Over the years, Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s President, leader of the Frente Sandinista Liberacion National (FSLN – ‘the Sandinistas’), and one-time darling of European progressives, has built-up an impressive photo album of snaps with luminaries of the Latin American and Caribbean left; Chavez, the Castros, Morales et al. There is no doubt that he earned his place in the 1980s when he led the Nicaraguan people on their anti-imperialist struggle with the USA but, as I asked at the end of my last blog on Nicaraguan politics [Revolution revisited], does he still deserve to be in such company? Or, given the many criticisms of personal enrichment and authoritarianism levelled against him, would he be better in a police line-up of the now corrupt but onetime freedom fighters, such as Mugabe and Zuma?
Please be clear, I am finding this hard to write. I don’t want to be critical of Comandante Ortega. Throughout life you have to take sides; neutrality in the conflict between the powerful and powerless is to side with the powerful. Despite often having misgivings about those binary choices, I have always tried to be disciplined about my political actions and my utterances (however inconsequential) in public debate. I certainly don’t want to add to the whining by liberals concerned with the niceties of bourgeois democracy or to help those with old axes to sharpen. Intentionally or otherwise, this would mean siding with US foreign-policy. No thanks, not for me. In that particular battle, I chose my side a long time ago.
Nonetheless, those of us on the left can sometimes to forget to balance our other responsibility; to speak the truth to those we appoint as the leaders of our movement. How long have many of us felt deeply uncomfortable about President Zuma of South Africa and yet it is only in the last three months that the South African Communist Party has gone public with its criticism of Zuma and his cronies.
It is with this in mind that, having spent three months talking to people, reading and observing the developments in Nicaraguan public-life then I found it impossible not to reflect on the revolution I witnessed 30 years ago.
Nicaragua’s revolution wasn’t a one-off insurrection against the dynastic Somoza dictatorship. The 1979 revolution heralded changes based on the core values of social and economic justice for the poor and dispossessed. It would not have succeeded without the support of the middle-classes as well as the masses of workers and peasants. They were all promised a new constitution based on pluralism, as well as mechanisms to ensure a properly functioning participatory democracy.
Despite the USA’s covert war against the revolution, a new constitution was delivered under the Sandinistas’ leadership. However, I would argue that the war meant that more directive political styles were necessary to meet the need of the hour; survival.
Either way, free elections were held in 1984, when Ortega won the Presidency and, again, in 1990 when the people voted for Violeta Chamorro, the US-backed candidate, to get the US imperialists off their back.
The Sandinistas respected the vote and the Presidency was transferred peacefully. They maintained control of the National Assembly and Ortega promised to use this position and influence in other areas of civic life (community councils, trade unions) ‘to govern from below’; to defend the huge social and political gains of the revolution. Fair enough.
I remember being less sure about other actions at the end of his Presidency. Labelled ‘El Piñata’ (a children’s party game which results in a mass grab of sweets and goodies), Oretga passed a series of legislative acts to transfer assets seized during the revolution from the old dictator, Somoza, to Sandinista officials. At first, the explanation sounded feasible; this was a short-term defensive act to stop the new President restoring property to Somoza’s former flunkeys. The trouble is that 25 years later there is no evidence that the assets have been redistributed or put back in public ownership.
Then there was ‘El Pacto, a stitch-up between Ortega and Arnoldo Aleman, another US-backed candidate who won the 1997 Presidential election. Alemán was corrupt to the core but clearly not stupid. He developed a strategic alliance with Daniel Ortega to rule without effective opposition by offering employment in public offices and other privileges to key members of the Sandinista party. This was ‘to stabilize the country’. There is little doubt that in return Ortega used his influence with the judges in the Supreme Court to get Alemán off a very long prison sentence.
So far, so bad.
Then in 1995, Ortega’s adopted step-daughter accused him of sexually abusing her over many years. Her mother (Ortega’s partner), Rosario Murillo, denied the allegations. She disowned her daughter. I have no idea at all whether the accusations were well-founded but there is no doubt that Ortega used his influence to avoid a public hearing.
Now here’s the thing. By 2001 Ortega had lost three Presidential elections in a row. I am in clear danger of painting Rosario Murillo as a Lady Macbeth but it is clear that she took control of Ortega’s image. Over time, the Sandinistas were rebranded to promote Danielisimo. Out went the traditional colours, the red and black of the revolutionary years, and in came a really horrible bubble-gum pink and disturbingly bright blue. When Ortega finally got re-elected as President in 2006, Murillo became the Sandinistas’ principal spokesperson.
Good sources have told me that by now the internal party machine, even the selection of municipal candidates (like our local councillors), was controlled directly by her office. By the 2016 election, she ran as Ortega’s Vice- President. The billboards asked for people to vote for ‘Daniel y Rosario.’ Old revolutionary slogans were incrementally jettisoned so by the 2016 election the poll tested strap line on election bill boards entreated votes for Daniel y Rosario, ‘Christian, Socialist, in Solidarity’. They won. We now have Mr and Mrs openly running the country.
