Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 336 | Julio 2009



Thirty Years Seen Through the Time Tunnel

The FSLN is approaching the 30th anniversary of the revolution with the military coup in Honduras once again placing Central America under the international looking glass and with Nicaragua mourning the deaths of its musical glory Camilo Zapata and sports glory Alexis Argüello.

Nitlápan-Envío team

Managua became a continental political epicenter again on June 29. In three successive summits—the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), the Central American Integration System (SICA) and the Río Group—in which the Organization of American States and the Union of South American Nations also participated, a dozen Presidents repudiated the military coup in Honduras and fully backed the country’s President, Manuel Zelaya. All speakers, Nicaragua’s President and summit host Daniel Ortega included, spoke of the need to consolidate institutionality and democracy.

Neither coups nor frauds

From Nicaragua we have to underscore the glaring contradiction in President Ortega’s position. While arguing that the sovereign Honduran people legitimated Manuel Zelaya as President with their votes, which must be respected and defended in the streets, he refuses to recognize the right of Nicaraguan voters to defend their legitimate election on November 9 of at least 40 municipal mayors who never took their posts because he decided the losing FSLN candidates would occupy them instead. Furthermore, shock groups armed by his government fiercely repressed demonstrations in defense of the popular vote in the streets of Managua and other cities following that fraudulent election.

Military coups had become and indeed must be a thing of Central America’s past, as must blatantly rigged electoral frauds. Both have brought our peoples great pain and bloodshed. If the military plot and procedures used to oust Zelaya were grotesque and primitive, so were those used to perpetrate the electoral fraud in Nicaragua. Both abuses of power take us back down the time tunnel to stages we believed were behind us.

Is it possible to travel through time? While scientists resolve that particular challenge, Nicaraguans need to do so to reflect on the revolution that triumphed 30 years ago, contrasting some of its characteristics with aspects of the current government’s behavior that belie its constant insistence that we’re experiencing the “second stage” of that revolution. Using the time tunnel of memory, let’s take a brief look at what that revolution was and no longer is.

A dictatorship?

The revolution of 30 years ago ripped out the underpinnings of the archaic Somocista institutionality and began to construct a new state. Although the revolution always identified itself as “the law,” it did take incipient steps toward institutionality during those first years. The war soon caused those steps to falter, but their prints remained even after the revolution was defeated at the polls in 1990.

For the past year the opposition to the current Ortega government, which includes many Sandinistas, has repeatedly labeled it an “institutional dictatorship,” with gentler versions talking of “dictatorial tendencies” or even “authoritarian populism.” Beyond the juridical or political precision of how advanced this dictatorial or authoritarian process is, there’s something very grievous about the fact that time has forced us to consider whether those who defeated one dictatorship ended up intending to install another.

The pact

The joint control of state institutions negotiated by the FSLN after forging a pact with then-President Arnoldo Alemán in 1998 allowed Ortega to move from governing “from below,” as he proclaimed he would do days after losing the 1990 elections, to governing “alongside.” Once out of office, Alemán was sentenced for his voracious corruption, which eroded his position in the pact to junior partner. So with the FSLN now governing “from above” it is doing so with near total power in the judicial branch, the Office of Comptroller General and the Public Ministry, and complete control of the electoral branch.

This lack of any institutional checks and balances is what is allowing the construction of a dictatorship. Ortega’s pact with Alemán, which translates into the FSLN’s deal with Alemán’s Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), has destroyed the institutionality the revolution had begun to build and that, despite everything, continued to be built in succeeding years. A clash of institutions claiming to have the law on their side is now unthinkable in Nicaragua because all institutions function in line with the interests of Ortega and his closest backers.

A number of FSLN members who still back today’s government have reservations about the means their party chose to return to government and stay there—the pact with the arch-corrupt Alemán. They also have reservations about how it exercised its quotas of power during its 16 years in opposition, when the FSLN legislative bench backed all privatizations and other neoliberal economic measures and Ortega himself activated and deactivated the protests of grassroots organizations born during the revolution to suit his interests, always maintaining his revolutionary rhetoric. This dualistic behavior contributed significantly to the rapid and unlimited advance of the neoliberal project in Nicaragua.

