Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 333 | Abril 2009



The Crisis Cries for Dialogue but the Government Polarized the Country

One of Nicaragua’s most lucid politicians analyzes the economic and political moment, evaluates the FSLN government, and calls for a change of course.

Dora María Téllez

The economic crisis and how to deal with it is the main concern uniting all of humanity today. It’s already affecting everyone, including us in Nicaragua. As late as 2008 some government officials were still arguing that Nicaragua’s economy was healthy and its financial system strong so the crisis wouldn’t cause us any major damage.

Nicaragua isn’t an island

The problem is that Nicaragua is linked into a financially and economically globalized world, so we’re not just affected by the severe drop in remittances from Nicaraguan migrants in other countries or the falling prices for our exports. Because Citibank bought Banco Uno, each time that US-headquartered bank feels tremors they’re also felt here. Because General Electric bought shares in Banco de Centroamérica (BAC), the crisis of many GE programs is being felt in Nicaragua. Because the Central American Free Trade Agreement attracted US- and Asian-owned sweatshops to our free trade zones, the lack of orders from their markets means they’re now laying off thousands of Nicaraguans and even closing. And the stream of migrants scurrying across border to Costa Rica has become a raging river, above all of women.

All this could get worse. Not even our government officials look optimistic any more. We’re facing the possibility that the economy won’t grow at all in 2009. The government itself is estimating zero growth and some economists are talking about -2% growth. The challenge in President Ortega’s remaining two years in office is enormous.

This government simply isn’t acting

The most visible opportunity the crisis offers us is that food prices are dropping less than others, because the demand for food doesn’t shrink much even in times of economic crisis. As Nicaragua is a food-producing country, this could work for us, as long as we do something to turn it to our advantage. And it’s up to the government to take the lead.

So what’s the government doing? We see no signs of it organizing financing and technical assistance for small and medium peasant farmers so they can increase and improve their vegetable and basic grain production. It’s totally honed in on the problems of “its” budget, and even then only to reduce spending on health and education and see how else to close the gap caused by the freezing of international aid after the electoral fraud in last November’s municipal elections. The big question is why the government isn’t using the money from Venezuela to cover those parts of the budget that have been left underfinanced. We still don’t know where that money is being kept or what it’s being used for.

The government hasn’t done any estimate of the impact the crisis is having on Nicaragua’s poor families, urban residents or women. We might have expected, for example, that it would tell us what sectors are at greatest risk of malnutrition, because we know the crisis will increase hunger in adults and malnutrition in children. Since nobody knows how long the crisis will last, we as a society should already be organizing mechanisms to reduce its effects on the poor as much as possible and fully exploit any opportunities the crisis offers us. But no, the government isn’t plugged into this urgency. We don’t see it responding adequately to the economic problems, although it repeats time and again that they, not the political problems, are the most important right now. It’s only saying that to get us to stop talking about the electoral fraud.

So what has the government done?

The Ortega administration is practically half way through its term and what’s the best thing it has done so far? Perhaps the literacy work, although it remains to be seen if it has penetrated deeply enough. Perhaps making education free, although while the government doesn’t acknowledge it children’s enrollment in the public primary schools has dropped. Maybe the free health services, although there’s a shortage of medicines. And it’s an illusion to believe that the government’s purchase of Ramos Laboratories in March means we’ll have medications, because it will take three years to reorganize the labs and begin to produce. And anyway, Nicaraguan laboratories only produce the most basic medicines and don’t have the technology to produce others. I already saw this film when I was health minister in the eighties, and that’s why I think it would have been better for the government to reform the state contracting law to acquire generic medicines directly from the plants that produce them.

The government has spent this first half its term speaking ill of those who criticize it, taking revenge and giving speeches, but we can’t eat speeches and we aren’t seeing clear economic results. What’s the result with respect to social justice? Rather than working toward social justice, the government has set out on a course of political patronage, which is a very different thing. In a society like ours, with so many social, gender, generational and territorial inequities, social justice means creating redistributive mechanisms. The Caribbean coast suffers from tremendous material poverty, yet there’s been no increase in public investment there. Even the government’s flagship social program, Zero Hunger, has been run with tremendous disorganization. Has it had an impact on reducing poverty? No.

