Another Look at Daneil Ortega and the Sandinista Struggle
"This movement is national and anti-imperialist. We fly the flag of freedom for Nicaragua and for all Latin America. And on the social level it’s a people’s movement, we stand for the advancement of social aspirations."
Augusto C. Sandino
In 1911, Nicaragua was occupied by a force of United States Marines that invaded to protect United States interests. This was just the next of a series of US "interventions" and invasions of Nicaragua. The marines remained till 1925, then returned again in 1926, to quell a rebellion organized by a Nicaraguan, Augusto C. Sandino, who grew up under this US occupation. His guerrilla forces were never defeated, despite the deployment of 12,000 troops and the use of aerial bombardment. The Marines left Nicaragua in 1933, after the US had trained a Nicaraguan security force, The National Guard. In 1934, Sandino was assassinated by Anastasio Somoza Garcia, a United States-trained officer who was the head of the National Guard, in a treacherous act of betrayal after a negotiated disarmament of Sandino’s forces. Hundreds of disarmed Sandinista fighters were slaughtered at this time by the forces of Somoza. This massacre ushered in the brutal 45-year reign of the Somoza dictatorship. Anastasio ruled till 1956, when poet Rigoberto Lopez Perez ended his life with four bullets delivered as the ruler was drinking the night away at a party. His elder son, Luis Somoza Debayle ruled till 1967, when his heart gave out – his brother Anastasio Somoza Debayle took the reins. When he was forced from power in 1979, he owned one fifth of the farmland of Nicaragua, two meat packing plants licensed for export, three of the six sugar mills, 168 factories comprising one quarter of the national output of the nation, the national airlines, a radio and television station, and the Mercedes Benz dealership. He financed his enterprises with his own banks and the national treasury. He had bankrupted a nation for his personal benefit. During the rule of the Somozas, the National Guard quelled dissent with assassination, torture and imprisonment. The United States took the position that this family dictatorship was acceptable because the Somozas were ever-staunch defenders of US interests. "He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch", as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt described Anastasio, the father of the dynasty. The Nicaraguan people paid with their lives.
In 1961, Carlos Fonseca founded the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) to resist and overthrow the rule of Somoza in the spirit of Sandino. Carlos died in a battle against Somoza’s army near Matagalpa in 1976. The FSLN went on to lead a broad uprising against the Somoza government which was successful in 1979. The new government of Nicaragua was a "Sandinista" government. The initial ruling junta was a broad-based group of the resistance to Somoza that included Daniel Ortega, Tomas Borge, Fr. Ernesto Cardenal, Moises Hassan, Violeta Chamorro, and businessman Alfonso Robelo.
Violeta was of the aristocracy of Nicaragua, the wife of newspaper publisher Pedro Chamorro. Pedro was a long-time political opponent of Somoza who was assassinated in 1978, presumably by Somoza, and whose murder consolidated the support of even the middle and rich classes of Nicaragua against the mad despot, in support of the revolution. She and Alfonso Robelo could not accept the political program of the Sandinistas and both left the ruling junta in 1980. As Tomás Borge, a Sandinista from the early years, stated with regard to Alfonso, "it must be very difficult for a man worth $21,000,000 to be part of a revolution".
Between 1979 and 1984, Nicaraguans organized to create a new society. By 1983, a literacy campaign had dropped illiteracy rates from over 50% to 13%, 184,000 small farmers were given land, and vaccination campaigns and new health clinics had dropped infant mortality and raised life expectancy, leading the World Health Organization to call Nicaragua a "Model Nation in Health Attention". Hope was in the air.
War was in the air, also. Reagan unleashed the CIA to generate a war against this nascent government of the people in the form of a "contra" army formed out of the remnants of Somoza’s National Guard. They attacked civilian targets throughout Nicaragua beginning in 1981, killing tens of thousands, and causing billions of dollars in economic damage. In 1984, Nicaragua held elections recognized as valid by the international community, but discounted by the United States. Daniel Ortega, a member of the Directorate of the Sandinista Party won the elections with 67% of the vote. He was an eloquent and often fiery speaker against the intervention of the United States.
