Workers' Voice mailing list
July 24, 2018
RE: From liberation movement to oppressor in Nicaragua
By Joseph Green, Detroit Workers’ Voice
For several months,
starting on April 18, protests against the Nicaraguan government have
spread across the country. President Daniel Ortega has sought to stamp
out the movement through violent repression by police and paramilitary
groups, through shootings, arrests, and raids. As protest marches,
occupations, and roadblocks appeared all over the country, the
repression has grown. By now the death count is estimated to have
reached over 300, with many more injured.
In early April people demonstrated in the capital Managua denouncing the government for not being sufficiently active in fighting a forest fire that burned 13,500 acres in the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve. Then on April 18 protests began against pension cuts in a social security reform. They were attacked by police and pro-government paramilitaries. This enraged the people, resulting in the spread of demonstrations to many other cities. In four days, as anger spread across Nicaragua, the government would back down on the social security reform, but not before many people were killed. Demonstrations would continue, now focusing on the demand for Ortega and his wife, vice-president Rosario Murillo, to step now. Some in the protest movement have armed themselves against government violence, but the death toll is almost entirely from pro-government violence.
The “Mothers of April” are mothers of demonstrators that have been killed by the government. On Nicaraguan Mothers’ Day, May 30, they led a large demonstration in Managua, which was then violently attacked by the government, killing and wounding many people. This was just one of a number of incidents that continue day after day. The violence continued through May and June and into July, with the government seeking to destroy the roadblocks people have built all over the country. Sunday, July 8, was one of the bloodiest days ever, with police and paramilitaries killing over 30 protesters.
But aside from the demand that Ortega must go and the abuses must be stopped, the protest movement lacks a vision for what Nicaragua should be. Moreover, as it became clear that so many people backed the protest movement, it was joined by forces, some of which had even been in alliance with the government. The Ortega government had worked closely with COSEP, the Superior Council of Private Enterprise, but seeing the writing on the wall, COSEP moved into the opposition. Ditto for the Independent Liberal Party. The US State Department had been fine with Ortega’s reincarnation as a neoliberal, although it now denounces the repression. So the working people opposed to Ortega face the problem of what their demands should be, and how to ensure these demands are not swamped by the businesspeople and rightists.
There is also the question of what had happened to the Sandinistas (FSLN) to turn their government into an oppressor. The FSLN had once been a revolutionary force which had the admiration of many people around the world. The Nicaraguan people had suffered for years under the fierce dictatorship of the Somoza family, which lasted for decades until the historic overthrow of Anastasio Somoza in July 1979. This was a great moment for the Nicaragua people. And the FSLN had ended up as the largest force in the armed opposition, and they took power. We, like other anti-imperialist and progressive activists, wholeheartedly supported the Nicaraguan revolution and the following struggle against the US-backed contras and other forms of brutal US imperialist pressure.
But we were also critical of the revisionist policies of the Sandinistas, which undermined the struggle and alienated sections of the working masses including the indigenous Miskito people. We supported the critique of the FSLN by MAP/ML (Popular Action Movement/Marxist-Leninist). Under Somoza, MAP/ML had organized among the working class both trade unions and armed militias. After the overthrow of Somoza, it was the major critic of the FSLN from the left in the period of the 1980s.
The Sandinista government did carry out a series of important reforms in the 1980s. But the FSLN lost the election of 1990, and thus fell from power. They would return to power 16 years later after winning the elections of November 2006, but were, in a sense, no longer the same party. A number of Sandinistas had left the party as they saw the enrichment of its leaders and its conversion into a personal tool of Daniel Ortega. The FSLN had jettisoned most of its reform program. Ortega and the FSLN even backed a law strictly banning abortion. They also stood for a market economy. And as a result of a corrupt pact with the Constitutional Liberal Party, the election rules had been changed, which was why Ortega could win the presidency in 2006 with a vote of only 38%, taking office in January 2007. Since then, Ortega has won reelection in 2011 and 2016, but this was under a situation which had become increasingly repressive, and laws had been changed to make it harder and harder to challenge FSLN hegemony.
