Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 309 | Abril 2007



Navigating the Contradiction Between democracy and Social Justice

This Sandinista intellectual points out the initial tendencies he perceives in the FSLN administration not as an FSLN militant or as an adviser to the government’s Zero Hunger program, both of which he is, but as an analyst, because he can “read the compass more adequately that way.”

Orlando Núñez

I’ve observed that in the last 16 years of neoliberal ad-ministrations, the Nicaraguan state has used a government plus transnational corporations formula. What formula do I see the state starting to apply now? Government plus associations. This doesn’t mean that corporations don’t matter now or that this government isn’t going to have corporate ties. It means that we’re in a government/associations /corporations triangle and that the government is prioritizing the link with the associations. I think that if a new kind of State can be born in Latin America, it will use this formula, prioritizing associations, not corporations. All kinds of them: political, social, cultural, civic, religious... All these groups are growing, developing and unfurling new banners in Latin America. In my view, the most important associations for achieving change will be the economic ones. It’s fundamental that we find economic subjects that can start replacing corporations and private capital. I believe that if there’s something attractive in the new government, something that can nourish our long-held hopes, it’s the relationship between government and the associations.

In the 20th century all social justice objectives were administered by socialist governments. The Soviets, which could have been the associations, the councils, never got off the ground. They didn’t work out. Socialism, the project to eliminate private capitalist property and social differentiation, was administered from the top down. History and experience show us that in Nicaragua, when we lose the presidency, executive branch power, everything goes back to how it was in just a day. In one day everything reverts to a statist model. Even in far longer experiences of market intervention than ours, such as that of the Soviet Union, which lasted eighty years, the day executive power lost, everything reverted, everything they’d built in eighty years was lost in a day.

We need new economic subjects
of people organized into associations

If we’ve now learned this lesson, we can’t put our hope of replacing capitalist relationships and of constructing a new society only in the executive branch. We’ve learned that this change depends on building new relationships of production, new economic subjects with people organized into associations. As long as there are no new economic subjects, there won’t be a new society. Each new society is new not because there’s a new government, but because there’s a new economic subject. In Nicaragua, first the middlemen left, then the landowners, then the national bourgeoisie, and finally the transnational bourgeoisie. Now we’re building a new economic subject that can make this project viable: the associated small and medium producers or the worker-managed businesses.

Nicaragua is part of the new processes happening in Latin America, which are starting from two orientations. One toward the South, toward associations. Looking southward, they provide continuity to the national liberation movements, to that self-determination we’ve sought for years, but that the Empire conditioned. The new Latin American governments are headed South, where they are looking for larger markets and for integration. And they’re doing it while rejecting the great efforts the US has made to integrate the South with the North.

The new Latin American governments are also oriented towards associations. They are looking to create economic ties not only with the large and medium private sectors, but also with associations, whose development is going to depend both on the government’s political will and on whether this new economic subject establishes itself. Because if it doesn’t establish itself, how will the government relate to it?

Venezuela is supporting
these new economic subjects

The ties between the new Government of Reconciliation and National Unity [the name the new Sandinista administration has given itself] and Venezuela’s government are moving in this direction. When I talk about “unity and national reconciliation,” I mean taking Sandinista principles out of the isolation they’ve been in for 16 years, and removing the veto that hangs over the FSLN so it can be an alternative power option in Nicaragua. Talking about reconciliation doesn’t deny the contradictions or class struggle. It means accepting consciously that reconciliation is necessary because politically organized people in the FSLN have been excluded and vetoed in Nicaragua. Reconciliation is a project that can help grassroots sectors join together, because the contradiction with Sandinismo doesn’t only exist in the Assembly. It’s found in peasants, in the working class, in self-employed people. We’re gambling on the grassroots sectors reconciling, because if they’re divided they can never defend their interests.

The FSLN’s relationship with Venezuela began before the electoral triumph of November 5, 2006. It started with an agreement between the Venezuelan government and a federation of Nicaraguan cooperatives, Nicaraocoop, to import urea from Venezuela and sell it in Nicaragua at lower prices. It’s symbolic that the relationship with Venezuela began before the FSLN took executive power and that Venezuela didn’t make this agreement with a corporation, but with an association of cooperatives that is competing with traditional economic agents using market rules. They did this and they’re winning, not because they are morally, politically or socially superior to traditional businessmen, but because they knew how to do it better economically.

