Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 289 | Agosto 2005



The Poisonous Recipe of Electoral Democracy Without Social Consensus

“Everything we Liberals and Conservatives have achieved here we’ve done by instinct; we’re nothing more than passions...” writes Fernando Silva in his novel, El Comandante. Are Nicaragua’s political parties mere passions? How responsible are they for the derailment of the democratic experiment initiated in 1990? This is the first of a series of reflections on Nicaragua’s political parties.

Andrés Pérez Baltodano

Nicaragua is suffering an unprecedented crisis of governance. Its post-revolutionary political transition has evolved into an electoral democracy that is little more than the raffling off of the right to impunity every five years. Its judicial system is openly manipulated by the elites controlling the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), respectively headed up by Arnoldo Alemán and Daniel Ortega.

Enormous economic and social costs

Alemán is serving the second of his 20-year sentence for embezzlement of public funds and other crimes, albeit only at times in one of the country’s prisons, at others in the comfort of his hacienda and even in one of Managua’s private hospitals. Ortega, who has lost the last three presidential elections, is a politically indecipherable figure. He is a confused mixture of a revolutionary past, an uncertain position on neoliberalism, a traditional anti-imperialist discourse, collaboration with the pro-US Right led by Alemán, a close new association with the same Church hierarchy that fought the FSLN so ferociously in the eighties and the influence of his partner Rosario Murillo’s esoteric paganism. Meanwhile, President Enrique Bolaños, recognizing his profound political weakness vis-à-vis the PLC and the FSLN, has devoted himself to cultivating the support of the United States and international agencies as a survival mechanism.

The economic and social cost of Nicaragua’s political crisis has been enormous. The country is firmly established as the second poorest and most malnourished country in Latin America and one of the ten most corrupt. Its economy is utterly dependent on international cooperation and on the remittances sent home by Nicaraguans forced to leave their country to seek work and carve out a life.

The political and economic crises feed each other. The institutional disorder frightens off investments and creates the right conditions for corruption and influence peddling. At the same time, the precariousness of the country’s private sector leaves the state as the main accumulator and distributor of wealth, thus intensifying the competition for public sector posts. This, in turn, institutionalizes the idea of “state as booty” and turns the political parties into gangs that manipulate the law and electoral democracy to compete in a grotesque political game oblivious to the misery in which most Nicaraguans are struggling to survive.

Electoral “nata” and
the democratic illusion

The institutionalization of a democratic system requires building social consensus on relations among state, market and society that can serve as a framework for the political conflict. Without this consensus, elections are fragile legal processes with whose results don’t necessarily enjoy legitimacy. The danger that this implies has been well laid out by Hebert Adam, who argues that legality without legitimacy can be used as a way of imposing a non-democratic social order. According to Adam, the manipulation of legality makes it possible to govern illegitimately with the help of the law.

Today’s Nicaragua is a perfect illustration. In our country, the law is used to formalize government salaries and retirement pensions that offend common sense and democratic ethics. It is used vulgarly to violate the spirit of justice, when a prisoner such as former President Alemán can successfully allege health problems to avoid serving his prison sentence. In this and many other cases, the law is used to facilitate a situation that lacks both legitimacy and logic.

The efficacy of democracy as an electoral mechanism for conflict resolution depends on the prior existence of a minimal social consensus on the state’s role and relations among it, the market and society. In turn, the legitimacy of this consensus depends on its capacity to integrate fairly the interests and aspirations of society’s different sectors.

Democracy is both a formal electoral mechanism for resolving conflicts and a social consensus on the functioning and orientation of a state and a national society. In the countries of the so-called North, this social consensus is articulated at a general level by capitalist economic principles and democratic-liberal political principles. At a more specific level, it is expressed in how each country institutionalizes its concrete administration of the tensions and contradictions that are an innate part of the relationship between capitalism and democracy. While Canada, for example, uses an advanced model of the welfare state to manage these tensions and contradictions, the United States regulates them fundamentally through market mechanisms.

Political scientist Robert Dahl clearly presents the idea of social consensus as the indispensable basis for the appropriate functioning of the formal democratic processes. He refers to “democratic politics” as nata, the skin that forms on top of heated milk, “the manifestation of superficial conflicts.” He argues that the consensus of an important portion of society’s politically active members precedes, underpins and surrounds democratic political processes, restricting and conditioning them. Without this consensus, they could have a negative effect, as they tend to facilitate social fractioning, or simply to legalize existing divisions.

Costa Rican social consensus

In Central America, Costa Rica has had the greatest success in articulating a democratic social consensus. This consensus, now strongly eroded by neoliberalism, has served as the basis of Costa Rican electoral democracy for over half a century and is the result of a long historical development that shows that even the use of force in constructing order to achieve social stability requires balancing society’s different interests in a way that legitimizes the distribution of power. In Nicaragua, we’ve used force to construct the social order but haven’t constructed a shared vision of our society’s future.

