I like staying up to watch electoral returns, but there is no point in doing so when the results are already known in advance and the election lacks any kind of popular legitimacy. Nicaragua goes to the polls tomorrow in an election that will produce a landslide victory for incumbent president Daniel Ortega. These elections are of interest to anyone who cares about revolutionary struggle, power, and social justice in Latin America. For solidarity activism with Nicaragua in the UK and elsewhere, it is important to understand the conditions that underpin this electoral contest.
I was an activist with the UK solidarity movement long before I started to research Nicaraguan cultural politics. In my early 20s, during and just after the Nicaraguan Revolution of the 1980s, my activist involvement, especially with the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign and the Central American Human Rights Committees, proved to be a wonderful political education and I am grateful for the insight and experience it gave me. As a result, I was able to work with and learn from Central American revolutionary leaders, human rights defenders, feminists, environmentalists and trade unionists both in the UK and Central America. While my efforts today are much more focused on research rather than solidarity organization, I appreciate the importance of international solidarity for making a difference in the world.
In the 1980s, when Reagan was in power, I believed in the FSLN and the Nicaraguan Revolution as a force for good, as an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggle that in the early years achieved some remarkable things but later became unstuck as a result of a multitude of factors, including but not limited to US foreign policy. As many people know, the FSLN, the party of the Revolution led by Daniel Ortega, lost the 1990 elections and then spent 16 years in opposition, attempting to return to power. Daniel Ortega remained the FSLN leader throughout those 16 years, losing two further elections in 1996 and 2001. In the late 90s, the FSLN did a dodgy deal (el pacto) with the ruling Liberals to weaken the safeguards in the electoral law to make it more likely that the FSLN could return to power. Thanks to el pacto, Ortega returned to power in 2006 and was re-elected (unconstitutionally as the Nicaraguan Constitution forbids re-election) in 2011. He is now running for a third consecutive term with his wife, Rosario Murillo, as his running mate. This means therefore that in the 37 years since the triumph of the Revolution in 1979, Ortega has been the president of Nicaragua for 21 years and leader of the opposition for the remaining 16 years. This is the 7th election in which he is running for president. The municipal elections of 2008 and the presidential elections of 2011 were widely denounced as fraudulent.
Like many revolutionary and progressive Nicaraguans, I ceased to support the FSLN a very long time ago. Indeed, many Nicaraguans, including many of those that fought in the revolutionary struggle, confirm that the existing FSLN leadership has betrayed its revolutionary principles, has embraced neoliberal capitalism, and has become increasingly authoritarian and repressive.
Yet these painful and highly visible realities seem however to have escaped substantial sectors of the UK solidarity movement. Instead, UK solidarity appears to be recycling a narrative that is dangerously inaccurate and obscures the desperate situation facing the country at this particular moment. Ignoring the tragic and disturbing events that afflict Nicaragua in order to circulate a highly simplistic anti-imperialistic discourse is not a form of solidarity that serves the needs of Nicaraguan citizens fighting for a better life nor is it useful for young activists in the UK who are seeking to understand the complex political situation and to figure out how to act in solidarity through anti-capitalist activism.
One example of this disconnect was evident in a tweet I saw last week while I was doing fieldwork in Nicaragua. The tweet was sent by @latamerica16 and it announced that Paul Oquist, Nicaragua’s National Policy minister, would be a guest speaker at the Latin America 2016 conference (https://latinamericaconference.wordpress.com/). This is a conference to be held in London on Saturday 26 November and is sponsored by the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign and Unite. Even more disturbing was the accompanying photo (see Figure 1) that announced Nicaragua’s “phenomenal progress” with a bunch of quite astonishing statistics that would come as quite a shock to most Nicaraguans, including the idea that Daniel Ortega is enjoying an approval rate of 79%.
For all those organizing and attending the Latin America 2016 conference, here is a quick overview of the current political situation in Nicaragua. It contains elements that should be central to Latin America 2016.
