The Deep Crisis of Sandinismo

— Vilma Núnez de Escorcia

THE STRUGGLE WE waged from the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship and bring about a revolution (in 1979) was also a struggle for human rights.  It has always been very difficult for me to draw the line between being a Sandinista activist and a human rights activist, because I've always considered the struggle for human rights to be a revolution in itself.

I'm a grassroots militant.  I joined the fight against the Somoza dictatorship when I was a student, committed myself to the FSLN long before the insurrection and was even imprisoned in 1979.  I was named vice-president of the Supreme Court while I was still a prisoner and the revolutionary government was still in Costa Rica.

The work of reorganizing the judicial branch so it would serve the interests of the Nicaraguan people took up all of my time during the revolutionary years.  The only party post I held during the 1980s was political secretary of my grassroots committee, so I was a grassroots militant.  I had no link to and no influence within the FSLN's leadership structures.

Not until after the party's electoral defeat in 1990 and the disenchantment, desertion and withdrawal of many Sandinistas-including some who had held front-line posts in the FSLN structures-did the leadership begin to notice people they had previously overlooked.  This was what happened in my case; after 1990, they started seeking me out to assign me certain tasks and manage some official party activities.

From Guerrilla to Government

The FSLN never managed to develop as a political party while it was in power.  It went straight from operating as a political-military movement, a guerrilla organization that took power through armed struggle, to forming a government that administered a country.  There was no time to build a political organization, to develop a party, to consolidate democratic styles of leadership and participation.

Who knows whether this was just because events overtook us or because there was no will to do it, because top leaders thought it unnecessary?  In any case, it was a serious error to use the U.S. war of aggression to eternally justify abusively top-down and undemocratic leadership styles.

The election defeat revealed that the FSLN was not prepared to take on the role of an opposition political party.  The defeat led to the "piñata," a word that seems inappropriate to me, but covers a number of regrettable acts that represented a fundamental step in the FSLN's internal decomposition.  [This term refers to FSLN officials appropriating state-owned resources for personal or party benefit-ed.]

Given the confusion between state and party that existed in the 1980s, many of the donations the party had received went automatically to the state.  Following the election defeat, it was decided that the FSLN's holdings were essential for keeping the party alive.  This idea justified the distribution of certain state-party assets to certain individuals fronting for the party, but what was originally earmarked as party holdings was soon concentrated in a few hands.

Laws 85 and 86-a belated attempt to mitigate the mistake of not having legalized the earlier redistribution of properties [e.g.  during land reform, as explained below-ed.]-were also exploited by certain individuals to appropriate goods for themselves.  The abuses committed by some top leaders and mid-level cadres under the protection of these laws corrupted the legitimate redistribution of property, urban property in particular.

The lack of a political organization appropriate to the new circumstances, the corruption around the distribution of properties, and the insecurity and individualism that the electoral defeat began to instill are the three underpinnings of the events that have marked the FSLN leadership's disintegration.

After 1990, the profile of the historical FSLN leaders began to change.  The only one who didn't become distanced from the grassroots was Daniel Ortega.  Although linked to authoritarianism and a lack of transparency like the rest, he was constantly in the news "accompanying" the grassroots sectors in their struggles against the new neoliberal economic model.

We now know that these activities had ulterior motives, aimed at maintaining his status as a political leader and developing his position as party strongman.

Revolutionary Laws or Eternal Power?

I was among the last to realize that the top-down and autocratic leadership styles so openly criticized in the FSLN today had been developing and consolidating since the revolutionary years.  Working in judicial, legal and institutional matters during the revolution, however, I did realize right from the beginning that a government was being formed that did not believe in laws and for which judicial formalities had no value.

This happened, among other reasons, because it was thought that the revolution would last forever, that there would always be a revolutionary government in power.  In the Supreme Court, Justice Roberto Argüello and I unsuccessfully challenged many erroneous legal changes; we always ended up having to accept them as justified in the "defense" of the revolution.

Many judicial institutions were established outside the existing legal system, the system that the revolution itself was creating.  Those of us who advocated respecting the laws and adapting their application to the existing circumstances found that our attitudes and decisions placed us in a difficult position.