The Nicaraguan protest movement deserves support from workers and activists around the world. The revolutionary movement must be internationalist: we cannot be silent and passive when the masses anywhere in the world are being oppressed. But the struggle in Nicaragua is a vexed issue for a substantial part of the American left-wing, because Ortega rules in the name of the Sandinistas, who were originally a revolutionary force. Looking at the process by which a liberation movement becomes an oppressor is not pleasant. But it sheds light on the deep political and ideological crisis in the left. Dealing with this crisis is essential for the revival of the revolutionary left.
Thus solidarity with the Nicaraguan protests should eventually include examining why the FSLN degenerated. While the FSLN has gone down hill over time, with various leaders becoming part of the bourgeoisie, many of its policies date back to when it first took power in 1979. It may not be the same party that it was in the 1980s, but it is descended from its earlier self. By now, there is recognition by many of the harm of the FSLN’s arrogant policy towards the indigenous Miskito people in the 1980s, but there are many more policies from that time to be reexamined. The deals with imperialism and the big bourgeoisie have become more blatant, so that the IMF and World Bank became enthusiastic about the Ortega government, but the FSLN sought such deals before. The repression is much worse than anything before, but the FSLN had already worked to suppress any independent voice from the working masses earlier, in the 1980s. Nor can the role of Cuban Castroism in orienting the FSLN be ignored. It bears a lot of responsibility for what has happened.
Below there are excerpts from a number of articles about the situation in Nicaragua. They are from people with a variety of standpoints, including one from an international volunteer who went to Nicaragua in the 1980s, but they all indicate the basic repressive features of today’s Ortega government. All together, these articles gives a sense of what’s been happening in Nicaragua. <>
Below are excerpts from the blog of Don Macleay. He was described in The Progressive magazine as "one of the thousands of international volunteers who worked in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Together with engineer Ben Linder, he worked to bring hydroelectric power to the small northern village of El Cuá. Today, he is a public schools activist and lives in Oakland, California."
To think of the US role in Latin America as anything other than imperialist is delusion.
But Daniel Ortega and today’s Frente Sandinista has its own inconvenient truths.
It is an avoidance of certain facts on the ground to call what is happening there today mainly the result of some kind of grand CIA plot and therefore dismiss the demands of this uprising against Daniel Ortega, his family and cronies, and what the Frente Sandinista has become today.
So let’s stick to some facts on the ground … and look at what we know for sure.
The first inconvenient truth for the Sandinistas, is that they are not the same Sandinistas.
The current Daniel Ortega government started when he was elected president in 2007. Not only did Daniel’s politics change during the 17 years that the FSLN was out of power, the structure of the FSLN changed too….
The policy change is much more than their pro-Catholic anti-abortion law that took away a Nicaraguan woman’s right to choose. During his 17 years in the opposition wilderness, the ‘new’ Danielista Sandinistas made a pact with the right wing Liberal Party president Aleman that was accommodating impunity to corruption prosecutions and also became the neo Liberal’s best friend falling in line with international (including US) finance and making common cause with the equivalent of the local chamber of commerce called COSEP in employment, tax and austerity policies.
The Liberals, COSEP and the US State Department did not have a problem with authoritarian Daniel for a long time before these protests. It is more they who have changed policies [in now supporting the opposition], not Danielismo….
When the outgoing FSLN government made a property grab on their way out of power in 1990, many many many long standing FSLN members quit the party. Then the FSLN held internal elections making Daniel the party leader.
During the entire revolution and the revolutionary government period, Daniel did not have such power, he was part of a committee leadership group. Almost all of the surviving members of that group, including Daniel’s own brother, are no longer in the FSLN and do not support his current government.
There is an organized Sandinista Renewal Movement as an ineffective split off party, so not even all organized Sandinistas are in the Frente Sandinista. Many other former Sandinista revolutionaries are very vocal public critics of “Danielismo”.
