Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 293 | Diciembre 2005



While the Left Is Modernizing, The Right Is Stagnating

In a country like Nicaragua, social justice should be a national obsession. The Left has understood that and is modernizing to respond intelligently to the challenge. To do so, it must resolve its “bad relations” with democracy, individual rights and the market. Meanwhile, argues the author in this third part of his portrait of Nicaragua’s political parties, the Right is stuck in its old ways, making its modernization a task of the Left, as absurd as that may sound.

Andrés Pérez Baltodano

While it is true that “Left” as a political concept has lost programmatic clarity, this should not push us into tossing out its ethical-political meaning, much less accepting as inevitable the reality that the power of capital is imposing on us today. In a country with so many poor and excluded, the great leftist banner of social justice must become a national obsession.

The Left’s three tasks
and its three demons

The political thinking and governmental proposal of a modern and renovated Nicaraguan leftist movement must embrace the three fundamental tasks of defending our sovereignty, understanding it as a social capacity that permits us to determine our own destiny as a nation; promoting the active construction of citizenship, providing people the political ability to condition the state’s actions; and using all means at its disposal to facilitate the development of a modern vision of history that allows us to shake off the suffocating providentialism and resigned pragmatism.

The articulation of a leftist thinking and program for Nicaragua does not simply involve drafting a new body of political ideas and a new government platform. To modernize, the Nicaraguan Left must also face up to three historic demons: its attitude toward individual rights and liberties, its vision of the market and its tendency to regard authori-tarianism and coercion as means for maintaining order.

A modern and democratic Left must struggle for the weakest within a framework of values that recognizes the right of all human beings to justice and freedom. And “all” includes the rightwing sectors: capitalists and other adversaries. The Left has a choice: it can be democratic or it can be totalitarian.

The Nicaraguan Left has
modernized and democratized

Has the Nicaraguan Left modernized and democratized? The answer is a resounding Yes, as demonstrated by the crisis of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). The stagnation and political, ethical and ideological retreat of the FSLN’s upper echelons have been accompanied by the germination and consolidation of a modern and democratic leftist current that is now beginning to pull together around Herty Lewites’ presidential candidacy.

Nicaragua’s modern Left includes men and women who have dedicated their lives to social justice and are willing to continue fighting for it within a democratic framework. The renewed and pluralist vision of this group is expressed by Dora María Téllez, one of the principal figures in the Movement for the Rescue of Sandinismo. In the “Speaking Out” section of this issue of envío, she says, “One of Herty’s virtues is that he’s concerned about the poor without being an enemy of the rich. Because, as business leader Manuel Ignacio Lacayo said, the wealthy of this country need to be told that they have to help reduce poverty and pay off their social debt with the majority of the population. The business class has to make a profound contribution to resolving the problems of poverty; it has to assume its social responsibility.”

That framing of the issue represents a fundamental challenge to the traditional revolutionary leftist vision of rights and individual liberties, democracy and the market. It accepts the market’s existence within a society that is struggling for social justice and freedom for all. The hope is that private enterprise will compete efficiently in a program based on such a vision, but with a sense of “social responsibility.”

Social justice relegated individual rights

Beyond the differences that have divided the leftist forces in Nicaragua and the rest of the world, the struggle for social justice has been the common denominator that has marked this movement’s vision and political practice. Nonetheless, by raising the banner of social justice, the Left has relegated or even outright rejected the principle of individual liberties and rights that, together with collective rights and social justice, constitute the indispensable elements of a holistic humanism.

If the defense of social justice has been the Latin American Left’s main strength, its main weakness has been its resistance to accepting the principle of individual liberties and rights as fundamental elements of the human condition. And this, in turn, has been the main cause of its failures when it has taken power. The Left has preferred to think of society from a reductionist perspective that assumes that individual liberties and rights must be subordinated to promotion of the collective right-social justice binomial, whatever the cost. This reductionism has frequently been elevated to the category of dogma, violating the rights of millions of human beings in Mao’s China, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, just to cite a few examples.

While not comparable to the above three experiences, the price of the Cuban revolution’s enormous and admirable achievements has been the sacrifice of the individual rights of Cuban men and women to associate politically, express themselves freely and condition the state’s actions in a positive way.

What the Cuban experiment and the experience of the deceased “real socialism” shows is that 20th century socialism was unable to institutionalize itself in liberty. In other words, it failed to develop the level of democratic legitimacy required to avoid having to fall back on coercion to maintain order. Those socialist experiences have confirmed what Jean Jacques Rousseau pointed out over two centuries ago: to achieve genuine institutionalization, the models of social organization must be able to transform power into authority and obedience into a sense of civic obligation.

Why haven’t we seen a
genuine democratic socialism?

The reasons socialism has been unable to hold onto power without turning to force should not be trivialized. The absence of a genuine democratic socialism that promoted social justice within a framework of individual rights and liberties cannot be attributed simply to the “threat of capitalism” or the time supposedly required to consolidate and legitimize a political system.

Of course the force of capitalism has and always will threaten socialism. Of course as the flagship capitalist society, the United States has conspired and will continue to conspire against any economic model that attempts to compete with its own. And of course the consolidation and legitimization of any complex system of social organization are long processes. But we need to recognize another element in the socialist experiences of the past century and in Cuban socialism. Their rejection of the value of the individual and of individual rights is the root of their own inability to consolidate themselves in power democratically. And this a problem that the Nicaraguan Left and the Left in the rest of the world need to recognize, grapple with and overcome.