We need to help those most affected

The areas of hunger and extreme poverty, where people have difficulty trying to produce and get enough to eat, are pinpointed in Nicaragua—northern Chinandega, Madriz, northern León, sectors of Matagalpa and Jinotega, areas of the north and south Caribbean regions and also some urban zones. What would it cost the government to call together all NGOs in Nicaragua with experience in the struggle against hunger to jointly hammer out mechanisms for effective action against malnutrition? What would it cost to meet with all the NGOs that bring tens of millions of dollars into the country every year to jointly study where to best put that money to defend those most affected by the crisis?

In the current economic situation, I would expect the government to invite Nicaragua’s best economists of all political stripes, show them the real official figures, then ask them to get together for three days with the economic Cabinet officials to come up with joint recommendations, not to resolve the crisis but to respond to it in the best possible way, with everyone’s participation. I’m sure those economists would voluntarily give their best. But even at a time like this, the government isn’t making anything like a maximum effort or even working jointly with others to better coordinate the use of the limited resources we have. The only explanation is the lack of democracy and authoritarian vocation of the government, which wants to control everything.

We can’t just put the fraud behind us

The political crisis has aggravated our economic problems. The government has a 1.3 million-córdoba gap in the 2009 budget, which is precisely the $65 million that international cooperation refused to disburse because of the electoral fraud. The government has already cut a little over a third of that amount from the health and education budget for this year. That makes it very clear that the economic crisis would be less acute if it hadn’t stolen the elections.

Some say we have to just put the fraud behind us, but anyone who gets away with massively stealing elections will do it again, so it’s better to avoid any next time. And to do that, we can’t just let this fraud go by, because the next time it will be much more serious and our response will have to be much more radical. What will we do if they steal the presidential elections in 2011? Take up arms and go clandestine again?

Rising crime and violence
are other consequences

The electoral fraud and the way the government chose to impose it have also had other consequences. Crime is on the rise, with an epidemic of very aggressive armed robberies in many Managua barrios. They were already under siege from drug trafficking and now also from violent gangs that have grown thanks to the nod the government gave them to act politically in the days following the fraud. These boys were empowered by seeing they could attack the center of Managua with official backing, causing damage with weapons the government gave them while the police just left them to get on with it. So now they’re returning to their barrios and doing the same thing.

We’re also seeing, unconditional government supporters from the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) attacking and threatening people from their own party with weapons. We’re seeing university leaders attack each other and publicly threaten to kill each other while neither the university officials nor the police do anything. And as university student union elections aren’t transparent, the student authorities have dubious legitimacy. If bands within the FSLN itself are encouraged to settle rivalries with weapons, what can we expect from society? What kind of civic education is this? The message being sent to many poor young people without opportunities is that the government sees their social marginality and aggressiveness as a positive value. How can we permit our society to continue down this path?

We can’t let Nicaragua be perverted this way. We can’t let it remain in the hands of a corrupt caste of officials who don’t serve the public. How can we allow the government to make millions of dollars of purchases with no competitive bidding, no contracts and no control by the Comptroller General’s Office? In a country with a modicum of decency these comptrollers would be sacked and tried for complicity with the corruption. In a decent country, the Supreme Electoral Council magistrates would also be sacked and tried for participating in the electoral fraud. Where are the attorneys to try all of the people wreaking such damage on Nicaragua? The Public Prosecutor General’s Office only goes after the government’s political enemies, and the Supreme Court only follows orders from the political power. Aren’t we embarrassed each time the Human Rights Ombudsperson opens his mouth? And to top it off we now have a police department hobbled by the lack of both resources and the authority to act. The shamelessness displayed by a group of important officials is so barefaced we’re no longer even struck by it.

The media’s role is to criticize

Some complain because the media criticize this government so strongly. But they criticized previous governments just as strongly; after all, it was they who uncovered Alemán’s corruption and the crooks in the Bolaños government. The media have to criticize governments to get them to work well and then criticize them harder so they’ll work even better. If harshly criticized governments still work badly, what would happen if the media were soft on them?

