Taking Note

September 25, 2007

Nicaragua: A Letter from the Editor
inspired deep admiration and loyalty among its sup-
porters in this country. In many ways this reflects the
striking originality of the Sandinista model of revolution.
From the outset, it has defied stereotypes and avoided
of the pitfalls that have bedevilled other Third
World revolutions. In the process it has challenged dogma on
all sides of the political spectrum. In a country be-
sieged by war and economic strangulation, it has been
characterized by a spirit of pragmatism and openness.
That same spirit was present during the recent electoral
process that culminated on November 4 with the sweeping election
of Daniel Ortega to the presidency.
On November 2, just two days before the Nicaraguan
vote, I published an op-ed article on the subject in The
New York Times. It was paired with a fierce attack on the
validity of the elections by conservative Republican Sena-
tor David Durenberger of Minnesota. My piece proved
controversial. It provoked a flurry of letters from some
sectors of our readers and supporters, sharp disagreement from colleagues and widespread misunderstanding of its thesis and
motivation. That response has made it clear that the op-ed failed to convey its intended message explicitly or
to meet the standards which many long-time readers have come
to demand from our work. This month's Tak-
ing Note column is a welcome opportunity to respond to the concerns that have been expressed. Like the original
op-ed, this letter from the editor should be read as reflect-
ing my personal views and not those of the NACLA staff as a whole.
First, a belief that the re-election of the
Reagan Administration confronts Nicaragua's experiment in social transformation with the very real prospect of ex-
tinction. The cynical way in which the great MIG scare was fanned in the week following November 6 only con-
firms fears that the administration, bereft of real pretexts for an invasion, is digging deep into its propaganda arse-
nal to establish a "Cuban missile crisis" mentality in Congress and among a skeptical U.S. public, as a prelude
to further military attacks.
The second reason was alarm at how much of the ad-
ministration's spadework has been done by the wide-
spread acquiescence of the major media. Those of us who
believe that the Nicaraguan government is a legitimate one, and poses no threat to the national security of the
United States, are, tragically, fighting a rearguard action. In
many quarters, we are regarded as outright heretics.
The record of the daily newspapers is, on the whole, de- plorable. Since late 1981, when relations between Man-
agua and Washington froze over, scarcely any- press coverage
has acknowledged the basic legitimacy of the Sandinista regime and its election plans.
As for opinion page editors, they are inundated with at- tacks on Nicaragua, many of which find their way into print; they are also deluged with articles by supporters of
the revolution, and they are largely immune to them. In an
attempt to break the deadlock between uncritical praise
and vilification, I opted instead for a more oblique ap-
proach to the central question of legitimacy. My goal was
to suggest to skeptical New York Times readers that,
"Ronald Reagan's charge that the Sandinistas design-
ed the election as a 'Soviet-style sham' is malicious and
The third factor behind my decision was the haunting specter of Grenada. The anniversary of the U.S. invasion
of the island fell just ten days before the Nicaraguan elec-
tions. The Sandinista decision to hold multi-party elec-
tions-with rules as truly "Western-style" as any of their
detractors could have demanded-was a remarkable one.
And it was an option that Grenada's New Jewel Move-
ment had rejected. That refusal to go down the electoral path of legitimation may have been a key factor in the
NJM's internal divisions and ultimate failure.
rash of post-mortem articles, many of them shrewd
and insightful. We often appear more adept at producing
analyses of this sort after the fact, rather than hazarding
them while the revolutionary regime in question is in
power and under siege. Our shelves are too full of books
whose titles begin "The Lessons of . . . " One article I
found especially thought-provoking was Colin Henfrey's
"Grenada: Between Populism and Leninism," in the
Summer 1984 issue of the academic journal Latin Ameri-
can Perspectives. In one key passage, Henfrey discusses
Washington's contribution to the Grenada debacle by
playing on what he calls the divergent "electoral" and
"authoritarian" conceptions of defense among the Grena-
dian leadership. That polarity, or some local variant of it,
is present in all revolutionary movements.
Henfrey argues that, "There is nothing intrinsically
'bourgeois' in multi-party electoral democracy....
[G]iven a choice between [this] and alternatives produced
by a vanguard, the first may be less undemocratic for the
testing and initial legitimizing of a Third World socialist
revolution. ... The Sandinistas apparently reached some
such conclusions well before the Grenadian disaster; but it
must have strengthened their inclination to fulfill their
original commitments to elections . . . What Nicaragua
also suggests in evident parallel to Grenada is that democ-
ratic considerations and socialist realpolitik both point
in the same electoral direction" (emphasis added). This is
where the pressure from the Reagan Administration comes
in. Henfrey concludes, rightly, that Washington will at-
tempt to repeat its Grenada exercise by pushing the San-
dinistas in an "authoritarian" direction. "The apparent logic of U.S. thinking was that democratic is more
dangerous than authoritarian socialism. If nurtured, the
latter, reinforced by war conditions and opposition in
the party, would be the Sandinistas' downfall" (em-
phasis added).
