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Mike Gonzalez

No More Heroes: Nicaragua 1996

(March 1997)

From International Socialism 2:74, March 1997.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Elections in the disaster zone

Daniel Ortega lost a presidential election for the second time in October 1996. His 38 percent of the vote was easily surpassed by the 51 percent won by the candidate of the Liberal Alliance, Arnaldo Alemán, ex-mayor of Managua and an unscrupulous right wing populist. Ortega’s subsequent claims of electoral fraud no doubt had some element of truth; yet 80 percent of the eligible population cast their ballots, and their verdict was incontestable.

In the post-mortems that follow it will be tempting to explain the result by reference to a hostile media or the appalling material reality in which people live now. That argument will defeat its own purpose: surely in such circumstances a revolutionary alternative would attract more rather than fewer people. The objective conditions would seem to be ripe once again for major and drastic change; yet the ordinary Nicaraguans who sacrificed so much in defence of their revolution through the 1980s were not convinced that Ortega and the Sandinistas could offer them any kind of solution. The gulf between the high rhetoric of the revolutionary leaders and the reality those fine words obscured has become a yawning abyss.

The material realities of today’s Nicaragua are harsh in the extreme. Some 60 percent of the population are unemployed; the majority of the rest are underemployed; the annual per capita income in the country has returned to its 1945 level. Some 50 percent of the population live in extreme poverty, and 70 percent live below an internationally acknowledged poverty line. Nicaragua’s gross domestic product (GDP) (at $425 per capita) is one of the lowest in the Western hemisphere – and stands at approximately the same level as it did in 1966. In 1992 alone the consumption of basic goods and services fell by an additional 37.5 percent. [1] That explains the roving groups of young people begging or stealing in the streets. The infrastructure is visibly collapsing: inter-city highways go unrepaired; city streets are pitted with holes. The majority of Managua’s population – some one third of whom are recent refugees from the vicious fighting of the end of the 1980s in the north – live in makeshift shacks by the roadside or on empty, dusty plots. Public health provision, which did improve through the previous decade, is now virtually non-existent. Education, which was free under the Sandinista government, is now only available at a fee – a minimum of 100 córdobas per month per child, or six days wages for a seasonal agricultural worker. Managua, which was once remarkably free of hard drugs, has now become the main distribution point in Central America for crack and cocaine. [2] On the land, the small and middle peasants who in many cases benefited from land reform policies in the early 1980s are now enslaved by debt and crippling repayment conditions. Many of them are awaiting the outcome of court cases or government decrees which could return their lands to their pre-1979 owners.

It is hard to imagine the depth of the social and economic collapse which Nicaragua suffered after 1990. The statistics are brutal enough – but the reality they coldly describe was even worse, because in addition to material distress, the workers and peasants of Nicaragua had to deal with a terrible disillusionment.

A calculated crisis

The essential thing to understand is that this crisis is not an accident or merely the result of incompetence or corruption. The poverty and social collapse visible to all are the results of a strategy imposed by the central financial institutions of the world market and known universally as ‘structural adjustment’. [3] Behind the cold terminology of ‘neo-liberalism’ lie decisions and agreements whose effects are devastating. In the case of Nicaragua the agreements for Emergency Economic Recovery were forged during 1990, after the defeat of the Sandinista government in February that year. There is a debate about the reasons for that defeat [4], but what is clear is that, while the sustained economic and military assault upon Nicaragua organised by the United States was continuing, the hope that this interminable and costly struggle could be won had largely disappeared. The economic siege had terrible effects. The military defence of the country absorbed almost 70 percent of the gross domestic product, while the cost in dead, wounded and displaced rose to extraordinary levels (the Contra war almost certainly cost 50,000 lives and 100,000 wounded by the end of 1989). Yet even that in itself was not explanation enough for the Sandinista defeat at the polls. Crucially, the government of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) had compromised so many of the ideals of the revolution, had conceded so much to the middle classes, that the victory came to seem hardly worth the candle:

For they gave priority to strengthening alliances with employers’ and landowners’ groups at the expense of the organisational independence of the working masses, workers and peasants, and the maintenance of their living standards. It was these sectors who bore the brunt of the war effort, both in terms of physical participation in the conflict and of paying its socio-economic costs. [5]

