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ISR Issue 50, November–December 2006

Nicaragua: From Sandinismo to "Danielismo"


EDITOR'S NOTE: Nicaraguans will go to the polls to choose the country's next president and the National Assembly on November 5. The presidential candidates include Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), candidates from two U.S.-backed right-wing parties, and the Sandinista Renewal Movement Alliance (MRS Alliance) ticket of Edmundo Jarquín and Carlos Mejía Godoy. This is the first national election in which the Sandinistas behind Ortega have a serious challenger as standard-bearer for the Left.

This article, written by MÓNICA BALTODANO, a former FSLN guerrilla commander and supporter of the MRS Alliance, explains why many Nicaraguan activists and militants are backing the MRS Alliance instead of the FSLN. The article details the degeneration, under Daniel Ortega's leadership, of the FSLN since right-wing candidate Violeta Chamorro ousted it in the 1990 election. Baltodano describes the deals Ortega made with right-wing politicians like the country's two previous presidents, Enrique Bolaños and Arnolfo Alemán, as well as the conservative Roman Catholic Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo.

For years, the U.S.-either openly or through surrogates funded by the National Endowment for Democracy-has intervened in Nicaraguan elections in support of the Right and to prevent the reelection of the Sandinistas. As Baltodano writes, the 2006 election will be no different, and activists in the U.S. must be on guard to protest any attempt by the U.S. to manipulate Nicaragua's election.

In the past, the North American Left-which, up to and after the 1979 revolution against U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza provided critical solidarity to the revolutionary Sandinista government-has associated the fate of the Nicaraguan Left with that

of the FSLN. But as Baltodano shows, the Nicaraguan Left will have another option on the ballot this year. Whatever happens in the election, the Left will continue a process of reflection and regeneration.

This article was originally published in Spanish on the Web site Brian Chidester and Lance Selfa translated it into English from the original Spanish.

ON NOVEMBER 5, there will be general elections in Nicaragua. The Sandinista National Liberation Front will again run Daniel Ortega as its presidential candidate, and many Latin American fighters believe in good faith that Daniel Ortega and the FSLN continue to be the only reference point on the left in Nicaragua. As a consequence, they give him total support, ignoring that both he and the FSLN have undergone a dramatic political and ideological mutation in recent years.

The FSLN, once a formidable revolutionary organization, is today the victim of hijacking and iron-fisted control by Daniel Ortega and a small group of Sandinista leaders. These leaders used property that they appropriated from the state after their electoral defeat in 1990, to become entrepreneurs. This group not only took over property and capital, but it also took over the leading structures of the FSLN. They set their sights on the control of positions of power, the strengthening of their economic interests, and on reinforcing the idea that politics was about backroom deals rather than mass struggle.

This transformation did not happen overnight. It has been a long and continuous process that faced resistance from within Sandinismo that caused serious splits inside the party. Even today, militant grassroots sections of the party continue to dream that the FSLN might rehabilitate itself as a force for change committed to fighting for the poor and excluded.


The electoral defeat of the FSLN in 1990 coincided with a process of rethinking of revolutionary ideas and movements around the world. In that context, Sandinistas perceived the defeat in different ways. For some, it signified the annihilation of the possibility of building a more just society, and the “end of the utopia.” From this perspective, they began “adjusting to reality,” taking a path that ended for some in the renunciation of their principles.

For others, the defeat was a setback in the struggle that, although serious, did not mean abandoning hope or calling a halt to the struggle for another possible world that some of us continue to call socialist.

After the defeat in 1990, the majority of Sandinistas supported resistance to the process of restoration of the oligarchic regime. However, this desire to fight was not expressed, either in a program, in a strategy, or even in tactics, in the developments that followed. During those years, events imposed a logic of prioritizing immediate tasks, postponing the urgent task of creating a new strategic vision. As the years passed, originally proclaimed objectives were diluted in practice, and as [Sandinista leader and former army chief] Humberto Ortega wrote recently, from “radicalism” we moved on to “political realism.”

Struggles in defense of public property-the lands and factories nationalized under pressure by peasants, workers, and cooperatives-took on relevance. However, and lamentably, these struggles masked an unseemly appropriation for personal gain of wealth on the part of some Sandinista leaders.

This “piñata” [the name given to the Sandinista leaders' converting of public property to their own private use in the early 1990s] weakened the unassailable moral and ethical force of Sandinismo. With electoral defeat, the custom of collective leadership was also diluted. Daniel Ortega-who kept himself at the head of the party-became the primary and almost only representative of the FSLN and the broker of all social struggles.

