Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 288 | Julio 2005



Why So Little Social Mobilization?

Despite so many social tragedies, the last three Nicaraguan governments have enjoyed a fair degree of social stability. What remains of the grassroots organization of the recent past? What are the reasons for today’s apathy and social demobilization? There are many answers, all of them intertwined.

William Grigsby

The Sandinista Revolution provided one of the greatest examples of grassroots participation, organization and decision making in the history of Latin American social movements. It is impossible to explain either its victory or its achievements or its invincible resistance to the colossal military aggression of the United States without focusing on those contingents of neighbors, workers, peasants, women and young people who defended their conquests and their nearest and dearest with such disciplined organization. Twenty-six years on, what remains of those grassroots organizations and their mobilizing capacity? What has happened to us? Have we lost our awareness? Have we grown tired of fighting? Have we been so disappointed by democracy and its political representatives? Do we care so little for the future? And who is responsible?

So much passivity,
yet so much to complain about

The common—and bitter—complaint of the people themselves is that nobody wants to fight against a socio-economic system that batters them on a daily basis, confiscating their income, seizing their national patrimony, expelling them from the labor market and liquidating the education and health systems. The governments of the last 16 years have docilely submitted to the neoliberal prescriptions of the international financial organizations, with terrifying results: 72% of the population forced to survive on less than US$2 a day, a deficit of over half a million houses, unemployment of over 40%, a million children left out of school, and around 1.3 million Nicaraguans forced to abandon the country to eke out an existence, at least, in Costa Rica or the United States.

Violeta Chamorro’s government liquidated almost all of the state-run industrial and agricultural companies, even selling off the railway system’s trains and tracks for scrap metal, paying people to rip up the rails. Arnoldo Alemán’s government sold off the state electricity and telephone companies at derisory prices and pillaged the public coffers. And Enrique Bolaños’ government’s budgetary priority is to pay local bankers usurious interest on the treasury bonds issued to cover the enormous fraud perpetrated by the owners of five bankrupt banks. US, Canadian, European and Taiwanese companies conduct a permanent pillage of our national wealth—timber, minerals, and fishing and water resources—while rewarding their workers with miserable wages. The rich don’t pay taxes. And ministers, magistrates, legislators and top public officials from all state branches earn the kind of salaries more associated with developed countries. Yet while all of this has been going on—and it still is—the three governments have enjoyed relative social stability. The reasons for such passivity are complex, interwoven and particular to this country.

The generation gap

The revolution has left a paradoxical inheritance. On the one hand, the political awareness of most adult Nicaraguans tends to be higher than in the rest of Central America. Such awareness bloomed among the youth in particular during the fight against the Somoza dictatorship. It then matured with the mass participation in each of the great transformations experienced by Nicaraguan society during the Sandinista revolution: the literacy campaign, the agrarian reform, the grassroots health campaigns, and the drafting of a new constitution, to name but a few.

There is now a marked generation gap. Those born after 1980, particularly those who have passed through the neoliberal-imposed education system, are profoundly apathetic, skeptical, individualist and even somewhat uprooted. On the other generational extreme, the elderly and those approaching old age are predominantly conservative and harbor a great deal of resentment towards the Sandinistas, particularly for the economic limitations of the eighties. In the countryside, such resentment is also fueled by the pain of losing loved ones in the US-imposed war.

The organizations of the eighties:
The way they were and the way they are

The years of revolutionary furor—which was dampened by the intensification of the war and the absurdities of the Sandinista leaders—saw the creation of many “mass” organizations, as they were called at the time: the Sandinista Workers Confederation (CST), the Farm Workers’ Association (ATC), the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), the “Luisa Amanda Espinoza” Nicaraguan Women’s Association (AMNLAE), the Nicaraguan Community Movement (MCN), the “19th of July” Sandinista Youth Movement (JS), the National Educators’ Association (ANDEN), the National Employees’ Union (UNE), the “Luis Alfonso Velásquez Flores” Children’s Movement (MILAFV), the Sandinista Culture Workers’ Association (ASTC), to name but a few. These took their place alongside several already existing organizations, such as the construction workers’ union (SCAAS), the health workers’ union (FETSALUD) and the university students’ union (UNEN). Official figures of the time put the overall coverage of these organizations at a million people.

