What mutations have turned the FSLN into what it is today?
Reflections on some of the mutations
of the FSLN’s original Sandinista project and values
into what the author considers to be the project
of the presidential couple, which she dubs
What are the essential, most distinctive features of Daniel Ortega’s regime? What ruptures, involutions or mutations can we see in these features and what do they mean for the programmatic purposes of the Sandinista National Liberal Front (FSLN) and the project of the Sandinista revolution? Let’s first identify several of these features to then analyze some of the mutations.
The four essential featuresFirst feature. We aren’t in any second stage of the revolution, as FSLN spokespeople would have us believe. No transformations are being implemented to put us on the road to a system of social justice. To the contrary, a social-economic regime has been strengthened in which the poor are condemned, like never before, to eke out a living in informal, precarious self-employed jobs, work long hours for miserable wages or migrate to other countries in search of work. If they’re at all lucky, they can look forward to pathetic retirement pensions, if they ever hold a formal job long enough to be eligible. We’re talking about a regime of social inequity with an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of small groups.
Second feature. The country’s subordination to capital’s global logic has been intensified. Almost without our realizing it, our country is being turned over to large transnational corporations and foreign capital in general, which come to exploit our natural wealth or take advantage of our cheap labor force, as is happening in the free trade zones. The most pathetic case of this logic of handing over the country and its resources is the concession for the construction of an interoceanic canal, but many other mining, forestry and energy generating concessions have been made to foreign companies all over the country.
Third feature. Such a social-economic system needs to do away with social resistance and the Ortega regime is accomplishing that by exercising severe social control. It controls the unions, producer and professional associations and grassroots organizations, facilitating the alienation of those sectors, which would otherwise be inclined to resist were they not under the impression we are being governed by a leftist revolutionary party.
Fourth feature. An unconscionable concentration of power has been taking place in the clique surrounding Ortega and his wife, Rosario (“Chayo”) Murillo. It’s a process of expansion and growth that in our judgment still hasn’t topped out. It threatens to destroy every vestige of democratic institutionality, as there’s no force even able to slow it much less halt it right now.
I believe these are the essential features, the ones that currently have the most weight. But the mutations experienced by the FSLN can’t be analyzed taking any one of them in isolation; we have to analyze the interaction, the interrelation among all four factors. And we must bear in mind that they have different development processes; some began before others, and are thus more mature. The privatization of the FSLN, for example, began before the creation of its economic-financial oligarchy. It is the sum, the mixture, the interweaving of all these factors that has evolved into an undeniable reality: the unlimited concentration of power.
What name should it go by?What should we call what we have today? Ortega-Murillismo? The Ortega-Murillo clan? I’ve dubbed it “Chayo-Orteguismo” and define it as the system of practices, values, conceptions and political behaviors of an important collective within Nicaraguan society that is employing its concentrated power and absolute control of the country’s main institutions to install, secure and reproduce itself at the summit of the State for years to come. To pull that off, it must influence the hearts and minds of Nicaraguans, particularly the youth.
Chayo-Orteguismo is a profound break with the best of the Sandinista ideological heritage, even in some respects the return to a medieval obscurantism. And it goes without saying that it’s the most serious perversion of Sandinismo. This political phenomenon has risen from the cadaver of the FSLN and of a revolution that, although it implemented important transformations, was interrupted and frustrated by years of war. Neither the revolution nor the FSLN of Carlos Fonseca exists anymore. Some compare this involution to what happened to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its system, a mutant that emerged from the Mexican revolution. But in some respects, Nicaragua’s involution is worse, because at least the PRI established the possibility of alternation within the party early on, whereas what we have in Nicaragua now is a unipersonal family power.
Accumulation of power for power’s sakeThis didn’t happen overnight. To understand how we got to this stage we need to look at what came before. Daniel Ortega’s party-boss approach, his caudillismo, began even before the 1990 elections, with the decision that he would be the presidential candidate promoted as the “bladed fighting cock,” with no programmatic proposal. That political strongman role was increasingly bolstered in the ensuing years.
The dispute within the FSLN between 1993 and 1995 [which culminated in a large number of professionals, intellectuals and others splitting away, many of them to form the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS)] persuaded Ortega and his iron circle of the importance of controlling the party apparatus. That became more concretized precisely in the FSLN’s 1998 Congress, in which what remained of the National Directorate, i.e. the Sandinista Assembly and the FSLN Congress itself, were replaced with an assembly whose participants were mainly the leaders of the grassroots organizations loyal to Ortega. Little by little even that assembly stopped meeting. At that point an important rupture occurred. By then it was already evident that Ortega was increasingly distancing himself from leftist positions and centering his strategy on how to expand his power. His emphasis was power for power’s sake.
