The Revolution Is Not Lost
Dora María Téllez
In elections for FSLN departmental leadership in Managua last year, Dora María Téllez won an overwhelming majority of the vote. That confidence and respect reflects her tremendous, and growing, popularity. From legendary guerrilla leader famed for her leading role in the August 1978 takeover of the National Palace and her command of the Sandinista guerrilla forces that took the city of León in June 1979 to minister of health during the second half of the Sandinista administration, Téllez has evolved into a sophisticated and formidable diplomat. Together with former Vice President Sergio Ramírez, she heads the Sandinista bench in the National Assembly. Many of Managua's FSLN members and sympathizers openly campaigned for Téllez to take a place on the National Directorate. She was nominated at Managua's convention in June, but declined her nomination. In this interview by Irene Selser, which won honorable mention in envío's annual writer's contest, Téllez critically reflects on the Sandinista experience and the lessons learned from the 1990 electoral defeat.
envío: Different political sectors in the country agree that the Sandinista defeat of February 1990 points to the need for a critical review of ten years of revolutionary power. Some analysts see in the first national elections, held in 1984, an expression of the internal contradictions that eventually forced the FSLN into a corner. Do you share that view? Was the FSLN prepared to play by the rules in its own political game?
Téllez: We called for elections in 1984 without really being prepared to do so. The internal changes in the Sandinista Front did not necessarily fit with the social model that the party proposed—one of political pluralism, mixed economy and nonalignment—because we went on functioning as the sole party. We took the initiative but lost the advantage. We opened political space, but remained trapped between reality and the preconditions of the socialist models that we had known about up to that time, even if only through movies.
To put it another way, if you build a house, you do it more or less the way you know that houses are built; if you're going to build a church, you design it according to what you've seen. What we knew of socialism was the one-party system, so in developing Sandinismo as a revolutionary movement, there was no way to avoid this conception permeating our thoughts.
It's true that we had a pluralistic vision, but our concept of a party in power didn't correspond to it. We said mixed economy, but a mixed economy has many implications. We drew up a Constitution consecrating four or five different forms of property, but Sandinista party members couldn't own property, even their own homes.
We organized two elections, but still maintained the logic of one single party, with the conception of eternal power. We wanted to democratize the country, but we functioned internally in an eminently military style. It was all so contradictory!
envío: If the Coordinadora [a rightwing alliance of five parties that withdrew from the 1984 elections almost immediately after announcing its presidential candidate] had run in the 1984 elections, do you think that it would have had a chance to win?
Téllez: No. The Coordinadora did not yet represent an alternative, and would not have won.
envío: According to Jaime Wheelock, the results of the 1984 elections were very similar in some ways to those of 1990, for instance regarding the peasant vote.
Téllez: That's true, but they were also different. It's not just a question of citing statistics; it's not so simple. There was significant emigration out of Nicaragua and, within the country, much migration from the countryside to the city, a regrouping of the population that has to be analyzed.
The concept of a vanguardenvío: You referred to the contradiction between a pluralistic ideological-political model and the top-down organizing style that dominated the FSLN. Do you think that the FSLN would have been able to avoid this tendency at the moment of taking power even without the determinant factor of the US war?
Téllez: We would have to have a crystal ball to know that for sure.
envío: I'm not trying to "predict the past," as it were; I'm thinking about certain styles and forms of party work that ultimately translated into deaf ears to obvious social and ideological problems. It wasn't easy for a party member at the base to publicly discuss his or her doubts or criticisms; there were party members who "sweetened" their reports so the leadership read what it wanted to read.
Téllez: You know what the problem with revolutions is? The vanguard concept assumes it is always correct and has the right interpretation of reality, that actions it takes are reasonable and fair in and of themselves. And since it is assumed that a leader occupies a given position due to a process of natural selection, by some nearly magical process this vanguard model takes the leaders to be the keepers of absolute truth. But nobody owns truth; that's the first problem.
envío: What do you think happens when this vanguard comes to power?
Téllez: That's the other problem. It was one thing to be the vanguard during the struggle against the dictatorship. But whether or not the concept of a vanguard in power is useful is an entirely separate issue—that's the debate. Is a vanguard party still applicable once state power has been taken? I don't have the answer, but at this stage I think not, because being a vanguard presumes that society is in full agreement with what you're doing, and I don't know if that state of affairs exists.
envío: In the Nicaraguan revolutionary experience, was this understanding of a vanguard incompatible with the full development of civil society?
