Defying Attacks from the Right, FSLN Government Stays on Course

Nicaragua Today, Part Two

By Phil Stuart Cournoyer

Part one of this article appeared in on September 18. Phil Stuart Cournoyer is a Nicaraguan citizen and longtime member of the FSLN [Sandinista National Liberation Front (Sandinistas)]. He divides his time between Nicaragua and Canada.

MANAGUA — The unanticipated left turn of the newly elected Frente Sandinista government last January has polarized politics in Nicaragua. Ever belligerent, the White House is actively probing for ways to take advantage of the situation.

The threat of widening conflict has begun to pose the need to rebuild the solidarity movements that brought the Nicaraguan people such effective help during the U.S.- orchestrated “Contra war” two decades ago.

The new Sandinista government surprised every political current when it announced its anti-imperialist turn during last January’s Inauguration Day ceremonies. Since then, it has taken steps toward a more fair and just redistribution of wealth.

Its alliance with Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Iran caught right-wing forces here completely off guard. Their ideologues in the Liberal Alliance Party (ALN, led by Eduardo Montealegre, the U.S. embassy candidate for president) and the editors of the daily La Prensa (the traditional mouthpiece of the oligarchy) are evidently shocked and perplexed.

Almost every day, La Prensa savages the government and demands that the three opposition parties use their majority in parliament to “save the nation.” They claim President Daniel Ortega has betrayed his campaign pledge to support national reconciliation and delivered the country into the clutches of “that imperial despot” — Hugo Chávez. They never cease to caricature Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, as an odd pair who seek to prop up “one-family” government, violating national law and the constitution.

Arnoldo Alemán’s Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC) has responded more cautiously, with one leader often contradicting another. This reflects its loss of support from big national and international capital and Washington.

Sadly, the leadership of the MRS Alliance (often considered to be to the left of the FSLN) has joined the right-wing campaign, appearing as a caboose on the ALN train. The MRS Alliance says that Nicaragua risks being trapped between two “imperial” powers — the U.S. and Venezuela — and repeating the mistaken choice of allies that allegedly led to the U.S. war against the Sandinista government in the 1980s. They make the absurd claim that Chávez’s alleged “arrogance and interference” is equivalent to real U.S. imperial domination. And they have admitted to conducting negotiations with the extreme right-wing ALN to cobble together a common slate in the nation-wide municipal elections in November 2008.

The three opposition parties have a majority in the national assembly and have used it at critical points to block government initiatives. They all feel strong pressure to form a new triple alliance (some would say yet another pact) to shackle the FSLN legislative bench. But they offer no coherent and viable economic and social alternative to the government’s course. The opposition restricts itself to criticizing the government for its style and alleged totalitarian measures and tendencies.

By contrast, leaders of the COSEP (big business association) have advised right-wing politicians to tone down their attacks. Commenting on a July 19 speech by Ortega, much denounced by right-wing parties, COSEP leader Erwing Kruger said “For us what counts is that the speech called for mutual understanding…. We have to work hand in hand not only with the government but with other state powers.” He spoke of “a new vision on the part of business with the government, and the government with business.”

The Catholic Church hierarchy has also advocated a more cautious course, permitting Cardinal Obando y Bravo to head the National Reconciliation Commission. Its mandate is to aid demobilized soldiers from the national army and the “Contra” armed force.

Citizens’ Power Councils

To counteract its minority status in parliament, the FSLN has set up Citizens’ Power Councils (CPC), similar to Venezuela’s community councils. Organizers say that almost one million of the country’s five million people have been drawn into or around grassroots CPCs.

The CPC movement’s aim is build up new organs for participatory democracy to help people overcome the real limitations on rights and genuine freedom posed by ossified institutions of “representative democracy” such as the National Assembly and municipal councils.

In August the opposition parties passed a law that deprived the Councils of their legal foundation and state funding, but the president vetoed that law and the government continues to promote the council movement. It has served as a springboard for launching state-funded programs such as the new Zero Usury campaign. Ortega has instructed ministries and municipalities with Sandinista-led local governments to heed CPC decisions in their jurisdictions.

Secretaries and organizers have at times tried to build local CPCs in a top-down way, so many Councils consist mainly of FSLN supporters. To achieve their mission, the fledgling CPCs must try to encompass residents who may back other political parties, and especially those who do not identify with political parties (including a large part of our youth). Failure to be inclusive would lend credence to right-wing claims that the government intends to use the Councils to manipulate grassroots sectors, not empower them.

The clash of forces provoked by the return of the FSLN to power has also agitated the keenly nationalist and anti-imperialist Sandinista movement. It is a mass movement of about half a million people — workers, farmers, students, military and administrative personnel, small-scale farmers, housewives and single mothers, informal sector workers, etc. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) is the largest Sandinista party, now a powerful mass-based electoral force with a good grip on most municipal governments (and the most populous) in the country.

The FSLN still lacks a political culture of encouraging rank-and-file discussion of problems and prospects. The process of correction and improved performance is far from smooth. This is not new. It is one reason why the 1990 electoral defeat came as such a stunning surprise to FSLN and government leaders at that time — the flow of information back then was one-way, and top down. That situation, brought on by insurrectionary and wartime conditions, can hardly be said to prevail in today’s Nicaragua.

