Nicaragua: The First Year of the Ortega Government — A Balance Sheet

Mónica Baltodano was one of the Guerrilla Commanders of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) during the long struggle against the Somoza dictatorship.  In 1979, she was part of the command structure in Managua that directed the insurrection in the Nicaraguan Capital.  During the subsequent revolutionary period in Nicaragua, she served as Regional Affairs Minister.

Over the past decade and a half, the FSLN has suffered major splits and purges, and an increasing consolidation of power in the hands of Daniel Ortega and his circle of supporters.  In 1996, various widely recognized Sandinistas, including former Vice President and FSLN parliamentary leader Sergio Ramírez, Guerrilla Commander and FSLN legislator Dora María Tellez, and renowned poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal quit or were purged, forming a new political party, the Sandinista Renovation Movement (known as the MRS in Spanish).

In 2005, Monica Baltodano and other major FSLN leaders split from the party over growing unease with Ortega’s increasing authoritarian control over the party and the consequent closure of spaces for discussion and deliberation within the FSLN, the distancing of the party apparatus from the working masses that were its long-time base, and “pactism,” or the Ortega group’s horse-trading with the Liberal Party over political posts and favors.1 The split that occurred in 2005 was national in scope and fractured the party’s remaining mass base, according to Mónica Baltodano.  The immediate cause was Ortega’s purge of former FSLN Managua Mayor Herty Lewites for the crime of challenging him within the FSLN for the presidential candidacy.  The FSLN leaders that were purged or resigned, including former FSLN National Directorate member Henry Ruíz, former vice foreign minister and FSLN general secretary Victor Hugo Tinoco, and Baltodano, then a FSLN member of Parliament, formed a new organization, the Movement to Rescue Sandinism (MpRS are its initials in Spanish).

Mónica Baltodano is currently head of Popul Na, a community development organization, and a member of the Nicaraguan National Assembly, representing the MpRS.

I had the pleasure of conducting an interview with her on January 4 in which we discussed the past year of President Ortega’s administration, the situation in the FSLN, relations with Hugo Chávez, and other issues. The text of the interview follows.

MFN: How do you see, on balance, the past year under the Ortega administration?

MB: The balance is quite negative.

It all began with very positive statements, such as the announcements about establishing free education and health care, increasing academic enrollment substantively, establishing a program called Zero Hunger and another called Zero Usury.  The perspective of new, more equitable economic relations was raised.

Everything seemed encouraging and positive when it was announced that Venezuela was going to supply us, initially, with 10,000 barrels of petroleum per day, which was a little more than half of our national consumption of petroleum.  Afterward, the contract that appeared on the official website covered almost 100% of our petroleum consumption, some 17,000 barrels per day.  According to this contract, Venezuela would receive 50% to be paid out over 20-25 years at 1% interest.  All of this was positive.

The announcements proclaimed forthcoming advances.  But, what was the result at the year’s end?  That the Venezuelan petroleum is administered and managed privately.2 So, the benefits of the proposed long-term credit under soft conditions are not for the Nicaraguan state.  In education and health, it’s true that the government has made an effort to do away with hospital and school bills, but these efforts have not had a major impact, because they haven’t been accompanied by other policies, as seen, for example, in the problem with medicine supplies.  Both the 2007 and the 2008 budgets show a per capita reduction in resources available to purchase medicines.

On the other hand, there were great expectations in terms of social policies, because it is claimed that the government has revolutionary roots, and that its discourse and its commitments were always historically on the side of the poor.  However, there have not been major social advances.

The impact of inflation and the lack of economic growth on Nicaragua’s impoverished masses really underscore that the 100,000 new jobs that should have been created for young workers entering the labor force were not created, nor has emigration diminished, nor has housing been constructed.  The increases in school enrollment were ridiculous when compared with the need in this country.

From the political point of view, the results are absolutely negative.  From the beginning, this government has shown a clear tendency to ignore laws and legality, an authoritarian, dictatorial tendency.  This exploded as a crisis in the last trimester of 2007.3

MF: What is the significance of the Citizens Power Councils (CPCs)?

MB: The CPCs are a political organizing project of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.  The Sandinista Front, as a revolutionary party, has slowly disappeared.  The party’s institutions and organs have now ceased to exist — the National Directorate, the Sandinista Assemblies, congresses, consultative spaces, all this has disappeared and given way to a personal and matrimonial power structure and party organization.