In the end, today’s party stalwarts embody the concept of the end justifying the means: the fact that the FSLN is back in control is more important than how it got there. And so they support it, believing, hoping, clinging to Daniel Ortega’s promise that he will bring 21st-century socialism to Nicaragua, even if right now it looks suspiciously like 20th-century neoliberal capitalism.

Ortega’s pet project

Daniel Ortega’s strategic project—to reform the Constitution so he can be reelected in 2011 and/or transform the presidentialist system into a parliamentary one and continue governing that way—kept hitting obstacles this past month. The FSLN still lacks some of the 56 National Assembly votes needed to pass these reforms, detailed by jurist Gabriel Álvarez in the “Speaking Out” article of this issue.

Unlike Honduran President Zelaya’s referendum, planned for later in the day he was finally unseated, Ortega isn’t even thinking of consulting the population on whether it favors reforms that would lead to his reelection. Again, the end justifies the means: unwilling to risk the populace’s rejection, he is instead prepared to cut deals with any legislators willing to sell their vote to make his project reality.

He’s also willing to do whatever it takes to maintain the split in the Liberal ranks. He’s keeping the pact with Alemán alive while using his now customary mechanism of “judicializing politics” to continue pounding away at alternative Liberal leader Eduardo Montealegre. After letting it gather dust for over a year, attorneys and judges loyal to the FSLN have finally opened the case of the CENI bonds. These bonds were issued in allegedly dodgy fashion during the Alemán government to cover the debts of banks that collapsed in 2000 and 2001 under the weight of corruption-riddled practices for which both Ortega and Alemán followers had a large share of responsibility. But the trial isn’t to determine who’s those responsible for the scandal, even though it’s costing tax-payers a sizable fortune in domestic debt to the banks that bought up the high-interest, short-term bonds. Instead it’s serving political ends: the main target is Montealegre and the political end is to cut him down to a manageable size in the political game.

The first preliminary hearing on the case opened in Managua on June 22, soon after the US government announced it was canceling the Millennium Challenge Account program due to last year’s election fraud. That gave Ortega’s power apparatus a second thing to blame on Montealegre. For most of last year government spokespeople repeatedly attributed the CENI scandal exclusively to him and now he’s also being blamed for provoking the US decision. Given that Montealegre saw his win as Managua mayoral candidate go to Alexis Argüello with 30% of the ballots never even counted and many others allegedly tampered with, he has obviously been a vociferous critic of the fraud. But Ortega claims he also went to the United States to ask that this important line of cooperation be cancelled. Even if true, it’s a classic example of kill the messenger.

The FSLN-controlled judicial branch has formally accused 39 people in the CENI case, two of whom—former Treasury Minister Montealegre and former Central Bank President Noel Ramírez—are now parliamentarians and thus have immunity. The trial can’t go anywhere unless the National Assembly strips them of it, so the first hearing had to be suspended. Vice President Jaime Morales Carazo called the trial a comic opera, and independent economists who have studied the CENI scandal inside and out (see the March 2008 of envío for details of the illegal processes involved) consider that not all defendants on the list should be there and not all those who should be there actually are.

One-man power

In the first revolutionary years, both the government and the governing party were run collectively. It was one of the novel aspects of the Sandinista revolution that most caught the world’s attention given the “strongman” or caudillista tradition in Latin American political history. While this system had its inconveniences, each of the nine comandantes who made up the FSLN’s National Directorate had his own “fiefdom” and that obliged policy discussions among men of somewhat more equal weight than normally exists in a Cabinet. There was also a pluralist five-member governing junta, although it was weighted in favor of supporters of the revolution, and the two members in the minority soon tired of the direction things were taking.

In 1984, Daniel Ortega was elected President, putting an end to the junta, but the party’s collective directorate remained and Ortega continued to be one among nine, although an ever more powerful equal. Vice President Sergio Ramírez actually governed and administered, playing a more fundamental role in the new government than most people in that post get to do. Power was shared, decentralized, and the ministries were spaces where, for better or worse, decisions were made and initiatives developed. Compared to now, there was creative pluralism in the national leadership that helped deal with the country’s many problems.

The National Directorate is now a thing of the past, as are the Sandinista Assembly, party congresses and creativity and discussions among equals in government. Today all reins of the government are in the hands of one person: Daniel Ortega, surrounded by his omnipresent wife, his children and an ever narrower circle of intimate allies. Ministers hang on the President’s decisions, afraid to speak up. Ortega is the only man to have been FSLN general secretary and its eternal presidential candidate—standing five times in total, including the two times he won: 1984 and 2006. Gaining access to any arena of power in the FSLN requires unconditional loyalty to Ortega, not to the FSLN’s historical program.