A succession of alliancesAn alliance-building process started then to increase his power. The first was with President Arnoldo Alemán, which produced the constitutional reforms of 1999-2000. Ortega’s central aims in that alliance were to reduce the percentage needed to win the presidential elections on the first round, divvy up between their two parties the top posts in all state institutions and guarantee security to the FSLN leaders’ personal properties and businesses. In exchange, he guaranteed Alemán “governability” by putting a stop to strikes and other struggles for grassroots demands. The FSLN stopped opposing the neoliberal policies. In the following years, the main leaders of the party’s once mass organizations became National Assembly representatives or were brought into the structures of Ortega’s circle of power. With that they obviously stopped resisting and struggling for all the things they had once believed in.
Those years also saw the forming of “ties”—I wouldn’t call it an alliance—with the head of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Obando. The main purpose of that linkage was control of the electoral branch of government through Obando’s personal, intimate relation with Roberto Rivas, who had been heading the electoral branch since 2000. It also bought Ortega increased influence with both the Catholic faithful and the church hierarchy.
Murillo comes more clearly into the pictureThe ascendance of Rosario Murillo and her favorite color [a Pepto Bismol pink ubiquitously used in FSLN publicity and propaganda] began to be more patent starting in 1998. She started appearing on stage and making her influence more evident within the FSLN after her daughter, Ziolamérica Narvaéz, charged Daniel Ortega, her stepfather, with rape and sexual harassment [Murillo backed Ortega rather than her daughter]. Chayo’s power continued to grow in a strange way. In the 2001 and 2006 presidential elections, she was her husband’s electoral campaign chief. His victory in 2006, albeit with only 38% of the vote [just above the 35% minimum negotiated with Alemán], was the final step in guaranteeing her influence and power and creating the Ortega-Murillo clique within the clan.
It is worth remembering that Ortega’s 2006 presidential campaign was devoid of any commitment to make serious changes in the neoliberal economic policies. If you read the pink pamphlet Murillo prepared for that campaign, you’ll find no progressive programmatic content whatever. There’s only talk of “forgiveness” and the repeated appeal to “Give us a chance.” Not until Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez came for Daniel Ortega’s inauguration in January 2007 did we hear any leftist content from Ortega, but it was only rhetoric.
A late-blooming alliance with ChávezWhen Chávez took office in 1998, Ortega was busy hammering out his alliance with Alemán. I recall that [FSLN founder] Tomás Borge had already labeled Chávez a “coup-maker” and said the FSLN wouldn’t establish relations with him. In my judgment, Ortega’s relationship with Chávez until his death was one of interests: to take advantage of Venezuelan oil and of the political support from the ALBA [Bolivarian Alliance for the peoples of America] group.
I also remember before Ortega took office, in those long years when we Sandinistas were wondering where we were going, he would say to us, “The thing is that you have to put the ‘turn signal’ on like you’re going left, but then turn right.” That’s what Ortega did and is still doing: talk the leftwing talk, but walk the rightwing walk. That’s also what he did with Chávez.
The symbiosis with big businessWith Ortega’s arrival in the presidency in 2007, a tendency that had been becoming more and more clear was patently manifested. The economic pragmatism shown by the FSLN with respect to privatizations and neoliberal policies was fully displayed. That initiated a new phase in which Ortega entered a rapprochement process with the other pillar of national power: the heads of big business grouped under the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) umbrella. That was when the symbiosis was initiated between Ortega and big national capital. I call it a symbiosis rather than an alliance because what defines the nature of the current regime is that its main mission is to create or strengthen the market economy conditions, buttressing big capital, while handing out crumbs to the poor to keep them pacified.
The continual meetings between Nicaraguan big business executives and Ortega and his government over all these years speaks of a fusion of interests with long-term pretensions. We’re not just talking about bilateral arrangements with some of the big national capitalists, but rather now of a symbiosis of interests that dates back years. What some refer to as a “red and black oligarchy” had been in the making over the preceding years, but as it pains my soul to identify it with the colors of the FSLN flag I prefer to call it the “Pepto Bismol pink oligarchy.” That economic power group has a community of interests with big national capital. It’s not an alliance for tactical reasons as some believe, warning the big business leaders to be careful for fear they’ll be knifed in the back one day. No, no, no, what they have is a symbiosis of interests. Ortega and his group are with big capital because they themselves are now an important capitalist group and the government represents its community of interests with the traditional oligarchy and transnational capital.
Nor is it about Ortega wanting to promote Nicaraguan businesses to strengthen a national bourgeoisie capable of developing the country based on our own possibilities, fostering a nationalist capitalism, which is an objective that never prospered in Nicaragua. This symbiosis serves the logic of big transnational capital, which is why its main protagonists are the heads of the country’s big financial capital—the Pellas family, Ortiz Gurdián, Fernández Hollman and Zamora Llanes—and not of other productive areas. Speculative financial capital is currently guiding the logic of 21st-century capitalism, promoting extractive develop¬mentalism, which involves giving away the countries’ natural wealth and exploiting cheap labor in a deregulated market.
