Why Nicaragua Chose Ortega


Daniel Ortega’s re-election as president of Nicaragua on 6 November last year was only mildly disputed: the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) candidate had won 62.46% of the votes. Fabio Gadea of the Independent Liberal Party (ILP) had won 31%. At a noisy but peaceful protest near the Supreme Electoral Council in Managua, Gadea claimed he had polled 62%, and told the crowd: “We want to see this election declared void and held again, in the presence of international observers.” His message was for foreign consumption; it fell flat in Nicaragua. The organisers had expected 100,000 demonstrators but no more than 10,000 turned up.

Maria López Vigil, editor of the political magazine Envío, calls herself a Sandinista, but opposed to the government. She told me Gadea’s claim of 62% lacked credibility (before the election, polls suggested he would win around 30%): “There was probably no outright winner; I don’t know whether Ortega was a little ahead of Gadea, or whether Gadea was a little ahead of Ortega. There were so many irregularities…” Sofia Montenegro, director of the NGO Centre for Communications Research (Cinco) said simply: “Ortega is a dictator.” What did she dislike about him? “Everything.”

Former allies now rivals

Nicaraguan politics are not clear-cut, and the traditional left/right divide is complicated by rivalries between former allies.

After overthrowing the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979, the FSLN fought the Contras (counter-revolutionaries backed by the US) through the 1980s. The conflict drove the country to financial ruin. At the 1990 parliamentary elections, the Nicaraguans faced a difficult choice: if they voted for the Sandinistas, the war might never end. More from exhaustion than conviction, they decided to allow the right back in by electing Violeta Chamorro.

This was a shock for the FSLN, which had not expected to lose power, and it was suddenly split by internal disputes. After years of guerrilla war against Somoza, then fighting the Contras, it had necessarily become a centralised and vertically integrated party, with no tradition of debate. Now there was peace, some in the FSLN wanted change. In 1994, the “orthodox” faction, led by Ortega, won the day. Many party leaders and artists resigned; others were unceremoniously ousted. This led to the emergence, in 1995, of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), founded by former vice-president Sergio Ramírez and former revolutionary leader Dora María Téllez. Since then the Ortega clique has been accused of caudillismo (behaving like warlords), of authoritarianism and of having “privatised the FSLN”.

This (widespread) view of events suggests the FSLN had lost its way. The truth is more complicated.

The Sandinista veterans’ organisation has modest offices in San Judas, a working-class district of Managua. There I met Mario José Cienfuegos, a member of the guerrilla forces during the Somoza years, then of the FSLN’s shock troops against the Contras. “The day after our defeat in 1990,” he recalled, “we summoned Ortega. He came alone, without an escort. He wasn’t important any more — justComandante Daniel; that made a big impression on us. After a lot of talking we decided we had to go on fighting to regain power.” Orlando Núñez, Ortega’s adviser on social affairs, completed the picture: “All this coincided with the collapse of the Soviet bloc. A lot of people within the Front felt it had reached the end of the line. When they discovered bourgeois democracy, which they had never known under Somoza, they decided the FSLN’s model was obsolete.” Socialism and anti-imperialism had lost their raison d’être, and they felt the FSLN should be repositioned as a modern centre-left party. It was as much this ideological clash as the power grab by Ortega’s faction that led to the split.

“From then on,” Ramírez conceded, “Daniel showed great determination in the face of adversity. After the split … he was alone; he had no money, no party apparatus to back him. He set about visiting the barrios [urban neighbourhoods] and the pueblos [villages], gradually building up a following” (1). The rank-and-file Sandinistas did not abandon their leader, though following him called for courage.

In 1996 the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), led by Arnoldo Alemán, came to power with 51% of the votes. The US embassy had warned Nicaraguans that voting for Ortega would have dire consequences, and he won only 37.7%. The other parties suffered a complete rout: the MRS only scored 1.33%.

Until then, the FSLN had played the reconciliation game, courting its most ferocious former opponents: the Catholic Church and former rank-and-file members of the Contras, mostly peasant farmers. It went one step further by reaching out to the hard-line right wing of the PLC, with which it formed a “pact”. “Ortega sold his soul,” said political scientist Angel Saldomando. “When the neoliberals were stepping up their market reforms, dismantling the public sector or liberalising healthcare, the FSLN was trapped by the alliance and let them have their way. Over time, those who were willing to compromise came to dominate the party.”

It had to be done

Núñez explained it from the opposite point of view: “In parliament, we were a minority. But because of our influence among the people, our opponents had a clear desire, and the power, to destroy us. If we had not formed alliances, we might not have survived. The solution didn’t appeal to us that much, but it was a matter of the balance of power: if we were going to persuade the people to give us a majority again some day, we had to survive.”

The alliance allowed the FSLN to survive and — to the benefit of the corrupt President Alemán — ensured political stability, as the FSLN controlled the trade unions and had considerable influence with the police and the armed forces. But this pragmatic solution had a price. “It delegitimised the Front in the eyes of the world’s left; the stigma and the demonisation were very hard to bear,” said Núñez. “But it had to be done, so we did it.” In Nicaragua, the manoeuvre contributed to the alliance’s defeat at the 2001 general election.

Alemán was succeeded in 2001 by his former vice-president Enrique Bolaños of the Conservative Party. Bolaños’s government continued with privatisation, concentration of capital and structural adjustments, driving 46% of Nicaragua’s population into poverty and 15% into destitution. Deep rifts began to weaken the right after Bolaños had his predecessor jailed for embezzlement (2). The government was already going to have trouble preventing a swing towards the FSLN in 2006.

