The FSLN is now one family’s political machinery
An FSLN guerrilla commander in the 1970s,
an FSLN government health minister in the 1980s
and an FSLN legislative representative in the early 1990s,
the author gives us some of her insight on the FSLN’s involution.
Dora María Téllez
I’m often asked how Daniel Ortega got where he is, and how the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) ended up as it has. It’s not a question with an easy answer. The FSLN’s involution is a very complex issue, and its process can’t be fully described in this small space. I’ll only talk here about some of the features I consider essential.
Organized for armed struggle There have been various stages in the FSLN’s history. The first one is obviously the revolutionary struggle against the dictatorship. In that stage it was a clandestine organization, highly centralized as any clandestine organization must be. It was extremely small, with a tiny number of militant activists—probably no more than 300—and also with a very limited connection to society.
That process lasted from the founding of the FSLN in 1961 until 1978. It was a closed organization forged within the dictatorship’s repression, an organization in which there wasn’t and couldn’t be any democratic debate. It was absurd to think there should or could be when there wasn’t even communication given the clandestinity. Those were times of very limited communication throughout the country, when there were still dial telephones, even crank telephones, when you got the number you wanted through operators in the telephone center of Matagalpa and other places who plugged you in with cords. For security reasons we in the FSLN didn’t even use them. Our communication was minimal and elementary: we communicated with little pieces of paper using tiny letters, which were sent with a few messengers.
Not three tendencies, but three organizationsAfter the 1977 guerrilla offensive and the assassination of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro [a highly-respected opposition newspaper director who tried to unite the fragmented opposition] in January 1978, our clandestine organization linked up to what became an enormous social mobilization until we brought down the dictatorship. At that time the FSLN wasn’t a single organization; it was three. In 1975 it had divided into three distinct organizations, not tendencies, as they were called at the time. They were different organizations, each with its leadership, structures, program, policy and strategy, or philosophy of action. Each one had its own proposal with respect to the Somocista dictatorship. What didn’t change was the name, so they called themselves the FSLN “tercerista” or insurrectional tendency, FSLN prolonged popular war (GPP) tendency and FSLN proletarian tendency. At the end of 1978, what these three organizations achieved was not an organic unity, but a unity in action to overthrow the dictatorship.
Organic unity as such didn’t come about with the triumph of the revolution in 1979 either. The leadership of the three “tendencies” merged and the FSLN rearticulated around the institutions of the State. The members of the FSLN’s nine-man National Directorate, which evenly represented the three organizations and became the main political body, were put at the head of the key institutions—the army, the Ministry of the Interior, agrarian reform, the mass organizations, and what we called “the party” per se, and obviously brought in their followers. Those of us in the party apparatus used to say we were in the “ministry of mobilization of the revolution.”
Moving into the oppositionWhat this meant was that the political articulation didn’t happen in an integral way, but around institutions. In 1990, the party’s defeat in the elections still found us articulated around institutions. So we faced two enormous challenges: to figure out how to articulate ourselves as a political party and how to be a civic organization in the opposition.
But when had the FSLN ever been civic opposition, political opposition? Never. We had no experience at it. Years before we had been in the opposition, but it was armed opposition. What’s more, no political party in Nicaragua had ever lost elections cleanly and turned over power. No one was used to winning or losing elections cleanly.
It was all brand new for the country… and for the FSLN. No one understood anything about the separation of powers. The concentration of powers in the executive branch had always been a deeply rooted tradition in Nicaragua. And the Constitution written and passed in 1987, during the revolution, had followed that mold. It basically didn’t stray from the previous political system, based on concentrating power in the President and wresting power from everyone else. According to that new Constitution, for example, the President could hand pick the president of the Supreme Court and the president of the Supreme Electoral Council. The 1987 Constitution consecrated a highly authoritarian presidentialist political system.
Upon moving into the opposition, the FSLN had yet another dilemma: how to act in such difficult circumstances; how to behave as opposition with those who had previously been against the revolution, many of whom had even waged war against it; how to respond to the conservative wave washing over us. Also, what relationship we should have with the social organizations, and with the citizenry, the population. There were so many challenges, because it was all new. This significantly sharpened the debates within the FSLN, debates that had begun even before the electoral defeat.