Some have managed to preserve their influence, particularly in Managua as in the case of UNE, although with very little real power. The CST split in two as the result of leadership conflicts and the membership of both parts plummeted dramatically as state companies were closed. The ATC is a cross between a union federation and an association of the owners of agricultural companies; its most coherently organized sector is made up of women agricultural workers. The UNAG limits its membership to medium- and large-scale peasant producers, and floundered when it put up money to found a bank. It has virtually fused with the National Agricultural Producers’ Union (UPANIC), a similar organization affiliated to the COSEP association of big businesses. The MC, MILAVF, AMNLAE and the successor to the liquidated ASTC—the Association of Culture Promoters (APC)—act like NGOs. And the JS is barely able to maintain its leadership structures, straight-jacketed by its self-definition as a para-party organization, lacking the capacity to reach out to thousands of young people whose real interests are linked more to employment, recreation and education needs than to partisan political participation. ANDEN, FETSALUD, SCAAS and UNEN are currently the most active, belligerent and representative organizations.

Others also emerged—whether under the influence of these organizations or actually derived from them—such as the bus and taxi cooperatives in Managua and other cities, the National Federation of Cooperatives (FENACOOP) and the National Union of Associated Producers (UNAPA), which mainly includes poor peasants. During the nineties, organizations also emerged to represent retired soldiers, only to fall apart amidst leadership struggles, as was the case with AMIR.

During the Chamorro government’s entire term in office, this whole spectrum of groups formed the main bastion in the defense of the revolutionary conquests. They played a leading role in at least two general strikes and several other specific strikes with great national impact. In the words of former CST leader Miguel Ruiz, “We stood up for the Sandinista Front,” which had not managed to put its party-government phase behind it and transform itself into an opposition party and was in the midst of a heated ideological battle between “renovators” and the “orthodox” over its identity and methods of struggle.

Up until 1997—marked by a failed national strike and roadblocks in April and May—these organizations were the Sandinista movement’s main political arm when it came to defending grassroots interests and maintaining its power bases. A year later, they were practically demobilized as a result of the first pact between Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán. Beyond their current numbers, what is most striking about all of these organizations is that most still operate according to basically the same model under which they were created. They still act as FSLN “intermediaries” and have leaders who respond to the political interests of the party leadership.

Community Boards for Works and Progress (JCOPs) began to emerge under Alemán’s wing when he was mayor of Managua and came to enjoy appreciable influence in the poor neighborhoods of Managua. They have, however, practically disappeared in the last four years. What have survived are the executive boards of the union federations that became extensions of right-wing political parties, such as the Nicaraguan Workers Federation (CTN), the Union Action and Unity Federation (CAUS), the General Workers’ Confederation (CGT) and the Union Unification Federation (CUS). Generally speaking, they behave like unions acting in the owners’ interests, and continue to act as a political screen for the right wing, particularly the Liberals.

“NGO-ization” conspires
against the social movement

The most important organizational phenomenon of the past 16 years of capitalist restoration has been the proliferation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The vast majority were founded by Sandinista activists who had served as officials in the revolutionary government and used them as a life raft after they were left unemployed or without an income on which to survive. Almost all broke their party links with the FSLN during its 1994 internal crisis, and while they originally lined up behind the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), they currently tend to act in an autonomous way and some have even turned into willing instruments of the government or multilateral organizations.

As in other societies—including certain developed countries—NGOs in Nicaragua have not always played a positive role. While they do help palliate state deficiencies in areas such as health, education and housing, they have also acted as retaining walls against grassroots discontent towards the government and the system, as people tend to wait for outside charity rather than fight for their rights. Many of these organizations use attractive salaries in dollars and other benefits to contract officials, supposedly to promote citizens’ participation or stimulate grassroots organization. In this way, they turn activists into either professionals or simply employees who obey their bosses’ orders.

Members of the women’s movement have been reflecting on this situation for many years now. One of the first was journalist Sofía Montenegro. As she wrote in envío’s May 2002 issue, one of the most serious dangers faced by the social movement is what she terms “NGO-ization”: the replacement of activism with the professional tasks entrusted by an NGO.