The Ortega government has become progressively more oppressive and repressive during the 11 years since he was elected. The evidence for this has been documented far and wide with some of the primary investigators having close links to the 1979 revolution and first Sandinista government. The reports of human rights groups from inside of Nicaragua have been confirmed by international human rights groups. These are groups that often bite the CIA’s tail and call the United States out for their crimes in other parts of the world.
The Ortega administration actions range from threats against the employment of critics and their family members to threats and actions of personal injury. Such tactics as false legal accusations have been documented. Critics and opponents have been vilified in the press in such a way that their personal safety is in danger from the public that believes the stories. Attacks on protests and individual protestors became more and more common. The pro-Sandinista counter protest groups called “turbas” came back, not as counter protestors, but more like goon squads. …
There [were] giant protests against the pension cutbacks among students and pensioners, and the general public demonstrated their support in the thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands. The size of the crowds and the results of the polls say the same thing: Any honest election held today would sweep the Danielistas out of power. The protest movement has massive public support. …
It is an outrage to see a government calling itself “Sandinista” committing such crimes. For those of us who worked for the revolution, it feels like a betrayal because it is a betrayal of the ideals and ethics of the revolution for which we worked, fought and many of us died.
The protest movement has its own inconvenient truths.
The first of those being that there is no single opposition movement. One could roughly say that there are three: 1 - this new civic alliance brought on by the protests 2 - the same old right wing and its foreign backers trying to exploit the situation 3 - disaffected or dissident Sandinistas who were either already opposing Danielismo at some level or for whom the violence against the people was the last straw. …
By no means are both sides equally guilty [of violence].
There are no para-militaries on the opposition side. There are two definitions of para-military. One is a civilian satellite of the official military or police and the other is a stand alone force, such as a guerrilla army. In this conflict, the Sandinistas have both and the opposition have neither.
The right wing thugs are only running some of the roadblocks and in no way are reflective of the opposition movement as a whole. And local threats and harassment notwithstanding, there is little to none of the systematic attacks on protests, door to door harassments and targeted attacks on individuals that has been typical of the pro-Daniel side.
And there have been few killings from the opposition side whereas the killings reasonably attributed to the police and the para-militaries with them, are the overwhelming majority of all conflict deaths. (A good guess would be about 300 to 5.) The government supporter deaths are in part caused by people fighting back once attacked. …
In Managua the Frente is that of Daniel the autocrat. In other towns the Frente is the local government or the local opposition. Sometimes that is a very positive thing, and other places we have local reproductions of the problems in Managua. There are also “Sandinista” popular organizations, farmers groups and trade unions, many of whom do good service for the people at the bottom. Sandinismo means corruption in one place, it means civil rights and a new water system somewhere else. …
As I write this pro Frente para-militaries and police are clearing ‘tranque’ roadblocks but the protest movement against the Ortega government is not beaten and the protests are not over.
The parenthetical comment above on the number of deaths is by Macleay. Don Macleay’s full blog entry can be found at http://donmacleay.blogspot.com/2018/06/say-it-aint-so-nicaragua.html . The brief bio of Don Macleay in The Progressive can be found at http://progressive.org/dispatches/nicaraguan-protests-are-genuine-issues-diverse-180512/ .
At the end of May, Amnesty International issued a report about Nicaragua entitled "Nicaragua's Strategy to Repress Protest". Below are some excerpts.
From the introduction:
“In response to social protests during April and May 2018, the
Nicaraguan government adopted a strategy of violent repression not seen
in the country for years. More than 70 people were reportedly killed by
the state and hundreds were seriously injured. …
“In order to produce this report, Amnesty International undertook a mission in Nicaragua from 4 to 13 May 2018 to research allegations of serious human right rights violences. During the mission, a team of experts from the organization visted the cities of Managua, Leon, Ciuda Sandino and Esteli.”
