We Must Expose Ortega’s Plans From the Left
This historical Sandinista leader
analyzes the current conflicts within the FSLN,
the lack of any revolutionary project in Daniel Ortega’s government
and the government’s initiative to set up
Councils of Citizens’ Power.
When I analyze what’s happening in Nicaragua, I’m reminded of the Oriental story of a man who lost his keys. A friend comes to visit and finds him squatting down, searching around on the floor with all the lights on in the house. “What are you doing?” asks the friend. “Looking for my keys,” answers the man. “Where did you lose them?” asks the friend. “Over there in that dark alley,” comes the reply. “So why are you looking over here if you dropped them over there?” “Because there’s light here...”
Looking in the wrong placeThe fact is that we often look in places where we’re not going to find anything just because the spotlights are focused there. And we waste a lot of energy and enthusiasm searching around in vain. The media, the propaganda and sometimes the political leaders get us searching where we’re not going to find anything. The political contradictions we see highlighted every day in the media don’t necessarily reflect Nicaragua’s main problem, the one we all need to concentrate on.
The system has had the capacity to distract us with superficial matters, with what’s flowering on the surface, to keep us from digging deeper to see the roots. Because that’s where we could find what we’re looking for. It has had the capacity to leave us scrabbling around on the surface without ever getting to the ill that is the “cause of the case,” as they say in legal circles. In recent decades we’ve been focusing on the problems in the world and in Nicaragua in a way that’s kept us on the surface, leaving concealed the ultimate and primary reasons for our living in such an inequitable, unequal and unjust world. Most of the population is imprisoned by a focus that never gets to the core of the matter, thus finding incomplete, sometimes inadequate and inappropriate answers.
I’m convinced that the problems we see every day in our political life are nothing other than superficial expressions of the root of the problem: the hegemonic capitalist system we’re living under. My commitment is to fight to build another world, which I believe is both possible and urgently needed. In this neoliberal capitalist world with a hegemony based on economic, ideological and military supremacy, we know that the nation-states have increasingly limited sovereignty, but all of them also have small local enriched groups linked to the hegemonic sectors of international capital. This is true even in the poorest and most fragile countries like Nicaragua. Those minorities feel satisfied with the current situation. In Nicaragua, they don’t represent more than 5% of the population, while at the world level 10-15% feel things are going well.
Equality, social justice and freedom: Building a different world requires not only criticizing the system we live in, but also critically analyzing the alternative models that have been and continue to be set up to solve the inequalities so dramatic that they move us profoundly. Furthermore, it requires being able to sketch out the features of that other world we want to build and to fight to ensure that this vision doesn’t remain at the theoretical level, but involves practical and concrete participation in the efforts to bring about change.
Essential features for an alternative model
Among the features we in the Movement for the Rescue of Sandinismo consider essential for an alternative model are equality, social justice and freedom. Based on that we have to analyze the equality or inequality not only in the system we’re criticizing but also in the model presented to us as an alternative. What level of equality and inequality is there in the existing system? And how was equality and inequality manifested in those systems that set themselves up as alternatives—the real socialisms—or in the alternative models currently being promoted today, such as in Venezuela where it’s said they’re trying to do something different, or in Nicaragua, where the government tells us we’re experiencing “new days of revolution”?
The same is true for social justice and freedom. We believe that to talk about promoting social justice without freedom is really dangerous. It’s already been proved: the system assumed to be socially just crushed freedom and failed. There are FSLN leaders today who still believe it possible to talk about and build social justice by riding roughshod over freedom. There are also FSLN leaders who criticize us because of our exacerbated enthusiasm for democracy. They ask how we can defend this “bourgeois democracy” when building a just society must sometimes involve being anti-democratic and authoritarian. We don’t share that position.
The political culture we want to forge must be recognized as one of the key features of any alternative model. If we decide we want to build a new society in Nicaragua, we’re not going to do it by continuing to encourage a patronage-based political culture laced with immorality, by violating the principle of a secular state, by building a tight association between church and state that encourages the most conservative expressions of religiosity.
A minimum strategy for changeWe necessarily have to engage in these reflections based on action, on practice, which means designing a minimum strategy for change. That strategy has to have three basic elements.
The first is to stop buying into the de-ideologizing logic they’ve been selling us, the argument that we have to stop trying to construct a body of ideas, an analysis that employs scientific tools to closely examine reality. In fact we can’t engage in transformational practice with any hope of success if we don’t have at least some ideas that guide that change.
