Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 122 | Septiembre 1991



The Sandinista Congress: Rich, Controversial, Inconclusive

Envío team

Over the July 19 weekend, the Sandinista National Liberation Front held its first national party congress in thirty years of existence. That alone made it a weighty event, but was not its only burden. The FSLN today faces a multifaceted challenge of major proportions, which dominated the congress but neither began nor ended there. The first facet, forced upon the FSLN by its electoral defeat and subsequent recognition of past errors, is to undertake a democratic renovation. But because this moment coincided with the generalized crisis of socialism, the FSLN is also being urged by important forces within the nation, the international community and even the party itself to let go of its socialist philosophy and anti-imperialist position. As with other left parties in the world, the FSLN has been shaken by intense and groping debate.

After losing the elections, Sandinistas at all levels began to reflect, and to act, to bring the party into line with what each thought the new political realities and the social needs of Nicaragua's poor majorities required. It was only logical that, with the barriers of top-down leadership and sheer survival lifted and the need for renovation acknowledged, differences would flourish in this process. And flourish they did, to the point of threatening the FSLN's unity.

Paradoxically, the party's crisis is also the product of a historic victory: the FSLN has won the right to exist without the constant worry of being physically eliminated. It has successfully culminated a guerrilla struggle and a l0-year phase in government, both of which served to set in place a new political and social framework in Nicaragua. Now, as the country's most powerful opposition party, with formidable social organizations and media, a presence in the legislative and judicial branches of government and the security that the government recognizes—at least for now—the popular character of the country's armed forces, the FSLN finds itself in an existential crisis. It must now make internal adjustments to allow it to compete for and recover the political initiative—after first finding some consensus on what defines that initiative. All this has put the FSLN's solidity to the test, something that happens to any party rejected by the electorate, whatever its particular history or the international context.

The backdrop to the debate

In the first months of this long-overdue debate, there were not yet any outside obstacles to a full airing of the various interpretations of the past, present and future or of new views on conception, organization and tasks. These obstacles would intrude later, but the main problem immediately following the elections was the intensely emotional atmosphere. It was electrified by the pain and anger of the electoral loss and the venting of a spiritual crisis brought on in each Sandinista, particularly the most selfless.

The debate itself alleviated some of the psychological damage suffered both individually and collectively, but in the process became extremely unstructured and polarized. Election analyses intertwined with criticism of the factors that had separated national and middle-level Sandinista leaders from their bases and the FSLN as a whole from the bulk of society. The chaotic way the outgoing Sandinista government assigned state goods in the last weeks of its administration, known as the "piñata," also felt the lash of this emotional critique. Those benefited least were resentful and some of those who came out well—even a few who, given their class extraction, were not in any need—became absorbed with their own new material conditions.

Emotions, economics, politics and accumulated personal grievances—everything, in short—jumbled together in unbridled criticism, at times even turning into personal jabs between individuals. With all this reported openly in the major media, the FSLN leadership found it almost impossible to apply any methodology to the review process.

All told, it was hardly an ideal situation, but it was logical, perhaps healthy and certainly necessary. It was also to be expected for a party with little tradition of open debate or enthusiasm for pondering theoretical issues that had already split the party asunder once before. Even later, in the assemblies and departmental congresses preceding the National Congress, the views voiced most intensely had to do with deepening internal democracy, rejecting top-down organizing styles, the faculties of the main FSLN leadership bodies (National Directorate, Sandinista Assembly and the Congress itself), election procedures for and make-up of the new National Directorate, the patrimony of the FSLN, review of the piñata and the role of the outgoing Sandinista Assembly at the Congress. Ranking very poor seconds in interest or controversy were the collapse of the Eastern European regimes, the future of socialism, the international situation in general, FSLN relations with social democracy and even the nature of the party.

For most of the first year after the elections, the FSLN leadership found it hard to detach itself from its national responsibilities and perspective and get a firm grip on the problems specifically afflicting the party. Its first priorities were dismantling the armed counterrevolution and negotiating a framework of coexistence with the new government.

In the heat of debate at a June 1990 party assembly, many members proposed convening a national congress to deepen the review process. Some thought the idea inopportune, arguing that the party would be dispersed by debate at the very moment it should be strengthened, but the National Directorate agreed to the proposal.