What did Marx think about individual rights?

Marxist philosophy and social sciences almost invariably ignored or minimized the value of individual reason and assumed that reason is a collective and historic faculty that transcends the comprehension of concrete and individual human beings. From this perspective, History with a capital H is seen as a universal movement with its own life and logic that embodies universal Reason—a concept that entails right, motive and order—which exceeds the individual power of reason and in this case is collectively embodied in the working class. In the 20th century socialist practice, flesh and blood individuals had to surrender to these abstractions or risk being smashed by those who governed in their name.

Marxist theoreticians will continue debating whether the Left correctly interpreted Marx’s position on individual rights. For some—Steven Lukes, for example—Marx rejected these rights, considering them “imaginary” within societies divided between a class that owns the means of production and another that must sell its labor power to survive. They also believe that Marx disparaged such rights as expressions of the bourgeois model of social life and hence contrary to the forms of solidarity that socialism demands.

Other Marxist scholars, however, argue that Marx recognized certain civil rights as compatible with socialism. Jeremy Waldron, for example, suggests that it is important to separate Marx’s vision of the “rights of man” from his vision of the “civil rights” in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen proclaimed by the French revolution in 1789.

Marx saw the former as the legalization of “selfishness,” whereas he perceived the latter as positive in the construction of a collective sense of life in society. Article XI of the Declaration of 1789, for example, establishes the right to freedom of communication, which is indispensable to the construction of aspirations and social memories: “The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.”

From “Thy will be done”
to “National Directorate, issue your order”

Independent of what Marx meant or thought, the issue of human rights is certainly not central to his works and virtually disappears between 1844, when he published “On the Jewish Question,” and his death in 1883. In any event, the socialist experiences that have used Marxism as their doctrinal justification have rejected and sacrificed individual rights in the name of social justice.

For Stalin, there was no conscious activity by workers outside of the party’s influence, and it is worth noting that this totalitarian vision of society also formed part of the fascist experience. For Mussolini, the state embodied the consciousness and universal will of man in his historic existence and neither individuals nor associations of individuals existed outside of it.

The elevation of the collective over the individual and of History over life and the development of men’s and women’s concrete consciousness had a special echo in Nicaragua during its revolutionary experiment of the eighties. Our authoritarian political tradition, the absence of citizens endowed with real and effective rights and the weight of religious providentialism pushed us to assume our individual and societal role in a process we had no control over as “destiny.”

Five hundred years of religious providentialism had prepared us to accept that the Reason of the Sandinista revolution resided in History and in the Nicaraguan proletariat and peasantry as abstractions that exceeded the individual capacity for vision and action. By this logic, “History” became synonymous with “God.” But since this History did not talk or reveal itself—much like God—we needed the FSLN and its National Directorate to understand its significance. Thus, having repeated “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” for five centuries, it was easy to shout: ¡Dirección Nacional ordene! (National Directorate, issue your order!)

Religious fetishism is at the
root of political caudillismo

In Nicaragua, religious providentialism has degenerated into fetishism, into a cultural trend manifested in our willingness to venerate objects or people to which we attribute supernatural or special powers. In this regard, fetishism is a way of devaluing the individual’s reason and will.

In 1935, Santiago Argüello wisely interpreted the religious roots of Nicaraguan fetishism in the following way: “Our masses will never be inclined to give flight to their ‘inner self’ on wings of meditation or prayer; or to model their lives on a paragon of educating and moral perfectibility; or to awaken the latent spark of loftiness in their breasts. Everything is reduced to saying rosaries, at the pace of a dream-greased machine, in an activity of lips and a lethargy of fervor, with no other purpose than to win the favour of the saint they elected as their celestial advocate. Therein lies the fetish! Unable to give flight, we seek someone to come down to our level. We pray to the icon, not out of the devout attachment of souls, but to ask it for help in business, aid in affliction and practical measures for needs and desires. It is a trade-off of mechanical prayers for earthly goods.”

For Argüello, religious fetishism is the bedrock of our political fetishism, i.e. of our tendency to deny our own individuality and become resigned and obedient masses. And in Nicaragua we have all been masses, including the common people but also the course and poorly educated elites.

Argüello describes political fetishism as “an indispensable need in those who, not knowing how to walk on their own two feet, need someone to walk them.” Just as Enrique Bolaños needs a Colin Powell and Eduardo Montealegre a US Embassy. And how many Sandinistas still need Daniel Ortega to tell them what to demand?

“Out of the powerlessness to construct an ideal, which is a blindness of spirit,” adds Argüello, “is born the need of the blind for a guide. That’s why our peoples are in constant search of someone to subordinate themselves to. Unable to substantialize the abstraction in themselves, they personify their longings in the concreteness of a fetish.”

Passionate impulsiveness
and a vain show of words

We need not accept Argüello’s every word to recognize many of the cultural practices and vices of our elites and our people reflected in his explanation of fetishism. They are practices and vices that the Sandinista revolution not only failed to combat but actually cultivated during the eighties and that the Daniel Ortegas and Arnoldo Alemáns continue cultivating successfully despite their innumerable abuses and misdeeds. Argüello highlights the vices of “passionate impulsiveness,” “leaning more toward the tribune of the phrase than the pulpit of ideas” and a “propensity for sophistry, labeling with virtuosity acts that bottle up vice; that criollo sharpness that deliberately confuses and muddles, covering the viper of intention with a vain show of words.”

