Sandinista Paradise Lost
On April 30th the Sandinistas called a major meeting in Managua as sort of mix between a May Day celebration, a peace march and a counter demonstration to offset the social security cutback protests.
The attendance was OK. A main arterial was filled. It was not as large as the peace march called by the Catholic Church on the Saturday, nor some of the peaceful protests of the earlier days, but it was still an impressive show of Sandinista support no matter how many public sector workers were called in or how many people were bussed in from outside of Managua.
Old revolutionary songs were played as was some truly awful rap.
The main theme of this rally seemed to be just to establish that the Sandinistas are the legitimate representatives of the revolution and that Daniel and Rosario are the legitimate leaders of the Sandinistas. They did a mediocre job of both. How did we get here when for so long neither was necessary?
This angel fell in steps going back to when they were a revolutionary government.
This story could be told chronologically going either backwards or forwards.
Before the recent and unprecedented protests against the social security cuts there were other protests and dubious reactions from the Daniel Ortega government. I’ll tell it from the other direction for the simple reason that for the first part, I was there.
The Sandinistas, and Daniel as the first elected Nicaraguan president in living history came to elected government in 1984 and were voted out of office in early 1990. Before that they had led up a transitional government that included leaders from other political groups.
It is clear that most of those who changed their vote between 84 and 90 did so wanting an end to the Contra War and the wartime draft.
But that is not the only reason. A good segment of the population had voted for the rational Liberals or Conservatives and some of the people have always been to the right of that.
Even so, a revolutionary government that had overthrown a dictator and brought so much progress to the country might have done better in that 1984 poll.
There were other problems than the draft and the war. There was mismanagement in a big way and a lot of personal careerism in a bigger way and there was a political culture that blamed all their shortcomings on the United States and their imposed war and blockades.
The Sandinista’s share of the blame for the war, the economic problems and the mismanagement was debatable and there is no question that the CIA had imposed the war and that many local aristocrats had their hands dirty.
But during the lame duck period following the election of 1990 the Sandinistas took a lot of public property for themselves personally or in NGO’s of their own creation and under their personal control. This is called the “piñata” and because of it many Sandinista members, called militants, resigned.
It was the wrong people resigning.
In the opinion of this old revolutionary, after losing the election it was time for the top nine leaders of the Sandinista Front to resign those party leadership roles, retire from public office and make room for new leaders to come up and lead them in their new role as the elected opposition.
That is not what happened.
There was an internal struggle for the post of party chairman. New leaders from the trade unions, the organized farmers and ranchers and youth groups were put on the slow track and worst of all, Daniel consolidated a leadership around himself when traditionally the Sandinista Front had been run by a committee.
Over the years there were ineffective challenges from inside and outside the party.
Then the Front was not a very effective opposition and kept losing presidential votes where the Sandinista candidate was always Daniel Ortega. Towards the end they led up a “rule from below” campaign that was as destructive as it was constructive. The campaign was more about getting back into power than what they would do with it.
Some people would fault Daniel for the slide towards the church, religion in general and away from women’s rights, including the right to choose an abortion. Others would say that they became a party led by people who had become upper middle class, if they ever were anything less. Their slide towards neo liberal capitalism and cozy relationships with affluent cliques did not endear anyone.
From my Sandinista friends there is a nearly universal distaste for the cozy relationship with the liberal party under the leadership of President Aleman. The Sandinista movement had always called for government clear of corruption and the pact with Aleman betrayed that ideal.
Eventually we come to Daniel Dos, the three consecutive times he had been elected in this century. The foreign press will sometimes call this the “return” of the Sandinistas to power. In Nicaragua when people talk about the Sandinista government and the revolution, they mean 1979 to 1990, not now.
The current version of Daniel Dos includes his wife Rosario Murillo as Vice President reminiscent of Grace Mugabe or maybe Claire Underwood with a bit of the spiritualism of Rasputin thrown in. She also is busy redecorating Managua according to her Dr. Seuss like tastes. Even ardent Daniel supporters can become silent when talking about Rosario.
Over the years ugliness has crept in.
Those who have spoken out against Sandinista policies, such as the environmental disaster in the making with the new inter-oceanic canal, could find themselves without a job or find their university without a government contract. This is normal political paternalism, but it is not what the Sandinistas stand for, it is explicitly what they stand against.
Uglier still was the police using a hard hand on protestors. It happened during the anti-canal protests, it happened at other less famous times. Each was an uproar that died down but with each cut, enthusiasm for the Sandinistas and belief in them as a revolutionary movement that is true to its ideals also dies down a bit.
Nothing goes more against the goals of the revolution more than acts of violence and repression against the public. This is not what we fought for, this is not what we fought the Contra for. During the revolution we went out of our way to stay human, to treat people ethically and make good on offers of amnesty to the Contras. The death penalty was ended and Sandinistas who committed abuses were sent to jail.
Now we have around 70 dead, people violently mistreated by the police and there is clear evidence that attack squads were organized to beat and stone peaceful protestors.
For many the Sandinista Front with Daniel and Rosario has become the lesser evil and there is good reason to vote for them when it comes to infrastructure and social services.
Nicaragua is poor, but less poor than the dollar salary count would lead one to believe. The countryside is full of paved roads, local hospitals and clinics, and every child can go to school. This is in stark contrast with the Nicaragua of the Somoza dictatorship or Honduras. Under the new Daniel government this kind of spending continues and many Nicaraguans benefit personally from the social spending, especially in the rural areas.
And even if Daniel dominates the national leadership, he is not the alpha and omega of local Sandinista leadership, especially in the rural areas. There is a reason why the Sandinistas bused people into Managua for their big rally, they had the people willing to get on the bus.
Once that Managua street was filled, a pathetic show of party leadership, continuation of the revolution and a national mandate was put on in a way that might have been better to just say nothing.
When it was truer, they did not say anything, they talked politics.
Daniel droned on about peace and calm and his concern for those killed in the protests but did not come out with any solid action to investigate who killed whom. The hint is always that the striking students are privileged young people being manipulated by the right wing and “those same outside forces as always” (my paraphrase). We drove past the stage a couple hours later and the leftover crowd was not noticeable.
He dragged up a couple people to the stage as a show of support that he really does not have. The first was a former Sandinista hero who went on to betray the revolution and found a “Sandinista” version of the Contra and the other was his former fellow commander of the Sandinista Front and one of the founders of the movement named Victor Tirado. That man was visibly not in good health and seemed disoriented.
The whole event played on a loop on TV over and over again and some of the crowd scenes looked like a shorter loop with some possible historical footage thrown in.
Daniel’s pitiful cast of supporters sharing his stage did not speak to unity, it pointed out who was not there. In fact, almost nobody from the history of the Nicaraguan revolution was there. None of the artists who usually opened the acts played the old songs; they were on tape. The social leaders were notable for their absence.
As Daniel droned on about his mix of socialism, Christianity and some vague idea of national peace and solidarity he did so with only one of the fellow commanders who had led the Sandinista revolution and that one was obviously not well. All the other surviving leaders of the revolution did not find their way to stand beside him.
And that includes his own brother.