The cut of his jib

Unquestioning loyalty to its leaders as a seal of membership in the FSLN can be explained in part by the military origin and historical organizational culture of this political grouping, more akin to an army than a political party. We shouldn’t forget that the small, clandestine military nucleus that was the FSLN little over 30 years ago pulled together some 200,000 people who fought in the war in the eighties and transferred military styles to the party structures, reinforcing the military aspect of Sandinista identity even more.

Sandinistas who still back the FSLN justify Ortega’s one-man leadership not for his public charisma—which was lackluster in the early eighties and only improved somewhat under significant coaching as President—but because he was the only one who was constantly visible in the nineties, always out on the hustings. Personal history has always carried a lot of weight in the FSLN: having been clandestine, having been a prisoner, having fought. It weighs more than professionalism, knowledge, persuasive capacity… And for years now it has weighed more than ethics.

Daniel Ortega was one of those with a long personal trajectory, and in the nineties he was tenacious and skilled both at accumulating and centralizing power and at going out into the countryside to keep the base loyal. His power today is as unassailable as it is questionable. The self-critical debate that should have followed the electoral defeat was never promoted in the FSLN and today we can see the real cut of Ortega’s jib: that of the traditional Latin American caudillo.

The membership
card was a treasure

The FSLN obviously can’t be measured by the classic party yardstick. According to Comandante Dora María Téllez, only 67 Sandinistas were hammering away at the Somocista National Guard in war fronts throughout the national territory in the October 1978 offensive, less than a year before Somoza was overthrown. The incredible and magnificent thing was how that handful of people managed to inspire and mobilize a majority of Nicaraguans to join whatever way they could in the 1979 political and military victory. Following that victory, the FSLN made the gigantic leap from small cells that only communicated on a need-to-know basis to an entire organization, and from there to a government, directing and representing a state.

At the beginning of the revolutionary government, membership in the FSLN “party” remained very limited. The party militants in the “first promotion” were little more than the top leaders of the victorious insurrection. By the “second promotion,” the number increased a little, although the procedures were full of hard-to-meet requisites: a proven trajectory recognized by leaders, letters of reference, seminars, Marxist lectures…

The membership card a militant received after that long obstacle-strewn path—and not everyone made it to the end—was treated as a treasure. Succeeding promotions had fewer requisites and more expeditious procedures, but still not just anyone could become a militant.

Only in elections

During the nineties, the FSLN moved from a party that lost the government to an exclusively electoral structure—ironically, very akin to what those drummed out of the party in 1994 were advocating back then. As Comandante Mónica Baltodano told envío, “Organization within the FSLN decreased dramatically and the party ended up as nothing more than... some 30,000 election monitors, voting table members and other guarantors of the party’s votes… subordinated to the FSLN secretary, former intelligence chief Lenín Cerna.”

Already by 1996 the relative “party life” that had existed in the eighties had disappeared, further diluting the scant organizational structure and institutionality acquired up to then. Debate stopped happening and the project was limited to Ortega’s determination to get back into government. All party efforts were reserved for elections, for guaranteeing the “hard-core vote.” That’s how it went in 1996 and 2001, until in 2006, with barely 38% of the vote, Daniel Ortega finally got what he wanted.

Today the FSLN gives out memberships as if they were candy at a children’s party. In a total state-party symbiosis, all public employees have for some months been urged to “voluntarily” request militancy in the party, and even those who don’t do so get it. Memberships are also given out in the barrios to anyone who asks for one. It’s enough to fill out a simple sheet with basic data, supply a photo and, of course, pay dues. No longer a need for trajectory or references.

Will membership
turn into votes?

The FSLN’s target for this campaign, called “We’re millions,” is to reach the 30th anniversary of the revolution with more than a million card-carrying members. The idea is that the membership cards will translate into votes, preparing and justifying the FSLN’s triumph in the 2011 elections ahead of time with a million-member electorate. The logic is purely mathematical: the “ceiling” the FSLN has never been able to break through is 900,000 votes. And the ideological excuse is that the party must be “inclusive,” rather than the old exclusive vanguard-style party—again what the dissidents were arguing in the early nineties. State employees, however, fear that if they don’t climb on the bandwagon they could lose their job.