And when it comes to organizing, NGOs very often tend to presume to represent their beneficiaries—or “target population,” as they like to call them—without even consulting them about the decisions being made in their name or their particular political position on any given matter. The relative success of NGOs in the area of social organization is the result of people’s lack of interest in politics, the erosion of union and party leaders, and the failure of the old grassroots organizations.

To some extent, the NGOs have become the communities’ social intermediaries and political representatives in relation to public, economic and even religious power. In some cases, this role has been vital in achieving important advances for the people. But in general, the medium- and long-term cost has been and will continue to be very high, as such behavior has perverted the natural channels through which people defend their rights and struggle for their demands. For example, if the problem most affecting the people in a certain community is a lack of drinking water and they decide to organize, the first thing they’ll do is to look for an “organization” or NGO to help them get the necessary funding, without demanding any response from the local or national governments with respect to this inalienable human right. As a result, NGOs have helped reinforce a culture in which people expect handouts rather than fight for their rights.

NGO: An “aspirin” solution

Gabriel Pons produced an excellent analysis on this subject, which was published by envío (January 2001) under the title “Shipwreck: NGOs to the Rescue.” According to Pons: “Curing cancer requires a much more expensive treatment, which we [non-governmental development organizations, or NGDOs] can’t offer. But we think, say, even proclaim that aspirin is the cure; this is the problem. The rich countries that own the expensive cancer treatments also propose aspirin as the remedy, among other reasons because the NGDOs that are treating the poor really believe that it’s enough; we preach to the four winds that our work is the best way to go, and is ecological, self-sustainable and self-manageable to boot. The powers that be are delighted with this discourse because it proves very cheap for them. They spend less than they would otherwise have to in order to provide a real cure involving price subsidies, agrarian insurance, quota-regulated markets, the promotion of urban employment through public spending and other luxuries enjoyed by the North.”

In a later article titled “Who’s Rescuing the South’s Shipwreck: NGOs or the State?” (envío, September 2001), Pons argued that “Most NGDOs cannot be held guilty for causing such situations. It is perhaps only possible to point to an imprudence that has resulted in disorganization and loss of spirit among the poor, as well as legitimization of the state’s retreat and irresponsibility.

“NGDOs frequently have good intentions ‘to help the poor,’ while the state exploits this to exit stage right when nobody is looking. Sometimes the state never even makes it onto the stage. And as the officials from the North’s NGDOs are ‘very nice people’ who are guests in someone else’s house, they limit themselves to proposing continued help without asking too many questions about the whereabouts of the host whose house they are supporting. The clearest responsibility that can be pinned on the NGDOs is that they do not understand the ideological support that such an attitude has given neoliberalism; an involuntary support perhaps, but one that is nonetheless very real.”

Can the poor play the lead role
in breaking out of their poverty?

Pons goes on to argue that “The NGDOs have a major responsibility for shaping the mindset and public opinion in the North and South through their communications departments. This mentality has two central ideas about the poor: they can pick themselves up by their own bootstraps and they can play the lead role in breaking out of their poverty. This mentality has allowed the state to stop acknowledging that the deficits faced by the poor are real, and based on this mental negligence, it has dismantled the few systems that protected the poor: food subsidies, regulated basic grain markets, protective tariffs for agriculture and local manufacturing, etc.

“The NGDOs back neoliberalism by presenting themselves as more efficient than the state. They have been the victims of their own self-complacent media success. Their aura of prestige and their success stories presented to obtain more funding have so fostered the idea that NGDOs are more efficient than the state that it is easy for the state to say calmly: well, if they do the work so well, let them do it. Independent of good or bad intentions, the fact is that NGDOs are replacing the entity that should be responsible for fixing the problems.”

While Pons was referring to the link between NGOs of the North and the poor of the South, his logic also holds for the work of many local NGOs in Nicaragua.

But despite everything, it is undeniable that without the NGOs’ “professional” work it would have been difficult for certain sectors of society to learn about the true implications of issues such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States, the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas and Plan Puebla-Panama. The same goes for such important issues as therapeutic abortion, sexual and reproductive rights and even the defense and promotion of human rights, which otherwise would never have been discussed in any sector of society.