Argüello’s potrait of our emotions is much like the one that Basque journalist Iosu Perales, a friend of Nicaragua and of the Nicaraguan Left, put together in his memoirs: “I have frequently attended multitudinous acts in which members of the FSLN National Directorate have made speeches for an audience unconditionally given over to cheers and applause. I’ve recalled the enthusiasm of the Sandinista people seeing President Chávez on television after the victory of the revocation referendum. When from the balcony of the presidential offices Chávez raised his voice to say, “We’re going to assure the stability of the petroleum markets” and people responded with cheers, I felt I was attending a surrealist act. At that moment, Chávez supporters would have fervently applauded the President had he proposed ensuring the stability of the New York Stock Exchange or affirmed that the Earth is round. Something similar happened in the Nicaragua of the eighties. Such was the determination of the Sandinista people to follow the indications of their identified vanguard that their leaders’ voice was sufficient. And that fact, positive in wartime, implicitly contained a negative value: uncritical adherence.”

It is what Santiago Argüello would call the fetishism of mass society, of a society without individuals.

Collective rights are
an extension of individual rights

There is no question that a tense and even contradictory relationship exists between collective and social rights—indispensable for achieving the goals of justice that guide the Left’s vision—and individual rights—indispensable for the democratic legitimization of power. This makes theoreticians such as Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater distrust collective rights and conclude that efforts to promote them are a way of “deactivating” individual rights in “the most honorable and discreet way possible.”

Savater’s fear, however, makes no sense if we understand collective rights as an extension of individual ones. That is Basque professor of civil law Gurutz Jáuregui’s explanation when he says that the aim of collective rights “was none other than complementing and perfecting individual rights in their social context. Collective rights permitted passage from defense of generic or abstract human beings to humans in their specificity or in the realization of their different ways of being in society (as child, old person, ailing person, worker, immigrant, family member, member of a minority… and so on).”

Expanding on that point, he continues, “The Liberal system had the great virtue of creating and establishing norms aimed at proclaiming and promoting the autonomy of individuals, granting them, through citizenship, the possession and exercise of subjective rights. But that was insufficient. People neither were nor are isolated atoms, but must be individuated through socialization. Hence the need to structure a series of collective rights alongside individual rights. First came social and economic rights thanks to working class pressure; then came cultural rights and more recently the rights of the ‘third generation’ (the right to development, etc.).”

There’s no contradiction between
individual and collective rights

Without collective rights, human rights congeal and society stagnates. Worse yet, society sacrifices all those men and women who do not enjoy the real capacity to enforce their individuality. In a country of poor and excluded people like Nicaragua, individual rights—the right to vote, for example—are, as Marx said and Jesus himself would say, phantasmagoric.

At the same time, without individual rights, social rights lack a democratic underpinning and thus promote fetishism, caudillismo, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, vanguardism and all those political aberrations that reject the concrete human person as the legitimate source of rights and reason in history. Without individual rights, social rights amount to little more than “welfarism,” social compensation, state charity in the best of cases.

In the absence of a structure of individual rights, the state, the revolution, revolutionary leaders or central committees turn into fetishes to which the people must show respect in order to survive in a world in which everything—life and death, poverty and well-being—depends on an external volition. In these conditions, the State, History or the Revolution become secular versions of a providential God, the fetish God to which our country’s churches have accustomed us.

Can one be concerned about
both the poor and investment?

The Left’s traditional rejection of individual rights has marked its vision of the market, leading it to assume that the existence of the market and the right to private property necessarily imply accepting the logic of capital as the orienting rationality of social life. In this regard, the Left has turned the idea of the market into a myth and assumed that it is necessarily incompatible with a model of society organized to expand rights and justice for all. According to Eduardo Galeano, this mythifying is what led Che Guevara to get agitated when he saw a juice seller in the streets of Havana, because it reminded him of the latent presence of the capitalist spirit.

But the market can also be seen as a structure of relations, transactions, agreements and exchanges of goods and services between buyers and sellers. The competition that feeds production and trade is organized through norms and regulations that must promote efficiency and protect a common good articulated politically and democratically. Conceived in that way, the market is compatible with a humanist and Christian model of social organization. Moreover, a competitive and efficient market is compatible with the promotion of social justice.

This vision was expressed by Sandinista Renovation Movement president Dora María Téllez during a radio interview with Nicaraguan journalist William Grigsby: “My personal opinion is that there’s an excellent opportunity for Sandinismo and the country to have a government headed by Herty Lewites, which could conciliate a policy the country needs; one that could join concern for the poor with concern for investment. Let me put this way: there doesn’t have to be a dichotomy between ‘I’m concerned about investors and forget about the poor’ vs. ‘I’m concerned about the poor and forget about the investors.’ I think the country needs to concern itself with getting out of poverty and giving people better conditions, providing them with opportunities to make something of themselves. But we also need to worry about investment processes.”

There’s not one market, but many

Creating the right conditions to find the societal model we need involves recognizing that there is no such thing as “The Market,” but rather different models of relations between state, market and society. This is shown, for example, in the important differences in the models of relations among these three elements in Canada, Europe and the United States. Similarly there are differences between the social function of the market in Costa Rica, Guatemala or Nicaragua. And the differences between all these models are determined by the development of civil rights in each society.