A cooperative isn’t going to displace the capitalist system by being morally superior, but by being economically competitive. This economic subject called Nicaraocoop, selling urea at $7 less per quintal, has already displaced 50% of private sector urea sales in Nicaragua. That’s no small thing, because the businesses in ANIFODA have had the monopoly on urea for 40 years and during all that time only installed four distribution points in the whole country. Today, these cooperatives already have 50% of the market and 60 distribution sites after less than a year, and are now incorporating cooperatives from El Salvador. With that cooperation and solidarity, with that organization, we can out-compete the private businesses.

So we see that the turn towards the South isn’t happening only in the FSLN and the government of reconciliation and national unity. The most progressive expressions of Nicaraguan society, such as its cooperatives, are also shifting to the South. And they’re doing it in their own interests. Liberalism sold us the idea that private interests coincide with social interests. Adam Smith said that the pursuit of private interests would guarantee society’s welfare. In this case we’re seeing that the interests of these cooperatives, which aren’t completely collective or public, are indeed improving society’s conditions as a whole. It’s a sample of what was already being done before the change of government, even with an adversarial government. Because we need to remember that Norman Caldera, foreign minister during Enrique Bolaños’ administration, declared that Venezuelan urea was for making explosives and that we were dumping in unfair competition with private enterprise.

It’s very interesting to see that when the FSLN took office, instead of telling this federation of cooperatives that the state was going to administer the Venezuelan urea project, it decided that the organizations should continue administering it. Let’s privatize. We can privatize just like neoliberalism can, but not in favor of the corporations. We’ll do it in favor of the associations. The same capitalist system that favored privatizations all over the world has created the conditions for this turn towards collective privatization. But it will take more than the Sandinista government’s political will for this movement to work; associations have to exist.

In tune with the larger shift
away from government control

Not all development cooperation passes through government hands anymore. Administering development projects through private entities is already a trend. The United States has given US$172 million from the Millennium Challenge Account to the departments of León and Chinandega for the construction of highways and roads. But it didn’t do it through the government’s budget. Instead, it created a foundation of mayor’s offices and associations to administer it. This demonstrates what appears to be a trend, not an ideological issue. And it’s an interesting trend, because even though it isn’t as collective as we’d like, it opens a door towards collectivity.

Another example of something that happened before the change of government has to do with literacy work. Before November 5th, an NGO was in charge of the social task of teaching adults to read and write using the Cuban method “Yo sí puedo” (I can do it). The Sandinista administration isn’t going to take over that project. It isn’t going to make it a state project and give it over to the Education Ministry. It will assign it to the NGO that began it.

As you can see, this isn’t anything like the state’s profile in the 1980s. Another example is the food production bonus, the distribution to peasant families of a cow, a sow, chickens, seeds and a bio-digester. This project, an attempt to guarantee food security, has been administered for many years by CIPRES, an NGO. Now it’s become a state policy within the Zero Hunger program, but that same NGO will be working with the project, attracting the participation of hundreds of other NGOs that are already getting organized. There are already 130 organized NGOs with selected families in Estelí, Madriz, Nueva Segovia and rural Managua.

These three or four examples show the current trend: moving from a state with a government plus corporations profile, to one with a government plus associations profile. The fight to achieve it will be economic as well as political, and it will have to be organized not only politically, but also economically, including taking advantage of the rules imposed by the Right during these years.

