Nicaragua: 21st century Sandinismo – or losing the revolution?

The left is split over the achievements and compromises of today’s Sandinistas, following the re-election of Daniel Ortega as president in November. Here we present two views

August 8, 2012
13 min read

21st century Sandinismo

Victor Figueroa-Clark defends the FSLN’s programme

In November Daniel Ortega and his FSLN party won Nicaragua’s presidential and parliamentary elections. While supporters say that the Sandinista governments since 2006 represent the second phase of the revolution started in 1979, opponents claim that the FSLN has betrayed its origins, and the government is in the process of installing what they call a ‘Danielista’ dictatorship. With so many former Sandinistas among the ranks of the opposition, a look at the measures taken by the Sandinista government can help to determine whether ‘21st-century Sandinismo’ lives up to its name.

Nicaragua is still the second poorest country in the western hemisphere. An earthquake in 1972 was later followed by civil war, leading up to the revolutionary victory in 1979. After visiting Nicaragua that July, Costa Rica’s president wrote to his fellows at the OAS to say, ‘Today Nicaragua is a nation destroyed.’

There followed a ten-year war imposed by the US’s Reagan administration as part of its efforts to ‘roll back’ communism. The world’s wealthiest country went to war on one of the poorest using a proxy army. The war killed 50,000 Nicaraguans and maimed many more. Enormous damage was done to the economy. In 1987 a hurricane almost finished off what Reagan had started. The gradual withdrawal of Soviet support exacerbated the crisis. The war continued – and in the 1990 elections the US pumped millions into financing the Nicaraguan opposition and the FSLN lost.

Shattering defeat

Despite the war, economic crisis and the collapse of ‘existing socialism’, the FSLN garnered 40 per cent of the vote. But the defeat was unexpected and shattering to Sandinista morale. It ushered in years of neoliberal governments that privatised and ransacked the state, ignoring the 1987 constitution. Rural areas were abandoned, there were no real plans for national development and little investment outside new free trade zones, malls and motorways for the rich. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs, forced into economic exile or the grim shadow world of the ‘informal sector’. Illiteracy, malnutrition and disease began to take their toll.

By the time the FSLN won the 2006 elections, Nicaragua had endured 16 years of this. According to UN figures, 27 per cent of the population suffered malnutrition; 22 per cent were illiterate. In 2005, 48.3 per cent of the population lived in poverty and more than 17 per cent in extreme poverty. A study carried out in 2007–08 found that 58 per cent of Nicaraguans were unable to access adequate healthcare as a result of privatisation and lack of investment.

Per capita GDP grew by only 0.6 per cent a year in the 1990s, and although growth averaged 4 per cent after 2000, this wasn’t enough to bring people out of abject poverty. Inequality was immense and growing. The top 10 per cent of the population accounted for 41.3 per cent of income, worse even than under the dictator Somoza.

Illiteracy has again been eliminated. Photo: Jenny Matthews

National plan

This was the reality that the FSLN was committed to overcoming. Going back to its roots, it concentrated on building relationships with social movements, and these, together with trade unions and the business sector, came up with the National Human Development Plan. This advocated a renewed state role in the economy, prioritising infrastructure and poverty elimination programmes. The FSLN also designed an energy policy that focused on renewable energy, to create reliable energy sources for industry and turn Nicaragua into an energy exporter.

The FSLN knew that coming to power would create international challenges, not least with the US, so they continued the Sandinista commitment to regional integration. The final element of the strategy was to strengthen democracy, building new participatory structures to bypass representative structures permeated with corruption and bureaucracy.

The economic measures of the national plan have had concrete results, partly thanks to government efforts, partly due to high coffee prices. The government has worked hard to find new markets in Latin America, the EU, Russia and China, and through ALBA (the Bolivian Alliance for the Americas trade group), Nicaragua’s exports to Venezuela have risen massively. As a result, GDP has grown by a quarter since 2005. Exports are up 77.3 per cent since 2006 and currency reserves have doubled. In 2010 GDP grew by 4.5 per cent, the highest growth rate in Central America. It is clear that the Sandinista economic policy has been a success, and although it remains vulnerable to fluctuations in commodity prices, there has been progress in diversifying products and markets.