The great debateThe great debate, which became public and increasingly heated after the electoral defeat, centered on three issues: the causes of the defeat, the role and methods of the FSLN in the opposition and the demand for the democratization of the party. The way those key elements were resolved are what have most influenced the current situation.
As for the causes of the defeat, the National Directorate sloughed off its own responsibility, delegating it to the party’s middle-level cadres. They ended up taking the heat for everything. Heads rolled everywhere, a task Daniel Ortega involved himself in up to the hilt, laying the groundwork for what would happen later. In line with the National Directorate, the base also laid the blame for everything on the intermediate cadres. Since those local cadres were the ones with more authority in the party, the people had been able to debate through them, as if face to face with the National Directorate. But once they started disappearing, what was left in the FSLN was a leadership that had all the power and a few grassroots leaders with infinitely less power.
With respect to democratization of the party, the current headed by Daniel Ortega also insisted on trying to delay or even halt that internal democratization process, arguing the adverse situation we were going through. By that time, democratization had become a widely voiced demand, in which the party’s internal context mentioned above, influenced by the electoral results, played an important role.
Ortega and his loyal followers also opposed a constitutional reform that would democratize the authoritarian political system with its powerful presidential skew. This also provoked splits.
Finally Ortega and his group completed the takeover. Yet another reason he was able to do it was that by 1990 he was surrounded by a propaganda apparatus that had dedicated a lot of work to cultivating and consolidating his personality. That process started in 1983, with the thesis that it was necessary to concentrate power to deal with the election campaigns, first the 1984 one and then the one in 1990. Little by little the figure of Daniel Ortega began concentrating more and more power, and also having more visibility at a public level, such that when we lost the elections, he was the personality in the FSLN that had the most recognition, within and outside of the FSLN.
Why Daniel and not some other FSLN leader? Why was Daniel chosen to be public figure número uno? My answer to that question is perhaps a little… well, a little exotic. My take on it is that he got there by elimination. When the three tendencies joined back together in 1978, the FSLN went through a major debate about how many members from each tendency should be in the joint direction we were going to form. The tercerista tendency claimed it should have greater participation than the other two tendencies because it was the strongest. But that was impossible to win so to make the joint direction possible, they agreed to three-three-three, the same number from each tendency for a nine-member national directorate. Naturally the correlation of forces wasn’t equal like that, and hence the wrangling began. Obviously, with the triumph of the revolution, the terceristas tried to grab the most important positions of power.
The process of elimination for two of the fiveFSLN seats in the new pluralist Government Junta of National Unity began by vetoing the two figures who had the most public projection at the moment of the triumph: party founder Tomás Borge and comandante Henry Ruiz, both of the GPP. Then personalities were selected who had public recognition but didn’t rub the wrong way. Moisés Hassan was chosen from among those directly linked to any of the three tendencies. He was an intellectual, a physics professor, who was well known in the university media. He was also identified with the GPP tendency and enjoyed the confidence of its leaders. And he didn’t get under anyone’s skin. Next they chose Sergio Ramírez from the Group of Twelve [a group of 12 prominent professionals and intellectuals who in October 1977 had publicly come out in favor of including the FSLN in any political solution, thus shattering the Right’s attempt to isolate the FSLN as a ragtag handful of guerrillas with no links to the formal, civilian opposition]. Ramírez was a well known writer, a prestigious intellectual who enjoyed the confidence of the tercerista leadership, but had a broader profile and important recognition both domestically and abroad.
And who from the National Directorate would be in the government junta, occupying the third seat for the FSLN? Daniel Ortega, from the tercerista tendency, precisely because he was timid, quiet, an able maneuverer but lacking in public leadership qualities. Thus, his tendency succeeded in imposing a favorable correlation in the government junta, in line with the strength it enjoyed.