Force played a central role in the construction of the Costa Rican state. Dictator Braulio Carrillo, who representing the coffee elite based in San José, managed to militarily neutralize the power of the elites of Heredia, Cartago and Alajuela between 1838 and 1843, then pushed for the creation of a national social order. The institutionalization of this social order, however, required creating a sufficiently broad structure of interests and social aspirations to facilitate the inclusion of the country’s diverse elites. In this way, Jorge Rovira Mas explains, a dominant class was created between 1843 and 1870 comprised mainly of three tightly interlinked factions: the merchant importers, the bankers and the agro-export faction, which consisted of owners of large coffee farms and processing plants as well as coffee exporters.

In contrast, the Nicaraguan elites of this same period could not transcend their immediate interests and local identities to articulate class interests at a national level. The political thinking of the time could not even elucidate, much less move beyond the spatial logic of the social conflict organized around the Granada-León poles of tension. Worse yet, the elites’ weak political-reflective capacity made it possible for such localism to absorb the social identities being expressed in the pre-theoretical qualifiers such as “timbuco” (fatso) for the glad-handing Liberals and “calandraca”(beanpole) for the elite oligarchic Conservatives, and the political positions respectively associated with them.

By 1948, the reformist movement led by Costa Rica’s José Figueres had succeeded in pulling together social consensus within the country’s balance of forces. Once again, both force and thought played a role in the construction of a new national vision, in which the state was called upon to function as the organizing lynchpin of an economic development that attempted to avoid the extremes of both Soviet socialism and Manchester liberalism. The right to education and other social rights were consecrated, credit was democratized, the banking system was nationalized and the army was proscribed.

Conflict “within” the regime
and conflict “over” the regime

The existence of a social consensus that functions within the framework of a legitimate and enduring social order in Costa Rica or Canada or any other country does not mean the total absence of conflict. Real or potential social conflict is always present in any social formation. Existing conflict, however, is marginal in societies that have institutionalized a democratic social consensus and is expressed in party struggle and in what are seen to be legitimate electoral processes.

It is important here to introduce Maurice Duverger’s differentiation between “conflict within the regime and conflict over the regime.” The first refers to the type of conflict that takes place within a legal and institutional framework that enjoys legitimacy. The electoral processes and party political struggle in consolidated democratic liberal countries are conflicts that occur “within” the regime. What is at stake in these processes is not the nature of society’s political and economic regime, but rather the best way of preserving, developing and administering it. In such societies, the electoral processes simply try to define the way an already institutionalized economic, political and social regime should be administered, an issue on which the political parties offer different alternatives.

From a historical perspective, there are only marginal variations between a Labor and a Conservative administration in Great Britain, a Liberal and a Conservative one in Canada or a Republican and a Democratic one in the United States. Compare the incremental, ordered and predictable nature of the results generated by the electoral processes in those countries with the uncertainty and quasi-foundational nature of the results of our 1990, 1996 and 2001 elections. Compare the continuity that marks changes of government in the North with our tendency to speak of “New Eras” and “Promised Lands” in each electoral campaign.

The concept of conflict “over” the regime, in contrast, refers to attempts to break the existing institutional and legal framework, with the objective of redesigning it. The Sandinista revolution is a concrete example of this type of conflict, because a revolution is precisely an attempt to change the rules of the political game and the nature and objectives of the state.

It is important to point out that electoral processes are not conducive to resolving conflicts over the regime. The history of the democratic West clearly shows that the construction of social consensus always precedes the application of democratic political technology, as Giuseppe Di Palma argued with respect to the post-war democratic transitions in Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece.

This is a lesson that the United States has failed to learn, even after multiple failures in Nicaragua and other countries. Brimming with arrogance, pragmatism and apparent ingenuousness, the United States seems to have assumed that all it would take to resolve the social tensions between Liberals and Conservatives in Nicaragua during the first part of the 20th century was the organization of an efficient electoral system that would define the organization and distribution of power. The end result: the Somoza family dictatorship.

With the same arrogance, pragmatism and perhaps still even ingenuousness, the United States is now trying to establish a stable social order through constitutional formulas and electoral procedures in Iraq. We can comfortably predict that the Iraqi experiment will end up with a new dictatorship and a new pro-US Saddam.

What are political parties?

Political parties play a fundamental role in building the social consensus that serves as the basis of democracy. A political party is understood as an organization of citizens that facilitates the articulation and aggregation of social demands and aspirations by means of a political philosophy, an ideology and a strategy for action.

Democratic political parties have two principal functions: to participate in the competition for state power in representation of particular sectors and visions of society, and to help build the social consensus that acts as a normative framework for inter-party competition.

