Nicaragua: The FSLN’s Evolution Since 1990

From Revolutionary to National Bourgeois Party

By Phil Cournoyer

Phil Cournoyer has been active in the Marxist movement since the late 1950s. He has lived in Nicaragua since the mid-eighties and is a Nicaraguan citizen and member of the FSLN. He is a contributing editor of Socialist Voice. For Part 1 of this two-part article, see “Nicaraguan Voters Rebuff Imperialism.”

The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) is not the same party that led the Sandinista revolution to victory in 1979 and then formed a revolutionary anti-imperialist government based on mobilized workers and farmers. It is not even the same party that lost the elections in 1990 to the National Opposition Union (UNO), a pro-U.S. coalition led by Violeta Chamorro and the Managua daily La Prensa.

The intractable problems inflicted by the long U.S.-sponsored Contra war compounded by the 1990 electoral defeat brought about a political and ideological implosion of the FSLN’s national leadership. Many leaders concluded that the whole revolutionary project had been misconceived. Given the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and of the Soviet Union itself, most of this leadership now believed that socialism was no longer a viable option for Latin America, at least for many decades.

Sandinista bourgeoisie

In tandem with this ideological collapse, many were seduced to buy into the new order. A range of Sandinista leaders and associates participated in a privatization process of state and FSLN property. They emerged as a new sector of the Nicaraguan capitalist class, the so-called Sandinista bourgeoisie.

Both Daniel Ortega and his brother and former head of the Sandinista Army, Humberto Ortega, now have significant wealth and investments, as do other Sandinista leaders such as Bayardo Arce. And the list is much longer. The Sandinista ranks originally accepted this privatization believing that it was a measure to protect “Sandinista patrimony” from seizure by the new right-wing government. Also enmeshed in this process was privatization of public enterprises in favor of union and cooperative members – but often ownership ended up concentrated in a few hands.

These measures became all the more confusing because they coincided with the granting of title to lots, houses, and farms to hundreds of thousands of poor families in Nicaragua. While people indignantly decried the corruption and theft of public resources as the “piñata” (a candy basket or a papier maché figure filled with candies that children bash with sticks at parties to retrieve the sweets), there was mass support for the distribution of property to the poor.

This new Sandinista capitalist sector actually operates in the FSLN as a distinct and public current – the Association of Sandinista Entrepreneurs. They now have a firm grip on the leadership of the FSLN with Daniel Ortega at the helm. Their power, and Ortega’s own power has been greatly enhanced with his election to the presidency.

Bourgeois nationalism

The FSLN today is, in Marxist terms, a bourgeois nationalist party responding to the interests of a sector of the Nicaraguan capitalist class. It is this sector that is decisive, not Ortega as an individual. However, the FSLN is a mass party with deep roots in the population, in the unions and social movements, and among most people who maintain an anti-imperialist stand against the United States. Broad forces such as YATAMA (the largest indigenous party in the Caribbean Coast regions of Nicaragua) look to the FSLN as allies to win support for their social, economic, and cultural aspirations.

The FSLN leadership itself continues to take an anti-imperialist stance, particularly in relation to U.S. wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and through ties with Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia. In the eyes of the vast majority of Nicaraguans it still represents the traditions and gains of the Sandinista revolution and is an anti-imperialist force. To maintain this base, it is under strong pressure to respond to the poor majority’s class and national interests, as opposed to those of the traditional oligarchy.

Opponents of the rightward, procapitalist drift of the party have been unable to win significant support within the ranks. Workers, farmers, women, and young people have suffered enormous blows since the 1990 Sandinista defeat, and the mass movement has undergone a long retreat. The workers’ movement (organized unions) has been devastated and reduced mainly to the public sector unions, the Farm Workers Association, and the traditional craft unions in the building trades. These setbacks are the main reason why it has proven so difficult to defend the historic program of the FSLN – an anti-imperialist and pro-socialist perspective – from defeatist and pro-capitalist currents.

Origins of the MRS

The first significant break of Sandinista currents from the FSLN occurred in 1995. It was led by Sergio Ramírez, the former Sandinista Vice-president and internationally renowned writer, and Dora María Téllez, the legendary woman guerilla leader and former Sandinista Minister of Health. They had the support of a majority of FSLN deputies in the parliament that followed upon the 1990 electoral defeat.

During the transition process, this current made their own pact with then-President Chamorro to try to guarantee stability to her government. This course was opposed by left-wing currents in the FSLN (eventually grouped around the Democratic Left current led by Mónica Baltodano) and eventually by Daniel Ortega. The Ramírez-Téllez wing of the party was defeated at the 1995 congress and subsequently split to form the Sandinista Renewal Movement (MRS), a separate party.

In political terms, this was a split to the right, particularly with respect to international issues such as relations with the United States and revolutionary Cuba. One of this current’s documents in the FSLN congress debate actually said that blame for the Contra war with the U.S. fell on the FSLN itself, for having aligned with Cuba and the USSR in the cold war.