We didn’t find such profound levels of subordination to the logic of capital in the governments of Violeta Chamorro, Arnoldo Aleman or even Enrique Bolaños, the one closest to the business class. Perhaps the explanation is that there were still strong unions and guilds in those years that served as a counterweight to those governments. There was still a Sandinista grass roots that resisted. Whether or not that’s the reason, the fact is that the Ortega government has now put an end to that resistance and annulled all counterweights.
Even during those three governments, when the FSLN was formally an opposition party, Nicaragua sold off energy distribution, telecommunications and health care for insured workers through social security clinics; facilitated the privatization of higher education with the emergence of dozens of “garage” universities; re-privatized financial activity by getting rid of the state development bank; and reversed the nationalization of the mines, initiating the era of concessions, all with the complaisance of Ortega and his group. The passage of CAFTA, the free trade agreement between Central America and the United States, was possible only with the votes of the FSLN legislators in the National Assembly.
The consolidation of Today, with a government that likes to call itself “Christian, socialist and solidary,” those tendencies and that privatizing model have been consolidated and intensified. Let’s look at some examples.
the privatizing model
Unión Fenosa. I studied this case in detail, even participating in an event of the Observatory of Transnationals in the Basque Country. The Bolaños government’s relations with this Spanish transnational energy distribution corporation were tense. In 2006, when Bolaños left office, he had filed 12 lawsuits against it regarding state demands and fines. But the Ortega government resolved all that. In November 2007, ironically while Ortega was in the Ibero-American Summit in Santiago, Chile, unleashing a virulent discourse against transnationals, Unión Fenosa included, Bayardo Arce was in the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, meeting with Unión Fenosa’s corporate management. Based on the “Protocol of Understanding between the Government of Nicaragua and Unión Fenosa,” which included guarantees of all kinds for the latter and was given the rank of law in Nicaragua’s National Assembly on February 12, 2009, all pending trials, demands and fines were wiped out with a swipe of the pen. Later came still other laws, always to Unión Fenosa’s benefit. While what we remember is Ortega’s constant diatribe against it, Nicaraguan government relations with it were never as fluid as they were with Ortega in office.
And what happened to the generation of alternative energy? It’s increasingly in private hands even though it’s based on the country’s own natural resources, such as wind, water, volcanoes… All the new wind, hydroelectric or geothermic energy projects have been concessions to transnational corporations in which Ortega and his group own stocks.
B2Gold. Another example of giving the country away to transnational capital can be found in this government’s relations with the Canadian transnational B2Gold, which is now owner of the country’s main mineral exploitations and has received all manner of backing from the government. A study by the Humboldt Center reports that the country only receives 3% in royalties in return for the Ortega government’s intense fostering of extractive mining, even though it only contributes 1.8% to the gross domestic product (GDP). The costs in exchange for this piddling income are dramatic: contamination of the rivers, damage to the health of the communities involved and serious constraints on the traditional work of the güiriseros, local, small-scale gold extractors.
Forestry concessions. The most publicized case in this category is the deforestation destroying the Bosawas Reserve. The lumber mafias grant property titles within that reserve to supposed settlers to later end up with the land and its trees themselves. We already know that military officers and government officials participate in these mafias, running lucrative businesses with the wood they take out of the reserve. To get accurate information about the problem of deforestation in Nicaragua, the Bolaños government invited an independent entity called Global Witness to the country. Global Witness monitors and appraises the exploitation of natural resources in the world and has played a key role in denouncing the mafias that control diamond mining and the slave labor used by the extractive trans¬nationals. Its latest report in Nicaragua was issued in 2008, but the Ortega government hasn’t let it into the country since. We might ask ourselves why…
Pescanova. A lesser known example is the fishing exploitation operated by the Spanish transnational Pescanova. Spanish environmental researcher María Mestre published a report in a December 2010 issue of Diagonal on how Pescanova has functioned in Nicaragua after arriving in 2002 with the acquisition of Ultracongelados Antártida, S.A., Spain’s largest seafood cooking plant, which owned a third of a Nicaraguan shrimp farming company operating in Chinandega. From there Pescanova began expanding its shrimp rearing and processing, raising shrimp larvae in laboratories and continually expanding its fish farming area. By 2006, Pescanova had 2,500 hectares in concession, and two years later, now under the Ortega government, it had doubled that, controlling 58% of the surface granted in fishing concessions. Between January and April 2009 alone, it increased its ownership to 82% of the total surface granted in concessions, although not all of that was put into production.
