As Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandinistas, scraped home as president, thousands took to the streets of the capital, Managua, hooting car horns, sounding football klaxons and setting off fireworks to celebrate the victory.
The Bush administration was horrified. But is this the same Ortega who led the Sandinistas to power in 1979? Does this represent another shift to the left in Latin America?
The ‘thumping’ that Bush and the Republicans received in the US mid-term elections overshadowed another symbolic defeat for US imperialism just 24 hours later. This time it was south of the Rio Grande in Nicaragua where legislative and presidential elections took place. It was not a good week for the reactionary right-wing cabal heading the US superpower.
Daniel Ortega, long-time leader of the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional), one of the former leaders of the Sandinista revolution in 1979, and bệte noir of US imperialism throughout the 1980s, won the presidential elections with just over 38% of the vote. His nearest rival, Eduardo Montealegre, standing for the ALN (Alianza Liberal Nicaragüense), received 29%.
This is a year of elections throughout Latin America. And the increased radicalisation and class conflict throughout the continent against harsh neo-liberal policies have been reflected in many of the election results. For example, the left populist Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia, the first time someone from an indigenous background has reached such high office. In Mexico, Andrés Obrador, former mayor of Mexico City, was narrowly defeated as the new president as a result of election fraud by the ruling elite. Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, continues to whip up anti-imperialist rhetoric in his campaign to be re-elected in December.
But does Ortega’s victory mean that another administration is prepared to join Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia in providing what these regimes regard as a radical alternative to US imperialism’s domination of Latin America?
The Sandinistas had put themselves at the head of a spontaneous movement from below which overthrew the brutal Somoza dictatorship in 1979. This was the culmination of a decades’ long guerrilla war conducted by the Sandinistas and a wave of spontaneous general strikes in the big cities.
The Sandinista regime acted as a firebrand of hope lighting one corner of a continent in which a number of countries had been crushed under the iron heel of military dictatorship. It provided an example to millions of workers, young people and poor peasants in Latin America and across the globe. It signaled that even the most brutal military regimes backed by US imperialism could be defeated against apparently impossible odds. Important reforms and increases in living standards were won as a result of the revolution.
Many young people from the rest of the world traveled to Nicaragua to help defend the regime in what was seen as a modern day repetition of the brigades that went to defend republican Spain against Franco’s fascists in 1936. These young people saw it as their role to defend Nicaragua against US-coordinated economic sabotage and the reactionary paramilitary, US-backed Contras who fought to overthrow the regime. Dripping with reactionary poison from every pore, the propagandists of the imperialist powers referred to the Sandinistas as ‘communists, Marxists and socialists’, and in other terms which painted them as modern day ‘Antichrists’.
US imperialism’s visceral dislike of the Sandinistas lasts to this day. In April, US ambassador to Nicaragua, Paul Trivelli, wrote to and then met the two right-wing parties, the ALN and the Partido Liberal Constitucionalista (PLC) offering them funding and advice, and appealing to them to have one united candidate. In the end, the US administration called on Nicaraguans to give their support to Montealegre. This approach leaves more than a stench of hypocrisy considering the Bush administration’s attacks on Chávez for ‘interfering’ in elections in Bolivia, Peru and Nicaragua itself.
The fact that a party with this history has won an election could make Ortega’s victory potentially extremely significant. Undoubtedly, the Sandinistas displayed utmost heroism in their struggle against the Somoza dictatorship. On coming to power, initially, they implemented important reforms for the working class and peasantry. But, at the same time, they put forward the ideas of a mixed economy and an alliance with ‘progressive’ sections of Nicaragua’s capitalist class to end US imperialism’s influence in the country. This approach is completely different to a genuine revolutionary socialist struggle. A socialist movement, armed for self-defence against the reactionary paramilitaries, would mean the complete overthrow of capitalism. This would be the first step towards the development of a democratically planned economy under the control and management of the working class as part of a democratic workers’ state. It would be the first step in a struggle for a socialist federation of Latin American states. Unfortunately, these ideas were never put forward or fought for by the Sandinista leadership. Its rightward political evolution since the 1979 revolution and the economic situation in the country makes it unlikely that Ortega will play a similar role in Nicaragua to Chávez or Morales.