In Nicaragua, a leftist program would have to promote our population’s political organization to generate a social power capable of democratizing first the power of the state and then, through the state, the power of the market. This means that our democracy must stop being a simple electoral exercise and instead become an ongoing construction of collective aspirations, out of which would emerge the genuine social consensus the country needs—one that transcends the elitist visions of the groups currently controlling power, which don’t share the existential drama of being poor in Nicaragua.

The Nicaraguan Left must deal with the evident and inevitable tensions and contradictions between market freedom and social justice because doing so means accepting the fundamental challenge of democracy. Not doing it is to succumb to the temptation of political purism, which is the natural ally of coercion. As Dora María Téllez put it: “For some people on the left, simply mentioning the market brands you a capitalist sell-out. There’s not enough pluck among leftists to stand up to that and study these issues in depth, which is why much of the Left prefers not to work on programs at all but to stick to a strong, familiar, radical discourse, a ‘revolutionist’ discourse, as Lenin called it, because it’s comforting to hear in these times” (envío, February 2005).

The common good has to
establish the market’s limits

Democratic thinking has been an ongoing attempt to integrate and balance capitalist instrumental rationality with the substantive rationality that democracy derived from Christian social ethics. In its most concrete expression, this tries to establish an appropriate balance between the principle of individual liberties—including those that capitalists require to operate within the market—and the principle of social justice that promotes respect for human dignity as an absolute principle.

Hence, democratic thinking fundamentally promotes individual liberties within the framework of a social contract. In this sense, it is an attempt to promote market freedom within limits designed to protect the common good.

In Nicaragua, the second poorest and most malnourished country on the American continent, the main objective of the definition of common good has to be the resolution of the problem of poverty. And for that, the market and market liberty must be framed within ethical conditions that facilitate the organization of a “war economy” to combat hunger, because market freedom cannot be conceived as unrestricted liberty. As the vast majority of Western Liberal theoreticians note, the market does not generate the kind of values that make democratic coexistence and the development and consolidation of civil rights possible.

The NDP is an example of
an unfettered market

The Left’s economic vision is radically different from the neoliberal vision of the Nicaraguan Right. Neoliberalism defends the market’s instrumental rationality as the logic that must define society’s organization. That rationality is blind to social injustice, environmental degradation and the loss of human dignity.

One example of the neoliberal vision is the failed National Development Plan (NDP) designed by the Bolaños government with the active participation of then treasury minister and now presidential aspirant Eduardo Montealegre. Its central argument is that the promotion of entrepreneurial competitiveness must form the independent variable to which all elements of Nicaragua’s social equation must be adjusted. Thus, social justice, unemployment, income distribution, local development and national territorial planning are treated as dependent variables that must respond to the guiding market-centered logic. Even the future of small and medium rural and urban producers depends on their capacity to position themselves as components of the “clusters” organized by the business sectors with greater transnational capacity.

Neither Milton Friedman’s ideas
nor Bolaños’ NDP are Christian

The humanist ethic that orients the Left must be based on a “substantive” rationality rooted in social and humanist principles that are democratically articulated and promoted. From a substantive perspective, the good or ill of an action must be measured not by its material results or degree of efficacy, but by its adherence to fundamental principles such as solidarity, social justice and human dignity.

The Left’s rationality is not different from the Christian ethic. For example, paragraph 1931 of the Catholic Church Catechism states, “Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that “everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as ‘another self,’ above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.”

In the framework of an instrumental rationality, the possibility of a dignified life depends on the individual’s capacity to successfully operate within the market. The rationality that must underpin the Left’s humanist thinking, on the other hand, establishes that people’s dignity is the independent variable to which the organization of the economy and society must be adapted.

The coincidences between Christianity and progressive Leftist thinking are clear. Paragraph 1881 of the Catechism tells us that “Each community is defined by its purpose and consequently obeys specific rules; but “the human person... is and ought to be the principle, the subject and the end of all social institutions.” From this perspective, economic models must be formulated on behalf of human dignity, which is not what is proposed by neoliberal guru Milton Freedom or the authors of the Bolaños government’s NDP. For Friedman and the Bolaños technocrats, society and its needs must adjust to the logic of models that guarantee the reproduction of capital.

In all the world’s religions

It is important to clarify that the values of all the world’s religions offer reference points for the creation of alternatives to neoliberalism. Important efforts are being developed today to articulate a “global ethic” rooted in the basic principles of the world’s great religions as an alternative to the neoliberal ethic. One of the most notable efforts in this respect is the resolution “Toward a Global Ethic,” approved by the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1993. It was drafted by dissident Catholic theologian Hans Küng, who chairs the Foundation for a Global Ethic.

In Küng’s words, the aim is not to make this proposal “a new ideology” or “superstructure.” The proposal simply “weaves together humanity’s common religious-philosophical resources” to offer the world a rationality that allows us to understand and define the meaning of our existence.

Do we sacrifice justice or freedom?

It would be absurd to propose that democratic political thinking and the experiences it sustains have succeeded in establishing an ideal and universal formula that reconciles the tensions and contradictions inevitably produced by any attempt to balance individual liberties and the market with the principles of social justice. In this sense, the value of democratic political thinking does not lie in its capacity to end these tensions and contradictions but simply in its willingness to accept the challenge of understanding and reconciling them. On the flip side, totalitarianism and neoliberalism are social strategies aimed at resolving them once and for all.

