The Libyan Connection
Just as Nicaragua’s political parties were making and breaking alliances,
under pressure to register them to meet the strict electoral calendar,
the grassroots revolt in Libya exploded,
an aftershock of the earthquake that already shook the Arab world.
President Ortega has close connections with Libya,
and what is happening there provides insights
about Nicaragua’s governing party.
Although Libya is over 10,000 kilometers from Nicaragua, a good part of the Nicaraguan population has heard more references to this North African country than to any other in the vast and distant Arab world. At some point, many of them have heard of Muammar Gaddafi, the man who has governed Libya for the past 42 years.
Words in our living memoryAs we now more or less consciously belong to a citizenry that lives in this global village of information in real time, first the “Jasmine revolution” in Tunisia then the heroic peaceful insurrection in Egypt immediately became topics of conversation, analysis, comparison and speculation by many Nicaraguans. Even though we know nothing or nearly nothing about the history and current problems of those countries, the mention of prolonged dictatorships, repression, dynasties, unemployment, insurrection, electoral fraud and corruption—all buzzwords that have been and still are present in the Nicaraguan political collective image—made the Arab earthquake feel familiar.
When it was Libya’s turn, the events seemed even closer. Unlike the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt, the news reported a ruler whose answer to being challenged by his own people and by armed opponents was to gun them down. Nicaraguans lived through a similar drama barely three decades ago.
Gaddafi’s turn to ruleLibya is on the northern edge of the vast Sahara desert. It is 13 times larger than Nicaragua but has the same population of nearly six million. The lands of current-day Libya were once in the hands of Egyptian pharaohs, Phoenician merchants, Greek rulers and Roman emperors, until the arrival of the Arabs. Centuries after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, when the European powers divvied up Africa, Italy made Libya its colony. With the fall of Mussolini and the end of the Second World War, the United Nations declared Libya an independent country and installed King Idris as its ruler.
In the sixties it was discovered that Libya was sitting on a sea of oil. That’s when then-Captain Muammar Gaddafi appeared, bringing down the king in a bloodless coup in 1969. He nationalized the lands, the banking system and the oil, and expelled the military bases of Great Britain and the United States.
Empathy and cooperationLibya was a part of the sea of solidarity that poured into our country after the 1972 earthquake, initiating relations of cooperation and support that have lasted government after government. The relationship grew closer when the revolutionary government took power in Nicaragua. The nationalist revolution led by Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 1969 was followed barely a decade later by the Nicaraguan revolution that the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) headed up after toppling the Somocista dictatorship, already into its fifth decade. The political empathy was immediate.
In the eighties, Libya, like other countries of the Nonaligned Movement, provided the FSLN government agriculturally-related technical cooperation and credits. In 1984 it founded the Libyan Arab Cultural Center in Managua, which promoted cultural events. It still promotes scholarships to train Nicaraguan students in accounting, typing, the Arabic language and sewing. The Libyan government considered its Libyan Arab Agricultural company, with a $15 million investment, “one of Central America’s largest agricultural sector businesses.”
Libya’s credits to Nicaragua created foreign debt. While in the nineties one Western country after another pardoned Nicaragua’s debt contracted during the revolutionary years, Libya never did. Only on February 16 of this year, when the first shots were ringing out in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, did the president of the Central Bank of Nicaragua announce that after initiatives by four governments, Libya had finally agreed to write off $195.8 million of the debt, leaving $117.8 million still pending.
“Once or twice a year”After the electoral defeat of Nicaragua’s revolutionary government in 1990, the State-to-State, revolution-to-revolution relations evolved into a personal friendship between Muammar Gaddafi and Daniel Ortega. Ortega himself recognizes this as a special relationship that has no parallel with those he has maintained with other world leaders who supported the revolution. In the nineties, Ortega admitted that the FSLN and he personally lived off the “remittances” sent him by his “brother Gaddafi.” Years later, at the presentation of credentials by the new Libyan ambassador in March 2007, then President-elect Ortega said that “since 1990, I’ve met at least once or twice a year with my brother Muammar al-Gaddafi.”
