COHA: Nicaragua Under the Second Coming of the Sandinistas

Last November 9, the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) won majorities in most of a series of municipal elections throughout Nicaragua. Because these elections were the first since the national balloting in 2006, in which the FSLN captured the presidency as well as gained influence in the National Assembly, they offer a significant indication of the relative positions of the ruling FSLN and other political parties in the country.

However, the nature of the balloting did not provide a complete view of the relative position of the parties or other political groups in the country. The fact is, according to members of the opposition, numerous critics, and the relatively few observers who were present to record what they saw and heard, there were numerous incidents regarding problems with the conduct of the elections, the counting of the ballots, and perhaps most importantly, with the arrogant attitude of the government.

The Sandinistas won the elections handily, with victories in 105 of 146 races, while the opposition Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) took only 37 seats, and minor parties won 4. Moreover, the Sandinistas captured the mayoralty of Managua, a position considered second in importance only to the position of the presidency. These election triumphs brought great jubilation to FSLN loyalists. However, the elections in general lacked many of the democratic features of other Central American elections, and, in fact, in Nicaragua itself. Many irregularities were reported, international observers were not permitted to function (although a few were present anyway), and there was considerable post-election violence between partisans, resulting in numerous injuries.

Ortega as Seen from Washington
Because of some of the ambiguities surrounding the elections’ legitimacy, the U.S. State Department dredged up complaints which were familiar during past occasions when the Sandinistas controlled the government and as seen from Washington, Daniel Ortega could do nothing right. Moreover, Washington acted to suspend economic assistance to the country for three months on the grounds that the elections were not conducted democratically. There did appear to be an abundance of evidence that the elections could have been staged more in keeping with Managua’s insistence about their democratic nature. But what can be said about the course of this and other events in the country, many of them distinctly controversial, since the return of the Sandinistas?

When Daniel Ortega first came into power on January 11, 2007, the end of the preceding conservative Bolanos administration was characterized as just ‘limping to the finish line.’ It was a government which in fact had accomplished little and although Bolanos had worked to abolish corruption, which was one of his distinctive commitments after taking office, the country still ranked as the most venal in Central America, even after twenty years of post-Sandinista rule. So, in fact, the new government had nowhere to go but forwards.

It was predicted early in his term that Ortega rule would in fact have to face a ‘tricky balancing act,’ as one Costa Rican newspaper called it. The country was deeply divided among competing groups; the Sandinista Party had broken into several factions; the country was facing divisions among ideological blocs; the country had to deal with the complexities of its relationship with the ‘colossus of the north,’ which had done virtually everything in its power to undermine the electoral process that had brought Ortega into office; and Ortega’s rule would be bedeviled by the fact that he was at best a minority presidential candidate who received only enough votes to defeat the other minority candidates by relatively narrow margins. This is the position from which Ortega had to begin his administration in order to face problems dealing with poverty, illness, poor educational services and crime. Intent on bettering relations with the United States, he promptly began to forge new images of peace, concord, and reconciliation. He also strived to better relations with the Church, one of his master poles of opposition.

Views of Ortega and conceptions of how he might be able to deal with such issues have varied widely. Some have referred to him as a ‘fascist,’ others have called him simply, ‘stupid,’ while others have called him a ‘frustrated’ socialist. Others point to his long and deeply controversial sordid ties to Arnoldo Aléman as undermining his credibility. But, by and large, Ortega can best be considered as a very ambitious would-be reformer of the poorest country in Central America. His goals appear to be driven by the forces of reform and by an attempt, by often very controversial methods, to leave his mark upon the image of Nicaragua. It is in this way that his methods often appear to provoke enemies and to leave insoluble problems in his wake, rather than by invoking solutions. But, although his personal conduct tends to create controversy, he certainly will be long remembered in the history of Nicaragua. Now, what are some of the accomplishments for which Ortega deserves to be remembered and for which he will be bequeathing to his country’s history?

The Good and the Ugly
On Ortega’s plus side are a number of accomplishments that must begin with his self-perceived status as ‘El Pueblo Presidente’ (The People are President) approach to public projects. An example of this is his promotion of the new Granada-Nandaime highway as a symbol of his nation-wide ‘offensive against unpaved highways and roads. As he describes it, the building of highways like this one is part of a general ‘The Streets are for the People’ program that will construct 1502 km. of highways in municipalities throughout the country, It should also be noted that this is part of a $26 million program funded under the auspices of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), with assistance from Venezuela. It was publicly argued as helping poor people to have first-class streets that will help to build pride in their neighborhoods.