Economic growth has been possible because the shortages of fuel and blackouts of yesteryear have been ended. Oil from Venezuela has subsidised this process and allowed the government to diversify energy production. Nicaragua now has hydroelectric, geothermal, wind and solar energy plants. The electricity grid has been extended to connect the Caribbean coast, although 100 per cent coverage is still to be achieved. The aim of the renewable energy projects is to make Nicaragua’s energy 90 per cent renewable by 2017, although it is unclear how far Nicaragua’s dependence on oil has been reduced.

Other infrastructure projects have included the construction and improvement of 6,000 kilometres of roads and new bridges connecting the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Much work has also gone into improving water systems, providing clean water to hundreds of thousands of people.

Health and education

As in the 1980s, the most noticeable changes have been brought about in health and education. Government statistics point to a reduction in maternal mortality, and although the detailed figures are contested by the opposition, the overall trend is down. Medical brigades from Cuba and Nicaragua have returned to the countryside. The majority of municipal health centres are now open 24 hours.

The extension of free healthcare has been supplemented by the provision of food, transport and energy subsidies for the poor. With free school meals, these have allowed Nicaragua to reduce malnutrition.

In education the Sandinista government has restored free schooling and eliminated illiteracy for the second time in 30 years. Critics point out that thousands of children are still not enrolled in the education system, but the government says it is taking steps to resolve the problem. According to the Ministry of Education, spending on education has increased from 4.8 per cent of GDP to 5.5 per cent in 2011. Nicaragua currently spends 53.9 per cent of its budget on health and education. While much remains to be done there has been a notable change of emphasis.

The opposition implodes

Meanwhile, the political opposition to the FSLN has imploded. In November, Ortega won the presidential election with 62.5 per cent of the vote and the FSLN won a majority in Congress. The strength of popular supportt for the FSLN platform was such that its opponents even promised not to scrap Sandinista subsidies or health and education programmes.

Lacking a popular agenda, the opposition concentrates on trying to undermine the legitimacy of the Sandinista government, using its excellent international contacts and domination of the media. A lack of mass political support has provoked it into extremism. It is as if it cannot believe that its lacklustre showing can be due to a lack of convincing political arguments, and can therefore only be the result of an ever more pervasive ‘Danielista’ dictatorship.

Neither Ortega nor the FSLN is perfect and they reflect existing contradictions in Nicaraguan society. However, since 2007 Nicaragua has made significant progress. It remains poor, and clearly has a long way to go before overcoming the challenges of poverty, deprivation and the legacy of chronic want and underdevelopment. However, under the Sandinistas it has made a promising start to what will be a long journey.

Dr Victor Figueroa Clark completed his PhD on the Sandinista Revolution at the LSE, and is a guest teacher in the LSE’s International History Department where he teaches US-Latin American relations. He is currently writing a political biography of Salvador Allende, due out in Autumn 2013 with Pluto Press.

Winning elections, losing the revolution

The FSLN of today is very different from the organisation that emerged from the revolution, argue Alberto Cortés-Ramos and Martha Isabel Cranshaw

After the FSLN lost the 1990 elections, Daniel Ortega gradually became the main visible reference in the party leadership. This process, which started before the elections, was reinforced by the so-called ‘Ortega–Alemán’ pact in 2000. By this, each recognised the other as the main leader of their respective parties and decided to divide control over public institutions among their loyal partisans in a booty‑type way, typical of the Latin American caudillo traditions.

Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s wife, has played an increasingly important role in this new dynamic within the party, especially after the serious accusation of sexual abuse made by Murillo’s daughter against Ortega in 1998. Faced with this accusation, Murillo stood by her husband, playing a key role in his defence. Afterwards her loyalty gave her great power. She was the head of the 2001, 2006 and 2011 election campaigns. Indeed, after the 2006 victory she was kind of de facto prime minister, putting in key figures loyal to her and dismissing ministers, officials and party cadres that threatened her power or did not toe her line.

Radical ethic overturned

A second aspect of the transformation of the FSLN has to do with ethics. FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca Amador imbued the organisation with a strong ethical component, derived from its revolutionary ideas and expressed in a contempt for material accumulation. This ethic was reinforced by the theology of liberation and the significant presence of the poet Ernesto Cardenal and other members of the popular church. This radical ethic was essential for the FSLN to maintain the moral authority and support of the Nicaraguan people during the hard years of war caused by the counter-revolution.