His second most recent trip was in June 2007, in a junket with his family—wife, children, grandchildren and all their spouses—through Algeria, Iran and Libya. On that occasion, Gaddafi discussed with Ortega his initiative to form a “Southern Front” to “create an international balance at a political and economic level” and invited the entire presidential family to spend two days in his hometown of Sirte where they joined his own family at the marriage of one of his nephews to a Jordanian poetess.
“It was a very beautiful activity, where we could feel the culture and traditions of the Libyan people. There was also an impressive artistic soiree in which we could appreciate the songs and dances of the revolutionary struggle, as well as a demonstration of the horsemanship they used in their revolutionary struggles,” commented First Lady Rosario Murillo.
The latest tripBarely a month before Gaddafi incited “those who love me” to pursue “house by house” the “rats” who had rebelled against him (“I am the glory of Libya” he said at the time), The Telegraph, a British daily, published a Wikileaks release of a confidential January 4, 2009, cable from the US Embassy in Tripoli reporting on Ortega’s latest trip, on December 19-22, 2008. According to the cable, Ortega “devoted much of his visit trying to drum up cash for his political operation and investment in Nicaragua,” including the construction of the dreamed-of inter-oceanic canal through Nicaragua, but in three meetings with the Libyan leader, he got “neither dinars nor pesos,” as the leaked cable’s subject line put it.
The note said Gaddafi later complained to the head of the Libya-Nicaragua Cooperation Committee, who participated in almost all of Ortega’s meetings, “that Ortega had come mostly to ‘cry on his shoulder’ and hold out his hand for contributions.” The same source also said that “the days of the Jamahiriya handing out dollars—with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa—are over, even for brother revolutionaries.”
Cordiality, dependence A year later, perhaps in compensation, President Ortega received the Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights from the hands of Libya’s Minister of Information and Culture. The award was established for “those who have sublimely collaborated in providing distinguished services or realizing glorious labors in defense of human rights.” The previous recipients of this prize were Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. The latter responded by giving Gaddafi a replica of the sword of the Liberator, stating that Gaddafi “is for the Libyans what Simón Bolívar is for the Venezuelans.”
A context of such cordial get-togethers and such economic dependence explains President Ortega’s expression of unconditional solidarity with Gaddafi when the grassroots rebellion blew up in Libya. An ideological affinity also seems to have been woven in these visits and exchanges that may explain the projects and styles of government brought from the desert dunes to this land of lakes and volcanoes.
A strange amalgamGaddafi’s revolution was “green” only for the color of its flag, and was initially based on three principles: nationalism, socialism and pan-Arabism. Beyond that it was a strange amalgam: ideas and projects came and went, transmuting over the years into an alchemy that combined real leadership with extravagances and hollow charlatanism. Gaddafi tried, unsuccessfully, to set himself up as the leader of the Arab world and of third world revolutions. In that adventure, the West perceived him for years as a destabilizer and international terrorist, a view to which he himself supplied evidence. In the eighties the West sanctioned and isolated Libya.
Gaddafi himself transmuted at the end of the nineties—after he had received Daniel Ortega in his campaign tent in the desert innumerable times. He made Libya a full member of the international community, forging closer relations with the United States, France, Italy, Great Britain, Germany and even Israel, permitting foreign oil companies to come into Libya and befriending his previous enemies. It was a 180-degree turn, and in the best style of political hypocrisy, the West went the other half way, laughing off his extravagances, ignoring his corruption and saying nothing about the well-documented repression.
The rebellion in the neighboring countries of Tunisia and Egypt found Libya fully inserted as a political and trade ally of the West. Gaddafi defended Egypt’s Mubarak and condemned the people’s uprising against him. When Gaddafi’s turn came, Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi defended him, but the grassroots wrath showed the world what was happening in Libya.
A revolution or a Starting in 1975, when he had been in power six years, Gaddafi published the first volume of his Green Book: “The Solution to the Problem of Democracy: The Authority of the People.” It was followed in the next four years by “The Solution to the Economic Problem: Socialism” and “The Social Basis of the Third International Theory.”
mishmash of ideas?