My sense of the parallels between Grenada and
Nicaragua was overdrawn. The Sandinistas are a much
Continued on page 17
Continued from page 3
more complex and sophisticated movement than the nar-
row and divided NJM. Indeed, an earlier draft of the New
York Times piece argued that "Ronald Reagan will not
succeed in provoking a murderous Grenada-style split in
the Sandinistas' ranks." It seemed to me-and still
does-that the significance of the Sandinistas' decision to
enter into multi-party elections is strengthened--not di-
minished-by recognizing the long and intense debate that
preceded it, and by acknowledging that some members of the Directorate may have had misgivings about the expen-
diture of so much energy and political capital on elections.
is granted, the question becomes one of medium and
language. To make a complex argument on the relation-
ship between revolution and democracy in a journal like
Latin American Perspectives is one thing; to make it in the
pages of The New York Times is quite another matter. As
anyone who has attempted the medium will know, the
700-word op-ed has much in common with the cartoon: a
place to simplify, not to make intricate arguments. My at-
tempt to deal with a complex and controversial theme in a
well-rounded and accurate manner was fundamentally at
odds with the medium I chose. Its focus and timing were
poorly judged; the argument of the piece gave inadequate regard to the consensus view of my colleagues. An ob-
lique and convoluted argument was also fatally prejudiced
by what many readers rightly criticized as the use of
"buzzwords." NACLA confronts a constant challenge in extending the
fruits of its analysis to an ever-broader readership. Our
Report on the Americas reaches more readers than ever before: as the circulation figures elsewhere in this issue in-
dicate, our paid subscribers have grown by 22% in the last
year alone. Beyond this, our staff appear on network tele-
vision shows, write for major magazines, newspapers and
specialist journals, and have become vital contributors to the policy debate around Central America.
In the process, we enter uncharted territory; we take
new risks; we seek out new alliances to expand the impact
of our work. Growth is a hazardous business, and it poses
a central dilemma: how are we to evolve a discourse, an
idiom that is appropriate to this broadening role without
resorting to terminology that is more fitting to our adver-
saries? The op-ed failed this test, but we intend to learn
from its shortcomings and make our voice heard more ef-
fectively among new audiences. Our readers' reactions-- praise for our successes as well as criticism of our
lapses-will be fundamental to our ability to meet future
challenges successfully.
dissection of "what the op-ed really meant to say."
But two critical points of controversy demand an answer.
First, where did the major blame lie for the problems that surrounded the Nicaraguan elections? Second, was the de-
piction of currents within the Sandinista leadership accu-
rate? Many readers have understood the article to suggest
that, "The fatal combination of United States intransi-
gence and conflicts within the Sandinista leadership"
were somehow equally to blame for the election difficul- ties. Nothing could be further from the truth. The "cruel and costly war" that the article begins by condemning is
the defining reality of Nicaragua today. As Jay Peterzell points out in his valuable new study, Reagan's Secret Wars, "The Administration is in the grip of an obses-
sion." That obsession-a hostility to the survival of
Nicaragua's revolution in any form-has brought three
years of savage war that have cost 8,000 Nicaraguan lives;
in 1983 alone it inflicted material losses of $128 million.
The United States has mined harbors and channeled covert
aid to business opponents of the regime; the CIA-backed
contras have bombed oil storage tanks and airports, burned down day-care centers and health posts.
Washington has used the extreme rightists of the Hon-
duras-based FDN as its political spearhead and treated more moderate dissidents as cannon fodder. It has forced the Sandinistas to divert a full quarter of the nation's budget to armed defense; it has destabilized Nicaragua's
borders and subverted its political process. In the words of
one senior Sandinista official, "Nicaragua is at war. Ev-
erything is secondary to the military defense of the revolu- tion." This is hardly the environment in which to test the
substance of an open election.