The social demands and aspirations articulated and aggregated by the political parties compete with those of other social groups for the state’s attention and prioritiza-tion, which is why capturing state power is the fundamental objective of any political party. When they fail to achieve that objective, parties try to accumulate as much political power as possible to condition the state agenda and influence the formulation of the public policies that define it.

What do parties have to
do with social consensus?

A party whose philosophy defends the principle of social equality as the independent variable to which the principal of individual liberty must be subordinated will, for example, attract and organize social demands and pressures based on the state’s responsibility for redistributing the social wealth. This is represented more or less by the Democratic Party in the United States, the Liberal and New Democratic parties in Canada and the Labour Party in Great Britain, despite the erosion of their doctrinal underpinnings by the neoliberal assault.

On the contrary, a party whose philosophy defends the principle of individual liberty as the central value in the normative ordering of society will attract the demands and pressures of those who favor the idea of the market as the main mechanism for distributing the social wealth, an idea represented by the Republican Party in the United States and both the British and Canadian Conservative parties.

In addition to competing for state power, however, parties actively participate in articulating and re-articulating the social consensus that acts as a framework for the inter-party political struggle. Thus, a society’s party system doesn’t function simply as a league of competing organizations. Political parties also fulfill an integrating social function at the national level.

In the examples of the countries just mentioned, parties compete with their philosophical, ideological and doctrinal visions within a social consensus that integrates and harmonizes the diverse positions adopted by those participating in the electoral game, for example over how to balance the market and the state.

The democratic social consensus in the countries mentioned is based on the premise that society must integrate and balance the market’s “instrumental rationality” with the “substantive rationality” that must serve as the basis for the state’s functioning. In its most concrete expression, this attempts to establish a balance between the principle of individual liberties, especially those that capitalists require to operate within the market, and the principle of social justice that promotes absolute respect for human dignity.

Hence, democratic thinking fundamentally promotes individual liberties within the framework of a social contract. In this regard, it has been an attempt to promote market freedom within limits designed to protect the common good, a premise shared by Liberals, Conservatives and Socialists in Europe, Canada and even the United States. In these countries, the political parties help reproduce this premise while at the same time offering their own strategies and visions on how to implement it.

Nicaragua’s electoral processes, in contrast, are not underpinned by any social consensus on the basic organization of our national life. We lack even a clear sense of what constitutes the “common good” in our society. The social rights of the great majorities, the rights and obligations of the private sector, property rights, relations between the public institutions and branches of government or between church and state, the role of the police, the contents of our Constitution, our position regarding the Central American Free Trade Agreement and even the public sector salary structure are perennially unresolved issues and problems in Nicaragua.

Social reality is domesticated
with ideas and words

It cannot be argued that democratic political thinking and the experiences built on it have succeeded in establishing an ideal universal formula that reconciles the tensions and contradictions that inevitably arise from any attempt to balance individual liberties with social justice. The value of democratic political thinking resides not in its capacity to end such tensions and contradictions but simply in its willingness to accept the challenge of reconciling them. Totalitarianism and neoliberalism are social strategies that aim to resolve the tensions generated by the combination of these principles once and for all.

The results of this reductionist absolutism have always been disastrous: totalitarian thinking “resolves” the tensions between individual liberty and social justice by sacrificing liberty, while neoliberal thinking does it by sacrificing justice.

With the globalization of capital, the idea of the market as the regulating fulcrum of life in society has gained ground and threatens to rupture the balance democratic systems must seek between the freedom of capital and social justice. In the countries of the North, the response to this change has been an intense exploration and discussion of the implications of the market-centered model of social organization that promotes the interests behind the globalization of capital. This debate feeds into the philosophy, doctrine and programs of the political parties participating in the struggle for power and the construction and reconstruction of the social consensus that provides a normative framework for that struggle.

All this points to something that must be clearly stated to understand the role political parties play or should play in constructing and legitimizing the values and social consensus that must organize the struggle for state power: the social reality in general and the social consensuses that serve to underpin a democratic political system in particular are largely theoretical constructs. Put another way, ideas and words are constitutive forces of history, without which it is impossible to domesticate the events and circumstances that mark the passage of time.

Certainly, accidents—or “fortune”—are constitutive elements of societies’ historical development as well. Many of the characteristics of the European democratic systems, for example, have been the result of unplanned processes and events. Nonetheless, European history largely resulted from thinking and reflective political action that has dealt with the obstacles thrown up by history by accommodating them to social aspirations and interests themselves constructed through political thought and social theory.

England in the 17th century
and Costa Rica in the 20th

The thinking of Thomas Hobbes, to cite one example, arose as a reflection and proposal responding to the crisis of English social order in the mid-17th century. Hobbes used the concept of sovereignty to justify the need to concentrate English society’s regulatory and legislative power in the King’s hands.

