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  Number 180 | Julio 1996
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Nicaragua

Some Reflections On the Piñata

From the first chapter of Augusto Zamora's book, Nicaragua's Future, Fondo Editorial CIRA, Managua, July 1995.

Augusto Zamora

Nicaragua, it cannot be repeated too often, always pays for corruption. Given the chamorro government's extensive official corruption, however, it is tempting to revert to the double standard currently in vogue and speak only of its mountain of dirty laundry without mentioning the ring around a few of our own collars. But no; I'm convinced that there's no such thing as good and bad corruption. I'm also convinced that if we all play along, whether by commission or omission, we become accomplices of Nicaragua's downfall. Given that, I will try to explain both the greatest scandal ever to stain Sandinismo --what is known as the piñata--and show how it has been used to undermine the Sandinistas' moral authority.

Nota:Inicio | ContactenAs often happens, many of those who cried out most against the piñata are the very ones who have the most corruption to hide--the old trick of pointing the finger the other way so no one will notice what we are doing. It must be acknowledged that it was an easy task. Those within the FSLN who were only looking out for their own selfish interests did the right a huge favor: they opened the way to the corruption that is now spreading like a cancer and weakened Sandinismo's authority to combat it. The combination of such widespread corruption and official Sandinismo's silence and occasional complicity has dramatically affected national life. I will look at the cause of the causes of these problems.

The Most Honest Government

We did not carry out the revolution to fatten our own coffers, but rather in hopes of a better, more just, more united, more egalitarian Nicaragua. We taught people to read, we picked coffee and cotton, we spent sleepless nights doing revolutionary vigilance, and thousands sacrificed their lives in the cruel war imposed by the United States. We formed the most honest government in Nicaragua's history, where honor was the norm and corruption the exception. International organizations like UNICEF, UNHCR and WHO saw Nicaragua as an example to be followed in their respective fields. Governments and nongovernmental organizations that cooperated with us could prove our honest use of funds.

Our salaries were meager, in some periods almost symbolic. I remember one period when I got $40 a month; others got even less. Sandinistas could be accused of any kind of political contrariness, but during our government there was more equality and greater levels of social justice than at any other time in the country's history. Not that all inequalities disappeared, but they were smaller than ever. In addition, it should never be forgotten that the Sandinista government firmly defended natural resources and wealth by nationalizing them. Our government officials cannot be accused of enriching themselves by giving concessions or trafficking in the country's dignity. Undoubtedly we could have done more and done it better, but there's no point now in crying by the walls of Babylon, remembering Zion.

The Politics of Power

The electoral defeat took us completely by surprise, which led us to make a strategic error. A series of lesser errors and vices came to light, causing what the right, perversely and in its own self?interest, called the piñata.

The first problem to emerge was that a significant portion of the goods administered by the state (houses, farms, businesses, cooperatives, etc.) had not been legalized; many were even still in the names of former owners. How could this be after almost 11 years? Because in the Sandinista government the law and legal principles were never adequately valued. Government was de facto: given superficial readings of Marxist theories, the law was seen as an instrument at the service of the dominating class. With this perspective it was sufficient--and above all easier--to have power, which we thought would be ours "forever." Revolution makes right, it was said, and that razor?sharp phrase was enough to cut off any further discussion.

But that was not the only factor. Sandinismo also had a preconceived notion that, in conformity with human rights, all have the right to housing and peasants also to land. Why weren't houses sold and why weren't peasants given land ownership or workers at least partial ownership of factories? Why weren't these situations ever resolved, making them legal? I don't think an under?appreciation of the law is enough to explain this attitude. There must be other considerations that had little or nothing to do with Sandinista ideas of solidarity and justice and lots to do with the politics of power.

Almost all Sandinistas were totally dependent on the state in material terms: we lived in state?owned houses and worked for the state; even our vehicles belonged to the state. If we lost our jobs or fell out of favor we could literally find ourselves in the street. Such a high level of material dependence implied, both consciously and unconsciously, personal dependence. It was an ideal situation for those close to power, similar to serfs close to their feudal lord. Rousseau said that civil liberty implies "in terms of wealth, that no citizen have enough wealth to buy another, and that no one be so poor as to have to sell him[/her]self."

To be objective, I don't know if the Sandinista leadership looked at the situation in such crude terms as I'm using here. But it's irrelevant, because what counts are the results.

