I Know the FSLN’s History Well, But I Can’t Envision Its Future
One of the FSLN’s most qualified militants and functionaries,
also among Daniel Ortega’s closest advisers for many years,
relates the milestones of this once-revolutionary party’s history
and offers his reflections on the current Ortega government.
I’ve never been a theoretician of anything; I’m not an intellectual. What I am is a practical man; an operator, a “shoemaker,” as they once called me. I don’t have what it takes to do very profound analyses. Life has led me through different responsibilities in the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and I know its history over more than 40 years, because I’ve been part of it.
Nicaraguans’ historical memory is very limited. We only remember the latest thing that happened and don’t see what past circumstances led to what we’re experiencing today. I’d like to look back on some of the milestones in the FSLN’s history, some of its inflection points, to understand why the party is as it is and where it is today. I’ll try not to hurt anyone or cause any more fissures than already exist, because a destructive focus does nothing to help the FSLN, Nicaragua or the social organizations prosper.
The birth of the FSLN The FSLN’s birth, which officially dates back to 1963, is the take-off point, although that date was a very low-profile reference until 1979; very few knew it. I got my initiation in the nation’s political life that same year; the year I graduated from high school and enrolled in the Central American University, the UCA. I remember the president of the University Center, Roger Vélez, calling us all together one afternoon in October or November and explaining that we had to demand the bodies of several compañeros who had been killed in Bocay. That was the first time I heard that there were guerrillas and that they had died fighting against Somoza.
There were dozens of armed anti-Somocista guerrilla movements of different stripes between Sandino’s death in 1934 and the founding of the FSLN in 1963. That whole history is covered in Chuno Blandón’s book Entre Sandino y Fonseca. The very name Front was used by the various tendencies in the initial nucleus: one was called Sandino Revolutionary Front, another Sandino Front, another National Liberation Front. It was Carlos Fonseca who proposed the name Sandinista National Liberation Front. At that time the FSLN would have had about 10 or 11 people.
In its first 10 years the FSLN basically drew its cadres from the Revolutionary Student Front (FER), a student movement in the Autonomous National University and the UCA. There was also an important foco that came out of El Viejo, maybe because of the work Germán Pomares did in that zone. At that stage the most important political demonstrations against the dictatorship sprang from university life, where a social idea of Sandinismo was also taking shape. There was already an anti-Somocista position in the traditional parties—the Conservatives, Social Christians, Socialists, Independent Liberals—but we had more draw through the university. We even had the power to call out the parties, even though we were only kids of 18, 19 years old. The National Opposition Union was founded in 1967 from the university world, mixing Social Christians and the FER, which were the two major currents in the universities. By then the FSLN was a small clandestine group conducting armed actions in the city: basically what we called “economic recuperation” in banks. It was also trying to set up some guerrilla focos in the mountains.
In those same years a band of young people from an organization that called itself Nicaraguan Patriotic Youth joined up with the FSLN. It was founded after the triumph of the Cuban revolution, pushed by the Cuban ambassador in Nicaragua. He pulled together the most rebellious Conservative youth, young people who were already Sandinistas through some family connection, those who were the most outgoing and had more spirit for armed struggle. Others of us didn’t have that capacity.
The sixties were very intense in Nicaragua’s political life. I don’t think there’s ever been such a decided university presence in the political struggle as during those years.
The milestone events of the sixtiesIn October 1966, we in the UNAN and the UCA took over the National Stadium during the inauguration of the Baseball League. The stadium was full: 20,000 people. By that time I was president of the UCA university center. Thirty of us, 22 men and 8 women, got onto the playing field and unfurled an enormous banner that said, “No more Somoza! University Centers.” We were protesting because Anastasio Somoza Debayle [son of Anastasio Somoza García, the first President in the Somoza family dynasty that began in 1934] wanted to be President, which would make him the third Somoza in government. Our idea was to take advantage of the presence of that multitude and all the journalists to make our protest and then get out of the stadium. But it was such an unexpected, scandalous event that the National Guard’s repression was very strong. They captured eight of us, 1 woman and 7 men. I spent 28 days hospitalized, with both hands broken. They also broke my jaw on the left, and busted my eardrum.
Another milestone in the sixties was the march of January 22, 1967, which ended in a massacre by the National Guard. The march was led by Fernando Agüero Rocha, director of the Conservative Party, which belonged to the National Opposition Union. But we university students were at the head. Before the march, they told us that the traditional parties were negotiating with the National Guard over Somoza’s departure and the establishment of a military- government junta and that our demonstration was to back that political solution.
There were militant Social Christians and Socialists and simply militant anti-Somocistas in that march. The FSLN participated very marginally. The bulk of us were youth from that anti-Somocista opposition, who acted as shock forces. We went out into the streets looking to clash with the Guardsmen, to provoke and fight them. That day the response was a massacre. And of course, the whole negotiation line was sheer invention, because nobody showed up to negotiate anything. A lot of people died that day; I don’t even know how many. I saw more than a hundred people fall, and saw blood running in the street like rainwater. It was a miracle I got out alive; that day was my baptism by blood in the anti-Somocista struggle.
