Daniel Núñez: The Farmers’ View
Founded in 1981, the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG) is one of the most powerful pro-Sandinista mass organizations, representing the interests of some 125,000 peasants. Under the Sandinista government, UNAG spearheaded the struggle for land, credit and fair prices for producers with an independence that did not always characterize the other mass organizations. Today UNAG is playing a key role in reconciliation efforts in the countryside as well as fighting for the rights of the landless—whether ex-contra or pro-Sandinista peasant—to land.
In the following interview, UNAG president Daniel Núñez reflects on the situation in the countryside and his organization's role in the aftermath of the Sandinista electoral defeat.
envío: What was the relationship between the FSLN and the peasants before the elections?
Núñez: There were contradictions in the party's relationship with the peasants, not because this was policy but because many middle-level cadre, regional and municipal officials, didn't understand their reality, idiosyncrasies and cultural roots. They underestimated them, often seeing them as not receptive to the revolution. Peasants were called "bourgeois" or "petty bourgeois" because they had a piece of land and defended their own interests.
Sandino left us a beautiful experience of building an alliance with the peasants. His Army for the Defense of National Sovereignty was made up of peasants and they were the ones who accompanied him in his struggles against US intervention. Beyond this, the Nicaraguan peasantry actively participated in all the struggles for our country's independence. FSLN functionaries ignored all this.
These misinterpretations divided the peasants and separated many from the revolution. Some were resentful about the abuses of authority that often occurred and went, mistakenly, with the counterrevolution. All these problems, these contradictions, these errors were a determining factor in the outcome of the elections.
envío: How did peasants vote?
Núñez: They voted against the war, the draft and the economic crisis produced by the economic blockade and trade embargo. They also voted against the abuses of authority that occurred on the agricultural frontier. They didn't understand the phenomenon of aggression and the most vacillating were intoxicated with the UNO politicians' promises that they would resolve the economic crisis in 100 days and that, with their electoral triumph, a torrent of all kinds of aid from the gringos would come pouring in.
Another factor that won peasant votes in favor of UNO was the armed pressure of the Resistance in the mountains. They were political-military activists for UNO because they, too, as peasants, believed the tale that if the UNO won, they would be in the government.
But not everything was negative—in Regions I and VI, the FSLN won the support of thousands of farmers who maintained their cry: "Here no one surrenders!"
envío: What were the repercussions of the Sandinista electoral defeat for UNAG?
Núñez: We’ve always been self-critical in our work, always. We used to say that a revolution that’s not capable of recognizing and rectifying its errors would stagnate and decay. With the elections, we lost a government that was a friend to peasants, that made the agrarian reform possible in the middle of innumerable contradictions. But we couldn't just stay at the level of regrets or seek revenge. So our immediate reaction was to go to El Almendro where [contra commander] Franklin and his former combatants were camped, to talk with him.
I told him, "Independent of our political positions, let's unite our efforts so that the peasants of the Resistance and of the cooperatives don't come to blows again, so that brothers don't again kill brothers. Let's fight so peasants can work together for development.” Franklin told me he thought that was the right thing to do, and since then, we’ve been working together.
envío: In some places this alliance seems to have failed, for example in Waslala where there was a confrontation between ex-contras and cooperative members. What happened in that case?
Núñez: In Waslala some local FSLN leaders were not mature enough to work for unity and engage in dialogue with the Resistance. Since the grass roots have been highly polarized, they fell into a confrontation that really lasted only a day or two. In the end, it was resolved in a way that was favorable for everyone.
envío: Isn't it difficult to convince the base of UNAG of the need for this dialogue with the contras after so many years of war and of watching their families and compañeros die?
Núñez: I’m part of the base of UNAG; I come from the agricultural frontier, from Bocaycito. They killed my brother, who was like the other ox that plowed alongside me. It hasn't been difficult for me to continue in the struggle because what’s at stake is peasant unity. Besides, I know that if my brother was alive and I was the one killed, he’d be doing the same thing. The peasant is the noblest, purest human being in a society, because the countryside hardens but it also purifies. If anyone here wants peace, it’s the peasant, because he has experienced the war first hand.