For its part, the social movement-which was accustomed to depending on the leadership of the Sandinista “vanguard,” and therefore, lacked autonomy and its own political personality-ended up being moderated by the political interests of the clique around Daniel Ortega, already penetrated by the economic interests of the emerging “Sandinista economic group.” The popular organizations, which at the start put up some resistance to the process of counterrevolution and the implantation of neoliberalism in the country, ended up subordinating themselves to the political imperatives of the leadership of the FSLN. And so, popular struggles continued to be controlled by political interests rather than expressing the dynamism of the social sectors. The struggles included set-piece confrontations that rapidly led to violence, destroying the possibility of extending and legitimizing the popular resistance to neoliberalism. Each of these violent confrontations ended with the direct negotiations of Daniel Ortega with the government of Violeta Chamorro, thereby substituting the legitimacy of the struggle and the authority of its grassroots leaders with the leadership of Ortega and his particular interests. This dynamic lasted several years. 1997 marks the point of exhaustion of the popular struggles: time and again made into the tools of leaders from above, they showed themselves to be ineffective in achieving any significant results for the people's interests.

Pacts and shady deals

At the Sandinista Congress in 1998-roiled by the accusations against Daniel Ortega of rape by his step-daughter Zoilamérica-Ortega completed his turn to the right. He lent his support to the current in the FSLN called the Bloc of Sandinista Entrepreneurs and substantially increased the amount of power they already had inside the FSLN.

In his speech at the end of that congress, Ortega, unilaterally and without consulting anyone, announced his decision to abandon the popular struggle in favor of making deals and agreements. He had already started down that path in 1997 when he negotiated the Law of Reformed Urban and Rural Property with the newly elected President Arnoldo Alemán. Starting then, a process of horse-trading with this corrupt government bureaucrat and his Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) began. It concluded with an agreement between the political leaderships of the FSLN and the PLC that produced a new and antidemocratic Electoral Law and constitutional reforms that allowed Alemán and Ortega to divvy up important government positions among their close friends and family. From then on, the clashes between the wheeling-and-dealing current headed by Ortega and several Sandinista deputies in the parliament became more acute. Víctor Hugo Tinoco and I strongly questioned the agreement, but while it made its way through parliament by means of shady deals with Alemán and the Right, Ortega responded with internal repression, Stalinist-style purges, and all kinds of maneuvers aimed at annihilating any criticism in the FSLN.

The most damaging thing about the FSLN-PLC pact was Ortega's pledge to demobilize social forces and to neutralize any popular struggle. With the deal, all resistance to privatization, to the policies of the IMF, the World Bank, and the various structural adjustment plans, ended. The deal also had an impact on numerous behind-the-scenes negotiations over the fate of properties expropriated at the end of the Sandinista government. Through these negotiations, the capital of the emerging Sandinista economic group increased. Sandinista leaders were also joined by former workers' and peasants' leaders, who were already claiming rights to use of properties negotiated in the Coordination Agreements with the government of Violeta Chamorro and now divvied up in the deal with Alemán. These obscure negotiations also allowed Arnoldo Alemán to unleash the most brazen corruption ever seen in Nicaragua, without any denunciation or opposition from the FSLN. That's how the new emerging economic group led by Alemán, Daniel Ortega's new partner, grew. With the exclusion and isolation of historic leaders of Sandinismo and the suppression of collective decision-making, the Sandinista base-deprived of adequate information and political education and ill-equipped to confront the new national conditions-ended up taking as its only leadership that of the general secretary of the FSLN, Daniel Ortega. These are the immediate causes of the cult of leadership that he flaunts today. The logic of liberal democracy also prompted an acute struggle inside the FSLN to occupy the best-paid and most privileged posts in government institutions. Naming the main leaders of the popular organizations to these posts also became a mechanism for co-opting them.

Pro-Yankee government

This process, begun during the government of Violeta Chamorro, heightened by the deal with the PLC during the government of Alemán, found the FSLN in a state of decomposition when Enrique Bolaños came to power in 2001.

Even though he won the elections inside the PLC-the party of Alemán-Bolaños immediately turned on Alemán, accusing him of corruption. Daniel Ortega took advantage of the situation of instability that this decision created, and, instead of taking on the grassroots struggle against corruption, he chose a strategy of “playing all sides”: dealing with Bolaños or with Alemán, according to his interests.

All this explains why, despite the great pressure from the Sandinista grassroots, and from the population in general, the FSLN leadership's stance toward the Alemán government's corruption was practically non-existent. It was not until Ortega reached an agreement with Bolaños for control of parliament and other perks that “Danielismo”-it must be called that, and not Sandinismo-voted to suspend Alemán's immunity from prosecution. It wasn't until then that Ortega gave the order to a Sandinista judge to hand down an indictment against Alemán.