The results of this reductionist absolutism have always been disastrous: totalitarian thinking “resolves” the tensions between individual freedom and social justice by sacrificing freedom, while neoliberal thinking does so by sacrificing justice. Democratic political thinking must take on the challenge of positioning the market in the framework of a social contract that justly reflects the rights and obligations of all Nicaraguans. Developing this thinking involves transcending the materialist reductions established from their respective sides by neoliberalism and totalitarianism disguised as socialism. It means developing the capacity to avoid the “politics of conviction” and promote the “politics of responsibility.”

The ethic of conviction:
Absolute faith, dogmas and coercion

In his famous essay “Politics as Vocation,” Max Weber identifies two different kinds of ethic or rationality that could serve to guide political action and the government function: “the ethic of conviction,” expressed in the inflexible and unconditional defense of absolute values and principles, and the “ethic of responsibility,” which combines elements of conviction with the flexibility required to achieve positions of democratic consensus.

The ethic of conviction is not democratic. Democracy requires an ethic of responsibility. From this perspective, the democratic state is not one that imposes a determined ethical position any way it wants. It rather operates on behalf of substantive values—such as social justice—while also recognizing the need to defend and promote those values respecting the individual rights of all. Seen in this way, a democratic leftist government is one that develops the capacity to achieve just and adequate social results by recognizing, balancing and conciliating conflicting interests and positions.

The ethic of conviction—typical of totalitarian political organizations and religious organizations that function based on dogmatic principles—is an absolute ethic with no room for divergence. One believes or doesn’t. One is or isn’t. This ethic justified the torture and burning of thousands of “heretics” who professed or preached doctrines contrary to the Catholic Church dogmas. That same ethic justified the human rights violations of the Sandinista revolution.

The ethic of responsibility:
Values and flexibility

The ethic of responsibility is nourished by convictions and values, but those convictions are open to all positions and proposals articulated and expressed within the legally-established processes of democratic political participation. The state’s job is to consider these positions and balance them on behalf of a democratically articulated common good.

The common good cannot be constructed as a reflection of the ethical and social vision of a political party or church or particular interest group. In democratic conditions, the common good is the expression of popular will, conditioned, ordered and limited by the values and principles of democratic, humanist and Christian tradition that permitted the replacement of the divine authority of medieval Europe’s kings by the modern principle of people’s sovereignty.

The poisonous recipe of electoral
democracy without social consensus

The articulation of a modern political thinking able to create and consolidate a shared national future must be seen as an effort to create a modern and democratic contractual vision of politics that moves beyond the use of both coercion—the main instrument of governments and groups that follow the ethic of conviction—and pacts—the political technology of our country’s prevailing pragmatic, resigned and opportunistic thinking and culture.

This “contractualism” is a mechanism for integrating the interests and aspirations of the different sectors of Nicaraguan society. We’re not talking about a pact of elites, or of rigged centrisms. It is rather an effort to achieve genuine representation of the rights and obligations of the social groups that make up our potential nation, and then translate them into a model of state, market and society that offers us a shared horizon and destiny. Building this consensus is the antidote with which to transcend electoral democracy without social consensus, that poisonous recipe we analyzed in part 1 of this series (envío, August 2005).

As we pointed out, 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 on the relations among state, market and society. In turn, the legitimacy of that consensus depends on its capacity to integrate the interests and aspirations of society’s different sectors fairly.

In Nicaragua, the articulation of a genuine national consensus requires a strong and legitimized leftist movement that democratically defends the rights of the poor and vulnerable sectors through dialogue, debate and the country’s democratic processes. To achieve this objective the democratic Left has to win the next elections, or at least obtain strong enough representation in the National Assembly to promote the reorganization of our societal model.

A Right without vision or thought

A leftist position geared to defend the interests of society’s weakest sectors would have to be able to attain and maintain the democratic support of the vast majority of Nicaragua’s society, because that vast majority is poor and excluded. Far more difficult would be convincing the country’s elites to participate in the collective sacrifice that needs to be made by all Nicaraguans living in the country and all those who form part of the Nicaraguan diaspora to pull the country out of its poverty.

The Nicaraguan Right is one of the most backward political sectors in all of Latin America. It has absolutely no vision or thinking, which explains why it has been unable to understand that protecting its own interests requires an effort and a sacrifice to save the country and save its poor from their impoverishment.

Neither Nicaragua’s conservatism nor its liberalism survived the 20th century. The first disappeared under the weight of its inability to generate a vision and a thinking for Nicaragua. For its part, liberalism has degenerated into an illegitimate conspiracy to commit crimes, despite its continued formal legal existence. Both groups abandoned the doctrinal aspirations that facilitated their emergence after Independence and ceased thinking. By 1867 they had already become what Enrique Guzmán called “party-gangs,” organizations with “no other common denominator than their blind adhesion to any old tin-pot caudillo and his small-minded interests.

“Not in the ecstasy of enthusiasm
but in the principle of utility”

It should be said, however, that there have been rightwing intellectuals and politicians who have been able to look beyond their own immediate interests. In the 19th century, Pedro Francisco de la Rocha made a resounding critique of the “idealism” of his era’s Liberals from an elitist, Conservative and utilitarian perspective. He went on to propose a social order rooted in a consensus of interests among the dominant classes, which should consider the need to promote the development of the popular classes.