The Consumer Defense Network

The National Consumer Defense Network is a current phenomenon that falls somewhere between an NGO and a social organization. It has become the most widely recognized among such organizations as the result of its laudable and tenacious work defending people’s interests, particularly in relation to electricity, drinking water and transport. But its work is not based on a vast grassroots organization so much as the belligerent and effective leadership of two Sandinista women with no organizational links to the FSLN: economist Ruth Herrera and lawyer Jeannette Chávez. Although the Network basically functions as an NGO and receives modest funding from European international agencies, both leaders dedicate a large amount of their own time—without salary or other benefits and even contributing their own money and resources—to financing conferences, demonstrations and other activities.

Unions: The struggle for autonomy

The most important social organizations linked to the FSLN are the health union (FETSALUD), the teachers’ union (ANDEN), the construction workers’ union, and the university students’ union (UNEN). They are the main movers in the National Workers’ Front (FNT), whose golden age was the second half of the nineties.

Above all, the union organizations have been subject to a phenomenon born of their own experience: their leaders on all levels no longer accept party control and have achieved an appreciable degree of autonomy in their protest actions. The most important examples are ANDEN and FETSALUD, each of which launched its own union struggles, including strikes, against the wishes of an important sector of the Sandinista leadership known as the Businesspeople’s Bloc. And each won its struggle, turning a deaf ear to the siren’s song of “governability” from legislators such as Bayardo Arce and prominent figures like Manuel Coronel Kautz. One FETSALUD leader privately said some months ago that “the sin lies not in the fact that we [FETSALUD leaders] are Sandinista activists, but rather that some of us place the dominant interests of the FSLN over and above those of our members.” This phenomenon of autonomy has also occurred among transport cooperatives, which have now turned into powerful businesses. In this case, autonomy has even led them to face off against other sectors of the FSLN, particularly those linked to grassroots organizations.

Disperse, competing, suspicious,
waiting for the “party line”...

Some NGOs claim to represent the people and all claim to be progressive, if not left wing. But there is no coordination and sometimes not even any communication among them. The NGOs go their own way and very often compete among themselves. The social movements also work on their own, something that is even truer of the organizations linked to the FSLN. Such lack of coordination means, for example, that it was not possible to build a concerted movement to back the teachers’ strike at the beginning of this year, the health workers’ strike of 2004 or the protests staged by consumers every single month. They all go it alone and do not seem very interested in what the others are doing. And those active in autonomous organizations or in NGOs tend to veto those linked to the FSLN, and vice versa. This behavior even overflows into personal relations, with people being rejected and marginalized according to the organization for which they work or in which they are active.

For Montenegro, “the nineties saw an increase in the number of social actors—particularly NGOs—with greater independence and autonomy. At the beginning of the nineties almost all were subordinated to the FSLN, but from then on they grew more autonomous and independent. There was also an enormous diversification of organized people in all social strata and sectors, in both the countryside and the city. This situation contrasts with the restriction of arenas for participation and a crisis of representation in the political parties. The NGOs and mass communications media emerged during those years as new forms of representation. The representation of NGOs has had its downside, because their work does not seek to create or organize social subjects but rather to attract social clients, and because they have produced a fragmentary and competitive form of representation. The communications media, while very polarized, soon started to act more belligerently as the population’s political watchdogs and mediators. At the end of the nineties, Nicaraguan civil society already presented the basic features with which to interpret its weakness: the social movements and organizations were dislocated and coopted, not by the FSLN any more, but rather fundamentally by international cooperation, which imposes its own agenda, one that does not always coincide with the national one.”

Violeta Delgado, national liaison of the Civil Coordinator—an umbrella organization of some 300 NGOs—considers that one of the ways of neutralizing the “NGO-ization” of grassroots movements is to ensure that their members work as activists. For that reason, the Coordinator has opened its structures to individual affiliation, including economists Adolfo Acevedo and Iván García Marenco.

This is obviously not enough in itself, but it is a step forward. Unlike other Coordinator representatives, Delgado—who was one of the most important student leaders at the beginning of the nineties—believes that neither the Coordinator nor any other organization can claim to represent civil society. And she confirms the prejudices that exist among leaders of social movements and NGOs, depending on the kind of organization they represent. In her opinion, one of the difficulties in mobilizing people on a large scale according to their own interests is that many grassroots community activists and natural leaders have a party mentality. “They wait for the party line from their leaders, and if they don’t tell them they have to mobilize against CAFTA, they don’t do it,” she explained.

