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Peter Hadden

Nicaragua – lessons of election defeat

(June 1990)

From Militant, June 1990
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

On taking office the right-wing Chamorro government in Nicaragua has been greeted by a strike wave in the public sector. Meanwhile on the land the 80,000 formerly landless families who benefited from the land reform of the former Sandinista government, are organising to prevent the re-imposition of former landowners.

These developments indicate the major obstacles facing Chamorro and her UNO coalition as it attempts to obliterate what remains of the Sandinista revolution.

The UNO is a coalition of 14 parties ranging from the extreme right to the Communist Party. It represents the political cutting-edge of the counter-revolution, an internal front for the Contras. Its campaign in the February presidential and general election was generously backed by $9 million from the US government. Nonetheless, its victory in these elections took most observers completely by surprise.

The reasons for this success lie first and foremost in the methods and the mistakes of the Sandinista leadership. In 1979 a mass insurrection in Managua overthrew the hated Somoza dictatorship and hoisted the Sandinistas to power.

The new regime introduced important reforms, including land reform. Health care and education were dramatically improved. Illiteracy was reduced from over 50% to 12% of the population in one year.

The Sandinistas were immensely popular. Mass support organisations, trade unions, and committees for the defence of the revolution were built. However, while the masses were mobilised into action in support of the new government, they were excluded from decision-making. The Sandinistas remained a small organisation ruling as an elite and merely leaning on the mass organisations to implement what they decreed.

Within a day of coming to power the new government nationalised the property of the former dictator, thereby taking over a sizeable chunk of the economy. At this moment it seemed most likely that Nicaragua would follow the path of Cuba, where a guerrilla army had also come to power and had abolished capitalism and landlordism and had set up a state mirrored on the image of the USSR and China.

However, the Sandinista leadership hesitated and drew back from this course. Within months they decreed that there would be no more nationalisations. They tried to entice representatives of the Nicaraguan employers to stay in the government. Sixty per cent of the economy remained in private hands.

They hesitated under pressure of the threats of US imperialism on the one hand and under pressure from the Stalinist regimes of the USSR and Cuba on the other. The Soviet bureaucracy did not want international relations upset and feared the consequences of promoting revolutionary movements in the explosive tinderbox of Latin America. Under this pressure the Sandinista president, Daniel Ortega, declared that the time for socialism was not yet ripe – first there would have to be the development of capitalism in Nicaragua. So the 1979 revolution, which was carried through in a distorted form, was never completed.

For its part US imperialism was never prepared to come to terms with the Sandinistas. The very existence of this state represented a clarion call to revolution in the region. Ortega’s retreats gave them time to mount a twin economic and military offensive, aimed at strangling the revolution.

Internally the so-called “progressive” capitalists on whom the Sandinistas attempted to lean acted as saboteurs. Externally US imperialism tightened the economic screws and gave over $300 million to finance the Contras in their war of economic sabotage.

War, sabotage and blockade left the country ravaged. 58,000 died in the Contra war, equivalent to the US fighting 20 Vietnam Wars. The Sandinistas were forced to commit 50% of Gross National Product to defence.

As a consequence, ten years after the revolution, living standards were lower, unemployment higher, and the economy smaller than when the Sandinistas took power. Per capita income was the lowest in the western hemisphere.

The Sandinistas responded to the economic crisis with austerity measures. Inflation in 1988 rocketed to 24,000%. Swingeing austerity introduced in 1989 saw 34,000 state employees sacked, a contraction of industry of almost 30%.

This was the background to the elections at the start of this year. In a revolution the masses are prepared to make sacrifices, but not indefinitely and only if they can see a clear goal. The Sandinistas seemed to ask for sacrifices without end. Inevitably disillusionment, demoralisation and war weariness affected wider layers of the population. Some swallowed the notion that to vote for the UNO was to vote for Yankee dollars which would improve their lot. The disastrous election campaign of the Sandinistas, conducted as a non-political jamboree with mass rallies where they gave out free condoms, only helped seal their fate.

The counter-revolution has won an electoral victory. However, this is not the end of the matter. For the Chamorro government to complete the dirty work of US imperialism and the Contras, and dismantle the Sandinista state apparatus is no easy matter. Despite their defeat the Sandinistas are the most powerful force in Nicaragua.

The main trade unions are Sandinista unions. The Sandinista army at the time of the election was 90,000 strong. In political terms the Sandinistas are still by far the biggest single party. Ortega got 40% of the presidential vote.

Aware of this, the Chamorro government has proceeded with caution. Some on the right wing of the UNO who favour a confrontation with the Sandinistas have been isolated. The process of disarming the Contras has been begun.

Chamorro’s strategy is to lean on a rightward-moving section of the Sandinista leadership, notably ex-president Daniel Ortega and his brother Humberto, currently the head of the armed forces. She hopes to use them to assist in the dismantling of the powerful Sandinista state machine.

So Humberto Ortega has been retained for a period as army chief of staff. Sandinista officers are to retain their commissions. In return Humberto has already laid off 20,000 new recruits, has promised to halve the size of the army, and has ended political instruction for the troops. Instead of the Sandinista army it is to be called the “National Sovereignty Defence Army”.

To succeed in completely winding back the revolution will be no easy matter. As a Latin American political correspondent put it “the three main challenges to Violetta are the economy, the economy, the economy”.

The ending of the war, the dropping of the economic blockade and the possible arrival of $300 million dollars of US aid will give the new government slightly more room to maneuver. Set against this are the crippling economic problems: 20% unemployment, still rampant inflation and an $11 billion foreign debt. Within 48 hours of taking office Chamorro devalued the Cordoba doubling prices at a stroke.

Concessions which the new government may now be forced to give, plus possible growth in the economy, given the ending of the economic and Contra wars, will not be sustained. In particular a new world recession would present the Chamorro government with a new form of economic squeeze, in the form of dwindling revenues from its exports of coffee and other commodities.

The future is not certain. The compliance of the Ortegas may allow the regime to construct a new capitalist state machine. However, resistance from below, from the working class and from the Sandinista youth, could alter this perspective. A split in the Sandinistas has already been rumoured and is a possibility. If the counter-revolution were carried through a section might launch a new guerrilla offensive against the new regime.

One perspective which is entirely excluded is that of a stable and democratic capitalist Nicaragua. Already there are tendencies toward dictatorial methods. Presidential decisions are being taken by a small cabal, nicknamed the “Las Palmas” group, and without reference to the cabinet.

February 1990 was a serious defeat for the Nicaraguan revolution. The key now is for the Nicaraguan working class and youth to learn the lessons of this defeat, and while defending what remains of 1979, to struggle for the complete overthrow of capitalism and landlordism and the establishment of a society modelled not on Cuba or the Stalinist USSR, but on the revolutionary Russia of 1917.

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Last updated: 12 September 2016