Sandinista Defense Committees (Cdss): Impressions After Four Years Of Existence
In Nicaragua today, when people talk about culture, adult education, health campaigns, political consciousness-raising, national defense (militia, voluntary night watch), food distribution and price monitoring, street construction, control of the state apparatus, etc., the conversation inevitably involves the CDSs.
About 400,000 people throughout the country are organized into CDSs. What are they? Who participates in the CDSs and who doesn’t? What have been their successes, their problems of organization and operation?
In almost all of our previous Envíos, the CDSs have been mentioned in various contexts, but we have never prepared an article specifically devoted to the topic. Everyone knows something about a CDS but not enough to say, “this is what a CDS is”. What are the obstacles that stand in the way of a more general understanding of the CDSs? The principal problems appear to be two:
1- Everyone, young and old, men and women, party members and non-members, businessmen and workers, Catholics, Protestants and atheists, can participate in a CDS. This means that all of the contradictions and problems of the society are encountered and reflected in this form of organization: class distinctions, differences in education, unequal levels of participation in the insurrection, conflicts between generations, different points of view on the current problems that Nicaragua faces, etc. For this reason CDSs are very heterogeneous in composition and permanently subject to transformation.
2- The CDSs have a multitude of tasks, functions and responsibilities to perform, something which is problematic for a country that, although victorious in insurrection, still contains a majority of people brought up under and conditioned by centuries of exploitation and servitude. In such a system, any attempt at collective organizations was obstructed and attacked, people’s only frame of reference was the family, and “no one was obliged to look out for the welfare of his/her neighbor”.
Although the CDS are organizational structures for the people, the above-mentioned factors limit the ability to form a detailed outline that would describe all CDSs. It is almost necessary to analyze each one to obtain its exact definition. In spite of that, there are general lines and objectives in these mass organizations which respond to a more global political understanding.
MASAYA: A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS OF TWO CDSs.What are the present tasks of the CDSs, born in September, 1978, during the insurrection, which helped to cut short the life of the Somoza dynasty? How do the CDSs function in poor barrios as opposed to those in more affluent neighborhoods? In order to establish some comparisons, we visited Masaya, a city located 18 miles southeast of Managua, which contains some 75,000 inhabitants. One of Masaya’s barrios, Monimbó, is renowned for its high level of participation at every stage of the revolutionary process.
Masaya is not an industrial city. Strictly speaking, it has only four factories (chickens, shoes, metal products and pharmaceuticals) employing barely 1,000 workers. The economic activity which makes Masaya famous throughout Nicaragua is the manufacture of shoes, clothing and such handcrafted articles as hammocks, leather and wicker goods, and furniture. The majority of the population works in the artisan and service sectors: for example, the city contains approximately 3,000 shoemakers. Many of the town’s residents also own small pieces of land. Masaya, then, is essentially a city of small proprietors.
Nevertheless, the city is highly stratified. Poor neighborhoods like Monimbó stand in stark contrast to neighborhoods of the middle and upper classes. The Revolution has tried, through its economic programs, to make such differences less marked.
The indigenous barrio of Monimbó was completely marginalized under Somocismo. Since the victory, with the organization of artisan cooperatives and the establishment of sales outlets, economic conditions for the people in Monimbó have improved. Nevertheless, particular factors still exist (the fact that it is an indigenous barrio, that very close family ties exist that do not easily open up to people from outside, that there are certain feelings of inferiority in comparison to other barrios and areas of the city) which give the barrio a very unique personality. It was doubtlessly some of these same factors, combined with the severe exploitation to which it was subjected under Somocismo, that changed Monimbó into a bastion of the anti-dictatorial struggle par excellence.
The Barrio of San Juan is clearly different from Monimbó. Although it is also comprised, for the most part, of small proprietors, these are dedicated to production of handcrafted items, for the national and international market, which are of a higher quality, more luxurious and more expensive than those produced in Monimbó. Production there is aimed at the internal market within the barrio and possibly to the city of Masaya. It is this factor which gives the two barrios a clearly distinct configuration and determines their socio-economic characteristic.
Through interviews with the CDS coordinators in the two different neighborhoods of Monimbó and San Juan, we attempted to gather some impressions regarding the organizational structure and the tasks of the CDS and the particular variations which come from the diversity of the social bases in which they are organized.
The CDS in MonimbóWe spoke first with Sebastián, 35 years old, a shoemaker in Monimbó. The following excerpts from our interview refer only to the organizational structure and functions of the CDS in this barrio.
Question: Can you tell us what the task of a CDS coordinator is?