Hobbes enriched “conservative” European thinking. Conservatism, in turn, contributed to the building of national social consensuses that incorporated and balanced multiple interpretations of the principle of sovereignty, its function and consequences.

The social consensus promoted by José Figueres’ reformist movement in Costa Rica starting in 1948 was also nourished by reflective political thinking that grew out of the serious theoretical efforts of intellectuals such as Rodrigo Facio and the group associated with the Center for the Study of National Problems founded in 1940. We could thus say that, like its European counterpart, Costa Rican democracy has largely resulted from a theoretical effort that has endured and revitalized itself politically and theoretically over time. Such efforts don’t ensure the future of democracy in either Europe or Costa Rica, but they certainly increase its possibilities of surviving the neoliberal avalanche currently threatening it.

To build the future,
you first have to theorize it

Rather than being viewed simply as abstract philosophical tracts removed from reality, the visions of power and order represented by the political thinking of a Hobbes or Rodrigo Facio should be seen as “manuals for life” that define and legitimize the practices and regimes that transform members of society into what Michael Clifford calls socialized “ethical subjects.” Without philosophy and democratic thought, there can be no democracy or socialized ethical subjects as part of a just vision of society.

Democratic parties cannot exist without democratic philosophy because parties are organizations that represent visions of society. This must be reiterated in Nicaragua, where there is a prevailing and profound ignorance of the value of thinking as a constitutive force of history: there can be no real political parties without democratic philosophy, without democratic philosophical constructions that make sense of reality, because a political party isn’t simply a pronounceable acronym and an office-headquarters. A party is an organization that offers a theoretical vision of reality and a strategy to bring it into being. Why a theoretical vision? Because, as the song says, “to build the future you first have to dream it”—or, as I would put it, theorize it.

Without ideas and theoretical constructions that specify the coexisting interests and values in a society, it is impossible to promote the debate and discussion that must culminate in the articulation of the consensus required by an effective democratic system. And with no social consensus that incorporates a society’s interests and aspirations, electoral democracy amounts to nothing but a raffle for power whose results always remain in the hands of “fate.”

Democratic transition without democratic thinking

Since 1990, Nicaragua has been experiencing electoral democracy without social consensus, which has brought us to a political condition of formal legality devoid of both logic and legitimacy. The main political parties, whether in power or in the opposition, have been unable to promote Nicaragua’s democratic experiment, which today lies ridiculously and painfully on its deathbed.

The neoliberal economic reform and democratic electoral political reform promoted by the government of Violeta Chamorro (1991-97) did not have any domestic grassroots political support. The normative framework for the economic reform was virtually imposed by the international financial institutions that supported the post-revolutionary transition. And that framework set powerful limits and conditions on the democratic model adopted.

Chamorro’s labor minister Francisco Rosales confirmed the absence of any shared vision or development strategy among the different organizations in the winning National Opposition Union (UNO) electoral coalition when he stated in 1991: “There is no national project in Nicaragua; the FSLN’s historical program wasn’t one and nor is the UNO government program.”

The weak political-reflective capacity of Nicaragua’s political parties and elites at the outset of the post-revolutionary democratic experiment was evident in the political discussion forums organized by the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) in 1990 to discuss the basis for a possible national agreement in support of the country’s democratization. A reading of the presentations given by the invited representatives of different political parties and the ensuing discussions reveals the political backwardness of Nicaragua’s elites and their tendency to utilize an eminently declamatory discourse.

The political transition occurred without any political thinking that could guide this process toward shared social goals and objectives. Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo himself recognized that weakness in his presentation at the “First National Conference: Nicaragua and the Construction of the Nation,” held in December 1994, when he stated: “We are now facing the great task of accelerating the recovery of economic activity and the required drafting of a national development strategy. It must be recognized that we have been unable to give this effort form so far, but in 1995 we’re going to accomplish it.” As was to be expected, 1995, a pre-electoral year, did not lend itself to Lacayo’s promised programmatic reflection.

Imprecise declarations
of deceitful intentions

With the coming to power of Liberal leader Arnoldo Alemán (1997-2002), the reforms initiated by the Chamorro government were reoriented to serve the interests of the governing party and its members. One of the main objectives was to create a Liberal economic elite that could compete with the Sandinista and Conservative elites, both of whom had already benefited from the state. The Sandinista elite, in fact, had largely been formed by the “piñata”—as the give-away of state goods following the Sandinista government’s electoral loss was called—while the Conservative elite had been the main beneficiary of the Chamorro government’s own piñata—the privatization of state companies.