How was it able to expand so much? As María Mestre explains it, “Pescanova has been appropriating cooperative fish farms through high-interest investments in recovery or conversion operations or for production. In the majority of cases the debts have drowned the cooperative owners to the point of ceding their farm to the company… The company’s huge expansion must not be attributed to its own merits, as Pescanova enjoys privileged conditions from the Nicaraguan government, particularly the assigning of a ‘free trade zone regime’ to the company, through which it is exempt from most taxes.” Its operation is export-oriented aquaculture, and while it claims it is reducing poverty and improving food security, the opposite is actually true. Mestre explains what’s happening: “Disappearance of the cooperatives as small community expressions of commerce, creation of precarious jobs, negative consequences for the local populations’ means of subsistence and for the environment, 12-hour work days without rest, no remuneration for overtime or vacations, high accident rates, lack of adequate protection for the personnel that works in the shrimp farms, hampering of labor inspections, irregular hiring of adolescents, contamination of the Estero Real [an estuary reserve in Chinandega], water contamination from the laboratory’s waste waters, indiscriminate cutting of the mangroves, hindering of small-scale fishing…”
Pescanova’s effects in that zone can be seen at first glance. Two years ago I went to a hostel in Jiquilillo and saw how the people who work for Pescanova live: in veritable slums of little houses made totally of palm. A shocking sight. From those miserable shacks the fishermen go out to sea in their little boats and turn their catch over to Pescanova’s refrigerated boats. One day we wanted to buy some fish, but they wouldn’t sell to us even when we offered to pay four times what the company pays them. They are prohibited from doing so. They are forced to turn their whole catch in to the company. They are literally captives of Pescanova.
Agribusiness. This is another example of big business’ expansion with the Ortega government. If you climb to the top of the Casita volcano in the municipality of Posoltega and look down on all the territory around it [the area that suffered a massive mudslide due to Hurricane Mitch, killing thousands], you can see that it’s now planted with sugarcane. The Pellas group has been hugely increasing its cane plantations in recent years, to produce not sugar but ethanol.
The state institutions appear ever weaker in the face of this voracious alliance between transnational capital and big national capital. Actually, let me rephrase that: not so much weaker as more complicit. And the workers, cooperatives and citizens are increasingly left without protection from the transnationals. We are totally “hands up” with respect to these big companies, thus demonstrating that what we’re seeing isn’t an alliance between the Ortega government and the Nicaraguan business elite but a symbiosis between them based on the interests of the “free” market, which prohibits, rejects or fights any regulation. It’s strong evidence that Chayo-Orteguismo is a card-carrying member of the most savage capitalism.
Now moving to the mutationsNow that we have this context in mind, let’s refer to the mutations that have turned Sandinismo into Chayo-Orteguismo. We’ll first look at a mutation in the economic model.
From revolutionary State to bourgeois State. The revolution was a project to transform Nicaragua. That transformation included nationalizing the natural resources and the financial system, the agrarian reform… We had three pillars in the revolution’s program of national unity; mixed economy, political pluralism and nonalignment.
Mixed economy meant that the government would promote a socialized sector of the economy represented by the businesses of the Area of People’s Property and cooperatives. Private property and the private means of production would be respected, but it was social property and state regulation of the economy that were to be promoted, with the country’s economic policies subordinated to the predominance of the public sector.
And what do we have today? The private sector generates 96% of the GDP and the State’s institutions are incapable of promoting a socialized vision of the economy. It’s totally the opposite of the Sandinista revolution’s project, in which the public sector was hegemonic. The symbiosis between the Ortega government and big capital has achieved what Julio López calls “the best tied nacatamal in Nicaragua’s political history.” And it’s tied in such a way that it seems here to stay for a very long time.
This is something confirmed by even the leaders of the big businesses affiliated with COSEP, who congratulate themselves for having gotten five years of salary agreements that benefit them, 68 laws by consensus and 39 models of public-private alliances in these seven years of the Ortega government. They don’t say a word about the interests of the workers, peasants, small and medium businesses or the middle classes among all these accomplishments. So we can see that the “bourgeois State” has been consolidated and the state institutions are obeying the logic of capital. How different from the years of struggle against Somoza, when we used to say that “the revolutionary State will be built on the ruins of the bourgeois State.”
Naturally the government’s symbiosis with big capital isn’t explained only by the interests of the new “Pepto Bismol pink oligarchy” that has opted for the extractivist capitalist model subordinated to the international financial institutions. It’s also explained by the logic of big national capital, which has always prioritized wealth and earnings, giving no importance whatever to ethical and political values. However much our big business elite now tout their “business social responsibility,” the model we have responds to their traditional philosophy.
From rationalism to religious fundamentalism. The revolutionary program involved respect for religious beliefs but promoted laicism. The 1987 Constitution established that the State has no official religion and that public education was secular.
And what do we have now? The use and abuse of grassroots religiosity and its constant manipulation to strengthen the Ortega-Murillo family power project. The state institutions are operating as reproducers of religious beliefs to emphasize that everything that happens in the country is “God’s will,” thus establishing that Chayo-Orteguista authority comes from divine will, just as in the old absolutist monarchies the power of the kings came directly from God. This divine link, according to the official discourse, makes Nicaragua “blessed and prosperous.” As a result of this model, religious hierarchies legislate, churches determine, civil authorities promote religious beliefs and all state and municipal institutions are full of religious images, symbols and messages.
Critical thinking—Marxism, which was the “intellectual sword” of Sandinismo, to evoke Rosa Luxembourg’s phrase—has been replaced with the most corroded religious ideas. Spiritism, esoterism and sotanism—we could even say Satanism—all substitute for revolutionary ideology and theory today.