Between 1965 and 1968, when I graduated in engineering and left the university, a first Sandinista generation was born, the one I belonged to generationally, although not organizationally. That’s the generation that’s now in government. The next years were a process of silent accumulation of forces; a good part of the first FSLN leaders were outside of Nicaragua for security reasons and there was a lot of organizational work here inside. One of the distinguished figures in that work was Pedro Arauz, the head of the Internal Front.
In those years the FSLN engaged in a series of small skirmishes in Managua that were nothing more than bank assaults. Daniel Ortega, Lenín Cerna and others were imprisoned in 1967, while Oscar Turcios, Ricardo Morales Avilés and Jonathan González were among those who died in those same years. There were small guerrilla groups in the mountains; it was never really an extensive guerrilla force, but always a very select guerrilla foco. It was understood that the mountains were for those with the greatest ideological level and commitment. We had this rather mythical idea of the guerrillas in the mountains. Henry Ruiz, Commandante “Modesto,” was the most emblematic figure.
The seventies unleash a virulent debateThe FSLN carried out two spectacular actions in the seventies. The first was the assault on the house of Chema Castillo during a Christmas party in December 1974 with the taking of important hostages that allowed us to get well-known prisoners released: José Benito Escobar, Daniel Ortega, Lenín Cerna, Carlos Guadamuz, Julián Roque Cuadra, Manuel Rivas Vallecillo, Jacinto Suárez… The other was the assault on the National Palace in August 1978, when hostages were taken for the same purpose and was also successful.
about the nature of revolutionary struggle
Major repression was unleashed against all the FSLN support networks in 1975, following the Chema Castillo event, and many, many people were taken prisoner in the regime’s roundups. The repressive response sparked a very strong and agitated discussion within FSLN ranks. One sector—which came to be called the Proletarian Tendency—began to question the spectacular military blows, dismissing them as “adventurist” because they provoked such major repression, and ended up leaving the FSLN weaker. That same debate on the nature of revolutionary struggle was taking place in the Left all over Latin America.
The Proletarian Tendency faced off against the traditional FSLN, which favored guerrilla struggle in the mountains and was known as the Prolonged Popular War tendency. They insisted that the revolutionary struggle required the development of a guerrilla foco in the mountains to consolidate forces that once sufficiently mature would descend on the cities as an army. It was an idea influenced by the Cuban model of revolutionary victory. This discussion within the FSLN was incredibly virulent and aggressive. The two Ortega brothers were expelled for “adventurism.”
The same tendency of the Left to fragment was happening everywhere, but I think the tendency toward division is something more in Nicaragua. I think it’s in the blood; it’s genetic. If a chess federation appears in Nicaragua, another chess federation is sure to appear within two weeks. And I’m talking about chess, which is a very calm sport; I’m not talking about wrestling or boxing. If one baseball federation appears, then another one appears soon after. If a Liberal party appears, there are three Liberal parties in no time at all. The Sandinista Front appeared—and remained solid for years—but now there’s the Sandinista Renovation Movement and Rescue of Sandinismo.
The Right also splits everywhere. In Nicaragua they fight over perks a lot, but in wealthier countries they quickly reach agreement because the values they’re arguing over are much more concrete: they add and subtract, so much here, so much over there and it’s a done deal.
In those years the debate in the FSLN was over ideas: like whether you had to create a party of workers with class consciousness before going into the revolutionary struggle so that the Marxist-Leninist concepts could be applied during that phase… And this in a society that didn’t have a single factory, and thus not a single worker. It was a society consisting of peasants and merchants in Managua’s Eastern Market. Yet the debate was whether the Nicaraguan working class should be at the vanguard of the struggle…
The insurrectionist tendency prevailsEduardo Contreras—who was “Comandante Cero” in the assault on Chema Castillo’s house—had studied abroad and had more university knowledge, and I think for that reason analyzed reality more broadly. Together with Humberto Ortega, Daniel and Carlos Fonseca himself, he began to introduce the idea of seeking alliances, trying to create a force that was not as segmented as we had at that time. Discussions between the two conflicting tendencies led to the emergence of a new one that would later be called the Insurrectionist or Tercerista tendency. It argued against debating so much whether we needed a party, or whether the forces in the mountain had to mature, insisting that we had to—and could—launch an insurrectionary struggle against the Somocista dictatorship immediately. Those ideas began appearing in 1976.
The Tercerista Tendency opened up a very audacious policy of alliances, incorporating elements of Nicaraguan civil society into the FSLN’s struggle, including wealthy business people and well-known anti-Somocistas. It formed what was called the Group of Twelve, the visible face of a transition government project for when the dictatorship fell. The maximum expression of this insurrectionary policy backed by broad alliances came in 1977 with the assaults on San Carlos, Masaya and Ocotal, and culminated in the assault on the National Palace, which allowed us to free over a hundred compañeros imprisoned between 1974 and 1975.
