Nicaraguan Voters Rebuff Imperialism

Vote for Ortega Shows Identification with 1979 Revolution

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 2 of this two-part article, see “Nicaragua: the FSLN’s Evolution Since 1990.”

Nicaragua’s Sandinistas will never forget Sunday night, November 5, and the four days of street celebrations that followed. The first official results of the election came in around 11 pm. They foretold that Daniel Ortega, presidential candidate of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), would win on the first round. Partisans of the Sandinista movement, which led the popular revolution of 1979, had waited 16 long, trying years for this day, ever since the Sandinista government went down to bitter defeat in February 1990.

Across the country, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in jubilation. The celebrations went on for days, until it was clear that all the main political forces contending the election, especially Washington, would accept the FSLN victory. In towns and cities across the country, people danced, chanted, and mobilized to express their determination that no one should deny them their victory. Faced with this popular outpouring, the U.S. and their cronies here backed away from their initial efforts to question the legitimacy of the vote.

Assurances to imperialism

The mood of these celebrations was rather different from that of Ortega’s campaign, which sought to distance itself from the heritage of the Sandinista revolution.

To win more support, the FSLN formed a broad convergence of political forces, baptized as United Nicaragua Will Triumph (Unida, Nicaragua Triunfa). It included capitalist politicians from other parties, ex-contras (the name given to the counter-revolutionary forces organized and supplied by the U.S. to make war against the 1979 popular revolution), and the Miskito indigenous peoples’ party YATAMA (based in the Caribbean Coast Autonomous Regions).

Ortega’s running mate for vice-president was Jaime Morales Carazo, former chief negotiator for the contras and longtime wheeler-dealer of the PLC (Constitutional Liberal Party), a traditional bourgeois party. The program of this alliance was packaged as “Government Program for Reconciliation and National Unity.” Ortega pledged to keep Nicaragua in the U.S.-sponsored Central American Free Trade Agreement and to abide by Nicaragua’s international commitments to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He also assured the business sector than his “national unity” government would fully respect private property and would block any moves towards land occupations.

The FSLN leadership emphasized its rapprochement with Cardinal Obando y Bravo and new, warm relations with the Catholic Church. The church hierarchy exacted a high price for their embrace – FSLN support for a new law banning therapeutic abortion (performed when the pregnant woman’s life is in danger; women have had this right in Nicaragua since 1891). Both Daniel Ortega and his wife (and campaign manager) Rosario Murillo have recently become outspoken advocates of the Catholic faith and they suffused their electoral appeal with religious themes and symbols.

Nonetheless, the FSLN proposed to involve Nicaragua in such Latin American-wide efforts as the Venezuelan-sponsored ALBA (an institution that champions fair economic and social relations among its members). Ortega used the campaign to condemn “savage capitalism,” calling on voters to oust the national oligarchy from power and elect a “government of the poor.” The theme song of the campaign was John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” with modified Spanish lyrics – “all we are asking is jobs and peace.” The main official slogans were “By voting FSLN you win,” “FSLN, a preferential option for the poor,” and “Reconciliation, Peace, Jobs, Wellbeing.”

That was enough to provide Sandinista voters with an opening to deliver a message.

Message from the masses

Although the FSLN alliance chose pink as its election color, every rally evidenced a sea of red and black flags – the colours of Augusto Sandino (the revolutionary national hero of Nicaragua), the long struggle of the FSLN, and of the 1979 revolution – in the hands of enthusiastic supporters. And everywhere they chanted “The people united will never be defeated!”

The election outcome was a telling blow to the U.S. and pro-imperialist forces here. Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia – among other anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist forces across Latin America – immediately hailed the FSLN victory.

Final results showed that Ortega won the presidency with 38% of the vote, well above the criteria for a first-ballot victory (35% of the vote and a minimum 5% lead over the runner-up).

Four other party alliances contended the elections: the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN – backed by Washington); the PLC (controlled by former president Arnoldo Aléman); the Sandinista Renewal Movement (MRS); and the Alternative for Change Alliance (AC) led by former Contra leader Eden Pastora. The ALN won 28.3%, the PLC 27.11%, the MRS 6.3%, and the AC 0.29%. Results for deputies to the National Assembly and the Central American Parliament were similar.

The election left no doubt that the incoming administration is a minority force in the country. Daniel Ortega and the FSLN caucus will have to negotiate with other parties in the National Assembly to carry out their policies.

