The FSLN's Dilemma--Stability at What Cost?
May 22 marked the last day of the truce regarding strikes and salary demands that the National Workers' Federation (FNT) had agreed to in March. The Sandinista umbrella union conceded the truce to support governmental efforts to fight inflation and help obtain a green light from the international community in the bid for new loans.
It was no coincidence that the government summoned the unions and private business to the second round of concertation talks on the day the truce expired. And, in fact, it asked for a new truce. While some argue that the government's success in acquiring new loans and donations to pay its debt arrears strengthens its position, its lack of compliance with most agreements made in October's concertation has led the unions, and Sandinismo as a whole, to assume more hard-line positions.
Nicaragua is once again reaching zero hour. Under the weight of the enormous negative social impact of official economic policy, the grassroots forces are again demanding that the economic adjustment be "socially adjusted" such that the sacrifice is not borne by the poor alone. If this burden is not redistributed, and some political measures are not corrected, there is no alternative but a return to confrontation and a new crisis, with strikes, street mobilizations and scuffles with police.
Government of the center, or the right?Given the growing impatience of the nation's most politicized popular sectors, the FSLN must again open debate on the government's nature and the immediate tasks. The central question is whether the concertation represents a genuine effort on everyone's part to define tangible and urgent actions that respond to popular demands or is little more than haggling that will end up wearing down the credibility of both the government and the union leaders. The answer to this question depends not only on the government, but also on the popular forces' political interpretation of its will.
Some Sandinistas feel that the government has both the will and unexpected capacity to assume center-left positions, but is weak to pressure from the far right and the United States. This perspective holds that the FSLN needs to reach an understanding with the government and offer labor stability, thus strengthening the government's ability to resist rightwing pressure.
Other Sandinistas find it impossible to continue believing in the government's good will. The issue, more than official weakness, is bad political faith and basic agreement with UNO's more recalcitrant sectors and the United States. It would otherwise be impossible to explain the government's solicitous attitude toward rightwing demands, and its intransigent or indecisive positions on labor demands.
Each interpretation defines a different course of action. Should the FSLN support the government or pressure it to meet popular demands? Should the FSLN defend its territory or make new demands?
Government non-compliance: "Self-destabilization?"For a 60-day period, labor organizations promised to suspend strikes to give the government a chance to make good on its promise that the March 3 stabilization plan would bring inflation under control, while workers received real wage increases. The government promised the nearly impossible: to simultaneously reduce inflation, increase jobs, improve wages and consumption and reactivate production. The Sandinistas reluctantly accepted that promise, hoping to avoid the blame for the economic adjustment's failure.
In agreeing to the truce, each side likely had doubts not only about the other's intentions, but also about its ability to keep its own promises. The government tried to argue the unarguable—that the anti-inflationary measures demanded by AID, the World Bank and the IMF would not provoke a recession whose weight would fall largely on the unemployed. Two days before the measures were announced, Presidential Minister Antonio Lacayo promised that the unemployment generated by drastic budget cuts and reorganization of the state and production would be compensated by an Emergency Social Investment Fund (FISE), creating jobs particularly in construction (see the article on FISE in this issue). While 25,000 new jobs were promised, the program's administrator reported less than 6,000 by the end of April, and both AID's and FISE's own statistics actually showed less than 2,000. Meanwhile, as a consequence of the adjustment plan, the FNT puts the number of unemployed at 190,000, including demobilized military, while average wages have fallen in real terms by 40%.
The Chamber of Small and Medium Industry protested that the enormous contraction in demand provoked by the adjustments produced an equally violent contraction in production and employment. This contraction was also fueled by the devaluation, which cut businesses' working capital by 77%, paralyzing 40% of manufacturing cooperatives and leaving the rest operating at minimum capacity. For its part, the Farmers and Cattle Ranchers Union (UNAG) pointed out that the concertation signed "above" had not resulted in any concertation "below"; approximately 200 cooperatives have been taken over, and the demand for land and production credit by both peasants and demobilized contras and army personnel is growing. Nevertheless, the government claims it has fulfilled 80% of its agreements, emphasizing "the return of foreign financing to Nicaragua" and "the end of the inflationary tax" as its plan's principal achievements.