From collective leadership to autocratic, absolutist power. In the revolution we understood the exercise of power from a collective dimension. We didn’t conceive of transformations based on the cult of personality or deifying anybody.
Yet what do we see now? A centralization of power like we’ve never known before, even during the Somoza dictatorship. Not a leaf moves, not a priority decision or even a secondary one is taken without the will of the ruling couple. It’s useful to recall here FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca’s comments on Nikita Khrushchev’s speech about the errors of Stalinism in his book Un nicaragüense en Moscu (A Nicaraguan in Moscow): “the main one was to have consented to the Communist Party and the Soviet people rendering homage, which led to large sectors attributing Russia’s successes in the fields of economy, politics and culture to Stalin.” Carlos recalled the Marxist thesis that attributes the principle role in the development of society to the popular masses. He wrote: “Another error lies in Stalin’s violation of the collective leadership of the Party, often making decisions of national importance without consulting the opinion of other top leaders…. While Stalin was alive it became impossible to criticize him.”
Reading Carlos’ writing, we can say, not without basis, that the Chayo-Orteguista autocratic power seems very similar to Stalinism in its methods and forms: the cult to personality, the deifying of its two figures, the manipulation of the masses, the elimination of the collective leadership and the use of the courts and fiscal terrorism as a persecution mechanism to crush the opposition, particularly critical Sandinistas and even people in their own ranks. The regime is still in a subterranean repression phase, applying Stalinist techniques, but under the table. But we have no doubt it’s going to apply more dramatic forms of repression, as it has already done selectively to specific targets, because that’s how this type of regime is constructed.
Autocratic power is the antipode of critical thinking, of the use of reason. It promotes a passive citizenry and even a passive militancy that deposits all its sovereignty in the autocrat. This is something so subtle that those subordinated don’t even realize they’ve left all decisions to the autocrat, who promotes vassalage and alienation. They’ve gone from being revolutionaries, “subjects and owners of their own destiny” and “owners of history and architects of their own liberation,” to being docile subordinates dominated by fear.
The autocrat isn’t interested in debate, diversity of thought, alternative information or political formation. To maintain power, the autocrat needs a tight-knit set of courtesans. There’s no autocracy without a court and without courtesans to sustain it. The autocrat needs them just as they need the autocrat. In the court everything revolves around getting as close to power as possible so there are always struggles for posts of power. Periodically, we see the current court’s main cadres getting caught up in internal struggles to be included in the elected posts.
It turns militants into vassalsThis mutation has been made possible by the privatization of the FSLN, which began in the nineties and has ended up liquidating the party. There’s still a flag and certain formal structures, but the FSLN itself is just an electoral franchise. Nicaragua no longer has an organization of revolutionaries with critical thinking, a leftist organization. This particular mutation has been very profound: the autocrat has used money to subject the leaders of the past and present, making them submissive. As Eduardo Galeano said, the Sandinistas, “who were once capable of risking their life are now incapable of risking their positions.” With that they liquidated the philosophy and ethics of Carlos Fonseca, who had proclaimed ethics as a heritage handed down by Sandino to the FSLN leaders.
The courtesans defend the current absolutism based on the legitimacy bestowed by the electoral results, knowing full well, as we all do, that the elections have been fraudulent. But even if they had enjoyed a genuine majority backing by the electorate, votes don’t legitimize the economic and political nature of an unjust regime. It’s possible to have massive backing and still not be a just government, which is what we need in Nicaragua. Hitler, Mussolini and Somoza had massive backing for years, as did so many other ignominious regimes in the history of humanity. Backing by votes doesn’t legitimize a State’s unjust nature. We need to remember that the Somoza of the first ten years wasn’t the Somoza of the later years, the one people remember. The first crimes, after the assassination of Sandino and massacre of his followers, were committed by Somoza against those who opposed his presidential reelection. We aren’t seeing a repression like Somoza’s today, but we are already seeing deaths in all the sectors that are fighting.
This system, which is attempting to reduce militancy to vassalage, is obviously generating many contradictions. One type, the one we perhaps know best, has to do with internal squabbles within the regime over bits of power, money or positions. And these kinds of squabbles don’t produce any positive results. We can’t expect any changes from this type of internal contradiction. The ones that could have positive effects are those born of ethical or ideological indignation, when people realize that this is a regime of capitalist domination and don’t want to contribute to it. That would be a positive contradiction. But contradictions among the courtesans in the court, like the palace intrigues we see in the movies when the king’s son conspires because he wants to be king, don’t generate any transformation we’d like to see.