The date was first set for February 1991, but soon got pushed back to July given the increasing complexity of the national situation—a mounting rightwing offensive on the one hand and the first round of government-business-labor negotiations (known as the concertation forum) on the other. Although this raised suspicions among the Sandinista base, ready as never before to question leadership decisions, that it was trying to buy time or to stifle debate, the postponement allowed the time necessary to prepare for the Congress and let emotions cool. It also gave more time to get to know the new government and thus better define a strategy for the future.

In the two months before the Congress, grassroots assemblies were held throughout the country to discuss two draft documents: a new "Program and Principles" and a proposal for party by-laws. In defining the new program and the composition of top leadership bodies, to be directly elected for the first time, space existed to either strengthen or weaken the representation of the diverse currents running through the FSLN.

According to Barricada, 47,000 Sandinistas participated in the assemblies. Then, in mid-June, over 3,000 locally elected delegates attended congresses in the country's 18 departments. From those, in turn, 501 were chosen to represent their department in the National Congress, taking with them the feedback on the documents and other suggestions on how to rectify and revitalize the party.

By this time, the discussions had become increasingly influenced by the rightwing offensive, which threatened to roll back the revolution's key achievements of the previous 10 years. Sandinismo as a whole found itself caught between the wounds left by the defeat at the polls and its new political battles with the far Right.

The Positions in the debate

The triple imperatives of modernization, unity and democratization were defended by all sides in the debate. But there consensus ended, and heated, unstructured debate on how to define and accomplish them began. The real questions were: modernize in which political direction—toward the right or toward the left? Unite around what positions and interests—those of class to bind together the popular forces or those of the nation to attract other sectors? And with regard to democratization, how can the party best avoid going from excessive centralism to paralyzing democratism?

In previous issues, envío has referred to two political lines of thinking predominating within the post-election Sandinista debate. To understand how events unfolded in the National Congress, it is useful to recap these two strategic currents. They have some overlaps and, if approached dialectically, important complementary aspects, despite the frequently polarizing tone of their respective extremes. We include the most extreme positions on each side, in both cases maintained by very small minorities.

In synthesizing the positions of these two currents, it should first be stressed that reality, as always, is much more complex. Individual views on specific issues range all along the overall political spectrum, sometimes inconsistently. Furthermore, that spectrum is crosscut by another of views on democratization, and the forces grouped around certain positions on one do not necessarily share the same point of view on the other. In other words, the same individual may be quite radical about workers' struggles yet conservative about women's issues, or vice versa; another may favor moderating union demands given the current economic constraints yet may also advocate internal democracy, or not. One person's tactical position at a given moment may bear uneasy resemblance to another's strategic overview. This complexity has given rise to a veritable catalog of labels—technocrats, radicals, renovators, democratizers, pragmatists, purists, social democrats, etc.—few of which stick for long on the individual to whom they are applied.

Defend National Interests

There is no shortage of Sandinistas, many of them professionals in the previous government and/or members of the Sandinista Assembly, who advocate a strategic shift in order to create a party with a genuinely national scope capable of winning the next elections. The premise for this view, promoted by both a large body of pragmatic thinkers and a smaller, more ideological group of genuine social democrats, is that no leftist project can be viable if the nation itself is not. Both groups put the search for political stability before social liberation—which has taken a back seat in any case, given the unfavorable international correlation of forces.

Influenced by the Eastern European experiences, this concept implies drawing up a national project based on the country's new reality and the need to assure social stability. It proposes that the FSLN put national interests before party interests, scrap its guerrilla and Leninist image and leave "isms" to one side. This would mean letting go of the class project supposedly repudiated by the electorate and abandoning struggle based on an analysis of socioeconomic divisions that no longer characterize either Nicaragua or any other modem society.

The pragmatic goal of this shift is to legitimize the FSLN with sectors that want a more progressive society but are tired of confrontational tactics. By gaining the respect of all those interested in saving the country from further polarizing strife, the FSLN would be in a stronger position to negotiate the preservation of revolutionary terrain already won. The building of this broad consensus would also permit the FSLN to return to power through elections—for this current, the sine qua non for protecting the transformations of the past decade.

In practice, this would mean adopting fundamentally civic and parliamentary forms of struggle, safeguarded by the Constitution, to protect popular and revolutionary interests. This current thus advocates adopting flexible negotiating positions with the current government and disassociating the party, if necessary, from violent actions by trade unions or the grassroots sectors. Many Sandinista legislators in the National Assembly, in particular, favor renouncing violence because it antagonizes "public opinion" and diminishes the FSLN's democratic credibility, to say nothing of weakening a government whose very stability is necessary and useful to Sandinismo.