“First among equals” in the TerceristasThe person in the tercerista tendency with links in the different fronts of war during the insurrection was Daniel’s brother Humberto, and his sidekicks in those fronts of war were Víctor Tirado and Germán Pomares, [an FSLN founder known as “El Danto,” who was killed in May 1979]. These were the tercerista leaders. As a withdrawn man, not very good in public relations or social relations or relations with the party structures, Daniel Ortega was the ideal person. He gave the impression of not being a threat to anyone.
Warning: those who give the impression of not being a threat almost always end up climbing to the top. That was, for example, the case of Joaquín Balaguer in the Dominican Republic. He had an ingenuous-looking face and was utterly lacking in passion or charisma. He was a secretary with influence in Trujillo’s three-decade long government, but seemingly nothing more. So why did Trujillo choose Balaguer to succeed him? Because he and all those around him felt that Balaguer wouldn’t mess with anyone and would maintain the status quo. But after Trujillo was executed in 1961, followed by tumultuous years and a coup, Balaguer showed his well-hidden fangs and was both consecutively and non-consecutively reelected at least five times.
Unlike Daniel, Humberto Ortega was considered a leader with fangs. He has always had them and has always shown them. In this sense, he’s a transparent man. He ran the fronts of war during the struggle against the dictatorship, putting himself through the wringer alongside us. We had strong arguments with him in the middle of the war. He’s a man of strong opinions, a man who wrote, who had his theses, who took up strategic issues. What you see with him is what you get: Humberto is passionate, explicit, with an aggressive nature, good at back-room maneuvering, but also good at public debate. Very different from Daniel.
More power brings a new personalityDaniel Ortega began cultivating another personality during the eighties, as power began concentrating around him and as the contra war got worse. The most critical moment of the war was 1983. That year found the revolution with a new institutionality, which was already strong but very dispersed.
That institutional disconnect was such that the need to concentrate power and the institutions to deal with the contras was generalized because they were making serious advances. Everything was centralized starting that year, organized from top to bottom: at the national level, the regional level, the departmental level.
Mechanisms were also created to link the state institutions to the party. And that’s when Daniel Ortega began to shore up his institutional power. He set himself up as the FSLN secretary general and coordinator of the government junta. By that time the opposition members in the junta had resigned.
All that happened before the 1984 elections, which we never considered much of a challenge because Arturo Cruz, the only candidate who could have been a real threat, got off his horse in mid-stream and no real competitor was left, even though seven parties ranging from the right to the left of the FSLN put up their best candidates. With something like a 70+% turnout, we won over 63% of the vote. We were never worried about those elections the way were about the ones in 1990.
In 1985, when a huge Sandinista assembly was held to review the FSLN’s relationship with the mass organizations, many criticisms were voiced about the top-down relation of subordination between the party and the social base, an authoritarian relationship of “I run things and give the orders.” There was also already debate about the party’s internal structure. But the trend re-imposed at that time was to continue concentrating power, because the war was really rough. Ronald Reagan had been reelected and we knew he was going to keep his word to throw everything he could at us.
By 1990 the figure of Daniel Ortega was quite consolidated, among other reasons because the product that came out of the 1984 election was a President and a Vice President. The government junta disappeared and the presidential figure began to carry weight. Daniel was no longer just coordinating a collegiate government; he was President with all the powers he had at that moment as well as the ones the 1987 Constitution granted him.
The 1990 elections: There was a real array of candidates in the 1990 elections, a genuine competition. And the FSLN put its money on the same horse: Daniel Ortega would again be its candidate. Why him again? Because changing the candidate would have meant introducing a huge debate into the FSLN. If anyone had raised the issue of who the candidate would be in 1989, several names would have come up: at a minimum Tomás Borge. If we had opened up that discussion within the FSLN in 1989, it would have produced groupings around different candidates, a situation and a debate unknown to us, which we surely would have feared.
Why Daniel was the candidate
The other pending debate—the relationship between the FSLN and the mass organizations, which came back up at that time—was dealt with by an agreement to hold a Congress after winning the elections in which we would do an in-depth review of many still outstanding issues. With that, we decided to go to the elections with the same candidates, the same personalities, for President and Vice President.
