The Sandinistas: What Next?

Midge Quandt

AFTER THEIR DEFEAT in Nicaragua’s February 1990 election, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) had to face some unpleasant truths about the erosion of their popular support and the surge of criticism within the party and the mass organizations (large grassroots citizens’ groups).

Although many of the 55 percent who voted for the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO) did so not out of political sympathy, but in hopes of ending the war and the economic crisis, it soon became clear that the Sandinistas had alienated some of the popular sectors. In addition, grassroots organizations believed that their goals had for too long been subordinated to those of the FSLN.

Misgivings about the authoritarianism of the party were not new, but the elections were a catalyst for a wave of criticism. Clearly, the Sandinistas had to rethink their strategy and their methods Of organizing.

In June, 300 party activists met to discuss the past and future of the Sandinista Front, and their report, published in the FSLN’s newspaper Barricada, was widely discussed. Preparations are under way for the Party Congress in February 1991, where many questions will be debated and decided.

The Authoritarian Legacy

The report of the June assembly contains some harsh criticism of past mistakes: the silencing of criticism, bureaucratic leadership, fruitless confrontations with the Catholic Church, and abuses of power. Running through the litany of errors is a critique of “verticalism”—the top-down style of leadership that crisis conditions encouraged but undercut the effectiveness of the party.

Luis Carrion, a member of the National Directorate, described the Front’s effort to become more broad based and democratic: “We’re hying to preserve the revolutionary character of the FSLN without being sectarian,” he stated. “That is the enormous challenge facing us in this collective debate.”

The hierarchical character of the FSLN was partly a legacy of clandestine armed struggle and military organization that preceded the July 1979 Triumph. But it is also rooted in the vanguardism of a (partly) Leninist-style party.

The FSLN consisted of a self-recruited and politically correct elite whose historical mission was to lead the revolutionary struggle. An ideological tension, however, runs through the notion of a vanguard party. The party must guide and transform the politically immature masses; at the same time, it must listen to the people and empower them. This means taking account of the grassroots organizations that serve as channels for the expression of popular interests.

In practice, the needs of the FSLN came first Speaking about the party and the unions, Maria Blandon of the Rural Workers’ Association noted that “being in power and at war made the Sandinistas subordinate the interests of the unions to the national interest as they defined it.”

In the case of AMNLAE, the Nicaraguan women’s association, gender issues were postponed; defense and production were higher priorities. With the war over and the Sandinistas out of power, there is more space for maneuver on the part of all now organizations.

Another aspect of the FSLN that came under fire was its exclusivity. As a cadre party, it admitted to membership only the most dedicated and disciplined. Of those who voted for the FSLN, only 7 percent were party militants. In an effort to strengthen the Front and recognize the commitment of people who were working for the revolution, the party is currently opening its doors to all Nicaraguans who want to join.

Democratization of the Party

The criticism of the authoritarian and closed nature of the FSLN has already produced considerable discussion of alternative ways of organizing. Without bering planned, popular assemblies sprang up all over the country in the wake of the Sandinista defeat.

“Everyone’s question is how to improve the Front, how do we build a democratic political life that goes beyond the membership carrying out political lines imposed from above,” said Carlos Gallo, an FSLN regional committee member in Managua.

Discussion is also taking place concerning ways of choosing party leaders and taking different views into account. There seems to be general agreement that all officials will be elected, including members of the National Directorate.

Also important is the recognition of different voices within the FSLN. In the past, the imposition of a party line had created a spurious unity that separated the leadership from the rank and file.

Because of the Sandinistas’ fear of factionalism, there was an excess of central authority. While there may be risk of fragmentation in the new pluralism, many Sandinista leaders see a different danger. “The threats to unity would increase if there were no possibility of openly discussing the major problems besetting us,” maintains Carrion.

The Sandinistas must not only democratize the party; they must also loosen the ties between the FSLN and the grassroots organizations. Before February, the requirements of wartime and the overlap in leadership ensured a close fit between the interests of the party and those of the now organizations.

The strain on the nation’s resources limited the space for debate and consigned many issues to a time “when the war against imperialism was over.” Thus going to a meeting of a mass organization was not much different than attending a base committee meeting of the FSLN. But in the current climate, the grassroots groups are striving to define their own priorities within the framework of the revolutionary project.

The wishes ofmass organizations aside, the Sandinistas have their own reasons for supporting the move toward autonomy. For one, the party’s base will be strengthened. In addition, the FSLN wants to distance itself from the struggles of the popular sectors. (Hence their insistence that the unions organized the July strike.)

This distance is crucial If the government considers every act of resistance a “Sandinista plot,” there can only be further confrontation and chaos.

But the independence of the popular organizations is a two-edged sword for the party. FSLN leaders are concerned that things may get out of hand. “If the July strike shows that the people don’t need orders from above, it also reveals the extreme volatility of the present situation,” commented a Sandinista official.

Yet the FSLN also recognizes the importance of mass resistance. If the industrial and agricultural unions do not challenge the government, it will feel free to purge the pm-Sandinista army and police force and to decimate the state enterprises that form the party’s base.

Perhaps the Sandinistas’ dilemma is best summed up by Tomas Borge: “Rejecting verticalism does not imply sending it to the defendant’s bench in every case, because certain circumstances require very agile decision-making.”