From political pluralism to a single party. Political pluralism, which was in the revolutionary project and the project of Carlos Fonseca, no longer exists; it has disappeared. In recent years we’ve witnessed both the annihilation of organizations that don’t subordinate themselves and the proscription of the Left. At the same time the rightwing leaders have been reduced by their own errors and limitations or by the manipulation of the electoral and judicial apparatuses Ortega controls. Whatever the cause, they no longer exist. They’ve been unable to put together any alternative force in recent elections. What exists in Nicaragua today is a single party, the party of perks and divvying-up power, of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” in which it no longer even matters who wins. Those willing to play can sit at the same table. What exists is the determination to proscribe the emergence of any leftist party or parties, any party that could promote an alternative project. That’s why the MRS’ legal status was taken away and the Supreme Electoral Council never ceases in its efforts to hinder any other alternative that could really dispute Ortega’s power from coming to fruition. Millions are spent on the electoral ritual even though we only have a single party and everyone knows it.
From revolutionary spirit and solidarity to pragmatism and accommodation. Pragmatism and accommodation have become a kind of national ideology. While for many years Sandinistas fought for transformation, for change, for the deepening of the revolutionary project, the philosophy now is to accept reality as it is and adjust to it, making oneself as comfortable as possible. It’s a phenomenon that merits a socio-political analysis. Why have the citizenry and even the party militants adopted this behavior? Pragmatism replaced idealism and the revolutionary utopia. Nowadays there’s no problem associating with thieves, criminals and the corrupt, as Ortega did with Alemán or as he’s doing with Roberto Rivas, if that means he can preserve power, win elections… or steal them.
Conserving or carving up power is the new “ethics.” Many people have given up playing their transforming role in history. A lot of people in Nicaragua died fighting for free elections, for people to be able to vote for whomever they wanted, for a debate of ideas in which we could convince others of the justice of the revolutionary project. Yet I’ve found a lot of young people in the FSLN who don’t care that the elections were stolen, because the only thing that matters to them is that power remain in Daniel Ortega’s hands.
From the struggle for social justice to the practice of bargain-basement charity. We Sandinistas struggled to give workers and peasants direct control of the wealth so they could manage it and grow, develop and be subjects of their own transformation. What we have now is a compassionate socialism, in which things are done for the poor through charity, with gifts or handouts that link grassroots religiosity to power, like the long lines of the poorest people before the Púrisima altars where the government gives them some food. The slight reduction of poverty that some indicators point to has been achieved with programs that allow the poor to receive something immediately: sheets of zinc roofing, farm animals, seeds… but that doesn’t imply any in-depth transformation of the material conditions in which they live so they’ll stop being poor. The current poverty-fighting policies don’t even come close to social democratic policies, among many other things because there’s been no just reform of fiscal policy. It’s still regressive, based on indirect taxes, which basically punish the poor and middle classes, while the wealthiest are privileged with exonerations and exemptions. Nor has this government’s budget made significant advances in the amount allocated to education, which is still only a little over 3% of the total budget. Compared with even the poorest of the other Central American countries, we’re still in the basement.
The government brags about how it has reduced extreme poverty and how there are fewer poor today, but it doesn’t say anything about how there are more rich people, about the process of concentrating wealth that’s underway. Today 7-8% of the Nicaraguan population accounts for 46% of the nation’s wealth. Between 2012 and 2013 the number of multi-millionaires in Nicaragua—people with personal capital of US$30 million or more—rose from 180 to 190. That’s more than in Costa Rica, a country with much greater levels of development than ours, which has 85. It’s more than in Panama, which has 105 or in El Salvador, where there are 140. So although it’s true there are benefits for the poor, the wealthiest are obtaining the greatest benefits of this “Christian, socialist and solidary” model.
The only way to explain this enrichment is corruption based on the illegal appropriation of public resources. For some years now, together with the compañeros in the MRS and with other forces, we’ve been arguing that this government’s main corruption has been the privatizing of Venezuelan cooperation, the material base on which the new Pepto Bismol pink capitals are being built. That continues to be a key topic, one that must continue to be questioned and that we mustn’t forget at the moment things change in our country.
We admittedly made errors in the eightiesPerhaps this is the time to make a clarification. In speaking about the mutations experienced by the FSLN I’m referring to the proposals of Sandinismo and the revolution and contrasting them with what we have today. I’m not saying, nor do I mean to imply, that everything in the revolution was perfect, that there wasn’t corruption then, that mistakes weren’t made.
At the same time, however, I don’t believe the revolution’s goals and achievements can be properly measured without taking the war into account, because it radically distorted everything. For example, the third pillar of our program—nonalignment—simply became impossible to build; we ended up aligned with the Soviet Union and the socialist camp. So we have to ask ourselves: how much of that alignment had to do with the war Reagan launched against us, which required a supply of weapons from the USSR through the Democratic German Republic or Cuba?
What the United States set out to do against Nicaragua was monstrous. Its backing of the counterrevolution and the immense resources it made available to overthrow the revolution were a reality. But that doesn’t relieve us of our obligation to criticize our errors of that time. And the fact that we never sat down to critically analyze what happened in the eighties is one of the reasons so many distortions began to take place in the FSLN in the nineties.