The billboard reads ‘To fulfill the people is to fulfill God’. Christian references are now common in Sandinista communications. Photo: Jenny Matthews

However, shortly after electoral defeat, there was a debate within the FSLN about what to do with the state enterprises and properties. One side said the FSLN should defend the state and cooperative property created during the revolution, while the other advocated transferring as much property as possible to party members, to be later transferred to the party itself. This ‘pragmatic’ position won with the support of Daniel Ortega, generating a profound disenchantment within and outside Nicaragua, especially when the commitment to transfer property to the party was never fulfilled.

This privatisation and appropriation of public property, known as the ‘piñata’, was the germ for a new generation of Sandinista businessmen during the 1990s. And with it came a new atmosphere of resignation. Orteguismo assumed that in order to survive the Sandinistas had to employ the same means and morality as their opponents. This transformation led to later divisions within the FSLN. Dissidents were expelled and the pragmatic group, headed by Ortega, consolidated party control.

Adapting to neoliberalism

The emergence of a Sandinista entrepreneurship, linked to the hegemonic group, took place in the international context of neoliberal development and privatisation of the public sector, a trend against which Ortega offered no serious resistance. Again, this marked a break with the position of the party during the revolution. At that time, the FSLN was seeking a radical transformation of the productive structure, property and social relations. It was trying to create a new kind of society, democratic and just, with a mixed economy in which both public and social ownership would play a strategic role.

During the 1990s and up to the present, the FSLN not only abandoned the revolutionary programme but adapted itself to neoliberalism. Two indicators confirm this shift. First, the FSLN did not oppose a free trade agreement when it was negotiated by President Bolaños, and did not attempt to reject or renegotiate it once it took office in 2006. Second, while the Ortega government has received massive financial support from Venezuela, it has channelled it through the Sandinista business sector rather than through the state. Today, 22 years after the discontinuation of the revolution, the FSLN has economic interests in various sectors of the economy: tourism, construction, financial sector, agricultural production, trade, services and petroleum products, among others. This has facilitated it reaching agreements with Nicaragua’s traditional big capital and leading families, which has undermined the transformative potential of the FSLN.

Religious transformation

Meanwhile, the religious transformation of the presidential couple has influenced the whole way the party operates. This has led to conservative policies, including the prohibition of therapeutic abortion and the rejection of gay marriage.

Unlike the FSLN during the revolutionary period, the Ortega–Murillo couple broke with the feminist movement and are now allied with conservative figures, such as Cardinal Obando y Bravo, who was a bitter enemy of the revolutionary process in the 1980s. Now the discourses and iconography of the party are full of Christian religious references and symbols.

During the revolution, the Sandinistas promoted grassroots empowerment and democratic participation, even if the ‘Contra’ war and permanent militarisation undermined this effort. Today’s ‘councils of citizen power’ might echo this effort, but in practice have proved to be partisan and even instruments of personal power that exclude the participation of independent civil society organisations.

While access to certain public services has improved under Ortega, in general social policy is aimed only at the survival of the beneficiary families and not the transformation of Nicaraguan society. The government has accepted IMF proposals for reform of social security, against union opposition, and health policy has been skewed towards Sandinista business interests in the pharmaceutical sector.

A final point has to do with the other powers of the state. From the Ortega-Alemán pact onwards, the supreme court and the electoral supreme council became institutions controlled by supporters of the two caudillos. Later, Ortega took advantage of the confrontation between right-wing rivals Aleman and Bolaños to complete Sandinista control of these powers. This has allowed openly partisan use of the justice administration and corrupt handling of recent elections, which have resulted in accusations of fraud both locally and internationally.

The Sandinistas may be winning elections again, but they are now accommodated to a neoliberal logic. As the great poet Pablo Neruda said in another context: ‘They, of that time, are no longer the same . . .’

Alberto Cortés-Ramos is professor of political science at the University of Costa Rica. Martha Isabel Cranshaw is co-ordinator of the Leadership Committee of Nicaraguan Migrants

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