Both "pragmatists" and "social democrats" also urge the FSLN to join the Socialist International—the former to enhance international legitimacy and prevent isolation in a unipolar world and the latter because it is their ideological home. In addition, both advocate a new relation with the United States. "The FSLN," says Rafael Solís, Sandinista alternate to the National Assembly and the most outspoken ideological exponent of this line, "can no longer go on hammering at anti-imperialism to the death, because this term has a confrontational connotation to the United States." In its extreme form, this position also presupposes abandoning the socialist ideal in its search for conciliation with all sectors of society.

Defend Popular Interests

The positions of those in the more radical current are the exact opposite—when they are not identical, but for different reasons. Together with the "pragmatists," they criticize the Sandinista leadership for its top-down impositions and the lack of democracy in the party. But, unlike them, this current also takes sharp issue with the policy of "top-echelon" negotiations and understandings with government leaders such as the President and her presidential minister Antonio Lacayo, whose neoliberal economic policies are a clear attack on the poor. It argues that the FSLN cannot become a social and political mediator, turning its back on direct grassroots representation and defense of the forms of struggle currently taken up by the base.

This position, put forward most strongly by the National Workers' Front (FNT)—made up of all the Sandinista union confederations—and shared to greater or lesser degree by many of Managua's radical intellectuals, the Sandinista Youth, grassroots leaders of the Communal Movement and some Sandinistas in the National Assembly, holds that the FSLN's excessive centralism and specific policy errors contributed more to the electoral defeat than did its general commitment to class interests, making the time now ripe to change certain thinking, structures and leaders. They blame Sandinista economic "technocrats" for putting the national project before the popular one in recent years, and for subordinating both to the hope of getting Nicaragua a better position in the new world political and economic framework. They attack "the petty-bourgeois utopia of class conciliation and non-antagonism between the interests of exploited and exploiters, which only serves to undermine the struggle of the exploited."

In the Congress, FNT leaders insisted on greater commitment to the workers' daily and strategic struggles, even, some argued, if they lead to street confrontations and taking public buildings as pressure tactics. They recalled the feeling of not having full backing from their party, some of its leaders or the Sandinista media during the 1990 strikes. While they do not oppose trying to return to power through elections, they do not see it as imperative; the bottom line for them is to assure that, by leading the struggles to defend the revolutionary gains, the popular majority recognizes the FSLN as its party. The people and their organizations, not the state, must be understood as the source and form of power. This position holds that the obsession with returning to government has distanced the FSLN from its fundamental reason for existing—to be among the people and organize, with them, a popular project that defends both the revolution and the nation. "It's about more than being a vanguard party in possession of the government," was the way one phrased it; "it's about being the party of society's forces in motion, of linking up with them, fomenting the protagonism of the strong groups and organizations."

As with the other current, this one, too, has its extreme, or "purist" advocates. Drawing no useful distinctions between the Lacayo position and that of the Godoyistas in the "bourgeois" UNO government, they view the FNT's participation in the concertation forum as an error. Though many FNT leaders recognize the validity of a dialectic between popular pressure and negotiated solutions, this more extreme group does not. (What angers FNT leaders most about the top-level FSLN-government negotiations is that they often occur without first consulting the FNT, thus occasionally pulling the rug out from under FNT actions.) And if some in the other current draw no distinction between legal strikes and illegal building occupations when criticizing the unions for confrontational and destabilizing actions, the "purists" similarly do not in backing those actions.

Daniel Ortega Takes Sides

Toward the end of May, former President Daniel Ortega began to take part publicly in this ideological debate. He put all his prestige behind mass action, clearly identifying Sandinismo with the cause of the dispossessed. In all of his declarations, he warned that the FSLN must not fall in the trap of those who, in the name of modernization, would change the FSLN's very nature and purpose.

Speaking for the National Directorate, he made a self-criticism to the Managua departmental congress about negotiating with the government behind the backs of the Sandinista unions and other grassroots organizations. He also invited any Sandinista who wants the FSLN to abandon its fundamental criticisms of capitalism to join another party. His advice was the same for those advocating accommodation with the United States: "Those who think we have to put on a friendly face for imperialism, that we have to take off our red and black bandanas so the Yankees will accept us, should seek out one of the pro-imperialist parties we already have too many of here in Nicaragua."