When, in 1990, the US-backed right wing candidate Violeta Chamorro promised aid and financial support and an end to war, a weary Nicaraguan population gave her the majority. The promised US aid, of course, was minimal and tied to the general conditions imposed by financial agencies like the IMF which finally agreed to negotiate with Nicaragua only after the 1990 elections. At the end of that year, an emergency programme was agreed – but there were no special concessions for Nicaragua: the conditions attached to financial assistance from the IMF were implacable. The Nicaraguan economy must open itself to the world market, remove all restrictions on imports, and guarantee that funds and credits would be allocated only to the private productive sector. Public spending on health, education or other forms of social reconstruction could not come out of these investment funds. And it was an explicit condition of the agreement that health and education should no longer be provided free. [6]

Translated into real decisions, this meant that by 1992 the bulk of investment in agriculture, for example, (75 percent) went to the large private estates producing export goods, 25 percent went to small and medium farms also producing mainly for the export sector, while the co-operative sector of collective farms or nationalised lands received nothing. As a result 80 percent of agricultural production occurred within a private sector increasingly devoting its lands to the production of export crops. The picture is entirely typical – the policy is universally applied, but its real effects and implications are perhaps more visible and more brutal in Nicaragua than almost anywhere else. For, in addition, subsidies on products for internal consumption were removed. This hit the poorest sectors of the population, the bulk of whose food and other needs were provided for by local production, and who had nothing whatsoever to gain from the flood of imported consumer goods that entered an almost ruined Nicaragua after 1990. The peasant co-operatives – the poorest of all – were now forced to go to private banks, whose interest rates were the highest and whose conditions for loans were the most cruel. Their standard of living collapsed and in many cases they lost their land and returned to casual and/or seasonal labour. Those that held on to their land were forced to impose upon themselves the most exploitative conditions of life. In the towns and cities all the social indices exposed the depth of the social crisis: infant mortality rates returned to the level of the early 1950s; illiteracy began to rise exponentially as the newest generation of young Nicaraguans saw their school careers abruptly curtailed. Their parents (70 percent of whom were jobless or severely underemployed) could not afford the new school fees insisted on by the IMF. The IMF Emergency Plan specifically excluded infrastructural investment or the use of available funds for purposes of creating or sustaining public services. Thus an already poor system of sewage, roads, healthcare and education now had to cope without additional funds with the influx of refugees from war. Yet health expenditure between 1989 and 1992 fell by 68 percent! What few industrial jobs there were – and these were almost entirely in Managua – disappeared as local industry was destroyed virtually in a single year (1992) as locally manufactured products were driven off the market by the arrival in bulk of cheaper imports, particularly textiles. And it is particularly revealing to look at where this increase in imports occurred. If we take the 1989 import figure as the baseline of 100, then by 1992 consumer goods had reached 299 and intermediate goods 106, while agricultural goods stood at 23.8. [7] The figure for agriculture should be set against the fact that domestic food production fell dramatically in the same year.

A pattern clearly emerges. In a period when all social indices were deteriorating dramatically for the mass of the population, when actual hunger was increasing and public health provision plummeting, some Nicaraguans were enjoying the flood of new consumer goods. For not everyone suffered equally under the impact of the Emergency Plan. Managua in 1996 is desperately poor, yet scattered about the city are prosperous middle class enclaves where new restaurants have opened and the houses betray a high level of conspicuous consumption. They also carry the signs of a new growth industry – private security. Solid new metal fences surround every house; fierce dogs bark incessantly behind their gates; alarm boxes sit high and visibly on the walls. And armed security guards patrol the streets of the well off neighbourhoods.

