Documents menu

Sandinistas Face the Future

By William I. Robinson, in CrossRoads magazine, September 1995

Five years after its surrender of government to a U.S.-assembled coalition of the traditional Nicaraguan elite, the Sandinista Liberation National Front (FSLN) has been unable to recover from the crippling effects of its electoral defeat. The results of the 1990 balloting plunged the Sandinista party -- its social base and legitimacy already eroded during the long U.S. war -- into a sharp internal crisis over program, ideological orientation and strategy. Differences in the once-powerful party over how to sustain a popular alternative for Nicaragua in the age of global capitalism and the retreat of revolution finally led earlier this year to an open split.

In February, former vice president and renowned novelist Sergio Ram!rez, legendary guerrilla commander Dora Mar!a Tllez, National Directorate member Luis Carri"n and several other Sandinista leaders broke off and formed the Sandinista Renewal Movement (MRS). Leadership of the FSLN has stayed with party Secretary General and former Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega. New elections are scheduled for November 1996, but prospects for the FSLN returning to office through the ballot are dim.


In the immediate aftermath of its 1990 defeat, the FSLN stayed united and remained the largest and best organized political force in Nicaragua. The popular classes remained politicized and mobilized in the old mass organizations, and even more so in new autonomous social movements which flourished after the elections. Following Violeta Chamorro's inauguration, the new government announced a sweeping neoliberal program, including massive layoffs, privatizations, sharp reductions in social spending and the elimination of subsidies on basic necessities. These measures triggered two consecutive national strikes, both of which paralyzed the country and demonstrated the popular classes' capacity to fight back under FSLN leadership.

Such resistance forced the new government to implement its anti-popular program gradually, through a strategy of "slow motion counterrevolution." Nicaragua entered a period of endemic social conflict. Cycles of standoff, negotiation, and compromise alternated with peaceful and violent strikes, demonstrations and clashes. The result was an ongoing realignment of the country's political forces alongside "creeping" implementation of the counterrevolutionary program.

Bottom line, international financial agencies, the U.S. government, and the traditional Nicaraguan elite -- utilizing the immense power that transnational capital could wield over a war-torn and economically shattered country -- have made enormous strides in dismantling the 1979-1990 revolution, restructuring every aspect of Nicaraguan society, and reconstituting a propertied class and political elite tied to the international capitalist order. The initial optimism that the popular classes would be able to "govern from below" and preserve the gains of the revolution gave way to mass disillusionment and demobilization.


Inside the FSLN, fierce debates took place over a viable popular program and the tactics and strategy to achieve it. The task of transforming the FSLN from guerrilla clandestinity into a ruling party and then into a legal opposition operating within the parameters of "low intensity democracy" proved difficult. The inability to articulate a coherent alternative to neoliberal and insertion into global capitalism meant political vulnerability, indefinition, and incoherence in its own conduct.

All Sandinistas seemed to agree that the FSLN had to be transformed from a "revolutionary vanguard" into a modern political movement able to compete in the formal political arena, including in elections, while also mobilizing and providing leadership to the country's poor majority. Yet despite widespread recognition of the need for renovation, in practice the FSLN remained lethargic and resistant to change.

The international press has characterized the FSLN crisis and the split as a fight between "orthodox" hard- liners under Ortega's leadership and "moderate" social- democrats led by Ram!rez. In reality, the split is considerably more complex, reflecting the difficulty of finding answers to the questions facing all progressives in the South (and the North): What type of a project is viable and realistic, especially for a small, peripheral nation, given global forces which are too powerful to confront head on, the impossibility of withdrawal from the international system, and well-known limits to social change in any one country?

In this context, it is hardly surprising that differences would emerge within the FSLN. Behind these differences were distinct analyses of why the Central American revolutions ultimately failed and what options were available for left and popular forces. During the 1980s and up through 1992, the general view among the Sandinistas (and more broadly in the Central American left) was that the revolutionary projects had run up against a regional stalemate. Those who developed this analysis in more detail argued that the old oligarchies had virtually disappeared, replaced by two ascendant forces: a "modernized" technocratic New Right under U.S. leadership and tied to transnational capital; and popular forces that had become political protagonists and contenders for power in the 1980s.

Supposedly neither of these two new contenders could prevail, meaning that the protracted regional stalemate created the conditions for an "historic compromise" between different class and social forces. This opportunity for mutual accommodation -- to be achieved through negotiations, peace settlements, and elections -- would shift the terrain of struggle from the military to the political-civic arena through region-wide democratization and demilitarization processes.

The logical strategy developed on the basis of this analysis was for the popular classes to compete with new "democratic" adversaries through elections and peaceful mobilization, and the most important goal would be to safeguard the "democratic structures" that had been achieved through revolutionary upheaval. Structural transformations in favor of the popular classes were seen as not only possible, but necessary for consolidating peace and stability. Therefore such changes presumably would be supported by reconfigured dominant groups, and even by the U.S.


But as armed insurgencies gave way to negotiations and elections, the New Right and transnational capital consolidated its power, achieved dominance, and set about to implement its neoliberal agenda. The other side, the popular sectors, exhausted and weakened by a decade of counterinsurgency and counterrevolution, went on the defensive and fell into a quagmire.

In retrospect, it has become clear that what took place in the 1977-1991 period was not a regional stalemate and historic compromise. Rather, what occurred was the conditional defeat of the popular sectors and the conditional victory of the old and new dominant groups. It was a conditional defeat because the popular forces did not lose everything: they still have active and reserve forces, organizational capacity and a culture of resistance. It was a conditional victory because the dominant groups could not get everything they wanted: a pacified population of 20 million poor Central Americans willing to quietly work to death or passively accept marginalization and degradation.