The most serious problem is that the government could not guarantee that its own institutions would respect Lacayo's words, particularly with respect to the very sensitive issue of property. While the government promised, for the umpteenth time, as a part of concertation and the truce, to respect lots, houses and agricultural lands legally awarded under the Sandinista government, the problems did not end. Government delegates in the regions, many municipalities, the Housing Bank and the Attorney General's Office itself continued to approve and promote the return of properties to their former owners, many of whom are Miami residents intending to sell what they receive and return to the United States. These attempts at property returns, arduously defended by Vice President Godoy and far right business and political sectors, have provoked spontaneous mobilizations in the countryside and the city, including among many who voted for UNO.
The government's delay in conceding credits for the next agricultural cycle to all producers has meant that support from UNAG and the ATC for the stabilization plan has remained conditional. Hopes were dashed for maintaining at least subsistence level production, due to the recessionary implications of the international banks' demand for credit restrictions—an order obediently carried out by government technocrats. Even more serious was the enormous amount of paperwork required of small producers, especially cooperatives, once credit windows were cautiously opened. The government's refusal in practice—though not in rhetoric—to concede property titles to those whom the revolution gave land (but which, trusting it would not be voted out of power, the Sandinista government never bothered to legalize) marginalized those without title when it came time to go to the bank in search of credit. Demobilized contras, who either did not own land or did not have title, had the same complaint; they couldn’t get credit either.
At the same time, the government's negligence in handing over land and agricultural implements to demobilized contras spurred the formation of "recontras": armed former contras who feel betrayed by the government. Minister Lacayo and General Humberto Ortega accuse the far Right, particularly Godoy and Managua Mayor Arnoldo Alemán, of agitating among the demobilized and being largely responsible for the rise of the recontras.
While high-level representatives of the demobilized contras initially claimed the recontras did not exist, they now blame their existence on the FSLN and its "armed elements"—in other words, the army and police. US Ambassador to Nicaragua Harry Shlaudemann denied that the United States is supplying military aid to the recontras, while at the same time claiming that they have "security problems" in some parts of the country.
In the words of one Sandinista leader, the general scenario seems to indicate an extensive "self-destabilization" plan designed by the government itself. The peak of incoherence came when the Supreme Court unanimously declared the two most substantial articles of Decree 11-90 unconstitutional. Decree 11-90 is the law under which the Confiscation Review Commission has ordered the return of properties to well-known big landowners, including some notorious Somocistas.
Union front, popular front, Sandinista FrontTotal coherence is elusive as well in the FNT and FSLN, and in relations between them. Representing thousands of educators, the Sandinista teachers' union—whose members earn salaries lower than a maid—called a strike that, surpassing the health workers' strike, became the longest since the UNO government took office. Teachers demanded a minimum salary that would cover just 40% of the basic market basket and the setting of regulations on teacher certification that would make effective a law passed last October. The teachers did not agree with the FNT's decision to accept a truce and almost the entire 60-day period was highlighted by their combative strike.
Peasant farmers and urban residents threatened with losing their land, lots or houses also rejected the truce. For them, national stability is less important than the personal security of their property, which is theirs by law, or by right of having been assigned it by the state during the revolutionary period. Pressure from these groups and the teachers, whose demands could no longer remain outside the concertation, forced the hand of both the FNT and the FSLN to some degree. In fact, the resolution of these issues has become a pre-condition for the labor and social stability the government longs for.
In signing the March agreement and conceding to a 60-day truce, the FNT and the workers assumed a high quota of political responsibility as well as material sacrifice.
The government, for its part, had agreed to measure the real value of workers' wages when the truce ended and to make the corresponding adjustments "in the event that buying power drops." After March's price leaps, inflation dropped drastically in April and May. But this does not mean that wages recovered the buying power they had before the measures. At the end of May, government and independent economists were disputing, with very different statistics, exactly what happened with prices. The Ministry of Economy claimed that wageworkers were better off than in March, when the "shock" began, and thus there was no need for a wage adjustment. Sandinista sectors calculated a 36% drop in buying power and the FNT was demanding a 40% wage increase.
As it entered the second phase of concertation, the FNT found itself torn between its desire for national stability and demands from diverse sectors to confront the government. Rural workers were demanding immediate financing for production; the unemployed, new jobs; the employed, a fair minimum wage and an adjustment that would cover a large part of the market basket of 53 basic products. At the same time, the population moved to defend Laws 85 and 86, which made them owners of properties given them by the revolution, while cooperative members were demanding property titles.
