Nicaragua: through the abyss

Sergio Ramírez
3 September 2007

The Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua of 1979 is approaching its thirtieth anniversary. There is no longer a single collective memory of the event. Rather, three perspectives can be found. First, those too young to live through the revolution - and that means the majority of the Nicaraguan people today - view what has come down to them from history as a cacophony so confused as to induce only oblivion. Second, those who did experience it directly now recall it with feelings of pained nostalgia, frustration and disenchantment because of what happened afterwards. Third, those of any generation who choose to do so see in the government of Daniel Ortega - who was elected president in November 2006 after a sixteen-year gap - the continuation of a project interrupted in 1990 when the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) lost the national elections.

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 latest book is El reino animal (Alfaguara, 2006). He 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 on openDemocracy:

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

"After Herty Lewites" (4 July 2006)

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

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

Is such continuity possible? The Sandinista revolution of the 1980s had two dimensions: idealistic and power-related. The first was based on a set of core ethical and ideological principles, the second in the articulation of a political and military apparatus that would serve to support the project of transformation; the latter, in turn, protected itself by reference to the former. Time has ravaged both. The Sandinista Front's return to government has not been based on the restoration of its principles, which have been ever more comprehensively erased; while its power project too is guided by and responds to very different propositions. Together, the discontinuities between then and now represent the crossing of an abyss.

For some, however, the answer to the question is simpler: the signs of continuity between the Sandinista project of the 1980s and the 2000s are seen to depend on the speeches of Daniel Ortega. And it's true, they are speeches in which time indeed stands still: in their doctrinal monotony, the rich and the business class are always the baddies with respect to an unchanging class struggle; in their hyperbolic radicalism, the Europeans are always the colonialist devils with respect to the confrontation between poor and rich countries; in their fundamentalism of concept, the evil deity incubated at the end of the 19th century in the waters of the Caribbean is always immobile with respect to odious United States imperialism.

But while the rhetoric flies higher, the speeches themselves dissolve into thin air with no visible consequences. The lack of effect is revealing of the larger political reality they attempt, and fail, to capture. Despite and against the world Daniel Ortega's words conjure, times have changed - in Nicaragua, as in the rest of the globe. A transformed political environment renders Ortega's discourse null and his propositions regressive.

The hollowness of the discourse can be measured in its distance from the content of policy. Ortega's government may imagine itself as a privileged target of imperialism, for example, yet it has concluded an agreement with the International Monetary Fund that is regarded as satisfactory for both parties. The freeze of political understanding can be seen in the government's search for regressive utopias, the ambition to reclaim a world that no longer exists.

This world is that of Daniel Ortega's first coming: the cold-war era with its old, fixed alignments. His foreign-policy odyssey is a good example of the assumption that nostalgia is sufficient resource to survive in a new, radically different and culturally alien atmosphere. Ortega's pilgrimages have traversed countries as distant from Nicaragua's real situation as Senegal, Libya and Iran; Latin America itself, outside the dominant axis of Caracas, is either worthy of hostility or barely tolerable (a category that includes Mexico and Costa Rica); Europe and the United States are beyond the pale.

The shadow of power

But this distractive, backward-looking mentality also has an important domestic dimension. Daniel Ortega is trying to reconstitute the long-term base of his political support in a way that effectively surrenders the dimension of ethical and ideological principle to that of power alone. This aspect of his regressive vocation is embodied in the creation of "councils of citizens' power" heralded as instruments of a participatory democracy that will modify the workings of existing, representative or formal democracy. The immediate reference-point is the institutional model of Hugo Chávez's Venezuela, but Managua's experiment even more closely recalls the poder popular of Fidel Castro's Cuba.

But there is a strange aspect to Daniel Ortega's initiative. These parallel structures of citizens' power in Nicaragua - organised unit by unit, district by district, block by block - are being constructed by Ortega outside the existing legal framework. The committees will have decision-making and fiscal powers that will be able to impose themselves not just at the level of municipal governments, but even on government ministries (which, as in Venezuela, are already designated "ministries of popular (or citizens') power". A spokesman of Ortega has declared too that the committees will exercise "voluntary" functions of vigilance in certain areas, complementary to those of the police.

Also in openDemocracy: Ivan Briscoe, "Never let me go: can Ortega reclaim Nicaragua?" (2 November 2006) The odd thing, however, is that they are intended thus to substitute for legal instruments that are in any event under Ortega's control; the municipal councils, for example, are in their great majority already dominated by the Sandinista Front.

Here again, perhaps, is nostalgia for the lost paradise, the chorus of an old song (a sense reinforced by the fact that the head of the committees is Daniel Ortega's wife, Rosario Murillo). The committees (it is perhaps superfluous to say) are not pluralist entities, with free access for diverse sectors of the population. They are controlled by political operatives from the Sandinista Front, and composed of citizens who are militants of or sympathisers with Ortega's party.

Modern democracy demands respect for and the strengthening of accountable institutions; a plural, inclusive and neutral space of public citizenship; and the alternation rather than the unbroken continuity of power. The distance of such models from such an understanding is evident.

Some might propose here a last, instrumental defence of the idea of continuity between the revolutionary project of the 1980s and that of today's Nicaragua: namely, that the shared element is the will to remain in power under the leadership of the same Daniel Ortega. There is, however, another fundamental difference. It certainly is the case that the Sandinista leadership then had a messianic revolutionary character, and that its explicit message included a commitment to the party's eternal hold on power. But this project was not based on a single person, and equally little on a first family; rather, it was very well understood that "men pass on, the party remains".

This messianic party, with a collective leadership in which Daniel Ortega was "first among equals", no longer exists. What has replaced the example of a disciplined Leninist structure is the unique and personal will of the same Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. Once again, as throughout the history of Latin America, the family has become the mould into which the entire energies and aspirations of a political party, and the state it governs, are poured. The modern revolutionary project, so very distant from what it was in its originating impulses, ideals and instruments, is trapped in its regressive, always-receding utopia; while within and around it, defying the passage of time, the shadow of the caudillo reappears.

This article was translated from Spanish by Isabel Hilton

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