We were constantly under suspicion and even rejected, viewed with distrust, seen as legalistic and reactionary, and our revolutionary qualities were always questioned.  Our continuous attempts to ensure that the law was more closely followed led to endless argument.

In the end, the election defeat proved us right.  If, for example, the lands and houses given to the poor had been legalized and the titles issued correctly and on time, there would have been no problems and no need to resort to last-minute laws that to a certain extent de-legitimized the revolution's attempts to bring about social justice and allowed certain people to exploit the situation and enrich themselves.

After 1990, the FSLN started to organize as a political party and called its first Congress for 1991.  At that time the National Directorate invited me to join the FSLN's electoral committee, so I participated in approving the party's first statutes and first Declaration of Principles, and electing the first party leaders chosen by a Congress.

On that occasion, without putting myself forward or even having any aspirations, I was proposed and elected by the congress delegates as coordinator of the first Ethics Commission, created to investigate questions about the actions of certain leaders that were already emerging around the "piñata."

The Ethical Crisis

The decomposition of the FSLN's top leadership, its moral debacle, is not new; it has been building for a long time. I was able to see signs of it from up close when I participated in the Ethics Commission, which was also where I first started to realize just how serious the ethical crisis was.

At that time all the questions revolved around the issue of the FSLN's holdings: what they consisted of, who was administrating them, how were they being used and the like. While it might have been politically justified to transfer certain assets of the revolutionary state to the FSLN, there was no justification whatever for individual Sandinistas to privately benefit from that collective patrimony.

The Congress elected Henry Ruiz to the new post of FSLN treasurer, in other words administrator of the party's patrimony.  He was a treasurer in name only, however, never put in charge of that patrimony or even informed what it actually encompassed.  That prompted him to make his famous comment, "I'm a treasurer with no treasure."

We started to fight from within the Ethics Commission to obtain information about the FLSN's patrimony and attempt to establish the treasurer's functions and power.  But we were blocked at all turns and gradually realized that there was no political will in the National Directorate to provide us with that information.

In addition, no leader responsible for managing resources was willing to give the Ethics Commission the declaration of probity that had been established during the Congress.  With what moral authority can they now question President Alemán when he refuses to submit the declaration of his assets to the Office of Comptroller General?

They did not trust us, and we began to realize that they had only created the Ethics Commission in response to pressure from international solidarity and national public opinion, which were increasingly critical of the "piñata." We finally pressured them into providing information on the FSLN's properties, but we were not allowed to investigate the data on the list. The treasurer had to guard this list, they said, because the "enemy" couldn't be allowed to see the information.

I must admit that we in the Ethics Commission accepted this argument, albeit reluctantly.  Now Daniel Ortega's declarations that the FSLN has no businesses and no patrimony seem incredibly crude when even that minimum list of properties belonging to the FSLN in 1992 contained over thirty large businesses.

In the commission, we had to deal with extremely serious accusations of corruption against Sandinista comrades from all levels, who were being questioned for their misuse of FSLN assets.  When we asked the National Directorate for information, however, they always put obstacles in the way or hid it from us. And when I had to present the commission's reports to the Sandinista Assembly meetings, many comrades stood up and told me I "was destroying the image of the leaders by raising such questions."

Not only did we have no chance of finding satisfactory answers to the charges submitted to us in the Ethics Commission, but when we were obliged to make some of the cases public, the National Directorate protested and criticized us for carrying out our duty.

A Rubber Stamp Assembly

At first, I took on my participation in the Ethics Commission as a very big recognition, an incentive, but it turned out to be one of the most painful stages of my party life. I felt powerless to act according to the party's principles and statutes and the commission's regulations.

Thus, by the FSLN's second Congress in 1994 I didn't want to accept any position in the commission and said so publicly: It had been my greatest frustration in the party.  On that occasion, I was elected to the Sandinista Assembly, and with the highest number of votes of any nominee.

As soon as I started participating in the Sandinista Assembly-theoretically the top decision-making authority in the party-I began to realize that this leadership structure didn't really do anything.  We decided nothing, we just rubber-stamped and supported things that had already been decided.

