Nicaragua: between revolution and democracy

Sergio Ramírez
14 August 2009

One morning in April 2004, Manuel Salvador Monge López, El Chirizo, was killed by a bayonet thrust in a cantina brawl in the district of Monimbó in Masaya. The victim was 55 years old, the assailant a teenager; the incident that led to the death (according to the police account) the result of a dispute about which of the two was "more of a man".

Sergio Ramírez is a Nicaraguan writer. He was vice-president of the country from 1984-90 during the period of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) government. In 1995 he broke from the FSLN to form the Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista (MRS). His many books include El reino animal (Alfaguara, 2006), Adiós muchachos (Alfaguara, 2007), Cuando todos hablamos (Alfaguara, 2008) and El cielo llora por mí (Alfaguara, 2009)

Sergio Ramírez was named Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1993, and was awarded the Medalla Presidencial by the Chilean government to mark the centenary of Pablo Neruda's birth in 2004. In 2005 he was a member of the jury granting the Lettre Ulysses award for the art of reportage. His website is here

Also by Sergio Ramírez in openDemocracy:

" Nicaragua's hijacked democracy" (18 November 2005)

" After Herty Lewites: a crossroads for Nicaragua" (4 July 2006)

" Don't forget Nicaragua" (11 October 2006)

" Daniel Ortega's second coming" (7 November 2006)

" Nicaragua: through the abyss" (3 September 2007)

" Nicaragua: heartbeat of protest" (1 September 2008)The teenager was unaware of the calibre of the "man" whose life he had taken: unaware that El Chirizo had been a member of the commando-unit headed by Eden Pastora that captured the national palace in Managua on 22 August 1978, one of the decisive events in the fall of the Somoza dynasty's dictatorship in Nicaragua. A hero of the revolution that was finally to triumph on 19 July 1979, poor all his life and now forgotten, had fallen in an obscure quarrel between drunkards.

There are other forms of oblivion for the heroes who survived the fight against the last of the Somozas. Some of those who died in combat and are memorialised in the names of districts, hospitals, markets and schools after the revolution now share the glory with their former adversaries. A district of Managua named Colonia Salvadorita after the wife of the first Somoza, was called Colonia Cristián Pérez as a tribute to a martyr of the urban resistance murdered in Managua soon after the victory. Today the colony is known as Salvadorita-Cristián Pérez.

But was there ever a revolution? A traveller who returned to Nicaragua after these thirty years, or who arrived here for the first time, would be forced to wonder if there had ever been a revolution here. There are no visible traces, except for the increasingly confused rhetoric of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional / FSLN) leader, Daniel Ortega.

Nicaragua's president, elected to his second period in office in November 2006, attacks American imperialism with the same virulence as he did during his first (1979-90); congratulates Fidel Castro on his birthday; and sings along with his wife - coarsely and karaoke-like - in the ceremony of commemoration of the revolution's thirtieth anniversary. Yet with the the same enthusiasm he proposes Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, his bitter adversary of the 1980s, for the Nobel peace prize.

Three questions and a legacy

Indeed, was there ever a revolution? Nicaragua has never experienced such unequal distribution of wealth, nor had so many poor people who scratch a living beneath the circling vultures in the rubbish-heaps of Acahualinca. The poor are inescapable. They flock around the traffic-lights in Managua's streets, selling everything from costume-jewellery and contraband goods to jungle animals that have fled the excessive predations of the timber-mafias. When night falls, they return to flimsy dwellings improvised with rubbish and discarded packaging, slums which multiply by the day so that the city - far from the gleaming lights of its magical shopping-malls - looks like a huge refugee-camp.

Where are the revolution's ideals? Disappeared under an avalanche of despair, frustration, ideological disarray, empty rhetoric, and forgetting. As in Iran - whose own revolution in 1979 preceded that of Nicaragua by five months - 70% of the Nicaragua's current population of is under 30 years old. The living memory of the revolution and the subsequent period among the young, who are taught little about it in school, is precarious or altogether absent. The judgments of those who lived through it all, meanwhile, are as polarised as ever: a radiant dawn for some, a dark night for others, in the words of Pope John Paul II on his second visit to Nicaragua in 1996.

Since the early 1990s, after the electoral defeat of Sandinismo on 25 February 1990, the ideals of solidarity and commitment to the poor and needy were replaced by an exaggerated cult of individualism. The promised land for today's young people is that of personal opportunities; the new and unquestioned philosophy declares that I am my own neighbour. True, such attitudes rule across Latin America today; but only in Nicaragua was there a revolution which offered another moral template to its children.

