A Rather Extraordinary Congress
On May 20-22, the FSLN celebrated an extraordinary session of its First Congress, called to debate and pass reforms to the FSLN statutes and program, both of which were approved during the Congress session held in July 1991. Another objective was to elect new national leadership.
The Extraordinary Congress was announced in July 1993, after it became clear that these issues could not wait for the Second Congress, scheduled for 1995. The main event leading to the decision was the publication of a position paper by Sandinistas, known as the "Group of 29," who opposed prolonging the FSLN's alliance with the Chamorro government. That alliance, emerging from the transition period following the FSLN's electoral defeat, had continued to be justified over the ensuing years in the name of national stability. The document's supporters quickly multiplied beyond the original 29 departmental political secretaries, union leaders and some intellectuals.
Differences HardenBy early 1994, two distinct currents of thought had publicly coalesced within the FSLN. One called itself the "Sandinista Democratic Left" and was backed by "the 29" and various National Directorate members, among them Daniel Ortega, the party's secretary general. The other, headed by Sergio Ramírez and supported by 37 of the 39 Sandinista representatives to the National Assembly, dubbed itself "For a Sandinismo that Returns to the Majorities." Both currents issued position papers in mid-February, each of which filled a full page in Barricada. While the Democratic Left's was unsigned, that of the Majorities carried some 500 signatures.
But Remain Unclear
The two documents defended many of the same principles—greater democracy in the FSLN and society as a whole, defense of the poor, national sovereignty, etc.—as well as a number of specific issues such as more effective autonomy for the Atlantic Coast. Both also strongly condemned neoliberalism.
The differences in content were subtle, while those of tone were blatant. Perhaps one of the most essential differences relates to the importance of winning the 1996 elections. On first glance, the two positions appear nearly identical. The Majorities current presupposes that "we can only carry out our political, economic and social project from government" while the Democratic Left concludes that "winning the 1996 elections is a life or death issue for the country and for the revolution." But a contradictory clause in the Democratic Left's document, which almost escapes notice since it is buried in the text, states that the FSLN can achieve its objectives of "gradually and progressively reaching a political, social and economic transformation..." by "working from the opposition or from the government."
Was it the implications of this difference that affected the tone of the two documents—optimistic and positive in the case of the Majorities and belligerent in that of the Democratic Left? And did this tone in turn affect the language, and even the content—perhaps even somewhat unduly?
For example, the Majorities spoke of a desire for "mutually respectful" relations with the United States while the Democratic Left similarly promoted "relations of respect and mutual benefit, as well as of peaceful coexistence" with all governments of the continent, including the United States. But the latter also embraced the "anti-imperialist essence" of General Sandino, while the Majorities avoided the word "imperialism." Did this omission reflect an essential reevaluation of the United States in the post-Cold War period, as the other current charged, or just a choice not to gratuitously provoke potential voters' fears that war with the United States would inevitably result if the FSLN were to return to power?
Other language divergences between the two documents cannot so easily be put down to tone or semantic subtleties. The Democratic Left, for example, opened its document by defining the FSLN as a "revolutionary party" with a "socialist orientation," terms found nowhere in the Majorities document.
The most blatant divergence, however, is definitely one of content. It regards the role of violence as a method of struggle. The Majorities document unequivocally states that "today, we Sandinistas cannot sponsor, protect, justify or excuse any kind of armed or violent struggle methods in Nicaragua, nor can we use half-measures at the moment of condemning those methods." The Democratic Left document, in contrast, "rejects, in the conditions of Nicaragua, armed struggle as a method to reach political power" but "considers all forms of struggle of the popular movement legitimate as long as they have the highest possible level of consensus among their bases..."
From IssuesThe debate between these currents grew in intensity—though not noticeably in greater clarity—but remained mainly at the level of the party's upper echelons and in its media. At first it centered on the various controversial issues mentioned in the documents, which grow out of Nicaragua's—and the world's—changing reality, but it soon degenerated into name-calling, thanks in part to the Sandinista media. The Democratic Left saw the other current as riddled with neoliberals and right-wingers—particularly its leader, Sergio Ramírez. For the Majorities the Democratic Left—and its flagbearer Daniel Ortega—was "radical" and "orthodox."
Empty phrases such as "modernization and renovation," "faithfulness to principles" and "revolutionary mystique" also prevailed over any clarification of what political, economic and personal interests lay behind these concepts or behind each of the currents. The real rightwing sectors and their media contributed to this polarization and personalization by giving a lot of play to the Majorities' positions.
As the date of the Congress neared, the personification of the debate became almost total, with Ortega pitted against Ramírez. That turned the issue of who would be elected secretary general of the party into the fundamental issue. For the Majorities current, the FSLN's only salvation lay in Daniel Ortega withdrawing his candidacy. A week before the Congress, by which time the tensions had reached a pitch too serious to fully hide, the Majorities presented National Directorate member Henry Ruiz as its "unity candidate."
Meanwhile,Against this unenlightening backdrop, neighborhood, zonal and departmental meetings were held all over the country to discuss the official Congress proposals and those from the base for changes in the statutes and the program. The four official position papers dealt with the issues of the Nicaraguan government, property, the FSLN's own social composition and its relations with the US government. Participation was lower than expected and top-down elements were still evident in the debate style.
Back at the Base...
Discussion of the two current's position papers was inevitable. A significant majority of grassroots and middle-level Sandinistas declared themselves "without a current" since they could not comprehend the essence of the divergences and feared above all that the party could split.