The advantage of the party membership card is similar to that of “la magnífica,” the card showing affiliation to Somoza’s now extinct National Liberal Party: it protected its bearer, opened doors and guaranteed benefits. History has apparently repeated itself, with those who ripped that membership card to pieces now creating a kind of equivalent.

People who still support the FSLN and earned their militancy in its ranks the hard way aren’t happy. They view this massive influx as devaluing FSLN membership and, together with Ortega’s one-man centralizing leadership, closing the few organic arenas of participation that still remained in the party.

Draconian electoral law

The Sandinista revolution opened the doors to electoral democracy in Nicaragua. The spuriously predictable rigged elections that dotted the nearly half century of Somoza family rule were a thing of the past. During the revolutionary years a fourth branch of state was created, the prestigious Supreme Electoral Council, which drafted a pluralist electoral law and organized transparent elections in 1984 and 1990, the first of which the FSLN won by a wide margin and the second of which it lost by a smaller but none-theless indisputable margin.

A couple of years before the turn of the millennium, Ortega’s pact with Alemán began to re-close the doors on that electoral democracy one by one. The electoral law of 2000, which is still in effect, was one of the most important effects of the pact.

By reducing the political pluralism that was one of the revolution’s identifying signs, this draconian law corsets Nicaraguan politics so it can only move within a narrow bipartite system. One of the most important examples of this was the elimination of independent municipal candidacies. It also changed the electoral math so that the parties that took first and second place in the previous election are unequally favored in the next—they get more state campaign funding, the first and second seats on the polling table administration and the like. In addition, the law’s conditions considerably hinder the creation of new parties, survival of existing ones and formation of alliances. In sum, the law seeks to polarize the electorate between Alemán’s PLC and Ortega’s FSLN for the foreseeable future.

A shared fraud

The final door to be closed had to do with international and national observers. That step was taken in last November’s municipal elections, when the incumbent FSLN decided it would rather pay the cost of stealing votes than lose important mayoral seats. It thus organized an electoral fraud to “win” at least 100 of the 142 municipal governments in the race. It prohibited national observers and was much more selective in allowing international ones. With no independent eyes watching, the FSLN walked away with 105 mayoralties, 40 of which are seriously questioned by the losing candidates (mainly those loyal to Eduardo Montealegre) and by voters in those municipalities.

This hardly subtle fraud was pulled off with the complicity of Arnoldo Alemán and the PLC structures loyal to him, as Bayardo Arce, Ortega’s economic adviser, actually acknowledged this month. So we’re seeing a repeat of history by those very people who denounced the Somocista frauds and justified their armed struggle on the grounds that the electoral road to change was closed.

Millions in resources

Thirty years ago, the Sandinista revolution attracted solidarity from all over the world and made Nicaragua a Mecca. In a world divided along the East-West axis, Nicaragua became a kind of ideological-political roulette wheel where many peoples and governments decided to gamble on justice, change and anti-imperialism. The Sandinista revolution seduced millions; governments, cooperants and brigades of “internationalists” from all kinds of countries fell in love with it.

All that love produced a wave of human, material and financial resources, although the war devoured much of them. Even afterward, Nicaragua received one of the highest per-capita levels of international aid for both development projects and balance of payments support. Today it is one of the countries that depend most on loans and donations from international cooperation. Yet the social gaps and impoverishment of a majority in Nicaragua show us that development isn’t just a question of money; it also depends on the political, social, economic and even religious culture of those who receive, administer, distribute and profit from it.

The fraud’s economic cost...

The electoral fraud has had huge economic costs for Nicaragua and a high international political cost for the FSLN, which even before it had been disparaging and outright insulting international cooperation for wanting to”condition” the aid it provides. Interestingly, its hostility is reserved for conditions such as transparency in the management of government resources, electoral democracy and other forms of good governance insisted on by “Yankee imperialism and European colonialism”; it has said little about the harsh economic conditions of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank that have done so much in the past two decades to reverse the revolu¬tion’s incipient redistribution of wealth toward the poor.