The 1989 electoral campaign, with Daniel Ortega presented to the population as “the fighting cock” elevated his figure even more. But in that image and in many other messages of that campaign, the FSLN’s option to engage in politics the same way it had always been done in Nicaragua began to be expressed.
All political parties and all people start out wanting to transform reality, but that’s followed by the tendency to accommodate to reality. That happened with the FSLN, so the Daniel Ortega who went into the 1990 elections was already fully installed as a very traditional figure of political power inside the party and out, although mainly outside. There were still certain checks and balances inside the party, but outside his figure was unquestionably the strongest.
What 1990 wrought inside the partyNow as head of an opposition party, Daniel Ortega began imposing himself over the rest of the FSLN leadership. Part of them pulled out, some for the obvious reason that they had to find some way to eat and others just because they did. The middle-level cadres, those who had gone through the war out in the countryside, also pulled back because they had to find work since no one had a paid party post anymore, other than those of us elected to the National Assembly, and we had a government salary.
But suddenly thrown into the job market, what were all these people supposed to work at? With what title? “I’m a specialist in organizing the communal movement”; “I specialize in organizing supplies for the militias”… Where are you going to get a job with that CV? Those aren’t saleable skills in a post-war society. So some started buying and selling beans, others material, others shoes, others set up a stall in the market, the lucky ones created NGOs…
The army of professionals the FSLN had before losing the elections had been enormous, just under 7,000. But the immense majority hadn’t finished their studies because they had given themselves over full time to the revolution; they had no title or degree. Those who could went back to school and all the others went off in search of employment.
So who was left? Basically only those of us who were legislators and Daniel Ortega, because as head of the party, he had resources to maintain himself.
Lacking middle-level cadres, he began to establish the model of caudillo and masses, cultivating a direct and subordinating relationship with them. In that model, the necessary workings of a party are only at the service of the caudillo, or party boss.
Ortega likes to say he’s the only one who remained dedicated after the electoral defeat, the only one out on the hustings with the people. While that’s true, he was the only one with the resources to do so. Everybody else had to figure out how to eat and live. Only those of us in the National Assembly had an assured salary for the political debate. And that’s exactly what we did: engage in political debate.
You’re either with me By the mid nineties, Daniel Ortega had already succeeded in taking over the FSLN. And he did it two ways. By having the power of being the party’s most visible public figure and by the well known strategy of mounting a campaign against anyone who disagreed with him, calling them traitor, sell-out, CIA agent, oligarch, agent of imperialism or linked to international social democracy… That smear campaign worked for many people. I’m still approached five or ten years later by people who want to apologize. Once a man stopped me on the street to beg my forgiveness. When I asked him why, he said: “Because I said terrible things about you, that you were a traitor. And now I realize that wasn’t true, that you were right.”
or you’re against me
The problem is that most people don’t see arguments, they see personalities. So if Daniel Ortega opens his mouth and says he’s in bed with Arnoldo Alemán because that’s what the revolution needs, many people in the FSLN will agree that it’s precisely what the revolution needs. And if the next day he says no longer, many people will parrot that about-face. Because when a person is deified, the reference isn’t reality, or principles or a program, but what that person says and does. When Daniel Ortega allied with Arnoldo Alemán, many people in the FSLN said, “The comandante is so smart; that dude’s the best; he hit it out of the ball park with that alliance.” But if Dora Téllez were to ally with Alemán they’d say: “What a betrayal by Dora Téllez, she abandoned her principles and went off slumming with Arnoldo Alemán.” That’s how many people function.
What wasn’t completely clear in the FSLN in 1995 was that Daniel Ortega wouldn’t stop, that he was dominated by his thirst to concentrate more and more power. And he didn’t stop. What’s more, he still hasn’t. And he won’t ever stop by his own will. He will have to be stopped.