According to Ortega, the FSLN should continue taking its strength from the people, in particular bringing in middle and professional sectors and former contra peasants, all with an eye to defending popular interests. Indirectly reproaching those who insist on exclusively legal forms of struggle and criticize the FNT for its strikes and building occupations, Ortega defended "the right to rebellion." "Modernization," he said, "must be understood as a tool to defend the revolutionary project, not to bring back capitalism, liberalism and neo-Somocismo." If any party members or leaders consider a particular union action incorrect, he challenged, their duty is to involve themselves in that struggle and defend their differing political assessment from within.

His participation in the debate signaled a clearer position within the National Directorate on the controversial topic of mass action versus parliamentary-negotiating action. To some degree, his posture restored balance in the Sandinista media, which FNT leaders felt had given the "pragmatic" sector more representation than its numbers merited. While everyone knew that some Sandinista legislators did not share the union radicals’ positions, it had been difficult to quantify the views of the Sandinista base around the country. Ortega's statements, in fact, reflected an insistence in all the departmental congresses that the FSLN ratify its definition as a "revolutionary, democratic and anti-imperialist party that defends popular interests and draws on the Nicaraguan people's historic tradition of struggle." This was in fact formalized in the National Congress.

Change Leaders?

The new by-laws proposed electing a new National Directorate and possibly expanding it. While this brought up many conflictive issues, at stake strategically was which "democratic and renovating" concept would have most weight in the new FSLN. The danger was that one sector of Sandinismo, dissatisfied with the greater political space conceded to its rival, would send the Congress and the party itself into crisis, provoking divisions hard to heal. This would be a dream come true for the US government and Nicaraguan Right, which had shifted their slander campaign against Sandinista leaders into high gear as the Congress neared. For the past 12 years, the National Directorate's own unity had been fundamental to guaranteeing party unity and the convergence of its different currents. Now this was being threatened by democracy itself.

The Directorate's ideological composition, concern about democratic election procedures and ill feelings about the piñata, however, had become inseparable issues. The FSLN's top leaders had paid dear for not putting an early halt to the anti-piñata campaign by clearly and repeatedly defending what they strongly believed were justifiable criteria used to give out and deed properties while being self-critical about what was abusive and arbitrary. Not even the Ethics Commission, created in the June 1990 assembly, submitted a convincing report to the Congress, in large part, because the hastily designed system for submitting complaints did not function. It remains to be seen whether the new commission elected in the Congress will be able to remedy that problem in the future.

In mid-June, the National Directorate, backed by the Sandinista Assembly, issued two proposals about the Congress that triggered angry controversy in the departmental congresses and in the media. Even though all final decisions were the faculty of the Congress itself, the proposals were seen as a transgression of the will to democratize the FSLN.

National Directorate elections. One proposal was that all current National Directorate members would put themselves up for reelection on a single slate, which would also include National Directorate Secretary René Núñez Téllez and former Vice President Sergio Ramírez. (That slate also included General Humberto Ortega, who resigned from the Directorate last year as a condition of remaining as head of the army after the new government took office. See "The Last Word," this issue, for a condensed version of his speech to the Congress explaining his decision to decline the Directorate seat.) This proposal did not directly violate the draft by-laws, which only stated that the Directorate be elected by direct and secret vote. But it stunned those who expected—and wanted—to vote for each candidate individually. The polemic turned largely on whether a pre-selected slate of candidates is as democratic as voting on those same candidates one by one, but the issue was not only an abstract one.

Particularly for a large minority of delegates to the Managua departmental congress, making changes in the National Directorate went beyond redefining its responsibilities or the political orientation that would guide it; it implied changing concrete individuals. They accused the National Directorate of brandishing "unity" and the country's admittedly dangerous political instability as covers for its unwillingness to risk that any members might be voted out. Such personal questioning of individual Directorate members was heard much less often in the rest of the country, where, according to Managuans, the slogan “National Directorate, give us the order” still prevails. More to the point, the further away from Managua, the more criticism and resentment in the hinterlands is directed to middle-level cadres who unquestioningly implemented unpopular national policies and did not fight to make local views heard up the leadership chain. Directorate members had also actively campaigned in the departmental congresses around the country, winning support for the Directorate's arguments.

If there was significant discontent about the slate proposal per se, there was virtually none about bringing Sergio Ramírez and René Núñez—both of them individuals of unquestionable political and ethical merit—into the National Directorate. The vast majority recognized that they would maintain the balance within and outside Sandinismo. These two individuals also put to rest the Directorate's concern that expanding could upset the successful methodologies of debate, criticism, consensus-reaching and unity that had been forged over the past 12 years; throughout that grueling period, both had worked intimately with the Directorate.