From anti-imperialist in practice to pleasing the US in practice. Considering how key the US role was in the conflicts we’ve lived through in Nicaragua, what is that government’s role today with respect to the Ortega regime? Washington has been viewing Daniel Ortega’s administration very positively and with growing interest. Robert Callahan, the US ambassador who preceded the current one, was once asked his opinion of Ortega and his anti-imperialist rhetoric. Callahan replied that they don’t worry about what he says; they focus on what he does. And they aren’t displeased with what they’re seeing, given all the advantages Ortega provides to big national and global capital.
Moreover, the priority for the United States is the subordination of all the world’s police departments to what they call the fight against drug activity. Ortega is complying with this as well, including US military patrols on Nicaragua’s coasts, US advisers working with the Army of Nicaragua and Nicaraguan Army officers continuing to go to US military schools.
From a respectful Army and Police to forces submissive to the ruler’s logic. This is a particularly dangerous mutation. The Sandinista revolution destroyed the National Guard as a praetorian force at the service of Somoza’s interests and began to build armed forces that respected the people and obeyed the laws. It’s not true that this process only began in the nineties. It was an objective of the revolution that started before that and was finally institutionalized in the nineties, as the eighties were distorted by the war we were forced to deal with.
And what do we have now? A clear involution process, with armed forces in both the Police and the Army increasingly submissive to the ruler’s logic. Mao Zedong said that “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” and those of us who suffered the Somocista military dictatorship and had to confront it with weapons know that very well. That’s the very reason we’re warning of what could happen in Nicaragua as a product of this mutation.
The involution of the Police is an extremely sensitive issue. And now the Army’s involution is on the regime’s agenda. The main problem with the new Military Code isn’t that Daniel gets to reelect the Army chief or that active military officers could be ministers or that it feeds servility in the military or that a “tandona” [a particular power caste within the officer class] could be created that blocks the promotion of officers in lower ranks. The problem is that with the revolution we conceived of the armed forces as a national instrument to ensure peace and guarantee that the guns would stop being pointed at the people. Sandinismo willed Nicaragua an army that didn’t belong to anyone, that ended up being a national army, a very respected institution. What Ortega and Murillo are now doing is annihilating that pre-condition for peace. It’s a very profound regression. By turning the army, which is a decisive factor for conserving the peace, into an institution subordinated to them, they are bringing it close to that praetorian guard we destroyed. In my judgment this is the most dangerous and most sensitive thing that has happened since Ortega took office. The national army is a precondition for peace and national stability, while an Ortega army is the beginning of a potential return to violence.
So do we have a dictatorship, as some say?Despite all this, I don’t believe this is a regime that can be catalogued as a dictatorship as it is today. Much less should we catalog it as a dictatorship that’s worse than the Somoza one. In my view, when we say things like that it weakens our discourse and our critique.
I do believe it’s an authoritarian regime with a dictatorial ambition and dictatorial actions. And I believe it could become a dictatorship. All the steps Ortega and his followers are taking are leading toward a dictatorial regime.
We’ve already seen how it’s advancing in control “out of the barrel of a gun” by subjecting the armed forces. As this becomes a reality, the military factor will start to come into play in support of this regime’s continuation, which is extremely serious.
What is to be done?What can be done given this model, this system, this regime? What we’ve seen so far is sustained denunciation by the independent media and some opinion groups, which is a very important contribution. We’ve also seen many examples of demands being fought for, small examples of resistance, silent social struggles that don’t hit the media until there are arrests and people getting hit with rifle butts. All those efforts should be supported and accompanied. So far there are no organized political forces with a social base capable of resisting this project in a holistic way. The focus has been on denouncing how the institutional foundations of a dictatorship are being constructed, how political rights and the law are being violated. But there’s a disassociation between struggle and the denunciation of these big political issues, which don’t seem to interest people, don’t mobilize them, because they feel remote from the major daily issues that do interest them and make them victims of this regime.
Pragmatism and accommodation can only be confronted by taking up the struggles in response to social problems, linking the social problems to the big political issues such as the constitutional reforms, the canal concession… Who’s representing the small-scale fishermen who are captives of Pescanova? We need to work to get them to understand that those responsible for their misery are Pescanova and a government that favors that business. I think that representing and accompanying the many groups like that one is the way to confront this regime’s self-perpetuating intentions and find a progressive path that can change the course of the model being imposed on us. And when traveling down that path let’s not doubt that even currently alienated, subordinated and submissive grassroots sectors of Ortega-Murillismo could climb on board.
We have to be there for
when the people are readyThis regime, based on concentrating wealth in few hands and bestowing advantages on the transnationals, is generating a lot of contradictions. We need to work on them, revealing, thinking about, analyzing and explaining them. The trick lies in then energizing people to express their frustrations through struggle in the social movements. Connections have to be built between the social problems that concern people and the political issues. When you’re working with the people themselves on their concrete problems, you find yourself with Ortega’s own grass roots, which is also feeling those contradictions. If the linkage we establish with the people is based on their social problems, the political problems will follow. The original links we worked on to get people convinced they had to struggle against the Somocista dictatorship began with social problems. We were among the people, with the people. We have to identify what government measures are disappointing and frustrating people and accompany them until some victory is achieved. Because achieving something reaffirms the awareness and conviction that the way to progress is by being organized and united.