Another innovative program is Ortega’s ‘Agro Revolution.’ Considering that food is the centerpiece of his government’s National Security strategy, a virtual agricultural revolution is currently taking place in Nicaragua’s countryside in which the public sector is playing an increasingly formidable role. This means that through the medium of cooperatives that work closely with the government, a new reform initiative is now addressing the repairing of roads, clearing landmines, and cultivating a million manzanas (a unit of land) throughout the country. This is part of an ambitious program called Hambre Cero (Zero Hunger) whose objective the total elimination of hunger in Nicaragua. The specific goal is to pull 75,000 families out of poverty and hunger within five years. The program is budgeted at $150 million and is considered to be part of the UN Millennium Development Goal that is designed to eradicate extreme poverty in the world and to reduce hunger to zero, with heavy international funding.

Ortega’s Pluses
Some critics call the current Nicaraguan program merely another form of socialism because it will be based on a broad system of cooperatives. However, the goal is actually to create agricultural independence in Nicaragua in order to counter U.S. and European subsidized agricultural products, many of which have gained greater market access under the Washington promoted Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Ortega has said that he would rather appeal to other Latin American countries (including Venezuela, in particular) for assistance than to go to the United Nations, Europe or, in particular, to the United States.

Another achievement of the Ortega government is the conflation, and centralized encouragement of a free market system in Nicaragua while at the same time managing to talk favorably about socialism. While talking about the latter approach to solving problems, Ortega has in fact endorsed the free market system and has gone so far as to give his personal endorsement to the concept. Although Ortega has bashed ‘savage capitalism’ and has talked about spreading socialism around Latin America, he also has advocated the creation of agricultural cooperatives which will embrace the poorest campesinos, who will be able to to coexist and compete with multilateral corporations and private farmers. In other words, he evidently now rejects his earlier ideas of creating a doctrinaire Marxist economy in Nicaragua. According to economists’ studies on the subject, the Ortega government has been working toward the development of an export-based economy in which state-run and private organizations will be able to co-exist and compete within a democratic governmental system.

Another laudable program being overseen by Oretga’s staff has the goal of eliminating illiteracy in the country by July 17 of this year. There is nothing very new about this ambitious aspiration. After all, in the 1980’s the Sandinistas used their Literacy Crusade to eliminate illiteracy when they were in power.

Ortega’s Critics Voice Another Type of Critique
Ortega has continuously been allied with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and his theoretical principles have secured a good deal of economic assistance through his relationship with his Venezuelan counterpart. Ortega’s close relationship with Chavez has unquestionably brought considerable benefits to Nicaragua in the form of economic assistance as well as membership in the Castro-Chavez ALBA initiative. This also has made Washington very uncomfortable, obviously because one of the clearly stated goals of ALBA is to reduce the U.S. dominance in the Western Hemisphere.

The benefits Nicaragua has derived through the Ortega presidency have been considerable, and the above list contains only a sampling of the more noteworthy ones. But, as pointed out earlier, Ortega, once in power, has inevitably become a very controversial character. To begin with, Ortega has not been an easy colleague upon for which to rely. He has alienated an unusually high percentage of his allies and supporters in the original Sandinista Party for a wide range of reasons. These include his former Vice-President, Sergio Ramirez, the Cardenal brothers, and numerous other allies from the days when the FSLN was the ruling party. The most frequently offered grounds for this alienation is that he has yielded to expedience and an unquenchable lust for personal power and that principle has not always driven him.

According to a poll taken during the spring of 2008, some 64 percent of Nicaraguans said that Ortega is an ‘authoritarian figure acting to establish’ a personal dictatorship. Without a doubt this is the severest criticism of his current administration, and plenty of evidence is offered by his critics to support the claim. For one thing, he has been particularly hostile to the press, as well as to former colleagues and allies. Dora Maria Tellez, who was a colleague and an ardent supporter in the 1980’s, recently led a hunger strike in downtown Managua to protest his authoritarian intentions to abolish press criticism and opposition from anyone who disagrees with his policies.