The Sandinista Assembly. The other proposal that raised hackles was to give the Sandinista Assembly, a consulting body of some 80 members appointed 12 years ago, full voting rights in the National Congress. Again, some who opposed this proposal argued on grounds of democratic principle—a non-elected bloc should not be given the possibility of swinging any vote of the 501 directly elected delegates. And again, for others it was a political issue: many Assembly members were Managua-based former government officials who no longer represent or even know the interests of the base.

The Assembly itself argued that it had won its right to full participation in the Congress as the historic generation of "elders" who had distinguished themselves in the war against Somoza and later in the government. They insisted that, if the Congress was going to evaluate Sandinista actions, those who shared responsibility for them should be present. This would be the last opportunity for some to argue their positions, since the Congress delegates would elect a new Assembly and it was assumed that not all of these original members would be reelected.

The enormous controversies in the departmental congresses about these two proposals overshadowed many other important issues. Despite the furor, all the congresses finally ratified both proposals. Dissenting motions from "democratizing radicals" were defeated by "democratic-centralist moderates" who supported the existing National Directorate and rejected a "referendum" on each member. A third proposal that Daniel Ortega be the new FSLN general secretary and Henry Ruíz its treasurer received widespread support.

An equally intense debate was triggered by the determination of many Managua delegates to nominate Dora María Téllez to the National Directorate. Given their active campaign before the departmental congresses, her backers were sorely disappointed when she did not appear on the Directorate's proposed slate. They continued pushing her candidacy all the way through the National Congress, even though she declined their nomination in Managua's departmental congress. The media again focused largely on an abstraction—"a woman" on the National Directorate—but the fact was that the union radicals had parted ways with their intellectual counterparts over politics more than gender. (This is not to suggest that having "a woman" in the FSLN Directorate was not a major issue in itself, even within the Directorate.) Téllez's long and distinguished history in the party, her obvious leadership qualifications and her active support of democratization and greater popular participation had earned her the respect of both sectors. But, as a Sandinista bench leader in the National Assembly, she does not unqualifiedly defend "worker rebellion." (See interview in this issue for an appreciation of her views.) The FNT chose not to put its considerable lobbying weight behind her.

In a rules meeting between the National Directorate and all the delegates the night before the Congress officially opened, she repeated her decision not to run. The most ferocious debates of the Congress took place in that all-night, closed-door meeting, and it was there that the "radical democratizers" discovered they were a smaller minority than they had thought. In the meeting, it was agreed that, although top leaders should be individually voted on in the next stage, this time a slate was valid so as not to alter the Directorate's leadership capability during such a critical period of national instability. By the day of the actual vote, no opposing slate had been submitted, and the Directorate's own slate was given an affirmative vote by 95% of the delegates. Both Téllez's staunch supporters and some women for whom full representation was more important than specifics were not mollified by Daniel Ortega's closing speech to the Congress, in which he stuck mainly to the abstract: "You may be asking yourselves why, if the problem was to maintain the same Directorate yet deepen the democratic process, two new compañeros entered, and no compañeras? ...Our commitment as FSLN general secretary is to work with you, so that in the next elections for National Directorate we'll have women in the FSLN leadership." Some women complained that "once again we're being asked to wait."

New consensus; new organization

In light of the increasingly militant grassroots response to the rightwing offensive and the government's economic stabilization measures, the FSLN as a whole leaned more towards the FNT positions in the National Congress, though without rejecting other forms of struggle. This result was in no small part due to the makeup of the delegates themselves, and to the FNT's strenuous and effective lobbying.

One of the clearest indicators of this shift is the composition of the 98 members to the Sandinista Assembly elected at the Congress. Five out of six of the FNT's key figures were elected from the 149 candidates—three of them placed among the top ten vote-getters. Nearly two-thirds of the former Assembly members were replaced, including most of the extreme advocates of the moderate line. This inevitably caused hard feelings among those voted out; some felt themselves victims not only of new democratic electoral processes, but also of a "get even" mood among more radical Sandinistas.

