The Ortega-Murillo Project: Personal, Family, National or International?
The FSLN’s first six months in office coincide with the
anniversary celebration of the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship, the feat that brought it to power the first time around. Comparisons between that project and this one
are inevitable, as are speculations on where this one thinks it’s heading 28 years later.
The leitmotifs of the preparations for the 28th anniversary of the revolution are established in a series of gigantic billboards that appeared all over the country in time for International Workers’ Day on May 1. Designed, like all other party-state propaganda, by First Lady Rosario Murillo, the billboards feature Daniel Ortega with sleeves rolled up and fist in the air, his back guarded by the ever-present silhouette of Sandino.
As in the most recent general election campaigns, the background color is the “chicha pink” preferred by artist Murillo. The largest letters read: “Arise, ye wretched of the earth,” a stanza from the Internationale,with the slogan “More Democracy, More Power” in slightly smaller ones. The Internationale has also begun to be played as the official melody at all presidential speeches.
This official image unequivocally portrays a personal project—an Ortega cult—but also suggests a national project, symbolized by Sandino’s presence, and even an international one that aspires not only to zero hunger and zero poverty for Nicaragua’s four million poor, but also an ambitious vision in which the entire world’s four billion poor will “arise.” The discordant element in this package is that Ortega’s facial features are those of an exhausted man with barely enough strength to keep his fist aloft, let alone bear such a revolutionary burden.
Less work, more blackoutsVery little has changed in Nicaragua since January 10 regarding two extremely sensitive issues for the majority of the population: employment and the energy crisis. Unemployment is in fact increasing, particularly in urban areas. The political uncertainty generated by President Ortega’s frequent contradictory statements has led to a drop in both national and international private investment, which is hitting tourism, construction, services and the media particularly hard and shows no signs of recovery. The recession in the construction sector, including housing, is particularly serious because of the myriad secondary activities that depend on it.
The economic fallout of Ortega’s contradictory and aggressive speeches is most succinctly summed up in the repeated request by his business “adversaries” in COSEP, the big business umbrella organization, not to let “politics put the brakes on the econ-omy.” The political uncertainty is even jeopardizing the business interests of the pragmatic economic groups represented in the FSLN’s upper echelons, although their leaders have been less public in voicing their concern.
As for the energy crisis, it has only worsened, contrary to the FSLN’s dazzling campaign promises. July 4 broke all records, with a 170-megawatt deficit representing 25% of the nation’s daily demand. The power cuts around the country are now lasting up to 12 hours on some days. Worse yet, the powers that be seem either unwilling or unable to project the deficit and inform the population of any scheduled cuts, which plays indescribable havoc with attempts to program work hours around them.
The daily economic losses caused by these long blackouts are enormous. They are affecting agriculture, production, small and large businesses, public and private offices, hospitals and schools, as well as homes, many of which depend for their very survival on selling refrigerated perishable goods to neighbors. The growing frustration and even desperation among the poorer classes is already giving way to protests that could easily spill over into rioting, increasing the economic losses.
A national emergency was declared on July 6, and the forecasts offered by the chain of public and private institutions responsible for generating, buying, regulating or distributing electricity are dramatic. With only minor ups and downs in the electricity deficit, the scarcity will remain acute until the end of the year and possibly longer, which will surely intensify the estimated drop in this year’s economic growth.
Unión Fenosa, butt of Perhaps the most illustrative example of Ortega’s mixed economic signals and on again-off again hostility has been his confusing relations with the Spanish energy transnational Unión Fenosa, which is responsible for distributing the country’s electricity supply. Ever since the election campaign, Ortega has been inciting public wrath against the company for the increasing blackouts and promising to send it packing. While Unión Fenosa’s visibility—it’s the one that sends out the bills—makes it an easy scapegoat, it is far from exclusively responsible for today’s inability to supply electricity to a demographically and economically expanding country. The underlying problem has far more to do with a huge shortfall in generating capacity than to inefficient distribution, thanks to the short-sightedness of private investors, big business and government decision-makers over the past few decades. As for the frequently interrupted supply of what energy is available, the vast numbers of users, rich and poor alike, who tap directly into the grid, bypassing their meter and thus avoiding paying for the service, share the blame with Unión Fenosa for its limited investment in improved distribution.
the mixed messages
As the desperate situation focused increasingly on Unión Fenosa, government spokesperson Rosario Murillo suddenly appeared in a news clip from Mexico with the “good news” that Ortega had resolved the problem by a simple phone call to the King of Spain. She emotionally explained that an agreement had been reached that would change the negative situation between the Nicaraguan government and the Spanish corporation.