Rosario Murillo, who is not invested with any political authority in practice, has been constructing her own power structure, based on the position she was given as presidential communications coordinator, and based on decisions made by fiat, because, in reality, the legal basis is very precarious.  But, starting from that, they have organized a network in an effort to bind together what’s left of the Sandinista ranks, but in a mixture of party and state — which is what is being questioned.  No one questions their right to organize their own party structure as they see fit, although they should also submit to legal regulation as a political party, something they ignore in practice.  So, in terms of the future of the CPC, they are apparently going to continue functioning as a body that manages state affairs, and state resources — fundamentally resources generated through Venezuelan petroleum donations — will be used to finance these party-state bodies.4

MF: Do you see the FSLN moving in the direction of the PRI?5

MB: Yes.  I began to distance myself from Daniel Ortega, when he gave clear indications of a PRI-ist tendency, not only for his real abandonment of any defined ideological conception, but from any conception of party organization that favors collective decision-making, political formation of cadre, and adherence to principles and values and not to personalities.

In fact, a clear process of corporatization began after the 1998 party congress, when the parceling out of political offices began — which, in this case, had the originality of being accomplished by the opposition.  The opposition force was able to achieve constitutional coverage for a distribution of municipal governments and now, executive offices, among its associates.

MF: Could you explain a bit more about the relationship between Daniel Ortega and Hugo Chavez?

MB: I want to point out that Hugo Chavez was no saint in Daniel’s eyes during a good part of Chavez’ first terms of office.  They didn’t have any kind of relationship, because Daniel was rather more concerned about removing his taint as a leftist and a revolutionary, with the goal of winning elections.  With that goal, he engaged in horse-trading pacts with the contras, with the Catholic Church hierarchy, with Arnoldo Aleman, and Hugo Chavez simply didn’t figure within his circle of friends.  This relationship developed during the electoral campaign of 2006.  And it began with campaign finances made by Hugo Chavez through donations of urea.  So, Daniel aligned himself with the discourse and the logic of those relations, especially after his electoral victory.

I would say, it shows Daniel’s inconsistency, because if you read all his proposals and electoral speeches, his discourse is bland and decaffeinated, and lacks the logic that he began to develop later.  So, I believe that his relationship is rather one of self-interest, because Daniel is no longer a revolutionary, nor is his goal to promote a revolutionary project.  If you research his speeches and proposals, there is no project of social transformation.  Rather, there is a populist project for attaining power, for the perpetuation of the economic interests of the group that surrounds him, for which Hugo Chavez’ support serves him quite well.

Hugo Chavez is providing funds that Daniel needs in order to patch up the social crisis, without affecting either local  or international big business.  He lambasts capitalism, the transnationals, the IMF, and imperialism.  But his speeches are pure rhetoric, because, in practice, he seeks the best relationships with Nicaraguan capitalists, with the Pellas, the Fernandez Holman, Zamora, with the masters of finance capital.  He denounces the United States, but enjoys good relations with the U.S.  He immediately provided the Group of Seven (the industrialized nations known as G7, now known as G8) with the fig-leaf that they were going to donate some ambulances and medical supplies.  He denounces FENOSA (the Spanish energy company that controls Nicaragua’s electrical supply), but grants FENOSA rate increases above those granted by previous governments.

MF: Daniel says he is a prisoner of FENOSA. . . .

MB: Yes, and he also says he’s a prisoner of the IMF, but the plan that he is implementing with the IMF, for the first time, was completely designed by the government.  The proposal was presented by the government and not imposed by the IMF.  So, really, there is a huge gap between Daniel’s discourse and his practice.

MF: If you could discuss this with Chavez, what would you tell him?

MB: I would ask him to continue supporting and showing the willingness to help that he has shown so far, but to do it transparently.  I would suggest that he manage to have the funds flow through the Nicaraguan state budget, so that they are really applied to the social debt.  It is inconceivable that no one knows where money donated by the Venezuelan people is ending up.

MF: How do you see the current situation within the FSLN?

MB: Apart from what I’ve already mentioned, the process of dismantling the FSLN, as a revolutionary force, didn’t begin recently.  It started many years ago.  The point of no return, for me, was in 1997-8, when Arnoldo Aleman won the presidential elections. Daniel had been promoting popular struggles, but, what happened?  These struggles that were apparently waged against attacks on revolutionary transformations and conquests always had a subterranean component, a component related to Daniel’s personal economic security and interests, and an important component related to property.