U.S. meddling

The U.S. government, the imperial ambassador in Managua (Paul Triveli), and the U.S. Republican Party fought hard to block Ortega from taking the presidency. They missed no occasion to warn Nicaraguans of the dire consequences of failing to back their candidate, Eduardo Montealegre of the ALN. Their intimidation crusade included threatening to block migrant family remittances on which Nicaragua is now economically dependent, tourist advisory warnings, and efforts to cudgel the two pro-imperialist parties – PLC and ALN – into unity. The U.S. even withdrew visas from recalcitrant leaders and members of the PLC. Millions of dollars flowed from the U.S. to grease the wheels of a vicious anti-Sandinista campaign.

Despite this intimidation, the Sandinista movement improved slightly on its traditional core vote of around 41%-42%. But Sandinista support was now divided between two electoral alliances: FSLN and MRS. The dissident Sandinista alliance – the MRS – won fewer votes than expected (6% of the presidential vote; and up to 14% for their parliamentary candidates in some provinces). Nonetheless, Sandinistas entered and emerged from the elections as a divided force.

The MRS alliance was formed through a convergence of forces who left the FSLN in splits or expulsions since 1995 with other political currents such as the old Nicaraguan Socialist Party (PSN, once the pro-Moscow force here).

The MRS candidate was Edmundo Jarquín, a former official of the Interamerican Development Bank (BID) who had served as Nicaraguan ambassador to Mexico under the former Sandinista government. The MRS had originally nominated Herty Lewites, the popular Sandinista mayor of Managua. Lewites died last July, and was replaced by Jarquín, his running mate. The immensely popular Nicaraguan musician, singer, and composer Carlos Mejía Godoy ran as vice-presidential candidate.

Sandinista “renewal”

The MRS campaign distinguished itself from the FSLN mainly in terms of a shrill and relentless attack on Daniel Ortega. It condemned Ortega for corruption and totalitarianism, for the FSLN’s 1999 pact with the PLC, and for allegedly accepting support from Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. The MRS alliance accepted money from the U.S. Republican Party to train its electoral workers and met with visiting U.S. senators. It accepted without protest the U.S. characterization that it was an “acceptable democratic alternative” to the “anti-democratic pact” parties – the FSLN and the PLC. The MRS leader and other candidates seemed to believe that this seal of approval from Washington would somehow help their cause.

The MRS refused to pledge support to the FSLN in the case of a second-round vote – which cost it the support of some Sandinistas.

The MRS Alliance contains a current, the Democratic Left led by Mónica Baltodano, that has articulated the need for a socialist alternative for the Americas. Baltodano and her cothinkers joined forces with the MRS as a tactical move to help advance that perspective. However, the MRS Alliance itself shied away from any identification with anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist policies, maintaining a center-liberal orientation that remains programmatically indistinguishable from the FSLN, except on the important question of women’s right to therapeutic abortion services.

Many observers from the national and international left have noted that there was really no “left” option in the Nicaraguan elections. This is a valid appreciation if “left” is taken to mean pro-socialist. However, the combined FSLN-MRS vote indicates that a significant 44% of the population continue to identify with the heritage of the Sandinista revolution and used the elections to express defiance of imperialist arrogance and power. Even PLC voters expressed indignation over U.S. attempts to sideline their party.

Formidable challenge

The incoming Ortega government and the FSLN are now faced with formidable challenges. They will take over the reins of an impoverished country.

When the pro-U.S. coalition defeated the FSLN in a national election in 1990, both international and national capitalist pundits predicted that Nicaragua would grow economically and would soon overcome the devastation and hardship brought on by eight years of the U.S.-orchestrated Contra war. But the new order inflicted even worse on the country. Since 1990, two million people have joined the ranks of the poor. Four of every five Nicaraguans (more than 4.2 million people) live on less than two dollars a day. Fifteen percent of the population migrated to the U.S., Costa Rica, and other Central American countries in search of work. As the country’s principal export, these mainly young workers sent over $1 billion last year in remittances to their families here. The country is now dependent on those payments and on international donations and loans.

Illiteracy, which the 1979 revolution had managed to reduce to less than 13%, has now climbed to 34%. Expenditures in health, education, and other public services have declined; both the health and educational system are in tatters. In 1989, despite the economic embargo and devastation of the war, the Sandinista government invested $35 per person annually in health services. By 2005, health spending had declined to $16 per person

Although some economic indicators have turned positive in recent years, this has only increased concentration of wealth in the hands of the oligarchy and upper middle classes. According to the United Nations Human Development Report for 2005, the poorest 10% of Nicaragua’s population dispose of just 0.9% of the nation’s wealth in contrast to 44.7% consumed by the richest 10%. [Economic and social indicators cited in this article are taken from Oscar-René Vargas, Nicaragua: el fracaso neoliberal.]

During these years of defeat, Nicaraguan working people have been unable to mount effective resistance.