Once back in Nicaragua, however, Ortega did an about-face. He ended his personal report to the gathered public on his frank conversation with the king by referring to Unión Fenosa’s “fangs” and leading the crowd in chanting “Out! Out! Pack up and Go!” Then in yet another dizzying 180-degree turn the very next day, he sent the National Assembly a fast-track bill granting Unión Fenosa a concession to generate energy in addition to distributing it.
Did that bill reflect the agreement reached in the phone call? If so, what was the rabble-rousing against Unión Fenosa about? Assuming Ortega had already decided to deposit responsibility for more effective generation with Unión Fenosa, wouldn’t it have been more opportune to exonerate rather than excoriate it?
Schizophrenia or calculation?Such bipolarity is an ongoing feature. One day Ortega has bear hugs for the big business leaders in COSEP, the very next he’s branding some of them “gangsters” and “sharks,” only to end up sitting down with them the next. One day he announces that Nicaragua will pull out of the IMF and the next he’s boasting of his team’s success in negotiating with it. One day he rails about the fraudulent bank operations that contributed to the huge domestic debt and the next he’s cutting the ribbon on the new installations of one of the banks benefited by it.
Is this political schizophrenia unconscious or a calculated provocation? If the latter, what’s the purpose? Is it to keep the country’s economic groups and current and potential investors off guard, subordinated to his whims? Or is it to keep the Sandinista social base wired up and attentive, but with a good excuse for why what Murillo calls “works of love” cannot yet be implemented? Or is it perhaps a misguided version of the carrot and the stick?
Businessman and former legislator Bayardo Arce, the most visible of the Sandinista leaders heading one of the economic groups in the FSLN’s upper echelons, recognizes that this erratic behavior is causing internal party confusion and contradictions, although he diplomatically refers to it as “adjustment.” He explains that the FSLN’s return to government is one of the party’s “great moments” and it’s logical that “great leaps” are being made and “the forces have to adjust.”
Improvising, ineffectiveness A government style that is sowing uncertainty about the future is only adding to today’s already tough reality. What is the FSLN’s project? It’s very hard to discern when today’s speeches curse what tomorrow’s applaud. The economic actions are consistent with a neoliberal model but the rhetoric rails against this “savage capitalism.” Ministers are seldom heard while the presidential couple dominates the stage and controls the scant government information parceled out to the public. The President speaks but does not respond, while the First Lady pontificates, repeating empty slogans. Not even the donor community is being given any clear signals.
or just a slow learning curve?
After six months without establishing a dialogue and even canceling two meetings, the government met for the first time with the Donors’ Round-table on July 3. The ambassadors of the countries that cooperate with Nicaragua were expecting to hear the government’s priorities for the coming years, but they got only generalizations.
Is all this intentional improvisation or an inevitable learning process? Is it just a question of time before the project is unveiled or is there in fact no project, just a continuous accommodation to a reality that refuses to bend to the presidential will?
Six months into this new government, the latter hypothesis is looking increasingly likely. There’s a growing impression that what remains of the FSLN after 17 years out of office is a structure designed to function very effectively in the opposition rather than govern. The manipulation of public institutions, forked-tongue discourse and chicanery that have served the FSLN so well against the manipulations, fork-tongued discourse and chicanery of its political adversaries are wholly ineffective for organizing a public administration in such a desperate, impoverished country.
Even in the midst of the reigning improvisation, confusion and mixed signals, however, it is still possible to find some pointers to where the government might be heading.
Following their visit, presidential spokesperson Rosario Murillo explained that the economic agreements between the two countries will include the installation of plants to process milk, manufacture buses and produce drinking water and irrigation pumps for rural zones. Ortega added that he had asked the Iranian President to help Nicaragua develop thermal electricity generating plants with a 300-megawatt capacity to palliate the country’s acute energy crisis. In the coming months, Iranian businesspeople will visit Nicaragua to examine the possibilities of investing in energy projects.
