cadres more than administrative ones, which he’s always been, but he’s succeeded at it. I always say to him: Don’t lose the standard of your presentation; don’t pretend to be radically left, because we’re the radical leftists around here! Because however leftist the ideology in our heads is, however revolutionary we may be, the times aren’t right for all those profound transformations we dream about and need. What we need here is a doctrinaire and ideological predisposition to favor the vast majorities, while at the same time knowing how to go about it without having to pay unnecessary costs.
Rejecting violence and rooting out the pactNaturally, we reject the idea that we have to return to violence to do away with this dictatorship. I’ve met with young people in the universities who insist that “the only way to resolve this is with bullets” and I’ve given them fifty reasons why that isn’t true. José Antonio Robleto, the deserter from the Somocista EEBI [the elite section of the National Guard], whom I’ve run into several times in this effort—in fact, he introduced himself to me saying, “I was after you in the mountains,” to which I responded, “It’s a good thing we didn’t cross paths, my brother!”—commented that the political intolerance exercised by Ortega and Alemán is creating the conditions for armed struggle. I agreed with him about the intolerance, but told him that I think there are sufficient conditions and forces to break that intolerance without resorting to armed violence. We can’t permit the same intolerance that afflicted Somocismo like a terminal illness to affect this nascent democracy, when conditions exist today in Nicaragua’s population to preserve it, improve it and take it forward. We can’t give any room at all to the idea that we need to return to armed struggle. Our project seeks national democratization, but we’re going after it in peace. We don’t want confrontation, and not because we’re afraid, but because the people have historically paid the costs of the violence and it’s always the poor who lose out.
The Ortega-Alemán pact has been strategic, locked in by reforms to the Constitution. To root it out of the system, both the laws it changed, including the Constitution, and the institutions it transformed need to be corrected. Breaking up the correlation of forces organized within the National Assembly is thus the only way to prevent this tyranny from continuing. So the very least we have to do to prevent its continuation is go after a significant proportion of representative seats in the National Assembly.
If they can’t tolerate us, who will they tolerate?Will they let us compete? Given what we’ve seen and are seeing now, an informed guess is that they will not. They refer to those of us allied with Herty as the “ex’s” and accuse us of all manner of things. They’ve accused me of abandoning Daniel and Luis Carrión of having studied at Harvard, which they consider an abominable crime. They don’t say much about Víctor Tirado, who they consider has been just dabbling in work with the trade organizations without ever really getting serious. They haven’t said a word about Mario Valle, who knows the FSLN structures in Managua like the back of his hand and has brought a lot of people with him.
We’ve found all around the country that these structures aren’t as super-rigid, untouchable or impenetrable as they say. They’re all somewhat porous and some are even detaching themselves. We can only assume that we’re being infiltrated, but we don’t have anything to hide. We talk openly about everything we’re doing because if someone has infiltrated to take notes and report back, we want the information to get back correctly and not be distorted by interpretation. We’re not doing anything clandestine; it’s all above board and transparent.
They expelled Herty and Víctor Hugo from the FSLN with a “dishonorable discharge,” which is a military code we applied during the guerrilla period. It’s the worst dismissal a soldier can have and is punishable in an army with the maximum penalties. First they said Herty was a Judas, then they gave him this dishonorable discharge. The message was clear: we’re going to liquidate you. I warned him of that publicly, not out of fear but so people would know what weapons they’re using and see what this “democracy” of theirs looks like. Because if they can’t tolerate us, who will they tolerate?
Troubles ahead: The electoral authorities...Following disqualification and expulsion with a dishonorable discharge, there’s bound to be a trial and imprisonment eventually, based on some trumped-up charge they’ll push through the Comptroller General’s Office, which of course they control. But we’re in it to the end. Civil disobedience will be a key factor. If they imprison us, we’ll turn that prison into a banner of national struggle. Fear won’t stop us. That’s the great challenge that not only Sandinista militants but all people on the frontier between the old and the new who are seeking national references will have to face.
Being able to participate in the elections is one of our movement’s central objectives. So if, as we expect, the Supreme Electoral Council—which is organized to interpret the electoral law according to the interests of Alemán and Ortega—removes the legal status of any parties with a spot on the ballot that might welcome us, we hope that the popular movement will be more organized and more wired up by then, and will rebel.
...and interference from WashingtonThe US Embassy is also starting to move in on this new scene with its interminable maneuvers. We’re increasingly hearing them say that they’re worried that Daniel Ortega might win the elections, even though they know as well as we do that he doesn’t have the slightest possibility of winning. This means that they’ve begun to read our movement correctly: even though it’s “Sandinismo lite,” it’s unacceptable to them simply because it’s Sandinista.
I think they would prefer any ticket, even one that offers no responses to the country’s problems whatever, if it would mean avoiding the return of Sandinistas to power. They’re starting up already with all their fear mongering about Daniel Ortega, all their classic Washington maneuvers, all the maneuvers of the far Right, because our movement isn’t a toy of theirs; it won’t ask how high when the Right says jump. This movement has a leftist heart, a genuine Sandinista heart.