Téllez: That's the contradiction. Revolution develops civil society and organizes it into labor, professional, political and mass-based groups. But the fact that the vanguard has in its hand an instrument to interpret reality doesn't automatically make it into the best interpreter of that reality. I think that's a deformation of Marxism. The very concept of a vanguard assumes the ability to comprehend reality, to absorb, understand and process it, and determine what is just at any given moment; and that's impossible!
envío: What was the key expression of Sandinismo in power?
Téllez: The state. It was there that the vanguard had total power. But in addition to controlling the state, it ended up also postulating itself as keeper of the absolute truth. That's the negation of civil society!
Another problem was whether or not the party listened to its members. Self-censorship in the FSLN was worse than censorship, but we can't look at that as anything other than a symptom of the general, philosophical and ideological illness of the concept of vanguard—"vanguardism," to use its worse name.
We landed on our feetenvío: Do you now question the role of the vanguard during the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship?
Téllez: No, absolutely not. It was correct, essential and absolutely indispensable for our survival and for the construction of an alternative model, but at some point it no longer corresponded to reality.
Téllez: I don't know, but it's completely, totally and absolutely washed up. In fact, even before the 1990 elections, it was behind us, it no longer made sense. I think that to sustain a vanguard concept today would be a grave error.
envío: Did revolutionary management of society's development get left behind in this?
Téllez: What was left behind was the philosophy of a revolutionary party. But it wasn't only left behind here; the breaking apart of the Eastern European political systems, the great socialist bloc with more than 50 years in power and poof!, flat on their backs on the floor. The only place we landed on our feet was here, and, without a doubt, that is a great success of the revolution. Given the boom in rightwing politics in the Soviet Union, it's a miracle! We got 42% of the vote!
What happened to the FSLN is a lesson to be learned from. It's very distinct from the case of El Salvador, for example, where a strong mass movement already existed when the FMLN emerged. Here, on the other hand, the FSLN gave birth to the large mass organizations after the triumph of the revolution; the conditions of the dictatorship simply did not permit anything else. After the triumph, vanguardism became a problem and the serious thing is that it continues to this day.
envío: In the leadership?
Téllez: And at the base as well. When we lost the elections—a phenomenon that was perceived as a defeat—the initial tendency people had was to look back on the FSLN's "happy times," like marriages that have problems and dream of the courting period. The only way to save a marriage is to completely renew the relationship, looking forward. Longing for the brilliant days of Sandinismo carries with it a nostalgia for vanguardism which, as I've said, played its role and was indispensable during the dictatorship. But its history after 1979 has to be looked at very carefully.
Confusing party with stateI recall a conflict between the Ministry of Health and the Sandinista Defense Committees (CDS), which was in fact a struggle between the CDS and the Ministry of Agriculture, based on a charge by the CDS about the poor quality of milk available to children. The CDS was right.
envío: But their leader, Comandante Omar Cabezas, was sanctioned.
Téllez: He was publicly taken to task. This simple example confirms that the FSLN was a para-state party.
envío: Cabezas was sent to the CDS to reactivate the movement and give it a "face lift," but that one incident damaged the little credibility the CDS had.
Téllez: All of this arises from the same confusion. We had hegemony, but we subordinated party objectives to the interests of the state institutions. Moreover, these state institutions even came to manage the interests of the mass-based and party organizations. The institutional agenda ended up imposing itself over party and popular interests, as happened in the case of the CDS and the children's milk.
The FSLN was para-statist and people ended up linking political leadership with state posts; that's why nobody could understand why a member of the National Directorate might not have a state post. But political leadership is political leadership; for example, Ricardo Morales Avilés was a university professor and a member of the National Directorate. But given this equation [political leadership = government post], it was and continues to be unimaginable to think of a member of the National Directorate without a post. They had to be in some ministry, to have something! If that wasn't the case, there was real anguish: they needed something—a trinket to control, some institution, no matter what size.
That was how the force of statist logic ended up determining the FALN’s interests. Now, after ten years of being a para-state party, we feel the loss of the state like Siamese twins that are separated—one gets a lung, the other the liver. They must feel very alone when they are cut apart, no?