That objective notwithstanding, Alemán projected an anti-elitist image and presented himself as the leader of a political movement opposed to the economic logic imposed by the international financing institutions and the ambitions of the social sectors associated with Conservatism. But neither he, nor the PLC nor the Liberal Alliance on whose ticket he won the presidency in 1996 had a vision or political philosophy that could provide his government with an anchor and a normative orientation. Moreover, the Liberals’ theoretical malnutrition prevented them from articulating and aggregating the demands of their sympathizers, thereby contributing to the creation of a national social consensus that could serve as a basis for the country’s electoral democracy.

The PLC’s body of ideas or concepts was limited to a list of slogans combined with vague declarations of support for democracy and the development of society. The very terms of the Liberal Alliance, signed by the Independent Liberal Party and the PLC, were nothing more than a badly drafted and imprecise declaration of good intentions.

Superficiality characterized Arnoldo Alemán’s own discourse as well. The explanations and characteristics of Liberalism he offered during the electoral campaign were boring exercises of sweaty declamation lacking any theoretical underpinnings, historical relevance or programmatic significance. The following is just one example: “Liberalism is a respectful, broad and flexible philosophy, a plural ideology whose fundamental and indeclinable aim is human beings, their rights, liberties, aspirations, opportunities and comprehensive spiritual and material betterment. Its cornerstone is the natural, universal, human, civil and political rights of citizens. It dignifies women and men, rescuing and fostering the full enjoyment of and respect for all their freedoms. I believe in the Liberalism that transformed humanity with its revolutionary ideas and political, social, cultural, juridical, democratic, republican and institutional contributions, breaking the old mold of privileges, inequalities and exploitation. [I believe] in a modern Liberalism that is permanently nourished and renewed, humanist, responsible, in solidarity and with an unshakable social sensitivity. It is the Liberalism of the future, of the new 21st century!”

The only concrete messages in the Liberal candidate’s speeches were anti-Sandinismo and the promise to rebuild Nicaragua according to a glorified image of the pre-revolutionary era. “We will once again be the granary of Central America” was one of Alemán’s catch phrases during his public presentations, thus evoking the levels of development achieved during the Somoza dynasty.

Genetic Liberalism

In the absence of a political philosophy, Liberalism has continued being a family tradition in Nicaragua, as much a political accident as the Catholicism of the majority of Nicaraguans. The “Philosophical Summary of the Nicaraguan Liberal Current” during the 1996 election campaign opened with a description of the families and “illustrious surnames of great Liberals.” At the end of this “historical review,” the party invited all those with “Liberal surnames” to work and vote for the Liberal cause.

President Alemán himself reaffirmed the “genetic” vision of Liberalism expressed in the PLC propaganda in a speech during the celebration of the 106th anniversary of the “Libérrima,” the Constitution promulgated by the modernizing Liberal President José Santos Zelaya. Alemán’s anti-intellectual political attitude was very similar to the Italian fascist one of the Mussolini regime: “Today we celebrate the 106th anniversary of the most revolutionary and transcendentally heroic of all our Constitutions, the 1893 one, called La Libérrima for its vision, innovative and progressive spirit impregnated to the most intimate level by the unrenounceable love of civil liberties. We carry that love of liberty palpitating in our blood, in our thinking, in our breasts, in our entrails, in our soul; we feel it. We carry it in our genes; we live it and are passing it down enriched from generation to generation. And that is what we hope to continue doing during the new century to come.”

Liberalism as a “natural” condition

Wilfredo Navarro, one of the PLC’s main ideologues, reaffirmed the idea of Liberalism as a “natural” condition in his own explanation of this political philosophy: “Liberalism, by defending liberty, defends intellectual progress, knowledge and human development; and given its dynamic, it is equal to constant renewal and progress. We proudly say that Liberalism is dynamic, innovative, that it is process, a vital necessity for human beings, because without liberty man loses his essence and ceases being the superior entity created by God, thus becoming transformed into a slave, with all the consequences that this situation generates. The Liberal needs liberty. That’s why Liberal thinking is so rooted in the Nicaraguan people. Nicaraguans are Liberals almost by instinct: they love liberty; they need it; it’s the motor force of their lives.”

The superficiality of the political thinking of the Liberal Alliance and the PLC also became evident in the Alemán government’s management of the economy, adopting an eminently pragmatic and opportunist attitude to consolidate itself in power. Having used a populist discourse during the electoral campaign, the Liberal Alliance government adopted and continued the structural adjustment program initiated by the Chamorro administration.

Bolaños and his managerial vision of politics

PLC candidate Enrique Bolaños, a man of deep Conservative instincts who got mixed up in Liberalism due to the accidents of Nicaragua’s crazed political dynamics, devoted himself to repeating how much he “loved his” Liberal party. To fill the voids of his “beloved” Liberalism, he impregnated his political speeches with religious allusions, which revealed Catholicism’s ideological power.

