Date: Wed, 6 May 98 13:17:59 CDT
/** nacla.report: 388.0 **/
Review of The Undermining of the Sandinista Revolution by Gary Prevost and Harry E. Vanden (eds.), Macmillan Press, 1997
By Jack Hammond, NACLA, 30 April 1998
Violeta Chamorro was elected president of Nicaragua in 1990, defeating the Sandinistas who had ruled since 1979. The Sandinista revolution pursued national independence, state leadership of a mixed economy, social benefits for the country's poor majority, and democratic empowerment of the population as a whole through mass organizations and the guarantees of a wide variety of rights. The Chamorro government took office pledging to roll back many of these changes.
This collection examines what remained of the Sandinista project after six years of Chamorro's rule. In five chapters, six authors examine Chamorro's economic policies, the domestic and international pressures which produced them, their impact on various segments of the population, and the efforts of the formerly government-sponsored Sandinista mass organizations to find a meaningful autonomous role.
Economic stagnation was the biggest problem Chamorro faced, and several chapters overlap considerably on this topic: the overview by Gary Prevost, the examination of the political process by Harry Vanden, Richard Stahler-Sholk's account of structural adjustment policies, and Cynthia Chavez Metoyer's analysis of the impact on women. Stahler- Sholk's chapter is the most valuable, examining Nicaragua's domestic economic policies and relations with international financial institutions in relation to the hemispheric dominance of neoliberalism.
Buffeted by the U.S.-financed Contra war, the Sandinistas left the economy in bad shape. The Chamorro government failed to reactivate it. The government cut back in health, education, and state employment, privatized state-owned enterprises (where workers were able to preserve their positions in some firms by buying a share of the capital), attacked agrarian reform by returning properties to prerevolutionary owners and strangling credit, and encouraged foreign investment in a free-trade zone. The poor suffered: 50.3% of the population fell below the poverty line in 1993, and unemployment and underemployment reached 53.6% by 1994.
Unemployment and impoverishment were foreseeable consequences of the government's policy, but it did not even succeed on its own terms. As Stahler-Sholk shows, "structural adjustment" mainly meant containing government spending in a (mostly futile) battle to contain inflation, without any real structural changes to reactivate production.
In the only chapter which deals with the popular response to the rollbacks, Pierre M. La Ramee and Erica G. Polakoff describe the transformation of the Sandinista mass organizations. Like Stahler- Sholk, the authors put their topic in an international context, relating events in Nicaragua to issues of participatory socialist democracy and recent transformations of social movements in Latin America. To the Sandinista leadership, these organizations were vehicles to defend the revolution more than channels to express the popular will. Interviews with leaders make clear that the struggle to assert an independent role and provide for mass participation in a hostile political environment is daunting, but that activists maintain a firm commitment to social justice.
Several authors show that some of Chamorro's policies were anticipated by the Sandinista regime itself. They are unsparing of the Sandinistas' economic austerity program which betrayed their commitment to the poor, their exploitation of their positions of privilege, and vanguardist positions which denied real autonomy to the mass organizations.
The book was evidently completed before the 1996 election, and though several authors refer to Arnoldo Aleman as the likely victor, they do not satisfactorily account for the right-wing ascent which his election represented. The new government can be expected to exacerbate the Chamorro government's policies promoting accumulation of private capital and attacking unions, agrarian reform, and other institutions through which the Sandinista government sought redistribution to the poor majority.