For the FSLN, the loss of power had nuances more dramatic than those faced by a party that only considers itself in government temporarily, renting the buildings, as it were. We weren't renters, we were part and parcel of the state apparatus.
Relating to the baseenvío: The electoral defeat translated into an almost automatic distancing of the leadership from the base. Many people still resent this abrupt break in communication.
Téllez: Within the logic we're discussing here, it's natural that this would take place. I now stop in a neighborhood and call for a meeting of craftspeople, maybe two or three will come to hear me, because they surely don't have the least interest in seeing me when I can't do anything about their problems! The only thing I can do is tell them to organize around this or that issue. Nothing more.
envío: What will the party's priority be now? Review the means of relating to the base?
Téllez: There are two problems that go hand in hand. One is the urgent need to define the Sandinista party's relationship to the base. We cannot continue to be a party of "ceremonies and events." The other is to understand that we won't have the same ability to draw people as we did before, when the magnet was really the institutional interest. People participated in the De Cara al Pueblo meetings with the President and ministers thinking that, with so many people there, they were going to get something Today, the logic of our link to the base must change, as must the way we relate to our own membership. Go from ceremony to ceremony, and from event to event? That's not relating to anybody.
The great problem of a party, in this case, of the FSLN, begins when you decide to "link yourself to the masses," because that means you're not part of them. If I say, "I'm going off to relate to my neighbor," it means I don't have the slightest relationship with her, I may not even know her name. Sandinismo had an army of professionals who weren't in touch with reality. Their party was out there somewhere so that meant they had some "link to the masses."
For instance, relations with merchants don't just happen because someone says, "OK, Dora María Téllez, get out there and relate to those merchants." No, your people have to be there, and if you don't have at least one party member who's a merchant, there won't be any real relationship, not even if you go every day to the Huembes or Oriental markets to shop and chat.
Relating to the base is a party task, and only happens if you have people out there who are really capable of representing the interests of their given sector. You can only find out what people think if you live with them, work and eat with them and represent their thinking. And these cadres should generate internal party mechanisms to spread the thinking of their particular sector to all levels and make sure that the party discusses and analyzes it.
envío: The base is demanding that the leadership move closer to the people.
Téllez: That's true. Every day in my office, I ask myself: how can I get closer to the masses? How do I do it? I've gone around and around on this one! Simply put, you have to live together with the people, which will be achieved only when all the Sandinista militants and the FSLN itself are where they should be and not off talking to themselves. It's harsh to say this, a lot of people don't like to hear these things, but what's the reality of the FSLN today? A base committee meeting to repeat how important it is to "relate to the bases?"
The people are watching soap operas and you're shut up in a party meeting without even knowing what to say to people. The masses are watching television, and you're off talking about how to relate to them. It's crazy!
Because when somebody is high up, like an institution professionally dedicated to being on high, you simply forget to come down to earth. And losing touch with the base is fatal.
envío: Why do you think the leadership wasn't able to hear reports coming from the base, alerting them about real social problems—for example, the tensions produced by the lack of supplies in the countryside or people's rejection of the draft?
Téllez: The thing is, how were you to trust these reports, when the leadership was seeing something else? In political ceremonies, for example, people often didn't tell the leadership what they were thinking. That's why I insist that this scheme of relating to the masses is fictitious and defective. Nevertheless, abandoning this practice and turning political events into discussions with each social sector—so people themselves can openly analyze, transmit and discuss their own reality—is actually very difficult. Furthermore, people got used to relating to their leaders according to a logic of "ceremonies and events."
envío: This wasn't the FSLN's experience as a revolutionary party during the years of struggle against the dictatorship. I understand that the party's ability to interpret the people's state of mind earned the leadership tremendous international prestige, in addition to assuring the taking of power.
Téllez: Well, we lived on the streets before; after all, weren't we a clandestine party? And when you live in clandestinity, you spend the day talking with people in the house, and they tell you all the local stories.
Umbilical cords and fiefdomsenvío: How was the party involved in the functioning of the mass organizations? To what extent were they effective?