For the past few months, the country has been seen numerous street and online protests about what is widely understood to be an “electoral farce” (farsa electoral), because the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Court has eliminated the only viable opposition. The other parties who appear on the ballot are run by co-opted people that nobody has heard of and that have no popular base of support. Ortega has banned international election observers, despite their presence being enshrined in the electoral law. I worked as an international election observer with the Carter Center in 2001 and 2006, and Nicaraguan elections are usually intense affairs, with high levels of passionate civic engagement, well-attended rallies, and visible campaigning everywhere. Usually campaigning material is attached to every available wall, lamppost and tree. This year nobody has really bothered to campaign and the urban landscape is unusually bereft of campaigning material. Plenty of party flags and posters do however appear on the walls of the state institutions, also in contravention of the electoral law, and public sector workers are expected to demonstrate their inked thumbs on Monday to confirm that they did go to vote. On 26 October in Bilwi on the North Caribbean Coast, a couple of FSLN posters appeared, some of them had been immediately destroyed (see Figure 2). It was no different when I returned to Managua on Saturday 29 October. It was indeed hard to believe that we were in the final week of an election campaign. I caught the tail end of the close of campaign by the Conservative Party and there were certainly no more than 100 people there. Some were possibly locals, happy to get a free t-shirt. A campaign in favour of active abstention has gained traction, as according to many Nicaraguan citizens, there is nobody to vote for. In response, the number of booths in polling stations will be reduced to create queues outside and generate an impression of civic participation. The hashtag #yonobotomivoto (I won’t throw away my vote) is trending on Twitter. Last weekend saw large protests against the farsa electoral in Nueva Guinea (see Figure 3), San José del Bocay, Jalapa and Pantasma and yesterday university students from the Central American University (UCA) also held a protest.
In addition to recognizing that the 2016 presidential elections have no credibility and legitimacy, solidarity activists should also be aware of the following. Since returning to power in 2006, the government has taken control of all four branches of government. Public employees and government ministers that openly criticize the FSLN leadership are removed from office. Daniel Ortega commands intense and unprecedented levels of police protection. The streets around his home in Reparto El Carmen are heavily guarded at all times. Five per cent of the police budget and 10 per cent of the police personnel are used to protect the president and his close entourage. Anti-poverty programmes that have reduced poverty to a small degree have been administered to supporters in clientelistic ways, making it hard for people to express open opposition. Venezuelan aid has been privatized, in the sense that it is absent from the national budget, and directed into private projects. The government has spent more than $3 million on adorning Managua with dozens of metallic trees (see Figure 4) and $80 million on 50 armoured T7B1 Russian tanks. They send out the riot police or groups of violent mobs (grupos de choque) every time the opposition organizes a peaceful protest. They have criminalized therapeutic abortion, putting even more women’s lives at risks. The government is also pursuing the construction of a $50 billion interoceanic canal with Chinese investment that will produce irreversible environmental damage and will displace hundreds of campesinos and indigenous groups from their lands. Furthermore, there is a serious environmental and social conflict in the North Caribbean region, where colonos, subsistence farmers from the Pacific, have settled illegally on ancestral lands belonging to Miskito and Mayangna populations and have become increasingly violent. More than 20 indigenous community members have been murdered by the colonos in the past year, but no state protection or investigation into illegal activities (murder, land trafficking, illegal occupation of indigenous territory) has been undertaken.
So what we have in place is an authoritarian, repressive government that does not tolerate political pluralism and freedom of expression, does not respect or support the rights of indigenous peoples and women, is responsible through inaction (towards the colonos and rampant deforestation) and action (pursuit of a neoliberal megaproject such as the canal) for extensive environmental destruction. Ortega is in a precarious position – the fall in oil prices and the crisis in Venezuela along with the approval in the US Congress of the Nica Act are both likely to substantially reduce the external funds flowing into Nicaragua. The other pink tide governments that have been also been his allies are also in crisis to varying degrees. To compensate, Ortega is doing deals with Putin and Russian investment in transport, telecommunications and military hardware is already visible, but such an association is likely to isolate Ortega further. These issues are absent from the UK solidarity literature. If you read the latest news briefing from the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign (NSC), it seems to suggest that all is well, that the elections are free and fair, and that the vast majority of the electorate are ready to vote for the FSLN. I understood why Ortega wishes to make his regime and the electoral process appear legitimate, but I do not know why a UK-based solidarity campaign would wish to do so. As a long term NSC activist, I am disturbed by such blatant and extreme political irresponsibility. If they cared about those that gave their lives for the revolution in the 1970s and 80s, about the freedom to participate in politics without intimidation, about the fate of Nicaragua’s indigenous groups, they would endeavour to engage honestly and accurately with Nicaragua’s messy complicated politics. There are lots of Nicaraguans fighting for something better. There are lots of Nicaraguans honouring the sacrifices made during the revolution, denouncing corruption, seeking to address poverty and marginalization in sustainable ways, and speaking out in defence of human rights and the environment. We should stand with them, not with a corrupt and authoritarian caudillo.