Sebastián: It’s to coordinate, for one block, the work of all the sections, namely, culture, publicity, health, sports, defense of the economy and social defense. Each section has its own job to do. For example, Social Defense is responsible for guaranteeing night watch and setting up reserve militia battalions. Defense of the Economy is charged with resolving all the problems relating to supply of basic grains and sugar. It checks retail prices to see that they are not altered. It also sees how prices can be lowered or how to supply a specific store with items that it is lacking. The Publicity section calls meetings, puts up posters, maintains the barrio’s bulletin board, and arranges rallies. Sports does the organizing of the “chavalos” (youth), adults, the baseball players – anything that has to do with sports. The General Coordinator sees to it that all these jobs really get done effectively, that the “compas” do them. The organizational structure of the block is repeated throughout the barrio. There’s a barrio committee which is also made up of a coordinator and seven secretaries. Each block section gets together and communicates with the respective section in the barrio committee. Thus, for example, the barrio committee’s secretary for culture meets with all those responsible for culture at the block level. In our barrio there are about 40 blocks, and the coordinator of each barrio section meets with about 30 people. We coordinators have meetings of our own in which we discuss general guidelines for our work.
Sebastián then explained to us that in every meeting there is an agenda, that each meeting begins with a report form each secretary and ends with a discussion of “miscellaneous points”. These include the problems about which the residents of that block are complaining so that they can be brought up at the meeting of the Barrio Committee.
Question: The CDSs have been defined as “the eyes and ears of the Revolution”. What does that mean?
Sebastián: The CDSs were created to be the “eyes and ears of the Revolution”, because when the revolution began, the Comandantes, the leaders, could not keep track of all of the problems in the barrios and the departments. And after the revolution, there were, and still are, Somocistas, people compromised by the dictatorship, in factories and government offices. In part, the CDSs were created so that we could keep an eye on those people and know what they were up to. But that’s not the job of the Coordinator and the secretaries, just those seven people, it’s the job of all the people in the organization. For example, on my block I meet with 40 others. These 40 have to keep an eye on things because it’s ridiculous to think that I could keep everything under control by myself.
Sebastián then began to tell us of a foreman of a community project to construct a drainage culvert. Each morning he arrived at the job and then went to a nearby bar where he spent the whole day drinking, without paying any attention to how the workers were doing. A member of the CDS took a complaint to the Barrio Committee. In fifteen days the foreman was called in to meet with the Engineer responsible for the project and the functionaries of the Municipal Junta, who all discussed the situation. The foreman was immediately replaced in his job.
“We are not going to knock those who are really working, just those who are directly boycotting the reconstruction,” said Sebastián. He added, with respect to monitoring state functionaries and workers, “we need to watch out to see that all the state workers are doing their job. If we see someone messing up it’s our obligation to make it known.” Sebastián pointed out other examples of functionaries who had to be criticized for irregularities, such as the improper use of state vehicles, etc. He also told us of a problem which arose in an outlet for selling basic grains. The CDS gave 70,000 córdobas to a man to set up the stall. No one asked him for an accounting of the money for two years since he had their complete confidence. After two years, an inventory showed that he only had 2000 córdobas in cash. He could give no explanation of what happened to the money and was sent to jail.
Some comments: The work of the CDSs are many and varied and include the way that they monitor local and national functionaries. (The local Reconstruction Junta has an active role in awarding contracts for infrastructure and construction projects for the city.) The monitoring exerted by the CDS is indicative of “pressure from below” which can be brought about by the participation of the people such as happened in Monimbó. That participation in a barrio with the above-mentioned characteristics signifies that the residents consider the CDSs effective and appropriate channels through which to make their demands known.
Examples given by Sebastián illustrate the meaning of the phrase, “the eyes and ears of the Revolution”, in reference to the CDSs. That concept is part of the definition that the Sandinista Front of National Liberation gives the role of the CDSs. For the FSLN, the CDSs should be structures that continuously keep an eye on the revolutionary process in its diverse facets: reactionaries in the barrios, grassroots leaders, state functionaries in their public activities, etc.
The Nicaraguan Government also recognizes the CDSs as a valid voice and representative of the people as a whole. It is significant that in the Council of State, the CDSs have the most numerous representation, with nine representatives. They even outnumber the FSLN delegation, which is the second largest group, with six delegates.
The CDS in the Barrio of San Juan (Masaya)We found considerable differences in the Barrio of San Juan which, as we pointed out earlier, is also made up of small artisan proprietors, but with greater economic resources, more ties to national and even international commerce and thus benefited by a more intense economic activity. In San Juan there are also professionals, medium-size businessmen, state functionaries and professors.
While in Monimbó participation in a CDS is almost routine, in San Juan coordinators have to struggle against considerable political apathy and attitudes which are substantially individualistic. Collective projects get little support.
We spoke with Juan José, a young artisan who is the CDS Coordinator of the barrio. For professional reasons, Juan José moved to Masaya from Chinandega (in the western part of the country) five years ago. In 1979 he joined a union which was affiliated with the Sandinista Workers’ Central. In 1980, however, he become self-employed and, instead of working for the union, began working with the CDS.
