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Sandinista Interviews (December, 1994)

From the NACLA Report on the Americas, March/April, 1995

By the end of 1994, what had begun as a political debate within the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was on the verge of developing into a full-blown split, with front-page reports in the Nicaraguan press of an impending purge of certain members from the Sandinista National Directorate (DN). There are two principal currents of Sandinismo: the "Democratic Left" (Izquierda Democratica, ID), associated with former President Daniel Ortega, which has been characterized as a more "orthodox-left" orientation; and the "Movement for the Renovation of Sandinismo" (MRS), associated with former Vice-President Sergio Ramirez, which is considered a more "social-democratic" option. These interviews reveal that beneath the rhetoric lie both a more complex and subtle difference of opinion, as well as elements of an old-fashioned power struggle as the party gears up for the 1996 elections.

The debate between the two currents first came to a head in the special congress of the FSLN in May, 1994, when Ortega was reelected party general secretary, and his Democratic Left current won the majority of seats in the Sandinista Assembly (the party legislature) and two-thirds of the seats in the National Directorate (the party executive committee). Ramirez not only failed to win reelection to the Directorate, but his current was reduced to minority status in both party institutions. Pointing to new party quotas for women and youth, the Democratic Left hailed the congress as a victory for democracy and pluralism. The defeated tendency, however, saw the congress as a setback, citing continuing control by the old guard of a self-styled "vanguard" party.

Following the congress, Sergio Ramirez was stripped not only of his position as head of the Sandinista delegation in the National Assembly (Nicaragua's national legislature) but also of his seat which he had been occupying by proxy on Daniel Ortega's behalf. The Sandinista Assembly ordered that Ortega reclaim his seat, and named him head of the Sandinista delegation in the national legislature. The majority of Sandinista deputies defied the Assembly, however, and elected Ramirez' second-in-command, Dora Maria Tellez, instead. The Democratic Left then charged that the MRS was trying to use its control of the delegation to transform it into an independent power base--especially after the latter introduced a constitutional reform bill that had been disowned by the newly elected Sandinista Assembly.

On October 25, the conflict spread to the party-owned newspaper, Barricada, with the sacking of its MRS-affiliated editor, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, and the subsequent resignations of the entire editorial board, the president of the board of directors, and over 20 editors and staff members. What party leaders described as the reimposition of party discipline and accountability was characterized by the MRS as a high-handed gesture of intolerance on the part of the "authoritarian" and "orthodox-left" current in the party. After the Barricada upheaval, poet and former Sandinista Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal resigned from the FSLN, alleging fraud in the post-congress municipal and regional elections of party leaders, and charging Daniel Ortega with "kidnapping" the party to further his own political interests.

The following interviews were conducted in early December, 1994, by NACLA executive director Pierre La Ramee with Victor Hugo Tinoco and Dora Maria Tellez, two members of the National Directorate who are on opposite sides of the debate.

Victor Hugo Tinoco is a member of the Democratic Left current. He is currently a member of the National Directorate and heads the FSLN's International Affairs Department. He was deputy foreign minister during the years the Sandinistas held power.

What are the major differences between the positions of the Democratic Left and the Movement for the Renovation of Sandinismo (MRS)?
There are ideological and electoral differences. The former have always existed and go back to the founding of the Sandinista Front in the 1970s. As the Sandinistas succeeded in winning sympathy and capturing the popular imagination, various social and political elements from all sectors and classes, linked up with the Front--some with the sole objective of overthrowing Somoza, others with the goal of revolutionary transformation.
Fundamentally, I believe that the ideological differences are as follows. One sector, basically that of Sergio [Ramirez] and Dora [Maria Tellez], holds that the world has fundamentally changed and that revolutionary social movements have to adapt to these changes. They argue that the country is in a profound economic crisis and requires stability. The need for national stability leads these companeros to reject the popular struggle. The other group in the FSLN, the majority, wants to promote national stability, but without sacrificing the popular struggle. That's the basic difference.
The difference appears principally in political practice. For instance, with regard to the popular struggle, the majority in the FSLN supported the transportation worker's strike last year while the minority practically rejected it. The minority group--especially in the legislature--has supported the government's plans to privatize while discouraging protest and opposition. The majority, however, has stated its opposition to the privatization of education and health.
Can you say something about the "electoral" differences which you mentioned?
The problem that the FSLN had last year until the congress in July was that we had these two conflicting positions which amounted to a political struggle within the party. We called the special congress precisely because of this--to determine which of these two positions was held by the majority within the party and which would be the party's official position. The majority position, as established by the special congress, supports both stability and the popular struggle. Nevertheless, both the majority and minority positions were represented in the National Directorate and in the Sandinista Assembly. The majority should respect the rights of the minority, but at the same time, the minority--while fighting for its position--should respect the decisions of the majority.
We haven't succeeded in achieving such an accommodation because of the electoral dimension of the conflict--the companeros of the minority have begun to defy the democratic decisions of the majority. Unity is in crisis now not because of political differences--which have always existed--but because the minority, Sergio Ramirez' group, has decided to break with democratic procedures, and to act unilaterally in the National Assembly without consulting the party. Their actions, dictated by an electoral strategy, are the source of the crisis in the party.
The members of the MRS would say that the recent coup at Barricada is a clear indication of a hegemonic and intolerant attitude on the part of the Democratic Left. How would you respond?
As far as the party press is concerned, we had a totally abnormal situation where the minority group controlled the two papers of the FSLN, Barricada and Nuevo Diario. [Strictly speaking, only Barricada is an FSLN publication; Nuevo Diario is autonomous, but its director is an MRS member.--P.L.] In Nuevo Diario, you find reflected the point of view of the minority and almost never that of the majority. Before the changes at Barricada, the paper reflected the point of view of the minority and wasn't giving space to the majority. As a result, the majority had no press in which its position--or the official position taken by the FSLN--was clearly reflected. The change at Barricada was carried out with the simple objective of ensuring that the paper owned by the party reflect the position of the majority--but without excluding the minority point of view. It is admittedly difficult, in the context of political struggle, to resolve the problem and strike a balance in which the point of view of the minority will not be lost, especially with all of the recriminations and attacks.
What are the main differences between the two currents vis-a-vis constitutional change--more specifically with regard to the changes being pursued by the Sandinista deputies in the National Assembly?
The differences on the constitution are not on the ideological plane, but rather are of an electoral order. This is evident from what is being discussed--the theme of prohibiting relatives of the president from being candidates, the runoff ballot, etc. These differences are not differences based on principle. In the Sandinista Assembly, the FSLN officially approved restrictions on relatives of the president running for office as a potential reform. At the same time, however, we proposed that we would give up this restriction in exchange for a law to stabilize the situation with regard to rural landed property.
The position of the minority, however, which constitutes the majority of Sandinistas in parliament, is to introduce these constitutional changes without any negotiations. Why? The minority, led by Sergio, senses that Antonio Lacayo [leader of the moderate wing of the governing UNO coalition and son- in-law of President Violeta Chamorro--P.L.] is a natural rival for control of the country's political center. Sergio senses that Lacayo is in the same ballpark politically as himself and is trying to exclude him in order to strengthen his own candidacy. To accomplish this, the minority is joining forces with UNO conservatives who want to punish Antonio Lacayo because they feel he betrayed them after the 1990 elections when he arrogated all the power to himself. It's a vendetta. So, you get a self-serving position on Sergio's part, combined with a vendetta on UNO's part, resulting in a position of non-negotiability.
The real adversary of the FSLN is the right. In an election, Antonio Lacayo would attract more votes from the right than from the FSLN. Therefore, we have an interest in his participation, and we see no reason to lock ourselves into a position of restrictions on candidates. As for the run-off, we think that it would help the right because they could unite in the second round. I haven't heard a single rational explanation of how the run-off could help us.