In 1977, he proclaimed Libya the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (generally translated as “State of the masses”). Inspired by Plato and Che Guevara, the synthesis of his texts shows an ideology that mixes nationalist, anti-capitalist, anti-communist, socialist and religious ideas, all of which lead to the model of a government of direct democracy under the baton of a supreme leader who is the guide of that “revolution.” Besieged by the grassroots discontent today, Gaddafi insists that he cannot resign any post because he doesn’t hold one. The reality is that he used his direct democracy to concentrate all power, becoming just another of the autocrats who have governed Middle Eastern countries and are today being rejected by the Arab peoples.
The fraternity between Gaddafi and Ortega isn’t based only on the transfer of financial resources. It also seems to have been fed by the importa¬tion of these scrambled ideas translated as “revolution.” When Ortega received the Gaddafi Prize for Human Rights in Managua, Gaddafi’s envoy explained that “in Nicaragua you have clearly adopted the Jamarihiyan Project, based on the power of all. And when you proclaimed the installation of the Councils of Citizen’s Power, it was also out of your conviction that the People have to be President.”
The “direct democracy” model In September 2009, President Ortega called a “Great Consultation on the National Budget” to kick off the “full development of the model of direct democracy,” an initiative organized as part of the celebration of 40 years of Gaddafi’s Great Jamarihiya. It produced no known results and was never repeated.
On that occasion, Libyan Ambassa¬dor Abdalla Mohamed Matoug explained that in the Jamarihiya “the people themselves decide and any project is discussed in the Popular Congress, which decides what will be done in the area of education, how many schools, how many kilometers of highways… The people decide in the Basic People’s Congress and the People’s Committee is responsible for executing it.” He called that experience “an example in the world and many countries visit Libya” to learn about it.
To replicate it? In theory that’s the design the current Nicaraguan government has promoted under the name of Councils and Cabinets of Citizens’ Power, but in practice even the most fervent defenders of the Ortega government recognize that it isn’t working.
At the same event, Rosario Murillo echoed the Libyan ambassador when she declared: “We Sandinistas identify with the achievements and victories of the people of Libya, where an extra¬ordinary model of power for the people has been developed, a model of direct democracy. It is a model we catalogue as one of individual liberties based on the fact that the people organized in the Congresses of People’s Power exercise that power to decide what transformations will be implemented and to guarantee justice and social peace in that country.”
Solidarity with As the disturbances were breaking out in Libya, the FSLN was holding “little congresses” in central points all over the country with the participation of members of Citizens’ Power, state employees and governing party sympathizers. With no debate whatever, they approved the single agenda point of ratifying Daniel Ortega’s presidential candidacy by acclamation. Although he is constitutionally prohibited from running again, unconditionally loyal FSLN justices on the Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that the constitutional article prohibiting his reelection was inap¬plicable.
the “great battle”
Those congresses, an expression of “direct democracy,” were a preamble to the fourth FSLN Congress, planned for February 21, the date Augusto César Sandino was assassinated on Somoza’s orders. The Congress was postponed, and instead President Ortega went to Niquinohomo, Sandino’s birthplace, to attend an act honoring Nicaragua’s General of Free Men. That is where he first expressed his solidarity with Gaddafi, a week into the bloody confrontations in Libya. “I’ve been communicating by telephone with him… Logically, he’s again engaging in a great battle. How many battles Gaddafi has had to wage! And in these circumstances, they are trying to figure out how to dialogue to defend the unity of the nation… I have expressed what is elemental: in difficult moments loyalty is put to the test… I have transmitted to him and to all the Libyan people the solidarity of the Nicaraguan people, Nicaraguan Sandinistas.” It was already evident by then that Gaddafi wasn’t seeking dialogue and that his “great battle” was against a sector of his own people repudiating his government.