Following the split, MRS policies were almost indistinguishable from those of the FSLN. The MRS was completely marginalized in both the 1996 and 2001 national elections, and also in the most recent municipal elections, in which the FSLN won most of the urban centers of the country.

The FSLN-PLC pact

In 1999, the FSLN signed a power-sharing pact with the PLC (Constitutional Liberal Party), then the pro-imperialist party with most seats in the National Assembly and control of the presidency. The pact, which was strongly opposed by Washington, sparked the formation of a breakaway group from the PLC – the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN). The new party was led by capitalist and traditional oligarchic elements in the country (including the powerful Pellas family and the newspaper La Prensa).

A key issue in the ALN split was opposition to Arnoldo Alemán’s ongoing control of the PLC. The former president is now technically serving a 20-year prison sentence for corruption and money laundering during his administration. But thanks to the pact and to outgoing president Enrique Bolaños’s own agenda, Alemán has been allowed to serve his time under house arrest in his luxurious country estate and is free to move about Managua, the capital city.

Alemán’s agreement with the FSLN was designed to assure him immunity from prosecution in return for a constitutional change that would lower the electoral bar of minimum votes necessary to win the presidency from 45% to 35%. The pact also entailed a division of posts in the Supreme Court and other state entities between the PLC and the FSLN. Alemán is still waiting for his pardon, a move that only the President, the National Assembly, or the Sandinista judges who handled his trial can make. Both outgoing president Bolaños and Daniel Ortega have preferred to keep Alemán on this leash in order to extract successive concessions from the PLC. Alemán’s fate is one of the big prizes up for grabs in the interparty negotiations to determine which forces will take the reins of the National Assembly.

MRS regroupment

Many sectors in Nicaragua also expressed strong opposition to the FSLN-PLC pact, including the MRS; left-wing elements within the FSLN, especially the Democratic Left current; and a large part of what is misnamed “civil society” – non-governmental organizations, faith-based organizations, and other advocacy groups.

The main result of the pact, however, was to deepen divisions within the traditional right-wing forces in Nicaragua.

The strong stand of the MRS against the pact, combined with its ongoing identification with Sandinista traditions, enabled it to become the core of a new alliance that involved significant forces who left or have been expelled from the FSLN because of their opposition to the pact and to the undemocratic regime within the party.

Last year, the popular former Sandinista mayor of Managua, Herty Lewites, attempted to win the FSLN nomination for president, in opposition to Daniel Ortega’s determination to run again after three successive electoral defeats. Ortega and the national directorate of the FSLN responded with great hostility, ultimately expelling Lewites and Victor Hugo Tinoco (former General Secretary of the Sandinista Foreign Ministry) despite years of close relations between them and Ortega.

A new Sandinista opposition

In response to this, a range of former leaders and members of the FSLN formed a new Movement for the Rescue of Sandinism (MpRS). They include three former comandantes of the revolution – Henry Ruíz, Victor Tirando, and Luis Carrión.

Later the forces of the Democratic Left current, led by Baltodano and Julio López (former head of the international relations department of the FSLN), left the FSLN and affiliated to the MpRS. This enlarged group then joined forces with the MRS to form the MRS alliance, using the MRS’s legal status to run in the elections. The MRS alliance subsequently attracted other forces, including the Nicaraguan Socialist Party, the Citizens’ Action Party, the Autonomous Women’s Movement, and the Ecology Party.

The MRS alliance electoral base is largely middle class and is concentrated in Managua, and in Carazo and Masaya provinces (south and southeast of the capital). They gained 50,000 more votes for their parliamentary slate than for their presidential candidate. The explanations for this gap offered by MRS spokespersons are instructive. They say that their presidential ticket lost votes both to Ortega and to Montealegre of the openly pro-imperialist ALN. Some of those 50,000 odd voters cast their ballots for Ortega as a way to defeat Montealegre, while others voted for Montealgre as a way to do in Ortega. Voting for Montrealegre is a strange way, indeed, to affirm one’s affinity to Sandinista traditions and values!

As a result of these developments, Sandinista forces find themselves separated into two bitterly hostile alliances, each of which has abandoned the FSLN’s historic anti-capitalist program.

Sorely needed now and in coming struggles is a fundamental discussion of the way forward for Nicaragua’s workers and farmers, indigenous peoples, women, and the younger generation – las grandes mayorías, as Sandinistas often put it.

  • Is the historic program of FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca still valid in its thrust and aim, or does Nicaragua have to settle for crumbs under the table of imperialist opulence?
  • Does Bolivarian Venezuela offer a road forward for Latin America?
  • Do Bolivia and the MAS party there open a path for indigenous people across the continent, or is the cause of the indigenous people, as many ex-Sandinistas argue, doomed to defeat?
  • Can we in Nicaragua support a Bolivarian option for other Latin American countries, while caving in here to the notion that Nicaragua is an exception, a tiny country with no option but to remain on Washington’s leash?

Now that the elections are over, electoralism will have to give way to concrete discussions to respond to the demands of each and every sector of the exploited and oppressed. There is no way that these big questions can be avoided, no matter what the organizational framework of the discussion – FSLN, MRS, or broader.