How it was supposed to happenThe part of Nicaraguan history covering 1978 to 1979 is the best-known one, except for the last hours of the dictatorship, between Somoza’s departure on July 17 and ending on July 19. They aren’t very well known even though a series of unplanned events occurred that completely changed the history of Nicaragua.
In the negotiations that took place in the first quarter of 1979 between the US government, represented by President Carter’s envoy William Bowdler, the FSLN National Directorate and the Government Junta of National Reconstruction, the US pressured both Somoza and us to ensure a peaceful transition of power. Everyone agreed that Somoza had to leave. Everyone also agreed that the FSLN wouldn’t win, but had to have a quota of power, because militarily it controlled a good part of the national territory. Various attempts were made to expand the Government Junta to seven or even eleven members, with names flying around. They even proposed some National Guard officers who didn’t have too bad a reputation. Paradoxically, one of them was Enrique Bermúdez, who later became the head of the contras, but was viewed at the time as a “decent” officer.
In the end the agreement was that Somoza would leave Nicaragua and turn over power to then-Archbishop Obando during the day. It would be an interim government of a few hours and that night Obando would pass power over to the Government Junta of National Reconstruction. Meanwhile, the city would be divided into two halves. West of the line would remain in the Guard’s hands, and east of it all the way out to the airport would be in the FSLN’s hands, thus permitting our people in Costa Rica to enter the country by plane. A mixed army would immediately be formed: half Sandinistas and half Guardsmen. After the more murderous, thieving Guard members were purged, the Guard’s High Command would be under combined command and mixed troops would be created. That was a very tough task and we’ll never know how it would have been accomplished. I can’t even imagine what the results would have been.
July 17But things didn’t happen that way. It seems Somoza didn’t transmit all this information to Francisco Urcuyo Maliaños, the interim President he was supposed to leave behind. The transition took place in the pre-dawn hours. The National Congress accepted Anastasio Somoza’s resignation, named Urcuyo interim President and Somoza left Nicaragua at around 4 a.m. on July 17. But early in the morning Urcuyo gave a press conference in which he said he had no agreement with anybody, had nothing to negotiate with the FSLN and would continue to govern until Somoza’s term ended. This, obviously, changed everything. We in the FSLN responded that we didn’t have any agreement with anybody either then and were going to march on Managua and take over all of Nicaragua. Washington desperately began pressuring Somoza, who was already in the United States…
No one knew what would happen next. I was in Costa Rica, responsible for the radio control center from which we were directing the Radio Sandino broadcasts. We also controlled the military radio transmissions for the whole country. At about 5 a.m. on the 17th, once we knew Somoza had left Nicaragua, Humberto Ortega called me and put me in charge of talking to Federico Mejía González, the National Guard interim chief. I was accompanied on that mission by Costa Rica’s security minister, his second and the Costa Rican security chief, plus three other Costa Ricans and three Guard officers—a Colonel Mayorga and a Captain Valladares, who had already shifted to work with the FSLN, and Colonel Bernardino Larios, already designated defense minister of the revolutionary government. They took us by plane from San José to Punta Arenas, where we would meet up with Mejía González, accompanied by the US military attaché in Costa Rica. It would be the first contact between the National Guard and the FSLN.
But the hours passed and nobody showed. At about 11 a.m. they told us that the Guard wasn’t coming and took us back to San José. By that time the Government Junta was already at San José airport, ready to enter Nicaragua and carry out the plan: arrive at midday and at night hold the ceremony to turn over power. The protocol leave-taking was ready—kids with Nicaraguan and Costa Rican flags, a whole state farewell—when we were told that there had been a lot of shooting at the Managua airport and it wasn’t safe to land.
We had to cancel the trip, but the Costa Rican government wanted us gone for good; at that point Costa Rica was crawling with Sandinistas and the government wanted out of the mess. It pressured and pressured and at 10 minutes to midnight on July 17 a plane took off for Nicaragua carrying the members of the Government Junta who were in Costa Rica—Violeta Chamorro, Sergio Ramírez and Alfonzo Robello, plus Ernesto Cardenal, Dr. Juan Ignacio Gutiérrez, Violeta Chamorro’s son-in-law Chepe Bárcenas and René Núñez. Another Government Junta member, Moises Hassan, was already in Masaya, while Daniel was in León, having entered the previous week. The plane had to land on the highway to Poneloya, just outside León. Finally the Government Junta was in Nicaragua, albeit clandestinely. But nobody knew what would happen the next day.