We were the first wave that split from the FSLN, but we didn’t throw in the towel. We left to form a different political party, the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS). The ideal for Daniel Ortega would have been for us to leave, but not make a new party; he would have much preferred we end up a group of dispersed people shooting off our mouths. After us came a second wave, and then a third one and a fourth one. In Jinotepe recently I found a fifth wave. Because the process of concentrating power now includes Daniel Ortega’s family. And that requires liquidating the last vestiges of the party leaders who have to do with the past. They call them the “scraps from the revolution.”
Those who are now beginning to fill up the party posts are young. Why? Is it because they’re good, with fresh young thoughts? No, it’s because the Ortegas want these young people to be unconditionally loyal to those who are putting them there. They’re pushing them not to have a critical spirit but to obey.
Four processes that caused The concentrating of power in Ortega and his family. The first process that caused the FSLN’s involution was that power was concentrated first in Ortega and now in his family, as alluded to above.
the FSLN’s involution
Pragmatic politics to negotiate power, not issues. The second process was a policy of purely pragmatic politics. Of course politicians and politics have to be pragmatic because we live in the real world with others who don’t think the same as we do. So we always have to negotiate, to compromise if we’re to coexist. And coexistence involves tolerance and a certain amount of bargaining to resolve specific problems. We always have to negotiate, but we have to negotiate about people’s specific problems, about in-depth issues that affect people.
The Ortega perspective that everything is negotiable in order to preserve, increase and improve the power quotas, regardless of agenda, principles or national or grassroots interests, was already forcefully apparent back in the nineties. It even led Ortega to make a pact with Arnoldo Alemán in 1998, first divvying up power and perks 60-40, then 50-50 and so on…. Alemán’s mistake was in believing it was like those made during the Somoza regime, which remained fixed. What for Alemán was a model for stability was a trampoline for Ortega.
The Ortega group’s current obsession with political power has left it without a political agenda. Just to mention one example: yesterday they argued against the free trade agreement with the US and today they negotiate with the US in CAFTA. Similarly with the IMF and the World Bank: before they were demons and now they’re its best buddies. Examining the Ortega group’s decisions in the National Assembly shows that one day they say A and the next they say B, the total opposite, and they don’t seem to mind being contradictory.
Under the Ortega-Murillo family’s management, the FSLN has lost its political agenda. Power concentrated in the Ortegas and hyper-pragmatic policies have resulted in eradicating not only the FSLN’s tradition of collective leadership but also its political orientation as a force aspiring to transform reality.
The smell of money. The third process in the FSLN’s involution and decomposition is what Sergio Ramírez called “the serpent’s egg”: money. Government posts seen merely as an opportunity for salaries and perks generally didn’t come into play in the FSLN’s correlation of forces or in recent Nicaraguan politics until well into the nineties. When Myriam Argüello, the Conservative Party representative, was president of the National Assembly, the maximum salary earned by members at the end of our term of office in 1996 was $1,400, I believe. At that time we never saw members getting any other privileges. The salary bombshell came after the Ortega and Alemán pact, when every legislator’s salary went up to almost $5,000, plus other benefits.
The multiplication and divvying up of high positions and benefits began with the pact. Alemán discovered that political cronyism could still be profitable and that a significant number of corruptible people in the FSLN only needed to be shown money. So he showed it to them.
An embracing of the old way of doing politics. A fourth process that explains the FSLN’s involution is that, prior to the pact with Alemán, Daniel Ortega and his group had already reached the conclusion that for politics to be successful in Nicaragua, things had to be done as they always had been. And how was that? With pacts, cronyism, benefits, corruption and impunity.
Now, in this last term, Ortega has added a new key element: the family. During the Somoza dictatorship that’s how politics were: family, pacts, impunity, corruption, benefits and political cronyism. And, at that time, there was also military power. These days the only thing still missing is that Ortega needs to neutralize military power; and every day he’s trying to move further in this direction.
Following the Somoza modelThis is the FSLN of today. Ortega has led it into totally abandoning its ardor to transform society, turning it into a continuation of the Somoza dictatorship’s model of political action. It has ceased being a transforming factor for Nicaragua to become a party that has adopted the Somocista model to give itself continuity.