Bush and Bolaños

The permanent interference of the U.S. government in the internal politics of Nicaragua, its visceral hatred of Sandinismo, and the submissive attitude of President Bolaños to the Bush administration tipped the precarious balance of the Ortega-Bolaños deal, and breathed new life into the “re-deal” between Ortega and Alemán (by then, already sentenced to twenty years in “prison,” which he is serving in his comfortable personal estate). Countless times, Daniel and his inner circle came to this prison-estate to meet with Alemán. At the height of their “marriage,” Daniel signed new “strategic agreements” with Alemán, a convict sentenced to twenty years for the shameless theft of public funds! In January 2004, one of these meetings was captured, as indelible proof of the conspiracy, in an infamous photo that is today the icon of treason to the ideals of Sandinismo.

Today, the commitments between Alemán and Ortega go beyond what comes to public light: the sharing out of all important government posts; the distribution of judicial sentences-one for you, one for me; the distribution of funds from the National Assembly-some for you, some for me; the distribution of laws, the distribution of judges and magistrates. In addition, this division of spoils is carried out with a shameless display of power and contempt for the law in order to sow fear among the people. Today, the decisions of all the institutions of the state in Nicaragua depend directly on the will of Alemán or Ortega. Both little dictators impose their will over justice and outside the law. The common perception of the majority of Nicaraguans is that we are in the hands of two Mafia gangs.

To this tragic situation we must add that many of the current leaders of the FSLN have “converted” to religious fundamentalist and superstitious groups, producing a confused mix of political militancy and religious magic, in which crimes are transmuted into sins and “love” has become the political banner of the FSLN. This has coincided, not accidentally, with another pact: the one between Cardinal Miguel Obando-archenemy of the Sandinista Revolution and of liberation theology during the 1980s-and the Ortega-Murillo family (Murillo being Ortega's wife and leader of the new “spirituality”). They used FSLN connections in the judiciary and the electoral authority to place an associate of Obando on the election commission-thanks to the support of Ortega.

The cardinal's maneuvering began when it became clear that the Alemán administration's corruption also touched the Catholic hierarchy and the institutions tied to it. Among the privileges enjoyed under the protection of corruption, the best known was the import into the country, tax-free, of hundreds of luxury vehicles for the cardinal's inner circle, by way of COPROSA (Commission for the Promotion of the Archdiocese), his nongovernmental organization.

The majority, even poorer

During these years, neoliberalism has managed to dismantle almost all the social transformations that the revolution made in the 1980s and has installed a voracious and inhuman capitalism. Public services have been privatized, our economy has been handed to transnational corporations, the national lands have been given away through mining and logging concessions, and the privatization of health and education has been encouraged. Luxury businesses, gas stations, and casinos flourish. But for the vast majority of the people there is no other path than low-paying jobs in the maquilas, emigration, or survival in the most absolute poverty.

The official leaders of the FSLN have done nothing to confront the theft of the gains of the revolution from the people and the cancellation of their hopes for a dignified future. Worse: they have also participated in this theft by way of the state institutions they control and the businesses they run. Only their revolutionary rhetoric remains, and the only “opposition” they mount is aimed at controlling more positions of power.

At the beginning of 2005, a large group of Sandinistas launched a political movement to draft the outgoing mayor of Managua, the Sandinista Herty Lewites, as the presidential candidate of the FSLN. Lewites's nomination was to be rightfully decided by internal primary elections, as established in the statutes of the FSLN. However, the official leadership responded by eliminating the primaries and illegally proclaiming Daniel Ortega as the FSLN's presidential candidate, for the fifth time and after three consecutive defeats.

The suppression of the presidential primaries was accompanied by the expulsion from the FSLN, without due process, of Lewites and Víctor Hugo Tinoco. All sorts of slanders were flung at Lewites and his supporters: “agents of imperialism,” “agents of the Right,” “enemies of the popular interest.” These were strange slanders, given that Lewites had always been one of the closest confidants of Daniel until he dared to challenge Daniel for the presidential nomination. Tinoco had been vice chancellor of the Sandinista government and was a member of the national leadership of the FSLN. However, he opposed the pact with Alemán from the start.

These authoritarian and arbitrary acts aroused a general repudiation of Sandinismo and contributed to the gathering around Lewites of Sandinistas who had been marginalized by Ortega for years: comandantes of the revolution like Víctor Tirado, Henry Ruiz, and Luis Carrión; intellectuals like the writer Gioconda Belli, the poet Ernesto Cardenal, and the songwriter Carlos Mejía Godoy; guerrilla comandantes like Mónica Baltodano and Rene Vivas…and a countless number of grassroots leaders and militants, who finally organized the Movement for the Rescue of Sandinismo (MPRS), a political force ready to rescue Sandinista values and ideals and to take on a project that would fundamentally transform our country.