“After July 19 I saw that we were undergoing a revolutionary process which would bring many advances in the social, political and cultural fields. I felt a need to participate, to grow politically. My origins are proletarian – my father is a carpenter, my mother is from a campesino family.”
In our conversation we tried to learn something of the evolution of the CDS in San Juan, the motivations and social composition of its participants, and the organization’s activities. We also tried to make some comparison with the situation in Monimbó.
Juan José told us that after July 19, 1979, people from all social sectors participated in the CDS meetings. “People here are very spontaneous and show a lot of curiosity.” Eight or ten months later, however, although the level of participation continued to be good, numerous personality conflicts arose that created internal disputes and made it almost impossible for work to continue. That was when the CDS disintegrated in San Juan.
Question: What were the people’s motives for participating in the CDS? In contrast to Monimbó, here people seem to have almost everything – no economic problems, paved streets, etc.
Juan José: The CDS was a novelty. I’m not sure exactly what people were looking for. Some were simply opportunists who may have felt a certain guilt about their dealings with the dictatorship. Others perhaps believed that through the CDS certain problems could be solved. It’s a question of awareness. Others wanted to find out what people were saying about them, for now and then they would be accused of being Somocistas.
After the first failure of our CDS, only people with economic difficulties came – workers, artisans, employees. And they stayed, because a lot of them had social problems, for example with the supply of basic grains and sugar. They knew that the CDS could offer them some kind of solution. And they’re the ones who participate in the CDS now. The others, those who can pay for everything, don’t have these problems.
Question: Why is it that, in Monimbó, women’s participation in the CDS is much greater than men’s?
Juan José: It’s the same here, and I think I know why. Before the Revolution, in the system in which we were educated, what we call “machismo” existed, and still does. Machismo in the sense of men ordering women around. Here almost all the men tell their wives, “You go to the CDS meeting and afterward tell me what they said”.
Question: How have the tasks performed by the CDS changed since its foundation?
Juan José: The tasks of the CDS have been changing as the Revolution develops. Although there are a large number of tasks, there isn’t always enough participation to guarantee that they get done. There are even people who used to come to meetings but now refuse to participate. Here too, we suffer from problems which could be solved with greater collective participation. For example, the septic tanks. The ones we have are too small for large families. People have talked abut the problem a lot, but when we asked for help in solving it, nobody responded. Only one person was willing to work.”
When we asked Juan José if this attitude, rooted in the opportunism of some, the individualism of others, and a lack of willingness to collaborate on the part of almost all, did not discourage the coordinators, he answered, “Sure, we have a lot of problems here. But we’re optimists.”
He added that it is necessary to achieve greater participation in voluntary night watch, in civil defense, and in helping people understand that in case of an invasion not only will CDS members have to act, but everyone, just as in the pre-insurrectional period. He also remarked that it was through direct consciousness-raising campaigns, through the resolution of personal problems and conflicts, and through better coordination among the CDS coordinators that such objectives would be achieved. “We don’t want to force anyone, we want to convince them. We have no reason to be pessimistic”.
Even in the barrio of San Juan the CDS has had positive results. The turnout in the barrio for demonstrations organized in response to the joint U.S.-Honduran military maneuvers last October (Halcón Vista) was very good. In the case of the mobilizations of reserve battalions in April, again more people turned out than was expected. Participation in the health campaigns has also increased. “You can see that social awareness in this barrio has grown.” It is on this last factor and on his belief in the capacity of Nicaraguans to respond to emergencies that Juan José bases his optimism.
SOME CONCLUSIONSWe realize that we have touched upon only certain aspects of the functioning of the Sandinista Defense Committees at a specific moment and in a particular locale. Nevertheless, we will try to summarize certain constants and tendencies which we found.
1- Participation in the CDSs. The comments which Sebastián and Juan José made indicate that participation in the CDSs and their activities is greatest among the sectors with the fewest economic resources and the most severe social difficulties. The greater the economic problems that need to be resolved in common, the greater is the disposition to work and act collectively. Thus, the achievements of the CDS in Monimbó confirms the revolutionary and transformational nature of the grassroots process in Nicaragua. What Somoza never dared to promote (organization) nor resolve (the demands of the poorest) is today the policy of the Nicaraguan Government.
The attitude of watchfulness which the CDSs maintain is one of their most notable features and applies even to the State, where, at times, as Sebastián related, irresponsible actions on the part of certain functionaries take place.