In Nicaragua everyone has guns. Where the most basic necessities are often hard to find, weapons and drugs seem to circulate with ease. It is indicative of the breakdown of any form of effective social organisation; testimony too, to what might be called the secularisation of the military. In a country whose population is even now only slightly over 4 million (and 45 percent of them are under 15 years old), some 200,000 people had access to arms through the 1980s, distributed among the 65,000 members of the Sandinista army, the possibly 15,000 heavily armed Contras, the 100,000 militia fighters (who had access to arms through the army), and the police. The Contras were formally demobilised after 1990, the Nicaraguan army reduced by two thirds and the militia dismantled; but young Nicaraguans are very quick to show the visitor the guns that they took with them. For many of them, on both sides of the struggle of the 1980s, Nicaragua under the government of Chamorro’s UNO has brought bitter disappointment and an ill concealed anger. One of the very few examples of public spending for welfare purposes in the last six years occurred in 1992, when Chamorro took resources from the public purse to provide compensation for unemployed soldiers. In fact they were $1,000 loans, and when the government tried to claim them back two years later, the ex-Sandinista soldiers occupied the banks in their hundreds and destroyed all records of the loans.

But there were other ex-Sandinistas who remained in the hills, still armed and still fighting a mythical enemy; these were the recompas. The soldiers who had fought for the Contras, the army maintained and supported by Ronald Reagan, President of the United States, and described by him as ‘the new Maquis’, came down from the hills in expectation of their reward. After all, their leaders had returned triumphantly from Miami and were now in government and sharing in its very selective prosperity. Many of these wealthy capitalists had their lands returned to them, or received generous compensation – but not the cannon fodder on the ground. They returned to the same conditions that were faced by those they had fought so bitterly. Some of them too returned to the hills, calling themselves the recontras. With time most of those who remained in the hills became mere bandits, preying on the very people they were still claiming to represent.

The abyss between the leaders and the led

In the new Nicaragua of Chamorro, the Sandinistas now became a parliamentary opposition. Their supporters waited restlessly for a sign that it was time to mount mass resistance in the streets and the factories – to use the Sandinista army in defence of the people, to set in motion the network of organisations on the ground. What they received instead were messages of caution, reassurances that Chamorro in power was good for the Sandinistas, that it was best to forge an alliance with her against the (even) more reactionary elements of her coalition. The alliance between the bourgeoisie and the FSLN forged in the years after 1984 was clearly still in operation but had now moved to the right. Strikes in several Managua factories were stopped by the army and the police, both of which contained large sections of ex-Sandinistas. The army was demobilised but the military command, held jointly by Violeta Chamorro and Humberto Ortega, offered nothing beyond rhetoric to the young men and women who had been prepared to die for a cause. The policies of structural adjustment were now biting with a vengeance; yet the leadership of the masses was still counselling caution, restraining action, and more generally accepting the ‘inescapable’ need for austerity. For the workers and peasants of Nicaragua, this can only have confirmed their deepening disillusionment. And if they asked why their leaders led them only towards disaster, there could only be one answer that real experience could confirm. In the deepening divide between the beneficiaries and the victims of the new ‘neo-liberal’ economy, the FSLN leaders were themselves among the first group. Their role in parliament merely confirmed what was already known about their lifestyles (see below).

What was clear beyond denial was that a yawning gulf separated the leadership of the FSLN from the mass base who had made the insurrection and carried them to power. The full extent of that division was not immediately obvious in 1990. Or at least, it was not clear to those who relied for their understanding of the Nicaraguan Revolution on those outside commentators who had supported the FSLN leadership uncritically through the 1980s [8], who had confidently predicted their overwhelming victory in 1990 [9], who created a new myth to explain their defeat, and who in 1996 were still presenting the FSLN to the world as the champions of revolutionary purity. [10] The persistence of the myth explains the surprise with which those same commentators have greeted the 1996 results; but it offers no real understanding of why it is that Daniel Ortega could not convince Nicaraguans of the validity of his credentials, despite the fact that he carried the banner of revolution on his campaign trail.

The Sandinistas, so the legend goes, were the organisers of the heroic struggle against the Somoza dictatorship and the authors of his overthrow in 1979. After that, the official biographies assert, the Sandinistas sustained a principled struggle throughout the 1980s for a new version of socialism, democratic and mass based, against US imperialism, and they held true to that body of revolutionary principles. How then to explain the electoral defeat? It was a combination of war weariness and imperialist lies, aided and abetted by the conspirators gathered around Oliver North and the enormous power of the US media, which could not be successfully contested by a small, weak country like Nicaragua. [11] Those left wing intellectuals in Europe and the United States who have colluded with the myth fell oddly silent during the next six years – though they allowed Daniel Ortega to resume his mythic stature when the 1996 elections came around.