NGOs or a social movement?

Even sociologist Orlando Núñez, ideologue of the Alemán-Ortega pact and a member of the Ortega faction in the FSLN, believes that the Coordinator’s presence “has been significant in national life, as its belligerence has for the first time placed on the agenda the civic-political or participatory variable in the culture of representative democracy and therefore of the government and the political parties.” But he goes on to say that “Today, given the people currently responsible, there is a certain sense that the Coordinator’s power to mobilize people is limited, a certain sense of distrust. In my view, the future of the Civil Coordinator will depend on the will of its members to maintain those factors that gave it its initial strength: the struggle against neoliberal measures, autonomy from political parties, its distance from the government and private business, its prioritizing small-scale producers and citizens’ participation.”

Núñez also assesses the country’s NGOs: “In practice, there are social movements that live like NGOs off of international cooperation rather than the dues paid by their members. They dedicate themselves to carrying out studies and consultancies and limit their civic-political activities to establishing contacts and lobbying the government or the rest of the country’s political institutions. On the other hand, there are also some NGOs that dedicate themselves to organizing different sectors of society, getting politically involved in building awareness, organizing and mobilizing those they are accompanying. Finally, it has to be said that due to the influence of the international community, many of these organizations, be they NGOs or social movements, act as micro-credit agencies, with little regard for their original motivation, thus blurring or corrupting their specific area of activity.”

And on the local level? There is an enormous number of community organizations that are almost always concerned with their immediate social problems and often linked to NGOs. Generally speaking, they act as intermediaries with the municipal governments, but in most cases these groups do not go beyond their own particular community demands. They don’t get involved in matters that don’t directly concern them, let alone take positions on problems of national magnitude, such as CAFTA or the energy crisis.

Politics is “dirty”
and politicians discredited

By now it should be obvious that the cause of the limited social mobilization is not the lack of organization. The following are some of the reasons behind the ebb in the social struggle and the general demobilization:

- People feel removed from what is happening in the country, regardless of its scope or its consequences. Worse still, they feel removed from the whole process of national politics. They have come to assume that both politics and politicians are “dirty,” or that politics is a matter best left to the professionals. With this conviction, they delegate or renounce their individual sovereignty, which they deposit in political groups. As a result, they do not exercise control of the business of politics. The political class, meanwhile, consolidates this false popular belief by concealing information and offering half truths to neutralize the people’s social and political awareness, even putting the brakes on any possibility of autonomous organization. Deep down, the political class knows that an aware and organized people would endanger its own privileges. That’s why they so frequently recur to the argument that they were elected as majority parties through the ballot box and therefore have the right to do whatever they like.

- The crisis in national political leadership. Those years of anti-Somoza struggle when the people admired the brave Sandinista fighters—known as the muchachos (“kids”)—to the point of veneration seem so far away now. Their personal example was as important as the cause for which they were fighting. But all of that has crumbled away. The Sandinista leaders spout a certain discourse and live and behave quite the contrary. This contradiction extends to the party’s whole national leadership, which has succumbed to the ferocious laws of the market in which honesty, the vocation for service and personal integrity are disposable merchandise.

As a result of corruption and the philosophy of the state as personal and party booty—“if you’ve got a post, exploit it, don’t be a fool!”—the political class is now the object of the open and generalized disdain of the overwhelming majority of the population. The most serious consequence of this situation is that the people have at least partially renounced their own sovereignty, guided by the logic that “politics is corrupt,” “politics won’t put the bread on my table” and “if you set yourself up as a savior you’ll end up crucified.” As a result, they totally delegate national decisions to the political class they so repudiate. The most eloquent examples are the conflict over the constitutional reforms and the debate over CAFTA. It should also be mentioned that the results of many struggles have been disappointing or affected by the political interests of their leaders, which has discouraged those who took part.