“A media attack”After being canceled twice without explanation, the FSLN Congress was finally held on Saturday, February 26. As in the little congresses, the meeting was festive, with Ortega surrounded by youth wanting to ratify him as the party’s presidential candidate amid a multitude of flowers. The issue of respect for the Constitution that has weighed on Ortega’s candidacy for the past year and a half was dispatched in a few phrases of FSLN founder Tomás Borge’s flaming rhetoric: “Those who are unaware that each of the different branches of state is there to respond to the interests of the revolution, that is to say of the people, are removed from reality… The revolution is the source of law and its decisions are legitimate, just, beyond formalities… If we are in revolution, and we still are, there is no room for doubt that the positive thing for the country is the continuation of the current Power… The popular will, the will of all of you, has the maximum legitimacy!”
Phrases such of this are worrying because they mean that “the revolution” (a.k.a. the current government) and “the popular will” (a.k.a. FSLN sympathizers) take precedence over “formalities” (the Constitution of the Republic).
Unable to ignore the news that Nicaragua and other parts of the world were following with concern, Ortega referred to Libya again at the event, opting for the old standby of “a conspiracy theory.” The FSLN’s now anointed presidential candidate again expressed his solidarity with Gaddafi and described what was happening in Libya as a “ferocious media attack, in which they haven’t been able to present a single shot of planes bombing the people or of tanks shooting at the people, or of soldiers machine-gunning the people.”
“My government’s at his side”Days later, on the commemoration of another anniversary of the Great Jamahiriya, Ortega sent Gaddafi a third expression of solidarity, strewn with capital letters: “Commemorating this anniversary with the spirit of struggle and commitment we have seen in the streets of Tripoli is the best homage to that historic Declaration that today You and Your People are ratifying in full resistance to the imperial intervention and the attempt to divide your Sacred Territories in order to continue developing the expansionist and re-colonizing neocolonialism that is pursuing our people’s Natural Resources. Libya is living through tragic and defining moments. Nicaragua, my Government, the Sandi¬nista National Liberation Front and our People are at your side in these battles, which not only repre¬sent the defense of Libyan Dignity and Nation and Culture, but also express the struggles that, in different forms, all we Peoples of the South are facing.”
The political costs These three public expressions of solidarity with Gaddafi, lacking even a hint of criticism or compassion for the deaths of civilians, have had political costs for the President nationally, with even some of his own sympathizers making comments behind his back. Any electoral costs will depend on what his “brother” continues doing and what finally happens in Libya.
to President Ortega
Internationally Ortega ended up alone. The expected declara¬tions of support from Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro were more nuanced and less fraternal. The offer of mediation by Chávez and the ALBA countries—of which Nicaragua is one—not only came late, but was neither credible nor acceptable to the Libyan opposition as it came from heads of state close to Gaddafi. Ortega’s radical identifica¬tion with Gaddafi even triggered speculation that Managua would give the Libyan colonel and his family asylum.
“Gaddafi is indefensible”If the reaction by Gaddafi and the structures around him have exposed the true nature of this man after four decades of absolute power, the reaction by Daniel Ortega and some of his spokespeople to the Libyan crisis has demonstrated their incapacity for self-criticism as well as the power capsule in which they live and from which they try to make their sympathizers think. But that objective is no longer possible in this pluralist plaza of globalized information.
Leftist thinkers who can be easily accessed via Internet are exposing the fallacies of those who defend Gaddafi. Venezuelan writer and journalist Modesto Emilio Guerrero, defender of the Chávez revolution, writes: “Libya became an independent nation-State with Gaddafi. That explains the differentiated treatment imperialism is now giving him. Any analysis or policy regarding Libya must be based on that history, recognizing Gaddafi’s courage in his resistance to imperialism.
“But if we stop there, we begin lying to ourselves. Because things change, for better or worse, but they change. And Gaddafi is no longer Gaddafi. The essential thing in Libya is the rebellion against him, as legitimate as those in the rest of North Africa, although it is not yet headed up by a revolutionary political leadership… The complexity comes from the fact that Gaddafi has become indefensible. He was always contradictory and ambivalent, but for some years now he has been something else. His brutal repression and his reactionary political responses to the protests have been more cut-throat than those of Mubarak or Ben Alí. His regime is autarchic and nepotistic, with him at the center as if he were the head of a dynasty. Gaddafi and his worn-out pan-Arabic and “socialist” movement, the Jamahiriya, lost all claim to progressiveness because it is dealing with the rebellious masses the same way as his reactionary partners from Maghreb… Gaddafi will become defendable again, and only temporarily, if NATO attacks him. And that will depend on him calling on the Libyan people, starting with the National Council of Bengasi, to take up arms to defend the Libyan nation.”
