Against the Current, No. 26, May/June 1990
Dianne Feeley and
WITH HINDSIGHT WE can see how surprising it was that the Sandinistas—holding elections under conditions of such catastrophe that workers’ wages purchase roughly one-tenth what they did ten years earlier—could come anywhere near winning re-election.
Few governments in history have even held elections under those circumstances; none, to our knowledge, has survived the vote. The fact that the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) received 4l percent of the vote for president and holds 39 seats in the National Assembly—over the 40 percent needed to preserve Nicaragua’s Constitution—is a remarkable, if not miraculous, result. Precisely for that reason the United National Opposition (UNO) is contesting several of the FSLN seats.
Clearly the FSLN government won the war against the contras—but it couldn’t win peace. It pursued a policy of peace through tough negotiations with the Central American presidents, resulting in a number of difficult concessions. It extended a unilateral ceasefire time after time. But attacks on civilians con-tinned because the U.S. Congress voted to extend funding of the contras. And the Nicaraguan people needed peace.
It has been widely suggested, both by Sandinista supporters and by the victorious Violets Chamorro herself, that Daniel Ortega could have won if he had ended the military draft Such a step might have been taken had the FSLN realized the very grave political danger it was confronting.
Perhaps, too, the FSLN might have been less willing to accommodate to international bourgeois opinion by allowing the open flooding of the election with U.S. dollars from the Orwellian-named National Endowment for Democracy. It wasn’t particularly the $9 million, which in any case was supplemented by a healthy amount to covert CIA cash that swung the election. But the spectacle of such open North American interference being legally tolerated may have carried a crucial psychological message: the national dignity the Sandinistas were defending was already so deeply compromised it no longer seemed worth more years of terrible shortages and war.
But the Sandinistas—who as early as 1984 predicted that they would lose some municipal elections—did not recognize the possibility of this defeat It is small consolation that their expectation of an FSLN victory was shared by most pollsters, UNO, and by U.S. intelligence. The Sandinistas had become dangerously distanced from some important sectors of a desperately poor and increasingly unorganized population. This fact is indeed more significant than whatever tactical mistakes the FSLN made during the election campaign.
The climactic half-million strong Sandinista campaign rally four days before the election seemed at the time to ensure victory. Instead, as North American activist and election observer Kathryn Savoie put it, “Add up the votes in Managua, and you see that many people who attended that rally didn’t vote for the FSLN. People were undecided. They came to be persuaded by Daniel Ortega. He didn’t give them anything they needed, especially the end of the draft That may have been the deciding moment.”
The post-election response suggests that the election was not so much a vote for UNO but a protest vote: protesting the lack of peace, the lack of a living wage, a cry against certain bureaucratic abuses. A decade after the defeat of Somoza the revolution had been able to hold on to few of the social programs that characterized it from the first.
In the wake of the election, the Central America solidarity movement went into mourning for the Nicaraguan revolution. We share the sorrow, the deep shock of the FSLN’s electoral defeat and the intense anger over the sadistic and criminal “low-intensity conflict” waged by the rulers of the United States of America.
Within days of the defeat, however, both the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the movement in the United States were regaining their bearings. And it was the FSLN—not UNO—that was out in the barrios the day after the election, holding discussions and reorganizing.
Why An Election?
Some international supporters of the Nicaraguan revolution have argued that it was a mistaken policy to hold elections under conditions of counterrevolutionary strangulation, embargo, destabilization and ongoing contra terrorism.
While those who make this case are entirely correct in pointing out that genuine freedom of choice simply doesn’t exist for a nation and a revolution with the imperialists’ knife at their throat, we cannot accept their conclusion. On the contrary, it is our view that the Sandinistas’ willingness to face elections under the most difficult conditions reflected their confidence in the Nicaraguan people—without which confidence the imperialists’ project of destroying the revolution would be far easier.
In theoretical terms, the “no elections until revolutionary consolidation” argument seems to imply that elections themselves are a concession to the international class enemy, a diplomatic necessity and perhaps even an attractive “optional extra” for the revolution itself, but not to be risked while there is a serious danger of losing. Until the revolution is secure, its leaders must reserve the right to rule.
We believe this perspective is wrong in theory and in practice from a revolutionary Marxist standpoint As early as the Paris Commune in its moment of supreme danger, Marx and Engels opposed the idea that an emergency dictatorship be created within the Commune.
Democratic elections need not necessarily be parliamentary in character—if the revolution has created institutions of workers’ councils or all-embracing popular now organizations as the basis of the new state power, so much the better. In that case, democracy is more direct, because there is no division between the executive and legislative functions and those who vote also implement (And if they make mistakes, they don’t have to wait six years to correct them.)