A final aspect of democratization is opening up the ranks of the party to all Sandinista supporters formerly excluded by strict membership requirements. Although the acceptance of all comers is not automatic, the screening process is looser now Moreover, those who do not want to take on the heavy responsibilities of membership can sign on as affiliates.

Although not presented as such, the new policy represents a decided change in priorities. Starting in the mid-10s, unity and cohesion became more important than numbers: In 1985 the Sandinistas weeded out the party ranks in an effort to ensure the militants’ commitment.

Now a new strategy is called for. Although people entering the FSLN must share certain ideological tenets—anti-imperialism, non-alignment, a mixed economy and political democracy—the need to broaden the base of the party clearly takes precedence over political purity. As the June report states, the primary aim of the FSLN is to consolidate the support of the 41 percent of the population that voted for it.

Rebuilding Popular Support

Although organizational changes are essential for revitalizing the FSLN, it is also important to recognize and correct political mistakes. One of these was to ignore the corruption within the party. The UNO government has used (and misused) the issue to try to undermine the moral authority of the Sandinistas. Although the accusations are exaggerated, neither are they all lies.

As one Sandinista activist told me, “People knew there were abuses, but in a wartime situation they chose to look the other way. Now there is pressure from the base to see that this never happens again.” To this end, an ethics committee has been created as part of the preparations for the February Congress.

The Sandinistas also have to win the supportof those sectors of the population who voted for UNO without being in ideological agreement with it FSLN leaders admit that they shortchanged rural workers in favor of urban ones; campesinos were forced to sell their producisat official prices tosupply the urban population with cheap food.

The party’s conflict with the Church also weakened its hold, especially in the outlying areas where clerical denunciatioris of the Sandinistas as communists and atheists who “ate babies for breakfast” had the most impact.

Then, too, the FSLN alienated the informal sector of the urban economy where trading takes place outside the range of government planning. The Sandinistas never figured out how to deal with this sector where people are underemployed and hard to organize Moreover, they lost support by keeping prices down and introducing rationing. But both the campesinos and the urban poor, suffering from current austerity measures, are starting to wake up to the fact that their hopes for the UNO government were misplaced.

Women make up another sector where the Sandinistas need to regain their political influence. Led by party members, AMNLAE put many issues—the controversial question of abortion among them—on the back burner as itfocused on working in solidarity with the mothers of soldiers According to Angela Saballos, an AMNLAE member and journalist, this was “perhaps a necessary mistake, but a mistake nonetheless, and one that had serious costs.”

Other feminists like Magda Enriques, a founder of AMNLAE and an FSLN leader, see things differently. She acknowledges that the women’s move.ment was in large part a “mothers’ movement,” but given the circumstances argues that was the right choice “If AMNLAE leaders had gone to a cooperative farm, where women were organizing to send food to their sons and had talked about sharing housework, they would have been thrown out,” she said.

But it is now time to consider sexism more seriously, and AMNLAE must take up long-neglected problems rooted in machismo. (For further information on the crisis confronting Nicaraguan women and on AMNLAE’s role, see “Nicaraguan Women Face New Attacks,” by Marie DeSantis, ATC 28—ed.)

In an effort to regain popular backing, the FSLN must frame specific policies for different sectors. In its work it can use to advantage the moral and political authority gained in the July strike, but it also has to develop an economic program that goes beyond the defense of the revolution. As Luis Carrion has said, “The FSLN’s historic program is basically exhausted, fulfilled, and is now insufficient to guide the political activities of the Sandinista Party.”

On the political front, a decision has to be made about joining the Socialist International. There is some ideological disagreement on this within the party. Some regard membership as a sellout to reformist capitalism, a “lukewarm solution” to the problem of international support Others think that the threat of cooptation is outweighed by the advantages that such an alliance brings to the pohtical struggle within Nicaragua.

Accomodation Or Confrontation?

As the Sandinistas think through the Problems of reorganization, political philosophy and economic strategy, they are faced with the problem of dealing with the government Most of the leadership, including Daniel Ortega, favor dialogue as the means to ensure political space for the party and to avoid civil war.

Most are cautiously in favor of reconciliation, but only within the context of defending the gains of the revolution. Such a stance, it is argued, would help Violets Chamorro’s pragmatic faction of UNO defend itself against the depredations of the ultra-right.

Others within the leadership contend that there is not much to choose between the Chamorro and the Codoy factions. In addition, some Sandinistas at the base level are suspicious of the leadership’s middle course between accommodation and confrontation. While many decisions facing the FSLN involve, at most, the risk of factionalism or ideological confusion, here the issues are more explosive and far more dangerous.

Postscript (September 28,1990): Reconciliation is farther away than ever. The government has announced new austerity measures, including privatizing sixteen enterprises and firing 20,500 public employees. In response, the National Workers Front TNT) has taken over a number of enterprises and, together with the FSLN, has called for civil disobedience. New confrontations appear imminent as this article goes to press.

Sources: Barricada International June 30, July 28, 1990 and Special Supplement, July 1996; Envio, June and July 1990 In These Times, August 1-14, 1990 Nicaragua Monitor, July 1990, No.2; Gary Ruchwarger People in Power: Forging a Grassroots Democracy in Nicaragua (Bergin & Garvey, 1987); Interviews with Angels Saballos, Magda Enriques, a Sandinista activist and a Sandinista official.

November-December 1990, ATC 29