Tag Archives: Nicaraguan Revolution

UK solidarity with Nicaragua: Let’s get real

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%.

Figure 1: Poster tweeted by @latamerica16 on 26 October

Figure 1: Poster tweeted by @latamerica16 on 26 October

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.

Figure 2: A tiny amount of electoral campaigning material appeared in Bilwi on 26 October

Figure 2: A tiny amount of electoral campaigning material appeared in Bilwi on 26 October

Figure 3: The tweet reads: We continue to mobilize against the electoral circus. In La Unión, Nueva Guinea, the campesinos and campesinas from the communities are here.

Figure 3: The tweet reads: We continue to mobilize against the electoral circus. In La Unión, Nueva Guinea, the campesinos and campesinas from the communities are here.

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.

Figure 4: Dozens of metallic trees adorn Nicaragua's capital city Managua

Figure 4: Dozens of metallic trees adorn Nicaragua’s capital city Managua

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.

 

Nicaragua: Travels in hyperreality

I first visited Nicaragua on a solidarity brigade in support of the revolution and the FSLN, just after Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas had lost the elections to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in 1990. Like many people around the world, in the 1980s I was inspired by Nicaragua’s revolutionary struggle against Somocismo and US imperialism and by the political possibilities that the Nicaraguan Revolution enabled us to imagine. It turned out to be a long-term commitment.  For the next twenty years, I came back to Nicaragua many times to do research.  I loved working here for many reasons, but mainly because Nicaragua was a country that had had a revolution, and that collective historical experience made Nicaragua an intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving place to work. I’ve been here for the past month doing fieldwork, my first visit since 2009. Today, politically speaking, Nicaragua is a bizarre and frustrating place. Daniel Ortega and the FSLN have been back in power since 2006, but within the government currently in power there is nothing left of that inspirational revolution.  Since 2012, centre right newspaper La Prensa repeatedly refers to Ortega as ‘el presidente inconstitucional’ because he was re-elected in 2011, in spite of the fact that the Nicaraguan Constitution did not permit re-election. In the early 1980s, Sandinista Nicaragua aspired to be a participatory democracy. The National Assembly passed constitutional reforms this week that not only do nothing to strengthen participatory democracy, but weaken and undermine representative democracy. The reforms have several dimensions to them, but essentially they allow for indefinite re-election, which means that the current president (who has now spent a total of 18 years, 1979-1990 and 2006 to date as president) can continue to be president for ever. The reforms also eliminate the threshold required to be elected and therefore the second round of voting. An inadequate and restrictive electoral law has just become more inadequate and more restrictive.

In 1990, the Sandinista defeat was totally unexpected, but it was clear that the Sandinista leadership had made a lot of serious mistakes during their time in power. Tens of thousands of people, many of them still teenagers, had died on both slides of the conflict and daily social reproduction in the face of chronic shortages and hyperinflation was tremendously difficult. Economic and emotional exhaustion generated by the war, the military draft and the US trade embargo had clearly contributed to the electoral defeat but they were compounded by FSLN verticalism and abuses of power.  Internal and external critics were calling for greater internal democracy and better engagement with ordinary people.  The party needed to appoint new leaders, new faces. But they didn’t do that, instead they purged the party of dissidents, many of whom were prominent Sandinistas, pushing people with integrity and political experience, people who had made enormous sacrifices to create a better world, into civil society organizations, NGOs and into a rival Sandinista party, the MRS.  And throughout all this time, Daniel has clung onto power, fighting off any challenges to his leadership and refusing to pay attention to any criticism. At the end of the 1990s, the FSLN did dodgy deals with the liberals to make it electorally possible for them to return to power.  I was here in 2006 when the FSLN returned to power after 16 years in opposition, winning the elections with fewer votes than they had lost with in 2001.  There were serious concerns about the integrity of that election, many people were disenfranchised for example as they had been unable to receive their cédulas or voter identity documents in time. Despite these worrying trends, I still felt quite optimistic about the state of democratization in Nicaragua at that time (see Cupples 2009). I no longer feel that sense of optimism although Nicaragua triumphed over Somoza and a brutal National Guard against the odds and can probably do so again.

Since 2007, the Nicaraguan government has received millions of dollars in aid from Venezuela, a flow of petrodollars that is now coming to an end, given the death of Hugo Chávez and the severe economic crisis in Venezuela. This money has been partially privatized through a bi-national company, ALBANISA, which keeps it out of the national budget (for a good overview of ALBANISA, see Riley 2010).  Many low-income Nicaraguans feel the government is more present and responsive to their needs. The neoliberal governments that were in power from 1990 to 2006 were truly horrible, depriving people of economic opportunities and hope. The current FSLN is however a party of image rather than substance, indulging in a clientelistic, paternalistic, and authoritarian populism.  They promised a new oil Venezuelan refinery that would bring jobs, and Chávez even came to lay down the first brick. Beyond that first brick, it has never materialized.