On occasion, they listened to us and we'd think that our opinion was going to be taken into account, but it turned out to be an illusion.  This situation became so consolidated that Daniel Ortega often announced decisions during a protest or a press conference and then met with the Sandinista Assembly to tell us what was already public knowledge.  This leadership style generated a growing sense of disillusion among the many assembly members who aspired to a democratic system and real participation in the party structures.

Crying Wolf about Fraud

By the time the 1996 elections came around, I was convinced that the FSLN could not win with Daniel Ortega as its candidate.  I was also aware that, despite my credibility both inside and outside the FSLN, I had no possibility of winning if the party's power base was against me.

Nonetheless, I decided to accept the proposal of many activists, both men and women, to run in the FSLN's internal "consultation," which was a new party experiment that could have represented an exercise in democracy, albeit short of a real and binding primary.

I made my decision convinced both that I would not win and that it was an interesting challenge to prove whether the democratization that the FSLN leadership was talking about was real. I focused on democratizating the FSLN and asserting women's claims for greater rights and participation instead of on winning.

Daniel Ortega never saw my running in the primary elections as an effort to democratize the FSLN. Instead, he viewed it as an unpardonable irreverence, as the greatest disrespect that could have been inflicted upon him as leader.  My experiences in that consultation made me aware of the need to launch new efforts to democratize the FSLN.

The FSLN's 1996 electoral defeat, its second consecutive one, brought with it new evidence that the FSLN did not really believe in the judicial institutions.  Daniel Ortega fervently charged that there had been fraud, but the FSLN failed to use all of the resources provided by the Electoral Law to challenge the election results, even if only partially.  All they did was employ, and abuse, a discourse about electoral fraud.

It was the Nicaragua Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) that took the accusations of electoral anomalies to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in Washington, which a year later acted on our denunciation and opened up the case. During those months, we sought information and evidence from the FSLN's structures that would enable us to demonstrate electoral anomalies to the commission; but we never found any, not because they were hiding them from us but because they had none.

A Precedent for Today's Pact

During the 1996 elections, the work of the party structures was disorganized.  The only concern was to make noise and build campaign images, which I think was one of the reasons the FSLN lost. Even though the FSLN structures were themselves responsible for the defeat, they were surprised by it.

That defeat, together with an analysis by the party's top leadership of the advantages obtained through the 1990 transition protocol signed by the outgoing Sandinista government and the government-elect of Violeta Chamorro following a far more unexpected electoral defeat, are what have led to the current pact.

The FSLN leadership found that, despite the differences between the two, the easiest way to hang on to spaces and quotas of power with Arnoldo Alemán's new government was the same as with Chamorro's.  We now know that as early as January 12, 1997, two days after Alemán took office, he and Ortega held the first of many private meetings.

That day, with the frenzied accusations of fraud still flying, the first seeds were sown for the pact that has just been consummated between top Sandinista leadership and the Alemán government, one of the most recent expressions of the FSLN leadership's political and ethical disintegration.

Divorced for years now from the people's cause and from the Sandinista grassroots, they have given up acting as an opposition and have allied themselves with a Somoza-style government to maintain their existing quotas of power and get access to others.

What's Under the Table

The pact does not just consist of legal and institutional transformations agreed to between top Liberal and Sandinista leaders.  More important than all of this is the "under-the-table" pact, all the unannounced deals aimed at guaranteeing economic power for the Ortega brothers and their allies.

This is not just speculation; the real motivation behind the pact is to guarantee the party leadership, among other things, certain very valuable properties that are currently in the hands of cooperatives or that form part of the Area of Workers' Property (APT).

As the pact itself demonstrates, the APT project, promoted by some Sandinista ideologues as the new socialist project, has been virtually buried and discredited by the FSLN leadership, which not only considers it a failure but has worked hard to ensure that it would be one.

The second most important objective for the FSLN is the possibility of returning to power through constitutional and electoral reforms derived from the pact.

