It’s Up to Us to Curtail the Government’s Authoritarianism
Reflections on the course of the Ortega government
by a former comandante of the revolution
and minister of health during the
first FSLN government.
Dora María Téllez
There’s a saying that “a leopard is known by its spots.” Seven months into the government of Daniel Ortega we have enough spots to get a pretty good idea where this particular leopard is heading. We now have the answers to all the questions we were asking when he took office in January.
Foreign policy:The government’s foreign policy has favored a harmonious relationship with the United States. President Ortega can deliver as many anti-imperialist speeches as he chooses, but what he really wants is good relations with the US. So we’ve seen no attempts to annul or even modify the Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), which is an essential issue for the United States. The Ministry of Development, Industry and Trade is working within its framework and its terms.
Building Good Relations with the US
Another essential issue for the United States is the fight against drug trafficking and there are signs that the government is going to move on this issue. An anti-drug policy is something new for today’s FSLN, particularly if we recall that FSLN judges have freed many traffickers of hard drugs in recent years and that FSLN Supreme Court justices were involved in the disappearance of over half a million dollars in seized drug revenues. It’s thus clear that while containing drug trafficking is a policy of Daniel Ortega as President, it wasn’t his policy before taking office. The struggle against drug trafficking is a fundamental piece of the US national security scheme, so to maintain harmonious relations with the United States Ortega has taken it up as well. We welcome this policy and only hope it remains coherent and consistent throughout his term, because it’s very important for Nicaragua to shut the doors to drug trafficking that were opened in recent years by both the judicial system and some political apparatuses.
Do unto other migrants as we In addition to fully satisfying its US counterpart on these two essential issues, the Ortega government is also collaborating with respect to terrorism and migration, two other issues on the US list of priorities. The United States wants Nicaragua to stop the migrants flowing through Central America from South America to the United States. In its desire to forge good relations with the United States, the Nicaraguan government is happily complying. Every day it detains Peruvians, Ecuadorians and others passing through our territory on their way north.
would have others do unto ours
But Nicaragua has a lot of emigrants as well, and so far the Ortega government has given no sign of wanting to advocate on behalf of our compatriots, most of them poor, who live and work in the United States or Costa Rica. And that disinterest is dramatic. It pained me to see the press conference given by Presidents Calderón and Ortega in Mexico in July. Felipe Calderón, who has no leftist pretensions, was hard-hitting, clear and unequivocal in questioning US policy toward emigrants. President Ortega, in contrast, didn’t even touch the subject, even though we have nearly a million Nicaraguans in the US and Costa Rica.
The issue of our emigrants in those two countries is an issue about the poor. Nicaragua’s major investors are its emigrants, who send nearly a billion dollars back into the country every year, the equivalent of Nicaragua’s entire annual production. Those remittances sustain the country; we all live off them. If President Ortega really wants to prioritize the poor, he ought to be discussing the issue of Nicaraguan emigrants with President Arias in Costa Rica and President Bush in the United States. And he ought to do the same in El Salvador and Honduras, where more and more Nicaraguan emigrants are going. And soon he should be having the same discussion with Spain, because an increasing number of our compatriots are emigrating there, too.
Both the Nicaraguan government and our society as a whole should address the migrant issue from two perspectives. The first is to defend our emigrants, to represent them, and the other is to have a serious and responsible humanitarian policy toward poor undocumented migrants who come from Ecuador, Peru and other South American countries, trying to cross Nicaragua to get to the United States, just like ours try to cross Mexico. Nobody from Ecuador pays $4,000 for a risk-filled trip to the United States crossing through Nicaragua just to go shopping in Miami. They’re going in search of work, because they’re poor. Should we arrest them and deport them back to their country? If we do, how will they pay the $4,000 they borrowed? There’s a good chance they’ll fall into some other illicit gig, perhaps drug dealing, to pay off what they owe. As a country, a state, a society, we should have a humanitarian policy toward them. We shouldn’t view them as criminals if we don’t want our own to be seen that way, too. Why do unto others what I don’t want done to me? The Costa Rican Catholic Church is providing the example in this respect by backing our migrants there.