This month the government continued its talks with representatives of the European Union countries that until recently provided major budgetary support funds as well as financing social and public investment projects but has now frozen, reduced and in some cases cut the budget support as a result of the fraud. Nicaragua’s lack of electoral credibility has focused the cooperating countries’ proposals not on reversing the fraud, which is virtually impossible, but on ensuring that the 2011 presidential elections won’t repeat what happened last year. To that end, they are making a series of recommendations that include the obligatory presense of national and international observers.

The government’s first response was to accept international observer organizations but not national ones, knowing full well that the latter have thousands of experienced and savvy volunteers who are far better equipped to certify transparency. Government spokespeople argue that the national observers have a “party slant,” at the same time viewing the hand-picked FSLN and PLC loyalists who head the Supreme Electoral Council and Supreme Court as perfectly admissible. The Budgetary Support Group will make its final decision in September.

...and its political and economic fall-out

Ortega is the only “revolutionary” leader who lacks electoral legitimacy among the Presidents of Latin American countries belonging to ALBA. Furthermore, his legitimizing of economic sanctions as a way to pressure for democratic governability and respect for institutionality in Honduras undermined his argument against international donors who have sanctioned him for the electoral fraud and are now conditioning reestablishment of the aid on guarantees of electoral credibility and democratic governance in general.

The definitive pull-out of the US government’s Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) in Nicaragua was not announced until June, seven months after the $62 million still in the pipeline was frozen because the lack of transparency in last November’s elections violated the agreement. In that time the Ortega government made no attempt to rectify the situation. To the contrary, President Ortega called his militancy and public employees to the Plaza of the Revolution on June 13, after the US announcement, where he minimized the importance of the money in a long speech carried by a national radio and TV hook-up, comparing the decision to the Reagan government’s cutoff of wheat sales to Nicaragua in 1981 to pressure the revolution. The previous day, in the Sixth Petrocaribe Summit in St. Kitts & Nevis, Ortega had charged US President Obama with “following the same policy as Ronald Reagan.”

Ortega reiterated that Venezuela’s Chávez government will provide US$50 million to fill this new gap in the national economy. He had detailed this solution a few days before the account was given the final axe, explaining that the money will go into a new aid account called “Alba Solidaria.” Central Bank President Antenor Rosales, a high-standing member of the FSLN business bloc, immediately clarified that this money, like much of Venezuela’s aid to Nicaragua, will feed yet another new “private business,” all of which have so far been linked to the FSLN and the governing family’s intimate circle. Left unclarified was whether this will be a donation or a loan, who would be the debtor if it were in fact a loan, and whether the money will continue to assist the thousands of producers in the impoverished northwest who have benefited from roads and highways, productive projects, property titling and other components of the Millennium Challenge Account program over the past five years.

A necessary reflection

Will Venezuela’s funds really cover the economic cost of the electoral fraud? Is the solution as simple and automatic as exchanging one country and one aid package for another?

Bernardo Hombach, the bishop of Granada, offered an alternative view on the fraud and the MCA: “The well documented fraud has done more damage than just the loss of money. Money can be recovered other ways, but the fraud cost the Supreme Electoral Council and the nation’s entire administration the people’s trust.

“Nicaragua is Central America’s largest country, with a lot of fertile land and two beautiful coastlines, but it has been begging for the past 30, 40 years. We ought to ask ourselves the reason for our poverty. If Nicaragua knew how to organize itself it wouldn’t need any Millennium Account, and could even help other peoples of the world.”

In a similar vein, economist Horacio Rose made this comment on the TV news magazine “Esta semana,” which took an in-depth look at the consequences of losing the MCA: “Democratic governability and the functioning of the institutions of the rule of law, respect for the law and compliance with the established norms—including respect for private property, contracts and the rules for electing and being elected—have a lot to do with economic development.

“The uncertainty generated by a state governed under authoritarian rules, outside the rule of law, is so great that no program or fund can counteract it and this is valid for the Millennium Challenge Account, Western cooperation in general, World Bank loans and any investment... If this isn’t understood and the idea persists that it’s just a question of funds, they could end up with a lot for a little while, but in the long run we’ll all lose a lot for a very long time.”

Impunity and the state as booty

The Somocista government was characterized by its institutionalization of corruption. It consolidated two pillars on which Nicaragua’s political culture has always rested: the conception of the state as the personal booty of those governing it and impunity for those who dip, however deeply, into the till.