Once in government, Bolaños has repeatedly demonstrated that he lacks the vision to articulate collective aspirations. His government’s National Development Plan was an attempt to articulate such a national vision to create a shared national destiny, but was based on the normative frameworks promoted by the international financing institutions. The plan relegates the urgent needs and demands of Nicaragua’s impoverished population to secondary importance. What takes precedence is the implementation of a model of society that responds to the demands of the international economic system as defined by the World Bank and the IMF. In accord with the plan’s logic, Nicaragua’s social reality must adjust to the proposed model rather than the reverse.

The plan attempted to lay the foundations of a social consensus predetermined by the imperative of business competitiveness. From this perspective, the state was viewed as an administrative apparatus that had to be adapted to the needs of capital. And the government would have to take on a managerial role to facilitate market development.

The Bolaños government ended up doing the very thing that one Nicaraguan commentator warned about at the start of its term: “The greatest danger facing the new government is falling into the trap of a sterile administrative role, forgetting that governing in the continent’s second poorest country requires a vision capable of generating collective aspirations and dreams.”

FSLN: A theoretical effort abandoned after 1990

The FSLN came to power in 1979 armed with a theoretical and historical vision of Nicaraguan society whose weaknesses soon became evident. Nonetheless, we cannot deny that if Somocismo was praxis without a historical and social vision of Nicaraguan reality, as Eduardo Buitrago has aptly pointed out, Sandinismo was fundamentally a historical vision rooted in humanist values that defied and transcended the existing reality.

The theoretical effort of enriching the Sandinista philosophy and vision of Nicaragua’s social development was virtually abandoned after the 1990 electoral defeat. The FSLN maintained its revolutionary posture and discourse during the initial stage of the transition, but later began to accommodate itself—pragmatically and resignedly—to the new national reality and the weight of neoliberalism. Summarizing the results of the 1991 departmental party congresses, organized as a prior step to the holding of the FSLN’s first Congress after the electoral defeat, the Sandinista magazine, Barricada International, reported almost unanimous consensus among delegates to the Managua Congress, belying the predictions of heated debates around the FSLN’s principles and program. It added that every one of the departmental meetings ratified the party’s revolutionary, democratic, nationalist and anti-imperialist nature.

Daniel Ortega confirmed the FSLN’s revolutionary position after the Sandinistas lost the 1990 elections: “I think it would be absolutely out of line for the FSLN to begin discussing whether to take the capitalist road and renounce anti-imperialism. There are 23 political parties in Nicaragua where all those who believe in the validity of the capitalist and pro-imperialist proposal can sign on. Our proposal continues to be revolutionary, and we are incorporating discussion and dialogue as a new expression of internal democracy. For the first time in our history, the FSLN is opening up its statutes and principles for discussion; elections themselves are a new element, an instrument for reaffirming our political and ideological positions, modernizing our work methods and confronting our old enemy, capitalism.”

“Pragmatic” vs. “principle-driven”

Behind the revolutionary posture of Ortega and the Sandinista leadership, the FSLN had begun to suffer strong internal division, sparked by the electoral defeat and the party’s inability to redefine its rationality, objectives and strategies. Some characterized the Sandinista debate of that period as a tug-of-war between pragmatists and those driven by principles. The pragmatic label was used to describe those in favor of internal reforms, while that of “principle-driven” referred to those who defended the proposal of maintaining traditional Sandinismo’s basic socialist and revolutionary principles.

The FSLN’s internal questioning didn’t lead to a reformulation of party consensus or modernization of its socialist thinking, but rather to the revolutionary organization’s fragmentation and decomposition. By 1993, Sandinismo was in evident political, ideological and institutional crisis. In the words of a group of revolutionary intellectuals brought together by the Institute of Nicaraguan Studies to discuss the future of Sandinismo, there’s a “lack of identity and of any redefinition of the FSLN’s strategy and program, as well as a leadership crisis at all levels, in response to which the organizational structure is becoming either non-functional or reproducing these problems.”

The FSLN’s crisis and ultimate split culminated in the formation of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), made up of people promoting the democratization of the party and the modernization of its struggle. Other groups that remained within the FSLN continued to push fruitlessly for the party’s internal renovation, but Ortega and the group that kept its grip on the party’s organizational structures managed to neutralize these outbreaks of dissidence.

The FSLN gradually abandoned its revolutionary positions to adopt a pragmatic policy of defending and preserving the party’s power within the new conditions created by the transition. This pragmatism expressed its leadership’s resignation toward the weight of capital and the neoliberal model, which was appearing to be an inescapable reality.

Resigned pragmatism and an insignificant vision

By the 1996 elections, the Sandinistas, just like the Liberals, were articulating government proposals that lacked any philosophical underpinnings or programmatic and propositional value. Rather than being government plans for a country in crisis, the proposals of both the PLC and the FSLN were merely disarticulated lists of promised social and economic projects mixed with vague declarations that they would promote progress and establish a “rule of law” in Nicaragua.