July 18I went to the radio control center early in the morning of the 18th, and at about 10am a call came in and some guy told me he was Colonel Néstor Chacón and that the National Guard wanted to surrender. What was I supposed to do all alone there at that hour? I told him to stick a white flag out the window. He didn’t have a flag. ‘So stick out a sheet; I’ll let our nearest troops know and we’ll begin the negotiation.’ I wanted to know more so I asked him: ‘What have you heard from Somoza?’ He answered: ‘He’s been calling. He called last night, drunk, and told Urcuyo not to give up, to hold on, that reinforcements were on their way, to pay no attention to the gringo ambassador. He persuaded Urcuyo not to negotiate with the Sandinistas. But he called again this morning and was calmer and talked in a different tone…’ We learned later that the US pressure on Somoza had worked and that Somoza changed his line and told Urcuyo he had to turn over the government because US Secretary of State Warren Christopher had threatened to send him back to Nicaragua and turn him over to the Sandinistas if he didn’t.
I said to the guy: ‘Can I talk to the bunker?’ ‘Yeah,’ he says to me and passes me over to nobody less than Mejía González! I quickly started improvising, because there I was all alone with no authority to decide or negotiate anything. I had a political responsibility, but at the end of the day I was just a subaltern… So I began to reel him in: ‘Look, the war’s over, Somoza’s gone, we can’t keep on killing each other here. We have to look for peace, figure a way of sorting this out. The first thing you have to do is get rid of Urcuyo so we can negotiate…’ But as the head of the Guard, he couldn’t make decisions against his boss, the President of the Republic, who was Urcuyo. We talked about 15 minutes and playing for time I told him: ‘Okay, you do your consulting, I’ll consult with my superiors and we’ll call each other back tonight at 7 o’clock.’ That’s how we left it.
I went racing out to find Humberto Ortega: Brother, the Guard is surrendering; I have the contact! We radioed people as best we could, half in code, and at 7 that night we established communication again.
Humberto also tried to soften them up, telling them this is how it is in war, some win and others lose, that there wouldn’t be any reprisals, that the war was over, that the Guard had fought very well, that we had to stop the killing… It went on like that for several hours, and I got so bored I went and laid down because it didn’t sound like it was going anywhere…
This gives an idea of the context in which the events played themselves out. July 19 is now agreed on as the historic date of the triumph of the revolution, but at 10 at night on July 18 nobody knew what was going to happen the next day, and anybody who says differently is lying. There was a very favorable correlation of forces for the FSLN, but if they had closed the airport or the border on us, we could have been kicked out and who knows what would have happened. The air transport forces could even have invaded us…
What armaments did the FSLN have at that time? Three thousand rifles. That’s all we’d brought into Nicaragua. That’s all the FSLN had in the entire country. For the September 1978 insurrection, we had brought 12 war rifles into Managua to add to the 70 we already had in Nicaragua. That was our whole military force.
July 19I was awakened by the telephone in the early hours of the 19th. At 2 a.m. Colonel Fulgencio Largaespada had finally surrendered the Guard to a group of ours in Managua, including part of The Twelve and some others linked to the FSLN, who were at Dr. Rivas Gasteazoro’s house. There, partly by radio, partly by telephone, they drafted the Guard’s declaration of surrender. I don’t know what time Urcuyo left the country, whether at night or the morning of the 19th. After that the stampede of Guardsmen out of the country began by sea and land, on all sides. At noon on July 19 the FSLN took over the Managua airport and a few hours later controlled the whole of Nicaragua. The Government Junta flew from León to Managua and held its first meeting in the international airport. They returned to León that night and on the 20th officially entered Managua. The images we see today of July 19, with trucks full of Sandinistas and the celebration in the Plaza are all really from July 20.
This history shows just how precarious events are. And it often happens like that: power is consolidated one way or another by unanticipated events that have nothing to do with the intentions of their protagonists. This history also shows that the revolution was born, grew and flourished almost unexpectedly. Twenty-four hours before the triumph of the revolution nobody knew what was going to happen.
We were all prepared to die, but not to governAll of us were prepared to die. We got into this without knowing what would become of our life; we just tried not to get killed. And that training, that mentality, can damage an organization: a rather suicidal nature doesn’t measure the consequences of its acts, but throws itself into things to see what will happen. None of us was trained or prepared to live or for what to do after the victory. I was a minister in the first revolutionary Cabinet. They said to me: ‘You’re going to be minister of construction’ and I got to know the construction ministry the day I walked into it. Each of us did what we could.
At the time of the triumph, the correlation of forces among the three FSLN tendencies favored the Terceristas, because it had pushed the armed struggle, received the most weapons and controlled virtually all the country’s military fronts. Although the three tendencies had unified into what was called the Joint National Directorate even before July 19, I don’t think those old disputes ever really healed. There was always distrust. And if we look at how the government was structured during the years of the revolution, one way or another the three tendencies were still reflected in the members of the different ministries, according to who headed it.
