Concertation and Counter-Concertation
With the October 26 signing of the economic agreement or "concertation" between the Nicaraguan government and the country's various social sectors, Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo declared that Nicaragua was entering a new stage of political development. He pointed to the government's promise to make a commitment to the workers, as well as the commitment of all sectors to social peace in the nation. For their part, representatives of the country's workers and the FSLN underscored the fact that, with the signing of the accord, winds of stability and confidence in the government were finally beginning to blow.
More than 35 confederations, federations, associations and unions representing workers, employers and property owners throughout the country had at least nominal representation at the concertation talks. The three principal participants were the government, the National Workers' Front (FNT) and the private business association, COSEP. The government agreed to tone down its structural adjustment program, including its original plans for drastic cuts in state spending and consequent mass layoffs of public employees. It also agreed to postpone the generalized privatization it had called for, while the FNT in turn essentially suspended its right to strike and to make demands on the government. A key point of contention during the negotiation process centered around Presidential Decree 11-90, which allows for the review of all properties confiscated by the Sandinista government and opens the door to the wholesale dismantling of the Sandinista agrarian reform and the big landowners' return to power in the countryside. Because this decree was not touched on in the final accord, COSEP refused to sign.
The spirit of reconciliation lasted barely a month and, in any case, never extended to the entire country. The former contras had already begun protest actions to make their own demands on the government. COSEP was quick to link its cause with their demands. Other sectors of the extreme Right interpreted the agreement as "one more concession to the Sandinistas" and called on the population to support the contras who were in open rebellion against the government. At the same time, the FNT issued a call urging people to organize neighborhood defense systems given that a return to war seemed quite possible. By early November, then, the reconciliatory spirit that characterized October had vanished. The concertation process between government and workers touched off a "counter-concertation" movement among UNO’s already resentful extreme right wing. Only days after the accord was signed, rightist protests against the government had multiplied at surprising speed and with a suspicious degree of coordination—all groups calling for the removal of Antonio Lacayo, Minister of Government Carlos Hurtado, and army chief General Humberto Ortega.
Those who had most zealously participated in the campaign to elect Violeta Chamorro were behind the protests, working openly to pressure Chamorro's government. And it was not a peaceful protest: nine people were killed, including four police officers; more than 60 were wounded (both police and civilians); municipal offices and churches were taken over; dozens of barricades blocked some of the country's key highways and all of it led to millions of dollars in economic losses. The November protests were the third serious challenge that the Chamorro government has had to confront in seven months. Yet this one was different, in that it challenged the government’s very legitimacy, something the May and July strikes, led by pro-Sandinista unions, had never done. The right-wingers accused high level officials in Chamorro's Cabinet of betraying the original UNO government program and the President herself of entering into an alliance with the FSLN, which they claimed had become the "armed wing" of an illegitimate regime.
The protests went far beyond verbal slings and arrows: the rebels had access to sophisticated weapons and communications equipment able to track police and government communications. Arguing mainly that the Sandinistas continued to govern the country because of their influence in the Ministries of the Presidency and Government, the right-wingers sought to justify the rebellion against the government by claiming to be supporting a President muffled by her own ministers.
A power vacuum?At one point, it was said that the UNO government's strength lay in the President’s weakness. Violeta Chamorro's maternal and reconciliatory image, which seemed to exist on a higher plane than traditional politics, was very effectively projected throughout the presidential campaign and, at least to some degree, helped her at the polls.
But for the US government as well as Nicaragua's extreme right wing, it turned out to be much easier to pick a candidate than to actually create a team capable of governing the country. Even new government officials who have had training and experience in economics or public administration have found it very difficult to implement an economic program without an organized social or political base to back it up, particularly in a context where political organization and grassroots participation have been watchwords of society for more than 10 years. The government was better able to confront and negotiate with the Left than with its own right wing. In the wake of the November rebellion, the Right's inability to consolidate forces and capitalize on its new access to state power was once again highlighted. The government's minimal efficiency and the country's political instability are not so much a result of the organizing capacity of the FSLN (which during the crisis was more concerned about the government's long-term stability than were many sectors within the UNO itself) as of contradictions within the ruling coalition.