As Ambassador Trivelli’s declarations reflect, the United States is very satisfied with the Nicaraguan government for not dismantling CAFTA, for its new struggle against drug trafficking and for its current migratory policy. Ortega will continue making anti-imperialist speeches and Ambassador Trivelli expressing annoyance with Nicaragua’s relations with Iran. But it won’t go any further than words. The relationship between the Bush and Ortega governments is based on the “bark, not bite” principle. For a while the Bush administration’s policy toward Nicaragua was more aggressive interventionist diplomacy, but right now the US State Department is focusing on global policy issues, leaving Nicaragua’s internal situation on the back burner again, as it was during the Clinton administration.
Ortega’s foreign policy isThe other foreign policy element President Ortega has prioritized is money. This government’s essential foreign relations are based on who can give it cash quickly. That’s why the relationship with Venezuela is “first tier” and the relationship with Taiwan “second tier.” Other relations, such as with the Europeans, are now “third tier,” even though the Scandinavian countries, for example, have been in almost unconditional solidarity with Nicaragua for 30 years, maintaining what I would call exceptional relations with all governments since 1979.
driven by a focus on quick bucks…
…and his economic policy is neoliberalTurning to the domestic arena, our economic policy is just the same as President Bolaños’, which favored macroeconomic balances and controlled inflation. We’ll surely see this reflected in the agreement the Ortega government reaches with the International Monetary Fund. We know this agreement is an essential condition for the big corporations that are weighing up the possibilities of investing in Nicaragua. So the government is following in the macroecomonic footsteps of the neoliberal governments of Enrique Bolaños, Arnoldo Alemán and Violeta Chamorro.
There are two clear signs of this bending over backward for big capital. First, the government has refused to renegotiate the part of the domestic debt resulting from the controversial CENI bonds held by the country’s financial capital. Nearly a quarter of the national budget is earmarked for paying this debt. Second, it has refused to collect the enormous amount of taxes these same big bankers have evaded for years. These are both signs that the government is favoring an accord with big, basically financial, capital. No measures, no decisions and hardly any harsh language are aimed at big capital.
The transnationals are comfortably placed with the Ortega government. The threats in the President’s speeches are to facilitate better terms in negotiating cases of political interest, such as Unión Fenosa, the transnational electricity company. But President Ortega hasn’t challenged Enitel or even alluded to its privatization, which involved much more money than privatizing energy generation and distribution did.
These big negotiations with the IMF and with Unión Fenosa are veiled in government secretiveness. What agreement is being negotiated with Unión Fenosa? We have no idea; it’s a secret. What agreement is being hammered out with the Monetary Fund? We don’t know; it’s a secret, too. This government’s essential economic decisions, those of interest to all of society, are kept secret.
Social policy: Much ado about very littleThe government has accompanied its neoliberal macroeconomic policy with policy adjustments on some social issues. Part of the money from Venezuela is being used to issue credits to small producers, which is a good thing, but under US$10 million has been designated for that purpose, which is less than the Rural Development Institute used for credits. It’s also a good thing that cooperatives, peasants and workers’ companies are beginning to receive the deeds to their land. Up to now this has been a very slow process. We’ll be very pleased if it is speeded up and titles are given to all cooperatives, since they’ve been pressured to sell out cheap by powerful groups, including those controlled by people now in the government, precisely because they didn’t have title.
In social policy we also have a free health care service, but with no guaranteed supply of medications and materials. And we have free education, but without cleaning supplies for the schools or teaching materials for the teachers. Worse yet, there’s a big stick for the teachers who are demanding salaries on a par with their Central American colleagues and for anyone who doesn’t agree with the new minister’s policy, in clear violation of the Educational Participation Law.