Another milestone: The 1990 defeat at the pollsJumping past the stage of the revolutionary government, which is much better known, another milestone in the FSLN’s history happened in 1989-90, in which a revolution that triumphed through armed struggle was unexpectedly defeated at the polls. Nobody believed it would happen. Some now say they had predicted what would happen, but that’s not true. Nobody expected that we would lose the elections.
By that time, I was working in the FSLN’s department of propaganda. We did election surveys, but we weren’t experts. We asked people who they intended to vote for and many said, ‘I don’t know,’ so we started inventing from the crossed information: this one says he doesn’t know but also says he likes to read Barricada, so he’ll vote Sandinista; this other one says he doesn’t know, but says Violeta is stupid, so he’ll vote Sandinista; this one says he doesn’t know, but called Daniel Ortega a bad name, so he’s a contra... As you can see it was quite a rudimentary method.
At the very end of the electoral campaign the Cid Gallup and Borge & Assoc. pollsters started to suggest that the correlation was going against the FSLN, but the FSLN said those polls were manipulated by the CIA, the Yankees, the State Department, the enemies of humanity, and that anyone who paid attention to them were sellouts. That was more or less the level of our reasoning. I recall a letter sent to me by the head of CID Gallup at the end of the campaign, thanking me for getting two of his pollsters out of jail in San Jorge. He wrote: “Nicho, I’m sending you the results of the poll. What you’re saying is false. Our survey is well done and you’re going to lose the elections.” At the end he added: “They say that, in the past, tyrants used to kill the bearer of bad news. I hope you don’t kill me.”
The polls weren’t wrong. We lost and we weren’t prepared. It was a very hard moment. That night was almost the only time in my life that I’ve felt afraid. Something cold inside: a mixture of sadness, fear and uncertainty.
Election nightFor election day we had organized a quick poll system with 800 voting tables that would give us their data sooner and provide a prognosis of the final results. Humberto Ortega, Joaquín Cuadra, Osvaldo Lacayo, Lenín Cerna, Sergio Ramírez and I had lunch in the Army headquarters and laid bets about how much we would win by: 60-40, 70-30, 80-20… Anyone who said we’d get less than 70% was nuts; that was the least we thought we’d get. The Supreme Electoral Council, headed by Mariano Fiallos, was a prestigious institution, but was controlled by the FSLN. It had very clear instructions: at 7 p.m. it was supposed to read the results of the first four voting places that came in, with the four most crushing victories—each with a 100-vote spread—to mark a 4-0 FSLN victory.
But Mariano Fiallos didn’t come out at 7 p.m.. How weird! When he finally came out at 7:30, he read the results of four tables, as we had told him to, but we won two and lost two. And in the two we won it was by very little. More weirdness. When I got to the campaign headquarters everybody was nervous. I called Daniel Ortega: ‘You’d better get over here because this is strange…’ When Daniel arrived we asked Paul Oquist, who was in charge of our quick count, to tell us what data he had. We had lost. Daniel asked him what chance there was that this could change, and Oquist answered, with his US accent: ‘I’m afraid, Comandante, that there’s none.’ But I still said to Daniel: ‘Don’t pay any attention to him, Daniel; he’s got just 200 tables out of 5-6,000. Things are going to change…’
By that time everybody was nervous. The FSLN Directorate went off to meet at the Army headquarters. At about 10 at night Jimmy Carter called me: ‘I want to speak to President Ortega.’ When I told him he wasn’t there, he said: ‘Tell him I want to talk to him.’ But Daniel didn’t answer him. About an hour later Carter called again, more insistently: ‘Tell President Ortega that if he doesn’t get on the phone with me I’m going to announce that he lost the elections. I don’t want to do it without him knowing.’ I called Daniel and said: ‘This man says we’re out and that if he can’t talk to you, he’s going to blow the lid on it!’
At midnight, Jimmy Carter, his wife Rosalyn, US National Security Adviser Bob Pastor, OAS Secretary General Baena Soares, Elliott Richardson, who was heading up the UN electoral mission, and other international observers showed up at the campaign headquarters. Daniel entered, and I watched from the side. Carter said, ‘Hi Daniel, how are you? Look, I want to tell you that you lost the elections, but don’t worry; it happens. It happened to me and although you feel awful at the beginning, you pull it together afterward.’ ‘No,’ said Daniel, ‘that isn’t true. The results still haven’t come in from a thousand tables.’ But Carter insisted: ‘No, no, if you aren’t going to recognize it, I’m going to say it now and things will get really messy.’ So Daniel recognized it and the only thing he asked was not to make it public until 6 in the morning. Daniel and that whole group went from the campaign headquarters to Violeta Chamorro’s house. The results weren’t announced until 6 a.m. on February 26, 1990, when Daniel made that speech you all remember, an extraordinary speech recognizing the defeat.
From then on there were pacts between Toño Lacayo and Humberto Ortega during the government of Violeta Chamorro and the whole transition period. I think it needs to be very clearly recognized that in those years Daniel Ortega grabbed the FSLN’s reins with a lot of courage and said: nothing has happened here; we’re going to govern from below. And he came up with that slogan. Following that unexpected defeat, the FSLN began to split, with some blaming others, others asking why we had lost, and still others charging that some were hiding from the blame… That debate happened fairly clandestinely.