The government clearly feels it is in a stronger position after reducing inflation and successfully negotiating financing to cover its debt arrears. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether that strength will translate into greater flexibility or a more hard-line position toward the popular sectors' demands. The new situation has also precipitated a change in the public line taken by the FSLN and FNT about the need to be "responsible," to look out for national interests and to assure the peace and stability for which all Nicaraguans voted.
But what does stability mean for the 45% of the economically active population that is unemployed, or the 75% of the FSLN members who say they have no formal job? Could the FNT as an organization represent a growing majority of unemployed? Who will speak for them? Isn't it more logical for the FNT to militantly reflect the demands of public sector employees in their proposals, since they are the most combative workers and the most feared by the government? If we accept this logic, how can the demand for better wages and social benefits dovetail with the other, perhaps not as well articulated, demands of those asking for work? To which of these should a government with a limited budget respond first, when it obviously cannot give everything to everybody? What sector, then, of the popular classes should assume the greater sacrifice? How can agreement come from such diverse visions and definitions of stability? And finally, if the government has already won access to foreign resources, isn't the FNT free to demand government compliance with long postponed promises made to the unions?
FSLN: The internal debateThe FSLN cannot leave the unemployed masses to one side or continue asking the grassroots organizations for patience and truces. But within the FSLN there are those who argue for a distinction between popular opinion and public opinion, between what is popularly desirable and what is viable. Given economic stagnation and political fragility, they contend, the revolutionary option requires the party to promote stability and, therefore, constitute a "responsible" opposition. The FSLN cannot count on the erroneous premise that wearing down the government automatically favors the opposition, or that every positive government achievement means weakening the Sandinista movement.
In addition, a party with electoral aspirations and the commitment to forge the broadest national consensus possible in defense of popular interests does not have the luxury of ignoring non-Sandinista middle class sectors, who see stability permanently threatened by Sandinista radicalism. This perception is no doubt influenced by the ongoing anti-Sandinista campaign in La Prensa and other rightwing media. That campaign has it that the FSLN/FNT—there's no difference for them—is bent on destabilizing the government and keeping the country on edge in order to create the crisis conditions needed for it to return to power, or at least to assure ever greater quotas of power in the current government.
The middle class perception is somewhat simplistic: the government is responsible for its own successes, but the FSLN/FNT is responsible for its failures and contradictions. Though simplistic, this sector's opinions cannot be discarded. While they are unhappy with the economic situation, they are the first to protest strikes that interfere with daily life or keep their children out of school. Thus resorting to a strike is a double-edged sword, particularly when the strike is prolonged or takes place in key sectors. Public opinion polls have shown as much since the first and most important strikes of 1990 and throughout the first year of UNO government. Although the workers may win their demands and party morale may rise, the FSLN could be losing public sympathy.
Hence, the truce agreed to by the FNT may have represented more of a party consensus than a union consensus, a more strategic and long-term rather than immediate vision. The FNT obviously could not ignore the national consensus on the need to reactivate production and end inflation. It was also not to the advantage of either the FNT or the FSLN to appear to be blocking stability and peaceful coexistence with the government. But the basic task is still defining the terms of that stability and coexistence. The US Embassy and COSEP have their own definitions, which they hope to impose on the government. And finally, no one can deny that the Chamorro government, even when it claims to be centrist and above partisan interests, leans more to the right than the left.
Along the way, the FSLN and FNT have learned that the grassroots demonstrations of strength in the streets bear fruit at the negotiating table and compensate for some of their disadvantages. They have also learned that those protests cannot be manipulated or organized by party mandate. Finally, the government's own stupidity has become the FSLN's best ally in getting people into the streets to defend their rights and in conceding both the party and the FNT the clear public mandate both require. Even the non-Sandinista unions have been obliged to take the FNT's side in labor negotiations.
Apart from strictly labor issues, it is clear that the defense of properties acquired by people during the revolution falls primarily to those who benefited and are now being threatened, as well as their ability to generate solidarity for their cause. The government can pass legislation counter to economic democracy because the rules of political democracy—with the FSLN in the opposition and the Parliamentary minority—favor the government, which bows to rightwing and US demands for privatization and a reduction of the state's role in the economy. For this reason, the effective defense of popular property cannot be carried out in legislative or party negotiations. It will take place in the streets, through civic protest and civil disobedience, until people are able to stop organized legal attacks that fall within the rules of representative democracy, by showing them inapplicable or counterproductive by the standards of participatory democracy.