“The world turned In one of the chronicles Alma Allende is writing from Tunisia together with Spanish anthropologist Santiago Alba Rico, she quotes leftist militant Rami as commenting very sadly, “‘It’s the world turned upside-down. The criminal invaders of countries come out in favor of the Libyan people and the exporters of doctors and solidarity come out in favor of their executioner.’ Many posters depict a photo-montage with the crossed-out faces of Ben Alí, Mubarak and Gaddafi, followed by a blank space with a question mark: Who will be next? Anyone from Europe, the United States or Latin America who at this moment dares to support any of the dictators of the region will earn the most absolute and definitive reprobation of all Arabs, from Mauritania to the Gulf.”
“I feel embarrassed”Basque intellectual Iosu Perales, who is well versed in both Central American and Middle Eastern politics, writes from Bilbao: “As a European I feel deeply embarrassed by the decades-long relations between the European Union and its governments and the police regimes of North Africa. Trade, investments and oil have long been worth more than human rights. The hypocrisy of our governments and of the main European political parties has been closing their eyes to the tremendous reality of the beaten-down, humiliated people living under a permanent state of exception… As a leftist I feel embarrassed by the reactions of Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega and Hugo Chávez who, in a pompous display of ignorance, or worse still of possible crass propaganda, assure us that the United States and NATO are behind the grassroots uprising in Libya…
“This disconnect in the responses is happening because, far from analyzing the facts with a minimum of objectivity, leaders who say they are leftist prefer to force reality into the mold of their own schemes, which only provide explanations in a conspiratorial key in which the empire is the enemy… Is it so difficult to think and believe that the uprising in Libya, like the previous ones in Tunisia and Egypt, is simply the work of people? Do Castro, Ortega and Chávez believe that populations only mobilize when led and manipulated, lacking any autonomy? Has it not occurred to them that perhaps the Libya in their heads is simply a fraud? That Gaddafi is neither socialist nor of the Left, and that his direct democracy has for some time been a cover for maintaining an iron belt around society to defend his regime?
“…Haven’t Fidel, Daniel and Hugo thought that a regime is illegitimate and must give way to a new political reality when it has to turn to massacring its own people indiscriminately to survive? We’re not talking here about rebel separatists or dissidents supported by foreign powers. Gaddafi’s ‘democracy of the masses,’ supposedly superior to that of the West, was no such thing; it was only a model of domination based on a personality cult.”
The tribes there and hereAnalysts of the social structure of the nation-State Gaddafi constructed, now deluged in the “rivers of blood” that Gaddafi’s son, successor in the dynasty, menacingly predicted, explain to us that Libya is a tribal country, with two major tribes in dispute and over a hundred others adhered to one or the other. The success of Gaddafi—who belongs to the insignificant Qadhafa tribe, traditionally allied with the Wafrallahs, one of the two more power¬ful tribes—was based on the fact that he managed to unify and, initially, to represent all of them.
His “brother” in Nicaragua aspires to at least five more years of government directing the circle of power that now controls the FSLN. In that party two “tribes” are in a silent but rancorous tug-of-war for preeminence. In the Speaking Out section of this issue, Journalist William Grigsby explains that no one in Nicaragua has a political majority today, but that the November elections will resolve that problem; what he didn’t mention is that it may also sort out who has it inside the governing party.
Neoliberals vs. revolutionariesThere are generational tensions within the FSLN—old activists being displaced by adolescents and young adults with scant knowledge of the history and zero experience of struggle. But the main contradiction is between two “tribes.”
One controls the economic Cabinet and relations with the international financial institutions. Its members are counting on five years more of the neoliberal model they learned how to profit from over the previous 16 years and, with their insider privileges, are profiting even more in these first five years of government. The model’s “healthy” macroeconomy, “free” market and savage capitalism have palpably intensified the inequalities over the past two decades. The only difference between the FSLN government and its predecessors since 1990 has been to provide paternalistic social compensation programs, which temporarily alleviate some of the shortages produced by poverty, but don’t generate jobs or structurally redistribute income.