But whether the context is parliamentary, as in Nicaragua since 1984, or a more direct mass revolutionary democracy, elections are themselves part of the praxis of revolutionary consolidation, not simply a ratification of it.
If anything, this democratic imperative may be greater for a revolution facing grave externally-backed dangers. No revolutionary leadership can succeed if it rules against the will of the majority of the people who must make the huge sacrifices that a revolution demands.
In practical terms, it seems clear to us that the often overlooked first free and democratic Nicaraguan election, in 1984, was important for precisely this reason. It gave the Sandinista leadership an internal legitimacy more important even than the international credibility it gained. U.S. imperialism could perhaps write the 1984 election out of history for some of the world, but not for the Nicaraguan people.
In the Nicaraguan case, those who argue against elections while the revolution remains in danger might as well admit that this would push elections back not by a year or two, which is admissible in principle, but indefinitely. It is not parliamentary fetishism to understand that such a policy would lead the revolution to extreme internal isolation, corruption and bureaucratic degeneration.
We think that some other criticisms of Sandinista policy are better grounded. It is particularly regrettable that only half of the small peasant families have benefited from land reform.
It is also unfortunate that the dynamism that characterized the mass popular organizations in the revolution’s first few years was spent in mobilizing against the contra war. This is particularly true for the barrio-based Sandinista Committees of Defense (CDS) and the women’s organization, AMNLAE. In a searching self-criticism the Sandinistas recognized that in their need to mobilize the country against the war, they had turned these grassroots organizations into top-down organizations. Although the FSLN committed some of its best cadre to the process of rebuilding them, this process was far from complete. Consequently, the poorest Nicaraguans were unorganized, voiceless, cut off from the FSLN.
The inability of the FSLN to understand the dynamics of the indigenous cultures of the Atlantic Coast region led to serious errors in the early 1980s. On this issue, too, the Sandinistas recognized their mistakes and creatively worked with the indigenous people to forge the autonomous Coastal region.
Critical observers from varying perspectives converge in pointing out, in the pages of this magazine and elsewhere, the FSLN’s weakness in providing incentives to the small-campesino sector to ensure a solid agricultural base. Early expectations of thriving large-scale state enterprise—and the Sandinista leadership’s more recent hopes that private agro-exporters would respond to generous material incentives—have both been disappointed.
The Sandinistas could have passed tougher laws regarding repatriation of profits so that the native capital with which they tried to cooperate and to which they offered so many generous incentives could not rob them blind. Nonetheless, the possibilities for investment and accumulation in a country that by the late 1970 was the third poorest in the hemisphere remain quite limited.
The fact is that the Nicaraguan revolution had very little margin to maneuver, there were severe obstacles impeding the FSLN from hammering out a balanced economic policy precisely because Nicaragua is a small agricultural country that buys and sells within the world market The price of its major agro-export products falls each year—a fact that is true for a vast number of Third World countries.
The Sandinistas knew that there was little possibility of a viable Nicaraguan economy. They saw the need for Nicaragua to be part of a Central American economy, and that is one concrete reason the FSLN put so much stake in helping—however they could—the revolutionary process in El Salvador. Although Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega signed the San Isidro accords under obvious duress, nonetheless FSLN support to the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) continued. For instance, during the FMLN offensive last November, a plane containing anti-aircraft missiles bound for the Salvadoran guerrillas took off from Nicaraguan airspace. Unfortunately it was downed by the Salvadoran military.
Supporters of the revolution have correctly emphasized that the Chamorro election is not a “triumph of democracy,” but rather of U.S. imperialism’s low-intensity conflict strategy. There’s another side of this reality: an authentic revolutionary process such as the Nicaraguan revolution can be gravely weakened, but not terminated, by these methods.
The United States has “won’ an election in Nicaragua, but it has not destroyed the revolution. That basic fact creates both opportunities and dangers in the coming period for the people of Nicaragua and their supporters around the world. “Don’t Mourn, Organize!” has never been more appropriate.
To destroy a revolution means much more than defeating the revolutionary government, in an election or a coup. It means wiping out the mass organizations of the revolution and eliminating people’s ability to defend their gains. The population must be demoralized or terrorized, to the point where the old ruling class (or a new one) can rebuild the structures of exploitation without effective resistance.
In Chile after the 1973 military coup, tens of thousands of unionists, popular organizers and ordinary workers were murdered. That cannot happen in the near future in Nicaragua, because in Nicaragua there was a revolution that destroyed the old army—unlike Chile, where a left-wing government was elected in 19)0, but left the capitalist state and especially its military apparatus untouched.
The one Sandinista “crime” that the United States would never forgive was the construction of the Sandinista Popular Army. The absence of a “non-partisan and professional” Nicaraguan army meant that the United States could not turn to a Nicaraguan Pinochet to overturn the revolution and slaughter the population.