Concertation and civic insurrectionWhile the government, with FSLN support, has been able to attract the flow of foreign funds in the short term, it is still not clear if the FSLN or popular classes will share equally in those benefits. Won't the imposed neoliberal guidelines stimulate pressure on the government by AID and COSEP to capitalize on its success in benefit of the Right? Isn't the government in a better position economically and with respect to public opinion to attack the FSLN more effectively? And wouldn't official temptation be even greater in the second phase of concertation to continue a policy of signing agreements then not complying? How long can Sandinistas keep tolerating the fact that grassroots demands are still the object of governmental indecision and the far Right's blackmail of the President?
But the government cannot dispense with concertation, at least not until the first resources for economic reactivation arrive at the end of the year (the technical feasibility studies for the projects that the government will present to international organizations have not yet been concluded.) The government's interest in coming to an agreement in order to neutralize and gain more time and political space is obvious, just as it is clear that many rightwing sectors—and not just the far Right—have taken advantage of the truce to promote their own interests at the workers' expense.
No one ignores that fact that COSEP and the far Right boycotted the first phase of concertation in October-November 1990, carrying out an uprising in Region V, trying to drastically reduce the army's budget, occupying cooperative lands and procuring the return of farms and houses to big landowners and expatriates in Miami. In the second round of concertation, COSEP refuses to recognize the accords reached in the first round that benefited the workers. How can the FSLN come to an agreement with a government that at the same time makes deals with the far Right, which the Sandinistas want to stop in its tracks and whose positions on property are incompatible with the revolution’s central achievements? Is the ultra-Right's collaboration necessary to achieve stability, or is it not? Who will yield? Or who will throw the first stone?
CST and ATC leaders insist that the popular classes can no longer be asked to make all the sacrifices while the rightwing business class reaps all the benefits. The Sandinista unions feel they have the right and need to protest, since, if international banks promised resources, they did so in large part due to the workers' efforts. That effort meant their leaders assumed a political cost by deciding, for a moment, to put the nation's economic stability ahead of the immediate material needs of their impoverished bases, accepting the unpopular nature of the economic medicine as a necessary cost.
But patriotism is not a one-way street. Where was the contribution and sacrifice by the Right, or by the United States? This protest does not arise simply from principles about justice, but also from the grassroots leadership's need for political survival at a time when it is increasingly difficult to maneuver. The situation is reaching a critical point: if Laws 85 and 86 are repealed, more than 8.7 million acres in the hands of some 80,000 families could return to large landowners, and thousands of urban lots and houses benefiting another 100,000 families could go back to wealthy homeowners.
Warning of this potentially serious situation, National Directorate member Luis Carrión declared that, if the legislative project introduced by the far Right in the National Assembly is passed, the FSLN will withdraw indefinitely from the legislature. "It would be a very serious violation of the Transition Protocol and would produce a social and political crisis in the entire country—one so large that no institution could continue operating normally," said Carrión. "The workers, the peasants, the population benefiting from these laws would be obliged to defend themselves in any way they can."
While Antonio Lacayo called the far Right's legislative initiative to return these properties a "mad idea," the FSLN holds that the government's will cannot be limited to public statements. In conversations with Lacayo and other government leaders, the National Directorate demanded coherent action from all state institutions and the dismissal of anyone not heeding Executive directive. It accused the government of promoting social and political instability by permitting the space for extremist positions, also reflected in other state structures, including Attorney General Duilio Baltodano, who chairs the Confiscation Review Commission created by the government, and regional delegates of the Agrarian Reform and Government Ministries, who collaborate with former landowners to throw peasants off their land.
In the National Assembly, 39 of UNO's 53 representatives have signed a document demanding that a bill be immediately introduced for the massive return of properties. The combination makes for a dangerous situation—on the one hand, government delays in offering solutions to peasants, on the other, solicitous attention to the pressures of large landowners and confiscated Somocistas.
At the same time, the far Right continues mobilizing. At the beginning of May, the "Save Democracy" Movement got a shot in the arm in Region V (Boaco-Chontales) with a new anti-government offensive with behind-the-scenes leadership by Vice President Godoy. The immediate goals of this offensive were to prevent the handing out of lands to demobilized army personnel and former contras, promote the removal of Ministry of Government delegates in the region who did not respond to the Godoyista mayors' political line and pressure for removal of national and regional police authorities, including national chief René Vivas. The movement's leaders also sought to promote discontent among the demobilized contras by sabotaging the handing over of lands that had already been awarded by the government. For their part, people whose properties had been confiscated formed their own organization in May and sought the support of foreign governments and embassies to demand that "their" properties be returned.
