Contemporary Sandinista Politics; Venezuelan Community Councils; Cuba and Uncomfortable Art

September 1, 2009

Misrepresenting Today’s Sandinista Politics?

Roger Burbach’s article in the NACLA Report’s March/April issue (“Et Tu, Daniel? The Sandinista Revolution Betrayed”) is a simplistic misrepresentation of today’s Sandinista politics. While we agree with Burbach’s assessment of the Nicaraguan revolution’s important achievements, his characterization of the contemporary FSLN is problematically rooted in its comparisons with an idealized version of the party in the 1980s. Unfortunately, that historic version better fit the desires of well-intentioned progressives intent on representing Sandinista Nicaragua as a “new political utopia”—to combat the Reagan administration’s equally caricatured portrayal of the Sandinistas as a Communist threat—rather than analyzing the FSLN as it truly was: fraught with internal contradictions and problems even during the revolutionary decade of the 1980s. Consequently, because Burbach’s idealized representation of “pure” Sandinista revolutionaries serves as the reference point for judging the contemporary “sins” of the FSLN, his analysis leaves only one option for understanding the party today: through the optic of the “revolution betrayed.”

At the same time, Burbach’s argument suffers from a classic case of what social scientists call selection bias, sometimes known colloquially as “cherry-picking” evidence. It relies almost exclusively on sources outside the FSLN. Specifically, Burbach sustains his argument by speaking to and about those who have left the party under acrimonious circumstances (Mónica Baltodano, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, Ernesto Cardenal, Gioconda Belli) and cites their opinions as fact. In contrast, he gets only one opinion from a current Sandinista party member, Orlando Nuñez, who offers a concise and cogent explanation of why he is still in the FSLN. Undermining Burbach’s thesis, Nuñez claims that the Sandinistas represent a viable leftist electoral alternative with a national political base among the Nicaraguan working and popular classes, as well as many of the urban and rural poor.

This creates a major analytical problem for Burbach’s account, because it contradicts his narrative of the “revolution betrayed.” Nuñez’s statement should have led Burbach to ask other FSLN members, especially the rank and file, the same questions to understand their political vision. Instead, he quickly closes that line of inquiry by choosing to smear an entire new generation of muchachos as Sandinista “thugs” driven by simple patronage. Are today’s muchachos from the working-class barrios of Managua, like the one pictured at the top of the article, that different from the courageous young people who fought in the revolution?

Regrettably, by making a quick, one-sided judgment, Burbach precludes a deeper- understanding of the current political dynamics in Nicaragua, dynamics that our own research suggests are more nuanced than what his article leads the reader to believe. Just as in the 1980s, when many scholars went to Nicaragua to learn about the connections between the Sandinista revolution and its grassroots base, today it is imperative for scholars to reconnect with that base, keeping a critical and open mind. In this way, we can truly uncover why many Nicaraguans remain a part of the FSLN, without resorting to false utopias or false dichotomies.

Marco Mojica
City College of San Francisco

Héctor Perla Jr.
University of California, Santa Cruz


Roger Burbach replies: The core of Mojica and Perla’s critique is that I idealize the Nicaraguan revolution of the 1980s and then cherry-pick evidence to indict the current government of Daniel Ortega without considering the motivation of the youth who are Sandinista militants today.

I agree that many young Nicaraguans are more than just “thugs” and are well-intentioned. But the problem is that they, along with Mojica and Perla, are blind to the reality of the Ortega government’s opportunistic politics, which violate the practice and ideals of the Sandinista revolution. One need not idealize the Sandinistas of the past to come to this conclusion; just look at the facts.