The other tribe, aware of its government’s neoliberal framework, dreams of and projects another revolution. It aspires to “change the system” and trusts it can do it with the millions from ALBA and by intensifying the Jamihiryan tools of “direct democracy.”
“The FSLN was pulverized”The FSLN came back to power in 2007 with its original role as an instrument of structural change for Nicaraguan society very eroded. During the “16 years of neoliberal nightmare,” as it repeatedly refers to its period out of office, its leadership actively participated in that nightmare, legislatively and otherwise backing virtually all economic measures in exchange for a share of political power.
The Ortega-Alemán pact added distress to the confusion all this triggered in authentic Sandinistas. Disputes over high-salary posts and the buying of loyalties with perks soon became a governing model for the FSLN.
“The FSLN we knew, the one some of us have as a historical reference, no longer exists,” one long-time militant acknowledged painfully years ago. “That FSLN was ground down by the market, by negative personal behavior and by strategic political decisions in defense of personal interests, and today is full of people who aspire to quotas of power rather than to serve.” What hurt then has only worsened since the FSLN has returned to power.
One tribe member is nailedThe FSLN’s neoliberal tribe progressed in this climate of “ethical hari-kari,” as the late economist and political analyst Xabier Gorostiaga called it. In the middle of the ideological row triggered by events in Libya, Nicaraguan social scientist Amaru Barahona, a firm defender of the Ortega government, nailed one of the most conspicuous members of that tribe: former journalist Bayardo Arce, a comandante who was on the nine-member FSLN National Directorate throughout the eighties, became a bank board member in the nineties and is now Ortega’s economic adviser.
“Bayardo Arce is a typical representative of the ‘comprador bourgeoisie’ [the section of the local capitalist class allied with foreign investors, multinational corporations, bankers and military interests], who doesn’t care a whit about building an internal market in Nicaragua. Right now, Bayardo, together with the hierarchy of the Ministry of Promotion, Industry and Commerce, is consolidating the neoliberal perspective within the government in an ideological entente with COSEP, the umbrella body of our traditional business class, which never had, doesn’t have now and never will have a national development project; its economic thinking is reduced to acceptance of the neoliberal recipe.”
Venezuela sustains Those who represent the other tribe say they will change the system in the next electoral period. They’ve already been rehearsing this claim during this first period, presenting themselves as the architects of the “second stage of the revolution.”
The hundreds of millions in Venezuelan resources, administered at the discretion of the presidency, have allowed the neoliberal tribe to build an important economic power group, which is now competing with the traditional national capitalists with the advantages provided by occupying government positions. Yet Chávez’s resources have also facilitated instruments for the other tribe, allowing it to organize massive demonstrations, develop massive propaganda and massively distribute gifts, all to project the image of a “revolution of citizen’s power” geared to winning a second term of government in November, and then still more terms after that.
The person directing this tribe has wrapped it all in bright flowery colors and a confusing ideological amalgam that runs from the “Christian, socialist and solidarity” project of the speeches and billboards, through the concepts of “common good” or “good living” to the liberal philosophy of “liberty, equality and fraternity” that packages the FSLN’s electoral strategy this year.
Oppression and corruptionThe Libyan connection is clear. But Libya isn’t Nicaragua, the Jamahiriya isn’t Citizen’s Power and Gaddafi isn’t Ortega. Furthermore, the West isn’t democracy, NATO isn’t the solution and the Arab revolutionaries aren’t the definitive transformation of those countries. But we can all find suggestions, provocations and encouragement in what is happening in the Arab streets today.
When asked why the revolution exploded in her country, Egyptian feminist writer and psychiatrist Nawal el Saadawi, considered the “spiritual mother” of the revolution in Cairo’s Tahrir plaza, responded: “Because of the accumulation of oppression and corruption.” That’s one accumulation of which there is no shortage in many parts of the planet, Nicaragua included.