In order to see what may happen over the next few years and what the real significance of the FSLN victory is, it is necessary to look at the role and character of the Sandinistas, which is integrally linked to the history of this poverty-stricken country in Central America.
Up until the overthrow of Somoza, Nicaragua’s political history was one of coups and counter-coups, splits within the ruling elite and civil wars, and military intervention by the imperialist powers. Socially and economically, the scene has been dominated by a weak, divided capitalist class which has amassed enormous wealth through the super-exploitation of the working class and poor peasantry. They make up the majority of the Nicaraguan population, who were treated little better than pack animals throughout their lives.
Capitalism as a social and economic system arrived late in Nicaragua in comparison to the developed capitalist economies in Europe and the US. Moreover, its development was distorted and influenced by these gigantic economies which dominated regional and world economic relations. First Spanish, then British and French, and finally, US imperialism treated Nicaragua as a raiding ground for goods like coffee and gold, as well as for the slave trade. It became particularly important for US imperialism because of plans to build a canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans across Nicaraguan territory.
In order to develop into a modern capitalist state, Nicaragua had to build up its industrial base, resolve the land question (moving away from feudal relations in the countryside), develop an independent and unified nation state, and institute a relatively stable parliamentary democracy. However, Nicaragua’s capitalist class, because of its political and economic weakness, was unable to carry out these tasks – something which the advanced capitalist countries had been able to do to one degree or another. In countries like Nicaragua, only the working class has the potential power to carry through these changes. And once they embarked on these tasks, the working could not be confined within capitalist limits. The workers would inevitably strive to take the movement further forward, down the road of revolutionary struggle against imperialism, the Nicaraguan landlords and capitalist class. They could go all the way over to a socialist society, as the Bolshevik Party did in the 1917 Russian revolution, when it led the working class and peasantry to the first democratic workers’ state in history. But a genuinely socialist Nicaraguan state would face the threat of imperialist intervention, and so would have to be the starting point for a continental and international struggle for socialism
Nicaragua’s capitalist class was not able to play an independent role from its landlords or western imperialism. Its weakness was further shown by the existence of a historical split between a conservative wing and a liberal wing. The former, based on the rural landlords, was an outright supporter of the interests of US imperialism. The liberals, based on traders and small businesses, put forward the idea of lessening US influence in the country. The relative weakness of the ruling elite has made pacts between its different competing factions and other social forces – including, at times, resting on sections of the working class – a feature of Nicaraguan politics up until today. Nicaragua’s capitalist class has never played a progressive role and, when its interests have been threatened, has always used brutal force to attempt to remain in power.
The FSLN was formed in 1962. It based itself on the tactics of guerrilla struggle – of small, armed groups fighting in the countryside against the Somoza regime and its brutal, US-trained National Guard. Despite the bravery of those who conducted an armed struggle against this vicious reactionary opponent, this was an incorrect strategy, for it completely sidelined the Nicaraguan working class to the role of bystanders in the struggle to change society. It also ruled out the creation of a democratic workers’ state in the long run, for which a mass, conscious and revolutionary movement of the working class is required. Generally speaking, such guerrilla movements become isolated from the working class. They can even develop a suspicion and contempt of the role of the working class in the struggle. A genuinely revolutionary approach would seek to involve the mass of the working class leading other oppressed sections, such as the peasantry, in a mass struggle to change society. Under certain conditions, an armed struggle in the countryside may be necessary but as an auxiliary to the main struggle in the urban areas and industrial centres.