Governments and public officials need to get used to being criticized. That’s the media’s role. The intensity, nature and magnitude of Nicaragua’s problems don’t allow any leeway for moderation. A government’s job is to improve the economy, reduce poverty and inequities and maintain democracy. It can’t be to organize a war against the media, but that’s exactly what this government has done. It has threatened and bribed journalists, badmouthed and even closed media and shut down talk shows.

Today’s leftist governments in Latin America

How can a government that has taken us to such extremes call itself leftist? President Ortega’s government isn’t leftwing. How does one identify the ideology of the Left in the 21st century? Is the Chávez government leftist? I don’t think so; I consider it populist. Just handing out money and goods to the poor doesn’t make a government leftist. Alemán did the same thing; he had all kinds of social programs to give resources to the poor. I personally think the Broad Front in Uruguay and Lula in Brazil have created leftist governments.

We have to recognize that in this century the Left has to establish some different parameters than the ones the revolutionary Left had thirty, forty years ago. Back then we didn’t think about environmental problems; they didn’t even enter our head! We also thought that women’s problems would be resolved by making a revolution. Later we learned that there can be revolutionary governments that don’t resolve women’s problems. Same with the ethnic question; the Left didn’t have any complex ideas about the problems of indigenous peoples. During the revolution in Nicaragua we made an agrarian reform on land belonging to indigenous communities, which shows that the Sandinista thinking of the seventies hadn’t integrated the ethnic question.

The Latin American Left of the 21st century is still defining itself, but it has to combine mechanisms and proposals for achieving a strong state, with a strong society and strong market. Most of the world’s Left, even the Latin American Left, has moved beyond the 20th-century vision of real socialism—a strong, all-powerful state with a weak market and an aligned society in which plurality wasn’t recognized—although some vestiges remain. I think the genuine Left is now thinking more along the lines of a strong state with a strong market and a well-organized society.

The electoral Left’s great dilemma

This century has seen the emergence of Latin American leftist forces as majority electoral forces. This is an unprecedented and very important phenomenon in Latin America, because the political dispute was always between oligarchies in the 19th century and almost always between the Right and the Right in the 20th. This century is telling us that the dispute is going to be between Right and Left. But which Left? One that seeks and cultivates electoral majorities, comes to power through elections, strengthens institutionalization processes and makes changes in line with institutionality.

The great dilemma of this Latin American Left is to govern well enough to be reelected. In Brazil, Lula has now shown it’s feasible. In El Salvador, the FMLN has a great opportunity to demonstrate that it’s also feasible in that country. The first major challenge for President-elect Mauricio Funes and the FMLN in El Salvador is to demonstrate that the Left can govern and can be reelected.

Unfortunately, that Latin American Left now has an even greater challenge: to govern and deal with this economic crisis. Coping with the crisis without any significant political cost is extremely difficult for any government. Funes is stepping in to govern El Salvador at a very tough moment, because people’s expectations are as enormous as the crisis facing his administration. He’ll have to split hairs in a country with enormous potential, a work-minded population and a number of emigrants dedicated to supporting their compatriots inside the country. Many people believe his government will be revolutionary, but they’re wrong. All the FMLN did was win an election. Expecting a revolution is not only exaggerated but also an intention that could liquidate that project. All we can ask of El Salvador’s new government is that it to be a good leftist government so the FMLN can keep winning elections for the next twenty years, just as ARENA did.

Nicaragua’s government isn’t leftist

In Nicaragua, we have a government that passes itself off as leftist, but isn’t. With all their excesses and destruction, Ortega and his followers are burning the Left’s possibilities of success in Nicaragua. Danielismo is the worst plague to have affected the Left in Nicaragua, with its corruption, authoritarianism, messianic pretensions, patronage and perk politics, political opportunism, alliances with big capital…

We’ve gone from a government of corruption with Alemán and a pro-business government with Bolaños to Ortega’s government by a family oligarchy that doesn’t represent Sandinismo and whose only ideology is power, Daniel Ortega’s power at that. Today’s governing party is far removed from Sandinismo, because it has changed from being Sandinista to being Danielista, at the same time abandoning its principles. It fought against the dictatorship yet has ended up running Nicaragua just like the dictatorship did. Some people even say it’s doing the same thing as Somoza only worse. Why worse? Because times have changed and the country needs another way of governing.