The battle for the spoils

Between the elections of February 1990 and the transfer of power two months later, the mythology exploded in the most spectacular manner. [12] In Nicaragua they call it la piñata, after the hollow figure which is filled with sweets and presents for a child’s birthday and then gradually broken apart by determined wallopings from blindfolded children with a stick. When the figure bursts, all the kids dive onto the fallen pile of gifts and fight to gather as much as they can into their party bags. In the aftermath of the election defeat, it was the resources of the state that were the object of this sustained pillage.

State-owned properties were passed into the hands of individual Sandinistas. Every movable piece of equipment was taken. State bank accounts were transformed into personal wealth. The full extent of the pillage is not known, nor can it be measured. But what is clear is that nearly every member of the Sandinista government took what he or she could get and that many leaders of the FSLN became extremely rich. The ex-commander of the armed forces, Humberto Ortega, owns a huge estate in Managua and an unspecified private fortune. Tomás Borge, the only living representative of the original FSLN, is an extremely wealthy man with properties in Nicaragua and elsewhere. Since then Borge has gained a new notoriety in Mexico, where he was paid a fortune to write a hagiographic biography of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, whose privatisation of the Mexican economy brought unimaginable wealth to himself and his cronies. Salinas is implicated in corruption, embezzlement and murder – and now resides in Ireland, which has no extradition treaty with Mexico. His huge accumulation of wealth was his reward for imposing upon the Mexican working class the crippling demands of the neo-liberal market. Tomas Borge used his reputation to defend this international gangster. Yet Borge remains owner and editor of the Sandinista newspaper Barricada.

When the transition to the new government was completed, the plunder of the state had created, almost overnight, a new bourgeoisie of ex-bureaucrats, ex-ministers and aides, all members or supporters of the FSLN. They moved into their recently acquired properties in the fashionable (and safe) districts, where they were joined soon after by the returning members of the old bourgeoisie. These were the people who enjoyed the new imported consumer goods that flooded the Nicaraguan market. It was they who patronised the new restaurants and cafes, and who employed the private security firms.

There was not even a pretence that this would benefit the mass of Nicaraguans. On the contrary, it was barefaced and open pillage. As the Sandinistas said, they simply had not expected to lose power, or to lose the privileges that came with power. Under pressure a rattled Daniel Ortega snarled at reporters, ‘Why should the rich, the Somocistas, the pro-imperialists be the only ones to have satellite dishes ... We didn’t fight so that people could live in misery ...’ [13] There was no suggestion from him that anyone else should share the luxurious mansion once owned by a wealthy Somocista of which he was now the sole owner!

Corruption had its causes in the material reality. It was the product of the ability of individuals to act in their own interest alone, the evidence of a complete and total lack of accountability or control from below. Both before and after 1990 the FSLN had acted wholly pragmatically, without reference to any tradition or strategic project for revolutionary transformation. The piñata was not the sudden act of madness, but the rational action of those for whom personal power has become the most important determinant of their actions. The tragic irony (and the point will be addressed again) is that their ability to act in that way arose largely out of an orchestrated campaign among their supporters to conceal and deny the class nature of their politics and the confusions and contradictions which resulted from it. [14]

The explanation is to be found in the nature of the FSLN itself, in its origins and in its conduct during the latter half of the 1980s. For it was in that period that the FSLN became disengaged from its political base and began actively to construct a common front with sections of the bourgeoisie – an alliance whose imperatives flew directly in the face of the revolution and all it claimed to stand for. The commentators from the developed world, looking in on their favourite revolution, may not have seen it – but it was clearly visible to the mass of Nicaraguans.