Téllez: The mass organizations were too "party line”; the largest ones did not emerge from the base but were built from the top down. I saw this for myself when I participated in the Sandinista Workers' Federation (CST), the Luisa Amanda Espinosa Women's Association (AMNLAE) and the CDS. It's true that people were very anxious to have their own organizations, but instead of building them from the ground up, a whole contingent of party cadres was sent out to form them.
envío: Was this enthusiasm to organize eventually frustrated?
Téllez: Let's go back to the first point. There's a moment at which you have to cut the umbilical cord. Just as it's fatal to keep a child linked to its mother by the umbilical cord for its whole life, we should have cut the cord at some point so the mass organizations could breathe on their own.
envío: How were the so-called fiefdoms involved in carrying out state policies and articulating them with the FSLN's concerns as a party?
Téllez: These fiefdoms are also part of the development of Sandinismo, which in 1979 wasn't united organically, but only around the political imperative of destroying the dictatorship. Given the new circumstances, the tendencies, which existed as separate organizations, dissolved: there was no decree calling for dissolution. The cadres grouped together in the different state institutions based on the different tasks they had carried out during the war of liberation, but there was never an organizational reintegration of the FSLN. Besides, we didn't have the capacity to organize the broad-based party that would have made room for all its members. That's how the hegemony of statist thought rather than party-based thought was produced.
The FSLN created a party-linked state, but was transformed into a para-state party, exactly the reverse of how the Right saw the situation. Since we acted based on state imperatives, the FSLN took a leading role in health campaigns, in recruiting for the draft and in ensuring basic supplies to the neighborhoods. I don't mean to suggest this shouldn’t have happened, it was correct to mobilize—the problem was the vision we were working with.
The state role began to weigh more than the party role. This institutional focus started breaking down in 1985, when the decision was made to reorganize the party's regional committees; the goal was to throw off the institutional hats and acquire a political perception just as Sandinistas.
The conflictive experience of Pantasma [where the civilian population was badly treated by the FSLN and the armed forces] was influential in this conclusion. In Pantasma, Sandinismo used all its instruments of power, but in a contradictory fashion and with very serious consequences.
This was how the organizational reintegration of Sandinismo began. Our political interpretation had to be fundamentally in line with the state's, but different from the institutional perception, which is always sectoral, partial, incomplete and unilateral. Our institutional hats led us to interpret reality based on the perception of each "lord" according to the manor he or she controlled.
envío: Does the Sandinista Front accept the negative effects of the compulsory draft on the population?
Téllez: The draft was inevitable! But, perhaps not...
envío: Given the high percentage of voters who defined the revolution's future at the polls on the grounds of the draft, many say, not necessarily based on military reality, that it should have been voluntary.
Téllez: It wasn't for nothing that the gringos changed their methods, and instead of forcing soldiers to fight in the Persian Gulf, as they did in Vietnam, they paid Latinos with US residency. It's all a question of form, like Antonio Lacayo's occupational conversion plan, where it's all "voluntary": you get in line, fill out all the papers, and send yourself to hell. [The conversion plan is a government plan to reduce the ranks of state workers by offering them a sizeable one-time severance pay if they voluntarily resign. Many unions have attacked the plan, charging that unfair pressure is exerted on the workers to sign on to the plan.]
The same thing happened with the agrarian reform. We wanted to democratize property, but we gave land away to the peasants; perhaps that wasn't necessary. It would have been better to sell it to them, have them pay it off with production over 15 years. A farmer friend of mine says people only value things they've had to pay for. This was our error in the agrarian reform; we were missing an essential piece, which is precisely this: if it doesn't cost you, you misuse it.
Instead, we told the peasants, "Take this shirt, it's yours, but you can't sell, divide or mortgage it, you can only will it." The second message was, "Look, brother, this shirt is really too big for you, why don't you lend it to so-and-so?" And the peasant thought, rightfully, "So this shirt isn't mine for sh—!"
The same thing happened with the cooperatives, which we created under the broad concept of "armed cooperatives." We brought different members together and, if someone left, we came and stuck new members in. Wasn't that land theirs? What peasant was going to understand that? Nobody understands that, not peasants, not the urban population, not intellectuals, nobody!
Conflict with the Churchenvío: And with religion, what happened? The FSLN tried hard to make credible its belief that there was no contradiction between being a Christian and being a revolutionary. This position was set forth quite early, in 1980, but the confrontation between the revolution and the Church hierarchy put the contradiction at the superstructural level. Do you think the Catholic population understood, in the end, the causes of this confrontation?