The challenge of constructing
new political options

The Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) is facing a big problem, because it’s a leftist Sandinista force, and the FSLN government is burning the Left in general and Sandinismo in particular. Corruption isn’t supposed to be identified with Sandinismo. There’s nothing more contradictory than being a Sandinista and a thief. There are corrupt people in all governments; that’s not the problem. The problem is impunity, that the corruption isn’t being punished. There are also inept people in all governments, and again that isn’t the problem. The problem is that ineptitude is being rewarded in exchange for unconditional political loyalty. All governments also veer off course sometimes; the problem is not getting back on track.

Neither Sandinismo nor the Left in general ought to be identified with authoritarianism. There’s an authoritarian Right in Nicaragua and an authoritarian Danielismo that claims to be of the Left. And there’s also a democratic Left and a democratic Right. The Liberals are faced with the challenge of defeating Alemán’s autocratic, authoritarian and corrupt Liberal faction so Liberalism can survive. And the same is true for Sandinismo: we have to defeat the corrupt, autocratic, populist faction that follows Ortega in order to build and develop a democratic Left for Nicaragua.

It’s an enormous challenge, and it’s not just about the 2011 elections or about candidates. It’s about seeing how the country’s political options are constructed and how, with all the political options united, we can reach beyond the options represented by Arnoldo Alemán and Daniel Ortega.

The best thing that could happen in Nicaragua is to see a democratic Left battling it out with a democratic Right. If that were to happen, we could debate programmatic platforms, in-depth positions, and would see the genuine differences that exist between the Right and the Left. But we’re still debating the most elemental issue: how to ensure that the 2011 elections aren’t stolen. We can’t yet discuss the country’s underlying problems with the seriousness they deserve as long as we have an autocratic, authoritarian, corrupt Right allied with a formerly leftist segment that is now equally autocratic, authoritarian and corrupt, and which between them have taken all the state institutions hostage, leaving the people adrift.

What the MRS stands for

The MRS’s programmatic proposal is a state that plays a key role in redistributing wealth and regulating the public transport, energy and drinking water services so they fulfill their social role. We believe in a state that assumes its responsibilities in education and health care. The MRS also backs the idea of a strong market, because Nicaragua’s market is weak, imperfect, with limited competitiveness, dominated by oligopolies and monopolies. We’re also banking on a well-organized society and our relations with society’s organizations are based on respect and collaboration, not subordination. We don’t want them to line up behind our positions or our discourse. We recognize the positive aspect of plurality. Believing that the Left has to be mono-thematic and unanimous, with everything subjected to a single organization, and believing that leftist parties in office are an “all-powerful god” is something from the past, as society’s evolution is telling us. Peasants, women, unions, youth… they all want to be active counterparts of public power with their own organizations.

We in the MRS are going to continue defending democracy and trying to protect the grassroots economy and social justice. The MRS will agree with all who struggle for democracy, which is why we’re not going to stop touching the sore point of the fraud, a wound we didn’t open. And we’re going to go right on denouncing that this government is setting up a dictatorial project.

A party and an alliance aren’t the same thing

There are no pro-Montealegre positions in the MRS, despite the frequent accusations. In fact, there are no positions in favor of any specific individuals. We supported Eduardo Montealegre’s candidacy for mayor of Managua in the municipal elections because we wanted to show up the fraud that was being forecasted. If there hadn’t have been a massive vote, particularly against Ortega’s candidates in a number of municipalities, the fraud would have been easier to pull off.

We’re willing to work and agree on actions with anyone who defends democracy and social justice. You’ll see us with Montealegre any time it’s necessary to defend democracy and you’ll see us separated on other actions, because we have different interests. Right now Montealegre is focusing on organizing his party, the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), and fighting for leadership of Liberalism, since Alemán’s leadership is collapsing under the evidence he was Ortega’s accomplice in designing the electoral fraud and even handed Ortega mayoral seats that the Liberals had won.