Democracy and social justice
don’t always go hand in hand

In Nicaragua we’re in a transition whose principal contradiction isn’t only North-South, but Democracy-Social Justice. Democracy is a political way of managing society. If the society is capitalist, a good democracy will administer that society well. But administering a capitalist society well won’t make everyone happy, even if that administration is ethical, transparent, representative, effective governance. Because if the society is capitalist, governance will also be capitalist. On the other side we have social justice, which means transforming reality. Years ago it didn’t matter to us how we transformed it, we just prioritized change. Social justice was the end and we didn’t worry about the means. In this new government, we’re trying to transform and create social justice from a more democratic perspective. But there are contradictions. If I ask people in Managua if they’re willing to reduce their water use so there can be more water in Juigalpa or in Río Coco, they’re going to tell me no. If I tell teachers that we’re going to give the money for their salary increases to peasants, who are poorer than they are, the teachers won’t accept it. And if I do it anyway, without their support, in the name of social justice, I’m going to force democracy, force people’s spirit of willingness. While if I don’t do it, I move social justice backwards, even though they’d call me “democratic.” At times democracy and social justice coincide, but there will always be tension. It’s seen most clearly in the distribution of the national budget.

My work is with the food production bonus. My proposal is that we start with the people of the Río Coco and then continue to the northern zone, Madriz and Nueva Segovia, and to rural Managua, the three poorest rural sectors. That’s my proposal, but if I ask Chinandega, they’re going to tell me they should be first, that they don’t want to wait. That’s what the mayors, the FSLN political secretaries, all of Chinandega’s rural society are telling me. So what do we do? If we choose the poorest, I’m forcing the principle that says we’re all equal and harming those who ask us to begin in Chinandega and León. We’re going to be in this kind of contradiction every day.

A trip from Wiwilí to Waspan on the Río Coco costs US$1,700 round-trip for four people in a boat with an outboard motor. I met with 40 NGOs from the coast to organize the food production bonus and they told me they are investing US$8 million there, but that little gets to the people because everything is so expensive due to transportation costs. So, the first thing we did was go to PETRONIC and propose that it subsidize transportation to the Caribbean Coast to make the Zero Hunger program effective. “How do we do that?” they asked me. “Take away Managua’s transportation subsidy,” I told them. They looked at me as if I were crazy. Aren’t people in Managua in solidarity, don’t they want social justice? If I ask people in Managua, will they agree? The contradiction between social justice and democracy will always be there, and we’re all involved in it.

The National Assembly’s passage of the food production bonus was very positive because it institutionalizes the project. We aren’t always going to be able to achieve this. We’ll have to learn to administer the contradiction between respecting institutionalization and the process of social justice. We have to try for institutionalization because it generates consensus, which every project needs. After the 20th century, it’s hard to move social justice projects forward with a political minority. A revolutionary transformation project needs a political majority.

Democracy isn’t an end, it’s a means. Democracy transforms itself. We can’t accept a democracy that consists of being allowed to vote every five years, or one where only the government executes the public budget. We can’t confuse respect for institutionality with respect for yesterday’s institutionality. We shouldn’t fall in love with the existing institutionality because it can halt social justice. We have to build another form of institutionalization democratically. Laws are made to be followed, but they can also be changed. Laws aren’t justice. We have to follow them because we have no choice, but if we can change them, even better. And the Constitution? The Constitution also expresses one type of society, but if I don’t agree with that type of society, if it’s a capitalist society, I have to figure out how to change the Constitution.

We need to get accustomed to the tension between democracy and social justice, because we’ll be navigating through it for the next five years. Sometimes the two will coincide but often they won’t. A lot of people get very enthusiastic about institutionality. The Right’s current agenda is to institutionalize what happens in the Assembly, what happens in the Supreme Court, what happens in the government, what happens with Rosario Murillo… Their agenda isn’t social justice; it’s the functioning of institutions. But, which institutions? Those that make this capitalist system governable.

Venezuela is helping us prioritize social justice

In this government we want to prioritize social justice. When we traveled to Venezuela we showed that government the list of what Nicaragua needs most: energy, construction, public investment and dealing with poverty. Energy, because the country was becoming paralyzed, so the first agreement was to bring small electricity generators to cover the 60-megawatt deficit at peak times. These plants are worth US$120 million. It’s an agreement that still hasn’t been formalized and therefore, we’re violating the Constitution. But our first priority was to resolve the energy problem.