One of the central points of the Sandinista revolution was to transform that patrimonial concept of the state, promoting a sense of “public service.” And it succeeded. In the first few years, when the revolutionary leadership was fully dedicated to laying the groundwork for a new state, important changes began to chip away at those two pillars. While no state is without its deadwood and pilferers, there were many genuine and honest public servants during the revolution.

Nonetheless, this process was never institutionalized because the FSLN never really embraced an authentic internal democratization process that would subject the leadership to controls. Much less was any process designed to ensure that the historical leaders would give way to fresh faces and fresh ideas, though there was frequent talk of it among the rank-and-file.

The participatory democracy Daniel Ortega clamored about so vehemently in the summit meetings about the Honduran coup never developed inside the FSLN. Today, with the FSLN in government, real participatory democracy is extinct within the party and an endangered species in the rest of the country.

The FSLN’s 1990 electoral defeat was totally unexpected, which seems to have fueled the anti-ethical voracity of a sector of the FSLN leadership. The transition period preceding the government of Violeta Chamorro was marked by what quickly became known as the “piñata,” in which top and mid-level party leaders made off with state-owned houses, land, farms, businesses, fleets of vehicles… Initially we were told these state goods were being put into the party’s hands so they would continue belonging to “the people,” but the fallacy of that claim eventually became clear.

Revolutionary businesspeople

All that massive corruption went unpunished and many former FSLN government leaders suddenly became major property owners and businesspeople. The “piñata” is the most visible point of departure on the path to the FSLN’s moral deterioration.

Those who today back the FSLN have to recognize that the business¬people who owed their original capital accumulation to the “piñata” and what followed comprise an important lobby within the party and the government. They should also recognize that new businesses were born of the pact between Ortega and Alemán, as cronies of both men exploited inside knowledge of the privatization processes, the bank collapses and the hugely expensive compensations for confiscations in the eighties, always under the pact’s economic and political logic: one hand washes the other.

And what portion of the US$457 million in Venezuelan cooperation that Nicaragua received in 2008—according to Central Bank figures published recently thanks only to IMF pressure—has gone to capitalize businesses of top party functionaries and members of the governing family? Given that Vene¬zuela’s cooperation isn’t reflected in the national budget, it escapes all control, thus lending itself to discretional use and facilitating corruption.

Through the tunnel of time we can see that the FSLN has re-embraced the old concept of state-as-booty guaranteed with impunity. The FSLN inherited a sacked government in 1979, including banks that in lieu of money had fresh mortgage papers for all the properties Somocistas had to leave behind. Did the FSLN even leave such a paper trail when it did its early privatization of so much state property into Sandi¬nista hands?

Where has all the
revolution gone?

Thirty years ago the Sandinista revolution set about changing all the unjust structures on which Nicaragua had been built since its independence from Spain. The agrarian and urban reform processes changed the structure of property in both the countryside and the cities. The Literacy Crusade sent city youth out into the countryside and only one of the many positive results was the dramatic reduction of illiteracy. Health made a qualitative leap by eradicating endemic illnesses. The nationalizing of Somocista properties gave the revolutionary government the possibility of social action undreamed of up to that point.

But the US-funded and stubbornly protracted war soon affected all those structural changes. Today, in peace if not social justice, in what is being called the “second stage of the revolution,” the Ortega government isn’t altering or even touching the unjust structures reestablished by successive governments since 1990. There’s no interest in redistributing income, wealth or land.

Because education isn’t a priority, the future is still being mortgaged; Nicaraguan teachers are the worst paid in Central America, and at only 3.7% of the gross domestic product in 2008 its education budget is the lowest in the region (UNESCO recommends 7%). The one bright spot in the dark and dreary education picture is the new literacy campaign initiated by FSLN municipal governments even before Ortega won in 2006, using Cuba’s audio-visual “Yes, I can” methodology. The new government expanded the campaign five months after it took office, titling it “From Martí to Fidel.”

Based on a UNESCO commission sample of over 10,000 people in 20 of the country’s 151 municipalities, Juan Bautista Arríen, UNESCO’s representative in Nicaragua, announced on June 22 that the national illiteracy rate has dropped in the past three years from 19% to a surprising 4.73%. This will allow the government to declare Nicaragua “free of illiteracy,” although the sample shows that the illiteracy rate in some municipalities is still above 5% of the population. Given how quickly such basic literacy levels can slide back, the commission recommended that the Ministry of Education put more energy into keeping children in primary school. Currently 21 out of every 100 children enrolled drop out while still in first grade and only half finish all six years.

