Posted February 25, 2010
Twenty years ago the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua was brought to an end with the election of Violeta Chamorro, whose campaign had been largely funded by Washington. Earlier, in July 1979, the insurrection launched by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) forced dictator Anastasio Somoza to flee the country. The FSLN then named a five-person National Directorate (including Violeta Chamorro and three members of the FSLN) to head the government and new possibilities opened up for the country’s workers and peasants.
The FSLN launched a highly effective literacy drive that revealed what a mobilized population might accomplish. A similar health campaign eradicated endemic illnesses and laid the basis for health clinics throughout the country. In the first years of the revolution, both the government and the FSLN had an image of pluralism and collectivity.
One of the most interesting democratic experiments carried out by the FSLN was its attempt to refashion elections. In the early ’80s it brought into the parliament leaders of popular movements, whether FSLN members or not. It developed a constitution and a pluralist electoral law, then organized hundreds of community meetings so these could be discussed and changes incorporated. The FSLN leaders developed the idea of a fourth branch of government, the Supreme Electoral Council, in order to insure transparent elections. And the FSLN government carried out transparent elections in both 1984 and 1990.
Washington’s Intervention, FSLN Mistakes
While Washington in 1979 had declined to save the Somoza regime, once Reagan came to office it funded a growing counterrevolutionary insurgency. This illegal intervention was effective because the FSLN made some serious mistakes — after all, it had been a small guerilla army suddenly thrust into power. The FSLN did not understand that the indigenous people of the Atlantic Coast, not having been directly oppressed by the Somoza regime, did not see themselves as liberated by the revolution. The history and interests of the indigenous coastal population were quite different than those in the rest of the country.
The FSLN’s second major error was in prioritizing collectivized land reform over an individual peasant family’s right to cultivate a plot. These two mistakes, and the government policies that flowed from them, provided Washington with an opening. That is, the contra war was not simply imposed on Nicaragua, but was built on local opposition to the FSLN government’s policies, then fueled by arms and training supplied by the Reagan government.
As a result of having to fight a civil war, the FSLN government was forced to requisition scarce supplies and conscript young men into the army. And it was a brutal war, in which many young people died or were severely injured. The FSLN demanded belt-tightening for the workers and peasants, but had a softer approach toward the national bourgeoisie who did not go over to the contras.
Given U.S. backing, the contra force could not be stamped out, and over the years the war bled the country’s resources and undercut the FSLN government’s base of support. In the first post-Somoza elections, held in 1984, the opposition politicians boycotted and the FSLN won at the polls. But with the second election in 1990, the opposition presented a united slate (UNO) led by Violeta Chamorro, widow to the most prominent anti-Somoza martyr. Of course not only did Washington fund the contra war, but also funded the opposition’s successful electoral bid.
Those of us who supported the revolutionary government, whatever our worries or criticisms, were crushed by this US-backed victory. But there remained the hope that the FSLN would be able to analyze their defeat and renovate themselves. The FSLN was a tiny organization composed of three tendencies that came together shortly before the 1979 insurrection. They had never had the opportunity to build a democratic organization with an accountable internal culture. In fact, both the FSLN government and the party developed a more commandist structure over the course of the civil war. Although a split occurred before the 1990 defeat, many militants and supporters agreed that with the loss of governmental power the FSLN could find the space to reflect and rebuild. Of course the FSLN projected a militant strategy of governing from below and still had many representatives in parliament.
Govern from Below?
But in the transition period proceeding Chamorro’s taking office, FSLN officials began transferring state property to the party. Known as the “piñata,” these actions included the taking of houses, land, farms, businesses and vehicles. At the time the explanation offered that this was the result of the FSLN’s failure throughout the 1980s to differentiate between state and party property. The party would hold the property “for the people.”
Many high-ranking FSLN officials were involved in this property transfer, including Daniel Ortega. At first supporters of the revolution were informed that the FSLN would take up any impropriety through an internal FSLN commission–but it has never done so! The failure of the party to examine that abuse of power occurred on a second occasion, when Ortega’s stepdaughter Zollamérica Narváez accused him of rape and sexual harassment over a 10-year period. Although she was a member of the FSLN, her charge was never considered.
The initial pluralism of both the government and the party was eroded in the 1980s, but it was not inevitable that the FSLN would become a top-down electoral machine. But because it was ultimately unable to examine and renovate itself, the more authoritarian elements led by Daniel Ortega captured the party, drove out those who desired dialogue and valued independent popular organization, and built a membership loyal to the party machine and willing to use membership for personal gain.