Before leaving for the Middle East, President Ortega declared that he would also seek technical cooperation for the fight against drug trafficking. On his return, Nicaraguan Army chief Omar Halleslevens announced that he will meet with commissions from Libya and Iran to discuss military cooperation with Nicaragua.
The only thing known about the unexpected landing in Senegal—the original plan was to go to Rome to talk with private business groups—was that the presidential family made a side trip to the island of Gorée, emblematic for the infamous slave trade.
In Cuba, the last stop on the junket, Ortega reportedly had a four-hour conversation with Fidel Castro, although significantly there were no pictures of the two men together, something Ortega has been unsuccessfully seeking for over a year. Ortega is unquestionably on a lower rung of the Cuban leader’s appreciation and international relations than either Hugo Chávez or Bolivia’s Evo Morales. Cuba is collaborating with Nicaragua by offering health personnel and infrastructure, particularly in the abandoned Caribbean coast.
Only days after they returned from such a long tour—without releasing any concrete details about what the effort reaped—Ortega and Murillo were off again, first to Mexico and then on to Belize for a Central American presidential summit, leaving many wondering who was minding the store back home.
Does the FSLN have an international project?In all these travels, Ortega and Murillo presented themselves as protagonists of a second stage of the Nicaraguan revolution; the standard-bearers of the new Latin American unity; leaders of a people in struggle and activists of a new ideological bloc of resistance to capitalism and the United States that is destined to reorganize the chaotic world order.
With his raveled reflections on the crisis of savage capitalism, global warming, the emergence of the South, the new dawn of the Latin American peoples, the failure of neoliberal policies, the world energy crisis, bio-fuels, the sins of consumer society and the “hour” of the world’s poor, liberally sprinkled with references to God, Ortega is looking to recover his place on the international stage. He seems desperate to rescue from the ashcan of history his old image as a globally-recognized revolutionary.
And sometimes he succeeds. Many believe him and even more need and long to. While the minds of Ortega and many of his government officials appear trapped in the language, styles and projects of the eighties, a generation of people around the world still associate an FSLN government with a time when Nicaragua and its revolution were truly an example, a utopia grounded in reality, a magnet that moved the rest of the world to think and act. It might be possible to organize a memory club with that network of nostalgic leftists, but not a genuine, effective network of international support
Nicaragua’s insignificance and irrelevance on today’s world map raise doubts about the consistency of any international project, if one even exists. The fact is that the alliance with Chávez is all that is covering Ortega as he parades before the nostalgic Left like the emperor in his new clothes. Cruel as it sounds, it’s nothing more than appearances, rhetoric and images. Is there any other explanation for the fact that Nicaragua’s macro-economy remains under the International Monetary Fund’s guardianship; that Ortega is not even gently shaking the tree of Nicaragua’s big capitalist groups, which are the national representatives of savage capitalism’s transnational corporations; and that the kind of tensions we once saw between the armies of Nicaragua and the United States no longer exist?
Two projects in one?Some argue that the new government combines two personal/family projects. One is Daniel Ortega’s attempt to reclaim the international stage, craving his past, and the other is Rosario Murillo’s desire to govern nationally, calculating her future.
If this is true, it’s a repetition of the eighties when Ortega played the statesman, attending world forums in the name of the Sandinista revolution, leaving the administration, organization and governing to Vice President Sergio Ramírez and the FSLN’s National Directorate members, each in his own fiefdom. There are several fundamental differences, however, not the least of which is that Ramírez was elected in 1984, while Murillo, who is increasingly administrating, organizing and governing today, was appointed by her husband, in apparent violation of the country’s anti-nepotism legislation.
The FSLN’s successive crises since its 1990 electoral defeat have led to its bureaucratization and the enthroning of Daniel Ortega, whittling the FSLN’s original Sandinista identification down to an Ortega personality cult commonly referred to as “Danielismo” or “Orte-guismo.” The crises were not exactly the product of reflections on principles or political values or of debates about leftist strategies or programs, although these did exist at the outset. They were actually caused by a ruthless determination to impose Ortega’s power and ended with the splitting off of a number of important leaders and the isolation of the remaining dissidents.
This overriding objective led to the neglect, even abandonment, of grass-roots political education and to leadership decisions based on crass pragmatism, including the contemptible pact with Alemán. Although it has not always been clear what the party’s ends are anymore, the philosophy seems to be that they justify whatever means are employed.