A Moral Defeat Worse than The Electoral Defeat

A coherent vision of the revolution would have led to legalizing these situations, at least with respect to modest homes, by selling them to their residents. Agrarian reform could have had similar results, or at least led to a general law determining the legal status of state?administered lands. The absence of laws, from a pure and hardline position of power, has an advantage over legality: the legal vacuum allows impunity. To be fair to those Sandinistas who worked in the legal area, I know they battled on many occasions to establish legal frameworks, but their proposals were rejected. We paid a high price for that erroneous and reactionary conception from the position of power. If the houses and land had been distributed in an orderly fashion with justice and equity in previous years, nothing more would have happened.

The absence of legal protection was what forced the attempts in the three dramatic months following the February 25, 1990 electoral defeat to provide blanket legislation for what had not been legislated in ten years. If all the paperwork had been in order there would have been no need for emergency laws to try to save the sinking ship. We were forced onto the open sea without lifeboats or evacuation plans. Worse yet, our captain had abandoned ship. Nobody should forget that right after the defeat, the FSLN leadership disappeared into the vortex. With headless Sandinismo facing revenge by the new government, the unions filled the gap.

The problems after the electoral defeat were multiple. On the one hand, UNO revenge could not be allowed to reverse the necessary and just transformations that had been made in land tenure. On the other, the great mass of Sandinistas, precisely because of their proven honesty, had been left with nothing. This presented ethical and practical dilemmas. I defend as coherent the Sandinista body of concepts that finally gave land and houses to those who had none. After all, this was one of the main reasons for the revolution. How could we ask people to leave their homes and lands, their factories and cooperatives? To do so would have been treason: the winning coalition was announcing its aspirations to once again concentrate the country's wealth and goods in few hands, to reestablish the iniquitous system of exploitation defeated by the Sandinistas. What can be criticized is that it took an electoral defeat for the Sandinista leadership to feel obligated to legalize the democratization of property in Nicaragua, which was one of the revolution's greatest gains. And because of that, it was done in a precipitous and disordered manner.

That circumstance in turn made it possible for a minority within the FSLN to abuse the situation and gain wealth illicitly, pulling down the hard?won reputation of the Sandinista masses while they were at it. That minority had its Christmas in March and April, in what constituted the moral defeat of Sandinismo--in many ways much more serious than its electoral defeat.

Censurable Conduct of a Minority

Why did this abuse happen and how was it permitted? To begin with, the FSLN was a heterogeneous party, ranging from Leninist radicals to well?intentioned conservatives. Those who feared losing a certain acquired economic level were the ones most likely to take or accept state goods such as the house or car that had been assigned to them in order to maintain their acquired status. Applying the saying, "fishing is best in a turbulent river," another minority saw in the disorder a chance to improve their economic situation. They moved to better houses and sought new vehicles, cattle farms, etc. Only this minority can truly be considered members of the piñata, given that their cases lie outside of approved laws.

The problem is that the irregular and condemnable conduct of this minority--which included high?level leaders--dragged all of Sandinismo down with it. The righteous paid for the sinners. The situation showed not only the fragility of this minority's revolutionary convictions, but also how little respect it had for the prestige Sandinismo had won at the price of so much blood and suffering.

The problem goes beyond the legal realm to include also the moral one. A law might be passed that finally resolves the property crisis, but it will not be able to do away with the stigma that the FSLN carries. The heart of the problem is that Sandinistas used state goods in the same way that the Liberal?Conservative oligarchy and the Somoza dynasty had: as a tool for personal enrichment. They thus imitated one of the worst and most damaging vices of the oligarchy's anti?values. If ethics are one of the fundamental points distinguishing the left from the right, yet at key moments both sides act equally, what substantial difference is there between the two? Does this make Sartori's statement that "if power corrupts everyone a little bit, the left in power is corrupted more than others" true?

I reject this notion and look to the honest performance of the immense majority of Sandinistas, those whose sacrifice and dedication to the revolution and to Nicaragua have made them the sector that is suffering most in this suffering country. They were the first to lose their jobs and are the last to find new ones. The corruption of a minority cannot and should not stigmatize the largest and most honest party that Nicaragua has known. That is a pending task for the FSLN to resolve, and the sooner the better.