In the early years of the 1990s, however, it still seemed as if the FSLN was willing to back popular movements of students, women, teachers, peasants, health care workers, and other workers in their determination to oppose privatization and other neoliberal “reforms.” Tragically it has become increasingly obvious that the popular movements were no more than bargaining chips in the FSLN’s parliamentary fights.
In the 1996 close-fought election, Arnold Alemán won the presidency and his Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) deepened the neoliberal agenda and brought government institutions to new levels of corruption. Two years later the unthinkable happened: the FSLN entered into a pact with the PLC. The pact outlines how the PLC and the FSLN divvy up various governmental posts, including the Supreme Court.
One consequence of this still-existing pact was the passage of the 2000 electoral law, which effectively eliminated independent municipal candidates or alliances. The law also rewards the top two parties with financing and preferential seating. Capping the law is the provision that allows a presidential candidate to win with less than a majority vote if there is a 5% margin between the top candidate and the second-highest one. It was through that formula that Daniel Ortega became president in 2006 with 38% of the vote.
Another aspect of the FSLN win in 2006 was their willingness within the National Assembly to overturn a century-old law allowing for therapeutic abortion. This criminalization of abortion–putting Nicaragua into the category of having one of the five most repressive laws against abortion–was a pre-election payoff to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
(While therapeutic abortions represent only a small number of the reasons women need abortion in Nicaragua, the draconian law creates a climate of fear among health care providers. With a high incidence of violence against girls and women, Nicaragua provides little sex education or access to birth control methods. As a result, the country has the highest rate of young mothers in all of Central America. As the result of rape, in 2008 at least 1,400 Nicaraguan girls under 14 became pregnant, according to the UN Population Fund. That same year the director of Managua’s Women’s Hospital reported four out of every 10 deliveries involved women under 15.)
Return to Power
Many people hoped that with the 2006 FSLN win, the country would move to the left and undo the neoliberal programs that have kept the country in poverty. It’s true that President Daniel Ortega continues to speak in a populist, anti-imperialist language. He has initiated social programs such as Zero Hunger and Zero Usury that reach the most impoverished sector of the population. Further, President Ortega has developed a strong alliance with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and other left-of-center governments in Latin America. For his part, Chávez has supported Ortega by supplying oil at a reduced cost. The FSLN government has also relaunched a campaign to reduce illiteracy and eliminated educational fees for primary and secondary education.
From the beginning of his presidency, Ortega set up the Councils of Citizens’ Participation (CPC) for “direct democracy” at the municipal level–but this ignored the already functioning and non-partisan Municipal Development Committees (CDM). It would seem that the reason to set up and direct finding through the CPCs is to build up a patronage system. In the municipalities where the FSLN is not in power the Zero Hunger program is administered by the CPCs. Since the Venezuelan aid ($250 million in 2008 alone) does not pass through the national budget, but is handled by a Venezuelan-Nicaraguan joint venture in that Ortega controls, aid operates as a source of corruption and patronage.
Additionally, for the 2008 elections the Supreme Electoral Council annulled participation of two parties that oppose the FSLN-PLC pact (the Sandinista Renovation Movement and the Conservative Party), and denied Eduardo Montealegre leadership of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance, a party he founded. Throughout the pre-election process there was a constant confusion between the state’s resources and those of the party. In addition, the FSLN used the CPCs as shock troops to oppose marches by opposition parties. Once mobilized, these groups roamed highways and cities armed and ready to attack. In some cases high-ranking FSLN members such as Manuel Calderon, the FSLN mayoral candidate in Leon, were involved.
While no national observers were authorized to cover the election polls, the only international observers allowed were from Venezuela. Needless to say the FSLN “won” more than 100 mayoral seats, including the crown jewel of Managua.
Along with the authoritarianism of the FSLN government came an attempt to deny the autonomous women’s movement its legal status. A government minister hinted to the media that the women’s movement was involved in money laundering. Although they have since backed off from making such charges stick., it launched an alternative women’s movement, which will provide access to health care, work, credits, education and gender training through the government. Its spokesperson strongly criticized the independent women’s movement for opposing the criminalization of abortion.
Meanwhile the FSLN government has not boldly broken from the neoliberal model of previous governments and has even retreated from its plan to reverse the country’s regressive tax structure.
Those of us who want to understand how a partially formed but pluralistic FSLN was transformed into a corrupt and authoritarian party, consumed with remaining in power, need to champion the democratic thread that has been a part of the Sandinista tradition. With Washington’s hand on the scales, the balance was tipped against the flourishing of a revolutionary process. Nonetheless there is a Sandinista spirit still alive today in Nicaragua, in the women’s movement, in the struggle for human rights, and in the independent movements of workers, peasants and students.