The “FSLN National Program,” presented by Manuel Coronel Kautz as part of the process of articulating a Sandinista program, proposed to energize the country’s economic development by promoting three economic macro-projects: construction of an inter-oceanic canal, irrigation of Nicaragua’s Pacific plain and the country’s transformation into a tourist haven. The program’s reference to the issue of state organization—a fundamental element for determining the viability of the proposed projects—was little more than rhetoric. “The FSLN, which has already demonstrated its vocation for civil service, social sensitivity, solidarity, transparency and speaking out against corruption,” it began, “visualizes that in addition to being the nation’s political body, the modern state must exercise strong action on the forces that comprise it for the well-being and development of its inhabitants.”

Retired General Humberto Ortega proposed a “National Agreement” that was loaded with the kind of slogans and concepts popularized in the country by international cooperation. The proposal’s objectives included: “A self-sustainable Nicaragua in which civil society is its motor force”; the consolidation of a “market economy with justice and social equity; Nicaragua’s solid integration into the international economic setting; the institutional modernization of the state, prioritizing decentralization and the strengthening of local power”; the adoption of values promoted by the United Nations such as “the equality of all human beings”; the defense of “civic diversity as a source of wealth, not conflicts”; the promotion of “individual and group initiative in harmony with common responsibility and the rule of law with participation and social sensibility”; recognition of humanity’s “common destiny”; and respect for the “global environment.” By offering all, his program amounted to nothing.

Daniel Ortega 2001:
“We have our feet on the ground”

The FSLN’s political thinking and vision in 2001 contrasted dramatically with its thinking and vision in 1979. Upon taking power that year and despite its weaknesses, the FSLN had a historical vision of society and a theoretical basis for its revolutionary political activity. In 2001, it had virtually abandoned its political values and philosophy in favor of a managerial discourse and vision of the function of government. The FSLN now viewed governing as carrying out development projects within the limits established by the country’s power structures and the international financial institutions’ imposition of normative frameworks for public policy formulation.

Daniel Ortega Saavedra himself expressed the pragmatic-resigned attitude adopted by the FSLN in an interview granted on September 13, 2001:
“Do you propose to repeat the same radical 1979 program in an eventual new government headed by yourself?”
DOS: “The ideals are the same but readapted to a situation of peace and the globalized world we live in. We have to stress support for the private sector now, from the smallest to the very largest businesses. We can’t offer massive subsidies as before.”
“But the business class is openly supporting the Liberal party...”
DOS: “Yes, that’s true, but little by little the business owners will understand that we are no longer intent on propping up state power or thinking about applying a welfare-type policy. We have our feet on the ground.”
“And do you accept the application of the tough ultra-liberal policies required by the IMF, the Inter-American Development Bank or the World Bank to economically aid any country?”
DOS: “We know that their conditions are hard, above all for countries as impoverished as ours, but we consider that without violating their requirements, we can free up resources to deal with the problem of poverty, so that all these people can become productive agents. We would try to convince these banking organizations to be more flexible with some of their policies.”
Thus, the FSLN’s economic “strategy” was reduced to “trying to convince” the international financial institutions. The FSLN’s theoretical vacuum was also demonstrated by the flowery and trivial discourse adopted by its leaders after the elections.

In its “Program for the 21st century,” the FSLN defined itself as a “revolutionary party that promotes modern, democratic, grassroots socialism with solidarity and plurality and is inspired by love of the people and of the homeland, designed to serve its citizens…” The party’s main objective, as defined in this document, is to “achieve the happiness of all Nicaraguans, building a society with political democracy, economic democracy, social justice and a genuine rule of law.” It is a declaration fairly dripping with good intentions.

Our material poverty
and our poverty of ideas

This brings us up to today, when the current political and institutional anomie demonstrates that the democratic electoral system introduced in 1990 has been unable to generate a consensus that identifies and harmonizes the interests and aspirations of the Nicaraguan people. What do we need to build that consensus? What has kept us from progressing towards a just and stable democratic system?

The absence of any social consensus in Nicaragua is above all the result of our political parties’ philosophical, ideological and doctrinal weaknesses. They lack the capacity to articulate, aggregate and transmit social demands and aspirations. Nor do they have the ability to help develop a normative framework that can regulate the competition for power and channel our society’s best energies.

Hence, the disorder in which the country is embroiled is to a large extent the result of the disorder and theoretical poverty of our political parties, while our political crisis is the product of the profound crisis of thought in which Nicaraguan society and its political organizations have been submerged for many years. And the material poverty Nicaragua is suffering is the direct consequence of the paucity of the ideas that have oriented the country’s development throughout its history.

