Daniel Ortega Saavedra of Nicaragua’s Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional is once again president of his country. A hollow shell of the militant Marxist that he was in his first term 1984-1990, one can question how much satisfaction his victory provides for those from Berkeley and elsewhere who trekked to Nicaragua during the 1980s to work for the revolution.
What remains of the dramatic FSLN literacy crusade are mostly moldy books, and the clinics we were shown are mostly closed. Five years after the 1990 Sandinista electoral defeat Tyrion Perkins wrote in Green Left Weekly that “Nicaragua had 60 percent unemployment, 80 percent poverty, increasing illiteracy; an increase in family break-up, and drug addiction which depoliticizes much of the population.”
While little may be left of the substance of the Sandinista revolution, the democratic electoral process they instituted could be said to have swept over Latin America, from Venezuela through, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay, Argentine, Chile, Ecuador, Panama and Paraguay. Although Vene-zuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales appear unusual for their consistent stances for the poor, attention to that sector marks the other new governments, which are led by people who have worked among the poor and who are not from the elite.
In Chile, for instance, President Michelle Bachelet is probably the least left of the new crop of heads of state, but having been a pediatrician in a clinic for poor women she had the inspiration to sign a law providing 14 year old girls in her country the morning after pill without parental interference. The Sandinistas’ political process began with commitment to those in the barrios and farms, and freely contested political elections. A pro-Sandinista journalist wrote in 1986, “For a century we had only two political parties. Now we have twelve.”
The party system allowed a leftist win; prepared for possible un-election with safeguards against a consequent blood bath; and preserved opportunity to be reelected. Ortega won the presidency in 1984, lost it in 1990, and was re-elected this year.
Before the FSLN, the elected left-wing governments in Latin America were typically ousted via tanks, slaughters, citizens disappeared, dictatorship, and a cover of civilization provided by the high clergy of the Catholic Church. Significantly, an official at the Bishop’s office in Managua was caught on tape in the 1980s waxing eloquent about his dream of a massive funeral pyre of Sandinistas in the square.
But down in the barrios people were listening to the liberation theology of the likes of Father Uriel Molina, who preached unity of spiritual uplift and economic transformation, ending services with the song that went ‘The unity of the Latin people Will bring the gorillas’ fall And there is only one road And that’s the unity of all Revolution in Uruguay, Revolution in Paraguay, Revolution in Guatemala, Revolution in Nicaragua, Revolution in Argentina, en todo America Latina. Nicaragua in the 1980s was high stakes international conflict.
American advisors were on the Honduran border. Cuban medics manned Nicaraguan clinics. Momar Kadafi’s “Little Green Book” sold briskly in Managua shops. Among the cultural exchanges was a circus troupe in 1986 that had artists from the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland, East Germany, and Vietnam. It was in this atmosphere that I arrived in Managua in 1984 with a TECNICA computer worker volunteer group.
A guide offered tours of schools and clinics and also asked if we would like to visit the offices of the political opposition. We went to hear the angry tirades, and then accepted the offer to visit the editorial office of the rabidly anti-Sandinista La Prensa daily. After that invigorating stop, we were led to the independent Human Rights Commission - the one for the opponents of the government.
In short, this alleged Marxist totalitarian government had vans ready for visitors who were asked “Can we take you to hear politicians, newspaper editors and human rights activists denounce us?” “What are you Sandinistas?” we visitors asked. “We are the danger of a good example,” we were told with a sly smile.
The new path was begun by a founder of the Sandinista Front, Carlos Fonseca. He and his Marxist comrades discussed what to name their little group, and he said the usual nomenclature, such as Party of the Mobilized Masses, was dull. He proposed that they employ Nicaragua’s well known national hero, Augusto Sandino, a non-Marxist who led the seven year war against a U.S. Marine occupation of the country 1927-1933.