The second element is to recognize who is called upon to make the changes—their subjects—and how they act, how we identify them, how they link together. And the third element is to be clear in our conviction that today’s world is unjust because of the predominance of the market logic, whose very DNA determines an unjust result. Understanding this, we will also understand that for now we must work for small changes and reforms, but not as an end in themselves, rather always with an eye on a further horizon that offers the possibility of more profound changes. If we don’t recognize that reality, we’ll continue searching for the keys under the light, but without finding them because they aren’t there.
Analyzing Nicaraguan reality:After this necessary introduction defining the position from which we’re talking, thinking and acting, the next question is how we view Nicaraguan reality. In this country we had a victorious revolution followed by a counter-reform that in my opinion hasn’t yet touched bottom. One of the determining elements of that counter-reform has been its ideological aspect, a counter-reform in subjectivity that affected people’s organization.
The ideological counter-reform
It’s impossible to make changes without having active, conscious, organized and mobilized subjects involved in the struggle. Knowing all of this, we’re forced to recognize a dramatic conclusion: yes, we had a revolution, but the result 17 years later is that a good part of the population is demobilized, subordinated, alienated, thinking about improving their lives based on magical formulas like winning the lottery, lacking any clearly defined paths.
One of the biggest dramas for Nicaragua after having had a revolution is that we now have to ask ourselves whether there is a Left in Nicaragua. Measuring today’s FSLN against the parameters of revolutionary, transforming organization, I find it impossible to label it a leftwing force, which doesn’t mean there aren’t leftist grassroots sectors and individuals within it who continue aspiring to a different world.
The FSLN shares responsibility Seventeen years of neoliberal governments have left us disorganized, demobilized and with the grassroots movement for change deconstructed. But this isn’t just the effect of neoliberalism. The FSLN and Daniel Ortega in particular have their share of responsibility. We have to remember that most of the grassroots organizations were created in the heat of the revolution, fundamentally as instruments to defend that revolution and at the service of its attempts at transformation, so most of them grew and developed subordinated to the FSLN vanguard. Their logic, based on the theory of those times, was to act as mouthpieces for that vanguard, which embodied the great ideals and goals. To turn the revolutionary ideas into reality, the organizations had to follow the revolutionary strategy being designed by the vanguard.
for the lack of organization
After the electoral defeat, many of these organizations made some efforts towards autonomy, with the women’s movement achieving the greatest success. But with the first split in the FSLN in 1994, many of these organizations were pulled back into a subordinated role through various mechanisms, such as cooptation through perks, properties and power quotas. For years, then, these organizations have kept their struggles and demands strictly subordinated to the political logic of the party structure.
It should also be borne in mind that the pact between Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán was a two-legged creature at the beginning. Now it’s got a third leg—the pact with Cardinal Obando y Bravo and a sector of the Catholic hierarchy. Those first two legs were politics and the economy. The political part, which involves divvying up state institutions and the posts within them, is the most visible, the one the spotlights always focus on. But one thing that isn’t spotlighted is the great economic contribution Daniel Ortega made through the pact by guaranteeing social de-mobilization. He personally benefited from the pact by being granted the chance to win the presidency in the first round of elections with just 35% of the vote, but his main concession was the total demobilization of the grassroots organizations, which allowed the neoliberal project to develop without limit.
In addition, the pact led to the accumulation of new capital among people close to Ortega and Alemán as they enjoyed unfair advantage in the privatization of public services and the selling off of the state-owned assets held by the National Public Sector Corporations (CORNAP). Everything that happened when a string of national banks went under for reasons of fraud in 2000-01, including the millions in compensations to account holders, creditors and others and the scandalous and equally fraudulent issue of CENI bonds to cover those payments, also forms part of the pact’s economic leg, based on the principle of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
Under those circumstances, the FSLN apparatus kept getting weaker. Organization within the FSLN decreased dramatically and the party ended up as nothing more than an electoral structure: some 30,000 election monitors, voting table members and other guarantors of the party’s votes; people who didn’t even undertake any proselytizing activities. This structure remained organized exclusively to defend the party’s vote during elections and was subordinated to the FSLN secretary, former intelligence chief Lenín Cerna.
With no political organizing by the FSLN, there also came a point, particularly in the past four or five years, when the party’s institutionality was totally lost. Even pro-Daniel analysts inside the FSLN admit this. There’s no political organization or party institutionality in the FSLN and decisions that for years were made collectively are now in the hands of the presidential couple and a handful of close supporters.