Then we have the highly touted Zero Hunger program, whose efficiency has been challenged. We aren’t against Zero Hunger, but we want a program that’s genuinely anti-hunger. We’re not opposed to giving milk cows and sows with their piglets to a small sector of the population, and certainly not to giving them specifically to women. But we have to recognize that this isn’t a true anti-hunger program. The productive bonus being given out by the government in some peasant regions is similar to the World Bank’s old anti-hunger formulas, and they haven’t worked anywhere. They’re only good for political propaganda.
The missing ingredient is aWe have to be sure not to confuse a government program’s propaganda with its efficiency. Furthermore, the poorest, those who are the hungriest but don’t even have an acre of land, are receiving nothing from the program. Hunger has different causes in each place. In Waspám the crops are affected by plagues of rats, while in other areas of the Caribbean the land constantly floods. In still other places people have no roads to get their products to market. If the government really wanted to fight hunger, it would call up five or ten experienced people who’ve been working on this issue in Nicaragua for years with good results and would ask them to design the best multi-faceted, participatory and realistic program against hunger. They’d do it pro bono. But the government didn’t want to listen to anyone and still doesn’t.
comprehensive development policy
A good policy to deal with hunger and poverty is much more complex than giving out cows, sows and hens that only lay if they’re fed amounts of concentrate that people can’t afford, a fact the inspired philosophers of this pre-packaged offer seem to ignore. Projects like Zero Hunger have already been tried in this country and haven’t worked. Why hasn’t the government learned from past mistakes? An anti-hunger program has to be comprehensive. It starts with women learning trades other than those of the field, with nonviolent relations between couples, with accessible health care, with progress in municipal services, with access to a development bank that guarantees people credits… This government has been in office seven months now, so why hasn’t the much-heralded Development Bank appeared yet? The answer is because the government wants to give credits in exchange for votes; it wants to buy people’s political will.
This government’s big missing ingredient is a truly comprehensive development policy for the country. During Bolaños’ term, economic development was made to depend on the free trade agreement with the United States and now it’s being made to depend on Venezuelan collaboration. Neither policy is correct, since they tie our development to other countries’ policies. This government has so far been unable to demonstrate a development policy that focuses on national capacities, supporting the work of peasant farmers, small and medium producers and business people who need favorable credits, technical support programs, guidance and training to get the most out of the markets. Beyond making education and health services free, it appears that there is either no social policy or else its objectives, scope and commitments have yet to be made known.
Telling people what they want to hearDaniel Ortega has established a dialogue with the businesspeople in INCAE; with big investors like Mexico’s Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world; with transnationals and with international financial institutions like the IMF. But there’s been no dialogue with the poor. Yet despite these facts, these signs that suggest the government’s course, many people get confused when they listen to the President’s speeches. They still believe that the government is going to radicalize. Big mistake.
Daniel Ortega’s speeches are aimed at mollifying a social base that wants and needs to hear a revolutionary discourse. But in fact it’s only “revolutionist”—all catchwords with no content. A lot of people give more importance to speeches than deeds and need to hear that the revolution is continuing on an infinite course of radicalization. Many genuine Sandinistas want to hear that from Daniel Ortega. His discourse is designed to comfort them, encourage them, give them a sense of security, even if the words are light years away from reality. So as long as Daniel trashes Unión Fenosa, it doesn’t seem to matter to these people that he’s also cutting deals with the same company. Likewise, it doesn’t seem to matter that he badmouths the IMF at the very same time his negotiators are reaching agreements with it.
All power to the people orTo sum up, in economic terms this government is favoring big capital while being populist and demagogic, and is essentially authoritarian and intolerant in political terms. It is concentrating power in the presidential couple and the presidential family. That’s the logic of the Councils of Citizens’ Power: a mechanism to avoid any debate or dispersion of forces, grouping them all around Ortega, who is the head, and Rosario Murillo, who is his right arm.
to the presidential family?