The very candidacy of Ortega for the presidency in 2006 was rooted in opportunism and stood in sharp contrast to the platforms and campaigns that he and the Sandinista party ran on in 1984 and 1990. How else, other than opportunism, can one explain Ortega’s pact with Arnoldo Alemán, a representative of the very Somoza regime that the Sandinista revolution overthrew in 1979? And then there is Ortega’s public conversion to Catholicism under the auspices of Cardinal Miguel Ovando y Bravo, who did so much to undercut the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s. To further secure the support of the most reactionary sectors of the Catholic Church, Ortega then had the Sandinista party support legislation in the National Assembly banning all abortions, even in cases in which they would save women’s lives.

Once in power, Ortega moved to establish a regime based on sectarianism and clientelistic politics, a far cry from the Sandinista government’s openness in the 1980s and its close ties with nascent social movements. Indeed, Ortega has persecuted Sandinistas like Dora María Téllez with a particular vehemence precisely because they refuse to accept his authoritarianism within the Sandinista party. Last year’s government raids of the offices of the Autonomous Women’s Movement and the Center for Communications, because they allegedly “laundered” funds from international organizations like Oxfam, stand as a dramatic illustration of the Ortega government’s desperate efforts to destroy independent social organizations in Nicaragua.

The Nicaraguan constitution does not allow for the immediate reelection of a president after one five-year term, but Ortega is determined to run again in 2011, hoping he can rig the elections as he did the municipal voting in November 2008. Ortega knows he cannot win a plebiscite on reelection and is trying to forge a new pact with Alemán to change the constitution in the National Assembly. As my article was going to press in January, judges loyal to Ortega released Alemán from prison, where he was serving time for embezzling government funds. That same day deputies from Alemán’s party began voting with the Sandinistas in the National Assembly, giving them a majority.

Ortega wants to use this majority to change the constitution such that Nicaragua adopts the French system, which provides for a president and a prime minister with no term limits. But it appears that Alemán, now free from jail, will have no part of this. Looking toward his own candidacy for president, Alemán, just before his party’s political convention in July, made it clear that the deputies he controls in the assembly will not support presidential reelection nor change the political system. Ortega might be muttering to himself “Et tu, Arnoldo?” This crude power struggle is about as far removed from the ideals and practice of the Sandinista revolution as one can imagine.

Venezuela’s Community Councils and the Challenge of Institutionalization

Steve Ellner is to be congratulated for bringing to light both the positive and the negative dimensions of Venezuela’s community councils (“A New Model With Rough Edges: Venezuela’s Community Councils,” May/June). Such a critical perspective is, unfortunately, less and less common in debates over Chávez and his policies.

A study published in May 2008 by the Centro Gumilla, a Jesuit think tank long active in grassroots organizing, found that underprivileged Venezuelans are indeed taking advantage of the community councils to improve their quality of life, as Ellner points out. But he does not tell us if the councils are—or should be—instruments for incorporating the Chavista base or for promoting local democracy.

Based on 11 months of fieldwork with neighborhood water committees that are being integrated with the community councils, my sense is that the councils promote the inclusion of some citizens in political decision-making processes. Although there are community councils in which both Chavistas and non-Chavistas participate, as well as councils run entirely by citizens who publicly identify with the opposition, public officials declaring that grassroots organizations are Chavista is a bad omen for participatory democracy.

In Venezuela’s democratic past, party elites dominated decision making and controlled civil society at the grassroots. Chavistas say their party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), will not follow this trajectory because, they claim, their party has been built from the bottom up. There seems, though, to be growing concern about the possibility that the PSUV will displace grassroots groups—Santiago Arconada, a well-known community activist who publicly identifies with Chavismo, has made this suggestion in particular.

The question seems to be: Where should the line be drawn between the Chávez administration’s agenda and respect for a pluralistic citizenry? Ellner seems displeased by the government’s politicization of the community councils. Does he think this appropriation of the grassroots will become a salient trend and remind citizens of the party-dominated civil society of decades past? Or does he think it’s justified, since grassroots initiatives ought to be understood exclusively as the fruit of the Chávez-led revolution and the PSUV?