If you don’t want a bad press,Why are we getting so much backing from La Prensa, from Channel 2, from so many media? Because they are businesses and they feel threatened. They’ve grown a lot in recent years because they’re selling what used to be protected as “state secrets.” Before, if a Sam-7 missile disappeared, who ever learned about it? If some property was sold inappropriately, who knew? Now it’s all in the news: who stole what, who killed whom, who’s doing whatever… These companies have grown in the heat of freedom of expression. They fear being restricted, finding themselves or their businesses threatened. And citizens have the right to know what’s going on; that’s why they pay taxes. The media see us as people who respect freedom of expression.
then behave yourself!
I’m of the opinion that if politicians don’t want the media to speak badly of them, they shouldn’t do incorrect things. You don’t want to see yourself exposed in the media? Then behave yourself! You don’t want them to call you a thief? Well, then, don’t steal! The first behavioral norm if you want to be a “hero” is to live your own life according to your principles. What is absolutely out of line is to steal or do some other illegal or unethical thing and then expect a good image in the media. Could anyone ever have imagined the kind of things Tomás Borge would be exposed for recently in the media? Not me, for sure, and I was a close friend of his.
An efficient, ethical and national governmentA Lewites government would be a government of all, a national government. It wouldn’t be an FSLN government. Its essence would be Sandinista, but it wouldn’t be a government of or for the FSLN, in part because the FSLN vote isn’t enough to win, but also because even if it were, the government has to respond to all of the country’s citizens, because they all pay taxes, even the poorest. Even the beggars and street children pay taxes in Nicaragua given the regressive tax structure we have today. And, by the way, one of our proposals will be precisely to change that structure so that those who have more pay more, unlike now, when they pay less. We believe that we can and will carry out this transformation. But if everyone pays taxes, then everyone has the same right to be governed with justice, equity and political moderation.
Daniel and his movement have lost any sense of ethics, and that has affected all Sandinistas. We have to begin to differentiate what were fair laws to compensate the poor for years of pillage, deceit and swindles. We have to accept that, regrettably, the political activity and goals of those in the FSLN’s upper circles have come to revolve around personal wealth and the lifestyle that goes with it. Is it possible to come up with an ethically based, reasonable explanation for the FSLN’s alliance with a thief like Arnoldo Alemán? That alliance contains nothing whatever of the ethical and moral reference in the Sandinista revolutionary formation. It’s simply disgusting to consider Alemán as the FSLN’s main ally, that national politics can’t move without him, that national affairs have to be resolved in his own hacienda-prison. But such effrontery is catching. When the FSLN lost the 1990 elections, it was said that the party would retain some of the properties we expropriated for social reasons, in order to organize party businesses. I agreed with that measure. But those businesses don’t belong to the party; they’re personal businesses that pay a tribute to the party. That goes against the ethics we fought for. It isn’t what they taught us or what so many gave their life for. And that lack of ethics, that bad example, has spilled down through all of the Sandinista movement and all of society.
We propose a public ethics. We propose administering the national budget with absolute transparency, and to take anyone who steals a cent of it to court. We can and will do that. The private appropriation of public funds is what most harms people’s conscience and ethics. The big private businesspeople will be more willing to pay taxes—as they will have to begin to do—if they know that what they pay is a public good that won’t end up in the politicians’ own pockets. If forced to pay taxes, then everyone, even those businesspeople, will want to see their taxes end up in public works.
I can see Herty running an efficient, transparent, serious and honest government. I firmly believe he’s capable of that. The conditions exist to instill an ethical perspective into the exercise of public affairs and we’re going to do it. The FSLN is incapable of having an ethical program because it would affect the interests of its own leaders.
Serving the public with a tolerant leaderProposing a national government implies allying with sectors and professionals willing to serve the public. We want to eliminate the vice of so many officials from the past three governments, including the current one, who have justified receiving super-salaries on the grounds that it keeps them from moving to private enterprise, which they say would pay better. What private business in Nicaragua would pay them what they earn today in government? We want those who come work for the Levites government to be people who want to serve the population, not earn a big salary. We’ve already been talking to some people who assure us that this is possible.
People ask about Herty Lewites’ health. He’s in great shape; this project has given him a lot of energy. And he’s been lucky with the heart bypass, because they’ve got it working well and it’s increased his blood flow.
They also ask if he’ll have the courage to stick with it through what’s sure to come. He will, and has already demonstrated it. I also give him credit for being a tolerant man. Don’t expect great philosophical deliberations, but rest assured that he’s quite capable of providing feasible responses to this country’s huge social problems. It’s one of the characteristics I most value about him.
Refounding SandinismoThey also ask if Humberto Ortega is really behind this project. He isn’t. Even before we began to talk with Herty, if there was one thing that worried me, it was that Humberto might be behind this search for an alternative. But I’ve also asked myself if it would be a question of principles whether or not Humberto Ortega was involved in this project, considering the goal we’ve defined: to confront what we’re confronting and genuinely democratize the country. I’ve examined my conscience and concluded that it wouldn’t be an issue of principles. As for the rest of the historic FSLN leadership, Jaime Wheelock isn’t backing our effort either. He’s linked to Daniel’s group, although he’s critical and wants to watch things unfold from the sidelines.
We’re seeking people of emblematic honesty for this movement, so people will understand that we’re also trying to refound the Sandinista movement. If anyone were to ask me about this movement’s bottom-line goal, I would say that even without consciously going after it, we’re beginning to find the possibility of reforging Sandinismo, the Sandinismo of Sandino, of Carlos Fonseca, the Sandinismo of so many people who believe in national sovereignty and social justice. That’s what we are encountering as the ultimate target.