How the Councils of Citizens’ Power emergedThe electoral victory last year surprised the FSLN at a time when it was organizationally very weak and had no institutionality. It was also a minority victory. The 38% of the votes it pulled were not enough guarantee Daniel Ortega a big enough social correlation to push through his political project, which is a personal one centered on controlling power.
This is the context in which the idea of creating the Councils of Citizens’ Power (CPCs) emerged. The presidential pair needs to organize the CPCs because they know perfectly well that they’re only backed by a modest number of votes, have no organic institutional structure that could promote the project, and part of the institutional structure they do have has been exclusively reduced to electoral affairs. When they won the elections on November 5, they were aware that they had to build a structure that directly responds to the logic of their project, so they designed the CPCs. According to the decree through which they were created they are to be like schools that reproduce the ideas coming from a command nucleus concentrated in the top leadership—specifically in Ortega’s wife Rosario Murillo, who coordinates the Communication and Citizenship Council.
The design of Venezuela’s Community Councils is quite similar. We were very closely linked to the Bolivarian revolutionary project from the start and I remember talking to one of its main leaders who told us they were also surprised when they won the elections. Chávez’s Fifth Republic Movement won the elections because it managed to capitalize on the impoverished majority’s great discontent with the dynamics of the two traditional huge parties and the power groups in Venezuela. All this happened following the petroleum price crisis and the “Caracazo” [a wave of violent protests against IMF reforms by impoverished people in Caracas and surrounding towns on February 27, 1989, in which many were massacred by the security forces]. When they won, they realized they didn’t have any organization; any structure. So they started to experiment with different forms of organization. The Community Councils are the most recent form, linking what they called Missions and other neighborhood organizational forms. Like our CPCs, they’re designed to develop state-related tasks in the community in the areas of education, health and housing.
CPC contradictions around the country The problem for the CPCs in Nicaragua is that they’re built on rubble, on what’s left of the FSLN structures, which had been losing leadership and any real leading role. The organic leaders, linked to the party structure and to activities to defend the FSLN vote, weren’t very closely related to the social work. This isn’t true of all of them, because some Sandinistas—even Danielistas—as well as people who vote for the FSLN never lost their links with social organization. But the majority did. In most cases, the party leaders didn’t participate in social organizations or even in the Municipal Development Committees (CDMs) where they exist.
Organizing the CPCs on the remains of the FSLN structure, ignoring expressions of participation that had been functioning for 10, 15, 16 years as well as the local and traditional leaders has triggered conflict in many places. This happened, for example, in Condega, one of the municipalities that pioneered application of the Law of Citizens’ Participation and has a CDM, an education commission, a commission to resolve the water problem, a commission for health problems...
The situation in the capitalThe kind of citizens’ participation arenas we’ve seen in some other municipalities were never organized in other places, for example Managua. I often criticized Mayor Herty Lewites for his limited interest in civic organization. During his administration participatory bodies were conspicuous by their absence, as they have also been under Managua’s current mayor, Nicho Marenco. Certain organizations did show interest in promoting neighborhood committees in large barrios, however, and there’s been a project to create district development committees, although they don’t exist yet. The weakness of civic participation structures in the capital city has favored the development of the CPCs here. Despite the weaknesses of the FSLN’s work in Managua and the fact that Managua is one of the municipalities where the FSLN faces an enormous challenge in next year’s municipal elections, the CPCs are slightly more organized here. I believe Managua will be one of the most hotly contested places in the upcoming elections. In the race for National Assembly representatives last year, the MRS Alliance pulled 19% of the vote, beating the PLC into fourth place. The FSLN won 34%, the ALN 28% and the PLC 17%.
Managua is one place where the FSLN has lost a lot of backing and where the contradictions are much more evident between the structure that depends on Rosario Murillo and the one that depends on Lenín Cerna. There are also conflicts with the authentic neighborhood structures promoted mainly by the Community Movement, women’s organizations and other social organizations.
Social decomposition and political motivationThe general social decomposition and the weakening and corruption of the FSLN ended up turning political work into paid work. We have problems changing the logic that currently moves people: if you don’t pay their bus fare and a snack nobody turns up for any meetings. And that’s due not to poverty but to the decomposition generated by the dynamics and logic of doing politics. How can we change that? We have to start over, take up the ant-like work of the sixties and seventies, building nuclei of awareness, weaving, reconstructing ideals, developing formation processes with critical thinking…
I have reason to guess that this decomposition is also currently affecting the CPC rank and file. I can’t imagine that 80-90% of the people who have joined the CPCs are motivated exclusively by conviction. Many immediate personal and material interests are at play. And naturally, the territorial, local and neighborhood leadership will largely determine whether the CPCs have positive or negative results.