“Until such time as the combination of their respective interests is achieved in the Republic, and the various elements involved in the composition of a state are put into equilibrium,” he argued, “it is impossible to recover their aplomb.” To support his argument, he cited another author who noted that “society’s real interests make up the common center toward which all political combinations must move; and if they should fortunately concur on this point, the legislators’ will have achieved their purpose: the duration of their laws will be ensured, not through the moral support of oaths, the efforts of virtue or the ecstasy of enthusiasm, but in the natural, simple, permanent principle of the laws’ own utility.”

De la Rocha was much more sophisticated than the vast majority of politicians and intellectuals of his time. His views are conservative, since his vision of order was fundamentally geared to the preservation and defense of the interests of the dominant classes, to which he attributes qualities that they never demonstrated. But his thinking followed the same formula that generated the conditions for consolidating order in countries such as Argentina, Costa Rica and Chile in the 19th century: the articulation of a “harmonic unity” based on a balance of interests among society’s “different social elements” and not the “oaths” and abstract and declamatory values held up by the Nicaraguan Liberal elites after Independence.

Not for love of one’s neighbor,
but for the good of the country

De la Rocha’s contractualist vision of politics recognized the need to integrate the popular classes into a national structure of interests and aspirations. From his elitist and utilitarian perspective, the construction of a genuine national society made it indispensable for the state to pay attention to the education and material progress of the “lowest classes,” not out of any abstract human sentiment of solidarity or love of one’s neighbor, but because the preservation of order and well-being of the country required it. His conservatism argued for improving the conditions of the marginalized classes as a practical and necessary measure for developing the state, the Nicaraguan nation and the very interests of the dominant classes he represented.

In the 19th century, Carlos Cuadra Pasos represents another example of an elitist and conservative vision that saw the nation’s progress and well-being as compatible with the interests of the dominant classes. Cuadra’s contractualist political vision was in direct contrast to the “sect spirit” that informed General Emiliano Chamorro’s political action.

A careful reading of Cuadra Pasos’ speech after he presided over Emiliano Chamorro’s Presidential inauguration reveals the different political visions of the two Conservative leaders: “My hands have placed on your chest the colors of the nation, the symbol of supreme authority, whose most difficult exercise you must commit to in pursuit of that delicate equilibrium between the imperious dominion of force that conquers respect and the flexibilities of character necessary to win love, which is also force. Because as a great thinker has said, in these modern times of democracy, governing is not only commanding, it also is convincing; it involves imbuing the general spirit with your conviction, procuring that the adhesion of the majority makes the action that you direct strong and resistant.”

Cuadra Pasos’ position here is framed within a modern thinking that recognized that constructing social order required transforming “power into law and obedience into authority.” He understood order as a balance of interests that is democratically legitimated via the articulation of a social consensus. For Emiliano Chamorro, on the other hand, power derived from the force of arms, or from the political force born of the capacity to manipulate the masses or the prevailing political system.

The weight of US intervention

US military intervention, which began with the overthrow of President José Santos Zelaya and ultimately brought us the Somoza dynasty, annulled the Nicaraguan parties’ political volition and their weak philosophical and doctrinal bases. As a result, Nicaraguan politics turned into a party dispute aimed at obtaining US support to reach power. In those conditions, political parties limited themselves to interpreting the will of the governments in Washington and defending particular interests within the limited frame of action imposed by the United States.

Somocismo exploited the political sterilization of Nicaragua’s party structure and the dependent relation created by the intervention to organize a regime rooted in its capacity to adapt—pragmatically, resignedly and opportunistically—to the framework of action imposed by US foreign policy in Latin America.

Militarization, commercialization,
a vacuum and uncertainty

Nicaraguan poet and historian José Coronel Urtecho highlighted the Nicaraguan parties’ political and doctrinal involution by noting that Nicaragua had undergone a process of “militarization and commercialization” ever since Moncada took office in 1929, but especially after Somoza García came to power in 1937. He argued that the consequences of this dual process had been the “near total de-intellectualizing and even de-culturizing of politics and of Nicaraguan life itself.” Effectively, with the rise and consolidation of the Somoza family regime, the Liberal Party completely abandoned its doctrinal pretensions to become, as Edgardo Buitrago put it, “a praxis, a way of governing and administrating.”

Some of Somoza’s own followers recognized the depoliticizing of the party. In an article published by the pro-government newspaper Novedades, Gerardo Suárez López underscored the ideological, philosophical and doctrinal poverty of Somocista liberalism: “Doctrine is the basis of any political party in or out of power. And when it has governmental responsibilities, its ideological relationship over the masses, over the cadres who respond to the call for a disciplined organization consistent with its power over the majority, becomes even more urgent. Nicaraguan liberalism needs a more intellectual and doctrinal relationship between its middle-level cadres and the people. This relationship and knowledge is so urgent that the youth are turning to other political systems and doctrines, because we have left a vacuum and produced uncertainty among the young militants who have no consistent basis for their doctrinal and philosophical foundation.”

Conservatism is likewise without
political values or philosophy

Over this same period, the Conservative Party became a collaborationist grouping also bereft of political values or philosophy. Carlos Cuadra Pasos confirmed this when he commented that in its “constant and laborious fighting,” it had turned into “a grouping of pure actions, with great courage in its movement, but narrow horizons in its paths. It has moved and is moving in response to immediate events, and is externalizing into actions devoid of historic transcendence and light on thinking.”