The Congress voted to eliminate a clause from the by-laws that has been a source of recurring controversy in democratic centralist parties. The clause stated that FSLN members have the right to "express their opinions outside of the organization as long as they do not contradict the resolutions of the congresses or the leadership bodies." It was excised after an ad hoc legal commission determined that it contradicted the unequivocal right of all citizens to free expression guaranteed by Nicaragua's Constitution. In the long debate preceding this decision, the traditional view was strongly defended. "When you join a party like the FSLN," said one delegate, "you consciously renounce some of your rights as a citizen. If opinions are debated in the FSLN and one is defeated, I can't go around raising its banner because a majority resolution was already made." Barricada editor Carlos Fernando Chamorro put his considerable weight behind the argument that won the day.

In addition, the plenary unanimously supported the revolutionary media's autonomy. An even more important political change is that the new program also establishes respect for the autonomy of the mass organizations. The only exception is the Sandinista Youth, which, as the FSLN's youth organization, remains subordinated to the FSLN framework.

The departments demanded, and got, proportional representation in the Sandinista Assembly. Areas other than Managua are now amply represented both by those elected during the Congress and by another 18 who are automatic members by virtue of their election last fall as departmental party coordinators. Two other automatic members are the head of the Sandinista bench in the National Assembly and the Secretary of the Sandinista Youth organization.

The women delegates supported territorial representation in the Sandinista Assembly, but also pushed for gender representation, which was not reciprocally supported by the men in the congress. A specific motion to set a minimum of 30% women in each congress was backed by nearly all women delegates but was defeated by the large male majority in the congress.

The departmental delegates also insisted on greater attention and discussion within the party of problems affecting their local communities. The issues for discussion they brought from the countryside lent an air of greater realism to the debates from Managua. For virtually the first time, many Sandinistas from the capital came face to face with the problems of the peasantry and discovered that the FSLN had not really lost the peasants—it never had them to begin with. Delegates spoke of the need to radically change the FSLN's attitude toward the rural areas, recognizing that UNAG could represent small peasant landholders, who had made up the bulk of the contra social base. The critique that no common appreciation of agricultural problems had existed at either the leadership level or in rural FSLN structures, and that awareness and coherence had improved only slightly over the years was barely debated

Delegates from the peasant regions, who know the problems and the war's cost better than anyone, brought such controversial proposals as permitting former contra peasants to join the FSLN and taking the lead in defending their land struggles. The latter proposal was even supported by mothers of Sandinistas killed in the war. In the end, a resolution was approved mandating the Sandinista Assembly and National Directorate to draw up a strategy to help resolve the acute agrarian conflicts, bring peace and stability and improve the FSLN's influence in the countryside. The resolution also recommended the immediate creation of a commission made up of FSLN organizations such as UNAG, ATC and the FSLN Departmental Committees to attend to the most urgent problems.

Instability, violence and the general deterioration of the national reconciliation process, particularly in the countryside, became the centerpiece of a final declaration on "National Stability, Peace and Reconciliation." The fundamental problem was identified as the "regrouping of the most rightwing political sectors who, though a minority, use their positions of influence in the state to roll back the revolution's social transformations, which provided hundreds of thousands of families access to lots, housing and agricultural land." The declaration calls for the convening of a broad-based national conference on the peasant problem with the aim of adopting concrete measures to fulfill land commitments to demobilized army and contra members, provide legal land security, complete the disarming of all sectors and guarantee the physical security of the rural population as a whole.

An inconclusive debate

The various positions expressed in the congress were neither clearly delineated nor consistent. The FSLN has to modernize, but not by becoming another traditional compromising party. It has to break with the Leninist scheme, but not at the cost of abandoning social principles. It should attract the broad majorities and win elections, but not by turning its back on its commitment to popular interests and struggles. It should adjust to the "new order" of a unipolar world and accept market forces, but also preserve its anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist principles and objectives. It should continue being a revolutionary and disciplined party, but shed its military characteristics and be more tolerant of individual positions and differences. It should put more emphasis on democracy, but without abandoning centralism. The ambiguous content of the party's new principles and program faithfully reflects the organization, which is doing its best to make an original contribution to society, despite its top-down style, its occasionally moralist tone, its limited theoretical and analytical levels and its large dose of impatience.

In short, debate did not end with the congress, nor should it have. Still present are a number of elements common to discussions about a new model for the relationship between party and social movements taking place in much of the Latin American Left following the failure of the "statized party" model. Also unresolved is the question of whether only a resolution of the national problem permits socialism or the converse. This, in turn, leaves the door open to the FSLN's longstanding debate about its nature and political composition.