Before getting these plants, there had already been an agreement between the Venezuelan government and the mayor’s offices, not the Bolaños government, to supply us with petroleum under favorable conditions. That agreement is now concrete: 10 million barrels a year, which is Nicaragua’s annual consumption, 60% of which is to be paid in three months—but we can pay it in products, which opens an export opportunity for us—and the other 40% to be paid in 25 years. After the FSLN’s electoral victory, we’re now in a discussion: Does this agreement stay in the hands of the mayors’ offices or does it go to the state? I say that if it goes to the state and we lose executive power, it will all be privatized. But, on the other hand, we still don’t have new economic subjects to take over the agreement. Forty gas station owners from a cooperative met with the FSLN leadership to say that they would take responsibility for the agreement. But it’s hundreds of millions of dollars. There lies the contradiction: the new economic subjects aren’t developed enough to be able to take responsibility from the state.

Other agreements with Venezuela related to energy involve technical and legal assistance to produce hydroelectric, geothermic, wind and biomass energy, to help free us from oil. And we have that great agreement about building a refinery in Nicaragua to export Venezuelan fuel, refined here, to the US. The profits, US$7 a barrel, would stay in Nicaragua. Venezuela is going to invest a lot energy-wise in Nicaragua. The refinery alone costs US$2.5 billion. Those 10 million barrels of petroleum represent another US$600 million annually, and there’s another 500 million in other projects. It’s massive cooperation, a level of support to Nicaragua equal to that of all other countries put together in the last five years.

When you study economics, they teach you that the two hubs of accumulation are energy and construction, whether horizontal—highways, ports, airports—or vertical—houses and other buildings. In construction, we asked Chávez if the Venezuelan army could join the Nicaraguan army in building highways, and they agreed. The two armies are going to build the highway from Bilwi to Río Blanco, fulfilling the dream of uniting the Pacific with the Atlantic. This year they’re going to prioritize 20 swampy areas so that at least the road is passable. That’s the main construction project we have but there are school repair projects and others of less priority.

There are also other less costly Venezuelan investments: aluminum factories, sack factories. Then there’s also support in the form of credits: US$37 million to begin, through Venezuela’s Development Bank and Foreign Commerce Bank, which will do business in Nicaragua through one branch, under the laws of the Superintendence of Banks. That US$37 million will be used to start weaving together the new model. Ten million of it is a donation and it was decided to assign it directly to education. We’re going to see how we can do it without violating the democratic institutionality. With the Zero Hunger program we aren’t violating it. We proposed 180 million córdobas (US$10 million) for the food production bonuses and the Assembly approved it. There was strong debate, but in the end it was accepted.

The new economic subjects
are building themselves up from below

Another $10 million of that $37 million in Venezuelan credits will be for cooperative associations. Credit at 5% for the cooperatives of small rural producers, above all sesame seed producers, the Amerrisque dairy cooperatives, the coffee cooperatives of CAFENICA, and credit institutions like CARUNA and SIFINA. We know that small rural credit is always expensive, but the Venezuelan proposal is that the interest rate not exceed 5%. That isn’t a policy against micro-financing institutions, but in favor of the cooperatives.

These small producers have had no access to credit for 16 years, and they’re important producers, because 100% of the sesame seed produced, processed and exported in Nicaragua comes from their cooperatives. So, giving them credit isn’t some voluntarist affair. The country’s changing and these changes have happened during the neoliberal administrations, which means that the small producers have done it the hard way. These new economic subjects have gotten better than the old ones, not with weapons, not with Assembly votes and not by any politicians’ tricks, but by the laws of economics.

Most of the cooperatives in the 1980s fell apart because they were built from above. They have to be built from below. These that I’m referring to not only built themselves from below, but did it against the opposition of the liberal governments and with no credit. They fought, and they’re changing the country. Producers with fewer than 3 hectares now produce 100% of the sesame seed. Small plots produce 60% of the coffee, 100% of the beans and corn and 80% of the fruits and vegetables. They also produce 40% of the dry-grown rice and that percentage is growing because the larger rice producers are turning their operations into sweatshops: they import rice from the US, remove the hull and sell it.

There were still other agreements with Venezuela. For example, support for the commercialization of rurally-produced goods in house-front stores. We’re working with all the FNT-affiliated house-front stores in Managua so they can distribute the rurally-produced goods, not because they’re affiliated with FNT, but because they’re the ones that are organized economically.