Another Milestone: Ortega kept the torch litAfter that came another of those moments I consider milestones in the FSLN’s history. When the Sandinista Renovation Movement was founded in the mid-nineties, the FSLN had 38 representatives in the National Assembly, of which 36 went with the MRS and only 2 remained on the Sandinista bench. If that had happened to a party in Spain, Germany or Japan, it would have been the end of the party; not even ashes would remain. But it didn’t happen to the FSLN. I believe Daniel Ortega deserves credit for keeping the torch lit and traveling all over the country until the circumstances changed again in the next elections, when the FSLN got 40 representatives and the MRS only one.
That ushered in another stage for the FSLN: in the opposition during Mr. Alemán’s government. It also produced the famous pact, which is currently the focal point of debate and control of the country’s political life. The pact was basically born out of the fact that at the beginning of the Alemán government, the FSLN created a series of violent protests, just as it had done at the start of the Chamorro government. Alemán needed to buy social peace to be able to govern and to destroy the FSLN, which was his real objective.
The birth of the pactI recall the first negotiations we had with Alemán, during which a relationship was worked out between General Humberto Ortega and Jaime Morales Carazo, Alemán’s godfather and most important adviser, establishing points of agreement. Later they brought me into that negotiation, together with Alemán’s private secretary, Alfredo Fernández.
We worked for about three months and when a series of discussion points had been formulated, President Alemán and former President Ortega were incorporated into that small committee. Humberto stepped out, leaving just Daniel Ortega and me for the FSLN, together with Alemán, Morales and Fernández. It was a secret commission. Everything discussed was private; no one knew anything about it and that’s still true right up to today. Nothing was ever leaked from the thirty-some meetings.
What was the FSLN’s objective? To recover political spaces. We had no representatives in the Comptroller General’s Office; just one magistrate in the Supreme Electoral Council, and only one or two justices in the Supreme Court. We were a total minority in the public institutions. And if you don’t have a presence in the state institutions, you’re nowhere when the electoral process rolls around, because we’re not living in Switzerland or Sweden here, where the laws are respected fully. The truth is that here you have to be overseeing things personally, because otherwise you’re nothing. From that perspective the pact functioned very well. In fact it functioned so well that the FSLN was able to return to government in 2006, thanks to having lowered the percentage required to win to 35%, as long as you also get a 5-point advantage over the runner-up. Without that agreement the FSLN would never have won the elections. Seen from the perspective of the FSLN returning to power, the pact was a success. Looking at the result of the 2006 elections, they seem made to the measure of that decision.
The atmosphere inside the government isn’t healthy todayWell, those are some milestones in the FSLN’s history, which has gone from clandestinity to power, from power to electoral defeat and now from electoral victory… to where? We’re currently living out the next point of inflection. There’s a lot of controversy about this government, a lot of debate about how Daniel Ortega is governing, the exclusion of different social actors, the stridence of the foreign policy, the government’s clashes with other parties and other social forces, the CPCs [Councils of Citizens’ Power], which are really an extension of the FSLN. I believe it was a mistake changing the name from the FSLN, because the CPCs in the barrios are the same FSLN people and nobody else joins. I imagine they’ve done that as a strategy to pack the party organization.
I was the FSLN candidate for mayor of Managua in the 2004 municipal elections and won, so I’m now the FSLN mayor, a Sandinista mayor. In my first two years in office I had to contend with an anti-Sandinista government, which the Bolaños government definitely was. It was complicated, hard, above all on the transport issue. I had the advantage that, while I couldn’t talk to Bolaños the way the previous Sandinista mayor, Herty Lewites, did given that he became a friend of Bolaños, I did have good working relations with some ministers in Bolaños’ Cabinet, so I could resolve some things. When the FSLN won the presidential elections I was delighted and thought I could rest a bit because I was going to have a government from my party, which was going to help me. Unfortunately, there were some misunderstandings and they’ve separated me out from the FSLN. I’ve had zero communication for two years. Zero. I’m all alone, without my party’s backing. And yet I’m not a dissident or a traitor, as I’ve been called several times.
I believe that anyone has the right to express an opinion about what’s happening in the country. But if any Cabinet ministers dare say a tenth of what I’m saying here, they’ll be sure to find their office locked when they arrive the next day. They can’t get rid of me because I’m an official who doesn’t depend on the central government. There’s an almost police-like control over the ministers now. They can’t talk among themselves, they can’t meet. If I call them to ask about something, they cramp up. The atmosphere inside the government isn’t healthy.