During the May and July strikes, the government's weakness vis-à-vis the FNT and FSLN was clear. Politically it was virtually impossible for the government to put down protests that were, essentially, of a civic nature. The Left cried victory, but it was a premature assessment. If recourse to violence against the people in May and June was politically impossible for the government, using force against its own political allies in November was effectively out of the question in ideological terms. To a certain degree, the government's initial vacillation emboldened the right-wing rebels to up the political ante and increase the violence.
The extreme Right broke with the government, declaring political war on Chamorro's key advisers while being careful not to attack the President herself. Given widespread insubordination that was threatening to paralyze much of the country, the government's weakness gave the Right access to more political space and improved its negotiating position while also stirring up latent anti-Sandinista forces. This was all done with the knowledge that the government, for ideological reasons and its affinity with the US, in addition to the precedent set by its behavior in the May and July strikes, would not order the army to stop to the disturbances.
The group rebelling against the government, and de facto against the concertation accord, was trying desperately to keep the possibility of a return to war open as a negotiating tool, since the concertation strengthened a civic, negotiated alternative and was threatening to leave the far Right without influence. By inciting violence—once again manipulating legitimate aspirations of landless peasants and former contras—the extreme Right dramatically improved its negotiating position, spurring international organizations and some members of the Catholic hierarchy to "offer" their services as mediators, and thus putting it on the same level as the government, something far beyond its actual force in society.
The government still had no repressive force of its own and was thus unable to impose its will on either the left or extreme right forces challenging it. And as its economic policies touched off generalized resentment and discontent, both the Left and the ultra Rightists threatened to head up a general anti-government movement. But recourse to a "civil insurrection" turned out to be a double-edged sword for both groups. For the Right it meant openly challenging the government it had helped bring to power, while for the Left more disturbances risked squaring the army off against the government and calling into question the entire democratic framework in which problems are solved peacefully and peaceful transitions are effected through elections.
The FSLN didn't want to have to choose between the people and political stability as long as the transition and concertation accords protected its political position. In a November 15 communiqué, the FSLN called on its membership to be on the alert not fall prey to rightist provocations in the face of escalating violence. In the interest of avoiding widespread violence, the FSLN gave full support to the campaign to disarm all civilians "without exception." At the same time, it criticized the government for dragging its feet in taking decisive measures, arguing that this weakened the government and thus endangered the security of all citizens. The FSLN also emphasized the importance of defending the Constitution and called on the government to back up its words with actions.
The extreme Right, hoping to provoke a political crisis, tried to force the government into a direct confrontation with Sandinista forces (and the Constitution). It even tried to carry out a technical coup—taking power by provoking the resignations of the President and her key Cabinet ministers, Carlos Hurtado and Antonio Lacayo, who have so far withstood significant US pressure and refused to organize their own military apparatus. How much political influence the far Right has really achieved after the rebellion in Region V, even at the cost of shattering the myth of UNO unity, remains to be seen. The government took an irrevocable step when it rejected its extremist allies' initial demands and ordered the army to clear all barricades from the highway to Rama, at the same time detaining and then virtually expelling Aristides Sánchez from the country. Yet the government was far from having on a social base of its own, even in Region V where 70% of the peasantry voted against the FSLN. Traditional political party leaders headed up the protests, careful to never take positions against President Chamorro herself, preferring to instead attack her moderate advisers.
Under government orders, the army restored order in Region V, essentially putting an end to seditious activities by one UNO faction against another. At the same time, the conflict tested the FSLN's capacity to pay the costs of defending national stability when it means guaranteeing the security of a rightwing government. The police and army oversaw the disarming of the civilian population and turned the other cheek to the revenge-driven Right, putting up with violence and attacks and even sustaining deaths in their own ranks. Just as they had treated the strikers in May and July with kid gloves, so they treated the people arming the barricades in November, maintaining their commitment never to fire on the people.
