Nicaragua: Speaking Bitterness

September 25, 2007

On a recent visit to the States a friend asked me, "So, are the Sandinistas washed up?" I took a deep breath. Where to begin? Since they lost the elections more than a year ago, the Sandinistas have been in crisis. The crisis is as personal as it is political. After years of sacrifice, many activists' lives are in pieces. They postponed education and careers. They saw their friends get killed by the Contras. Marriages failed under the strain; no one had time for their kids. Some worked like hell and were left with nothing, while others appropriated cars and houses before leaving office.

The February 1990 elections were followed by months of late nights of “speaking bitterness." Many Sandinista rank and file are disappointed and resentful. Some are cynical: They had been called to task for pointing out what top Sandinistas now belatedly admit were serious mistakes. Others are optimistic: The beating at the polls was a blessing in disguise, the FSLN's chance to win back credibility without the constraints of power. Still others are taking a break from political activism. But most remain Sandinistas.

The Sandinista Front is regrouping. It is searching for a new identity when it is no longer clear what it means to be "left" or "revolutionary" in a rapidly shifting regional and world order. There is widespread sentiment that sweeping changes are necessary, but little consensus on what these should be. Party militants hope this consensus will take shape in the coming months, as the FSLN holds local and regional assemblies leading to its first party congress July 19-21.

"The crisis in the Front is not one of decline, it's one of growth," explained Sofía Montenegro, an editor at Barricada, the Sandinista daily. The FSLN's search for identity began with a hard look at its past. In June of last year, some 200 Sandinista leaders met in the town of El Crucero to analyze what went wrong in the campaign. They were remarkably frank about the errors of their 10-year administration. They now admit that imposing agricultural policies in the countryside helped build the Contras' social base and lost them the battle for the hearts and minds of the rural population years before the vote. The economic effects of the war and the Sandinista austerity program gutted many of the social benefits of the revolution. With few resources to solve the population's problems, many officials began to turn a deaf ear to complaints from below.

Party Congress Sparks Debate

While many party leaders and activists have been sharply critical from behind the scenes over the years, fierce debate is now taking place in public, in the media and in local assemblies around the country. "This new openness comes from being out of office," noted Luís Carrión, of the FSLN's National Directorate. "The enormous responsibility of running the country forced the Sandinista Front to subordinate its interests to those of the government. This closed the space for debate within the Front, which had to back wartime policies. It definitely restricted internal criticism."

Party leaders say the process leading up to the July congress is as important as what happens at that meeting. For the first time, district leaders are being elected by the rank and file, rather than named by higher-ups. Working commissions have drawn up documents on Sandinista philosophy and bylaws, to be debated in urban barrios and rural communities throughout Nicaragua. An ethics committee has been set up to address charges of corruption, although so far it has considered few cases.

Each region will elect delegates to the party congress. For many activists, the litmus test of whether the congress is truly democratic will be if heads roll when the 600 delegates have their first opportunity to elect top party leaders, including the National Directorate. Grassroots activists, for whom personal integrity is as important as politics, are eager to have new blood in the party. The "Sandinista piñata” -- the divvying up of spoils by some officials -- did more to hurt the FSLN's credibility than losing the elections. "Bless the day the Front lost the elections, when we learned who would be the rats that must abandon ship," one community organizer told me.

The decision by top Sandinistas to postpone the congress from February to July threw cold water on the debate for several months, prompting some to wonder whether the leadership would allow a no-holds-barred discussion. "They are proposing a democratic opening without completely democratizing," said former Sandinista official Ramón Meneses, adding that he fears the “old guard” will not let those they consider inexperienced run the show.