Dora Maria Tellez is one of the leaders of the Movement for the Renovation of Sandinismo (MRS), a deputy in the National Assembly, and, until recently, a member of the National Directorate. She is a Sandinista comandante who fought in the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship, most notably as second-in-command of the occupation of the National Palace in August, 1978, and as the commander of the forces liberating Leon in July, 1979. In the Sandinista government, she served as minister of public health.

How would you characterize the difference between your position and that of the "Democratic Left"?
The country wants peace, stability, employment and dynamic community development. Sandinismo has to come up with a proposal that demonstrates the FSLN can credibly meet this challenge, and therein lie our differences. The problem goes beyond what we think of ourselves--if the people perceive us as militaristic and authoritarian, then that is a perception we have to change. The Democratic Left has opted for a proposal that uses the rhetoric of revolution, but that at this moment is fundamentally conservative and backward looking. Nothing can be resolved by looking backwards; we can only resolve our problems by going forward.
We believe that the ID has made a fetish of the popular struggle, and that this has been as detrimental to the popular movements as neoliberalism has been. We also differ on the question of methods. Our methods of struggle have to be in keeping with a democratic and constitutional system, and should not undermine Nicaragua's hard-won political stability. Of course, strikes are totally legitimate, and the right to strike--as well as the popular struggle--are enshrined as rights in the Constitution. But violence doesn't have any place in Nicaragua and just contributes to instability and to a further separation between Sandinismo and the people.
The Democratic Left insists on defining the FSLN as a "vanguard party." The idea of the vanguard made sense when the FSLN was fighting the Somoza dictatorship and needed a strong, solid, centralized, and closed mechanism to confront the repression. But things have changed. Another difference between us concerns both the process of democratization within the Sandinista party, and the institutionalization of democracy in the wider society. While we have tried to achieve a more profound political democratization in the party, the ID has maintained a vertical, authoritarian and sectarian style, creating a greater distance between Sandinismo and the people.
Why has constitutional reform been such a contentious issue between the two currents?
We have been pushing for constitutional reforms to deepen democracy and to ensure that politics will not be reduced to inter-elite relations. The changes we have proposed include a restructuring of the executive and the legislature which would limit presidential power. We have also proposed greater transparency and accountability in government and public service, a non-partisan, professional army and police force, and various changes in the electoral model, such as who can be a candidate. There are major differences between the parties in Nicaragua, but at least we are looking for a system that will work as a model for the country. Basically, the Democratic Left's opposition to constitutional reform has been the result of an alliance between Antonio Lacayo and Daniel Ortega. The ID ended up supporting the position of Lacayo to ensure the possibility that he will be a candidate in the 1996 elections.
The Democratic Left claims that in the interests of maintaining stability to attract foreign investment, the MRS is selling out to the Nicaraguan elite and foreign capital, and that the MRS wants to privatize all public services. What is your response?
We support foreign investment, but to say that we are selling out to foreign capital is a complete falsehood. It is widely recognized that foreign investment--and nvestment in general--is needed for economic development and to combat poverty. The ID is making a serious error in claiming that foreign investment is unnecessary. How else can the country develop? To promote investment is to promote employment. As for privatization, what we want are constitutional guarantees of free, obligatory and universal education at the primary and secondary levels, with free health care and non- privatization of essential services. We've never said otherwise--anything to the contrary is pure propaganda.