While it's true that rabid anti-Sandinista sentiment characterizes much of Region V, the government's response had national repercussions: the government made clear that it would make no significant changes in its makeup or orientation and would not tolerate those who hope to eradicate the FSLN by force. Its need to protect its authority led it to detain and imprison Aristides Sánchez, break negotiations with the Region V protesters who had blocked the Rama road and call out the army to restore order in all affected areas. The principle of the rule of law was strengthened, but at the cost of increasing government weakness vis-à-vis those sectors unwilling to accept the rules of the game in this country: the Constitution and the accords signed during the transition period, including the Transition Protocol.
Peasant contrasThe country’s peasant sector suffered the most during the war. The FSLN stepped up its efforts to reinvigorate an alliance with the peasants after its electoral loss, starting by solidly supporting peasant land demands as well as promised government assistance to the demobilized contra forces. The pro-Sandinista Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), did intense work with some former contra leaders to strike a balance of peaceful coexistence between the contras and Sandinista cooperative members, working from the premise that the two groups share many basic economic concerns.
The former contras' demands centered on economic and security issues—land, agricultural inputs, financial credits and the like. For the most part, the demands had been dealt with in accords previously signed with the government but had not been fully complied with. The government had already accepted the failure of the much-touted "development poles," in part because the former contras were demanding better lands than those they had been given at the same time they were dispersing throughout the country.
Other rightwing sectors, manipulating the contras' demands as a pretext yet giving them only secondary importance, went so far as to demand the disarticulation of Sandinismo as a political force as well as the resignations of Antonio Lacayo, Carlos Hurtado and Humberto Ortega. The former contras limited their political demands to calling for the resignation of some Sandinista municipal authorities. On November 15, contra chief Israel "Franklin" Galeano called on his former troops not to allow themselves to be misled or deceived by rightwing politicians, alleging that the mayors' rebellion had nothing to do with the rightful claims of the contra soldiers.
COSEP takes on the governmentCOSEP's refusal to sign the concertation pact was the first open indication of insurrection in the UNO ranks. Only hours after the concertation process came to an end, COSEP leaders held a press conference with what the daily paper El Nuevo Diario called "its armed wing"—the most intransigent and extremist contra forces. COSEP sought to argue, from a position of force, for the maintenance of Decree 11-90, and formed a commission to review confiscations and return confiscated properties to their former owners.
Thus COSEP declared war on the government, falling in with the contras headed by "Rubén" (Oscar Sobalvarro) and others of the so-called "Southern Front" who had been instigating violence in the countryside. Business owners and former contras came together in attacking the National Agrarian Commission, the former because they continued to call for a return of all confiscated lands to their former owners, and the latter due to the slow pace with which land conflicts in the countryside were being resolved. The contras grouped around "Rubén" were particularly angry because their faction is not represented in the National Agrarian Commission.
The mayorsThe problems between the central government and municipal authorities, including UNO Assembly representatives from the regions, had their roots in the very nature of the UNO coalition. Traditional politicians and their friends made up the UNO slates at the municipal level, with their first loyalty owed their parties and the UNO's extremist political council, not the moderate advisers who surround Violeta Chamorro.
The local authorities responded to the interests of the most anti-Sandinista forces in their communities. After the elections, a number of political debts were outstanding that ordinarily would have been cancelled in the form of support for the demands of former landowners and the need to reward UNO's rural supporters by giving them land in the hands of Sandinista cooperatives. To address the problem of paying off these debts, some municipalities began local policies of re-adjudication of properties and public offices, many times arbitrarily and not in line with legal orientations from Managua. They received the backing of some political parties, particularly the mayors belonging to Virgilio Godoy's Independent Liberal Party (PLI). The Vice President, for his part, occupied much of his free time visiting the country's different municipalities, primarily in Region V, meeting with local authorities and blaming the government's problems and lack of coherence on army chief Humberto Ortega and the President's "bad (and non-elected) advisers."
The policies and attitudes of Managua Mayor Arnoldo Alemán were inspirational for the Region V mayors, giving them the courage to directly confront the FSLN and essentially mock Minister Lacayo, although never the President herself.
In mid-November, 35 mayors (of the total 147 throughout the country) formed an anti-government association called the National Save Democracy Movement. By defying the central government so openly, the mayors hoped to force a radical shift in the government's policies, with significantly increased power for Virgilio Godoy. Their aspirations were backed up by civil disobedience actions such as takeovers of land, roads, churches and municipal offices.