Tendencies in the Sandinista movement

The FSLN needs and wants to widen its base. Membership has declined significantly since the 1994 party census recorded 420,000 members across the country. This pattern of retreat and withdrawal at the grassroots level is related to a drop in union membership, loss of influence in middle class sectors, and declining influence in the rural areas. That trend may now turn around because of the impact of new government initiatives such as the Zero Hunger program, free health and public education, and low interest loans to small landholders and small business owners.

The FSLN strategy of alliances allowed it to win the presidential elections. One of the most important of its new allies is the Native Miskitu people. The FSLN’s nomination of former Contra leader Jaime Morales Carazo as vice-president aimed to link up with the sector of the peasantry that supported the Contras but then found themselves savaged by neoliberalism. The Vice-President’s move to the FSLN Unity and Reconciliation Alliance sparked sharper divisions and array among rightwing forces in the tow of the oligarchy.

Like any mass, multiclass and multiethnic party, the FSLN is not monolithic. There are different currents evident within the broad leadership and in secondary layers. The pattern of varied and sometimes counterposed class interests and ideologies in the Sandinista movement took shape over years of setbacks after the defeat of the revolution. For nearly two decades now a “me first, save my own skin” culture and morality has clouded social relations and political life. And the confusion felt by the whole international left following the collapse of the USSR reinforced negative and anti-solidarity trends within society, especially among youth. This environment underlies the persistent pattern of splits and withdrawal that gave rise to rival Sandinista initiatives.

Sandinista dissidents and cross-currents in the MRS Alliance

The main components of the MRS Alliance are two breakaways from the FSLN with similar names, the same acronym, and contrasting trajectories. The Sandinista Renewal Movement (Renovadora), led by Sergio Ramirez and Dora María Tellez, split from the FSLN in a rightward direction in 1995. The Sandinista Reclamation Movement (Rescate), whose leaders include historic comandante Henry Ruíz and comandante Mónica Baltodano, originated in the FSLN’s Democratic Left Current; they left the FSLN last year and formed an electoral alliance with the Renovation party.

Baltodano, a legendary Sandinista combatant who is now an MRS Alliance legislative deputy, attempted in a September 11 article to explain her caucus’s confusing performance since their poor electoral results last November.

In the elections, she wrote, the MRS failed to offer “an alternative proposal to the neoliberal governments, one prepared to break from subordination to the Washington consensus…. It was not interested in taking on the profile of a left force.” The MRS as a whole “stressed political-institutional changes in place of changing the model,” she said.

Baltodano contrasted the Recovery current, composed of “Sandinista fighters recognized for their left militancy … links and roots in grassroots sectors” with the Renewal grouping in which “those who call themselves centre-left dominate.”

Her article pulled back from the MRS’s broadside anti-government attacks. She highlighted the new government’s abolition of public school and hospital fees, provision of free medicine, and cash grants to the poorest families, as well as the benefits gained through the deal with Venezuela for a secure oil supply, low-interest credit to farmers, health programs, and construction of an oil refinery.

Perhaps Baltodano’s article signals that her current is shifting away from more center-right forces in the MRS alliance. That would be positive, and would aid in building national unity to counter mounting imperialist pressure. But she seems not to recognize the danger in the evolution of almost all currents in the MRS: a rapid retreat from Sandinista anti-imperialism and the historic program of the movement founded by Carlos Fonseca.

She pours cold water on Nicaragua’s role in the Venezuela-led ALBA initiative. The government “signed on to ALBA with enthusiasm, but were quite discreet about joining in on the proposal to build 21st Century socialism,” she observed. “They are not at all clear about real changes to be made to the national economy and the political system.”

This cautionary note would not be out of place if Baltodano had clearly supported Nicaragua’s entry into ALBA, and if the MRS Alliance had offered solid, viable alternative proposals for steering the economy. But no MRS-inspired current has done so. MRS economic and social policies dovetail with those of the government. Moreover, like many provincial politicians, MRS representatives tend to separate international and national issues — discussing and acting as if our country were a self-sufficient continent, not a dependent, historically oppressed country.

François Houtard, the well-known Belgian campaigner against capitalist globalization, wrote in the Managua daily El Nuevo Diario July 25 that the MRS’s positions “resort to an ethical discourse as a substitute for social analysis.” MRS policies, he said, rest on “well-defined opposition to all governmental programs and the new Latin American socio-political dynamic, classical theoretical positions of the new postmodern right throughout the world.”

Houtard’s current view is that the FSLN is “closest to being on the Left,” not the MRS party.

Ortega at the UN

At the United Nations on September 25, Daniel Ortega delivered a sweeping and eloquent denunciation of Washington’s wars of aggression, punishment, and occupation. Disregarding the pressure of the U.S. and its allies, he denounced their threats against Iran. Twenty-eight years after the Nicaraguan revolution, “the enemy remains the same, and it is called global imperialist capitalism,” he said.