Nicaragua was also alone in the continent in stubbornly proclaimed the right  of a small country to political independence, free of the traditional dominion of the United States. The hegemony of the giant in the north had been a consistent theme in Nicaraguan history since the filibuster William Walker proclaimed himself president of the country in 1855; it was made manifest through repeated military interventions,and lasted until the end of the Somoza family's reign. The insistent defence of sovereignty shadowed this long era of external domination. In the 1980s, Nicaragua's search for a form of national redemption became part of a decade of extreme confrontation and aggression during the US presidency of Ronald Reagan.

What did the revolutionary transformations achieve? The intransigent enmity of Reagan and his cohorts set the machinery of the empire to work against a rebellious small country as if it were truly the world power of Washington's fantasies. This forced the Sandinista government to concentrate all its efforts on the war and leave their best ambitions to transform society by the roadside. The national-literacy crusade of 1980, mobilising thousands of young people who spread across Nicaragua's rural and urban areas to reach and teach the poor, succeeded in uniting the country; but its motto ("converting darkness to light") would soon give way to another ("everyone to the front"). The war effort consumed precious resources and forced public expenditure to expand far beyond what was sustainable. The consequence was a collapse of the already fragile economy, with severe consequences on inflation and the supply of basic goods - and, above all, on dissent.

Today, the dream of universal literacy no longer survives, nor the dream of popular education that would take all students from primary school to fourth grade. Illiteracy rates have reverted to where they were before, and one million children - half the population of school age - have no  schools to go to. In the health sector, the shortages in the public hospitals are such that patients' relatives have to bring plasma, and even the suture, for surgery.

Of one of the revolution's most central projects, agrarian reform - which aimed to deliver land to Nicaragua's peasants (and thus deliver on a promise  made during the armed struggle) - only debris remains. The post-1979 government had at first tried to use land-reform to organise the peasants into state production-units, in which the peasants would be "guest producers" - but with titles that did not allow the sale or inheritance of the land. This occasioned such acute resentment that many joined the Contra forces. By the time a belated correction was made, the war had escalated, and badly.

In fact these titles were handed over in full (and then chaotically) only in the political interregnum of February-May 1990 - after the Sandinistas' electoral defeat, but before the transfer of power to the incoming government of Violeta Chamorro. This gave rise to a huge mess in terms of property rights, between old and new owners, which has not been resolved to this day. In many cases the peasants, abandoned without credit or productive resources, sold their land at knockdown prices to the former owners, or to new (and equally greedy) owners, many of the latter from the ranks of the Sandinistas.

Two defeats, two achievements

Where did the revolutionary ethic go? There was during the political-transition period, besides the chaotic parcelling out of land to agrarian-reform beneficiaries, a massive distribution of state assets in favour of leaders and supporters of the Frente Sandinista at all levels. This looting frenzy, which became known as the piñata, was in stark violation of the principles proclaimed by the revolution. There are corrupt people all over Latin America, but only in Nicaragua was there a revolution. 

There was a second piñata even worse than the first, when the Frente Sandinista agreed to the Violeta Chamorro government's privatisation of the bulk of state assets and companies on condition that Nicaraguan workers received 30% of those assets and businesses. Such a transaction never took place; the real beneficiaries of the exchange were corrupt trade-union leaders (who mostly sold their shares) and the leadership of the FSLN (who became, as they remain, part of Nicaragua newly rich elite).

What has become of the entire revolutionary undertaking? Nicaragua has travelled far from the original ideals, none of the transformational hopes have been fulfilled, there seems to be no legacy of those dramatic years that moved  the world. But if  the achievements and the consequences of the revolution are not obvious, it is because they are now part of the substance of the country.

Two of these achievements are most notable. The first was to have ended the  Somoza dynasty's obscene military dictatorship. It was the Frente Sandinista that succeeded in mobilising the people in that struggle, especially young people from all social classes; it was the FSLN's political skills that at the time guaranteed the unity of the country, the formation of a supportive international coalition, and the successful negotiations with President Jimmy Carter's government in which the United States accepted the departure of Anastasio Somoza Debayle (which led eventually to the demise of Nicaragua's national guard, created by the US in 1927).

If the first transcendent act of revolution was finishing off the dictatorship, the second and last was the unconditional acceptance of electoral defeat on the night of 25 February 1990 and the transfer of power three months later to the newly elected government. It took courage to remove Somoza, and it also took courage unhesitatingly to let go of the power that had been won initially through arms - because the FSLN was thus abandoning not just the pursuit of government but the exercise of revolutionary power under the concentrated aegis of a hegemonic party.

To accept defeat was crucial in a country where elections of any kind had been were a rarity, and where fraud and coups d'etat had for so long been the rule. Democracy became irreversible after that night. Others, of course, would argue that there is democracy because the Contras' war forced the Frente Sandinista into holding elections which they then lost.