From section 2. Timeline of Key Events:
“From the first day of demonstrations, 18 April 2018, the repression of the mainly student protesters by the state security forces and the violent actions of groups linked to the government or parapoliciales (pro-government armed groups), were highlighted on social media, in the media and by human rights organizations. That day pro-government armed groups attacked students at the Central American University (Universidad Centroamericana, UCA). In addition, images of the attack by the same type of group on Nicolas Palacios, a 64-year-old pensions, in the city of Leon intensified discontent, which sparked a continued wave of protest. …
“On 19 April 2018, students from various other universities joined the protests. By the end of the day at least three people had been killed, among them a student and a police officer, and dozens more injured. There were more demonstrations in other departments around the country and there were reports that the authorities had taken at least four media outlets off air. Universities … became defensive strongholds where hundreds of young people sought protection from attacks by government forces and pro-government armed groups.
“On 21 April 2018, reports came to light of the killing of reporter Angel Gahona in Bluefields and the wounding of nine other journalists. The next day there were reports of attacks by the National Police on students who take taken refuge in the UPOLI [Polytechnic University] which left six people injured and one dead. …”
From section 3.3. “Excessive use of force”:
…as of 12 May 2018, 51 people had died as a result of the events described. Of those 51 dead, 47 were people involved in peaceful protest, two were police officers and the remaining two people died while allegedly setting fire to a radio station in Leon.
“In the first five days of protest alone, the Nicaraguan Red Cross treated more than 400 people for their injuries, 235 of whom needed further treatment in health facilities.”
From Section 3.4 Extrajudicial executions:
“…a pattern emerged suggesting that pro-government armed groups, the National Police and the riot police intentionally killed people in a significant number of cases.”
From Section 3.6 Attempts to control the press:
“…On 19 April 2018, the Nicaraguan Telecommunications Institute…, the 100% News Channel, Channel 12, Channel 23 and Channel 51 were pulled off the air. In addition, a radio station in Leon, Radio Dario, was set on fire on 20 April. Its owner indicated government supporters were responsible for the fire.”
From section. 4.6 “Denial of medical attention”:
“Several public hospitals denied access to people injured in the protests for at least a day, …”
From the overall description at the end:
“Amnesty International considers that the Nicaraguan authorities implemented and maintained a strategy of repression, sometimes intentionally involving loss of life, throughout the weeks of protest in April and May 2018.
“In this report, Amnesty International documents how the government not only used excessive force in the context of the protests, but possibly carried out extrajudicial executions in conjunction with pro-government armed groups (parappoliciales)….
“Finally, in order to advance this repressive strategy, the government attempted to censor media outlets, promoted an official discourse of denial of the repression and its consequences and vilified protesters.”
The full report may be found at https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/AMR4384702018ENGLISH.PDF .
From an article in Mother Jones by Marc Cooper about the 2001 elections, where the change in the Sandinista from the 1980s was already quite notable:
“For much of the campaign, Ortega has actually been ahead in the polls, and many observers expect him to regain the presidency. [It didn’t happen until 2006 however.] But few in Nicaragua expect either candidate to ease the country’s economic misery. … the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), led by Ortega, has largely abandoned its principles of social justice, recasting the party in the traditional Nicaraguan mold of political patronage and outright corruption. Over the past few years, Ortega has steamrollered internal opposition, expelled his own allies by the dozens, and forged a power-sharing pact with his right-wing rivals that effectively excludes smaller parties from the political system. The backroom deal also made Ortega a congressman for life—a position that conveniently provided him with immunity from prosecution just as he was facing charges of sexually molesting his own stepdaughter.”
Another passage deals with the accomplishments of the Sandinistas in the 1980s, and the “romance of the revolution”. It then continues:
“Since then, however, the Sandinistas have increasingly grown to resemble those they once vilified. In the brief interim between their election defeat [in February 1990] and the inauguration of their successors, the Sandinistas scurried to grab a chunk of the state they had controlled. In what became known as La Piñata, the FSLN gobbled up 200 cattle and coffee farms, factories, and media outlets and privatized them behind an intricate array of offshore firms, many of them based in Panama. Many of the commandantes, most notably Daniel’s brother and former military chief Humberto Ortega, became powerful businessmen. The party elite were soon managing hotels, factories, even banks. “The Sandinistas have kidnapped our principles and betrayed our purest dreams,” says a middle-aged psychologist who fought in the anti-Somoza insurrection.”