Our best leaders are dead I dwelled at length on how the history of the FSLN was made, trying to give you elements to intuit what’s happening in the party today. Over time it was built up through the people who were leading… and who were dying. All the most important FSLN leaders up to 1979 are dead. What would have happened if Carlos Fonseca were alive? He would very probably be the head of the FSLN. What would have happened if Pomares, Contreras, Pedro Aráuz, Casimiro Sotelo, Julio Buitrago, Julián Roque and others were still alive? Probably many of the current cadres wouldn’t be in the top positions they have today.
and we have a military culture
But on the other hand, the military nature of the Sandinista organization explains a lot of what we’re seeing even today. We spent ten years with the slogan, “National Directorate, order us!” During the revolutionary government, the National Directorate members walked onto the stage of any public act in a given order, and we had to stand up when they came in. That was automatic, like in an army, and it creates a special organizational culture, very different from that of an environmentalist youth club or a club of musicians or philosophers. It creates a military organization. Moreover, 200,000 people fought during the revolutionary government period. They carried weapons, were trained by the army and acquired military customs that they then brought with them into the party structure.
Why power concentrated around Daniel OrtegaDuring all those years power was also concentrating around Daniel Ortega. Seniority has always counted for a lot in the party. It carried tremendous weight if you were a long-time militant, had been clandestine, had been a prisoner or had fought. It didn’t matter a fig if you were an engineer, a doctor, or had gone to the Sorbonne. You were only viewed positively if you had a trajectory. Daniel had a long trajectory: he had been a prisoner for seven years; he had headed the armed struggle. Maybe he was the person with the least charisma, the least knowledge, the most boring speaker. But one has to recognize his tenacity.
After the electoral defeat, Daniel ended up controlling the party alone for 16 years, for better or worse, but that has to be recognized. The others went off, leaving all the power in a single person. What’s more, Daniel is tireless. In the 16 years we spent in the opposition, not a day went by that he wasn’t off somewhere in the country: he’d head off to San Pedro del Norte, sleep in La Gateada, be in Bluefields at dawn, and in San Carlos by sunset, then suddenly appear in Potosí. He was like a will o’ the wisp blowing through the country. All that helped build his power, make him a force.
Daniel’s discourse only What’s happening is that Daniel is repeating in his speeches today what he was saying over thirty years ago: the poor, the peasants, imperialism, the oligarchy… He has a discourse that takes you way back past 1979 to his time in prison. It’s the most radical discourse possible.
resonates with the old cadres
He’s repeating the ideas that were the cement of the FSLN, and they still resound in the head of the oldest cadres. But now half of the population doesn’t even know who Somoza was. And if we tell a young kid that we took Toño Mora Rostrán hostage in the assault on the Palace, he’ll ask, ‘Who was he? I don’t know who he is and I don’t care. The only thing I care about is that I’m about to graduate and I want to go to college and can’t. All I care about is finishing university and finding work…’ Those are today’s problems. In such a young society the problem is how to give opportunities to this country’s enormous number of children and young people.
It will probably take a little time before many Sandinistas start questioning the divergence between Daniel’s discourse and reality. For now they’re saying: ‘’Terrific, I’m poor and it’s a poor person’s government, and we wretched of the earth are “arising.”’ But when a year goes by, then another and another and those poor don’t arise or go anywhere else for that matter, they’re bound to start thinking, ‘I’m hungry and I want a job and my kid’s sick…’ It’s just a matter of time. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to see this government come out of this badly; I’d really like to see Daniel create an excellent government.
We’re facing two enormous problems today: the demographic problem, which is going to do in the entire national political class; and the climatic problem, which will affect the whole planet, us included, with a temperature rise of only two or three degrees. But we aren’t talking about those enormous problems. Our political discussion is very primary; it’s downright folkloric: so-and-so did this, and what’s-his-face said that… And if you don’t repeat the slogan of the moment like a parrot, you’re an enemy, a sell-out, or whatever. Regrettably we don’t discuss serious, profound things, the ones that we’ll have to face up to tomorrow or the next day, when the rhetoric runs out of steam and we have to talk about reality.
There’s no need to fight I find it very difficult to have a definitive opinion about the future of the FSLN. What I do believe is that the government’s course and the way it’s governing are unnecessarily virulent. There’s no need to fight with so many people at the same time when you can work out all kinds of things through negotiation, through agreements, through dialogue. If things continue like this it seems to me that unnecessary situations wracked with social tension could crop up. How far will they go? I don’t know. For me the exclusion of the MRS and the Conservatives was totally unnecessary. It’s far better for the FSLN if more parties run. The more parties the better for the FSLN, unless they’re preparing some trick to manipulate the electoral results, and that would produce new problems.
with so many people
I think November’s municipal elections are going off course. We’re now two, three months away from election day and Managua’s mayoral candidates haven’t said a single word about the city. That’s fine for me, because at least they aren’t starting to criticize me. But if I were a candidate I’d already be criticizing the current mayor about the water, the trash, the potholes, all the defects the capital has. The campaign is highly politicized and that doesn’t help construct a democratic society or a municipal culture, but none of that seems to matter. Everyone is just fighting over [PLC candidate Eduardo] Montealegre and Alexis [Argüello, candidate for the FSLN]: that one’s useless, the other’s the thief who benefitted from the CENI bond issue… That suggests that the election has nothing to do with the city and is a race between two political positions. If the numbers from the past elections are correct, the FSLN has to wage a titanic battle to win Managua.