Even though the overriding message in these meetings was the concern to maintain unity, there were strong indications that the correlation of forces favored the Democratic Left. One such indication came from the various lists of suggested candidates to the National Directorate. In addition, the majority of Congress delegates—83% men and 72% between 26 and 40 years of age, made up of all the Sandinista Assembly members plus those directly elected to the 1991 Congress from the departments—were more familiar with its proposals. Most also sympathized with Daniel Ortega, more for his constant presence at the base and his image as a symbol of the revolution than for his particular ideas.
Congress ResultsOf the 566 delegates, only 65% showed up at the Olof Palme Convention Center in Managua, where the Congress was held. While partly due to a range of factors beyond the delegates' control, the main reason was the dispersion and apathy that has prevailed in the party for the past four years.
In a Nutshell
Voting to reform the statutes and program was public, while the new authorities were elected by secret vote. Among the issues decided on were the following:
* By a two-thirds majority, the FSLN voted to continue defining itself as a "vanguard party."
* It will maintain two membership categories (militants and affiliates), though the mechanisms of affiliation will be more flexible.
* The executive body will still be called the National Directorate, but will now be made up of 15 members, who will hold the position for 3 years.
* The Sandinista Assembly, the maximum decision-making body between congresses, will be made up of 45 national members and 68 departmental ones, proportionate to the population and FSLN presence in each department.
* For the first time, mechanisms were approved by which all leadership posts can be revoked.
* Obligatory quotas in all FSLN leadership posts were approved for women (30%) as of this election and for youth between 16 and 30 years of age (10%) starting with the next Congress.
* Autonomy was granted the FSLN in the Atlantic Coast with respect to its organization and decision-making about the specific situation in that half of the country.
Prior to electing members of the new Sandinista Assembly, both currents lobbied strenuously for their respective exclusive lists of candidates. Of the 45 national cadres elected, 28 belong to the Democratic Left and 17 to the Majorities, while the 68 departmental members are respectively 53 and 15. Only 4 members of the new Sandinista Assembly are under 30 years old.
Of the 15 members of the new National Directorate, 8 are new: Dora María Téllez, Victor Hugo Tinoco, René Vivas, Mónica Baltodano, Benigna Mendiola, Lumberto Campbell, Mirna Cunningham and Dorotea Wilson (the last three are Atlantic Coast leaders). The other 7 are Daniel Ortega, Tomás Borge, René Núñez, Bayardo Arce, Victor Tirado, Luis Carrión and Henry Ruiz. With respect to the other two previous Directorate members, Jaime Wheelock, who is studying in the United States, presented his resignation days before the Congress, and Sergio Ramírez did not get the votes necessary to make the list.
The Congress reelected Daniel Ortega as secretary general with 287 votes to 147 for Henry Ruiz. A month earlier, Tomás Borge, the only living founder of the FSLN, had proposed himself for the post of honorary president. While the idea was defeated by a narrow margin on the grounds that it could potentially create confusions of authority, Borge was voted in as deputy secretary. René Núñez was elected treasurer.
In its first meeting, the new National Directorate unanimously elected Victor Hugo Tinoco to head the International Relations Secretariat and Lumberto Campbell to head the Secretariat of Communications and Education. By nine votes to six, Mónica Baltodano was elected to head the Secretariat of Organization, which is responsible for organizing the elections for the FSLN's new departmental and zonal authorities within the next few weeks.
The Positive And the NegativeRamírez's surprising failure to get on the National Directorate gave rise to an interpretation that his current was excluded from leadership positions, but 6 of the 15 on the National Directorate have expressed their support for the Majorities, while 38% of the national members and 23% of the departmental ones in the National Assembly sympathize or work with that current. Given that most Nicaraguans, Sandinistas included, are overwhelmed by sheer survival problems and have stayed on the sidelines of this and other political debates, the Congress results reflect for the most part the real correlation of forces among those who participate most actively at the base and in the middle-level structures.
The Congress results were applauded by the Democratic Left and begrudgingly accepted by the Majorities, though some of this current's adherents bitterly interpreted them as a "Stalinist purge" or a "victory of the past." Some even called it the "political suicide of the FSLN," predicting that all possibility of winning the 1996 national elections had been thrown away. The only member of the Majorities current who has so far decided to resign from the party is Carlos Tunnerman.
Following the Congress, most members of the Democratic Left put the emphasis on working for unity, while the Majorities current stressed it will continue working for change within party structures. Anyone who thought that the Congress would clarify the internal differences or was naive enough to hope it would put them to rest, must have been sorely disappointed.
Genuine and informed debate did not occur at the base, in the Congress, or between the currents, and any in-depth analysis that would help people understand why the controversy had become so heated was conspicuously absent. Real debate did not take even take place in the Congress around other controversial programmatic issues such as ethics, methods of struggle, relations with the United States and property, even though the latter two were officially promoted discussion topics.
Regarding the FSLN structures, the main ones were the unprecedented direct and secret election of individual leaders and the greater representation of women and youth as well as of the departments and the Atlantic Coast in the leadership bodies.
Other positive aspects were the inclusion of mechanisms for recalling leaders and for controlling their personal probity, the relaxation of the affiliation process and the legitimization of spaces within the party for militants and affiliates to debate their positions, as long as they respect party discipline.
As regards the FSLN's program, the most positive aspect was the approval of the Thesis on the Countryside, which established that the FSLN will give priority to the reformed sectors of the economy, especially the peasantry, cooperatives and workers' enterprises. This issue, however, was more fully debated among peasants at the base than in the Congress itself.