Unfortunately, the FSLN did not follow this approach. Its takeover of power involved the destruction of the Somoza state machine, the remnants of which fled the scene. But without a spontaneous uprising of the working class, leading to insurrectionary general strikes in the main towns and cities, the FSLN would not have been able to seize power.
Because the FSLN leadership believed in the ideas of a mixed economy and ‘progressive’ elements within the capitalist class, it left industry in the hands of the bosses despite having the potential strength to take it over and organise production in the interests of the majority. At the time, the Committee for a Workers’ International warned of the dangers of this approach.
The 1979 revolutionary movement terrified the capitalist class of Nicaragua and beyond. But by leaving economic power in the hands of the bosses, the FSLN opened the way to the regrouping of the forces of reaction, economic sabotage of the new regime and US intervention behind the scenes. Unfortunately, this is what happened.
At the same time, the Sandinista leadership could no longer rely on extensive support from the Soviet Union. The Soviet bureaucracy, wrestling with the internal crisis of Stalinism, made it clear that it was not prepared to extend to Nicaragua the same kind of economic and military, or even diplomatic, backing it had provided for Fidel Castro after the Cuban revolution. It was quite clear that the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union and Cuba had no wish to disturb the balance of power in the region by encouraging the Sandinistas or agreeing with them, that the main sectors of the economy should be taken over. This would have been a threat not only to imperialism but also in the end to the bureaucracy themselves.
After Ortega visited the Soviet Union in April 1985 as part of the Sandinistas’ attempt to get arms and build solidarity for the new regime, he came away with nothing from the Stalinist bureaucracy. Later Castro’s administration impounded old MIG fighters, bought by the Sandinistas, to defend Nicaragua against the Contras, in Cuba.
The remnants of Somoza’s National Guard, armed by US imperialism, formed the Contras, a reactionary paramilitary force whose aim was the overthrow of the FSLN regime. Thus a ten-year civil war started which led to the deaths of over 50,000 Nicaraguans. The Contras used brutal terrorising tactics such as the ‘waistcoat’ torture which involved cutting off the arms of their victims. The civil war was backed up by economic sabotage and a blockade by US imperialism which led to hyperinflation, mass unemployment and increased poverty.
As a result of this campaign, the parties representing the Contras were able to win elections in 1990 on the basis of the disappointment and exhaustion of the mass of the working class and peasantry. The new government implemented vicious neo-liberal attacks which further drove the working class into poverty.
The FSLN moved sharply to the right in the 1990s. Its leadership desperately wanted to keep hold of the privileges it had become used to during its period in power. In fact, before the new right-wing regime won the elections, FSLN leaders seized big parts of state assets to guarantee their own personal living standards in the future.
But Ortega went much further than this. In the late 1990s he initiated discussions with Arnoldo Alemán, the leading figure behind the PLC which formed part of the alliance which defeated the FSLN in the 1990 elections. This pact involved an agreement which led to the two parties effectively seizing control of the Supreme Court and the offices of the attorney-general and the comptroller-general.
The pact effectively meant that the two parties could hand out jobs and thus maintain a grip on power without having to occupy the position of the presidency. Alemán did very well out of this. He had been charged with money-laundering, corruption and embezzlement in 2002 and given a 20-year prison sentence. However, because of the pact, he has been able to serve his sentence living at home – his only restriction is that he is not allowed to leave Managua.
Ortega also used the pact to change the electoral law so that a presidential candidate could win on the first round of the elections by getting 35% of the vote, as long as the leading candidate was at least 5% ahead of the second-placed candidate. Prior to this the barrier used to be 40%, a figure Ortega had failed to achieve in the three previous elections.
The pact has become hated among many Nicaraguans, being seen as responsible for maintaining ‘mega-salaries’ and pensions for the political elite. For example, the top 695 government officials in Nicaragua consume 1% of GDP each year purely through their wages and perks, while 80% of the population live on less than $2 a day!