Scrambling to analyze and adjust to these rapidly shifting conditions, the Sandinistas mapped out a contradictory and inconsistent strategy in the early 1990s. They wavered between providing critical support to the government in the name of national stability, post-war reconstruction, and an ill-defined "national project" that would cohere a left and center around defense of the formal democratic structures and social changes won with the 1979 destruction of the Somocista dictatorship on the one hand; and on the other hand opposing the government by organizing strikes and mass protests against its anti-popular measures.

The first track -- conditional support for the government under the erroneous assumption that it would compromise over policy -- achieved little more than a further erosion of the FSLN's authority among popular sectors. The second track -- leading constant protests -- got nowhere because the balance of forces was so unfavorable and the Sandinistas were unable to provide an alternative program or decisive leadership, thus gradually wearing down the strength and stamina of popular protest and Sandinista credibility.

The see-saw strategy was clearly leading the FSLN into a dead-end, a situation which created and aggravated fissures within the party. In broad strokes, the FSLN was dividing into two camps. One called at the tactical level for mass, popular mobilizations as the principal form of struggle, and for a total rejection of the neoliberal project. The other argued for rigorous defense of formal democratic procedures and the rule of law, which meant that struggles should take place in the parliament, through elections, and so forth. In practice, however, there was not a neat, one-to-one correspondence between these broad outlooks and every specific policy or factional dispute; there was a mix-and-match of different positions between different tendencies. Political differences were also made murkier by a pernicious opportunism among many a Sandinista leader, for whom defending the FSLN's institutional clout (and organizational resources) constituted their own source of power, authority, privilege and material comfort. And a tenacious "vanguardism" blocked authentic internal party democratization.

Sandinistas and their supporters had hoped that the party would be renewed, and an organic unity achieved, in the first-ever FSLN Congress held in 1991. But this Congress only covered up tensions in the name of maintaining unity during a difficult transition period. Internal conflict mounted in 1992 and 1993. The party held together in the hopes that a real renewal would come in the extraordinary 1994 Congress, but the schisms only deepened. Rather than a democratization of the party's structures, the Ortega "Democratic Left" faction had its opponents purged from leadership positions and silenced.

Following the Congress, this faction gained control of party assets and went on a virtual witch-hunt, purging opponents and expelling them from the party's organs and media outlets, including the dismissal of Carlos Fernando Chamorro, long-time editor of Barricada. Resignations were forthcoming, including those of poet and former minister of culture Ernesto Cardenal and his brother, Fernando, the former education minister who had led the world famous 1980 literacy crusade. "The `orthodox' sector has waged a dirty war against anyone who has a different idea of what Sandinismo means and how Sandinistas should act in the current situation," argued Tllez in explaining the reasons for her resignation.

Under Ortega's leadership, the post-division FSLN put forward an electoral platform this May that is highly critical of the government and its neoliberal program. It confidently declares that the Sandinistas will win the upcoming 1996 national elections, but offers little in the way of a concrete programmatic alternative. Though accurately identifying the hardships neoliberalism has brought to Nicaragua, the "Democratic Left" FSLN seems unable or unwilling to look beyond the 1979-1990 years, and still dreams that it will sweep back into power in next year's elections like some revolutionary camelot of a bygone era. The leadership has not shed the old top-down vanguardist tendencies and has not found a formula for directing spontaneous and localized struggles toward attainable goals and realistic demands.

The MRS also declared with confidence that it would win the elections. But expectations simply did not materialize that the new group would be able to win support or rekindle political enthusiasm among the estimated 350,000 inactive Sandinistas. The new group has remained for the most part a club of leaders distanced from the grassroots. And both groups have their share of members who are property owners and businessmen who fall within the "plenty" side of the post-1990 "poverty amidst plenty" landscape, and who seemingly share more with the bourgeoisie in outlook and conduct than with the poor majority.

The FSLN and the MRS retain support among the aging revolutionary generation of the 1970s and 1980s, and also among leaders and members of the scattered popular organizations. This is not because either has put forward a viable project, but because they are opposed to neoliberalism, call for popular alternatives, and retain the mantle of Sandinismo, which remains a national patrimony of the popular classes. Neither has ruled out electoral and other alliances. And there are respected Sandinista leaders -- such as Henry Ruiz, a 30-year veteran highly regarded by all factions -- who have been striving to bring the two together and provide leadership for the disoriented popular classes.

Neoliberalism has thrown most Nicaraguans into a desperate social and economic situation, too preoccupied with the struggle for daily survival to remain politically active. It has effectively deactivated the popular movements, excluding and atomizing the grassroots by driving people into extreme poverty and despair. Spontaneous outbreaks of individual violence, pandemics of street crime, prostitution and drug addiction, are unravelling the social fabric and replacing the sense of collective solidarity that characterized the revolution with a disturbing social anomie and political apathy, especially among the new generation.

The above is not a pleasant assessment for CrossRoads readers of the state of affairs in Nicaragua, coming from one who is intimate to them. But it reflects the hardships and dilemmas facing the left and humanity everywhere in today's "brave new world" of global capitalism.

"Then understand the misery of my country, and my pain, and everyone's pain," wrote the Guatemalan poet and revolutionary Otto Rene Castillo, shortly before his death in combat. The darkest moment, Otto insisted, is that which precedes dawn.