All of this has generated a profound crisis in the current model of representative democracy, and makes finding a path to participatory democracy more urgent than ever. Núñez sustains that “the political parties, union organizations and social movements have to redeem politics and participate in a new way of doing it. Depoliticization is suicide... Political participation without social and economic participation is an illusion. Political democracy without economic democracy is not enough. The workers have to take the economy and the market.”

Waiting for the “messiah”
and the pact’s immobilizing weight

- The erosion of the FSLN as an instrument of change. Orlando Núñez maintains that “the offensive of the capitalist market and the new world correlation have eroded the FSLN’s political identity. Furthermore, unemployment and disintegration have reduced the working class in particular and the waged class in general to less than 20% of the labor force, while the rest struggle as peasants or workers in the informal sector. This situation has led certain FSLN leaders to propose that given the lack of a working class, the new social subjects of the revolution should be the poor and the new political subjects the citizens, thus reversing socialist notions of the historic subject to the postulates of Catholicism and Liberalism, respectively.”

But despite this erosion, the FSLN continues to represent a hope of social change among vast impoverished sectors of the country, particularly urban ones, that link the figure of Ortega to the achievements of the revolution—mainly free health and education—but are unable to mobilize to recover what has been wrested from them by neoliberalism, because they trust that their “messiah” will recover political power in the elections. They’ve been waiting for that for 16 years, and are getting tired of waiting.

- The pact between Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán. While this pact is habitually identified with the divvying up of power quotas, its most important aspect has been the deliberate demobilization of the social movement that until 1998 was under the hegemony of the FSLN. This demobilization process is referred to by Ortega as “maturity,” and by the IMF and World Bank as “democratic governability.” In short, it amounted to surrendering to neoliberal policies in exchange for a share of the crumbs of political power, with the succulent salaries and perks that go along with it. Thanks to this decision, among many other measures the Alemán government was able to sell off public companies, including telecommunications and electricity; consolidate the privatization of public education under the deceitful school autonomy model; return thousands of hectares of the best lands to Somocistas and landlords; and destroy the free public health system, while at the same time repressing the doctors’ associations.

Between faith in a providential God
and unemployment

There are also other reasons of a cultural and social nature:

- The ideological influence of neoliberalism through the mass media and the formal education system. These two factors have had a devastating impact on the awareness of the younger generation. Generally speaking, Nicaraguans under 25 years of age tend to be individualistic, apathetic, resigned and allergic to organization.

- The providentialist boom. Given the mass incursion of all kinds of religious sects and eccentric branches of Christian churches, tens of thousands of Nicaraguans of all social classes are currently taking refuge in mystic cults, adopting the philosophy of “God will provide” or “God knows what He is doing” as a defense against the constant aggression of the market system and society, renouncing their own capacity to think, organize and fight to change the situation in which they are living.

- Mass unemployment and precarious employment. Those who have no work either hawk goods on the street or emigrate to Costa Rica. And those with employment almost invariably work in deplorable conditions, with miserable salaries and under the constant threat of being fired if they dare to complain. In a country plagued by maquiladora assembly plants with ruthless and despotic owners and managers protected by the state itself, workers prefer to put up and shut up. Most have accepted the confiscation of their right to organize in a union. In this context, the few cases of total rebellion—particularly in Managua’s Las Mercedes Free Trade Zone—stand out more as exceptions than as examples.

Migration and remittances
are also affecting mobilization

- The migration phenomenon among Nicaraguans is different from that of other countries, such as Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras. The poorest with the lowest education levels tend to go to Costa Rica, while professionals or high-school graduates tend to go the United States, determined to learn the language and work in whatever job they can find. Violeta Delgado mentioned discovering that in one US city the leaders of Latino organizations classified the Salvadorans as illiterate or semi-illiterate and the Nicaraguans as high-school graduates.

There is also a political element to the diaspora: tens of thousands of people with experience in organized struggles, almost all of them Sandinistas, left for the United States and to a lesser extent Canada, while most of the Somocistas have returned to Nicaragua, although they still have businesses in North America. Nicaraguan migrants are dispersed in their host countries. In Costa Rica they are concentrated in rural areas in the north of the country or in San José, where they are valued for their skills as builders, waiters and domestic workers.