Téllez: It wasn't the people's problem, it was our problem! You can't expect the people to have to understand you as a party; that's an abuse. A party must understand the reality of the masses, not the reverse. Once, in a philosophy course, a compañero asked, "How is it possible to deduce that, if religion is part of idealism and that's reactionary, then our people must be reactionary because they're Catholic?" This compañero had a more open mentality; he was able to ask these questions and urge us to forget the books on political formation and look instead at our reality. "If someone in this country makes the revolution in the name of God, well, good for them!" he said. But for us, then, his ideas subverted order because they went against what the political manual said, even if it bore no relation to reality.
We let the evangelical churches grow to an impressive degree. Nobody could say that there was religious persecution, at least not in the strict sense of the word, but we were prisoners of our own contradiction: on the one hand, a great opening for the growth of evangelical and Catholic churches, on the other, our own orthodox formation under the table, as it were, not due to ill will, but to education.
Everyone knew we didn't believe in God or in the Virgin, but there we were handing out gifts during Purísima! People said we were trying to manipulate them. And it was true! Make an altar for the Purísima if you want, but don't go around handing out little gifts. [Purísima is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, far and away the most important religious holiday in Nicaragua.]
We made a big deal of Bishop Bismarck Carballo, nude, in the newspapers. But people don't like their priests to be saints, only if they're dead. Because, who wants to confess to a priest who doesn't commit any sins, especially if he lives in your town and knows everything you've been up to? Confession has been the church's key instrument of power. People aren't stupid, they don't want to confess to a saint, so he can then push them around with penitences. They prefer priests who drink like the rest of them and have children over in another community. Everyone pretends not to see, and the trade-off is that he's tolerant with your sins, he tells you to say a few rosaries, a few Our Fathers, he slaps your hand. But because you know what he's up to, he's more understanding. And we made a big splash of the Carballo affair!
Who cares what a priest does? That's Sandinismo's double standard, because Carballo has as much right to make love as anyone else does. And that was another problem: the FSLN went around preaching as if it were a church, talking about modesty, humility, good emotions—and a political party has nothing to do with that. Romances, couples, sexual relations, marriage—those are all issues for social movements. A political party is not there to decide what's good and what's bad.
What possible reason does a political leader have to go around talking about sex? Your duty as a political party is to ensure equal rights and responsibilities for all citizens, and not go around arbitrating people's personal lives.
envío: The US State Department carried out a propaganda campaign against the revolution. Was this campaign effective? And how would you evaluate the role of the contra radio stations, created to influence the peasant population?
Téllez: Before talking about the radio stations that the armed counterrevolution had, we should talk about our own. The state had The Voice of Nicaragua and the FSLN had Radio Sandino. Our regional radio stations, which had less than 1 kilowatt of power, were unable to cross the mountain ranges; they had very few technical resources, but they got by as best they could. And what programs did the Voice have for the peasants? Except for "La Palomita Mensajera," which was fiction, I don't remember a single one.
Almost all the programming our radios did was urban, with the disadvantage that when the peasants listened, it confirmed their conflictive interpretation of Nicaragua's reality. If you listened to "Contacto 620" in the countryside, you envisioned a battlefield in the cities.* If you're from the city, you know that's how people are... but if you've never left the countryside, you think, "They're killing each other there." The revolution didn't have radio for the peasants, there were only crippled radios, with no resources. This example gives us an idea of the eminently urban character of the FSLN, which continues to predominate.
*Contacto 620 was a four-hour morning call-in program for charges and criticisms of all kinds, particularly regarding the specific failings of government institutions. Some embattled ministers dubbed the program "the cult of complaints."]
Revolution is consciousnessenvío: Do you think the people who voted for Violeta Chamorro have confidence in her government?
Téllez: Yes, they do; it's too soon to lose confidence. People who don't live on ideology don't say to themselves, "Well, this is a bourgeois government, a pro-imperialist government and I don't like it." People wait first to see if it works or not, they're very practical. This doesn't necessarily mean that people have opted for another model, because while it's true that the FSLN didn't have a blank check, neither does this government.
envío: How do you see the 1990 elections? Was it an ideological vote?