The CPCs have already been selling beans at cheaper prices. The minister said the state imported the beans using the US$16 million Hugo Chávez gave for Hurricane Felix victims on the northern Caribbean coast and those affected by the rains in the north of the country. But in addition, we’re talking about at least US$70 million from Venezuelan cooperation this year through the sale of oil. The government is already moving part of these resources, which are not subject to oversight from anyone, through the CPCs.
I can imagine that those resources are quite a “motivation” for joining the CPCs. Another justifiable motivation could be the chance of finding a job. People who seek work in state institutions are already being told they need a CPC recommendation, and if they go to their CPC they’re told “you’re hanging out with the MRS. Let them give you a job!” So we can just imagine the CPCs reproducing corruption and the use of resources for patronage, although there will surely be exceptions because some people will always take their participation seriously.
We have to be clear that a government with a force of 30,000 likeminded people who mobilize, agitate and act like shock troops can control a country where one or two million discontented people remain immobile at home. That’s why the citizens’ organization and mobilization are essential.
What is the FSLN’s government project?In short, I think the CPCs respond to the presidential couple’s need to have a grassroots organization that addresses the project’s logic. And that’s where the real question comes in: what is the FSLN’s government project? Some, like [radical journalist] William Grigsby, say that there’s currently a pitched battle in the FSLN between the line taken by Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, who want to push a project of deep-rooted transformation, an anti-capitalist project and even a project aiming toward socialism; and a sector of top government officials and party leaders who are resisting such a project. According to this analysis, there’s a tendency within the FSLN that grew out of the Businesspeople’s Bloc, which has had great power and influence for some years and is now fighting to stop Daniel Ortega’s government radicalizing toward the left.
I have real doubts as to whether this analysis is objective. I see the current conflicts as ones of interests, not of ideology. But Daniel Ortega’s personal project needs to be dressed up in ideological clothing so he can confront other forces within the party that are rebelling not because they don’t want leftwing radicalism, but for other reasons. Nicho Marenco has demonstrated this a bit by his defense of the right to dissent, to think, to criticize, to see things differently, rejecting the vertical, authoritarian and undemocratic approach currently embodied by the presidential pair. Needless to say, some even see the current conflict in the FSLN as a personal confrontation with the “unbearable” Rosario Murillo.
The same old neoliberal projectI think the contradictions will continue in the FSLN and the presidential pair will try to make them seen as the confrontation between two projects: one that wants to continue with neoliberalism—they’ve even called it social democratic—and the “truly revolutionary” project embodied by Daniel Ortega, Rosario Murillo and the CPCs. There’s no basis for this because we know that Daniel and Rosario now have absolute power within the institutional apparatus, both in the state and in the remains of the FSLN. The strategic decisions they’ve taken with that power have represented a continuation of the neoliberal policies: the 2007 budget, which is the one Bolaños left behind, with no real changes made; the agreements with the International Monetary Fund, which for the first time were not imposed but rather resulted from the government’s own proposal; the resistance to engaging in a revision and sovereign negotiation of the domestic debt. They could perfectly well have made certain other decisions but chose not to. We’re now about to enter the second year of the Ortega government with a budget—this time designed by his own team—that has a clearly IMF and neoliberal logic. What was that about a revolutionary project?
If the presidential pair’s project is revolutionary and progressive, next year’s budget direction means that over 30% of Ortega’s term will go by without giving any concrete indications of it. In our opinion, the reason this isn’t happening isn’t just because a few ministers are resisting the implementation of a revolutionary policy; we all know that one feature of this government is that it has a Cabinet unable to put forward its own proposal or distance itself from even the least important presidential order, to avoid being abruptly dismissed at the first such sign of dissidence.
If you access the Central Bank’s web page and examine the Financial Economic Program up to 2010 and the memorandum of understanding with the IMF, you’ll realize that this government’s monetary, fiscal, trade, credit and exchange policies are exactly the same as those of the Bolaños government. So what’s the great advance that was announced by the Central Bank president? That they proposed a complementary social policy? Big deal. And who’s financing it, the country’s rich through a progressive tax policy? On January 8, two days before Daniel Ortega took office, Mario Arana, who was president of the Central Bank during the Bolaños government, said he had a good idea of what was coming. He said Nicaragua’s explosive social debt is a source of instability and potential social mobilization and that people won’t keep accepting such high levels of social inequity forever, so it was really good that Chávez was going to give us money to alleviate that debt. This country’s big capitalists couldn’t be happier today: there’s a social policy that guarantees them stability without modifying the tax, fiscal or financial policy. They’re delighted that the potential social explosion is being defused with Venezuelan resources.