Ortega has emptied the FSLN of content, alienating it from its own history. As Portuguese novelist and playwright Saramago, 1998 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, once said: Daniel Ortega isn’t worthy of his own history. Today’s FSLN ceased being a revolutionary party, a leftist party. In fact, it has ceased being a party at all. Today it’s a political machine that serves the family in power, and with only one goal: to retain power at all costs. Why? It no longer matters.
The process the FSLN is now in is no longer involution; that went on for years: today the right word is collapse. And to give Daniel Ortega his due: he has been the leader, inspiration and architect of the process that has taken the FSLN from being a revolutionary party to becoming a de facto Somocista party.
Have you heard talk about any leadership in the FSLN? And I ask this by way of sociological analysis and not as political criticism. Does anyone know the FSLN’s leadership? Does the FSLN Congress meet to deliberate about anything? What are this party’s rules? The last we saw before the 2011 municipal elections were protests from the FSLN base against Ortega’s imposition of reportedly unqualified and unpopular candidates for mayor in about 40 municipalities. And what has happened to those protestors? All of them were expelled; all axed. That handpicking of candidates, without consultation or debate, was a further expression of authoritarianism. Anyone who thinks that an internally authoritarian political party can produce an externally democratic society is delusional. If a political party wants to produce democratic transformations in society, it has to experience democracy within.
What if Sandino…?What would Sandino have done in February 1934 had he shared Ortega’s theses? He would have got out of the small plane at Campo Bruce and, instead of going to the presidential mansion to sign a peace agreement with President Sacasa, would have crossed the street to look for the US ambassador, Mr. Hanna, to cut a deal with him: “I’ll guarantee your interests in Nicaragua if in return you let me be the next President.” Just as Moncada had done, reaching a deal with the gringos and ending up as President.
Sandino could have pulled this off. He had already won the war against the US Marines and at that time was the most popular person in the whole country. He could have made a deal with the ambassador; could have asked him to remove Somoza as head of the National Guard and make him head of it instead… The gringos would have bought this idea, they would surely have been delighted with this solution…But at what price would Sandino have sold out “his birthright”?
Sandino didn’t sell out for a quotient of power; he didn’t have pragmatic politics; he wasn’t looking for money; he wanted other politics, another Nicaragua. When the war began, what did Moncada say to Sandino? “Get down off your horse, you’re making all the sacrifice and the people won’t thank you for it.” But then Sandino made Moncada look the fool: “Okay then, General, but right now I have to fix up something with a few insurgents over there. Just give me a minute; I’ll be right back to sign the paper.” And Sandino went off to lead the insurgents, to make war and then to confront the gringos; he never did get back to Moncada. Later, while Sandino was at war, Moncada got all the generals from the Constitutionalist Army to write letters to Sandino. In July, August and September of 1927 they wrote him with the same message: “General, get down off that horse. The peasants you’re with are dullards. Look how we’re now fixing up things with the gringos; look at how the gringos are going to screw you; look at how we Liberals are on the rise and how they’ve already given us the quotas we were to get. You could be the top political leader in Matagalpa…”
How did the Constitutionalist War end? …with perks. In order to end the Constitutionalist War Moncada asked for political leadership in the Liberal departments. And he got it. But Sandino didn’t get into that game and went on to fight the gringos. Sandino didn’t want political office or benefits; he wanted another Nicaragua.
Would he have been Sandino had he followed Daniel Ortega’s pragmatic path? He was offered that option: get off his horse, make a deal with the gringos; grab onto his little position and use it to move up in the Liberal Party, and then take a shot at being President… But this isn’t what he did. Had he done that we wouldn’t be talking about him today. He made a choice. And that’s why he was the Sandino we know and admire.
Any chance of a change?There are still those who are looking for something that resembles the old clandestine FSLN; the FSLN they knew, the revolutionary FSLN. But it no longer exists; it’s history, dead and buried. Are there any possibilities of resurrecting it? Could we make a change from within? No, that’s why we left. We made a last attempt in 2000 when the National Convergence was formed, but when we left that initiative a few years later, it was because we had become convinced it couldn’t work.