Many of those in the know about the involution of the party structures were once FSLN party or governmental leaders who have since taken their Sandinista convictions to other pastures. Though now dispersed, they agree that the combination of Ortega’s nostalgia and Murillo’s ambition is initiating a personal/family project.
Murillo’s omnipresence at the President’s side, her indisputable power—calculatingly exhibited by correcting Ortega in public and completing or clarifying his declarations—and the “secretarial” role often played by her son Rafael in official acts all lend themselves to this interpretation. Some take it even further, suggesting that the presidential pair has succumbed to the Somoza family’s dynastic model of power, encrusted in the memes of the country’s political culture. That is why Sandinistas ranging from retired General Hugo Torres to former FSLN government official Edmundo Jarquín suggest that the project is not only family-oriented but in all probability dynastic in its conception. Daniel Ortega plans to change the Constitution so he can run for consecutive reelection and Rosario Murillo has presidential aspirations.
The Councils are essential Does the international aspect of the project predominate over the national one? That interpretation doesn’t seem to hold true, considering that the family’s permanence in power will be played out in Nicaragua, not the changing international terrain.
to the national project
A national poll conducted by Cid Gallup on June 5-12 showed that the 51% positive view of President Ortega recorded in February, a month after he took office, has plummeted to -10%. Only 49% of FSLN sympathizers consider the presidential administrat-ion positive. What explains this spec-tacular 60-point drop in only four months?
In a country plagued with shortsightedness among both poor and privileged, electoral processes induce more magical leanings in people’s thinking than is the norm. They trigger unfounded illusions of instant change, miracles that will erase all suffering with one sweep of the wand. Once the inebriation of such expectations gives way to the grim light of post-election reality, euphoria is replaced by disappointment, even a feeling of betrayal.
Based on the little we’re allowed to see, the FSLN has designed a strategy around the limits it knows it has today, lacking a parliamentary majority and the sympathies of both the electorate and the population as a whole. Its strategy, then, is simply to expand its social base over Ortega’s five-year term by combining patronage and paternalistic charity, financing it all with Venezuelan cooperation and packaging it in the most explicit religious provi-dentialism.
If the FSLN can substantially increase its support base with such handouts, it will be assured victory in the 2011 elections by a greater percentage than the 38% it squeaked in with last year. The most ambitious aspiration is to win a parliamentary majority so it can do some of the things it wants without a political trade-off.
The political instruments it has forged for expanding its social base have been dubbed Councils of Citizen’s Power. These Councils, which will be inaugurated all over the country on July 19, are defined in the official propaganda as an expression of “direct democracy” in which the “people as President” and “families of the free homeland” will experience “more democracy, more power.” The plan is that they will be the channel through which people file their claims, make their demands, register their requests and are provided assistance, converting them into “clients” of the governing party. In return, they will be expected to back the governmental elite’s measures and decisions and get out the vote for the FSLN.
Are we talking about a national project or a party project here? It would appear to be the latter, but even as an economic-political-social project offered to the entire nation, it will have to dodge many obstacles if it is to achieve what an internal FSLN document defines as the ultimate goal of the process initiated through the Councils: “To create subjective conditions that permit the mass mobilization of empowered citizens to pressure the Legislative Branch for the legal reforms needed to advance toward other aspects of direct democracy and the juridical institutionalization of Citizen’s Power, which at this moment can be organized and function without legal reforms, but will eventually need them so their continued existence does not depend on the will of the government in office.”
Toward 21st-century socialism?As this quote illustrates, the goal is to change the country’s existing political model and structures. The Councils are either ignoring the pluralistic civic participation bodies that already exist legally and have been functioning for a number of years, or are trying to co-opt or absorb them, while threatening others with outright extinction.
Where is this all going? Toward the 21st-century socialism promised by President Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution? While that is obviously not a serious reinterpretation of socialism, the Venezuelans have at least been original in their creation of that slogan.