T HE ADMINISTRATION, STILL FLUSHED FROM its victory in Grenada, has also worked hard to drive a wedge into the unified Sandinista Directorate, which was formed in 1979 from three separate tendencies. With what success? The second main bone of contention in the article is its suggestion that "The Sandinistas are also victims of their own divisions." Any political movement or government, of Right or Left, is essentially a coalition. It is no secret that members of the FSLN leadership have different, though overlap- ping, approaches to the problem of survival under condi- tions of war. Some members of the Directorate stress the primacy of mass mobilization and military defense, em- phasizing the role of the Sandinista Defense Committees and the militias. Others may talk more of the role of the state in economic planning, or the exigencies of interna- tional diplomacy-what Henfrey called "socialist real- politik." As often as not, the emphasis that one member of the Directorate places on an issue is a straightforward reflection of his own job responsibilities. It was certainly misleading to suggest that these distinctions are sharply factional or antagonistic, or that individual members of the Directorate are pursuing agendas hostile to the consen- sus. To a remarkable extent, the FSLN leadership has con- tinued to operate by consensus and maintained a striking degree of unity even under the fiercest pressure. Though the controversial question of elections is known to have' provoked particularly intense discussion, the un- ified Sandinista position has evolved pragmatically, and
17has moved a considerable distance since the organiza-
tion's first public pronouncements on the subject. Many
observers, of Left and Right alike, continue to hark back
to the famous speech by Defense Minister Humberto Ortega on August
23, 1980 as a blueprint for the elections. On that date, Ortega proclaimed the Sandinista's intention
to hold elections "to perfect revolutionary power" and
not to conduct "a raffle among those who seek to hold
But that early conception of the elections was superse-
ded. In the debates around the new electoral and political
party laws, the FSLN granted key concessions, none
greater than to give opposition parties the right to compete
for state power. By 1984, Ortega was telling La Prensa
that, "If a political group wins the elections by a majority of votes, that group will assume power and proceed to
exercise it." And why? Because, in the reasoning of Vice-
President elect Sergio Ramirez, "The development of
Nicaragua's revolution, together with Nicaragua's geo-
political position and the relationship between inside and
outside forces, has made political pluralism and par-
liamentary democracy unavoidable in Nicaragua's de-
velopment today and tomorrow."
cision to hold competitive, multi-party elections did
not waver. Despite the abstention of Arturo Cruz's Coor-
dinadora and the hopeless confusion of Virgilio Godoy's
Independent Liberals (on the ballot despite having offi-
cially withdrawn), the elections took place as scheduled
on November 4.
They were not quite what the Sandinistas had hoped or
planned for, in the sense that Cruz's CDN and Godoy's
PLI chose to withdraw. Mainly, those abstentions meant
that the elections bought Nicaragua less space in the inter-
national arena than the Sandinistas had hoped. But many
journalists and foreign observers who expected a "Soviet-
style sham" had to swallow their surprise. Some com-
pared the process to Mexico; one British Conservative went further and declared that the elections were fairer and
more open than those in Western Europe. The violence and disruption of opposition rallies proved trivial in com- parison to recent election campaigns in Panama, Jamaica
and the Dominican Republic, where party activists were killed. And, most telling, the FSLN won 62% of the vote
on a 75% turnout: hardly what one would expect from a
totalitarian force bent on destroying its opponents. What would have happened if the CDN had run? It
would no doubt have picked up some of the spoiled ballots
and some of the abstentions, perhaps enough to give it the
13% won by the Democratic Conservatives or the 10%
that went to the PLI. The Sandinistas were not alone in de-
riding the Cruz candidacy. Conservative presidential can- didate Clemente Guido's view of it was this: "[The Coor-
dinadora] is not a majority . .. on his latest visit to Man-
agua Dr. Arturo Cruz was unable to rally more than 50
people, most of them press. What the Coordinadora has
had is great international publicity." Its failure to take part
did not affect the internal legitimacy of the elections as
much as their international impact.
As for the Rio de Janeiro talks on October 1-2, after
which Cruz's CDN definitively refused to stand, the evi-
dence of what happened remains murky and contradic-
tory. Each side at the Rio talks accused the others of tor-
pedoing an accord, while an urgent telegram sent later to
Daniel Ortega and Arturo Cruz by Socialist International leader Willy Brandt implicitly criticized both sides for los-
ing patience. The point here is that reports of the talks do not substantiate the op-ed's over-simplified contention
that "Sandinista negotiator Arce . .. pulled out just when
an agreement appeared to be within reach." T
moment when the entire Sandinista experiment is
threatened with extinction. The signs are that the San-
dinistas, if they survive, will continue to rule Nicaragua with an astute awareness of realpolitik, a realistic assess-
ment of the strength of their opponents at home, and a fun-
damental willingness to engage the thorny equation of rev-
olution and democracy. As far as the question of institu-
tional pluralism is concerned, all the evidence suggests that the November 4 elections will not be the last. Sergio
Ramirez's assessment of parliamentary procedures "today
and tomorrow" seems likely to hold firm. The Sandinistas
now propose a "national dialogue" with a wide range of
social forces to achieve peace. One early result of this may
well be to bring Arturo Cruz back into a future electoral
process, splitting his Coordinadora alliance. That would
distance him from its most recalcitrant members, who
cooperated with the CIA to sabotage the voting, and de-
prive Washington of the last of its plausible front men.
In the final analysis, the question of institutional
pluralism is one factor among several in devising a demo-
cratic system that is responsive to the specific conditions
of Nicaragua. The Sandinista program, which has major-
ity support in the new Assembly, is committed not only to periodic electoral review, but to the equitable distribution
of wealth and power. For the last five years, this has
meant empowerment and participation in grassroots pro-
grams as well as access to government. Democratic pro-
cess in Nicaragua is still in its infancy; at this most danger-
ous of moments, only the strictest principles of non-inter-
vention in the country's affairs will allow us to see what
amalgam of democratic principles, participatory as well as
electoral, Nicaragua truly intends to develop.


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