As a short-term objective, the MPRS decided to build an electoral alternative for November 2006. In August 2005, we allied with the Sandinista Renewal Movement (MRS), founded in 1996 by the writer Sergio Ramírez and Comandante Dora María Téllez; and in May, we joined with the Nicaraguan Socialist Party, the Citizen Action Party, and the Green Ecologist Party. Other alliances include non-partisan political and social movements, such as CREA (Change, Reflection, Ethics, and Action), which gathers together members of the Sandinista Youth and fighters in defense of the revolution of the 1980s; the Autonomous Women's Movement and associations of victims of pesticides. More recently, Comandante Guerrillero Hugo Torres, retired general of the Sandinista army, renowned for his participation in heroic actions in the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship, joined the alliance.

Cartel of the Right

The Right will have two main parties in the November elections: the PLC of Arnoldo Alemán and a new liberal-conservative grouping, the ALN-PC, which is trying to distance itself from the corruption and Mafia style of Alemán and the PLC. The ALN-PC has the support of big national capital and, especially, the approval of the U.S. government, which has done and will keep doing everything possible to unite the two rightist parties into one.

The Nicaraguan electoral scene this year is far from the polarized environment of previous contests, where the voters always had to decide between Sandinismo and anti-Sandinismo, but where the Sandinistas had one and only one representative: the FSLN and Daniel Ortega as its candidate. This year, the MRS Alliance is the new political force on the left, calling for a profound change in Nicaragua and a refoundation of Sandinismo so as to make the transformations that our country requires.

The organization of this new Sandinista electoral alternative was supported by thousands of Sandinistas opposed to the tight grip and the corruption of Daniel Ortega. We refuse to accept the electoral straightjacket that says that no matter what the leaders do, what interests they favor or how questionable their actions, in the end the Sandinistas have to “close ranks” and vote for the candidates that the “Danielist” leadership imposes on us, because if not, “you're a pro-imperialist traitor.”

Certainly, Ortega's rhetoric and his opportunist rapprochement to leaders of the Latin American Left are meant to present himself as a radical leftist. Lamentably, outside of Nicaragua, few are familiar with the schizophrenia of the FSLN and its leaders: leftist rhetoric, but in real life a corrupt political practice favoring neoliberalism and the interests of the Right.

Herty Lewites

The program and the rhetoric of the MRS Alliance's original candidate, Herty Lewites, were moderate. They were not demagogically committed to radical change for which there exists no favorable correlation of forces in Nicaragua. Lewites proclaimed himself “center-left” and was certainly that. But among the forces that supported him there are many people who have struggled and who keep resolutely-radically-resisting the ruling neoliberal model. Today, Nicaraguan reality calls for immediate institutional and legal changes, and on this basis we can come together with different groups, even of different ideological positions, knowing that after the elections other struggles are going to open up.

Herty Lewites was a Sandinista with a long history in Sandinismo and a man who had the support and sympathy of broad swaths of the people, beyond Sandinismo, because of his ability to do things for the people. He was a center-left option. His presidential candidacy opened an opportunity to transcend the wheeling and dealing, the corruption, the discrediting of the political class and the submission of the nation to the interests of Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán. After fifteen long years of neoliberalism and corruption, the forces of the Left and progressive forces had the chance to start a process of change.

Herty Lewites died of a heart condition July 2. His death put an end to thirty-five years of militancy in the Sandinista National Liberation Front, from which he was expelled for demanding internal elections in the party so that the rank-and-file could nominate their candidate to the presidency of the republic. When he was the FSLN mayor of Managua from 2000 to 2004, his administration was considered the most brilliant in the capital's mayoralty in Nicaraguan history.

After his death, the MRS chose as its candidate Edmundo Jarquín, a lawyer, economist, and former diplomat in the Sandinista government, who was running with Lewites for the vice-presidency. Since his youth fighting the Somoza dictatorship, Jarquín has politically been part of Sandinismo. When he was chosen the presidential candidate, the songwriter Carlos Mejía Godoy filled his spot for the vice-presidency. Of Carlos Mejía it can be said that he is not only a popular singer, but also a politician who brought melody and verse to the anti-Somoza insurrection and to the objectives of the Sandinista Revolution. In so doing, he built an ideology, educated and raised the consciousness of the masses, and empowered people. All of these are political tasks.

Mónica Baltodano, a former FSLN guerrilla commander, is a founding member of the Movement for the Rescue of Sandinismo. Lance Selfa, who wrote the introduction, is on the editorial board of the ISR.

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