There has been no reform of the country’s tax scheme, one of the most unequal in the world; the always privileged still are. Furthermore, the budget is still being designed according to neoliberal criteria, including continued prioritization of the domestic debt to private banks—largely the infamous CENI bonds they hold.

On July 2, FSLN legislators and their PLC allies approved a new fast-track reform to the 2009 national budget sent by President Ortega. It’s the second budget cut this year, thanks to a notable drop in tax collection and the gap left by the Budgetary Support Group countries freezing their aid following the election fraud. The reform will substantially cut health and education spending while increasing current spending for the presidency, the Foreign Relations Ministry and the Supreme Electoral Council. By law, municipalities receive a transfer amounting to 4% of the budget, so they, particularly the poorest ones, will automatically feel the budget cut. In the National Assembly debate the opposition Sandinista Renovation Movement representatives pointed out the obvious: the supposedly revolutionary government is sticking with the budget’s neoliberal logic.

Is poverty at least
being reduced?

Although many current government officials patently have more social sensitivity than the Bolaños government officials, it isn’t reflected in either the budget or the corresponding public priorities.

The government has two “star” programs it presents as a continuation of the eighties revolution: Zero Hunger and Zero Usury, both of which are touted as “poverty reduction” programs. Despite its problems, Zero Hunger has unquestionably helped ensure food security for thousands of families in rural areas and the urban peripheries that are now eating more and better. Zero Usury, a micro-lending program particularly for poor women, is another story: it’s in the red and is reproducing a handout mentality into the bargain.

Despite the good will accompanying these programs, they aren’t reducing poverty and serve only as charity assistance because no organizational capacities are being developed among the beneficiaries so they can pay back their credits or multiply and profit from all the things included in Zero Hunger’s productive package. As a result, they end up using it all up for short-term subsistence.

There’s no leadership

Those who support the FSLN hold that, despite the pact, the fraud and the governing family’s enrichment, the government is “resolving the problems” of the most impoverished people, which they insist is what the “revolution” is all about. They argue that only those who aren’t hungry paint the Zero Hunger productive package or the Zero Usury micro-credits as paternalistic charity, or demand the democratic institutionality that the pact destroyed and the current government doesn’t respect.

But at the same time, they are aware that the FSLN is no longer a “revolutionary party.” They admit they haven’t been able to accompany the people whose life they are “resolving” with donations. They aren’t helping them evolve, become more aware and organized so they can cease being the subject of aid and start being the subject of change, genuinely exercising that “participatory democracy” that all of Latin America supported in response to Honduras’ coup.

They also admit that there’s a dearth of leadership and social protagonism, which almost disappeared within the party structures but is now bing reactivated by government decree under the Councils of Citizen’s Power (CPC) and even newer Councils of Sandinista Leadership (CLS). This explains why today’s “revolution” has to impose itself this way on a society so different from the one that other revolution inherited in July 1979.


Thirty years ago, when Nicaragua stopped being “Somoza’s farm” and became the “center of the world” thanks to the Sandinista revolution, it had two-and-a-half million inhabitants. Today we’re well over twice that. More than half of today’s population either wasn’t born when the revolution was unfolding or is too young to remember it, and three quarters never lived under the Somoza dictatorship. Nearly a million Nicaraguans have emigrated to the United States and Costa Rica and sustain both their families and the country with remittances.

The revolution, the years following it and the rapid changes the world has undergone since 1990 have all changed us greatly. A dictatorship is a government that knows no limits and finds none in its path. The profound changes Nicaragua has experienced in these 30 years provide some limits that suggest a way out of the situation we’re in, but not in the near future.

What we’re celebrating

We’re approaching the 30th anniversary of the revolution amid many contradictions. What became of it? Nineteenth-century British art critic, social thinker, author, poet and artist John Ruskin once said: “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts—the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.”

Many of the revolution’s deeds have been belied, while others are still there. Many words have been erased by time, while others still resonate. Most of the art it produced—mainly music, songs and poems—remain. But what survives with the greatest vigor is the human dignity crafted back then and now dwelling in the heart of so many anonymous and not so anonymous people. These people can clearly list the values and principles the term Sandinista stands for and they still express them in their daily life even if they’ve given up on the party that has turned its back on them. That’s what we continue celebrating.

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