Téllez: It was a vote by housewives. It wasn't ideological. As much as the contras campaigned, they voted for the UNO and now they're out there, demanding their rights as peasants. And what, pray tell, was the revolution's project? Wasn't it to give these peasants their voice? To have them fight for their land? Not, of course, so that you pay the price as the party in power! But they did it, and ended up facing off with the party leading the revolution. That being the case, we'd best review ourselves as a party.
The FSLN has to become a new party given that society's demands have increased. The revolution is a phenomenon of consciousness, not of the state. Look at what used to be East Germany! Forty years of revolution, and there's no consciousness! What is a revolution? A party installed in power, riding around on horseback, doing what it wants to do? Revolution is strictly a phenomenon of consciousness, and that's what makes it different from capitalism. If there's consciousness, it functions; if not, it doesn't.
Personally, the Nicaraguan peasantry's struggle has gone beyond my expectations; although it was counterrevolutionary, it took on the FSLN's political program. It's a revolutionary program, strategic for Nicaragua: the democratization of land tenure and ownership; get rid of the oligarchy, of landowners, of unproductive big estates.
It's true that this inevitably means redefining the issue, since that economic power now has political expression. The peasants don't just wait around, though. No, they come to the Olof Palme [Managua's convention center and scene of the ongoing concertation talks] and demand credit and decent financing conditions; they demand this of the banks and will confront the government if necessary.
Power as a fetishTéllez: Ahhh...you say the FSLN's no longer in power? But that's revolution!! And if you don't get that, you're lost, you go on with the obsession for power as a fetish, an end in itself. Who says that revolution can't make advances under these new conditions? I firmly believe it can.
envío: Even in the midst of this conflict between the counterrevolution and the revolution?
Téllez: But that goes back to when we were in power! This conflict between the two models has always existed. Let me ask you, when were we stronger? Before or now? The strength of a revolutionary party depends on the correlation of forces and on its organization at the base. Let's look at some examples: Despite the FSLNs defeat at the polls, there's a sector of the bourgeoisie itself That knows it can’t roll back the agrarian reform, that it will just have to live with it. This is a tremendous success of the revolution. If we were still in power today, we'd be giving back land, because we were too weak to go on deepening the agrarian reform. During the electoral campaign we began to give land back because, even though we were in power, we were weak and the resistance of one sector of society had become strong enough to block us from going forward.
Power? What's power? Power is the correlation of forces. Who says that now the revolution can't continue going forward? What happens is that the journey of revolution in Nicaragua is extremely complex. It's feasible that this revolution will continue to go forward, as long as we set aside the obsession for power as a fetish and understand it as a means, not as an end in itself.
That mentality would convert the FSLN into another party, which, in power or not, would change its relationship to the mass organizations and its perception of government, change our preparation for struggle and also our perception of political reality, of political work and of life itself, of the changes, the methods to be used, processes. Everything would change!
Our underestimation of public opinion is also a product of the vanguardist philosophy. "I have my truth and I'll impose it," we thought, "since I have all the instruments to do so, including the media." In this sense, this new government has one virtue—public opinion is the only thing that gets under its skin. It has a crocodile's skin, but all the media needs to do is to denounce something and the government reacts immediately. That was another Sandinista problem—when a radio or newspaper attacked us, we were all over them, defending ourselves, putting out a version favorable to us. We couldn't accept anything.
envío: How long will this conflict go on?
Téllez: Until the book is closed, until we win the fight. We didn't win it before, but we'll win it now. That's how it is with the army: a national army exists, a professional, revolutionary army, with a popular character. The basic fight is over, although there will be skirmishes from time to time. Before, the army chiefs of staff invited the political parties to its events and nobody came. Now they all go. The army exists, it's a national institution, it has its officers and ranks. Yes, we know they're Sandinistas, that's part of the reality and they're not going to change it.
So, are we going backwards or forwards? The struggle over the army was hard fought. So much so that there was virtually another army. Now there's only one. Had we won the agrarian reform? No, that was in dispute as well, look at the war! The fact that Antonio Lacayo says the documents issued by the Attorney General's office [giving old owners the green light to take back their property on grounds of unfair confiscation] are not valid, that the government will compensate the former owners, but will not throw anyone off the land—is that or is it not winning the fight?