So, have there been difficulties? Yes, there have been from the beginning, but there’s a saying: 'There’s no soup that doesn't cool off and no dog that won't eat it." In this situation, the soup has already cooled off and we believe that it's time for a true reconciliation. Besides, we have to give an example to the world, to the vengeful politicians and the oligarchy. We have to show them, and we will show them, that from now on we peasants will not be puppets in their hands. If we're going to get into another confrontation, it will be against them, not among peasants.
envío: Were there changes in UNAG's internal structure or its work style after the elections?
Núñez: We've been making changes all along. The proof is that before the elections we had laid off more than 200 peasant staff members who went back to work on their farms, on the cooperatives, etc. We believe that the natural leaders are there in the countryside. We've been improving the organization, creating the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperatives (FENACOOP), which includes 88,000 families, acquiring legal status for the peasant cooperative stores (ECODEPA) and taking administrative and technical responsibilities away from the national board of directors. Now, paid functionaries will be in charge of those tasks and will be accountable to the directors who'll continue their work among the organization's base.
The fact that we now have legal offices, a women's section and departments for training and organization is also a step forward. Sure, we have our faults and limitations and we'll go on having them, because that's part of development.
We have a strategy: to fight for the democratization of the economy in the countryside. And what is that? To have the tools to create development in our own hands. ECODEPA is one tool in our hands; UNAG is another; the National Federation of Cooperatives is another. Little by little, we'll build the links to guarantee our strategy.
envío: Among the UNAG members, 60-70% are small producers and cooperative members, but the rest are medium and large producers. Doesn't trying to represent such a broad spectrum of interests present contradictions?
Núñez: UNAG’s strength is that it was born out of an alliance between small, medium and large producers. I, for example, was a large producer, a landowner, and I had no contradictions when I gave my property to the cooperatives. Just as I made that step, so have others. When we call large farmers 'patriotic producers,' it's because they have a conscience they haven’t lost yet, because we don't have great differences with them. Of course, we would have contradictions if we tried to attract [COSEP leaders] Gurdián or Bolaños or Cuadra. The Right won't even fit in heaven because they won't want to mix with the angels; they'll want to be up next to God and the Holy Spirit and that's unlikely.
When we demand land, we demand it for the small producers, the cooperatives, and we have frequently affected producers affiliated with UNAG who have given up their land without complaint. We are not an organization dedicated to political intrigue, we're a farmers' organization with a class consciousness. We struggle for a new economic order that favors the grassroots sectors and humanizes the more privileged sectors.
envío: What is your evaluation of the new government's policies?
Núñez: The new government is carrying on its shoulders the consequences of the economic blockade, the trade embargo and the war imposed on us by the Reagan Administration. It is also the victim—like all governments in Latin America—of the unjust international economic order. Today in Nicaragua, a hundred pounds of coffee is worth less than a hundred pounds of beans; a hundred pounds of cotton is worth less than a pair of good shoes. Our products are worth less every day and what we buy costs more. What we need is for the countries of Latin America to join together to demand that the US government change its exploitative economic policies.
The United States, which caused us $17 billion in damages, has barely given this government $300 million; the parties that formed UNO, instead of consolidating their strategy to fulfill their promises to the Nicaraguan people, are now trying to overthrow the President. Really, this government is between a rock and a hard place, and its policy is to favor the wealthy and impoverish the most needy.
envío: What does all this mean for UNAG's relationship with the government?
Núñez: With the former government, when it was necessary we gave support and, when it was necessary, we criticized. It's the same with this government.