The Right thinks these Councils are designed exclusively to persecute, control and hobble the opposition. They will surely do some of that, since they are very sectarian, and sectarianism always leads to more sectarianism. Sects tend to exclude anyone who isn’t a believer. But that exclusion is more of a byproduct of the Councils; one of their most important functions is to draw the wagons in a circle around Daniel, eliminating any competition from other FSLN leaders. Why does Daniel Ortega need this? He wants to remain in office, but as things stand now he can’t run again. He was elected President in 1984 and again in 2006, and two non-consecutive terms is all the Constitution permits. The only way to get reelected for yet another term would be by reforming the Constitution and that can only happen by continuing his pact, his intimacy with Arnoldo Alemán. But he also needs two other things. First he needs to ensure that there are no other presidential aspirants within the party, which is why some heads are already beginning to roll, and others are being kept away from the limelight. And second, he needs to keep the nucleus of votes he got in 2001 and 2006 firmly behind him and to increase that base significantly.
None of the people of presidential timber in the party are in the Cabinet because Daniel doesn’t want any potential rivals calling attention to themselves. Unfortunately, his choices make the Cabinet politically weak. Some ministers are technically good, others average and some are even pretty bad, but the common denominator is their political weakness. Those with any clout are conveniently located at the level of advisers, consultants, with no day-to-day leadership role or visibility that could compete with Daniel Ortega’s eventual candidacy for reelection.
We’re witnessing the consolidation of “Danielismo” from within the government because that wing of the party needs to pull its base together and strengthen it around the figure of Daniel. The FSLN isn’t even mentioned anymore; the objective is to concentrate power and image in Ortega to perpetuate him in power. That in itself isn’t the problem, because the logic of any political party is to stay in power. The problem is that the model of a strengthened and concentrated Danielismo is very authoritarian. Caudillismo, Latin America’s brand of party bossism, implies authori-tarianism, stomping on democracy. And Danielismo is vintage caudillismo. After watching the spoiling of the FSLN in recent years and the current government’s behavior, I share the opinion of sociologist Edelberto Torres Rivas who says he’s starting to wonder if there isn’t now a “rightwing Sandinismo.”
There’s no revolution without power to the people and no power to the people without informationA revolution is about giving leadership to the people, not about giving all power to the party, much less to its secretary general. There’s no revolutionary power if there’s no power to the people and nothing necessarily revolutionary in talking about socialism. Fascism talked about socialism too; it was populist and nationalist, and led humanity into the Second World War.
For people to have power they have to have information; they have to be informed. How are people going to exercise their power with respect to the agreement with the IMF if they have no idea what’s being agreed? Are we for it or against it? We don’t know, because we have no information. Information is the basis of the power of the citizenry, which expresses that power through its own associations and groupings, its own organizations, mobilizations and struggles. Can citizen’s power be genuine if it’s administered, regulated, controlled and directed from the government, from a family with governmental power? That’s not citizen’s power; it’s authoritarianism.
Citizens’ power requires recognizing that there are already neighborhood associations, peasant organizations, cooperatives, organizations of peasant women, parents organized through school councils and many more, and all of them have to have information to exercise power. Citizens’ power is what the teachers and parents exercised in July in San Dionisio, Matagalpa, when they rejected the politically-imposed municipal education delegate and demanded the appointment of the person they considered most capable. They held a sit-in at the central plaza and refused to get up until they finally forced the minister to backtrack. That’s citizens’ power.
Real citizens’ power, people’s power, requires strengthening what the people themselves are doing, creating and building. It doesn’t mean the government coming in and setting up some new contraption with handpicked leaders playing the role of interlocutors. And who are the delegates of the Councils of Citizens’ Power in the departments? The FSLN’s own political secretaries. My, what a coincidence! They are there to hand out government favors, create political clients and ensure grassroots cohesion around Daniel, bringing in all the new people they can attract and excluding the rest of society.