But the FSLN suffered a violent, savage blow, right? That's true. And is the revolution being rolled back? I'm not so sure of that. And do they have their own project? Well, they always did. They'll try to impose it here? They've attacked us for over 10 years, trying to do that.
envío: How do you measure whether or not there was revolution in Nicaragua?
Téllez: You have to see if you're able to put your project into practice, if it works. That's how to measure whether or not there was a revolution in Nicaragua. Because if we could only win these fights by being in power, well... maybe that means there wasn't a revolution here and they'll wipe us away. And who would be to blame? The big bad bourgeoisie? If that happens, we'll have to review our styles and methods of work and ask ourselves what we've been doing during the last quarter-century that some jerk can come along and in two years turn reality on its head.
If this happens, we'll have to really look carefully at ourselves, dismantle everything and start from scratch. We'll have to put our shoes on and hit the streets, talking to people, recruiting them again, one by one.
That's the problem of hegemony and the fetish of power. Naturally, it would become Sandinismo to get back on the streets; it's healthy.
The meaning of "modernization"envío: The question is whether the party really is back on the streets again or if it's just getting closer to the base in preparation for the July Congress?
Téllez: I think it's getting back on the streets. However, whether or not this is always expressed in the FSLN's political thought is another thing. That is, the only ones who make a living as party politicians are the 39 National Assembly representatives and a handful more; the rest are out on the streets. The important thing is to make sure that this translates into new political thinking and doesn't get lost in nostalgia for the past or in personal dreams of the ideal revolution. We have to take up the challenge and formulate responses based on the new reality. That's how I understand the word "modernization," although there are those who get their backs up when they hear that word. What do I want with an FSLN circa 1960 when the reality I'm dealing with is the reality of the 1990s? There's no way to go backwards, that's the crux of the debate.
Modernization means going beyond vanguardism, becoming a party with a democratic vision and practice that accepts, understands and is thankful for the existence of an organized civil society, considering it an indispensable factor for its own life.
[The following is excerpted from an extensive interview with Dora María Téllez by Rosario Murillo published in Ventana, July 8, 1991.]
envío: In what current of the FSLN would you place yourself?
Téllez: I don't think that's the most useful term; let's talk about "ways of thinking." There are those in the FSLN who believe the party needs a thoroughgoing process of democratization, while others disagree. I'm a product of the FSLN school, with all its virtues and faults. I can't say that I was never "top-down" or "authoritarian." I'm not proud of that, but I'm not embarrassed by it either. It was a stage we went through, a way of acting that we have to change. And changing it means making a conscious, disciplined effort to change your own attitude, to keep on top of what you think the party or its base needs. Today we have to work with the base, the population with whom we've lost contact.
The FSLN has the challenge of finding its own responses to this new situation. There are no manuals or easy solutions. I think we have the challenge to recover socialism from the blows it has suffered under the Eastern European model. I think that all of us in the FSLNe agree that the capitalist option is not viable, because the fact is that it never worked for us, it never solved anything.
envío: You've said that socialism is possible only if we first "seal the historic dispute about the nation." Which "nation" are you referring to?
Téllez: I'm referring to the concept of nation that the revolution formed. My starting point is that the nation didn't exist before the revolutionary triumph. And the process of building it has been complex; it has meant building an army—a national, popular army, since any other army would have been a prolongation of US intervention.
envío: Is the Constitution the starting point here?
Téllez: That's the essence of the nation. And so what Sandinismo has constructed is a national project par excellence. There's no other force that could have done so. Nobody wanted to. The bourgeoisie didn't want to, and couldn't; the dictatorship was by definition anti-national. And for me, the two key elements of this new Nicaraguan nation are: that society at large takes on the revolutionary armed forces as the national armed forces, and that society as a whole accepts as necessary the transformations made by the revolution in the concept and structure of property.
envío: Is it possible, in this polarized society, to build a tolerant political culture?
Téllez: The country has no other alternative, but there are forces who don't want this to happen. I think the Sandinista Front is the only force capable of fighting for this kind of society. The FSLN has been a democratizing force in this country, and it now falls to the FSLN to head up the struggle for a tolerant society. It's not easy, there are forces that want to take the country back to the days of the dictatorship. But if we don't build a tolerant political culture, we'll all end up torn apart. The ultra-Right will not be able to defeat Sandinismo. It can't; this country would shatter into a million pieces.