I belong to that 1980s generation that enthusiastically welcomed and actively supported the Sandinista Revolution. The progressive drive which had been revived by Cuba’s 1959 revolution had been largely brought to a halt by the US imperialist intervention. The forceful establishment of military dictatorships in Brazil in 1964 and in Argentina in 1976, Che Guevara’s death in Bolivia in 1967, and Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup against Salvador Allende were the most visible signs that the American sub-continent was doomed to be the US backyard, subjected to the large multinationals and the national elites that connived with them. In short, the sub-continent was barred from conceiving of itself as an ensemble of inclusive societies primarily focused on the interests of their vast impoverished majorities. The Sandinista revolution heralded the emergence of an auspicious counter-current, its significance stemming not only from the very concrete transformations it brought about (unprecedented popular participation, agrarian reform, a UNESCO award-winning literacy campaign, a cultural revolution, the establishment of a public health service, etc.) but also from the fact that all this was carried out under the difficult circumstances of the extremely aggressive blockade imposed by Ronald Reagan, which combined the economic embargo with the infamous financing of the “contras” and the fomenting of the civil war. Equally significant was the fact that the Sandinista government maintained the democratic system. This in turn led to the end of the revolution, with the victory, in 1990, of the opposition bloc, whose ranks included Nicaragua’s communist party.
In the years that followed, the Sandinista Front, with Daniel Ortega always at its head, lost three elections. It regained power in 2006 and has maintained it to this day. In the meantime, Nicaragua, like all of Central America, stayed off the radar not just of international public opinion but of the Latin American left itself. But then, last April, the social protests and the violent repression with which they were met caught the world’s attention. There have been dozens of deaths caused by the police forces and the militias backed by the government party. The protests had been initiated by university students and were aimed at the government’s dismissive handling of the ecological catastrophe caused by fire and by illegal deforestation and invasion in the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve. They were soon followed by protests against the reform of the social security system, which imposed severe cuts in pensions as well as additional taxes on workers and employers alike. The students were then joined by the unions and other civil society organizations. Faced with the protests, the government withdrew its proposal. But the country was already afire with indignation against the violence and repression and outraged at many other dark aspects of Sandinista rule, which in the meantime had become better known and begun to be criticized in a more open manner. The Catholic Church, which since 2003 had “reconciled” itself with Sandinism, once again distanced itself and accepted to mediate the social and political conflict, under certain conditions. There was a similar distancing on the part of Nicaragua’s business bourgeoisie, to whom Ortega had offered fat deals and favorable conditions in exchange for political loyalty. The future looks uncertain, and this violence-ridden country may still suffer a new bloodbath. Opposition to Orteguismo runs across the entire political spectrum, but – as is the case with other countries (like Venezuela and Brazil) – it only generates unity with regard to overthrowing the regime, as opposed to actually creating a democratic alternative. All the evidence suggests that there will be no peaceful solution unless the Ortega-Murillo presidential couple resign and free and transparent early elections are called.
Democrats in general, and the political forces of the left in particular, have reason to be perplexed. But before anything else they have the duty to re-examine the recent choices of the supposedly left-wing governments of many countries in the continent and to question their silence in the face of so many and so drawn- out abuses of political ideals. That is why the present text is partly self-critical. What lessons can be learned from what is happening in Nicaragua? Pondering the hard lessons listed below is the best way of showing our solidarity toward the Nicaraguan people and expressing our respect for their dignity.
Lesson number one: spontaneity and organization. Social protests and violent repression have been a factor in rural areas for a long time now, and yet national and international public opinion have never manifested themselves. Thus there was general surprise when the protests first erupted in Managua. This was a spontaneous movement based on the social networks which the government had recently promoted by making free internet access available in the country’s parks. The young university students – the grandchildren of the Sandinista revolution, who until then had seemed alienated and politically apathetic – mobilized to demand justice and democracy. The hitherto unthinkable alliance between the countryside and the city seemed all but natural and the civic revolution took to the streets, organizing peaceful marches and putting up barricades that spread to as many as 70 percent of the country’s roads. How is it that social tensions can accumulate without being noticed, so that when they suddenly explode everyone is caught by surprise? Certainly not for the same reasons that volcanoes give no prior warning. Can national and international conservative forces be expected not to take advantage of the mistakes made by left governments? What is the explosion point for the social tensions caused by right-wing governments in other countries of the continent, such as Brazil and Argentina?