Now the, incoming Chamorro government is mandated by its North American paymasters to restore the unchallenged political authority of Nicaraguan capitalists and landlords; to reverse the land reform, whether by armed force or by the bankrupting of the peasant families and cooperatives who benefitted from land distribution; to open the country wide for U.S. investment without any social, environmental or political restraints.
But there is no armed power in the hands of the Chamorro government to accomplish this, except possibly for the hated contras. Without such power it is difficult to dismantle the Sandinista unions and the farm workers union that will defend their members against the restoration of the old bosses’ authority.
This is why the future of the Sandinista army is crucial to the unfolding post-election political struggle. While the .army will certainly shrink, it remains a crucial source of protection (and a source of arms) for villages and cooperatives under contra threats, and for workers on the state farms who will face eviction or de-unionization when the Chamorro government attempts to sell off the state enterprises.
For its part the Chamorro government’s “reconstruction” program will mean an imported army of U.S. specialists to run the economic ministry, to reorganize the unions under the auspices of the American Institute for Free Labor Development, to create and perfect mechanisms of propaganda and repression so that there will be no hope of a revolutionary revival. the U.S. private sector, Domino’s Pizza owner and Catholic fundamentalist Thomas Monaghan has hatched a plan to finance the rebuilding of the National Cathedral, no doubt hoping that infusions of finance and evangelism from the North will destroy the power of the pro-revolutionary Christian Base Communities.
Some of the reactionary offensive will meet with success, given the right wing’s control of the government and the weakened state of the mass organizations. But without armed power to intimidate the population, the capacity of the reactionaries will be limited. What will happen to the contras and the Sandinista army?
Predictions are difficult, but one can envisage three scenarios: a determined maintenance of both the contra forces and the Sandinista army, leading toward a full civil war and near-certain U.S. military intervention; a merger of the contras into the army itself, opening the way for an extremely brutal repressive campaign against any remaining popular movement; or a compromise solution in which a substantial contra demobilization is accompanied by the shrinkage of the Sandinista army, with the officer corps remaining in place under a Chamorro-appointed defense minister.
The third option, in which some weakening of the Sandinistas in positions of authority “from above is exchanged for keeping a political and physical space for the popular movement, in which the Sandinistas can begin to act on their post-election pledge to rebuild and “rule from below,” is probably the best outcome for which the revolution can hope.
Such a compromise among Nicaraguans may be possible, if the danger of civil war seems too great, and especially if the domestic sentiment against U.S. military intervention gives the Chamorro forces and Washington reasons to fear they might be unable to guarantee a military victory for the counterrevolution.
Our Next Tasks
This sketchy analysis points toward the crucial responsibilities of the U.S. solidarity movement More than 100,000 of us have visited Nicaragua over the past ten years. We planted trees and picked cotton and coffee. We built houses and community centers, we participated in the literacy and health campaigns. We understood that solidarity was our responsibility both because we live in the belly of the imperialist beast and because solidarity is necessary among people. And many of us came to understand that U.S. intervention takes multifaceted forms: diplomatic, economic, political and military. Each of these can be deadly.
Washington’s project today—as it has been for the past decade—is to root out the Sandinista revolution, destroying the population’s hope for social justice and leaving the Salvadoran popular and revolutionary forces isolated and demoralized. Now that low-intensity conflict has overturned the revolutionary regime, that project will be pursued through an escalated war of intimidation against the Nicaraguan movement, up to and including military intervention when necessary to complete the construction of a violently repressive new capitalist state Never has the danger of U.S. military intervention been so present.
The possibility of preserving the gains of the revolution depends both on rebuilding the struggle from below in Nicaraguan, and making the costs of an invasion too high for Washington to contemplate. Our solidarity movement will not have the ability to stop the rush of AIFLD operatives, religious reactionaries and right-wing propagandists of all kinds to Nicaragua; but we can educate important sectors of the U.S. population.
We need to campaign even harder than ever for “Hands Off Nicaragua!” And we need to demand that the U.S. government stop providing any form of aid to the contras. Ironically, during some of the years of Sandinista governmental power, the danger of U.S. invasion may at time have been overestimated by the solidarity movement while the real torture of the nation through destruction of its economic life proceeded apace. The invasion danger becomes greater now, if the Sandinistas and their still powerful mass base refuse to Be down and die.
Solidarity activists need to undertake material aid to popular organizations, trade unions, cooperatives, the Sandinista newspaper Barricada, and directly to the FSLN. it is critical that the people and organizations at the grassroots who have been struggling to create a decent society do not feel abandoned and isolated at the moment of greatest need.
The full-blown counterrevolution to which the election of UNO opens the door can be averted, but only if the U.S. government is convinced that the risks of using troops to guarantee its ultimate victory is too high.
May-June 1990, ATC 26
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