The external signs were always there – in an impoverished Managua full of buildings still unrestored after the 1972 earthquake there were elegant living areas and suburbs where many state bureaucrats lived. Even in 1982, while I was travelling on an overcrowded bus towards Masaya, the other passengers commented loudly on the convoy of Cherokees and black Cadillacs with smoked glass windows that swept past us – ‘those are the “comandantes”, the leaders of the revolution’, they shouted. Throughout the 1980s, as the supermarket shelves emptied and most people faced deepening hardship, US dollars circulated widely and for those who had them consumer goods could easily be bought in special shops or brought back from Honduras or Costa Rica. It wasn’t far, if you had a car and a passport – if you had neither, they might as well have been on the moon. The state hospitals were deprived of even the most basic medicine and equipment. That there was a service at all was largely thanks to the selflessness and sacrifice of nurses, paramedics and volunteer doctors. Schools were absolutely basic, and depended on the same human resources for their survival, although there were model establishments in both sectors financed externally by friendly governments or non-governmental organisations (NGOs). But private medicine and private education were always available and well endowed.

The point is that resources were accessible to one class but not to another; and as the FSLN leadership devoted themselves to pursuing a front with the bourgeoisie, their exclusive availability was a condition of continuing dialogue – and the Sandinista leadership themselves, naturally enough, had access to all these facilities. One party I went to in 1982 was attended by several FSLN leaders. In the house where it was held, owned by a British FSLN supporter living in Managua, servants and cooks served the guests, while the party giver moved among us – in an olive green uniform.

As the decade wore on, the assault on Nicaragua intensified. Despite external pressure, Daniel Ortega was elected to the presidency in 1984 with a two thirds majority of the electorate. After that Ronald Reagan was determined to bring the Nicaraguan state to its knees by all and every means – political, economic and military. Honduras became a support base for a well trained, well fed and extremely well equipped Contra force whose infrastructure was hidden in the Honduran army. The aftermath of Contra attacks was always particularly horrible. They tended to mutilate their victims before or after murdering them in order to terrorise the others.

But another change of much more significance was taking place, largely unnoticed outside Nicaragua, where right wing paranoia about Nicaragua and the coming Central American revolution vied with an uncritical support from the left, for whom any criticism of the Sandinistas was tantamount to a betrayal of the people’s cause. In 1987 the Sandinista leadership embarked on a second stage of negotiation for peace, meeting with elements of the Contra leadership and continuing a peace process begun at Esquipulas under the auspices of the Costa Rican president, Oscar Arias. This was the last phase in a sequence of negotiations and compromises, but they also confirmed the central truth about the nature of the Sandinista Revolution. It was a process led from the state by a political class which combined different sectors of the bourgeoisie, the leading sectors of the FSLN and the commanders of the army. The political project was never at any point to develop a revolutionary movement of workers and peasants, but to construct a state capable of taking its place at the concert of nations. The expropriation of key sectors of the economy after 1979, for example, ceased six months after the fall of Somoza – at that point where the process might have begun to encroach upon the sectors of private capital that were not part of Somoza’s ruling clique. Immediately thereafter the Nicaraguan state distanced itself from the increasingly radical political movements in neighbouring El Salvador in order to re-establish its external links with European social democracy and Latin American Christian Democracy. Already it was clear that the issue for the Sandinistas was one of territorial integrity and the construction of a modern state. That was what was meant when the FSLN leaders spoke of a ‘revolution of a new type’ [15], for this was a ‘revolution’ in which the interests of workers and peasants were systematically subordinated to those of the bourgeoisie as a whole. Where resistance did occur – the Fabritex factory in Managua was a very good example – it was the Sandinista state which stepped in to stop the strike and eject the leading trade union activists.

The legend of the FSLN represents the Nicaraguan Revolution as the realisation of a plan evolved and carried through by the FSLN. In fact the revolution began with a mass insurrection which was spontaneous in character. At the time that it began (February 1978), in the town of Masaya, the Sandinistas were divided into three mutually hostile groupings who were not communicating with one another at all. Camilo Ortega, youngest brother of Daniel, was sent to Masaya to try and establish a relationship with the insurrectionaries, but was killed there before he could do so. The military actions for which the FSLN became known in subsequent months were evidence of a lack of organic links with the popular movement rather than the reverse – for the concept of politics on which they rested combined armed propaganda with the formation of broad alliances within and outside the country, the former expressed in the Group of Twelve, drawing together a range of political forces in support of the FSLN, the latter, for example, in the long term relationship with the Mexican governing party, the PRI. The FSLN did assume the political leadership of the movement against Somoza, and was the only organised force in a position to do so. But it is worth remembering that at the very outset the FSLN, while seeking the support and recognition of the capitalist class inside and outside Nicaragua, was ruthless with its own youthful left wing (La Milpa and El Pueblo) and quick to suppress a section of the Sandinista support (the Bolshevik faction) which, while admittedly sectarian, was asking important and incisive questions about the revolution and its political character.