Throughout the 1980′s the war and economic embargo of the US continued, sucking the energy out of Nicaraguan society. In the mid-1980′s one could feel the pressures of the war taking their toll on the spirit of the people. I participated in the work brigades of these times. In 1983 and 1985, I cut coffee with other internationals and Nicaraguan "volunteers" from the cities, in the hills of the Segovias and in El Crucero near Managua. I felt the difference between these two trips in the enthusiasm of the people for the struggle, and came to the conclusion that the real battle for Nicaragua would occur in the United States, where the fate of the contra war would be decided. The horror of the continued support of the US government for the war against Nicaragua led a group of us to the halls of Congress where we were arrested in 1986 for protesting the appropriation of $100 million to the contras in the face of a World Court judgment declaring this to be an illegal war. A judgment of $17 billion dollars was levied by the Court against the US, and ignored by the US.
The United States did not let up the pressure, and prior to the elections of 1990 increased the military and economic war, and at the same time promised the Nicaraguan people an end to their troubles if they would support the US candidate for President of Nicaragua, Violeta Chamorro, formerly of the revolutionary junta. The US poured millions into the Nicaraguan presidential campaign of 1990. Chamorro won, the FSLN lost power and Daniel left the Presidency.
It was a difficult time for all those who had been fighting for social and economic justice in Nicaragua. The first act of Chamorro was to absolve the United States of any payment to Nicaragua of the World Court judgment. She then proceeded to borrow money to pay debt, and Nicaragua entered the neoliberal global economy. Since then, corruption has governed Nicaragua, and the Sandinistas have been part of it. As they left power, many simply absconded with government assets, taking what they could while they could in desperation or plain greed. The Chamorro government dismantled the social programs of the Sandinistas, indigenous rights were neglected and the historic project of the Sandinistas to consolidate the Autonomous Regions of the East Coast languished. Under Violeta, Nicaragua became a "heavily indebted poor country" and the gains of the early 80′s were replaced with poverty, maquilas and debt.
There was hope in 1990 that the FSLN would be able to maintain itself as a true opposition party, would be able to rule from below as a Party of the people. These hopes were dashed by the greed and power trips that splintered the party. The maquila system in the free trade zones was put in place, the market was penetrated by cheap goods from the US, and small farmers were put out of business and forced to leave their land. During the 1990′s, Nicaragua’s land, resources and people were for sale and many of the leaders of the FSLN took their piece of the action.
In 1996, the plunder accelerated with the election of Arnoldo Aleman, who won the Presidency over the FSLN candidate, once again Daniel Ortega. By this time, there was severe disillusion in Nicaragua about the leadership of Ortega. In 1998, Daniel was accused of having committed years of sexual abuse and harassment by his step-daughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez. He denied the allegations, and did not allow a full hearing or investigation of the charges. The FSLN became divided over those who supported (believed) Zoilamerica and those who supported Daniel at any cost. Ortega stood firm, stonewalled, and turned to Aleman for support. They fashioned a "pact" which provided both Aleman and Daniel with constitutional immunity against any criminal charges, and allowed the Aleman project of corruption to continue. After Aleman left office in 2001, his immunity from prosecution was stripped from him, and he was tried and convicted on multiple charges of corrupt practises. It was revealed that he stole over a $100 million while in office. He is currently under house arrest while his political party, the PLC, mounts constant legislative efforts to have him amnestied. Daniel continues to be a member of the National Assembly and has never faced prosecution for the very credible charges of Zoilamerica.
The corruption of the Chamorro and Aleman years took a severe toll on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. This fascinating and distinct region is rich in gold, timber, fish, lobsters, land. It is the home of the largest remaining rainforest north of the Amazon, which is being plundered as you read. The native Rama, Sumu, Garifuna, and Miskito peoples are being forced off their land by a combination of land theft from the west and theft of their islands, land and fishing rights on the Caribbean coast. The selling of the Pearl Cays over the internet by Peter Tsokos and the attempts (which include the assassination of her husband Francisco Garcia) to prevent Attorney Maria Luisa Acosta from defending the indigenous rights of the people here is a largely unnoticed story which needs to be heard and addressed by the international community. Maria was successful in gaining some justice for the Sumu people, who were remunerated by the government after the Interamerican Court of Human Rights found that Chamorro had illegally sold their timber. This was a groundbreaking case, which resulted in the attempts to intimidate her.
The tragedy of this situation has occurred in the vacuum of conscience that existed in Managua during the 1990′s and continues till today. The FSLN under the leadership of Daniel was complicit in this plunder.
In February of 2000, I participated in a work brigade in Matagalpa to construct houses for people who were rendered homeless by Hurricane Mitch. The project was administered by two Nicaraguan NGO’s, Grupo Venancia and ADIC (Associacion para el Desarollo Integral Communitario, Association for Integral Community Development). Many disaffected Sandinistas continue their work in projects like this, outside the party in civil society. This small project of 44 houses was more houses than were reconstructed in the region by the government. Aleman’s corruption was a source of many bitter jokes.