Not just a flock of sheepThis government seems to have come to the strange conclusion that Nicaraguans are just an unorganized flock of sheep. It should have the courage to recognize that people are organized in Nicaragua. There’s a multitude of organizations, from the Boy Scouts and Daughters of María to guilds, unions, peasant and indigenous organizations, groups of women, youth, residents and other social sectors, and associations of large, medium and small businesspeople. Everyone belongs to something! Who doesn’t belong to at least one organization?
The current Law of Civic Participation says that these organizations have power and can be registered in the mayor’s office. But it isn’t the mayor’s office that gives them the power; it only certifies that they exist. That’s the basis of true citizens’ power. That’s what has to be recognized, respected, promoted and consolidated. Why would we want to be squeezed into the Councils of Citizens’ Power, which represent the masked power of Danielismo?
Money for friends and the stick for enemiesThis government threatens democracy, and I’m not talking about the democracy of the Supreme Council of Private Enterprise, or the freedom of big business or the major media. I’m talking about threatening the liberties, power and capacities of the citizenry and its poorest members in their associations and organizations.
The government has already shown its spots, the signs of what it wants to do. It’s not a government for all, for the whole country. President Ortega’s policy is the same as that of dictator Somoza García: money for friends and the stick for enemies. His line with the media has been to suffocate them economically and through threats. Some media have been clearly and explicitly threatened. There are also threats against NGOs that the government wants out of the game, that it wants to eliminate, restrict, align or subordinate. And in the municipalities FSLN mayors’ offices and state institutions organize campaigns against anyone who thinks differently. That’s authoritarianism, which is by definition exclusionary. This government doesn’t want loyalty or fidelity; it wants unconditionality. It’s one thing to be loyal and quite another to be unconditional. And they’re going to try using the stick on anyone who isn’t unconditional.
The government will onlyWill the government learn to be tolerant? Not unless we oblige it to. What lesson will the government learn if it threatens us and we hunker down? It won’t learn tolerance; it will learn that its method is effective. It will only learn to be democratic if we fight to make sure it is. Anyone who thinks that the way to teach Danielismo to be democratic is to shut up and bow our head is very mistaken. Political threats are being instrumentalized all over the country to get people to “chill out.” Orlando Núñez has already come out against envío, the UCA and the Jesuit community as a whole, to see if the Jesuits will cower. If they manage to stop envío being independent, they’ll see that their method works.
learn the lessons we teach it
They want us to practice self-censorship, because censoring is a lot of work. Far better to get us to censor ourselves, to take responsibility for our own silence. What will determine whether or not this government takes a democratic path? We will. If these initial measures shut us up, make us hunker down and censor ourselves, then be prepared, because that authoritarian family model will become dynastic and that’s how dictatorships set themselves up in a country.
I don’t think it will come to that, however. I don’t think they’ll get what they want. I saw the Somoza dictatorship fall even though no one believed it would—least of all them. It did fall, but not of its own weight; we toppled it. When Alemán came to power, a lot of people thought he and the Liberals would be in government a hundred years, and many people lined up to sell out to him, including Daniel Ortega. His sales deal was straightforward and huge, involving government posts, perks, appointments, mega-salaries and institutional power with seats in the electoral branch and the Supreme Court bench—even the creation of new Supreme Court seats. That was no agreement, because an agreement has to do with the country, its prosperity. It was a pact, in which the only interest was divvying up posts, lowering the voting percentage needed to win the presidency and covering up Alemán’s thievery and his government’s massive corruption. All those thoroughly corrupt people in the Alemán government are now free thanks to the deals cut with Daniel before he took office.
How will MRS operate asThe government has the MRS in its sights. Some people have been run out of their government jobs because they belong to the MRS or are even suspected of belonging. But we’re not going to duck and run. We’re going to base our opposition on our program. The MRS has always been a programmatic party, not one that responds to the moment. We’re going to be guided by the program we presented during the electoral campaign. We’re going to make our opposition in the National Assembly, in the street, in our contact with people and using whatever other mechanism we have. We’re also going to run in the next municipal elections. We want genuine citizens’ power and we’re going to work in that direction.
a Sandinista opposition party?