Enrique Alvarado Martínez, another distinguished Conservative figure, confirmed Cuadra Pasos’ appraisals when he noted how during Somocismo, “conservatism as a doctrine existed in few men, intellectuals of a certain ideological depth who frequently debated the meaning of the famous conservative triangle: God, Order and Justice.” Alvarado added that during the Somoza period affiliation to the Conservative Party was determined “by emotional factors of repudiation of the Somoza regime.” These members, he went on to say, were ignorant of the party’s statutes and postulates, as in fact were those who occupied leadership positions within the organization. “Therefore,” he concluded, “anyone who uttered the words ‘I’m a Conservative’ was simply and comfortably admitted [into the party].”

“Noise, bizarre occurrences
and verbal fecundity”

The coming to power of Anastasio Somoza García installed a dictatorship and what Leonardo Argüello, one of the last enlightened Liberals, called an “imaginative-instinctive” regime. Echoing Santiago Argüello’s explanation of fetishism, he explains that this regime “affirmed the inclination for improvisation, selfish and anti-social ends, fortuitousness, creations of alluvion, violence in unheard-of forms, everything that impoverishes men’s consciousness to the point of considering the state a resource for solvency; inferior or infantile desires in which an outstandingly sentient psyche predominates over a thinking one.”

He concluded that “the predominance of fantasy, the scant cerebral concentration make it hard in a determined medium to forge a modern type of investigator of causes, of statesman instructed in the business of state…, a subject who gets to the bottom of things to discover the law and thus understand his life.”

And he pleaded: “It’s time to exploit our vitality, put an end to the drawn-out adolescent, declamatory and ostentatious age that presumes erudition and pontificates, almost unaided by information, from which nothing deep or positive emerges, just noise and bizarre occurrences of sick verbal fecundity. ‘Temperament man’ should make way for ‘judgment man’ to offer no more contradictions or contrasts between established theory and faultless attitude at every step.”

From the reign of passions
to the reign of interests

There are no thinkers of the stature of a De la Rocha, a Cuadra Pasos or a Leonardo Argüello in today’s Nicaraguan Right. The Right in power is saturated with slick political operators such as René Herrera and Enrique Quiñónez, corrupt “temperament men” like Arnoldo Alemán and sell-outs with no national soul like Enrique Bolaños. And the Right that aspires to power is made up of card-carrying neoliberals with no imagination like Eduardo Montealegre and ultra-careful, slippery and noncommittal figures like José Rizo and José Antonio Alvarado.

If it is to modernize, Nicaragua’s Right must convert the impassioned and religious defense of its world vision into an intellectual and political articulation of its economic and social interests. According to Albert Hirschman’s brilliant analysis, the move from the reign “of passions” to the reign of “interests” was a fundamental moment in capitalist development. Hirschman argues that capitalism could not have developed without the transformation of the passions of ambition and avarice into what we know today as politics and trade, respectively.

The elevation of passions to the category of legitimate political and commercial interests made it possible to consolidate capitalism starting in the mid-16th century. This would never have happened within the scheme of medieval religious values that condemned greed for material possessions as a deadly sin.

In Nicaragua, the Right never managed to transform its instinctive and impassioned defense of power into a modern political rationality and justification for the protection of its interests. De la Rocha and Cuadra were solitary swallows in a world dominated by coercion and a fetishistic and medieval religiosity frequently used by the Right to defend its privileges in God’s name.

The Right’s ideological bankruptcy
is a problem for the Left

De la Rocha’s world was vividly described in a letter written by a Nicaraguan to US journalist and diplomat Ephraim George Squier after the latter’s visit in 1849: “The so-called educated men [in Nicaragua] are together with the most important part of the population a natural product of the environment and of their own impulses, and thus inconsistent. With such paltry education they come to power enabled only to do damage instead of performing those functions that are the logical product of culture, of reason.”

Cuadro Pasos lived in an environment marked by Conservative leader Emiliano Chamorro’s visceral anti-intellectualism. To get an idea of Chamorro’s cultural development, it suffices to mention that the caudillo used the word “theory” as a synonym for “mistaken.” In his inaugural speech in 1926, for example, he lamented that the United States had condemned the revolt that had brought him to power, further noting that its opposition to his “popular movement” was due to “theoretical appreciations of Washington’s treaties.”

Having failed to assimilate the contractualist Conservative vision proposed by such ideologues as De la Rocha and Cuadra Pasos, the Nicaraguan Right is now politically adrift, incapable of competing in the capitalist game even with its Central American equivalents; a class whose survival depends on its capacity to kowtow submissively to the United States, its subordination to transnational capital and its ability to badly translate the economic and social prescriptions produced in English by the international financial institutions.

It may seem crazy, but it has to be said: the Left’s modernization depends on the modernization of the Right. The Left needs to find right-wing interlocutors capable of thinking in national terms as a way of protecting its own class interests. It may seem absurd, but in our absurd national political reality this is a task the Left must undertake if it is to construct a project of social justice.

Not capitalism nor
individualism nor centrism

The modernization of the Left must be seen as an effort to develop a comprehensive vision of society that permits the conciliation of the interests and aspirations of the different sectors of our national community. This vision must include a definition of the necessary relationship among the values of social justice, individual rights and liberties, democracy and the market.

Recognizing the fundamental value of individual rights and liberties as indispensable for any kind of social or collective right does not mean proposing individualism as a philosophy for our society. Quite the opposite. We have to propose using individual rights as a basis for building a just society, for transcending the social limits imposed by liberal democracy and neoliberalism.