With all these agreements with Venezuela we’re heading South and heading towards associations. We’re going to find many contradictions, many problems on this road, and will make many errors. But what’s important is the project’s direction. It isn’t going to be easy in a society like ours, because it isn’t made for that project. For example, there are peasants who complain to us: “They say you want to bankrupt Mr. Tuto Navarro, the urea producer. Why do you want to treat that poor guy that way? It’s just revenge.” We explain to them that it’s for the benefit of the cooperative, but they don’t always understand that. Social justice measures aren’t always pleasant. And if the measures involve force, they are even disagreeable. I say that this is a Sandinista government in a Liberal society. Nicaraguan culture is Liberal and even though people suffer under Liberalism, they still want it.

Councils for everything
are another new trend

The Venezuelan compañeros have their model. They call it 21st Century Socialism. It’s a model that rides a very political road, focused on councils. In my mind, the security of a project lies in the economic associations, but it seems that these councils are a trend everywhere. In these last 16 years, dozens of councils were created, from CONPES [National Council for Social and Economic Planning] to councils for departmental development, municipal development, councils in every government ministry, councils for education... The Sandinista government, this government of unity and reconciliation, is following that same route. There are conflicts: whether a given council is good or isn’t good, or my councils are better... There are political disagreements, but what’s clear is that the culture of councils is on the move; it advanced with neoliberalism and will continue with our project.

Of course, we have to take into account that Cuba, Libya and Iran are part of the South, even though they aren’t friends of the West. We are also receiving offers of support from them. The Iranians are offering to build agricultural machinery for all of Central America. Nicaragua is a very small market, so they are thinking regionally and see it as an option. The same with Europeans, the “good” guys. They also tell us to join together, and say they won’t negotiate with us if we don’t integrate.

Integration is a new trend, too

Integration is a world trend, as much among the countries of the North as among those of the South. It’s a sign of these times that the South wants to integrate. That is the South’s common denominator right now. Many analyses compare the Bachelet Left, which is “good, civilized and friendly”—although the Lagos socialist government in Chile before her privatized water—with the Lula Left, which is “less friendly,” and that of Chávez, which is “ugly.” Independent of what Bachelet, Lula and Chávez are like, all favor integration. There are people who want to see contradictions between Chávez and Lula. For some, Lula is a lightweight and for others Chávez is a dictator. But what’s the common denominator between the two? Why don’t we see the common denominators?

I believe this administration is going to govern with both hands, the right and the left, the North and the South, because there are strong pressures on us, and we have limits. Just as we had limits in the 1980s, when we didn’t respect a political reality that wasn’t changing at the speed we wanted. When will the tension between CAFTA and ALBA end? I don’t think it will. It’s a contradiction we’re going to have to manage. We like ALBA more and get more support from ALBA than from CAFTA. But we see the reality and are managing the contradiction. There’s no reason to hide the options and we have to learn to administer the contradictions those options create.

We need to build a project
we can fall in love with

In summary, this government’s orientation is towards the South and towards associations, always navigating the democracy/social justice contradiction. That’s how we’re going to move forward. We’ll get further if we build a project. We don’t yet have a project in Nicaragua, which leaves us short on mystique and ethics. Neither of those is born by itself; they require a project. Give me a project and I’ll bring you saints! When we find a project we get all excited and nothing else matters. It’s just like falling in love.
So what’s important now? To build a project we can fall in love with. Fall for a project, not a party. The party is only a means, as is the government. The end is the people’s project. In politics the ends justify the means. In civics, the means count more than the ends, to the point of sacrificing the ends for the means. That’s the reality, like it or not. Sometimes we prefer a polite politician over an impolite one, even though the former is in favor of capital and the latter in favor of justice. So we’ll coexist over these five years with that contradiction. We’ve got to accept it and understand it. We’ve got to learn to navigate that contradiction.

Orlando Núñez is a sociologist who headed the research branch of the first Sandinista government’s Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, and for the past 16 years has directed CIPRES, a Nicaraguan NGO that works on small-scale rural development.

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