Nicaragua’s new president has appealed to both sides of the class divide in the country. He has assured the international “community” (read capital) and local bankers and oligarchs that they have nothing to fear from the incoming government. At the same time, he has maintained that he will carry out his commitments to Nicaragua’s poor and dispossessed classes.

Workers, farmers, indigenous people and the young expect a lot from the incoming government. They expect improvements in the education system and government support for a massive campaign to reduce illiteracy. People want access to improved and affordable health services. Farmers demand affordable credits to purchase necessary inputs and passable roads to get crops to market. People everywhere are demanding an end to repeated power cuts and to steep increases in water and electricity costs. They want to block privatization of water and return the electrical system to public ownership. More and more communities are demanding effective measures to protect their environment.

Several of the main unions of the country have put president-elect Ortega and the FSLN on notice that they will press ahead with the same demands they made against the outgoing government, most notably in the health and education sectors.

Women and human rights supporters both here and internationally will not let the incoming government sweep the issue of their right to therapeutic abortion under the rug of the Presidential Palace.

Indigenous people will continue to press for settlement of their communal land claims and to put teeth into laws guaranteeing real autonomy for the Caribbean Coast regions. They are watching closely events in Bolivia and are in touch with indigenous forces there. They are less likely than ever to accept yet another long postponement of their demands and permanent denial of their right to dignity and full participation in Nicaragua society. (The FSLN’s main ally on the Coast is the most influential indigenous party, YATAMA.)

With Venezuela or Washington?

The FSLN government thus faces some challenging questions:

  • How can Nicaragua both comply with the economic policies dictated by the IMF and backed by local capitalists, and make good on improvements in the standard of living of formal and informal workers, farmers, and marginalized sectors?
  • How can the incoming FSLN government both deepen its commitments to free trade with the U.S. and other Central American countries, and also bring the country into a framework of collaboration with anti-imperialist governments in Cuba, Venezuela, and elsewhere? Cooperation with Cuba will be vital in efforts to improve public health services. Nicaragua desperately needs to firm up agreements with Venezuela for cheaper petroleum products and oil, and to take advantage of its offer of long-term, low interest credit and even to accept payment with agricultural and other products. Venezuela already has such agreements with Cuba and other Caribbean and Latin American countries.
  • Will Nicaragua set out to reclaim its sovereignty and independence, or will it deepen its ties and dependence on U.S. imperialism?
  • Will it recognize the Peoples Republic of China, or maintain its ties with the imposter regime in Taiwan in return for more investments in tax-free sweatshop zones?

Already the FSLN have sent high-level delegations to Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and other Latin American countries. At the same time, high-level talks have been held with the IMF and the International Development Bank. U.S. ambassador Paul Triveli now says he is willing to talk with Ortega, and no doubt such conversations will take place – salami style, if Triveli gets his way.

Pro-imperialist forces in Nicaragua, not to speak of the Bush administration, are trying to block the FSLN from carrying out any aspects of an anti-imperialist policy, such as joining ALBA or making an oil deal with Venezuela. Prominent right wing commentators, politicians, and business leaders here have issued strong statements warning against such a course.

“Si se puede!”

The outcome of this tug-of-war depends not only on the will of the FSLN leadership or only on forces within Nicaragua. It also depends on how the coming confrontation between the U.S. and Venezuela plays out, how developments relating to Cuba unfold, and on wider international issues.

Nicaragua’s impoverished masses will have their say, too, in all this. The election has raised their hopes and inspired many with a new sense of confidence that “si se puede” (yes, we can do it).

Looking further down the road, it is clear that Sandinistas are challenged to reclaim our heritage, to find a way to recommit ourselves to the historic program of Carlos Fonseca, and to link up to a growing world-wide movement for socialism now being spearheaded by Venezuela and Cuba.

Whether the FSLN itself can be won back to this course cannot be foretold. Those committed to a socialist course will no doubt have different tactical approaches, particularly with respect to where to devote key forces – in the FSLN or the MRS, and/or elsewhere.

Our challenge is to find as many points of unity as possible in the daily struggles of workers, farmers, students, and women to defend and advance their rights. Sandinista renewal can be achieved only in ongoing struggle in defence of the class, ethnic, social, and national interests of the oppressed and exploited sectors of the population. These interests include the need to defend Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia against U.S. harassment and attack. Opposition to all imperialist wars like those being waged against Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine also forms a vital component of our ongoing struggle.

People feel that they have won a new opening in this election, the chance for a new course. That could become real. But only if we seize the opening and hold the new government to account. Business as usual is not an option for the poor, the jobless, and the oppressed. We keep on chanting Sandino vive, la lucha sigue! El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido! (Sandino lives, the struggle goes on! The people united will never be defeated!)