Once the new Sandinistas were in power, programs were in the name of Sandino, as today Hugo Chavez acts in the name of the Latin hero Simon Bolivar. From 1979 until the 1984 elections, the Sandinista government was a group project, and for a while the top junta included the head of the chamber of commerce and the publisher of La Prensa, Violetta Barrios de Chamorro. Her husband Pedro Joaquin Chamorro had criticized the dictator Anastasio Somoza in his paper, for which Somoza had him assassinated in 1978. Violetta’s political trajectory illuminates facets of the Sandinista political process.
In 1980 she resigned from the government over what she considered chaos unfair to business, namely agencies and projects were cropping up pell mell with no central authority granted. But she left quietly, and only spoke out after having been toasted by FSLN officials for her work. Violetta Chamorro was an independent minded woman—lettering her hair grow grey, which “no woman in Nicaragua with enough money for hair dye did,” according to a pundit.
She became an anti-Sandinista in the mode of Democratic Conservative Party leader Rafael Cordova Rivas who in 1986 replied to a snide FSLN quip about his party office locking its doors to all but party members that, the DCP “is open to everyone of all stripes excepting those who take money at the troth of the CIA in Washington.”
While Violetta was “loyal opposition,” her son Pedro Chamorro Jr., who edited La Prensa, developed such hatred of the Sandinistas that he moved to Miami and essentially became a Contra. Remaining with mother was another son Carlos Chamorro, who happened to be the editor of the FSLN daily, Barricada, while uncle Xavier Chamorro edited the nation’s third daily, the left-independent El Nuevo Diario. The revolution was marked by complex alignments in families. “We never discuss politics at home,” a Chamorro said.
The 1990 election put the Sandinistas in the loyal opposition. An FSLN economist had commented in 1988 before having to meet with a contingent of bankers from New York, “Sometimes I think it would be easier to fight for the poor if we were the opposition.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be easy. Incoming President Chamorro was urged by business interests to move quickly to dismantal the revolution. She took her time studying the proposals, and when she did move to close agencies and reign in labor, she refused to physically break certain strikes and demonstrations, in part because she didn’t have the force. The Sandinista process was still in place. The Managua city police were the same low key Sandinista cops known for “community policing” rather than busting heads, and President Chamorro’s commander in chief of the army was the same General Joaquin Cuadra Lacayo who had led the army for the Sandinistas.
Demands upon Violetta Chamorro to return more expropriated land to “the rightful owners” were answered in the negative in 1995, when she coupled a veto of a labor law opposed by business and the IMF with a nod to the left. She signed an FSLN-promoted comprehensive property law legalizing Sandinista grants in land reform during the 1980s. Some 200,000 rural and urban families got title. The law also legalized the properties Chamorro passed out to demobilized soldiers from both the contras and the army after 1990.
The Chamorro conservative government, contrasted with that of her conservative successor, Arnoldo Aleman. He acted quickly and aggressively to privatize state property often in return for kick backs. His brazenness led to his present position, living under house arrest for his crimes. But before the corrupt Aleman left office he faced a crisis of FSLN inspired street riots against his pro-IMF policies. General Cuadra Lacayo publically warned Aleman he had better change his politics or face real trouble. Aleman made a deal (said to have angered all sides), in which Daniel Ortega tabled militant FSLN demands in return for a new electoral law that gave Ortega improved chances for returning to the presidency.
Instead of a top presidential candidate having to receive 45 percent of the votes to avoid a runoff, the new law permited 35 percent, if the candidate was also 7 points or better ahead of the runnerup. In Ortega’s previous losing efforts he never reached 45 percent.
In November 2006 his 38 percent was enough. (An anti-Ortega Sandinista party had 6 percent). Granted, the Ortega that was just reelected is no one we who traveled to Nicaragua can be proud of, none-the-less, it must be admitted that the Sandinistas replaced a stultifying dictatorship with a fragile system of democracy that addresses the poor, and which daring people have now instilled across Latin American.