Divisions within the FSLN are painted as a debate between two emerging currents: "pragmatists vs. orthodox" or "Social Democrats vs. Marxist Leninists." The debate, in fact, is not a new one: There is an echo of the old tendencies from the Sandinistas' guerrilla days, when the question of class alliances and insurrectional strategy was a major point of contention. Current battlelines are drawn around how closely to collaborate with the government of President Violeta Chamorro to bring about stability and economic recovery. Orthodox Sandinistas see the pragmatists' moves to cooperate with the government as a continuation of the accommodation to U.S. policy and Nicaraguan business interests that undermined popular support for the Sandinistas in recent years. They stress that the only way to safeguard poor and working people's interests is to keep the pressure on from below, even if it puts the FSLN on a collision course with government moderates. Others argue that the population is sick and tired of conflict, and that stability will give the Sandinistas room to maneuver to protect what is left of the revolution.

Implicit in these discussions is a fundamental question: should the FSLN see itself as the vanguard of a primarily popular and working class movement, or should it strive to build a multi-class, nationalist party capable of winning the 1996 elections? Another point under debate is whether to maintain the Front's traditional anti-imperialist stance, or accept Washington's "new world order." Proposals to upgrade the FSLN's observer status in the Socialist International to full membership, for instance, are viewed as a step towards becoming a more traditional party acceptable to Europe and even the United States.

Rafael Solís, the former secretary of the legislative assembly, sent shock waves through the FSLN when he published an opinion piece in Barricada proposing that the Sandinistas "co-govern" with more moderate elements of the UNO alliance. Co-governing would not entail sharing cabinet posts, Solís maintained, but would be a process of finding common ground. "The Sandinista leadership has to put it to workers bluntly: If the government falls, we are not the ones who will take power, but rather Vice President [Virgilio] Godoy and the UNO extremists. And that would lead to another civil war." Solís also suggests that the FSLN enter the 1996 elections in alliance with Chamorro moderates.

Strikes Test Concertación

The backdrop to the debate is the past year of labor tension over government economic policies and fears of privatization. Violent clashes between Sandinista trade unionists and former Contras and other strike-breakers last July threatened to plunge the country into civil strife. Fears of a power play by the Right sent Sandinista leaders and UNO moderates running into each other's arms to resolve the conflict before it escalated out of control. The Sandinista leadership took on the role of a "stabilizing center," given the Chamorro government's lack of a solid base of popular support. (The strikes were also a litmus test of the army's working relationship with the government; Defense Minister Gen. Humberto Ortega ordered troops to dismantle barricades, but vowed the Sandinista army would never turn its guns on protesters. Ortega has since pledged to "depoliticize" the armed forces and has complied with instructions to slash the size of the army by more than half.)

Last October, negotiations among the government, both Sandinista and pro-government unions, and the conservative business organization COSEP, resulted in a temporary truce. Chamorro promised to move gradually in reprivatizing the economy and postponed massive layoffs. In exchange, the unions agreed to hold off on wage demands and militant job actions for at least six months. COSEP, angered by the government's concessions on reprivatization, walked out of the talks without signing the agreement.

The truce broke down in March when the government announced a drastic anti-inflation package aimed at stimulating exports and winning the approval of multilateral lending institutions. The plan devalued the córdoba by 400%, but raised wages by only 160%-250%. The average 40% drop in real wages sparked a wave of strikes and work slowdowns by Sandinista unions grouped in the National Workers Front (FNT). Sandinista political leaders by and large supported the government plan; the only member of the Assembly to vote against a resolution supporting the measures was labor leader Dámaso Vargas. After two weeks of escalating strikes and protests, the unions entered into a second agreement with the government, which promised to raise wages at the end of May if buying power had not increased by then.

The series of "social pact" accords were a watershed in trade union autonomy, according to participants. Labor groups showed both the will and the ability to go out on strike, even when it was politically inconvenient for the FSLN. The last year has been a crash course in collective bargaining for the unions: "It's the first time I've seen union leaders argue economic policies and make suggestions," observed economist Arturo Grigsby, an advisor to the Federation of Agricultural Cooperatives during the talks.