Today, no one of any political colour would exchange this democracy, either for a rightwing military dictatorship or one of the left inspired by the majesty of an all-embracing party. In Nicaragua, democracy - imperfect as it is, disgracefully sullied by so many cases of unpunished corruption, and threatened by authoritarianism - has achieved the status of the irreplaceable.

The revolution and democracy

Two achievements, then - but also two figures who darken Nicaragua's  democratic perspective: Daniel Ortega, Sandinista caudillo, and Arnoldo Alemán, liberal caudillo.

They do so because the pacts between them exclude from effective political participation all but their own parties; and because these covenants feed the sharing out of the spoils of power, facilitate the manipulation of the courts, impede the development of institutions, and thus encourage and reinforce corruption. The baleful result and the regrettable prospect is that Daniel Ortega now seeks to amend the constitution in order to get himself re-elected president for a second consecutive term, and that in this ambition he can count on Arnoldo Aleman's support.  

It is no part of a revolutionary inheritance that one caudillo shares out power with another, and obstructs the evolution of clean, independent institutions. What is at work here is a combination of the original authoritarian Sandinista culture, inspired by orthodox Marxism, and the dominant political culture of Nicaragua as a whole since the 19th century; the latter has always favoured the figure of the caudillo, which feeds precisely on democratic backwardness and claims still to represent Nicaragua's traditional rural society. The core impulse of the revolution to transform society was indeed in this context a modernising factor, but this was counterbalanced by the vertical political structure to which some of the Sandinista military leaders clung ideologically almost to the end.

Their schemas were defeated by reality, but not in their own minds. As a result, that transcendental act of acceptance of  electoral defeat in 1990 soon became a cause for defiant regret (symbolised by Daniel Ortega's immediate proclamation that he would "govern from below"). That explains why he now refuses to leave Nicaragua's presidency - he considers ownership of it a personal right that was for a moment unfairly snatched from him.

Ortega's ambition to secure permanent re-election, and the electoral fraud perpetrated in the municipal elections of November 2008 (which snatched Managua and three more important cities from the opposition) testify to the future of democracy in Nicaragua. The battle to turn the national police into an instrument of Ortega's personal power is another signal; so far it has (like the military) managed to escape this fate by conducting itself in exemplary fashion.

The Frente Sandinista retains a respectable mastery of the techniques of popular mobilisation. But with its atrophy of mind and its aging leadership, it has long ceased to embody any notion of revolution. The revolution that led such unsung heroes as Manuel Salvador Monge López, El Chirizo, to risk his life in audacious action belongs to another world.

This article was translated from Spanish by Isabel Hilton


Also in openDemocracy on Latin America and the Caribbean in 2009:

Antoni Kapcia, "Cuba's revolution: survival, loyalty, change" (15 January 2009)

John Crabtree, "Bolivia: new constitution, new definition" (22 January 2009)

John Crabtree, "Bolivia: after the vote" (2 February 2009)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: a state of failure" (17 February 2009)

George Philip, "Hugo Chávez, oil, and Venezuela" (20 February 2009)

Julia Buxton, "Hugo Chávez: tides of victory" (20 February 2009)

Adam Isacson, "Colombia's imperilled democracy" (6 March 2009)

Victor Valle, "El Salvador's long march" (20 March 2009)

Kelly Phenicie & Lisa J Laplante, "Peru: the struggle for memory" (8 April 2009)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "Barack Obama's drug policy: time for change" (15 April 2009)

Ivan Briscoe , "The Americas and Washington: moving on" (17 April 2009)

Antoni Kapcia, "Raúl Castro and Cuba: reading the changes" (22 April 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The Dominican Republic: a time of ghosts" (23 April 2009)

Guy Hedgecoe, "Rafael Correa: an Ecuadorian journey" (29 April 2009)

Enrique Krauze, "Hugo Chávez and Venezuela: a leader's destiny" (1 May 2009)

Peter DeShazo & Johanna Mendelson Forman, "Open veins, closed minds" (8 May 2009)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: living with insecurity" (13 May 2009)

Arthur Ituassu, "The price of democracy in Brazil" (21 May 2009)

Adam Isacson,"Álvaro Uribe, otra vez? Colombia's re-election debate" (29 May 2009)

Ismael Moreno, "Honduras: behind the crisis" (1 July 2009)

Celia Szusterman, "Argentina's broken polity" (13 July 2009)

Adam Isacson, "Honduras: time to choose" (23 July 2009)

John M Carey, "The Americas re-elect: George Washington's ghost" (27 July 2009)
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