In Nicaragua’s case, it seems a pretension born of either ignorance or arrogance or both. How does the FSLN expect to talk about 21st-century socialism when it was never able to define much less build or even attempt to build socialism in the last century? Once the revolutionary experiment was voted out of office, the FSLN never reflected with its base in any orderly, critical or creative way about what caused the defeat of its model, which was obviously more than the blockade and the war. Years later, most of the FSLN’s intellectuals split and set up the Sandinista Renovation Movement. Who was left at the party helm? The Sandinista business sector and the clandestine operators, all of them ultra-pragmatists, prisoners of their own ambition and allergic to reflection.
For whatever reason, the “concept” of 21st-century socialism has suddenly dropped out of the President’s speeches, replaced by the First Lady with the Internationale, the musical icon of 20th-century socialism.
Resources to “empower”Because there has been no reflection, the FSLN needs resources to “win people over”—or “empower” them to use the synonym employed in the above quote. These resources will basically come from Venezuelan cooperation, especially an estimated $300 million a year from the concessionary oil agree-ment between Venezuela and the state oil distribution company, Petronic, which President Ortega has announced will be earmarked for social programs.
Ortega and his team plan to handle these funds in a discretionary manner, which means they will not be listed in the budget, get National Assembly approval or be subject to any other institutional mechanisms for controlling public funds. The most likely explanation for this avoidance of transparency is that the money will be used for populist forms of vote buying—unless of course it is for some new project of corporate party enrichment, a possibility that should not be too hastily dismissed.
In the latest round of negotiations with the International Monetary Fund this month to hammer out a new three-year agreement, the government appears to have accepted all but one of the IMF’s conditions. The only aspect still holding up the signing of the memorandum of intent is that the IMF wants the government to spell out the amount, disbursement schedule, repayment deadline and use of the Venezuelan oil income. The government is digging in its heels. Its negotiating team is publicly insisting that both the resources and Petronic, which will administer them, must stay off the budget and argues that it’s hard to be precise about all the details the IMF wants. Looking to break that resistance, the MRS and Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) legislative benches introduced a bill to establish greater and more explicit legal controls on all loans and donations received by the government.
Secrecy and scolding Meanwhile, President Ortega publicly reprimanded his negotiating team for revealing this IMF requirement, which has been the first news tidbit in otherwise hermetically sealed negotiations. He also reviled the IMF for “wanting to get involved in controls on Petronic so it can’t contribute to social and development works,” concluding that Nicaragua will never accept that IMF “condition.”
on the IMF trail
Civil Coordinator economist Adolfo Acevedo, a long-time critic of the IMF’s abuse of the countries it assists, sided with the international financial watchdog on this occasion, as did many others. Acevedo explains it this way: “At least technically speaking, this IMF request has an impeccable basis. It is evident that if it reaches the volumes announced, Venezuelan cooperation will have important repercussions, both direct and indirect, on various ‘macroeconomic variables’ and balances, implications that the IMF, called in by Nicaragua as an auditor, must evaluate in detail…. It’s weird that the President is annoyed with his government officials for reporting this IMF requirement, which, I repeat, is technically impeccable. The declarations of these officials have been the only source of information to give us citizens any idea of what might be occurring in the closed-door sessions with the IMF.”
Considering the IMF’s shrinking political and financial power, which is forcing it into more flexible positions in its treatment of the countries that still turn to it for assistance, Acevedo calculates that “the Nicaraguan government wants an agreement with the Fund for eminently political reasons; it is seeking international endorsement to send a signal that its policies will continue to be correct.” Obviously that signal is meant to go out to the representatives of the savage capitalism Ortega claims to despise.
A project of the party Free-handed use of the Venezuelan resources is crucial for the Ortega-Murillo project, as the President’s defensive attitude confirms. Newspaper articles, comments on the many call-in radio opinion shows and the direct information we receive all suggest that the Councils of Citizens’ Power will be used to channel aid, scholarships, projects, urea, surgical operations and other vote-buying goodies.
or the citizenry?
Impoverishment, hunger-generated pragmatism and lack of opportunities will draw many people to the Councils. How many? The mixture of charity and patronage won’t empower anyone, but could well increase the FSLN’s vote in the coming municipal elections.
The next question is whether the aid will stretch far enough to reach all the people who need it. It’s being rumored that since resources are limited, those being prioritized are not the most needy, but the most “Sandinista,” those who worked hardest in the last electoral campaign or who have not “betrayed” the party in recent years.