Now, this might be all a bit weird, on occasions schmaltzy, on others just part of what people see as the modern political game of branding but other political shifts are deeply disturbing.
While it is undeniable that all of Ortega’s government pro-poor programs in health, education, and micro-financing, have focussed on women and have reduced gender inequality, Ortega’s rapprochement with the right of the Catholic Church (still hugely important in Nicaragua) has been appalling. The woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy was never dealt with properly during the revolution but prior to 2006 ‘therapeutic’ abortions were allowed when the woman’s life was in danger. Just weeks before the 2006 Presidential election (the first of Ortega’s winning run), even this right was outlawed. There is no doubt that this was a major concession by the Sandinistas, led by Ortega and Rosario, to gain the Catholic Church’s backing. They did. There were 82 deaths reported as a result of this policy in the first year alone.
Next there’s the constitution: itself drafted by the Sandinistas in the 1980s. It allowed two consecutive terms as President. Disturbingly, in 2014, this was amended to enable Ortega to run for a third consecutive term. The key legal academic critic of Ortega’s changes to the constitution lost his university employment.
Last year’s elections were also criticised for not allowing international observers. To be frank, this is understandable given the numerous previous attempts by US interests to undermine the legitimacy of previous elections. It must be said that a delegation from the Organisation of American States, led by then Ecuadorean President, Rafael Correa, met with those overseeing the election and gave them a clean bill of health.
However, there were other complaints about irregularities with the electoral roll and legal hurdles put in the way to stop a number of opposition parties standing (not all on the right). Many see Ortega’s hand behind the Machiavellian latter manoeuvre.
I know there are articles suggesting that the criticisms are overblown but it has to be said that I also heard criticisms from Sandinista supporters too. For the sake of balance, I must point out that both the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign (NSC) and the Latin America Bureau have published such accounts. I have supported actively the NSC since my teens but, with regret, the account published is not a view I share. Let me make it clear: the people I heard making the criticisms are solid Sandinistas, active in the Party. People that chose to remain in Nicaragua and defend the revolution against the US-backed contras in the 1980s; those that didn’t try and duck military conscription.
For many of the older generation, especially those still benefitting from policies designed to be popular with the poorer sections of Nicaraguan society, it is difficult to criticise Ortega. They remember his wartime role. I am deeply sympathetic to this position.
Such personal history and loyalty is less obvious with the young. By no means can I claim any representative survey but I did hear an appallingly cynical view from a twenty something that Ortega was the lesser of the evils: “You either get to vote for somebody who will take a 50% cut or you vote for Daniel who only takes 5 or 10%”.
This cynicism is reflecting real concerns that although many of the Ortega Presidency’s social programmes were funded by Venezuelan oil money (before the price of oil crashed and Chavez died), the funds have been funnelled directly via the Presidency and the accounting is less than clear. There is a major stramash over plans to build a new Central American canal to rival Panama’s. Leaving aside (for the moment) environmental concerns, many believe that a cynical land grab is underway, overseen by the Ortega/Murillo clan.
While the evidence is clear that absolute poverty continues to fall under the Sandinistas, some people are still getting very rich. Nicaragua now has its first billionaire (Carlos Pellos Chamorro). Symbolically, that’s just wrong. Before the revolution, four families were essentially in economic and political control of Nicaragua. The Somoza dynasty was given the boot but the three other families appear to still be raking in the cash, only now the Ortega/Murillo clan has joined the quartet, dominating state companies and the political spheres.
In every conversation held about the Sandinista leadership, I tried to mitigate the personal criticism of Daniel, asking whether some of the issues were down to his failure to adapt the command and control style necessary during the war, or whether he really was just corrupt. My attempts to mitigate the criticisms were gently rejected.
The most balanced view I heard was from a middle-aged, unemployed engineer, who was a lifelong supporter of the FSLN. He said, ‘The best thing about Nicaragua has been the Sandinistas and the worst thing about Nicaragua has been the Sandinistas’.
Have the values of the revolution been betrayed? I don’t think it is so easy for Ortega and Murillo, or anyone else for that matter, to ignore the people. I do, however, think that Danielisimo may well have developed beyond a politically shallow and irritating personality cult into something more sinister.
Time will tell. The next election is in 2021. By that time, Daniel Ortega will be 76 years old. If he does not run again but Rosario or one of their clan run instead then, ironically, the Ortegas will have become just another corrupt dynasty.
Please do not dismiss Nicaragua as a crackpot country, presided over by a corrupt President. Against incredible opposition from the most powerful nation in the world, great things have been achieved in this small country. Before passing judgement, we, especially those of us on the left, should spend a moment thinking about the times we have defended leaders in our political spheres when we know there are major questions to answer. How often have we failed to safeguard our leaders from the attraction of short-term political expediency at the expense of long-term development for our movements? How often do we fail to stop those we have appointed as our leaders when they want to take short cuts, rather than build meaningful means for our people to engage in the political process? Of course, discipline and loyalty are essential but we fail when we forget that our leaders must be trusted servants; they should never be considered more important than the project.
10 April 2017