Similarly, recognizing the importance of the market and legitimacy of market freedom does not amount to proposing capitalism as the guiding rationality behind the organization of our state and society. The market can function within a society and a state organized to transcend the limits of liberal democracy and fight the savage capitalism promoted by neoliberalism.

Nor should this proposal be confused with what some call “centrism.” This concept has generated a “vain show of words” in our country. Retired Sandinista Army chief Humberto Ortega proposes centrism “to find centered positions,” while former contra leader nee former Sandinista Edén Pastora says that “the center is God. But centrism doesn’t actually exist!” Sandinista landowner Ricardo Coronel Kautz’s contribution to the debate is that the Center “adds up to zero.” In this enormous confusion, we have no way of knowing if Coronel Kautz is referring to the number or to Pastora, known during the insurrection as Comandante Cero...

Where is this “centrism” taking us?

Humberto Ortega’s proposed centrism is not a concept with any theoretical or philosophical value. It’s merely a slogan that invites Nicaraguan society to occupy a mid-point between the two dominant forces in the country—in other words, pactism by a different name. It is crude pragmatism and unvarnished relativism because it fails to establish—or even mention—the values underpinning it.

Ortega’s centrism simply proposes an equilibrium between our society’s “political and ideological forces,” which could translate into almost any barbarity: a mid-point between Arnoldo Alemán’s corruption and Daniel Ortega’s hyper-pragmatism; or between the ethical values of a Bryon Jerez and Lenín Cerna’s respect for Nicaraguans’ human rights; or the political backwardness of the PLC and the FSLN. And this could either balance out or double up the backwardness of the two parties.

I leave it to the reader to decipher the normative position and values of centrism in the following description offered by Humberto Ortega: “I propose centrism as a focal point of action and conduct to better manage our society’s profound differences and contradictions, including the antagonistic ones that exist both between the political and ideological forces and within each one of them. A centrism that is a civilized means of political behavior that facilitates the finding of centered positions from the Right or the Left, the production of a national program to intensify our current democratic process through transparent and ongoing dialogue for political consensus and agreement harmoniously instrumentalized between the powers, some for the long hul and others for today, in the framework of the rule of law. A centrism conducted with ethics and humanism, strengthening modernism through ethical and esthetic sensitivity, realizing ourselves spiritually without reducing what is modern to the importance of technique, or the market to monopolistic selfishness, or the state to damaging paternalism, or politics to amoral politicking.”

A socialism in liberty:
How far can we go?

The modernization of the Left does not translate into acceptance of capitalism, a celebration of individualism, or the mental confusion of centrism. It represents an effort to reformulate its political and strategic sense, democratizing its content and adapting it to the challenges that Nicaragua faces today, without modifying its ethical position with respect to power and poverty. Thus, it is neither pragmatism nor resignation because the Left’s fundamental objective must continue to be the expansion of social justice. But to consolidate genuine justice, it must accept the challenge of reconciling that value with liberty and individual rights.

Only that way will it be able to consolidate a socialism in freedom that must legitimately and democratically promote the rights of humanity. How far? As far as the ethical development of humanity, our intelligence and the complexity of biological and social life allow us to go.

Piece by piece, with humility and patience

To progress with this process, to really appreciate “how far,” the Nicaraguan Left must unite. And it must open up to all those Socialists, Christians, Buddhists, humanists and others who reject capitalist selfishness as the natural condition of human beings. The Left must open itself to young Nicaraguans, with their new problems and their own ways of expressing their discontent with the reign of corruption and injustice they inherited. It must open itself up to avoid making the Left a gang of thieves, a congregation of devils disguised as saints and of the depersonalized devout. It must open up to avoid the old leftist identity being seen as an indelible tattoo acquired during adolescence, and so painful and hard to get rid of.

The opening and reunification of the Nicaraguan Left, especially the Sandinista Left, must take place under the sign of internal democracy. No more fetishes, no more paper idols, no more uniforms that smash people’s consciousness.

In this issue of envío, Dora María Téllez answers the question of how to unite so many dispersed Sandinistas. “Our challenge is to work like Guatemalan indigenous craftspeople when they make those patchwork quilts. We have to build unity little piece by little piece, understanding that we will be left with a mosaic that makes a whole. The first thing to recognize with real humility if we are to have any hope of threading ourselves back together is that there are many, many pieces that have been scattered all over the place. There’s nothing easy about it, because we come from the school of Sandinismo of recent years, where we learned the lessons of authoritarianism, sectarianism, exclusion, caudillismo. These vices didn’t and don’t affect just the top levels; we’ve all had them. Now we have to go through a process of reunion and reflection. Let’s hope we’re wise enough to sew together all the pieces and make a single, but pluralist whole. Any hegemonic pretension right now would destroy this work. What I see today is the possibility of reunifying Sandinismo from a genuinely Sandinista option. We’re experiencing a real reunion, which makes this a golden opportunity. And if we don’t do a good job we’ll be responsible for Nicaragua’s loss.”

Nicaragua’s recent history teaches us that, unfortunately, one can be leftist today and rightist tomorrow; a hero today and a vulgar opportunist tomorrow. Because the Left isn’t an acquired label, but rather an attitude to life and power that is formed, forged, constructed and stitched together, day after day, with willingness, humility, values and intelligence.

Andrés Pérez Baltodano is a Nicaraguan professor of political science in Canada and an envío collaborator. Parts 1 and 2 of this study were published in the August and October issues of envío (volume 24, numbers 289 and 291.)

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