The pact is an attack on democracy and political pluralism, which was one of the principles of the revolution.  This pluralism was proclaimed in the Fundamental Statute that the "muchachos," as the FSLN guerrillas were affectionately known, brought with them to power.  They came with a rifle in one hand and a law to implement democracy in the other.

The pact is also an attack on democratic institutions, since it seeks to fashion a state that will guarantee the shady interests of the two groups involved.  It will politicize the judicial branch, adapting it to those same interests and inclining it to rule in certain ways, and will increase the politicization already existing in the electoral branch.

Most serious of all, it will put an end to the only governmental institution that has won credibility in this country for its fight against corruption: the Office of Comptroller General.

A Terminal Leadership Crisis

It is hard and painful to accept all of these realities.  It is also dangerous to speak of them. Nonetheless, until all Nicaraguans assume their own responsibilities, we are not going to make any progress.  If we let ourselves continue to be treated with disrespect by those involved in the pact, we are not going to move ahead.

The pact has brought the FSLN's internal crisis to a whole new level.  The top leadership is in terminal crisis, a crisis even further aggravated by a new element in 1998.  By that time, the ethical questioning that arose out of the "piñata" was already reflected in the distancing between the leadership and the grassroots, in the way the grassroots struggles were exploited and in the great distrust of the leadership.

Then suddenly, yet another element fed the crisis: Zoílamérica Narváez's accusations against her stepfather, Daniel Ortega.  Her charge [of sexual abuse] not only has discredited Daniel Ortega as a political leader, but has also affected the whole party.  This is Daniel Ortega's own fault: He should have assumed the matter for what it was, a personal accusation against him as an individual.  He should have acted responsibly to clear up whether or not the accusations were true. Instead, he kept quiet and ordered the whole of the FSLN to do the same.

The order went out not to speak about the matter, and not to believe Zoílamérica.  And everyone obeyed, even if they did believe her and even though it was being commented on everywhere.  It seems incredible that Sandinista women committed to the women's struggle kept quiet through fear or accepted the order and the official discourse that sought to interpret everything as a political conspiracy.

Daniel Ortega not only shielded himself with his immunity, shirking his responsibility to the country as an individual and as a political leader, he acted with disrespect towards all Sandinista militants.  During those two years, he did not hold a single meeting with the militants to privately explain to them what had really happened.

Within the whole moral debacle of the FSLN leadership, such a notorious case must have been included in the pact. Some even say that the rush to consummate it grew out of Daniel Ortega's fear that the Liberals would strip him of his parliamentary immunity.  Although the pact was underway long before the accusation, it cannot be denied that Daniel Ortega's irresponsibility turned this particular case into one more element in the pact's many maneuvers.

Criticism Must Come from Within

There is currently a great deal of distress, dissent and uncertainty among FSLN militants.  But the painful experience of 1994, when many valuable comrades left the party to form the MRS [Sandinista Renovation Movement-ed.], taught us a lesson.

All the internal groups publicly criticizing the way the party is being run-the Left of the FSLN, the Sandinista Initiative, Sandinistas for Dignity, the Sandinista Forum and many others-unanimously agree that the struggle to rescue the FSLN, transform it and turn it once again into an instrument of popular struggle must take place within.

There are many obstacles to overcome: For example, there is still an undeclared struggle for hegemony among some of the different critical groups and tendencies that have emerged or established themselves in the wake of the pact, and there are also different ideas about unity.  There is clearly a lot of work to be done and a long road to travel.

I think that the main thing right now is to stop being afraid, because one of the factors working against the FSLN's transformation is the fear that has taken hold of party militants: the fear of breaking myths, of being silenced by reprisals and also of losing the material means that the revolution provided to many.

What unites us is the conviction that the FSLN belongs to all Sandinistas, not just to the top leadership that has currently kidnapped the party.  In fact, the FSLN doesn't even belong just to the Sandinistas, but to the whole Nicaraguan people from which it was born. It is therefore imperative for the Sandinista movement to react and draw up a project adapted to this particular moment in Nicaraguan and world history.


Vilma Núñez de Escorcia is a veteran Sandinista militant and president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH).  These extracts from a talk given at the offices of envoi are reprinted here with that journal's permission.

ATC 87, July-August 2000