Two-faced government: Two-faced opposition?Given the government's two faces, the FNT and FSLN have to consider their strategy carefully and assess the possibility of responding with two different faces themselves. If this is true, one could conclude that leftwing mobilization is the best way to strengthen the government against rightwing pressure. It is increasingly difficult to ask the grass roots for greater sacrifices for the sake of an inexistent stability subject to rightwing manipulation. No one can deny the reality, demonstrated many times over the past months by both Left and Right, that the government responds better to pressure and threats than to dialogue and concertation. Concessions have resulted in nothing: what have the workers won by allowing the government to present the bankers with the image of a country at social peace? The answer lies in the fate of the foreign resources that will soon enter the country.
But the FSLN is also concerned about opinion polls, which still indicate that the population is tired of strikes and work stoppages—the unions' key tools to pressure the government.
Once again, we face a debate about "forms of struggle." Isn't it time for a new kind of civic insurrection that serves not to overthrow the government but to force it to change direction? In some people's opinion, this would require redefining the relationship between the FNT and the FSLN, or differentiating their respective roles so that organized workers can have their own pressure mechanism—one that does not always fit with the tools that a national and multi-class political party has at hand. Once they accept that they will not always be united, neither the FSLN nor the FNT should feel obliged to take on positions that have negative repercussions among their respective memberships.
However, this presumes that "public opinion," the government, the rightwing and the United States would also differentiate between the FSLN's and FNT's positions. It also presumes that the government is determined to construct a large political center in clear opposition to the far-right minority. The truth is that center, right and ultra-right continue to blame the FSLN and Daniel Ortega himself for any act of union militancy, assuming, as they did during the May and July strikes last year, that the FSLN can intervene to stop any strike, as if union and popular movement activity is something turned on and off on orders of the National Directorate. If such a mechanical and dependent relationship ever existed between the unions and Sandinista leadership, those days are long over.
The FSLN's current dilemma is how it should respond to union and popular demands and provide guidance and political assurance. But that should not degenerate into a policy of opposition for opposition's sake. Many Sandinistas argue that strengthening the government's political position does not automatically translate into a failure for the workers. "Moderate" Sandinista sectors believe that one thing is clear: the situation in Nicaragua is so difficult and the margin of options so narrow that no sector can benefit from the weakening or downfall of another.
The Front for Popular StruggleWhen all is said and done, the popular sectors' ability to extract concessions from the government has not depended either on the Right’s good judgment, US lucidity, government openings or even the FNT and FSLN negotiating teams' expertise at the negotiating table, but on the capacity for popular mobilization. That road, which can be nonviolent, thus appears most appropriate. The sustained teachers strike and the May 22 demonstration called by the Front for Popular Struggle (FLP)—a coalition including the FNT, Community Movement, Sandinista Women's Association, former army members and others—are the most recent proof that the grassroots movement is getting stronger, and no longer just as a result of party mandates.
Thousands of new faces—people concerned for the future of their family and in search of ways to show the government their anxiety about being thrown off their lots or out of their homes—made up the May 22 demonstration "for peace, bread, a home and work." The gathering, drawing some 10,000 people, reflected a new political and organizational effervescence, springing not from a plan designed by the central party structure but from consciousness and daily need. The spirit was combative and banners were specific and straightforward. The demand for land, lots and housing and the defense of Laws 85 and 86 may strengthen with time. The first massive expression of the FLP demonstrated Sandinista strength after a year of political discouragement.
The new Front's leaders believe that the organized people themselves must force a decisive change in the government's bearing, obliging it to act in accord with the law and the Constitution and impeding the promulgation of laws and the implementation of measures that violate popular rights. The organized people must defend the revolution's redistribution of property and economic democratization that, despite abuses and irregularities, were the foundation of the social and political stability that emerged in Nicaragua on July 19, 1979.
The May 22 march was not a call to armed uprising, nor even an anti-government uprising, but rather a civic uprising for stability in the face of laws promoted by the far Right. It was a call to the government "to govern well." The people set the tone: everybody organize to defend that which is all of ours and that which is each of ours.
By the end of May, everything indicated that the first, new bells had tolled for a long battle that would be led by the Front for Popular Struggle, coordinated by former Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto, who announced "the beginning of an escalating civic struggle, without truce, that will continue until the government respects the law and puts an end to its anti-popular policies."