Far from opposing these illegal actions, the mayors, in the name of saving the UNO government's Plan for National Salvation, expressed "solidarity" with the protests, "condemning the dangerous escalation of repression and death spearheaded by the army and the police." They demanded government capitulation to one of the right wing's key goals: increased power for Virgilio Godoy at the expense of Antonio Lacayo. There were differences among the group, with some ready to repudiate the President for her "militarism," while others insisted that they should limit themselves to demanding the resignations of Lacayo, Hurtado, and Ortega, "who do not allow the country to be governed and do not give the Vice President his rightful place." In any case, both groups agreed on keeping the rebellion going.
The Aristides Sánchez caseIf there was one issue around which the government forged consensus, it was the generalized criticism of its handling of Aristides Sánchez, former contra leader and more recently their adviser in dealings with the government. The government formally accused Sánchez of being the driving force behind a vast plan to destabilize the country, including the takeover of key highways and public buildings—actions backed up by stockpiled weapons and sophisticated communications equipment so the protests could be directed from Managua.
In a dramatic press conference several days after Sánchez's capture, however, the Ministry of Government announced that Sánchez had been freed so he could "get a medical check-up in the United States." They read letters signed by Sánchez in which he admitted the manipulation of the contras' economic demands.
According to the documents, Sánchez indicated that a group of politicians, including the Vice President and Managua’s mayor, hoped to "affect the [President's] emotional stability" by making the country ungovernable, forcing her to resign and leave the country in Godoy's hands.
The Right reacted angrily, accusing the Ministry of Government of an unholy alliance with the Sandinistas to the point of letting former State Security officials torture Sánchez. While they continued to express their support for the "misinformed" President, the rightwing mayors and politicians called Sánchez the "Chamorro government's first political prisoner." For its part, the Sandinista media accused the government of promoting impunity by letting Sánchez leave the country without going through the proper legal channels. They demanded that the government move against those threatening the nation's security and order. Some 340 Sandinista Municipal Council members from all over the country issued a statement supporting the President and called for action against those responsible for the violence and deaths resulting from the disturbances. In the National Assembly, both blocs finally approved a watered-down resolution giving a vote of confidence and support to President Chamorro.
The United StatesIn its November 15 communiqué, the FSLN's National Directorate did not implicate the United States in the plot to destabilize the government. Nevertheless, it characterized the US State Department's declaration regarding the events as "weak."
To many analysts, the US Embassy's well-known discontent with the concertation process, its repeated indications that the President is being "poorly advised" and its opposition to the decision to keep Humberto Ortega as military chief, were clearly in line with the position taken by the extreme Right. On the other hand, the specter of generalized violence could hardly have cheered the State Department. Even less could "Rubén's" threat to ask for political asylum in the US for 20,000 former contras and their families have pleased it.
Crisis falloutThroughout the crisis, both the government and the FSLN insisted on distinguishing between the former contras' legitimate demands and the extreme Right's attempts to force thoroughgoing changes in the government. The FSLN daily Barricada repeated time and again that one group within UNO was manipulating the original fairly small-scale protest of the former contras. This, however, still doesn't explain the relative ease with which the extremists broadened the protests and mixed their political goals with the former contras' very concrete demands.
One of the former contras' concerns, particularly in Region V, was security, leading them to call for the removal of some of the military and police officials in the region. The extremists carried this argument to its furthest point, calling for a clean sweep of the entire army chain of command, beginning with Humberto Ortega himself.
The contras’ economic demands also found an echo in the population at large. In addition to the 20,000 contras demanding assistance are 50,000 peasants demanding land. In the city, a 40% unemployment rate has led to a desperate situation for many people, aggravated by the unrealistically high hopes many had from UNO campaign promises of a virtual free flow of dollars if it won. In this context, popular discontent was the common denominator, not only of the extremist uprising, but also of the May and July strikes. In both cases, protests broke out as a response to government policies that exacerbated the country's already difficult economic and social situation.