Since the July strikes, however, pro-UNO unions have gained ground, while much of the Sandinista rank and file, more anxious about job security, has been less willing to take militant action. "The union movement is at a difficult crossroads," asserts Grigsby. "If the unions support the government, they will appear to the rank and file as accomplices to measures that cause unemployment." On the other hand, neither the unions nor the Sandinista political leaders have much room to maneuver. Had they won the elections, the Sandinistas would likely have been forced to implement measures not drastically different from those of the Chamorro administration.

The relationship between the FSLN and the FNT is still ambiguous. While the trade union talks were underway, the government held parallel meetings with a high-level Sandinista commission headed by former president Daniel Ortega. Those talks were broader in scope and centered on political agreements, including cuts in the army. "We can speak of two sets of negotiations: one on the level of the formal talks, and the other at the level of the elites,” said Grigsby.

Another factor exerting pressure on both the government and the FSLN is an incipient but militant right-wing grassroots movement. Last November, former Contras and UNO mayors spurred on by Vice President Godoy seized several major highways, including the main road linking the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. The demobilized Contras demanded farmland, while the UNO mayors called for several cabinet resignations starting with Humberto Ortega, presidential advisor (and Chamorro son-in-law) Antonio Lacayo and Government Minister Carlos Hurtado. Former Contras were caught with arms caches in Managua and accused of treason. The conflict was eventually resolved, but not before at least 3 people were killed and more than a dozen wounded. Hard-line UNO mayors have also encouraged former Contras to take over state farms and agricultural cooperatives.

The “Violeteros” appear more threatened by Vice President Virgilio Godoy’s appeal to the radical Right than by the Sandinistas. The “pragmatists” within the Sandinista leadership, for their part, have vowed to strengthen the UNO moderates surrounding Chamorro in the face of rightist opposition. Sandinista representatives recently joined forces with UNO legislators to elect Chamorro ally Alfredo César as head of the National Assembly.

Many Sandinistas see the alliance with “Violeteros” as more tactical than strategic. “I am convinced that concertación, co-government agreements, understandings between two political groups, or whatever you want to call it, has to be done on the basis of the rights won by the people of Nicaragua over the last ten years,” explained Milu Vargas, director of the Managua-based Center for Constitutional Rights and a former legal advisor to the National Assembly. “For every step backwards they try to take, we’ll hold our ground. You can't erase ten years from someone's life in the workplace, in the home or on the land."

A wide spectrum of party cadre and grassroots groups see democratizing the FSLN as vital to overcoming the demoralization that has plagued the popular movement. But many grassroots activists fall outside the broad "pragmatist" or "orthodox" camps, and there is considerable crossover on specific issues. Activists complain that framing the debate as Marxism vs. Social Democracy obscures the real issue: The point is to find new ways of organizing. They argue that the FSLN leadership has failed to grasp the importance of independent social movements; the debate should be one of grassroots democracy vs. verticalismo, or top-down party control.

Local actions to address daily survival issues, for example, are more likely to strike a chord with the FSLN's potential base than discourses on party philosophy. Community activist María Antonieta Rodríguez notes that political work in her neighborhood is at an all-time low, but a food co-op and other practical projects are thriving. For Rodríguez, the solution lies not in the 1996 elections, but in a vision that looks to the long-term. "The most important thing right now is to win back the ground we've lost. The next elections don't matter. They'll come in good time. But the Front has to win back the people's trust, because they are the ones who will bring it to another defeat or triumph."

The Sandinistas are clearly far from being washed up. But they face a critical challenge: reconstructing unity of purpose. "We have been more tolerant of our damn enemies than of each other," remarked Sofía Montenegro, adding that the Sandinistas' stint in the opposition may make the task easier: "We have to strengthen civil society, the women's movement and other grassroots projects. It's there that revolutionary culture is preserved. State power helps, but power is not the state - it's the people."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Julie Light is a freelance journalist based in Nicaragua.

Tags: Nicaragua, Sandinistas, Daniel Ortega, Politics, party divisions

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