The full article, The Lost Revolution may be found at https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2001/09/lost-revolution/ .
From the May 14, 2018 article "Unexpected Uprising: The Crisis of Democracy in Nicaragua" on the NACLA website, by Courtney Desiree Morris:
“Over the last two weeks, tens of thousands of people—university students, pensioners, environmentalists, feminists, religious leaders, black and Indigenous activists, journalists as well as left-wing and right-wing opposition groups—have flooded the streets of Nicaragua, calling for the resignation of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. The protests have shocked the world and shaken Nicaraguan politics to its core.”
“The administration’s response to the protests was alarming and revealing. On April 19, Vice President Rosario Murillo spoke about the protests during her daily midday address to the nation. In her talk she described the protests as an effort to ‘promote destruction [and] destabilization,’ and decried the protestors as ‘tiny groups that threaten peace and development with selfish, toxic political agendas and interests, full of hate.’ President Ortega responded two days later in a televised speech that echoed Vice President Murillo’s earlier comments. In his speech, he claimed that the protests had been infiltrated and were being manipulated by narco-traffickers, gang members, and delincuentes covertly equipped, financed and directed by conservative political elements in collusion with the radical Right in the United States.”
“These are not the first protests that Ortega has faced while in office. In 2013, a coalition of environmentalists, human rights organizations, black and indigenous activists, and mestizo campesino activists mobilized to protest the passage of Law 840, which granted a concession to the Chinese corporation Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Company (HKND Group) to build an interoceanic canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific to rival the one in Panama. Activists filed 38 suits against Law 840, the largest number of cases to be brought against a single law in the nation’s history.”
“Over the next 16 years [after the FSLN lost the 1990 elections] Ortega would transform himself from a revolutionary to a political strongman who wielded decisive political influence in both the FSLN party and in national politics. During this time, he consolidated his control over the FSLN, purging the party of dissidents who questioned his actions, brokering pacts with rival political leaders, and stacking the National Assembly, the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ), and the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) with his supporters. Upon his re-election in 2006, made possible by changes to the nation’s electoral laws that allowed Ortega to win the presidency with only 38% of the vote, he quickly set about consolidating his hold on state power. The Ortega administration currently controls all four branches of government, the military, and the national police force, and has effectively transformed Nicaragua into a one-party state.”
“Black and Indigenous activists from the Coast, particularly after the murder of Angel Gahona, have emerged as some of the most militant critics of the Ortega-Murillo party-state. While they are explicitly critical of the administration’s assault on the nation’s democratic institutions, they have also criticized the state for its undermining of the nation’s multicultural constitutional reforms as well as recent attempts by the government to charge a group of young Creole men with Gahona’s murder despite eyewitness accounts that allege he was murdered by local police.”
“Political analysts inside and outside of Nicaragua argue that it is a misnomer to refer to the FSLN as Leftist party. Since returning to power in 2007, Daniel Ortega has reinvented himself as a reformed revolutionary willing to do business with the private sector and to accede a certain amount of political power and influence to the Catholic Church in order to secure his own claims to state power. Prior to his re-election in 2006, Ortega oversaw the approval by the National Assembly of one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the hemisphere, which bans abortion even in cases of rape and incest. He has proven to be an adept neoliberal, quietly honoring free trade agreements, increasing foreign investment and the influence of the corporate sector while publicly railing against capitalism and imperialism. Upon taking office, his administration launched a vicious public media campaign against the women’s and feminist movements in Nicaragua, vilifying them as a group of lesbians, pedophiles, witches, and abortionists bent on destroying the heterosexual, nuclear Nicaraguan family. The administration launched a similar attack on the independent media, buying up newspapers and radio and television stations and denying or withdrawing permits for independent media organizations that are critical of the state.