The economic problems which Nicaragua faces, - in the context of a continental crisis and even a crisis of the entire Third World - problems increased by the aggressive boycott that the country is undergoing, also have their repercussions. As the government’s economic capabilities decrease, the State in reality is able to satisfy fewer and fewer demands put forward and supported by the CDSs. Thus the work of satisfying the people’s demands, for instance in regard to the promotion and development of infrastructure projects such as streets, culverts for flood control, sewage systems, etc., is limited in what it can accomplish itself. The principal task has thus become centered around the defense of the revolutionary process in the face of an imminent danger of intervention. However, CDSs do undertake certain ongoing and systematic programs such as Adult Education and Health Promotion (vaccinations, clean-up campaigns, etc.), which are maintained in spite of the economic crisis because of the priorities set by the government. These activities, in addition to efforts to shape and raise the level of political consciousness, permit a more or less permanent participation by the people in the CDSs. In the case of Monimbó, we feel that there are also certain cultural-historical-ethnic roots that support such participation, which has consolidated the self-identify of the barrio’s residents. These roots bring even greater participation when more economic demands are fulfilled. Although in general, this assessment has a certain validity, it would be incorrect to think of it as the only or the absolute perspective on the grassroots participation in the CDSs.
2- Tasks of the CDSs. Although we have already mentioned these, we feel it is important to order them in a more systematic fashion. It is important to point out that both the tasks and the order of priority given to them depend very closely on the political situation in the country at any given moment. Thus in 1980, priority was given to the Literacy Campaign, whereas in October of 1981 and in March of 1982 (under imminent threat of invasion), the greatest attention was given to national defense. Faced with the floods, which occurred in May of this year, priority was given to the functioning of Civilian Defense procedures in order to confront the catastrophe.
In addition, there are tasks which result from different needs of various barrios or sections of the country and which are derived from distinct social and economic characteristics. In Monimbó, as opposed to San Juan, community activities occupy a key place.
The most important tasks of the CDSs are:
a- Cooperation in national defense: voluntary night watch, civil defense, in collaboration with the Sandinista Army and Police.
b- Political consciousness-raising and education, in collaboration with the Government and the FSLN. Monitoring the behavior of leaders and functionaries.
c- Promotion of the Adult Education Program in collaboration with the Ministry of Education.
d- Development of Health Campaigns: health workshops, vaccinations, etc., in collaboration with the Ministry of Health.
e- Carrying our community projects in cooperation with various ministries.
f- Organization of part of the system for distributing basic foodstuffs. Monitoring and supervision of consumer prices in collaboration with the Ministry of Internal Commerce.
g- Participation in government through CDS representation on the Council of State.
3- Social and Political Functions of the CDSs: The extraordinary dynamic of the Nicaraguan revolutionary process and of the international situation in which it is inserted does not allow us to schematize the work of the CDSs. However, taking into consideration the structure of Nicaraguan society, we can say that:
a- The CDSs constitute a new form of social organization and articulation that, over time, serves to break down the traditionally personalistic and individualistic attitudes and behavior which, concentrated in the “family model”, prevailed in Nicaraguan society.
b- In so doing, the CDSs help to widen people’s sense of responsibility to the level of the barrio, the town, and the country as a whole.
c- Above all, the CDSs constitute a structure and an instrument at the disposal of the historically marginalized sectors of the population, permitting them to express their common interests and put them into practice in a dynamic fashion.
4- Problems of the CDSs. Here we might mention the characteristically “open” structure of the CDSs and, as a consequence, the heterogeneity of their participants. People’s expectations upon becoming involved in the organization, as well as their experiences in community activities, are often very different. At times, this heterogeneity clashes with the multitude of tasks which the CDSs are assigned. As can be seen in the case of barrio San Juan, in extreme situations scarcely any tasks can be carried out because the people do not come to the CDS meetings, either out of disillusionment or passivity. The lack of community interests entails another potential danger – it obliges the state to make decisions by itself, without consulting the people.
5- Summary. Given the historical background and the inexperience which characterized their origin, in addition to the multiplicity of tasks and problems cited, the achievements of the CDSs are surprising. Almost all of the successes of the revolution, in various sectors of activity, can be seen, in part, as achievements of the CDSs.
In the CDSs, ideas and proposals for increased participation in the revolutionary process and for the execution of the most diverse tasks are put forward, discussed and tried out. Because of the multitude of completely new experiences and the political maturation process which people undergo, the CDSs may be said to represent a new form of organization, in continuous consolidation, of the most basic level of Nicaragua society.
In the early days of their existence, the CDSs underwent many difficult experiences, suffering setbacks and destroying romantic illusions. Today the tasks which they assume are much more realistic, more planning is done, and efficiency is increasing. In the breadth of activities which they undertake (incorporating a wide social sector), the CDSs clearly reflect the euphoria, the illusions and dreams, and the development of a pragmatic and dynamic social and political consciousness which characterizes the Nicaraguan revolutionary process.