A Victory for the Left in Nicaragua? Alejandro Bendana

Not quite. One might first ask what is the left, what does it mean to be left in 2006, and what does it mean to be left in 2006 in Nicaragua. This is not to fall into a post modernist relativist trap, because indeed there are permanent ”indicators”, as it where, that throw light on the social and historical significance of the return of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) to State power.

The surest indicator that something is progressive socially is the attitude of the United States Government, more so in its own ”backyard”. Throughout the electoral campaign, as indeed ever since the FSLN’s armed access to power in 1979, Washington’s position was one of hostility and active intervention. The US Ambassador and three Bush Cabinet ministers appeared to be running for office themselves in Nicaragua taking every public occasion to warn the electorate of the dire consequences of an Ortega victory. Suspension of aid, blocking of migrant remittances from the US (on which half of the population depends directly or indirectly) formed part of the intimidation campaign ultimately failed in preventing an Ortega victory, or indeed in uniting the badly divided right wing Liberal Party to present the now classical anti-Sandinista bloc that, numerically at least, still counts with a majority electorate.

The second indicator of a progressive social content was the in that 38% of the electorate that, through thick and thin, evidently hangs on to the hope and the redemption represented by ”sandinismo”—the legacy of Sandino and of the FSLN in its war against Somoza.

The incongruous question however is whether both the US government and the Sandinista voters are making a big mistake in believing that the present FSLN under the leadership (and control) of Daniel Ortega can or wishes to break with the neoliberal model. This indeed may be the acid test of what is left (and what is not left or is simply soft left). Such a distinction needs to be made particularly among those, principally outside of Nicaragua, that annoyingly are either welcoming or warning against the spread of elected ”left” governments in Latin America. There is of course of world of difference between the governments of Cuba and Chile, Brazil and Venezuela, or for that matter the ”left” governing coalition in Uruguay whose policies are indistinguishable if not worse than those of a neoliberal Costa Rica.

It would be dangerous in any case for wishful thinking to take the place of hard analysis or to ignore the quite specific contexts of each national setting. In Nicaragua it is well accepted across the board that there was no ”left” electoral mandate. In fact, it was there was no mandate let alone left: Ortega won with approximately 39% of the electoral vote, a percentage lower than that attained in previous elections when he instead lost. In the past four elections including 2006, the FSLN has failed to break through its ”electoral roof” of some 41-42% where according to the previous Constitution a 45% minimum was required to attain the Presidency (mandating a run off if no candidate reached that minimum in a first round).

The Price of Power

In what will be recorded as a historical tragedy and ideological suicide, Ortega’s FSLN proceeded to elaborate a strategy for regaining office and breaking through the numerical lock. First, he negotiated a much repudiated constitutional change agreement (the ‘pacto’) with Arnoldo Alemán, former President who had recently been convicted for mass corruption. Under the terms of the Pacto Alemán would be given first immunity and then a pardon if necessary in return for the Legislative votes necessary to effect a change in the Electoral Law bringing down to 35% the level needed to win the Presidency in the first round. As part of the same strategy, or through sheer luck, the Liberal Party suffered a division pitting the followers of Alemán against a breakaway Liberal Party (Alianza Liberal) headed by a US-approved technocrat banker, Eduardo Montealegre. That division (bitterly criticised by the US) sealed the fate of the election as neither faction reached 30% on its own (although together they counted for 53%). A breakaway ”moderate” Sandinista group—the Movimiento Renovador Sandinista—scored a disappointing 9%.

Second, Ortega meticulously prepared a campaign (run by his wife Rosario Murillo, now surely the second most powerful figure in the FSLN) to appeal to every possible voter. Much to the shock of long time Sandinistas, Ortega followed through his vague public embrace of ”peace, love and reconciliation” by making political deals with long time political adversaries, including leaders of the old Somoza party and the Contras, one of whom was hand-picked for the Vice Presidential slot while others were promised prominent government and legislative slots.

To the dismay of independent women’s groups and liberation theology-minded Christians, Ortega embraced the Catholic Church hierarchy taking communion, receiving confession and even getting married to his common life partner. And through the Church he reached out to the conservative catholic population even to the point or ordering Sandinista legislators to support a repeal of the century-old law permitting therapeutic abortion, allowing Nicaragua to join Chile and El Salvador as the only Latin American countries with such a reactionary position, the product of Pinochet era laws and of the Jesuit-murdering regimes respectively.

Ortega also reached out unabashedly to Washington, international and Nicaraguan financial capital, seeking in vain to mollify their historical animosity. Nicaraguan social movements and independent NGOs were outraged as FSLN deputies approved the Executive’s neoliberal agenda including investment treaties, privatizations of public utilities, corporate tax breaks and, worst of all, the Central America Free Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA). At the same time candidate Ortega promised to end poverty and borrowed the Vatican’s critique of ”savage capitalism” (which was to say, of course, that a non-savage capitalism is possible and that socialism is not required). The Bush Administration was not convinced, but in the end former President Carter, as an electoral observer, spoke to Secretary Rice and asked that President-elect Ortega be given the benefit of the doubt.

But neither Washington nor the capitalists are willing to concede that easily. The strategy seems to be one of pushing Ortega to make even greater concessions and make more promises, now actively supporting CAFTA and the free market. Very likely the eventual cabinet appointments will probably draw on candidates already being proposed by the business sector and by the World Bank. Unsurprisingly, the every suspicious right is now demanding that an Ortega government deliver on its market-friendly promises and pro-private sector commitments.

What to Expect

This is not to say one must give up on a new Ortega government, which in any case will be more than a personal proposition. The call is caution and realism, given the new government’s limitations both objective and self-imposed, but not at the expense of the responsibility to build a better world. If, as some suspect, the bid has been one for power at any price and for power’s sake, with the considerable capacity to exercise patronage for loyal followers, that limited agenda will soon reveal itself and no doubt it is one pushed by important figures in the FSLN.

But then there are other promises and expectations by and for the poor, the FSLN´s historical supporters, who have suffered the indignities of 16 years of neoliberalism. With 27% of the country undernourished, massive emigration rates and equally massive dependence on remittances and foreign aid, the fundamental priority should be on attacking hunger and unemployment, while transcending the limits of the neoliberal model.

How an Ortega government will deal with the two constituencies remains to be seen. What is certain is that the social movements and organizing efforts will grow in strength and independence in the light of the new government’s existential ambiguities. At the very least, their role is to exercise pressure to counter the already mobilizing force of capital and the United States. How and if the Venezuelan government can inject itself into this arena is not clear, but insuring a Venezuelan markets for Nicaraguan primary produce deemed or made ”non-competetive” in exchange for oil products and fertilizers is a start.

What to Demand

Ortega may have carried the party to victory, but if it chooses to be the progressive administrators of an ongoing neoliberal regime, then that electoral victory will turn into historical defeat as the FSLN loses what little is left of its revolutionary principles and values. Indeed, it would spell the end of the FSLN in all but name.

If the international left chooses to give Ortega uncritical support, it must also ask itself whether maquiavellian back room dealing are an acceptable attribute of a left movement, as well as pose the question whether an individual under credible accusations of sexual abuse of a minor should can be reconciled with national and international acclamations. Hopefully we on the left have learned that ideological and personal accountability are not separate considerations. Which is to say, in our Nicaraguan context, that we can draw on the same principles for socialism and sovereignty that led to the creation of the FSLN in the first place. A new FSLN will not only be possible, it will be necessary and inevitable.