Some people argued that the fight could and should take place internally. Herty Lewites and Víctor Hugo Tinoco decided to try; they gave it their best shot and were thrown out. Everyone who has tried to fight from within has ended by being thrown out.
In my opinion there are no possibilities of changing the structure of today’s FSLN from within. Will there be another candidate to turn the FSLN around? Also no. As long as Daniel Ortega is alive he’ll be the presidential candidate. Will Daniel Ortega change, decide to become democratic and go back to his principles? No, he’ll die with his boots on. Will anyone inside the FSLN make a change; dare to raise their hand to say they don’t agree with what’s happening? Nope, nobody will do it. I don’t see anyone who wants to do that. Herty Lewites did it and they did the same thing to him they did with the protestors against the handpicked candidates. Result: they were all expelled and nothing within changed.
The FSLN’s involution has been a process of choices. There come moments when political forces and people make choices. What’s the choice? To change society for the better, so as to improve the condition of the poorest, so there’s democracy, so there’s real citizen involvement, or grab onto a job a post and take the benefits; hold onto power. It’s always a matter of choice.
This is a dictatorshipWe call the model with which Ortega has now installed himself a dictatorship. Some people say it isn’t that because they aren’t killing people in the streets. But whoever said the Somozas were always killing people in the streets? That only happened during times of severe crisis, especially in the last two years. The Somozas fiercely repressed every crisis, then they cut a deal with the Conservatives and everything ran smoothly again. It was a dictatorship in which people had already learned to keep quiet, or to say what had to be said to avoid problems.
A successful dictatorship doesn’t have to cut throats. A dictatorship is successful when one person says what they want him to say; another doesn’t say what he wants to say and a third asks to be paid not to say anything… And this is what’s now happening in Nicaragua.
We get the government we tolerateChávez’ politics and money have unquestionably affected Ortega’s power apparatus and the current political model. We’re talking about US$2.5 billion in just a few years. That’s a considerable amount of money and it has made an enormous contribution to consolidating Ortega’s current model. But we have to remember that this kind of family-based model, with benefits, impunity and corruption only operates where a society allows and supports it.
Chávez may have spent $2.5 billion but if Ortega didn’t have National Assembly members who agreed to allow this money to stay out of the national budget, something would have changed. Only our MRS representatives demanded that this money go into the national budget. We’ve even written letters to President Chávez about it. No, we don’t have the government we deserve, because we deserve something much better. But we do have the government we tolerate.
The MRS is changing the way we do politicsThe MRS has 16 years as a party with an agenda and it hasn’t been easy for us because we’re always being asked to be like the other parties. Ensuring that there’s no culture of cronyism in the MRS and nurturing internal democracy hasn’t been easy either because all of us in Nicaragua come from an authoritarian structure: in the family, in school and in politics. And an authoritarian model is bigoted and sectarian. The democratic practice inside the MRS today is a deliberate, driven, thought-out effort and it’s still not fluid. We’ve just moved towards a generational change at a national level but there’s resistance to generational change at the departmental level because replacing political figures in Nicaragua is very difficult; leaders get old in their post and die without letting go.
We in the MRS are clear that changing the way we do politics takes time and is a hard row to hoe. It would have been far easier to have accepted the money and benefits they offered us at the time to vote for the constitutional amendment Ortega wanted so he could be legally reelected, but doing so would have put us on the other side of the street with the same bad habits.
When is a minority not a minority…Political choices for change are formed in critical times. The FSLN was an absolute, total, complete minority from 1961 until 1978. In January of that year, when they killed Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the FSLN was a super-minority, an ultra-minority. To give you some idea of the kind of minority we were, it was decided in early 1980, a few months into the Revolution, that we should give identity cards to FSLN militants, activists who were dedicated to the party, had proven their loyalty and had shared a political formation. How many cards did we issue? Only a thousand. And it took a superhuman effort to come up with that many!