What took shape in the Congress through speeches, resolutions, declarations and in the program itself does not easily and neatly translate into defined political lines, particularly at the moment of street actions, where the mass organizations have been taking matters into their own hands. In other historic stages, the FSLN has usually been able to neutralize the popular sectors' actions when necessary, but with the new democratization it can no longer continue doing so.

Regarding democratization, some observers believe that, by responding immaturely to the demands for change, Sandinismo blew its chance to abandon top-down practices even before the congress. According to them, the party still has "one foot in democracy and the other in centralism." It is an apt observation: the decisions to retain some features of centralism were themselves made democratically. The problem, as more than one person noted, is that "the average Sandinista mentality is still very traditional and narrow, basically because that's the political school it was taught in."

The new signs of democratic space unnerved those still locked into a “party discipline” mentality. And those who had hoped this mentality would be swept away overnight were inevitably disillusioned and tended to take a cynical view of the numerous demonstrations that it had not. One example of such cynicism was the reaction of some when the National Directorate released its lengthy analysis of the party's ten years in government only an hour before its scheduled evaluation in the National Congress. The document had been promised in time for discussion in the departmental congresses, but no explanation for the repeated delays accompanied its distribution. While many did not question the delay in a country where efficiency is a rarity, and some assumed it was due to difficulties in reaching consensus within the Directorate on how to put some criticisms to paper in this final evaluation, the cynics assumed that the delay was intended to curtail effective debate.

For a party that has never held major internal elections before, the voting out of some historic cadres produced a reaction that thick-skinned politicians in parties accustomed to this sort of thing might find almost quaint: both winners and losers were personally very pained by it. But, when all was said and done, the congress' inward-looking process whetted the appetite of many participants for even more democratic space. For the first time they disagreed openly, criticized unabashedly and proposed vehemently—in sum, they tasted the sweet nectar of appropriating their own organization. This brings the FSLN's paternalism stage closer to its end; its members are leaving the nest and testing their wings. The leaders and their anointed cadres are no longer the undisputed owners of the party. Tallying up the new autonomy for mass organizations, the unprecedented election of top leaders, the greater voice for the rest of the country in the future, the holding of the Congress itself and the fact that it has now been institutionalized for every four years, Sandinista reformers with a long-term perspective such as Sofía Montenegro, editor of a Barricada cultural supplement, concluded that the party had taken some major strides and more could be fought for in the next congress.

Politically, the extremist exponents of both political currents were left dissatisfied and isolated. But there was a lesson in that: the Sandinista masses are clear and more cohesive than the upper echelons of the party. Base activists who participated in the local assemblies were more interested in discussing what actions would best resolve their immediate problems than the generalizations in the strategic program document. The urban and rural poor found common cause in these decisions, which were also far more important to them than who was up for election.

A programmatic consensus is emerging at the base: the proposals that came out of the departmental congresses to amend both the program and the by-laws had their own radical quality by insisting on the FSLN's political purity and the condemning of US imperialism, Nicaragua's sell-out bourgeoisie and even the current government. The base-level Sandinistas' pride in the social and economic gains of the revolution was just as vehement as their denunciation of the excessively bureaucratic mentality of some Sandinistas, the opportunism of others and the abuses of still others during their years in government.

For the moment, this new political and democratic thrust has probably gone unnoted by most Sandinistas who did not participate in the assemblies or any of the congresses. For some, initial anger or resentment has settled into bone-tiredness and apathy. Others have converted it into a determination to work directly with the base organizations and leave the party to "talk to itself." Still others are dedicating all their energy to simple economic survival in these new times—an inherent problem for the FSLN as an opposition party in a country that is an economic disaster. It will take a while for the subtleties of the new dynamic emerging from the congress to filter down to them. It is not a flight of romanticism, however, to think that this new dynamic, however ambiguous and inconclusive, could give those alienated forces a small shot of adrenalin.

National and international conditions, not to mention those inside the FSLN itself, could not offer more to Sandinistas looking for clearly defined democratic and political changes. Perhaps four years from now, by the next congress, the dust will have settled on the political horizon and a genuine program can be designed instead of just the "plan of struggle" that was the fruit of this one. The FSLN is once again a hostage of the political times. But its entire history has been one of slowly developing its thinking in a continual dialectic between bouts of theorizing and the imperatives of immediate action in complex political situations.

