The Ortega Government and Opposition from within Sandinismo


The first two acts in January 2007 of the new Sandinista government of President Daniel Ortega were to end school fees, which restored free public education for the first time since Nicaragua fell under the sway of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank’s savage capitalism prescriptions in 1990, and to sign on as the fourth member of the Bolivarian Alternatives for Our Americas (ALBA) alternative trade framework.

The schools were promptly overwhelmed.  There weren’t enough classrooms and there weren’t enough teachers to handle all the kids whose parents had not been able to afford to send them to school under the neoliberal regimes that had run the government since the Sandinista electoral defeat of 1990.  Indeed, some of those parents had seen their own education cut short when the IMF mandated an end to government support for human needs.  The new Ortega government was criticized, even by Sandinista dissidents, because the school system couldn’t immediately absorb those who had previously had no education option at all.

Signing onto ALBA, which bases trade on cooperation rather than competition, opened the door for trade and aid with Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia, which resulted in a solution to Nicaragua’s chronic electricity shortages, free eye operations and increased access to health care for five million Nicaraguans, and reactivated the moribund peasant agriculture sector, always Nicaragua’s most productive sector, through loans and other inputs to small and medium farmers which had been eliminated under the previous three governments. Criticism from dissident Sandinistas for the Ortega government’s reliance on Venezuelan aid was immediate and continuous.

We need to consider recent history to understand the bitter, and increasingly violent, fights within "Sandinismo," the term now used to identify all groups whose origins are rooted in the struggle for national liberation from the Somoza dictatorship which was led by the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN). [Nicaraguans would begin this account in 1492 or before, but we in the US are accustomed to taking the short view of history!]

Beginning in 1994, the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN), which led the long struggle to overthrow the US-backed Somoza dictatorship, began to split based on class issues and Ortega’s authoritarian style of leadership.  Social Democrats left the party that year and formed the Sandinista Renovation Movement under the leadership of former FSLN Vice President Sergio Ramirez and historic combatant and former Health Minister Dora Maria Tellez.

Another faction, the Movement to Rescue Sandinismo, confusingly also called the MRS, broke from the FSLN at the beginning of the 2006 electoral season after their years of effort to democratize the party failed once and for all with the expulsion of former Managua Mayor Herty Lewites and National Directorate member Victor Hugo Tinoco. Lewites’ crime was to challenge Ortega for the FSLN presidential nomination and Tinoco was his campaign manager.  The "Rescue" MRS is comprised of what are called the ortodoxos, the socialist revolutionaries who were also the faction of the party most committed to democratic process. Its leadership includes Henry Ruiz, the legendary "Modesto" who led the guerillas in the mountains, Monica Baltodano, one of several women who led columns of troops in the war, and Tinoco, a diplomat who represented Nicaragua during the Esquipulus peace talks of the late 1980s.

The socialist revolutionary MRS and the social democratic MRS allied for the 2006 election behind Lewites, a businessman who had run guns to the guerillas and served as Minister of Tourism in the revolutionary government.  Their common ground was opposition to Ortega’s "caudillo" (strong man) leadership and what they called the "pact" between him and former president Arnoldo Aleman, the disgraced founder of the conservative, populist Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC). Their pact was to share the nodes of government power and to promote the FSLN and PLC as the only parties with strong enough bases to win elections.  Opponents of the pact within Sandinismo believed it to be immoral and undemocratic and proponents saw it as the only way that the out-of-power Sandinista party could protect some of the gains of the revolution.

The Nicaragua Network, the only US solidarity group which worked exclusively through official FSLN government channels during the 1980s revolutionary government, declined to make a choice between the parties of Sandinismo and instead launched an aggressive campaign to expose and oppose US government meddling in the 2006 presidential election, as we had done during previous elections.  US Ambassador Paul Trivelli admitted to a delegation I led in June 2006 that he had at least $12 million to spend on the election. The US-favored candidate was banker Eduardo Montealegre.  The MRS participated in poll watcher trainings paid for by the US-government funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and US Agency for International Development (USAID), the primary agencies of US efforts to elect Washington’s favored candidates in other countries’ elections.

MRS standard bearer, Herty Lewites, died in the midst of the campaign and was replaced by Edmundo Jarquin who had spent the years when the FSLN was out of power in Washington as a top official at the neoliberal Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).  His candidacy weakened the MRS bid to be an alternative to both the Liberal Party’s slavish devotion to the "Washington Consensus" of neoliberal policies and the FSLN’s authoritarianism.

On election day, the only place the MRS won any significant share of the vote was in the capital city of Managua where it won 200,000 votes.  The MRS won five seats in the 90 seat National Assembly.  Two of its elected candidates immediately defected to the FSLN leaving just three members of the MRS bench in the national legislature – two from the socialist revolutionary faction, Monica Baltodano and Victor Hugo Tinoco, and one social democrat, businessman Enrique Saenz.

There have since been several splits and merges among right-wing benches in the National Assembly, but that hasn’t affected the overall balance of power which requires some right-wing votes for the minority Ortega government to pass any legislation.  The three member MRS bench cannot provide the margin of victory for any of the larger parties.