I think it would be very sad for the FSLN to blow off this second opportunity to govern in peace, with all the possibilities the Venezuelan oil agreements give it to bring in money and do so many things on behalf of the people. I also think the world’s economic situation is worse than ever and it’s not easy to govern any country, whether Nicaragua, Honduras or even the United States. But Venezuela’s support opens up a great window of opportunity for us to do all kinds of things, particularly in a country like Nicaragua, where paving a street is like you built a freeway, or building a school benefits thousands. But it seems to me the government’s weakness is its confrontational manner. Objectively I don’t know why it’s acting like that, but I think it needs to be corrected or it could produce very negative effects for Nicaragua. That unnecessarily confrontational discourse is doing both the FSLN and the country a lot of harm.
A country like ours, which has so few resources, can’t afford the luxury of going around fighting with everyone. It has to seek internal consensus with all the forces it can cooperate with. It has to get everyone doing their bit to lift up the country. In the international terrain, for example, I don’t think Nicaragua should be taking such a belligerent attitude toward the Colombian problem, because we can’t help in any way but we can do lots of damage.
The best way to help Colombia’s guerrilla movement is by promoting access to the international camp if it wants to legalize itself. But if they don’t want to lay down their arms, as they’ve said, we have no role to play. Hugo Chávez already met with [Colombian President] Uribe and Fidel Castro already told the FARC to free the hostages. If those two major exponents of the Left hold those positions, we should position ourselves there as well, to help resolve that conflict. We can’t just insist, regardless of whether they kidnap people or not: ‘We’re with the FARC, free land or death!’ Holding soldiers makes sense because there’s a war going on and military people from both sides are prisoners of war. But capturing politicians and civilians is a very negative act.
I think it would be much healthier to look for a more constructive approach in both national and international relations, so the FSLN can write this new stage of its history in positive language.
Widespread uncertainty about the futureFor the moment, I see a huge question mark hanging over the FSLN’s future and I think many people in Nicaragua share that uncertainty. How will we be in 2011? It’s hard to imagine, but if Daniel Ortega turns on the bulb and Hugo Chávez opens the valve, Nicaragua could be much better off than it is now. In other words, if a lot of money comes in and Daniel Ortega knows how to manage it, because a lot of money could come in and it could be a disaster. But a lot could be done to reduce our poverty levels with good administration of the flow of money left by the oil agreements with Venezuela—and I know those agreements because I signed them in 2005.
Generating positive results for the country and its people in 2011 requires meeting two requisites that are hard to evaluate right now: the capacity and will to do things well and money coming in. The refinery Chávez promised, for example, would change Nicaragua’s life. But two years have already passed and they haven’t got beyond laying the cornerstone. They should at least be moving earth by now.
Nicaragua has huge geographic potential; that’s its great wealth. An inter-oceanic canal through Nicaragua would completely change our history. I think we should be banking on an enormous infrastructure that would allow us to exploit our great geographical potential, because it’s the only comparative advantage Nicaragua has. Everything else could be done just as well in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica. I don’t see any special reason why an investor would come here and set up a pickle factory or a shoe factory… except that they’ll never find a better ”shoemaker” than me…
And Marenco’s future? My greatest interest is how to finish off my job as mayor of Managua in peace. Fortunately, I think I’ve done things well and nobody can accuse me of having robbed even a pencil, although someone could invent that I did. I have no doubt that they could launch a campaign of that type against me, but I don’t care if they do. When people ask if I’d be a presidential candidate for the FSLN, my response is that I don’t have the slightest interest. But if you ask me what would happen if they offered me the candidacy, then yes, I’d accept it as a responsibility to fulfill. Because if I say no, they’ll say I’m giving up and if I say I want it without them offering it to me, they’ll say I’m too ambitious.
I don’t see any possibilities of going to work with the government after I leave the mayor’s post given the tensions surrounding me. I also don’t have any great interest. I’ll probably have to look for work as an engineer or a consultant. But if they hassle me and begin to persecute me and I can’t find a job in Nicaragua—which could happen—I’ll have to look for work outside the country. As I didn’t feather my nest with state resources, I don’t have a million dollars in some secret account or any farms. All I have is my capacity for work, the satisfaction of having fulfilled my duty, and thank God, an honorable name, my father’s legacy. And of course I also have great hope that the FSLN will find the right path, as in all the difficult moments of its history. For the good of our people.
Dioniso Marenco is mayor of Managua. His term in office, which lasts until January 2009, has received record approval ratings of over 90%.