It’s necessary to be there, with the people. The Brazilian sister Valeria Rezende, a grassroots educator and pupil of Pablo Freire who learned to do grassroots work with him, told me of a case that taught me a lesson. She explained how some nuns went to work with an extremely poor community, where the people had built their shacks in a quarry. To get there they had to cross a drainage channel balancing on a fragile coconut tree laid across it, which was difficult. The nuns began to tell them they had to go to the mayor’s office to demand a bridge. The people would always agree, but they never went; they paid no attention to the nuns. A year went by, then another and another, and when the rain came it always carried off the coconut trunk, but they’d just cut down another one and everything went on the same. The nuns insisted and insisted, but nothing happened. Until one year the owner of the farm whose coconut trees they cut down came around and forbade them to cut any more. And that’s when some in the community finally said, “Let’s go to the municipal government!” They organized and even took over the mayor’s office and finally got their bridge built. Sister Rezende explained that you have to be with the people, with their problems, even though it may seem they aren’t interested in fighting and don’t even want change, because the moment comes in which they are willing and they mobilize. And it’s important to be there to support and guide them… That’s a lesson from a grassroots educator, which is valid both for this moment we’re living in… and for when “the moment” comes.
The Sandinista base has to be
part of any progressive solutionI always bank on the belief that there’s no possibility of a progressive solution in Nicaragua without taking the Sandinista grass roots into account and without the banners of the Sandinista ideology and vision. The transformations the country needs aren’t going to come from the pro-Alemán sectors or the pro-Montealegre sectors. They’ll come from the Sandinistas as a whole, from that mass forged in a quarter century of struggle against the Somocista dictatorship, ten years of revolution and all these years of resistance. That’s where the transforming potential is, even though many of these people are working with Ortega today, are employees of his government or have to go to his traffic-circle rallies to keep their job. There’s potential there, but there are some messages that don’t get through to that potential. We have to be able to find the right messages to get through to them and make them think. We have to be there, close to those people.
I think contradictions are emerging within the Sandi¬nista base. The day will come when that guy who’s now satisfied with the 10 sheets of zinc roofing they gave him is going to start asking why he’s supposed to be grateful for them when the Pepto Bismo pink upper echelons are living like millionaires. That day will come, just as the moment always comes in humanity in which the oppressed ask themselves if the oppression they’re suffering is fair.
I don’t think we’re going to be able to develop a strong movement that rejects this model and proposes an alternative if it doesn’t also come from the pro-Ortega bases once they’re able to cut loose of that tie. And I believe that because they’ve always been the ones more inclined to organize and struggle.
Not everyone in the I think we have to be careful not to abuse the temptation to compare this regime with Somocismo, above all for tactical communication reasons. People don’t see it like that. We’re not in a moment for people to be able to see it like that. Yes there’s persecution and under-the-table repression; yes, there are threats and extortion, and even worse things, but they aren’t seen. And as long as no one denounces it, explains that he or she is only collaborating with the government due to threats or extortion, people won’t see the repression that already exists.
FSLN is a little caudillo
They do see the authoritarianism operating in their barrio, community and workplace, and there’s a need to help people reflect about that, but we also need to recognize that not all FSLN members work that way. It would be a real injustice to say they’re all alike. That would be a bad message. I know good people from the Cabinets of Citizens’ Power—I don’t know if they’re now called Family Cabinets. Others are little caudillos, real oppressors. Where there are little party bosses, little caudillos, we can make the authoritarianism more evident, but where the CPC is good, we need to figure out how to work with it, to influence it. We can’t just uniformly attack all the CPCs. Some firmly believe that they are making the revolution, and are doing very good things for their community.
We mustn’t give up gambling on an alternative project with a medium- and long-term strategy. A project like that requires a force with an identity and a clear progressive profile that’s clear about its objectives, those that are vital for Nicaragua, its people and democracy. A force that aims to become a serious alternative for Nicaraguans can’t be at the mercy of short-term electoral interests or subjected to utilitarian alliances. We believe in a force that rejects caudillo logic and insists on educating the people to turn popular conscience into a material force for change.
I want to end by reading this dialogue between a monk and Galileo in the play The Life of Galileo, by Bertold Brecht, a man who contributed so much to the political culture of our time. The Little Monk says to Galileo: “But don’t you think that the truth will get through without us, so long as it’s true?” as if telling him to there’s no need to struggle, to insist… To which Galileo responds: “No, no, no. The only truth that gets through will be what we force through: the victory of reason will be the victory of people who are prepared to reason, nothing else.”
Conclusion: Without struggles there are no victories.
Mónica Baltodano is a former guerrilla commander, former member of the FSLN National Directorate, former FSLN legislative representative and founder of the Movement for the Rescue of Sandinismo.