Some national sectors are “oppositionally anxious”; they feel obliged to oppose and confront everything. We in the MRS don’t hold to the thesis that everything the government does has to be opposed. For example, we think the petroleum agreement with Venezuela is very good for Nicaragua. But we don’t think it’s good that the government is trying to bypass the budget with the money from the agreement; we’re concerned that we won’t know what it’s being used for, how it’s being spent.
After having significantly reduced our foreign debt, the Venezuelan aid could potentially increase it again. The petroleum agreement involves some US$300 million a year, which will be used for long-term financing with favorable interest rates. In effect it’s a very advantageous loan, but it’s a loan nonetheless and loans have to be repaid. That credit can be used to invest in the country’s development or squandered in perks and political vote-buying. If you multiply that $300 million by five years we’re talking about the equivalent of nearly double the current foreign debt. If a party wants to administer all that money outside of the government budget, what can we assume it has in mind? It can’t be anything good. Giving the citizenry power also means using those funds transparently. That’s why the MRS introduced a bill to establish how that money must be used: for housing, health, education, a development bank, reforestation, energy and water and sanitation.
The MRS policy of alliancesDoes the MRS have any programmatic overlap with the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN)? We have common ground in relation to representative democracy, but other than that we don’t share any views with big capital, which is what the ALN represents. The ALN’s main concern is big business and ours is small and medium producers, workers and the poor in general. We have no programmatic overlaps with the ALN and don’t agree with its criticism of everything going on in Venezuela. What happens there is the Venezuelans’ concern. There’s no need to oppose Venezuelan aid because one opposes Chávez, as the ALN does. Our only problem with President Chávez would be if he involves himself in our internal politics. He should remain silent on the subject, since Nicaragua isn’t a Venezuelan province. We believe the aid is positive and our only concern is what our government does with it.
Nor do we agree with the ALN’s opposition to the Ortega government’s relations with Iran. We believe Nicaragua should have relations with any country it chooses. And we don’t think those relations should depend on whether the US government likes it or not. Our concern is that Nicaragua’s President could become a laughingstock. It was embarrassing to see President Ortega cheerleading for President Chávez at the July 19 event, leading the crowd in chanting his name. If he genuinely values national sovereignty, he must recall that he bears the country’s mantle, which obliges him to behave accordingly, particularly regarding foreign policy.
There are some who say we need to be patient with a “leftist” government and not give the Right any ammunition by criticizing it. Our answer is that this is a government, and a government has to obey the laws. Furthermore, we have to continue struggling for democracy and on behalf of the country’s poorest sectors.
Do we have to cut this government some slack just because it says it’s Sandinista? Absolutely not. We have to be intransigent. That’s what characterizes the Left, its intransigence, its radicalness. What matters isn’t the label this government wants to sport in the political lineup or its good intentions. The only thing that matters is the practice, the deeds.
I really long for Sandinista reunification, but not by abandoning the struggle against corruption, the struggle for the poor and for democracy. Thousands of Nicaraguans died for those issues. Thousands. This society owes a debt to all those who died fighting to end the dictatorship and poverty. Why should we have to tolerate the conduct of a government that’s trying to impose an authoritarian model on us and wants to turn the needs of the poor into a ladder for its own ambitions of political power?
I believe Nicaraguans will get through this phase, dealing with the authoritarianism, the sectarian manipulation, the demagogy. I’m optimistic that people will continue advancing with the construction of their democracy and power, bettering their lives and sending the hunger and poverty affecting most Nicaraguan families packing. We just have to continue fighting for those goals.
Dora María Téllez was among the distinguished leaders who left the FSLN in 1995 and founded the MRS. After recently serving a term as the party’s president, she is currently on its board.