How did such a minority become a revolutionary factor? Because it stuck to the point and knew how to act at the critical moment. You don’t have to be afraid of being a minority. Changes have always been driven by minorities. Lenin said that politics is also a matter of numbers, and we’re sure this is true, especially in electoral politics. But the major problem in Nicaragua today is that numbers in the ballot boxes don’t matter, votes don’t matter because they’re always counted in favor of Ortega. That’s why the first goal is to change the electoral system.
Last November’s municipal elections and the November 2011 presidential elections showed that the Ortega group isn’t the majority force in Nicaraguan social reality it claims to be. If it were, why did it have to steal the elections? You only steal something you can’t get legitimately.
A society that’s learning to changeNevertheless, I have a positive and optimistic vision of what’s happening in Nicaragua. Societies, like people, go through growth processes in which they learn, are formed; accumu¬lating experience and energy. This society certainly supports the Ortega model but it’s also changing. For example: Has the role of women changed in Nicaragua? I believe so. It’s true we’re still being strangled and killed but it’s also true that more incidents are being reported, there’s more defense, more work and greater awareness. Similarly, other undercurrents in society are changing us; changing the role we assume to face reality, and they will end by changing society.
I think—no, I’m sure—that Nicaraguan society is in an accumulating, a maturing phase. Revolutions have one great advantage: they wipe the slate clean and we get to write anew. But only on legal matters, not social issues. The advantage of revolutions is that they cause radical changes but their disadvantage is that these radical changes aren’t always accompanied by the development of society itself.
The Sandinista revolution produced profound changes; it profoundly changed this society’s design. From a historian’s perspective, nothing that exists today can be understood without the Sandinista revolution. We’re standing today on the changes introduced by that revolution. But then came involution; the wave of regression to the past.
We change laws and institutions but mental models, what people have in their heads, don’t change so fast. And, just as we’ve seen in the current “perks” model, a police force that we designed to serve the community, the citizenry—and that really did for many years—has now become a political police force, serving one family’s power machine. Sound familiar?
What can be done?What can be done? What has to be done is to work to develop peoples’ awareness, hammering on the same point with perseverance, with tenacity, until the time comes when the level of awareness produces radically different results to those we see today. Context is frequently quite crucial to this happening. What will happen once Ortega no longer has money for more perks?
The economic conditions that favored the Ortega machine are changing and will get increasingly difficult. International prices for agricultural exports, which have been very good, are falling and rising domestic prices are going hit the cities hardest. And Ortega will end up without money to hand out. Society will have to capitalize politically on these changes. What’s the advantage of choosing the civic route under these circumstances? And I stress: under these circumstances. The advantage is that it gives society a period of time to mature in another direction.
What can be done? Continue what we’ve been doing: strengthening community leadership, community organization, society’s organization. And our role in the MRS is to build a political option consistent with what we’ve been preaching.
We’re confident that everything is going to catalyze in a shorter time than we thought because this society is tired of the profound sectarianism overwhelming the country: the sectarianism of a family caste, of family castes; the sectarianism of the political secretaries and their family in the municipalities discriminating against the rest of the people. How many Nicaraguans today believe that the state institutions serve everyone? None.
Disrespecting the peoplePeople are tired of the power castes’ system of handing out perks. They’re exhausted with queuing up in the party so as to get a scholarship, a job, to register…
People in Nicaragua are fed up with being treated as if they have no dignity. When teachers are told that they have to join the Ortega ranks, what can they do? Say they’re not going to? And if the teacher has four children and only this one salary…? They’ll queue up even if they’re protesting inside at being treated with such disrespect. Daniel Ortega’s regime has treated the vast majority of Nicaraguans disrespectfully: it’s treated them as beggars, as objects, forcing them to do things against their will and against their conscience.
We all have this saved up inside and it’s going to burst out. It’s right there. These are the undercurrents and like all undercurrents they will look for a way to come out. The time will come. What do we have to do in the meantime? Continue strengthening people’s dignity, their active role, their position and their just demands and struggles...and continue organizing and working to make that time come.
Dora María Téllez is a founder, past president and still active leader of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), a 1995 split from the FSLN, and now also a historian.