The personal history of many of the FSLN leaders being brought in to head up the Councils—people who have squandered their credibility with the locals by politically or ethically questionable behavior—will alienate many people from participating. It also heightens the suspicion that the Councils are party structures and not civic organizations.
When Rosario Murillo, whose many tasks include the Councils’ national coordination, was asked about these and other complaints, including that some FSLN political secretaries are imposing only Sandinistas on the Council boards or inviting only Sandinistas to join, she responded: “The creation of civic power is a process we’re all learning about, a common search to achieve a model of society in which the people genuinely exercise power, but in absolute freedom and, above all, in absolute unity. The Citizens’ Councils must be the model of National Reconciliation, which is the principle on which our government is based.
“If errors are made, they must be corrected. We can’t impose anyone; we have to hold elections in each district, neighborhood, municipality and department. And those who feel they are being excluded or that Daniel’s guidelines on the Councils’ diversity, range and, above all, liberty aren’t being followed must exercise their right to complain.” She didn’t expand on how she envisioned that in the real world of multiple diversities absolute unity would result from absolute freedom.
A credible project?Only time will tell whether people will demand their right to participate in organizations led by old leaders trapped in old styles. Nicaraguan society has become much charier of getting involved in organizations than it was in the eighties. Part of the explanation is that the “every man for himself” philosophy inherent in the neoliberal model has sunk deep roots; individualism has triumphed. But the bad examples of the many Sandinista leaders who now live like the oligarchs they criticize and helped build the whole neoliberal structure from the “opposition” have played a role as well. So too have the frequently negative experiences of vanguardist impositions by the old Sandinista mass organizations of the eighties. Absolute freedom of expression was not exactly the modus operandi.
The rhetoric of the governing couple, whose aspirations may be genuine but whose thinking seems frozen in time, doesn’t appear to recognize that no “revolutionary” project can be recreated in today’s context. We’re not emerging from a dictatorship full of fer-vor for having united to defeat it. Nor are we involved in a war that obliges us to make heroic efforts and line up loyally behind common strategies. Nor does the world’s current geopolitical configuration permit the mouse to roar very loud. Nor is any of the old mystique and exemplariness present in those directing the current process. All other things being equal, any project for real change in Nicaragua requires leadership skills currently lacking in both the FSLN and the opposition.
“The new Sandinista project”With the July 19 celebration drawing near, the FSLN’s Political Education Department distributed to its grass-roots base a first “workbook for consulting and debating the new Sand-inista project.” This surprising document opened with a superficial description of Nicaragua’s current reality—mentioning neither the reasons for or consequences of the FSLN-PLC pact nor the essential economic and cultural role played by hundreds of thousands of emigrants and their remittances. It then identified the “subjects of the new Sandinista hegemony,” which it defined as the Councils in the political sphere and what are being referred to vaguely as “associations” in the economic one. The project seems to take for granted that some generalized form of association either exists in the country or could spread quickly. In laying out possibilities for the “policy of alliances,” the new project proposal distinguishes between the PLC Liberals and the ALN neo-Liberals… siding with the pro-Alemán PLC. In other words, its “new” policy of alliances is a continuation of the nearly decade-old FSLN-PLC pact.
According to this propagandistic outline of the FSLN’s strategy, the “project’s great challenge” is what it refers to as “the battle for ideas,” something copied from the recent Cuban reality. And yet it contains no new, revealing or energizing ideas.
The text the FSLN intends to use to “politically educate” its base for what it calls the “second stage of the revolution” is a sad reflection of the vacuum of thinking afflicting the party. It still assumes that a project of social transformations is simply one of economic development, from which automatically spring the political elements to provide it with strength, stability and legitimacy. Even in that limited vision, which comes close to suggesting that it’s enough to be anti-neoliberal, not a word is dedicated to the culture of work, public service or production that must be changed if the country is to change.
There is also no mention of new family, gender or racial ethics, or even ethics in politics. And to be sure there’s no mention of the ethical vacuum in the politics the FSLN used to maneuver its way back into government to build the “new” project we’re now seeing—one that 28 years on it dares to call the “second stage of the revolution.” Even more importantly, it ignores the fact, demonstrated by that original Sandinista project in 1979, that the social mobilization and cooperation needed for a revolutionary economic transformation must be underpinned by a nation-building project based on a position and an ethical vision legitimated by the will of the majority of the population.