The Nature of Dictatorship
Moreover, Dona Maria’s widely noted criticism has fostered a popular discussion of the nature of dictatorship in his country. As critics have pointed out, the government has not created a dictatorship like that of the Somoza era. It also has been pointed out that the President might be better described as being ‘authoritarian,’ rather than ‘dictatorial.’ The country sees no secret police and no military on the ready, nor strongman rule as existed in revolutionary times. At the same time it would be incorrect to call the government truly democratic; perhaps it could be better defined as basically ‘under-democratic,’ because it lacks a division of powers and the rule of law, and a strongly-applied constituency traits that would be found in other truly democratic states.

An example of anti-democratic imperfections on the part of the modern-day Sandinistas can be seen in the September, 2008 attack by masked Sandinista partisans (or ‘thugs’ as they are now being called by the press) against a peaceful protest march by former Sandinista Party members who had joined the Sandinista Renovation Movement and who were now accusing Ortega of being a dictator. Dona Maria called the attack ‘pure fascism,’ and accused Ortega of using these kinds of tactics to crush the opposition, and other political parties and to instill fear in the people — all so ‘he can stay in power.’ But there is no evidence that Ortega in any way endorsed the attack.

Perhaps a somewhat more valid criticism is that Ortega has not done enough to end the food crisis in the country; which primarily, has consisted of high prices on both food and cooking oil caused by inflation, which has risen by 5 percent for 2008. Indeed, according to various estimates, the majority of poor families in Nicaragua spend 75 percent of their family income just to keep food on the table. Ortega’s answer to such grim numbers is that the ‘tyranny of global capitalism’ or neo-liberalism, is the real cause of rising food prices. And many experts claim that he could be somewhat correct in embracing some of these judgments although there certainly are other explanations as well. As Ortega points out, the neo-liberal model of agriculture has reduced food availability in poor countries, and should thus be protested. But his critics insist that his creation of agricultural cooperatives and attempts to impose ill-administered and corruption-strewn ‘socialistic’ policies on food production are the real causes of higher prices everywhere.

Then there basically is the impaired economic situation of the country, which has been worsened by the current world-wide economic crisis. One can claim that to an extent, this has been alleviated by Ortega’s cooperative relationship with Chavez..Venezuela has allocated a good deal of subsidized petroleum to Nicaragua over the past two years. So, Ortega’s good relationship with Chavez has certainly paid off. In fact, Ortega has correctly observed that the U.S. recession could actually somewhat ease the severity of the oil crisis in Nicaragua by bringing down world-wide prices.

Currently, Nicaragua is involved in a three-year program with the International Monetary Fund that began in 2007, under the previous government. Recommendations have been made that the country ought to protect and nurture its few and fragile hard currency earning sectors, namely tourism, trade, industry, and commerce. In fact, Francisco Aguirre, the head of the country’s Economic Commission observed that the President should work more to resolve problems. It should also be stressed that the three-month suspension of U.S. aid has certainly done nothing to ease the country’s economic crisis. In fact, the loss of the aid has seriously hurt the country’s economy more than any other single action over the last few months.

There are certainly other criticisms that can be directed to Daniel Ortega’s substantive program and operating style, including his sclerotic temper that tends toward dealing harshly with those who have the temerity to question his policies. His commitment toward using socialistic solutions to resolve economic problems can be explained in part by his close association with Chavez of Venezuela and in part by his own perhaps distant political values as a Sandinista. Moreover, while he certainly is obsessed with a personal odium towards Washington, this can be explained by the fact that the State Department had done everything in its power to bring about his electoral defeat both in 1990 and in 2006. Finally, he certainly always hasn’t proven to be a very tactful national leader, even toward other regional officials, including those in Central America.

By and large, however, it can be said that Daniel Ortega has been a better president with far greater concern about his country’s living standards and its attitude toward its poor and deprived majority, than any Nicaraguan president since the defeat of the Sandinistas in 1990. And, he has been far more successful than almost any other Nicaraguan president in standing up to Washington’s desires to manipulate and dominate the country.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Senior Research Fellow Dr. Frank J. Kendrick

February 5th, 2009
Word Count: 2700

Source: Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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