The high emotions generated within Sandinismo by the electoral campaign did not abate with Ortega’s election as president with 38% of the vote.  Neither the MRS and its allies in the non-governmental organizations, nor Ortega’s FSLN reached out an olive branch to the other after the votes were counted.  Indeed, the presidential sash had barely settled on Ortega’s shoulders before the Civil Coordinator, a network of some 300 NGOs, was accusing him of accumulating dictatorial powers and objecting to the powerful role as government spokeswoman to which he assigned his wife, Rosario Murillo. Ortega, for his part, seemed to think the hands of time had turned backward erasing the previous 17 years and giving him a chance to lead a continuation of the Sandinista revolutionary government, this time without also having to fight the US-backed contra war.

While the FSLN has been able to reconcile with Catholic Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo and large segments of the contra leadership, it has been unable to reconcile with dissident Sandinistas, and they do not appear to be open to rapprochement even if it were offered.  This has placed the international solidarity movement, including the Nicaragua Network, in an increasingly untenable position.  Our own historical relationships have been more with the socialist revolutionaries than with the political pragmatists in Ortega’s camp, the so-called Danielistas.

Nevertheless, we have found much to praise in the Ortega government initiatives focused on poverty reduction and Latin American integration.  Yet, we aren’t Danielistaenough for the FSLN and our praise for the government initiatives we see as positive has earned us the distrust of our erstwhile friends.  There are few and lonely voices in Nicaragua calling for reconciliation within Sandinismo.  For this reason we focus primarily, as we always have, on providing information about Nicaragua to the US solidarity movement and on working to change US government policies that affect Nicaragua.

We have become increasingly disturbed and saddened by the escalating "war" within Sandinismo.  Neither side is blameless.  We condemned the recent violent break-up by Sandinista forces of an opposition march which included the MRS and some formerly Sandinista NGOs in the city of Leon. We also condemned an MRS banner and poster that appears to call for the assassination of Ortega.

I personally can understand the motivation of the Leon’s Sandinista rank-and-file who met the marchers with clubs and stones.  They lost their government in 1990 due to direct and massive intervention in the electoral process by the United States and by the accumulated weight of the US-directed contra war.  They played by the democratic rule book and gave up power.  This was followed by 17 years of economic misery that was in many ways more difficult to endure than the shooting war had been.  So many Nicaraguans gave their lives, their health, and their youth to throw off the yoke of dictatorship and US imperialism, only to see their gains taken away from them. They are determined not to let it happen again.

At least one of the groups that organized the march on Leon, the Movement for Nicaragua, was created and funded by the International Republican Institute (IRI), one of the core groups of the NED.  During my June 2006 delegation, the IRI representative we met with bragged, "We created the Movement for Nicaragua."  While state-sponsored political violence can never be countenanced because in most of the world it is progressive forces that suffer, it is not impossible to understand the motivations of the Sandinista rank-and-file.

For those of us who care deeply about Nicaragua and who feel guilt for the misery and indignities visited upon that poor country by the US government for generations, part of the problem is that the opposition to the Ortega government from within Sandinismo offers no recognizable political program other than its visceral hatred for Ortega.  At the same time, the NGOs that were formed by Sandinistas after the 1990 electoral defeat to work to preserve the gains of the Sandinista revolution from below, seem to have forgotten that they formed in the first place to maintain programs which had been the responsibility of the government.

Granted that the Ortega government should and could have shown more sensitivity and appreciation for the 17 years of labor by these activists, and could have collaborated better with organizations with long experience working with small farmers, but the NGO community should and could have shown more recognition that their missions are, in many cases, again the responsibility of a government that is committed to the welfare of the poor majority.

Alas, too many of them, I believe, have grown comfortable over the years thanks to their European funding and are now fighting over turf rather than principles. Others have clearly been co-opted, or at least drawn suspicion upon themselves by taking money from USAID and NED, the tools of US democracy manipulation strategy.  However, a fishing expedition by the Ortega government against NGOs has thrown its net too widely and has gathered up legitimate critics, with unassailable reputations, such as Alejandro Bendaña’s Center for International Studies and the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) along with those whose ties to the US government should be investigated.

On the political front, I am baffled by the MRS actions in the National Assembly.  The MRS pact with forces closest to the US government agenda is at least as odious as Ortega’s pact with Aleman.  In Ortega’s case he actually gained influence through the division of political spoils with Aleman.  The MRS, with a base that barely extends beyond intellectuals, has gained nothing while giving international credibility to those who grovel at Washington’s feet.  That is certainly not what they fought the dictatorship and the contras to achieve.

Daniel Ortega is a deeply flawed individual who is leading a government that is accomplishing truly remarkable things for the poor majority given that Nicaragua is still the second poorest country in the hemisphere and has been battered by increased oil and food prices practically since his first day in office.  Is he leading a revolutionary government that is picking up where it left off in 1990? Well, maybe where it left off, but certainly not where it began when it reflected the hopes and aspirations of much of the world.  But his government is acting out liberation theology’s "preferential option for the poor," and his foreign policy is contributing to Latin American integration and the creation of a multi-polar world.  Both are worthy of international solidarity support.

If there are opportunities for international solidarity to help our sisters and brothers within Sandinismo to reconcile and work together for the good of humanity, we should do so.  But, we should also recognize that there are few opportunities, especially for those of us from the center of the Empire, to play such a role.  In the meantime, we should continue to acknowledge and act upon our historical obligation to make reparations for past US government crimes against Nicaragua and support Nicaragua’s efforts to defend its sovereignty and right to self determination.  It is frustrating, but that’s how I see our role in this current moment in history.

[Chuck Kaufman is National Co-Coordinator of the Nicaragua Network and has been on its national staff since 1987.  The opinions expressed here are his own as the Nicaragua Network is a diverse network of local autonomous committees.]

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