The search for increasingly broad alliances with the bourgeoisie continued throughout the 1980s, culminating in Ortega’s signature of an Accord with Violeta Chamorro one month after his 1990 election defeat – which the Marxist PRT described as a form of ‘co-government’. [16] When, between 1984 and 1990, the mass of ordinary Nicaraguans lived through hunger, violence and an inflation that reached over 60,000 percent in 1988, the FSLN argued fiercely that sacrifice and scarcity were the conditions of survival. But it was certainly not the case for everyone. The FSLN’s political allies were protected from the social costs – it was the fundamental price of negotiation. The much vaunted process of reconciliation was not concerned with the mass of Nicaraguan workers and peasants, whose living standards were collapsing by the month, whose sons and daughters were dying at the front. But it did involve frequent journeys by leading Sandinistas to Mexico, Venezuela, Britain and Spain seeking allies with their repeated reassurances that the FSLN was committed to a mixed economy and was prepared to devolve property back to the private sector. As a gesture of goodwill, it even announced an amnesty for ex-Somocista National Guards, many of them fighting and murdering peasants still.

The introduction of conscription in 1989 was not merely an error, therefore. It was an indication of the relationship between the state and the social base of the revolution. The Nicaraguan state was administering an austerity programme at the expense of the masses; and it was secretly negotiating with the bourgeois opposition as it did so. It is hardly surprising that it lost the confidence of a significant section among its old supporters, who in 1990 opted for what they imagined would be some kind of economic recovery and an end to war because they were offered no political alternative. The state was run by functionaries. There was no long term political or economic project to adhere to, no principle at work in the conduct of daily life. The Sandinista leaders were nominees of a tiny group, unaccountable and without allegiances, individuals in pursuit of power and wealth. That is why they pillaged everything.

Two and three years later these were the people buying the imported luxury goods, enjoying the fruits of external credit, acting for foreign companies and agencies. One of them was Arnaldo Aleman [17], who became the UNO’s mayor of Managua. He cleaned the streets and built public works projects. It meant no improvement in the life of any inhabitant of the capital, but it was something! And he attacked both the Sandinistas and UNO, whose leader, Violeta Chamorro, he accused of being in league with the Communists (oddly, both Nicaraguan Communist parties were members of the UNO coalition).

The irony, of course, was that there was a germ of truth in what he said. The Sandinistas were arguing, against their own supporters, that the Chamorro government should be kept in power because the alternative power blocs waiting in the wings would be even more ruthless. It is hard to imagine any group imposing economic policies whose effects could have been more devastating. Yet Ortega and the majority of FSLN argued against social agitation, strikes or public demonstrations because they would ‘fuel the right’. In other words, the pre-1990 coalition continued in power, and defended what must rank as one of the most inhuman applications of economic strategy that we can point to. For six years the Sandinistas defended this Nicaraguan democracy which had wreaked such havoc amongst the majority. They argued that, if social peace were maintained, the Sandinistas would return to power in 1996.

But what could Nicaragua expect of the FSLN in power? The answer was given long before the votes were cast. Through six years they argued that the austerity plan and structural adjustment were necessary. They defended the Chamorro regime. They collaborated with it in all its phases, and oversaw the destruction of those few gains the mass of the people had made under the Sandinista government. Their leaders (with one honourable exception, ‘Modesto’, Henry Ruiz) grew rich and powerful. Ortega shed his uniform as the election campaign began for the jeans and baseball cap of the career politician. Both he and Tomás Borge were photographed in the weeks prior to the election shaking hands with Cardinal Obando y Bravo, leader throughout the 1980s of the bourgeois opposition to Sandinismo and scourge of the left wing Catholics who had played such an important role in mobilising popular opinion behind the revolution. Consensus, it seemed, would be built with such people as these, or the ex-Contras to whom the FSLN had already promised three key ministries in any future government.