Backtracking on abortion

Then the PLC came up with a proposal to make abortion illegal, even for women whose lives were at risk or who had been raped. The Catholic and Evangelical churches orchestrated a campaign to put pressure on candidates. Once again, political necessity superseded all other considerations and, to avoid alienating the Church, the FSLN backed the proposal. Cinco’s director Montenegro, a co-founder of the Autonomous Women’s Movement (MAM), was still furious: “Abortion on medical grounds had been practiced in Nicaragua almost since independence. Even Somoza didn’t interfere with it. But Ortega has banned it because, whether genuinely or for political reasons, he’s become a Christian fundamentalist. As for his wife [Rosario Murillo], she’s a superstitious opportunist who talks about nothing but God and the Virgin Mary all day long.” This damaged the FSLN’s image among progressive movements around the world.

In 2006 Ortega was elected at the first round with 37.99% of the votes (3)

Under the slogan “Christianity, socialism and solidarity” he was re-elected in 2011 with a far higher proportion. During the campaign, Murillo had commented on the fact that a 12-year-old rape victim had given birth: “The birth of this child is a miracle… Let us thank God for this abundance of light, of faith and of love.”

One Sandinista I met said: “Our church is very conservative, and it’s still very powerful at grassroots level. Even when they don’t agree with it, people show it great respect. That’s a fact we have to accept. We don’t want to lag behind popular opinion, but we can’t be too far ahead of it either.” Lucy Vargas, an FSLN cadre in the Larreynaga district of Managua, said: “In many countries, abortion is not restricted, but they don’t look after women and children’s health, and many of them die. Here, we help women, if only by providing free healthcare.” However, the government doesn’t try particularly hard to enforce the law and if a pregnant woman’s life is at risk, the doctors in Nicaragua’s hospitals usually go ahead without asking for authorisation.

Ciudad Sandino is a dormitory town on the outskirts of Managua. Public opinion there was unanimous. Healthcare is free now, as are medicines and consultations with Cuban doctors — “our comrades in the Alba [Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America]. They will make home visits if you need them,” I was told. Education is free again: “We don’t pay a cent; the school provides daily snacks, a satchel, shoes, even a uniform for the poorest pupils.” A little grocery store was selling staples at subsidised prices: “They have rice, beans, oil, sugar… In the old days, you had to choose just one. A pound of beans was 18 cordobas [$1], now it’s only 8.”

While the right remained the right, and the MRS busied itself with speeches and writings glorifying “civil society”, the “national consensus”, “democratic civic identity”, “broad and pluralist alliances”, “governability” and “respect for institutions”, Ortega’s government launched 40 social programmes, coordinated by Murillo as a kind of “super-minister”.

“Don’t talk to me about the stuff they’ve been handing out,” said Saldomando. “You can you add it all up and call it a policy project, but it doesn’t really amount to anything.” That’s not the view of tens of thousands of poor Nicaraguans given 854,000 sheets of zinc by the government to mend their leaky roofs. Nor the view of Rosalia Suárez, one of the 80,000 female beneficiaries of the Zero Hunger plan who was given a cow, a pig and six hens: “My cow has already had two calves. I sell the milk we don’t drink, my children have eggs to eat… Before that, we had nothing.” Nor is it the view of the many women, including single mothers, who have used zero-interest loans to set up bakeries, small businesses sellingnacatamales (stuffed corn cakes) or tortillas, or establish cooperatives.

“The government has done the minimum — and only for those who support it,” said a Managua resident. “Those who disagree don’t get anything.” This kind of accusation is common, because of the involvement of the citizens’ power councils, a grassroots Sandinista organisation that plays a major role in the management of social programmes on the ground.

Nobody mentioned socialism

Yaira Mayorga used to live in the ruins of a building destroyed by an earthquake in 1972. She and 360 neighbours, nearly one-quarter of whom say they are “non-Sandinistas”, now have real homes: “Look at my beautiful house!” she said. The Dignified Housing scheme had been at work.

“I wasn’t a Sandinista, or anything,” said Rosario García. “I wasn’t interested in politics. But then I saw what the Comandante had done.” Walter Silva, a shopkeeper and peasant farmer, told me: “I voted Liberal, but they never gave us anything. ‘El Hombre’ [The Man], did a lot for us. After that, I changed my mind and a lot of my friends did too.” Conversions like these provide a much better explanation than election fraud for the FSLN’s leap from 38% in 2006 to 62.46% in 2011.

Nobody mentioned socialism. Foreign investors and organisations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank cannot fault the way Nicaragua has been governed over the last five years. The private sector — which includes some very rich Sandinista entrepreneurs, among them Ortega — has been favoured. It has even been able to take advantage of the government’s strategic decisions: by joining Alba and turning to South America, the government has opened up new markets. In structural terms, the country hasn’t changed but, significantly, the government has revised Nicaragua’s national priorities. Huge amounts of aid from Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela — the “orthodox, sterile, reactionary and authoritarian pseudo-left” that makes the MRS’s blood boil — have boosted the FSLN’s social programmes.

Edmundo Jarquín won 6.29% of the votes in 2006, as an MRS candidate. For the 2011 elections, he allied himself with Gadea, the ILP candidate. Gadea — who is very conservative and a former leader of the Contras in Costa Rica — was actually lending his name to Eduardo Montealegre, a banker and formerly a minister under Alemán and Bolaños. Montealegre too had lost to Ortega in 2006 (he won 28.30% of the votes). Because he had been implicated in a financial scandal, he would have had difficulty in standing again and had no inclination to, since defeat was a foregone conclusion. López Vigil admitted before the election: “The ILP-MRS alliance is not based on a shared social project, programme or ideology. Its sole purpose is to stop the dictatorial tendencies of the FSLN and Ortega.” Exhausted by 16 years of neoliberalism (1990-2006), most Nicaraguans made their choice: they are happy for Ortega to carry on as he has been doing.  

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