No revolutionary project in the FSLN; The contradictions we’re seeing in the FSLN don’t really have anything to do with any revolutionary model, because there is no such model. The only thing revolutionary about them is the discourse. The conflicts themselves actually spring from a leadership model centered on power for power’s sake. They are manifestations of a power struggle that has nothing to do with the design of two different projects, but rather with the weaknesses of a project that only revolves around disputed economic, material and business interests. This is the case with the Venezuelan oil. One of Nicho Marenco’s difficulties is that he started the negotiations with Venezuela when he was mayor and Daniel Ortega still wasn’t President. Nicho organized and directed the Albanic company to start up the petroleum contract and was literally removed from that post when Albanisa was created, excluding him. What lies behind these contradictions are disputes around the management of some of these businesses.
just power for power’s sake
There is no revolutionary project in the FSLN. What the Sandinista government is currently implementing in Nicaragua is more of the same neoliberal project, with absolutely negative additional ingredients such as authoritarianism and the squashing of liberties. The worst extra ingredient is the pact with the Catholic hierarchy to embrace its most obscurantist, backward ideas. This ingredient is creating the most difficult conditions with respect to transformation, to revolutionary change.
Most Nicaraguans no The main problem when we lost the 1990 elections was that we’d had to conduct a revolution in extremely difficult conditions, in the middle of a US-sponsored war, so the Nicaraguan population identified the Left with war. That was the Right’s main discourse, and was evident up to 1996. Until then the FSLN’s return to government was identified with the return of war, or at least of hostile relations with our big neighbor to the north, with all the economic and political problems that implied.
longer identify with the Left
Once Arnoldo Alemán was elected, the Left became identified with the pact. Daniel Ortega now equals pact, divvying up state institutions and power, corruption and a thirst for power for power’s sake. The big drama now is his revolutionist discourse, because there’s nothing more negative for progressive ideas, for socialism, than Daniel talking about socialism. The fact is, he discredits it; he discredits any idea, any concept that might eventually emerge. What he puts into practice runs totally against the ideas of the Left. It’s the same for Venezuela: the Bolivarian revolution couldn’t have a worse ambassador in Nicaragua than Daniel Ortega.
In 2006, when Herty Lewites was still alive, we surveyed Nicaraguans on their perception of the “Left.” A very high percentage answered that Daniel was “very leftwing,” 80% said they didn’t identify at all with the Left and just 7% considered themselves leftwing. The general opinion was that Daniel is leftwing and therefore they see the Left as negative.
Our challenge is to build and offer people a viable alternative proposal that seduces and involves them, that makes them believe in the possibility of a real victory over inequity and injustice with their participation. But the keys to this model have to be searched for where they really are.
We need to present an alternativeWe in the Movement for the Rescue of Sandinismo, which is part of the MRS Alliance, want to present an alternative. When we focus our critical analysis exclusively on the political leg of the pact—the divvying up of institutions between the PLC and FSLN—we end up with a partial, Liberal focus, like the ALN’s. Only if we stress the economic model Daniel is promoting, the substance of the economic policies and their real ideological orientation—which is definitely the continuance of the previous neoliberal model through other channels—do we distance ourselves from the Right and present the perspective of an alternative force. We’re opting to strengthen the Movement for the Rescue of Sandinismo as a force that exerts pressure for greater radicalism within the MRS Alliance. We believe there’s an urgent need to build a more radical leftist alternative, one that reaches beyond the electoral struggle and goes out every day to reacquaint itself with the people’s agenda, the social struggle. The change can only be made with the people.
people can believe in and work for
We’re not going to limit ourselves to the struggle to remove the party influence in important institutional posts. While this task is crucial, it’s not the most essential one. We want something else, we want more: we want to move beyond the current society; we want social justice and equity; we want people to be truly free. We believe Nicaragua needs to recover the Left, to refound Sandinismo, fighting for the future, fighting to change the system like we did before. We need to build an alternative proposal that goes to the roots of the problems and exposes Daniel Ortega’s project from the Left.
Mónica Baltodano is a leader of the Movement for the Rescue of Sandinismo and a National Assembly representative for the MRS Alliance.