The Race for Status

The resolution of this problem requires self?criticism and political will to keep from falling into past errors, because corruption didn't just take place after the electoral defeat. Conduct that did not match any stated values was becoming more natural within the government even before February 25. The living standards of some high?level officials contrasted radically with the difficulties lived by the general population. As the war ate up hard currency, this double standard became more apparent. Basic services for Nicaraguans were reduced but superfluous spending for ministers and leaders was not. This attitude suggested that the revolution was dying and a new class willing to accept a dual society and live with economic apartheid was emerging.


At a certain point an undeclared status war began, in which the barometer was the vehicle one drove. In a country with medicine shortages and in which soldiers were fighting and dying in the mountains, old revolutionaries competed among themselves to see who could drive the most expensive vehicle--paid for by the state, of course. With Nicaragua in the condition it was in, seeing an official spend $25,000 or $30,000 to buy a Cherokee offended all morals. And dozens of Cherokees were bought because no one wanted to be behind anyone else. Can you imagine Charles de Gaulle using public funds to buy limousines for his cabinet in exile with the Nazis occupying France? Even now, in proportional terms, a Cherokee in Nicaragua would be equivalent to a Rolls Royce in France. If Mitterand had thought of buying a fleet of Rolls Royces for his ministers, he would have caused a political crisis. And in France, schools would not have to be closed to buy such a fleet.

Guerrillas and Pirates

At one point a former guerrilla who had risked his life for many years said that he and others who had fought and suffered for so many years had the right to enjoy a higher living standard. Those were not his exact words--the original was less discreet--but they provoked a certain amount of surprise. I won't be a demagogue who believes that only the rich should aspire to the good life. That's not the point; it's a legitimate human aspiration. I also don't think that anyone became a revolutionary to improve his or her economic situation. In fact, what happened was the opposite. Those who joined the FSLN during the dictatorship were more likely to die young than to live to old age. The decision implied giving up one's most precious gift: life. Those who wanted economic improvement were corrupted, became Somocistas and rested in the shade of the tyranny.

As a consequence, the former guerrilla's attitude was incorrect. The revolution took place to improve the general population's situation, not to acquire status. When honesty is employed, there's no contradiction between the two aspirations--from each according to his ability, to each according to his deed. But to resort to the years in clandestinity to justify illicit enrichment is neither the best nor the most intelligent road. That syllogism would make guerrillas equivalent to pirates or buccaneers: they also risked their lives, died and suffered many privations seeking the bounty that would pull them out of poverty. Forced to choose between the two, I'd choose the pirate, because he never deceived anyone by saying he was fighting for a better and more just world; he openly admitted he wanted to get rich. Francis Drake managed to acquire a huge fortune and at the end of his days people called him Sir and he received prizes from the Queen for services rendered.

Drake is a typical case of one who earns a fortune in capitalism; the father gains a fortune by hook or by crook, the children rise in social standing and the grandchildren dedicate themselves to music...

A Crucified Nicaragua

If we all fall for the temptation of easy money there will be no difference between any of us. It is public knowledge that there's a desperate rush within the Chamorro government to get rich quick. Government officials know their term is coming to an end, that their chance for illicit enrichment is ending, so they're trying to get their last dip into the state till and, like their predecessor "piñateros," guarantee a minimum status for the future. They even use the same basic argument. In the desperate search for money, an official gives concessions to a foreign business to chop down the forests; another does the same with fishing--all for a price, without caring about the national resources being lost. And so it goes. The ex?guerrilla and the future ex?official will have resolved their economic problems, but Nicaragua remains nailed to the cross, condemned to pay in future years with the lives of their children.

Sandinismo's loss of moral credibility has led to a loss of trust among citizens. If nothing is done, it will translate into a loss of votes in October 1996. Polls carried out before the FSLN rupture in February 1995 showed that the FSLN's portion of votes equaled half those obtained in 1990. Thus, even ignoring the ethical reasons, the abuses should be dealt with for electoral reasons, although limiting it to that would leave us equal to those we're fighting against.

That is the FSLN's immediate dilemma: both for those members implicated in corruption cases and for the others. They must be willing to make the necessary changes or else resign themselves to staying in the opposition. Or, perhaps worse: become just another of the myriad indistinguishable parties, joining those who maintain and promote the destructive spiral into which Nicaragua is sinking.

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