In the January-February 2000 issue of the Nicaragua Monitor, the newsletter of the Nicaragua Network, the following open letter appeared on the front page, which sums up the attitude of the US solidarity community toward the FSLN at this time:
"Dear member committees from the Nicaragua Network:
The Nicaragua Network remains in solidarity with the most democratic sectors of the Sandinista movement that are working to improve the lives of Nicaragua’s poor and oppressed. We recognize that these Sandinistas can be found within the Sandinista party structures and outside them and even (in a few cases) within the party leadership. We have been inspired recently by the courageous stand of many Sandinistas within the FSLN who have openly stood up for what they believe to be the essential principles of their revolutionary movement. We are inspired by and continue to support the work of Sandinistas of all stripes in areas such as human rights, labor organizing, training of cooperative members, etc.
We condemn corruption and dishonesty within the Party as well as toleration by the FSLN of corruption and dishonesty in the present government. We bemoan the lack of consultation with Nicaragua’s citizens on the measures included in the FSLN/PLC pact and on the resulting amendments to the constitution, which have been rushed through the National Assembly. We contrast this with our memories of the countrywide town meetings held when the constitution was being written in 1986.
We encourage our committees to continue to work in support of all of the efforts of the Nicaraguan people for a better life. We look forward to the day when the entire leadership and grassroots base of the FSLN again provide strong, idealistic leadership for that struggle."
In 2001, despite challenges within the FSLN, Daniel again was the candidate for President, and this time he lost to Aleman’s Vice-President, Enrique Bolaños. Daniel lost despite an overwhelming victory by the FSLN in the municipal elections of 2000. The level of disillusion in the party was increasing. A majority of Nicaraguans considered themselves Sandinistas, but wanted nothing to do with the FSLN. Apathy and cynism spread among many who had devoted their lives to the struggle, first against Somoza, then against the contras, and amidst the war a battle for a better society. Now, they were left with nothing, were bitter, and were looking to reconstruct their own lives in an impoverished nation.
In March of this year, the Sandinistas again won the municipal elections in overwhelming fashion. And Daniel, again, is not allowing dissent within the FSLN, and not permitting a primary which could pick a different candidate to represent the Sandinistas of Nicaragua in the Presidential election in 2006. A former mayor of Managua, Herty Lewites, is mounting an opposition campaign, but has been denied a primary vote by the party apparatus controlled by Ortega supporters. Recently, Ortega has actually engineered the removal of Lewites and such Lewites-supporters as victor Hugo Tinoco from the party. Daniel is acting like a political boss, pure and simple. In March, there was a violent confrontation between Ortega and Lewites supporters in Managua, an unprecedented development within the FSLN and an indication that the party is unravelling under the leadership of Ortega. Lewites leads in the polls by a 59% – 31% margin (CID Gallup poll, March 15).
Meanwhile, the charges and counter-charges are flying, as Lewites points out that Tomás Borge is negotiating land deals which will net him close to $4 million, and that Rosario Murillo, the wife of Daniel, is buying Mercedes-Benz cars at will. Ortega has labelled Lewites a "Judas" and stated that he will "end up hanged by his own shame."
The current struggle within the FSLN is more than a struggle between Herty Lewites and Daniel Ortega. It is about a party re-establishing its ability to be the party of the poor majority, the people most affected by the brutality of the neo-liberal economic system. Lewites has become a threat to Ortega not because he has the support of the US, but because the bases of the FSLN and the majority of people of Nicaragua want change, and Ortega does not offer it. If Lewites has the support of the United States Ambassador as Tony Solo states in his recent Counterpunch article, "Nicaragua on a Dollar a Day, Forever", I believe it is only because the Ambassador knows this will hurt Lewites in the eyes of Nicaraguans. As an FSLN candidate who will carry through with a Sandinista program, it would be a different story, I believe. We don’t yet know what program Herty Lewites would propose for Nicaragua, for example, whether he would support or oppose the neo-liberal policies that have been ruinous for Nicaragua’s poor. But he deserves a chance to present his program to the people in the type of party primary that the Danielistas have now cancelled.
The challenge for the FSLN is to connect once more to the Sandinistas of Nicaragua who continue the struggle to fulfill the social aspirations of the majority of Nicaraguans.
For those interested in keeping track of ongoing events in Nicaragua, see the Nicaragua Network website, www.nicanet.org
JOE DeRAYMOND can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org