Lesson number two: the limits of political pragmatism and of the alliances with the right. Beginning in 1990, the Sandinista Front lost three elections in a row. A faction of the Front led by Ortega concluded that the only way for it to return to power was by establishing alliances with its opponents, including those that had most viscerally opposed Sandinismo – the Catholic Church and major business leaders. In the case of the Catholic Church, the rapprochement began in the early 2000s. For much of the revolutionary period Cardinal Obando y Bravo remained a fierce opponent of the Sandinista government and an active ally of the contras, calling Ortega a “dying viper” throughout the 1990s. Still Ortega had no qualms about approaching him, and in 2005, when he married his long-time partner and current Vice President of the country, Rosario Murillo, he even asked him to officiate at their wedding. Among many other concessions to the Church, one of the first laws of the new Sandinista government, dating from as early as 2006, was a total ban on abortion, even in case of rape or of the life of the pregnant woman being at risk. This in a country where violence against women and children is rampant. The rapprochement between the government and the economic elites was effected through the submission of the Sandinista program to neoliberalism, the deregulation of the economy, the signing of free trade agreements, and the establishment of public-private partnerships that gave fat business deals to the capitalist private sector at the expense of public funds. There was also the agreement with Arnoldo Aleman, the conservative former president and large owner, once considered one of the ten most corrupt heads of state in the world.
These alliances have brought a measure of social peace. It should be pointed out that in 2006 the country was on the brink of bankruptcy and that the Ortega policies helped economic growth. However, that was a typical case of the neoliberal recipe for growth: a great concentration of wealth, export products (notably coffee and meat) totally dependent on international prices, increasing authoritarianism in the face of the social conflicts caused by the expansion of the agricultural frontier and by the megaprojects (e.g. the Chinese-backed Grand Interoceanic Canal), and the uncontrolled increase in corruption, starting with the political elite in government. The social crisis was only mitigated by Venezuela, whose generous aid in terms of donations and investment became a significant part of the state budget and made possible a number of compensatory social policies. The situation was bound to explode as soon as international prices fell, in the event of a change of economic policy in the main destination of Nicaraguan exports (the US), or in case Venezuela’s support eventually dried up. That is exactly what happened over the last two years. Meanwhile, once the orgy of favors was over, the economic elites distanced themselves from Ortega, who became more and more isolated. Can a government continue to claim to be left-wing (and even revolutionary) in spite of its obeying the ideals of neoliberal capitalism, with all the conditions and the consequences it entails? To what extent do tactical alliances with “the enemy” become one’s second nature? Why do alliances with the various forces on the left always seem to be harder to achieve than the alliances between the hegemonic left and the forces on the right?
Lesson number three: political authoritarianism, corruption and de-democratization. The policies pursued by Daniel Ortega and his faction created major divisions within the Sandinista Front and drew the opposition of other political forces and of the civil society organizations whose ideological and social matrix, as well as the will to resist, had been shaped in the 1980s in the context of Sandinismo. Women’s organizations have played a leading role in this regard. It is a known fact that, given how it exacerbates social inequalities and generates unfair privileges, neoliberalism cannot survive except through authoritarianism and repression. That was the Ortega way. And he did resort to all means available, including cooption, the suppression of domestic and outside opposition, monopolization of the media, constitutional amendments to ensure indefinite re- election, instrumentalization of the judicial system, and the establishment of repressive paramilitary forces. The 2016 elections were a clear reflection of these developments, and the victorious slogan “a Christian, socialist and solidarity- based Nicaragua” barely disguised the deep fractures in Nicaraguan society.
There was something pathetic, albeit unsurprising, in the way in which political authoritarianism went hand in hand with the growing patrimonialisation of the state. Thus the Ortega family has amassed wealth and shown a desire to perpetuate itself in power. Are authoritarian temptation and corruption a deviation or are they a natural outgrowth of governments with a neoliberal economic agenda? What imperial interests could explain the ambiguity of the OAS (Organization of American States) vis-à-vis Orteguismo, in total contrast to its radical opposition to Chavismo? Why is it that much of the left in Latin America and throughout the world remained (and remains) complicitly silent? For how long can the memory of revolutionary achievements cloud the ability to denounce the perversities that ensue, so that almost invariably the denunciations arrive too late?
Published in Jornal de Letras, Artes e Ideias, July 4, 2018