Many foreign observers, particularly those from Europe, were perplexed by the dearth of interest in or clear opinions on the meaning of Eastern Europe's collapse, the implications of a worldwide "free-market" economy or the myriad other ponderous issues preoccupying leftist intellectuals. They were also perplexed—as were some of its sympathizers and all of its antagonists—to discover that Sandinismo did not bind itself exclusively to any specific method of struggle. Neither the protagonists of a "national project" nor those of a "class project" even came to the congress with clearly formulated proposals for an economic alternative to the neoliberal option.

For the moment, one of the FSLN's two major achievements was to assure that it would remain a revolutionary instrument for Nicaragua's impoverished people. And that was only possible because its first major achievement was to frustrate the rightwing campaign to divide it or at least incite polemics in the congress that would lead it to break with the Transition Protocol and thus open the doors to a sweeping rollback of revolutionary gains. In this sense, one alternative for the right and the United States was to provoke the FSLN to assume structures and positions only maintained by Latin American leftist parties with no possibility of acceding to government. The other alternative was the one the United States hopes to apply in El Salvador—to offer space to the Left only if agrees to be a caged and silent exotic bird in the "democratic" and "de-ideologized" neoliberal garden. But Sandinismo, in its semi-intentional and semi-ingenuous ambiguity, left its hands free enough to take up any form of struggle that the mobilizing energy of the grassroots forces may demand.

By-laws on Party Structures and Membership

National Congress. FSLN members will elect delegates to departmental congresses, which will in turn elect those to the National Congress in proportional representation. The departmental congresses will also name the party leadership committees in their department. The National Congress will meet every four years to redefine the party principles and program; reform and approve the by-laws; design party strategy; assess the leadership bodies’ evaluation reports; pass resolutions on specific political, economic and social issues; approve the party’s presidential and vice-presidential candidates to the Sandinista Assembly, Ethics Commission and National Directorate, as well as the latter’s general secretary and treasurer, individually by secret and direct vote.

Sandinista Assembly. The Sandinista Assembly is now a deliberative body that has final decision-making power between congresses on a series of issues previously reserved to the National Directorate. It will meet at least twice a year and the Directorate will chair its meetings. (Since a clause permitting it to choose its own board of directors was voted down, the degree of effective power it achieves will have to be fought for.) It will be reelected every four years, during the Congress. Its faculties are to approve and oversee the party’s tactics and forms of struggle; define its policy of alliances and relations with the government and other parties in the country; define procedures for selecting FSLN candidates to public office; approve the regulations growing out of the by-laws; discuss and approve the annual budget and treasurer’s reports; convene ordinary and extraordinary Congresses and appoint a preparations committee; create commissions to study specific topics; resolve any discrepancies regarding sanctions, rehabilitation or recognition of members, based on recommendations by the Ethics Commission; and create systems within the party.

National Directorate. The Directorate is now defined as the body “that represents and directs the party on a daily basis and is responsible for seeing that the party’s institutions and organizations follow the directives of the Congress, the Sandinista Assembly and its own.” It will have a minimum of seven and maximum of eleven members elected for the period “between ordinary congresses.” It is a dependency of both the Sandinista Assembly and the Congress and must issue a report to the Congress on actions it has taken. Its functions are to oversee the party’s political-ideological unity and relations between its organizations and the masses; decide relevant issues of national and party life; attend to the party’s national and international relations; convene and chair the ordinary Sandinista Assembly meetings and those necessary to adopt major decisions for party and national life; and guard against the FSLN being used by foreign interests or economic or other groups.

Party membership. A candidate for membership must be at least 16 years old, have full enjoyment of all civil rights and maintain exemplary conduct as a citizen. There are still two categories of membership: affiliates and militants. [In fact, following the elections the FSLN moved toward being a more mass-based party by opening its membership to thousand of sympathizers.] The by-laws stipulate that the FSLN, “as a vanguard party, joins together all Nicaraguans committed to a revolutionary program aimed at carrying out economic, social, political and cultural transformations leading to the consolidation of peace, liberty and democracy; economic development; social justice; a just distribution of wealth and the most noble ideals of socialism.” Former contra peasants are not expressly included or excluded. [A motion to limit membership to those “who have not participated in embezzlement, deviations or corruption in state and/or private institutions or companies” was defeated after National Directorate member Bayardo Arce argued that this was simply a reaction to the rightwing campaign to slander the Sandinistas.]

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


The Sandinista Congress: Rich, Controversial, Inconclusive

The FSLN National Congress


The Transformation of Education: UNO's Political Project

The Revolution Is Not Lost

The Last Word
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development