Ortega’s corrupt practices and violent swing to the right had repercussions within the FSLN, leading to a split-off calling itself the Movemiento de Renovación de Sandinista (MRS) in 1994. This party criticised Ortega for having betrayed the original ideas of the Sandinistas. Despite this criticism, however, the MRS still remained in an electoral alliance with the FSLN up until the most recent elections. Ortega has ruled the FSLN with an iron hand – in 2005 he expelled Herty Lewites, a prominent Sandinista leader, for daring to put himself forward as a candidate within the party for the presidential elections. Lewites went on to join the MRS as its presidential candidate but died of a heart attack in the campaign.
While the MRS put forward a radical programme in the elections demanding free education and health provision, and an emergency house-building programme of 40,000 dwellings, it does not explain where the resources for this would come from and does not put forward the necessity for the overthrow of capitalism and the struggle for a socialist Nicaragua. Following the elections, the MRS leadership called for an alliance with all parties who were opposed to the pact between Ortega and Aléman. This would mean an alliance with the US-backed Montealegre, which means raising dangerous illusions in politicians of this sort. In fact, the MRS leadership did not call on the working class to launch a struggle against the pact.
Dealing with the Contras
In the run-up to the elections, Ortega continued the swing to the right within the FSLN. While he spoke about acting against the worst excesses of ‘savage capitalism’, he spoke about national reconciliation and the main slogan of his campaign was "United Nicaragua can triumph". He changed the party’s colours from red and black to pink and turquoise and replaced the anthem of the Sandinistas, which spoke about "Yanqui imperialism being the enemy of humanity", with a Spanish translation of John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance. In the aftermath of the election victory he said he would guarantee the stability of the economy and the safety of all foreign investors’ holdings in the country.
Although Ortega threatened to withdraw from US imperialism’s Central American Free Trade Agreement (Cafta) and, instead, join Chávez’s alternative Alternativa Bolivariana para América (Alba), the FSLN allowed the passage of Cafta through the Nicaraguan parliament in the run-up to the elections. Incredibly, Ortega also backed the campaign by the Catholic Church to make all abortions illegal – even those where a woman’s life is in danger.
Even more indicative of his political trajectory was the alliances he formed in the run-up to the election. He chose Jamie Morales Carazo as his candidate for vice-president. Carazo is a former leader of the Contras, the very same organisation which butchered thousands of Nicaraguan workers and peasants during the civil war! In an interview with the Spanish El País newspaper, Cazaro gave an account of his discussions with Ortega: "When he called me he said to me that he wanted me very much to join him in his government and I said to him that my ideological convictions are what they are, that I believe in capitalism, and that one cannot play around with inflation; that it’s necessary to maintain very good relations with the gringos [western imperialist powers], with the International Monetary Fund, with the World Bank and that we can’t pick fights with anybody. And he said to me that he was completely in agreement".
Although Ortega and Chávez have both boasted about a close political association, it is unlikely that Ortega will match even in rhetoric the Venezuelan president’s populism. Nicaragua relies on western aid for 35% of its budget and has to import 80% of its electricity from outside the country. It has none of the economic independence that the Venezuelan regime accrues from its oil reserves. In fact, one third of its imports and half of its exports are related to trade with the US.
If Ortega attempts to continue the neo-liberal policies of his predecessors, explosive movements will develop in Nicaraguan society. There have already been student movements protesting against transport cost increases and a six-month health strike for increased wages.
Through these battles and the development of socialist ideas, the Nicaraguan working class and peasantry, resting on their proud and courageous traditions of struggle against imperialism and brutal capitalist oppression, can find a way out of the poverty they face on daily basis. A socialist Nicaragua would provide such a solution. It would also be a fitting tribute to the 50,000 martyrs who fell in the struggle to defend the 1979 revolution against the bestial Contra paramilitaries who sought to crush the will of the Nicaraguan working class and peasantry to struggle forever.
An edited version of this article appears in the December 2006 edition of Socialism Today