But even if Chavismo can create an autonomous relationship between party politics and the grassroots, the question remains whether the community councils will become permanent features of Venezuelan politics or whether they belong only to the revolutionary government. Porto Alegre, Brazil’s experiment in participatory democracy has taught us that while an inspired party needs to promote participatory initiatives, it also needs to relinquish “ownership” of the process for the sake of institutionalization. If the community councils are not institutionalized, they are likely to score high marks for inclusion but low marks as instruments of democratic governance.

Michael McCarthy
Fulbright and Inter-American Foundation Grassroots Development Fellow


Steve Ellner replies: McCarthy raises several key interconnected issues related to the community council movement that I discussed just briefly in my article. I agree that institutionalization is the key challenge facing the community councils, and indeed the Venezuelan state in general. Institutionalization would not only check undue political interference in the councils, which is McCarthy’s main concern, but also guard against misuse of funds, a problem I raised in the article. But for some Chavistas the very word institutionalization carries a negative connotation of government co-optation, which they view as a threat to social-movement autonomy.

This dilemma is demonstrated by the discussion in the Venezuelan congress on a proposed reform of the Law of Community Councils. Article 57 of the proposed law would allow the central government’s national controllership to intervene in cases of community council mismanagement. But the drafted reform does not even mention the national controllership by name. Resistance to this type of oversight comes from those who fear state encroachment, as I discussed in the article.

The community councils represent “instruments for incorporating the Chavista base” as well as “promoting local democracy,” to use McCarthy’s words. Along these lines, McCarthy expresses fear that the PSUV is following in the footsteps of the nation’s traditional parties, which tried to dominate the neighborhood associations dating back to the late 1970s. But today, the main danger of outside interference comes not from the party but from the state. The PSUV and its predecessor, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), both refrained from establishing close organic ties with social movements in order to avoid stifling popular participation, as occurred in the past. As a result, the MVR party became disconnected from the Chavista rank and file, and the population in general, developing into basically an electoral organization. The PSUV runs the same risk.

The distinction between party and state domination of the community councils is more than academic. An internally democratic party, unlike the state, is best equipped to channel popular sentiment in an upward direction. The PSUV’s active presence in the social movements is thus not inherently anti-democratic and does not necessarily stimulate clientelism.

Cuba and Uncomfortable Art

I read Michelle Chase’s “Socially Dangerous” MALA column on media coverage of Cuba’s punk-rock trial (March/April) in June, during the height of media attention to the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. In both her article, which discussed the Cuban government’s arrest of a musician for “social dangerousness,” and the media descriptions of China’s crackdown on protesters, I found similar arguments defending the centralist state’s repression of dissident points of view. Every point Chase makes is legitimate, yet is largely irrelevant because of the Cuban state’s underlying assumption that art exists to support the revolution. Art has no such mission, nor should it. And the state has no mission to direct the media or the arts.

In the case of Tiananmen, defenders of the China Communist Party are correct in saying that the vast majority of Chinese citizens have forgotten the incident and have no wish to commemorate it. Yet critics are correct in saying that the only mature state is one that can honestly admit its errors and confront its own darkest corners. A China that does not discuss 100 Flowers or the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen is as immature as a Chilean state that could not talk of the 1973 coup.

Similarly, a Cuban state that does not allow for full freedom of expression, no matter how warped or “pro-Miami” that may be, is only displaying the infantilism of vanguardist parties in general. No matter what kind of economic policies the state pursues, there is no room in the 21st century for vanguardism, since no one party can speak for a class or its interests. Anarcho-syndicalists have made clear to Marxists-Leninists for decades why their concept of state and party necessarily deteriorates into repression. By positing a role for the state in “directing” the arts or media, Chase seems to tacitly ignore the lessons of vanguardist corruption, and thereby cheer on the Cuban state in crushing uncomfortable art. Legitimate art must be uncomfortable.

Loring Wirbel
Monument, Colorado


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