“Today, what presents itself as the most exemplary democracy is a global, imperialist tyranny,” he argued. Referring to environmental destruction, he said that “now more than ever the survival of humanity is at risk; and global, imperialist and development-driven capitalism is to blame.” [See full text on the Socialist Voice Documents website]

This speech triggered intense political duels in Nicaragua, including a deeply disappointing performance by MRS Alliance deputies in the National Assembly. They helped to draft and signed, along with 45 or so other deputies from the two liberal parties, a bill that condemns the President for his “inflammatory” performance. The bill attacked only Ortega, saying nothing about George Bush’s belligerent speech at the same UN session.

Their preoccupation with electoralism and the enticements of alliances impede them from hearing how many people on the job or street and in poor barrios view Ortega’s performance and general conduct. One trend of thought, to which the MRS bends, is that Nicaragua is sticking its neck out too far — especially the increasingly vocal solidarity with Iran at a time when the U.S. is threatening war. But others say the speech should have been more focused on Nicaraguan and Central American problems, and not have tried to deal with the whole world. For example, many feel that Ortega should have denounced the wall along the U.S.-Mexican frontier, or the deportations of Central American and particularly Nicaraguan workers from the U.S., or unfair competition from U.S. farm produce in regional markets. Still others feel not enough attention was given to global warming and the phenomenon of floods and desertification now advancing in Central America and other parts of our planet.

With hindsight it is easy to imagine a better 20-minute speech. But many of the criticisms are relevant and far from unfriendly — unlike the National Assembly resolution denouncing Ortega’s anti-imperialist stance.

Black and Native support

The FSLN government, in alliance with the Native “Sons of Mother Earth” (Yatama) party on Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast region, is working to heal the wounds of decades of marginalization, racist neglect, oppression, and internal colonization in two regions in which Native and Black people had been a majority until recently.

This shift involves the inclusion of Native and Black leaders at ministerial and vice-ministerial levels of the central government, and more harmonious and respectful relations with the regional autonomous governments and authorities. Veterans of the struggle for Native land demarcation, such as the well-known Miskitu spokeswoman and lawyer Hazel Lau, have applauded new government moves to reaffirm traditional territorial land title and rights.

The government’s effective response to the devastation of Hurricane Felix is also winning support from east-coast communities traditionally distrustful of the Sandinista movement. (Donations to help hurricane victims rebuild can be made through

Twenty-two years ago Indigenous peoples found themselves pitted against the Sandinistas, and in some cases each other, in bloody conflict. Today, they are now co-operating and learning from one another and from the Sandinistas — Natives and non-Natives alike. This road leads to greater contact and interaction with the hemispheric Indigenous upsurge, above all in Bolivia and Ecuador.

Agenda for popular power

Nicaragua’s social fabric has been ripped apart by the mass migrations to the U.S. and other countries, mostly young people in search of a livelihood. Most of the population is caught in the daily struggle for bread and shelter. Despite encouraging signs of change, cynicism remains widespread among the poor, the urban middle classes, and the “educated” sectors.

This can change only through struggle, through mass involvement in grassroots movements and national efforts to bring about change. Campaigns around one or more of the following issues could make a good agenda for the Citizens’ Power Councils at all levels and regions.

  • Free, quality public health and education
  • Zero Hunger and Zero Usury
  • Spreading literacy
  • Ongoing aid and solidarity to Hurricane Felix victims
  • Specialized health services for women and girls
  • Restore a woman’s right to choose therapeutic abortion when her life is at risk
  • A livable minimum wage in town and country
  • Universal enforcement of Nicaraguan labor and safety laws
  • Full compensation by plantation owners to Nemagon (pesticide) victims
  • Support to the worldwide movement against capitalist-imposed globalization
  • Deeper, ongoing ties with the real alternative, ALBA
  • Solidarity with Indigenous peoples and the autonomous institutions on the Caribbean Coast
  • Solidarity with Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, with Cuba and Haiti, with Iran and Palestine, and above all with the millions of victims of the imperialist occupation of Iraq.

William Grigsby V., longtime Sandinista and director of Managua’s worker-owned Sandinista Radio La Primerisima, argues that grassroots people can and should take hold of the councils for popular power and shape them into a tool of participatory democracy. We can, he believes, break from the pattern of demoralization that has engulfed the country since the 1990 Sandinista defeat.

Pointing to problems created by many would-be careerists and office seekers, he says:

“They may sideline you, censure and take jabs at you again and again. No matter. You have to keep working from below…. Whoever has the opportunity should get involved with the CPCs. And if the secretaries impede our participation, whatever their motive, we have to make another CPC. And then we’ll see who has more people.”

Similar discussions and initiatives are taking place in Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and once again in Cuba, albeit in a very different context. Nicaraguans can look to other experiences to help overcome limitations in the process, just as we look to experiences in sister countries to gain pointers on questions of economic recovery and social programs. Operation Miracle and the Yo sí puedo Literacy Drive are both outstanding successes because they are the very breath of international solidarity and collaboration.

Let us hope that soon Nicaragua becomes once more what we were during the eleven year Sandinista revolutionary government — a centre of solidarity, a crossroads of new experiences, and a wellspring of lessons for here and abroad.