Following the triumph of the Sandinista revolution in July 1979, a vast global solidarity movement developed. This provided invaluable support to the beleaguered people of Nicaragua who for ten years were victim to a vast campaign of overt and covert military, political, diplomatic and economic aggression, principally from the US government. Without external support from sympathetic organisations and governments across the world it is doubtful that the Sandinistas would have survived for as long as they did. In the end, Sandinista bureaucratisation, ten years of unceasing war, a massive propaganda campaign and electoral interference, along with the collapse of ‘really existing socialism’ eventually forced the Sandinistas from power in 1990.
The massive international support for Nicaragua and its revolution during the 1980s contrasts with the lukewarm foreign reception that FSLN governments have received since Daniel Ortega was re-elected in 2005. This is puzzling given much-improved economic and social statistics, the fact that the FSLN share of the vote has been increasing steadily since it first won power and the largely positive view of the global left for governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and so on. Why has Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, been singled out for disdain and criticism? Why does the FSLN no longer excite left-wingers in the ‘developed world’? The answer is rooted in the past, in the relationships forged during the 10 years of the first Sandinista government, and in the divisions which occurred after the FSLN lost the 1990 elections.
In the months before their victory in 1979 the Sandinista Front became a broad coalition of groups, which included many members of the former elite. In the following ten years the FSLN grew from a small guerrilla vanguard into a mass political organisation linked to the state and the mechanisms of power. Those with education were in high demand, and rose rapidly in the bureaucracy. Following defeat in 1990, the FSLN was forced to deal with an internal crisis, as well as the political and economic effects of the new government’s right-wing policies.
The crisis led the parliamentary sector of the FSLN to attempt a takeover of the leadership of the Party in order to set it out on a more ‘reformist’ social democratic path. Political differences were exacerbated by arguments over asset grabbing prior to the power handover in 1991, the FSLN’s policy of alliances, as well as personal rivalries within the leadership. The effort to seize the leadership failed, as Ortega and his supporters ably appealed to the Party’s social base to retain the revolutionary legacy. Instead of blaming their defeat in the failure to attract the Party’s base, the social-democrats blamed it on Ortega’s authoritarian tendencies.
What followed was acrimonious division, with the vast majority of the FSLN’s parliamentarians and Party apparatchiks founding a new Party which they called the MRS (Sandinista Renovation Movement) in 1993. Led by Sergio Ramirez, Nicaragua’s former vice-president, the MRS also took a large number of Sandinismo’s leading lights, such as Ernesto Cardenal and Dora Maria Tellez. Having been well known during the 1980s they took with them a decade’s worth of friendships and contacts abroad. Many other educated Sandinistas were forced by privatisations to seek work in the media, business, or in the foreign-financed NGO sector which boomed in the 1990s. Many of them became increasingly critical of the FSLN.
While division was without doubt a serious blow to the FSLN, it also provided an opportunity to revamp the party, to rethink its strategy, and to promote new cadres. While the FSLN had previously been dominated by well-educated Sandinistas from Nicaragua’s traditional elite, now cadres mobilised during the 1980s are at the forefront, people educated by the revolution. Although they lack the ‘legitimacy’ of a guerrilla past, these men and women lived the 1980s revolution in the bottom and middle levels of the FSLN and many fought in the Sandinista armed forces.
Meanwhile the former MRS Sandinistas have lost electoral ground, and their political alliances have moved to the right even while the rhetoric has remained leftist. Lacking a real alternative left-wing national project the MRS has increasingly concentrated on visceral personal attacks, gradually withdrawing from constructive politics. The MRS has received support from US government funded agencies such as USAID and the IRI and NED, and last year the MRS and the PLI were even accused of working with the US embassy in Managua to develop destabilisation plans to create unrest, violence and chaos in Nicaragua around election time. Meanwhile the MRS’ electoral base has shrunk during the 2011 election campaign it became the junior partner in a coalition with the right-wing party PLI. They ended up taking 31% of the vote.
The MRS has accused the FSLN, and Daniel Ortega in particular, of increasing authoritarianism and even of being a ‘neoliberal government’ because of its ‘links’ to Nicaragua’s oligarchy. The MRS has also alleged electoral fraud since 2008, and refused to recognise the last electoral results. In this it is even more vehement than the right-wing opposition, who recognised the results. The reason is most likely related to the fact that unlike the Conservatives and the Liberals, the MRS social base is shifting and its mobilisational capacity shrinking. Its supporters are increasingly not former Sandinistas, but right-wingers. All the opposition, its political parties, NGOs and the media frequently accuse the government of violating human rights, citing the notorious 2006 abortion law as an example, and of using social programmes to gain votes.
These allegations are either baseless or exaggerations. To consider Ortega a dictator is to ignore three electoral victories. While the US and various Western-funded NGOs have criticised some aspects of these elections, they have not deemed them fraudulent. In fact, the election results largely mirror dozens of opinion polls results. Meanwhile the allegations ignore the fact that the FSLN is no longer (if it ever was) a monolithic vanguard organisation. There are the trade unions, then the mass organisations such as the Sandinista Youth and a wide variety of environmental, indigenous and peasant organisations. Finally, there are the Sandinistas linked to the Party apparatus, and the leadership. All feed into the strategic decision-making process. It is true that Ortega has become a figurehead such as never existed before in the FSLN, but whilst this may be seen as a shortcoming in Europe, it ignores his standing in Nicaragua. As one Sandinista said to me “I love Daniel because he has never abandoned us, never stopped working for the people.”
Meanwhile, the abortion law bans abortions and violates women’s rights, but few people are aware that abortion laws are highly restrictive across Latin America, including such enlightened places as Chile and Brazil. The FSLN did not propose the abortion law back in 2005, although it did help pass it (along with today’s opposition) since this was the price of a ‘truce’ with organised religion. Thus, the abortion issue is not a Sandinista problem, it is a Nicaraguan problem and cannot be singled out from Nicaragua’s many social and economic problems.
The real measure of the Sandinista government must be its actions. Through a National Development Plan devised in consultation with business, trade unions and local organisations, the Sandinistas have created economic growth, jobs and improved social services, while undertaking an active foreign policy. The plan has renewed the state’s role in the economy and other fields. The FSLN has also designed an energy policy focused on renewable energy to create reliable energy sources for industry and to turn Nicaragua into an energy exporter.
The overall result is that GDP has grown by a quarter since 2005; in 2010 GDP grew by 4.5%, the highest growth rate in Central America. In education the Sandinista government has restored free education and a literacy programme has eliminated illiteracy for the second time in 30 years. Healthcare has once more been taken out into rural areas. Unemployment and poverty are down. Nicaragua currently spends 53.9% of the government budget on social issues including health and education. Whilst it is clear that much remains to be done, it is also clear that under Ortega and the FSLN, Nicaragua now has a government that prioritises people, and that fights for the interests of the poor whilst pushing for economic development for all.
By Victor Figueroa Clark
Not critical enough of the contemporary FSLN, but it’s a good, brief analysis of the Sandinista Renewal Movement (MRS).