“While the government has maintained a series of successful social programs that are vital for the survival of poor Nicaraguan families, these programs serve a dual role. They are administered by local government agencies known as the Life, Community, and Family Cabinets. Though the Ortega administration claims these institutions reflect the government’s commitment to accountability and participatory democracy, in fact, they are a mechanism of party patronage that allows the FSLN party-state to provide direct social benefits to its supporters while excluding its critics from much needed resources. This has been a critical strategy in Ortega’s efforts to maintain the appearance of democratic rule and electoral legitimacy. Ortega’s wholesale cooptation and weakening of the nation’s democratic institutions contravenes the very values of Sandinismo that defined the revolution as a moment of utopian possibility. In this current iteration of the Sandinista Party, very little leftist ideology remains.”
The full article can be found at https://nacla.org/news/2018/07/11/unexpected-uprising-crisis-democracy-nicaragua .
The article “Capitalist Development in Nicaragua and the Mirage of the Left” (May 18, 2018) by William Robinson relates how the Sandinistas, after losing power in 1990, worked their way into the local bourgeoisie. It points out that
“While the FSLN retains a mass, if dwindling, base among the country’s peasantry and urban poor, the FSLN leadership has made pacts with the traditional oligarchy; suppressed dissent; enriched itself through plunder of state resources and an alliance with transnational capital; and deployed the army, police and paramilitary forces to violently repress peasants, workers and social movements opposing its policies.”
It traces the development of “a new Sandinists elite”, going back to what happened in 1990. At that time, before abandoning power, the FSLN carried out a privatized that handed over to its leaders a good deal of public property. This was known as the “pinata”. Wealthy Sandinistas became landlords and business people, and thus part of the bourgeoisie. Over time, the FSLN forged various alliances with the bourgeoisie as a whole:
“As it made a new bid for office in the 2006 elections, the FSLN assured Nicaraguan and transnational capitalists that it would defend their economic interests, but in turn, they would have to accommodate a Sandinista monopoly of political power. Winning these elections, the FSLN laid out its economic program in a policy document, ‘The New Sandinista Project.’ According to the document, its economic policies would be based on linking up small-scale producers to the large-scale private sector, ‘respect for all forms of property,’ free trade, attracting transnational corporate investment and expanding agro-industry. The program was developed in close coordination with the principal big business association, the Superior Council on Private Enterprise, in what the government calls a ‘public-private partnership.’”
The FSLN economic plan includes social spending, and from what Robinson writes, it seems that the Ortega government essentially claims to be neoliberals with a good heart. In the words of Ortega advisor Bayardo Arce, they had a “market economy with a preferential option for the poor”. As part of this market economy, they used “public-private partnerships”, which are also used by privatizers here in the US as well. Nicaraguan social spending is distributed via Sandinista patronage networks, so that critics may find themselves out in the cold. Meanwhile the Ortega government has sought international investment, and its policies have been praised by the IMF and the World Bank. It was able to combine the market economy with some social programs in part because of funding from Venezuela.
Nicaragua achieved economic growth with this plan, but as with all neoliberal growth, it came at a cost. According to Robinson
“Transnational capitalists prefer Nicaragua over neighboring countries due to extremely low wages, strict worker control and relative political stability achieved by the Ortega government. Workers earn an average of $157 a month, the lowest wage of any maquiladora workers in Central America and estimated to cover barely 33 percent of a household’s basic necessities. In 2016, riot police violently repressed a strike for higher wages, better working conditions and the right to organize independent unions, leading to an international campaign to release those jailed for the action.”
There have also been struggles by environmental, indigenous, and community activists against concessions to gold-mining companies and over the planned construction of the Nicaraguan Canal, which the government touts as an alternative to the Panama Canal. Meanwhile, other problems have arisen as well, such as less and less aid from Venezuela. The result is that the Ortega government has turned more to privatization and neo-liberal measures, and seeks aid from the IMF.
The article may be found at https://truthout.org/articles/capitalist-development-in-nicaragua-and-the-mirage-of-the-left/ . <>
In the article “What does All God’s Dangers tell us about black
history” in the last D/SWV list item of July 14, in the second
paragraph from the end, the word “until” was left out of the sentence
“Slavery never died until World War II.” <>
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Posted on August 1, 2018
Some typos have been corrected.