We had one objective in the concertation process: to unite with all sectors to overcome the economic crisis, whether or not we’re in agreement with the ideology of this government. There are sectors in this government that are pragmatic and we shouldn’t abandon them. Not only that, we must support them to be able to move forward. UNAG wouldn’t support Virgilio Godoy because we consider him a fascist, a vengeful man who doesn’t represent the Nicaraguan people's historic reality. But we do support Lacayo because he's making efforts toward reconciliation and maintaining a little dignity vis-à-vis the US embassy.
envío: What demands is UNAG making of this government?
Núñez: Improve the infrastructure in the countryside, improve the prices of our products, lower the prices of fertilizers, improve credit—there's no credit for basic grains, for cattle, for anything. In other words, the demands are broad. We've been taking advantage of our representation on the Agrarian Commission and of bilateral meetings with Mr. Lacayo, the Minister of Labor and President Chamorro to put forward our demands in an orderly and coherent manner, but haven’t received any response so far.
envío: And the issue of land?
Núñez: Agrarian reform is a historic path for our people. The problem is that the conservative landowners haven’t been capable of realizing that 250 to 500 acres of well-cultivated land is enough to live well. But here there are farms of up to 4-5,000 acres and they’re not being planted. There are peasants who can’t plant one hill of beans or corn. That's a crime in a country as sparsely populated as ours.
envío: What’s happening now in the Agrarian Commission?
Núñez: We're becoming philosophers in our discussions, but we're not resolving anything. We make an agreement in one meeting and then in the next we go back and discuss the same thing again.
The commission is an advisory body; the government is the one that decides. The agricultural workers and producers in the countryside are the most important social forces represented. The government has the political power; we have the economic power.
What you see is that when there's a proposal to affect a private producer, everyone screams, but when property that belongs to the state or the workers or a cooperative is affected, everyone applauds. So it's a struggle, and UNAG has made an alliance with the Resistance and the Farm Workers' Association (ATC) to demand that land for agrarian reform not be taken only from the cooperatives and the state. Land belonging to landowners that is idle now and has been for 50 years should also be included in negotiations.
envío: Why did it take so long for the government to establish the Agrarian Commission and begin to move on the land issue?
Núñez: At first, the government didn’t see [resolving land demands] as a necessity and instead did the opposite. It began with privatization; it tried to return farms to some landowners and forgot that underneath were thousands of peasants demanding their right to land. When government leaders realized that, they had to stop and address the problem. I want to say something here: if the land problem is not resolved, there will be social instability again, whether we want it or not, because the problem isn’t ideological anymore; it's a question of hunger.
envío: Do large producers carry more weight with this government than with the former one?
Núñez: As a class, [large producers] feel represented, but they would like a repressive army and police force. When they see that the army and the police act in the interest of the people and not of the large landowners or the oligarchy, that's when they feel like they have only half the government. That's why they are conspiring to try to have a Somoza-style army that kills young people and takes land away from the peasants, so they can go back to being lords and masters of Nicaragua.
envío: The FSLN has been strongly criticized for its previous work with the peasants (See envio, October 1990). Is there hope for change in the relationship between the FSLN and the peasantry?
Núñez: The relationship is already changing. Some cadre need to be exorcised, but really things are already changing and had been since before the elections. Defeats can turn into victories. Pancasán was a military defeat but it became a political victory. The loss of the elections could be a defeat that turns into a political victory for the future of the FSLN.
envío: Two forces are competing for the loyalty of the peasants: the Godoyistas on the one side and UNAG and the FSLN on the other. What possibilities of success does each side have?
Núñez: The Godoyistas are demagogues. To understand the countryside, you have to have come from the countryside, to have lived and worked there. We peasants have woken up and we're not going to let ourselves be bamboozled or deceived again. If anyone here fought for the peasants, it was Augusto César Sandino and if anyone led the peasant struggle and gave his life for the Sandinista Front, it was Carlos Fonseca, Bernardino Díaz Ochoa, Germán Pomares and so many more. As far as Godoy goes, the peasants say, "I'm not going with that guy." Let's wait for time to give us history's verdict.