The role of the cheerleaders

In preparation for the elections, the British Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign issued a leaflet calling for support for the Sandinistas abroad. A vote for the FSLN, it claimed, was ‘a vote for those who have the interests of the poor at heart’. The record of the Sandinistas in power shows that their primary concern was a defence of the Sandinista state rather than the interests of the poor, which they were willing to sacrifice to the political alliance with the bourgeoisie. The record of the Sandinistas out of power shows a continuation of that alliance, and a readiness to use the authority of the Nicaraguan Revolution to hold back the class struggle. Why? The principal consideration was to win the 1996 elections, even if that meant creating an even more wide ranging set of coalitions and pacifying their own working class supporters in order to present a respectable face to world opinion. Yet the Sandinistas still depended for victory on a strong and permanent base among Nicaraguans who by and large have clearly seen how little they can rely on the leadership of the FSLN.

What then could induce sincere socialists and liberals outside Nicaragua to argue in their favour? Why do they agree to suppress the truth about la piñata, the personal corruption of the Sandinista leadership, the FSLN’s collusion with Chamorro throughout the six years of her presidency, the gulf between the Sandinista leadership and its base? In February the Pope visited Nicaragua. The road he travelled was newly painted, street lighting recently installed and pavements laid. All these renovations stopped abruptly half way into the city – at the point where the Pope’s cavalcade would turn around and return to the airport. Where were the Sandinista protests, the demonstrations, the denunciations? There were none, only a handshake with the cardinal.

Despite their best intentions the activists who suppress these truths are colluding in a confidence trick. The implication is that the only alternative available for socialists is a choice between political cliques vying for power in a system whose codes of conduct and prevailing economic imperatives they accept. The fine poetic speeches of Tomás Borge produce only hollow laughter among many Mexican workers. Ortega’s expressions of Sandinista ‘orthodoxy’ mean very little when his concerns are to seek his allies among sections of the bourgeoisie. To argue that these people are the appropriate representatives of the mass of Nicaraguans is more than an expression of the most extreme historical pessimism – it is an explicit rejection of the premise that the working class is the instrument of its own liberation.

The paradox is that many of the features that have created confusion and disorientation among those Nicaraguan workers and peasants who did make the revolution have been celebrated by the FSLN’s admirers abroad. Its ideological confusion has been transformed into openness and flexibility. Its lack of any strategic direction for the revolutionary transformation of society has become an admirable pragmatism, its profoundly militaristic rhetoric allowed to hide the command vision of political organisation which has deprived the Nicaraguan workers of any democratic control over their own political destiny.

When 19 candidates presented themselves in the October 1996 presidential elections, it was not a sign of a vigorous democracy but evidence that political power was once again being fought for by small cliques battling with one another. The split within the Sandinistas, when ex-Vice-President Sergio Ramírez formed his own Sandinista Renewal Movement (MRS), did not indicate a break to the left. Ramirez was interested in creating an explicitly social democratic organisation. In the elections it achieved less than 1 percent of the vote. Daniel Ortega, on the other hand, described himself and his followers as ‘los ortodoxos’ – the orthodox Sandinistas – in the hope that he could mobilise behind his own campaign the loyalty that many people still feel towards the revolution and the aspirations still expressed, for some people, in the idea of Sandinismo.

The high percentage of Nicaraguans voting (80 percent) bears witness to a desire for involvement, a yearning for change and some improvement in people’s lives. But in every real sense the mass of ordinary Nicaraguans were mere spectators at the feast. There was very little in this electoral process to give them hope. As always, the real class struggle is conducted elsewhere. While the politicians vie for their share of the booty, the concrete reality of daily life has once again begun to generate resistance among those people who did fight the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1978–1979.