The MRS isn’t just a leftist party; it’s also Sandinista. It has roots, an orientation and an option. The MRS Alliance is something broader. It includes the Movement for the Rescue of Sandinismo [formed by a leftwing grouping that broke away from the FSLN to support Herty Lewites’ presidential candidacy in 2006], the CREA Group, the Socialist Party and the Autonomous Women’s Movement, each of which has its own identity. Edmundo Jarquín [who ran for the alliance in the 2006 presidential elections] doesn’t belong to the MRS; he coordinates the MRS Alliance. Sometimes his positions differ from those of the MRS, and occasionally so do those of the Movement for the Rescue of Sandinismo, as shown in the municipal elections when it urged people to cast a null ballot and the MRS asked them to vote for candidates other than Ortega’s.

The MRS mission isn’t to muzzle its allies. Alliances aren’t ideological, they’re political, and the MRS Alliance has the same plurality as any alliance. The MRS has its ideological underpinnings, its statutes and its program, and operates according to them. The MRS Alliance is built around the MRS program, but there are differences outside of that program. Alliances are based on points of coincidence, although in Nicaragua we’re used to starting with differences, not agreements. Our legislative representatives voice our official positions, which are based on the program we presented when Herty Lewites was the presidential candidate.

“Those who really do what they say”

The MRS is neither an opportunist nor a tactical party, nor does it go around looking for perks and posts. We have interests and we fight for them, even though we pay a price for it. In 2006 we were the only party that defended women’s right to therapeutic abortion in cases of rape and incest or when the mother’s life is at risk. And we probably lost votes because of it, but it was a principled position. We’ve always wanted people to feel that we’re the ones “who really do what they say,” and this seems even more important when the political elite’s credibility is at such a low point. Our legislative bench is tiny, but it has been very consistent. We’ve fought for what we believe in and will continue to do so, at whatever cost.

We’re sure we’ll recover our legal status for the 2011 elections because the political and electoral polarization this government has organized is unsustainable, and we’re preparing to run and win. We believe the MRS can win and has the capacity to govern this country better than it’s been governed in recent years, with a policy of democracy, closer proximity to society and a genuine redistribution of wealth.

Ever since it was founded, the MRS’s vocation has been to make the option of a democratic Left a reality in Nicaragua. We only got 8,000 votes in the 1996 presidential elections. Assuming they stole 2,000, let’s say 10,000 tops. It’s not a lot, but how many of the 46 parties born in those years, which ran in those elections either on their own or in multi-party alliances, have grown and multiplied since then? Even PRONAL, which was founded by President Chamorro’s son-in-law and very visible presidential minister Antonio Lacayo, and had connections, money and people all over the country, disappeared like so many others. Our legal status was taken away for the first time in 2000 and we ended up very small, but we got it back and in 2006 the MRS got over 200,000 votes compared to the FSLN’s 900,000. How many did the FSLN get in 2001? The same 900,000. The MRS went from 10,000 to 200,000 in ten years, while the FSLN didn’t grow at all, in fact it shrank. It had to steal last November’s municipal elections because it was facing a gigantic defeat. In other words, that option has lost its credibility with most people.

Working with young people

We in the MRS have learned that tenacity is the key to the struggle. That’s why one MRS priority in this situation is to work with the youth. It’s time for this country’s young people to get involved politically, to demand a country with different features. We’re working with youths who are students, workers and rural peasants, youths from the middle class, from poor barrios and from rural areas all over the country. They have different trades and backgrounds, but all of them have a political vocation; they’re attracted by politics and want to do social work in the communities. We’re preparing for a youth congress to be held in the coming months, to move young people into positions of power within the party to ensure generational renewal and the formation of new young leaders.