Our refusal to think and our contempt for abstraction is starving us to death. It is killing us not to understand that “to construct the future you first have to dream it,” theorize it, see it in abstract.

Parties and politicians organized like gangs

The shrewd journalist Enrique Guzmán underscored our philosophical malnourishment vividly in 1867, when he wrote that the country’s parties functioned like “small gangs” with no other common denominator than “their blind adhesion to any old caudillo or to avaricious parochial interests.” He added that the “crude and barbaric” labels used to caricature the leaders of Nicaragua’s different interest groups during the first decades of the country’s political development—such as misshapen, long-tailed, home-grown, hairy, ragged, fatso or beanpole—made more sense than labels such as “Conservative” and “Liberal.” In Nicaragua, the latter were devoid of any genuine philosophical and doctrinal basis that could orient the struggle for power and competition of interests.

That appraisal, made in the second half of the 19th century, is still applicable to the Nicaraguan political parties of today, which continue acting like “gangs” organized to defend particular interests that are frequently at odds with the well-being of the country’s society. Today’s version of “barbaric” qualifiers, such as Alemanism, Danielism and Bolañism, are still more appropriate and make more sense than the concepts of liberalism and socialism with which we refer to the respective philosophies of the PLC and FSLN. We’re saying nothing about the political philosophy of the Alliance for the Republic (APRE) because there’s nothing to say.

Historically, Nicaraguan liberalism has expressed an anti-oligarchic position but has been unable to forge any democratic thinking that expresses and incorporates the interests and aspirations of our society’s different sectors.

The FSLN’s socialism did attempt to represent the interests of the masses, but without grasping the values that unite the diverse social, ethnic and cultural groups making up this country’s marginalized society much less explicitly express those values in a political philosophy.

The search for the “Center”

If Liberals and Sandinistas took seriously their responsibility to think, they would find that the aspirations and needs of their respective followers coincide in many respects. This is possibly what led Nicaraguan intellectual Orlando Núñez to seek to fuse the political energies of the FSLN and the PLC, albeit by terribly mistaken paths.

Humberto Ortega also intuits the possibility of such a fusion, but seeks it in precedents and models fed by historical waters that our not ours. He has recently proposed that Nicaraguans practice what he calls “centrism,” taking Sweden as his model country. Yes, Sweden.

The centrism the general offers us is a bad idea and a bad copy, a proposal designed for societies with developed and stable political institutions. Anthony Giddens, the main theoretician of that current, proposed it as a way of seeking to harmonize the principles and political priorities of the Right and the Left in countries such as England.

This centrism has failed. Tony Blair, the “other Tony,” no longer even mentions it. Bill Clinton’s centrism was buried by the terrorist act of September 11. In reality, centrism has ended up a bad joke. In an interesting article on this issue, Demetrio Velasco cites Alan Touraine’s comment that centrism is the way of doing rightwing politics from the left. Even Ralph Dahrendorf, Anthony Giddens’ old professor, concludes that the moment has come to generate new ideas now that we’ve left the episode of the third way behind us and know that globalization accompanied by words of compassion is not enough.

Independent of centrism’s failure in the developed countries that attempted to use it, it wasn’t complete foolishness to think that a “political center” could be constructed in a country like England. At the end of the day, the Right and Left of that country offer doctrinal and philosophical underpinnings to support it. The problem is that such underpinnings don’t exist in Nicaragua.

The current “mishmash” formula

And what can be said about the chacuatol or “mishmash” formula of a presidential ticket with Sandinista Herty Lewites and Liberal Eduardo Montealegre, both rejected by their respective parties. The idea is that together, under the slogan “All against the FSLN-PLC pact,” they could attract enough votes to defeat both parties in 2006.

With many forces and interests evidently willing to support such a ticket, the idea is beginning to gather force. Its backers include Sandinista sectors opposed to Ortega, Liberal sectors opposed to Alemán, powerful economic groups in the country that don’t trust Ortega and civil society organizations that are struggling to democratize the country. Even the United States could take an interest in its determination to defeat Ortega.

What would happen if the Montealegre-Lewites ticket were to consolidate and win next year’s elections? Probably nothing new. Nicaragua could easily continue functioning as an electoral democracy with no social consensus, unable to create aspirations shared by Nicaraguan society. “All against the pact” could well end up as a rewrite of the “All against the FSLN” formula that led Violeta Chamorro to power in 1990, ushering in the current crisis.

We have to take up the task
we’ve avoided for 200 years

There are no easy solutions for Nicaragua, and there will be none at all if it continues to sidestep the task we’ve avoided tackling for nearly two hundred years of independent life: to engage in long-term thinking, with a vision of nation and sense of history, knowledge of the world we’re operating in and, above all, values and principles that normatively anchor our state and society.

Andrés Pérez-Baltodano is professor of political sciences at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and an envío collaborator.

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