Family remittances are one of the main results of this migration. The main support for the national economy—amounting to 15% of the GDP and more than the country’s annual exports—they have had a counterproductive political result. Those who receive them in Nicaragua grow used to this guaranteed monthly income and when they have extra costs or the cost of living goes up they just ask for a few dollars more. How many people live like this? Although there is no reliable census, the number of Nicaraguans resident abroad is between 1.2 million and 1.5 million, or around one in every four Nicaraguans. Of these, from 50% to 60% send home money to maintain their families, while the rest have either completely broken their ties or have brought their families over to join them. Calculating an average of five people in each family nucleus, some 700,000 to 900,000 Nicaraguans are living off family remittances.

Some hopeful signs

Despite everything, there are hopeful signs. Among the most significant are the peasant marches against hunger and for land, carried out by thousands of families. In two consecutive years, 2003 and 2004, they marched on Managua from the mountains of Matagalpa and Jinotega, forcing the government to negotiate and agree to many of their demands. In May 2004, representatives of the ATC and UNAPA and grassroots peasant leaders stationed on the Pan-American Highway in the Sébaco area signed the “Commitments of solidarity for the fulfillment of the Las Tunas Agreements” with five government ministers. The government handed over some 10,000 acres of land and promised to create thousands of temporary jobs in the areas where the peasants lived, and to send trucks full of food and clothes and 20,000 road paving blocks. It also promised to give the protesters 7 million córdobas (around US$442,000 at the May 2004 exchange rate).

The thousands of victims of Nemagón and other pesticides used for years on banana plantations in the west of the country have provided another example of impressive mobilization. For three consecutive years they spent months camped out under plastic sheeting in the center of Managua—some are still there—putting up with hunger, the relentless sun, rainstorms, police repression and the scorn of the political class, demanding that the government, the legislators and their former bosses provide compensation, social security and medical care. They have also demanded the support of the government and parliament in cases being brought in the United States against the transnational companies that produced, distributed and massively used the poisons that have destroyed the health and lives of over 1,300 people and ruined their families.

Teachers also achieved an overwhelming success with their national strike at the beginning of the year. It resulted not only in increased salaries, but also in the resurgence of the teachers’ union movement, after a number of serious defeats at the beginning of the nineties and the fierce repression unleashed by former education minister (1991-99) and head of the Opus Dei in Nicaragua, Humberto Belli. The teachers’ strike was truly exemplary in its organization, with very close coordination between national and grassroots leaders. It also displayed impressive unity, because although led by ANDEN, another three union groups politically linked to the Liberals also participated.

The Consumer Defense Network has also had significant successes, though based on legal actions rather than mobilization. As a result, they were able to reverse the water price hikes authorized by the government in 2003. They have also used political lobbying and constant public denunciations to block the privatization of the Hidrogesa hydro-electricity company and plans aimed at covertly privatizing the state-run water company ENACAL. The decisions made in 2004 by the National Assembly to stop the Spanish transnational Unión Fenosa from increasing electricity prices can only be explained by the Network’s systematic and forceful work making public denunciations and responding to consumer complaints.

Following the women’s example

But perhaps the greatest political awareness has been displayed in the mobilization of the women’s movement. Thus far, it is the only movement that has gone beyond the scope of its own particular demands to take on national demands against the system and against the anti-democratic results of the Ortega-Alemán pact. Its main leaders have publicly stated that they will not be able to achieve gender equity or sexual and reproductive rights unless they first recover the democratic rights wrested away from the whole population by the top PLC and FSLN leaderships.

In line with this philosophy, members of the women’s movement were the most notable protagonists among 25,000 people who marched through the streets of Managua on June 16. By raising their own banners, these women managed to turn a protest originally called by big business and political parties in support of the government into a demonstration against the political class as a whole.

To recover sovereignty, to stop the political class and our rulers from deciding in our name, the people and the organizations accompanying them need a new social and political awareness that will at the same time produce new forms of organization to promote mobilization and the changes that Nicaragua needs. The great challenge facing the social movement is to overcome the jealousy among the different organizations and their leaders and to consolidate their autonomy from political society and economic power. They need to follow the women’s example and take on national problems as the best way to satisfy their own demands.

William Grigsby Vado is a Nicaraguan journalist.

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