In towns like Esteli in the north, new organisations are emerging from the day to day struggles. Significantly the Movimiento Comunitario, formed about two years ago, sets out to link and lead those struggles on the ground. It embraces people who not very long ago were fighting each other in the Sandinista and the Contra armies – and who share both a common misery and a deep disillusionment with their old leaders. They are open to all sorts of ideological influences – evangelical groups are proliferating with astonishing speed in Central America for example. But they are also the soil in which revolutionary ideas can grow, if those ideas are present in their struggles. A revolutionary understanding, however, is not an abstraction, the fruit of mere theoretical purification. It grows out of a critical approach to the real history of the struggle. In Nicaragua, for example, the first step must be to honestly confront the way in which the revolutionary impulse has been distorted and misused, and to address the true history of Sandinismo. To evade the responsibility which falls on all socialists to recognise what has happened in Nicaragua may win approval from the FSLN leadership – but it will contribute nothing to the rebirth of revolution in this ‘region of storms’.


1. See Latin America Weekly Report, 28 December 1995, and A.J.A. Vogl, Nicaragua y el FMI (Managua 1993), pp. 7–12.

2. There are clear links here between the distribution of drugs and US government and CIA involvement in Central America: see Guardian Weekend, 19 November 1996, pp. 4–5.

3. See D. Green, The Silent Revolution (London 1996), especially ch. 1.

4. See M. Gonzalez, Nicaragua: What Went Wrong? (Bookmarks 1990). See also C. Vilas, Nicaragua a Revolution that Fell from Grace of the People, Socialist Register 1991 (Merlin Books 1991), pp. 303–321.

5. C. Vilas, op. cit., p. 303. Carlos Vilas wrote regularly on the development of the Nicaraguan process; for example in C. Vilas and R. Harris (eds.), Nicaragua: Revolution Under Siege (Zed Books 1985), and in articles in Socialist Register through the 1980s.

6. A. Vogl, op. cit., pp. 21–38.

7. Ibid., p. 93.

8. The bibliography in this regard is enormous. Inspired by the optimism that grew out of the overthrow of Somoza by a mass insurrectionary movement, and of a resolute and incontestable anti-imperialism, foreign commentators were largely responsible for rewriting Nicaragua’s history to locate the FSLN in a commanding central role – in retrospect – and later for colluding in a denial of the direction that was taken by the FSLN leadership itself. One example is George Black’s history of the Nicaraguan Revolution, Triumph of the People (London 1982).

9. For example, Alexander Chancellor’s article, Uncle Sam’s Dirty War, Guardian Weekend, 10–11 Feburary 1990, pp. 4–6, in which the subheading asserts Washington’s Power Brokers Face Another Humiliation at the Hands of Ortega’s Sandinistas.

10. See, for example, the leaflet issued by the British Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign for the 1996 elections.

11. The question of the media, and in particular the body of analytical writing by Noam Chomsky on the role and power of the US media in sabotaging democratic projects in Latin America, is by no means a simple one. There can be no denying the conscious use of the media as instruments of disinformation – and their willing collusion in that role. The discovery of Russian Mig fighters emblazoned across all the US media before the elections of 1984 were cheerfully acknowledged as completely spurious a year later, for example. Yet Chomsky’s assertion of their extraordinary power yields deeply pessimistic conclusions as well as providing an alibi too conveniently seized upon to mask the absence of an effective political strategy. In a word, they are powerful, but not all-powerful.

12. See J. Castañeda, La Utopía Desarmada (Mexico 1993), p. 411. Also M. Walker, Sandinistas in Search of a Fresh Role in The Guardian, 9 March 1990, p. 11.

13. Quoted in J. Castañeda, op. cit., p. 412 fn.

14. It is appropriate to point out that this is not wisdom after the event. This journal, along with other Socialist Workers Party publications, has consistently pointed to the opportunism of the FSLN, its lack of any organic or political link to the revolutionary working class tradition, and to the substitution of the leaders for the class that is so deeply embedded in the guerrilla war tradition from which the FSLN emerged. See for, example, M. Gonzalez, op. cit.

15. In Fire Over the Americas (Verso 1987) Roger Orbach and Carlos Núñez formulated the case for a politics of ‘the third way’. But, fiery rhetoric apart, it ploughed a very familiar furrow, recasting the argument for a ‘popular front’ in new forms. In any event, the publication of the book coincided precisely with new compromises with the Contras which rendered most of its ringing declarations meaningless.

16. See Latin America Weekly Report, 5 April 1990.

17. See M. Caster, The Return of Somocismo? in NACLA Report on the Americas, XXX/2, September/October 1996, pp. 6–9.

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