MF: Would you say that the struggles of the Nemagon6 workers was related to this?

MB: Exactly.  He divided the struggle of the Nemagon workers.  Negotiations remained in the hands of a part of the banana workers, who were awarded 25% of the property, but management of that property ended up in the hands of some labor leaders, all of whom are supporters of Daniel Ortega.

So, each struggle had a hidden agenda involving distribution of power and property, which many of us didn’t see in time, and which were shaped by a series of common interests among a sector of the FSLN.  But, the masses ended up realizing that they were achieving very little for their own benefit.  This brought about the demobilization of mass struggles.  That process of demobilization bottomed out at the beginning of 1997, when Daniel could no longer mobilize people for his well-known road-blocks.  Then, he opted for the path of “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”

A race for control over the party began, with a plan for bargaining, which ended up privatizing the FSLN.  Daniel eliminated political formation, internal debate, mechanisms for collective decision-making and substituted himself for the party with an absolutely authoritarian logic of leadership.  People ended up identifying Sandinism with Danielism, with adherence and subordination to Daniel Ortega.  The latter resonates with all of the classical right-wing mechanisms that form part of Nicaraguan political culture: caudillism, bribery, loyalty to personalities and not principles, appropriation and division of goods and power among associates and friends.  We, who should be struggling against these things, as the force for new ideas and new values, ended up as part of Daniel Ortega’s power structure.  And Daniel Ortega’s latest tool, which for me is the most shameful, is his use of religious icons and figures.  Consequently, you see a government giving directions to all the ministries to put up altars to the Virgin, that is mixing religious and state activities.  This includes the embrace of the most backward religious ideas.  You would suppose that the FSLN is a progressive force for change, promoting culture, development, technical and scientific skills, to make the people protagonists of their own history, and not simply manipulated and used.

It’s terrible when I speak about these things, it makes me furious and is depressing, because, besides everything else, it is constructed on a now imaginary collective that was built with much blood and sacrifice.

So, now, you have a mass of people that feels itself to be Sandinista, but has no access to decision-making.  It represents nothing more than a vote.

1  For a more complete analysis by Baltodano of the trajectory followed by the FSLN since 1990, see Monica Baltodano, “Porque Otro Mundo es Posible y Necesario, El Sol Sale del Sur, el Sol nace de abajo,” Rescate del Sandinismo e Izquierda Democrática, 12 December 2007; Monica Baltodano, “¿La izquierda gobierna en Nicaragua?” Rebelión, 11 September 2007; Monica Baltodano, “Debemos desnudar los planes de Daniel Ortega desde la izquierda,” Envio 309, December 2007.

2  For recent articles on this controversy, see “MRS propone ley para distribuir ganancias por petróleo,” Radio La Primerisima, 14 May 2007; Eduardo Marenco, “Exigirán informe de cooperación venezolana,” El Nuevo Diario, 20 February 2008.

3  Referring to a conflict between governmental branches that originated in the controversy over the status of the CPCs.

4  For a fuller discussion by Baltodano of the role of the CPCs, see Monica Baltodano, “Debemos desnudar los planes de Daniel Ortega desde la izquierda,” Envio 309, December 2007.  For the FSLN’s view on the CPCs, see Lourdes Arróliga, “Los CPC, los gabinetes populares y los Comités de Liderazgo Sandinista (CLS),” Radio La Primerisima, 3 September 2007.  For another critical perspective, see W. Grigsby, “CPC no deben ser órganos del Poder Ejecutivo,” Radio La Primerisima, 12 December 2007; or W. Grigsby, “CPC no pueden ser impuestos a la sociedad,” Radio La Primerisima, 30 November 2007.

5  The Institutional Revolutionary Party was the authoritarian party that governed Mexico for over 70 years and was characterized by a fusion of state and party bodies.

6  Over 5,000 banana workers and their families were poisoned by pesticides produced by the transnational Nemagon and used by banana producers in the western regions of Leon and Chinandega.  They initiated a long struggle in the late 90s for medical attention and compensation, including from several transnationals.  They managed to achieve some legal relief legislation under the government of Enrique Bolanos, which has yet to be honored under the Ortega government.  For more information, see José Adán Silva, “Protesta invisible en Ciudad Nemagón,” Agencia IPS, 22 August 2007.

Michael Friedman is a Ph.D. Candidate in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior at City University of New York.

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