It’s not an easy task, because like everyone else young people have the idea they have to get something in return for going to a political meeting. We want to build something different, not for them but with them, so we’re proposing that young leaders share responsibility with those in the party’s directive posts. We want them to start building new leadership and use it to establish more horizontal arenas for communication. We don’t want a youth faction, but rather want young people to start assuming programmatic principles and learn to use the arenas of power that exist within the party, because what happens most frequently is that young people join a party and end up just being assistants to the old guard because they don’t know how to get involved in influencing decisions.

What kind of country
do the young want to build?

This process of youth formation takes time. Is it linked to the 2011 elections? No, it has to do with the country’s future. We have to form young leaders in an appropriate school, because if not they’ll just copy the bad example of the political class.

The big question is what kind of country the young want to build. Will it be the same one we wanted? The world has changed a lot so we have to ask them what they want and how they want to build it, then listen to what they say. They’re telling us they want to build their own model, rather than be given one we already built. But while they want to construct their own ideas, they want tutelage from us, the older ones, to understand how and why you get into politics. We’re working with them on the four principles the MRS is based on: national sovereignty, economic development with social justice, democracy and solidarity.

It’s true we have a leadership crisis in Nicaragua, but leaders are produced by societies, so we’re not going to resolve this crisis by sheer will; you can’t just order someone to be a leader. We can only help build the leaders who emerge from the grass roots, who will acquire leadership over time.

How can a severely divided
country dialogue about crisis?

The only way we can hope to address Nicaragua’s crisis and the tremendous international crisis successfully is through a genuine national dialogue in which all the problems are put out on the table—those related to democracy, justice, citizens’ security and the economic problems faced by people in the cities and countryside, not just budget problems and business people’s problems. We proposed a national dialogue back in June 2008, when I went on my hunger strike, but they paid no attention. Is the government now interested in such a dialogue? We don’t see any real signs of interest. What we do see is that President Ortega likes to dialogue with himself, with his reflection in the mirror.

The crisis has caught us very divided. Nicaragua is very polarized, and that makes dialogue difficult. But it wasn’t our criticisms of the government that polarized it; the government itself did that, and did it deliberately. When Daniel Ortega took office he was received with positive expectations and good will from almost everyone; he began to govern with very little enmity. Giving him the benefit of the doubt was truly the dominant attitude in Nicaraguan society in early 2007. But very soon the President began throwing mud in all directions; at other parties, at NGOs, unions, peasant organizations, the media, embassies, foreign cooperation, churches… He even started doing so within his own ranks. I have no idea why he did that; I still can’t figure it out. It’s just part of the great mystery. All that started dividing the country more and more. The government constructed its own polarized discourse, indiscriminately calling all the critical voices that began to be heard “traitors,” “sellouts,” “fools,” “puppets of imperialism” and “oligarchs.” Why did it react the way it did to my going on a hunger strike if I was only reacting to it taking away our right to elect and be elected? Why has the government fired doctors and teachers merely for not being Danielistas? Why is it persecuting those in the governing party itself simply for not being unconditional supporters?

The government also polarized the municipal elections. It wanted them polarized. If it hadn’t taken away our legal status, we would have campaigned for the MRS candidates we had in 141 of the country’s 153 municipalities. If it hadn’t taken the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) away from Eduardo Montealegre he would have campaigned for its candidates. And the election wouldn’t have been polarized; it would have had four different and interesting options, as in 2006.

The government has built its political project on conflict. I can’t help seeing this as a paranoid government that sees enemies everywhere and is ending up making enemies of everyone. And that’s a national tragedy.

This crisis is a moment of great opportunities to reactivate food production and seek new forms of coexistence. Nicaragua is demanding a serious dialogue to modify what has been done badly and get the economy back on track, to take advantage of the opportunities the crisis has opened up for us. Given this crisis, everyone has offered to support the effort for a national dialogue, and I’m sure that people would participate with good will if the government called a genuinely broad and open national dialogue and put all the problems on the table. The ball’s in the government’s court. We hope President Ortega will sit down, analyze the first half of his term and decide to govern during the second half by rectifying his conduct and leading the country down a less risky path than the one he’s brought us down so far.

Dora María Téllez is a leader of the Sandinista Renovation Movement.

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