There were also those who sympathized with the contra demands, seeing them as one more example of unfulfilled accords as well as of a wide gap between the central government's words and the reality on the ground in the countryside. Both the demobilized contras and those who joined with them, for whatever motivations, were pressuring for more coherence, if not radical changes, in government policy.
The degree of coherence in and breadth of support for the Region V rebellion does not characterize the nation as a whole. The government was able to neutralize the rightwing attempt to project the image of a national protest movement headed up by mayors throughout the country. The President rejected demands to hold a negotiating session in Managua with all participants in the rebellion represented, insisting instead on meeting in Region V with only the rebelling mayors present. Addressing the contra demands for land and a significant reduction in Region V military presence led to the failure of the rightwing attempt to extend the rebellion to the rest of the country, including Managua. The rebellion in Region V simply was unable to achieve a greater quota of national power for the extreme Right.
It was in this context that President Chamorro maintained her image as a figure of reconciliation and consensus such that neither the country's extreme right sectors nor the FSLN itself, even in the moments of hottest conflict with the government, could hold her directly responsible for the crisis. So, who was responsible? Given that the President was beyond criticism, the FSLN continued to be the main target, although it is becoming harder to continue blaming the FSLN for everything wrong in the country. Even the most virulently anti-Sandinista sectors are aware of this and are now attempting to retool their anti-revolutionary message.
Facing a population very critical of government policy, the far Right and the US government need to link both the objective and subjective incompetence of their government to the FSLN. They are trying to deny the fact that although the FSLN was defeated at the polls, it represents a clear and legitimate alternative to current policy. For the government, this extremist attitude can no longer be tolerated, in the interest of its own stability. La Prensa resigned itself to taking the moderate UNO faction’s line when it pointed out that the extreme Right needed to reconcile itself with the country's reality: "The country's political prospects are determined by the government's ability to make the people who supported it in the elections understand that they shouldn't allow themselves to be dragged into the vindictive discourse of the extremist Right, which is very attractive but not conducive to the consolidation of democracy, nor easy to put into practice."
It is possible that the FSLN has no other choice than to pay the price of "responsible" political action, in the same way that the army must shoulder the burden of being criticized both as disloyal opposition and as the armed wing of the government. The army clearly shares with the government an interest in defending the March 27 Transition Protocol as a foundation of stability and consensus against the extreme Right’s openly counterrevolutionary stance. The FSLN's defense of legal space in the country has become less and less distinguishable from the government's defense of that same legal framework. In the context of the new Nicaraguan—and perhaps global—circumstances, the FSLN's viability and political future depend to a certain degree on the stability and viability of the government itself.
Nevertheless, this precarious balance is predicated on the government’s supposed ability to exercise hegemony over the extreme Right, and the FSLN ability to do the same over the popular movement. Once again and with a certain degree of risk, the FSLN demonstrated its maturity, calling on its membership to act prudently and not fall prey to provocations and other extremist traps. Demanding a significant redistribution of power at the FSLN’s expense, the extreme Right pressured the government to either capitulate to its demands or order the army to use repression against the protests—which in turn would be sure to stir up the extremists and trap the FSLN in a violent and vicious circle. For this reason, the FSLN considered it prudent to demand greater resolution on the government's part to put the extremists in their place.
The National Workers' Front was much more emphatic than the FSLN itself in calling on the population to organize defense committees in every urban barrio and rural area, to categorically repudiate the political forces in the country that were jeopardizing the workers. They warned that they would defend the concertation accords and other agreements that had been signed and would refuse to recognize any new agreements gutting already-existing accords. They accused the extremists of openly violating the country's Constitution and said that their actions "signified a de facto coup d'état and an imminent return to war."
In the final analysis, then, the government was left weakened by the extremist-led rebellion within UNO's own ranks, as well as by the clear absence of a significant social base of its own. It had to count on the support lent it by the FSLN and other sectors primarily interested in the country's stability to strengthen its own ability to resist far right pressures. Nevertheless, this situation is not particularly advantageous to the FSLN, which has taken on the task of supporting a rightwing government that in turn is key to reconciling the rest of the right wing with the fact that the revolution and its principles still exist and represent a viable alternative in Nicaragua.