The current FSLN leadership describes Nicaragua as ‘cristiana, socialista, solidaria’, – Christian, socialist and in solidarity, it talks about ‘vivir bonito’ or living nicely and Daniel’s face is all over billboards along the highways, as if we were in the middle of an election campaign. The latest ones announce that in 2014 the government will be “haciendo patria” or making the nation whatever that means (see Figure 1). This past week, the president sacked the head of the Nicaraguan Central Bank without saying why, and the vice-minister of education.  The police also opened fire on a group of protestors in Chichigalpa and Juan de Dios Cortés, a 48 year old man was killed. The protestors are workers of the Ingenio San Antonio which produces the sugar for Nicaragua’s famous Flor de Caña rum who are suffering from kidney failure as a result of the pesticides to which they have been exposed. Thousands of them have already died (see Figure 2). The Ingenio is owned by one of Nicaragua’s wealthiest capitalist families, the Pellas.  There has been no official government response to the plight of these workers. In an article in Spanish newspaper El País, Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Salinas Maldonado (2014) recently asked Comandante Ortega why he remains silent. Salinas wonders why Daniel as a self-professed Christian and socialist is not speaking out in favour of workers harmed, exploited and seriously unwell as a result of ‘savage capitalism’.

Figure 1:  The latest billboardsFigure 2: A banner in Managua protesting sugar cane workers with chronic renal insufficiency

Given just how much Venezuelan aid has flowed into Nicaragua, things really should be a lot better for ordinary people. But in this ‘Christian and socialist’ country, there are still children begging at the traffic lights in the capital.  Half of the population still lives below the poverty line. There are high levels of urban insecurity.  A few days ago, I was in a store while the two women in the clothing boutique next door were held at gunpoint and forced to hand over their cell phones and the day’s takings.  Wherever there is affluence, there is privatized armed security, so that the rich can be protected from the poor. Managua remains a city built for cars. It is virtually impossible to walk around Managua because of heavy traffic, roads that are almost impossible to get across and the risk of being mugged. But getting a taxi isn’t necessarily a safer option, because taxis routinely take additional passengers, and then you run the (admittedly small but terrifying) risk of the driver picking up an accomplice and being hijacked.

Despite the urgent need for some urban planning (regulation of the taxi industry, some decent footpaths and some more pedestrian crossings would be an excellent start), instead the government has invested in large amounts of decorative lights. There are Christmas lights in central Managua, lots and lots of them.  Although the time for Christmas lights has now passed in most of the world, much of the city in early February is still ablaze with electric Christmas trees, angels and reindeers. The government has also created large permanent electrified metallic structures called “árboles de la vida” or “trees of life”, estimated to cost US$20,000 each.  They stand tall over much of Managua but they are concentred in particular along the Avenida Simón Bolívar. There is also a large electrified tribute to Hugo Chávez here too (see Figures 3 and 4).  When I arrived in early January, there were also lots of state-sponsored nativity scenes – not just a few but lots and lots and lots. It is a very strange use of public money in a country with so much poverty. Especially as there are communities in the eastern part of the country that still don’t have electricity in their homes. People who do have electricity struggle to pay the bills.

arbolesFigure 4: An electrified tribute to late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez

Not far from here is the redeveloped Puerto de Salvador Allende or El Malecón on the edge of the lake. This is one clear visible improvement to the urban landscape. There are new bars and restaurants but there are also picnic tables and playgrounds for kids. It’s a nice place in the central city where you can go whether or not you have money to spend (although there is an entry fee if you go in by car).  But the Sandinista hyperreality is here too, the brightly coloured painted benches announce things like “Yo vivo bonito” “I live nice” or “Yo hago patria” “I make nation” (see Figures 5 and 6).

Figure 5: Yo vivo bonitoYo hago patria

Of course, Nicaragua’s most important hyperreality is the imminent or possibly not so imminent interoceanic canal. The government has awarded a 50 year concession to Chinese company, Jing Wang, to build a canal across Nicaragua which would rival the Panama Canal.  If built, the project promises to create economic growth and half a million jobs.  But there are huge concerns about the project. There is no publicly available environmental impact assessment and there are justifiable fears that such a project would devastate Nicaragua’s environment and natural beauty, its forests, flora and fauna, and could seriously pollute or drain the beautiful Lake Cocibolca, the largest freshwater lake in Central America, of water.  While many Nicaraguans are concerned, many others are not because they don’t believe it will ever be built.

Control of the  media has been central to the Sandinista strategy of simulating a prosperous nation. Sadly, critical and independent media are shrinking in Nicaragua. Most of the country’s radio stations, television channels and newspapers are either owned by the government, owned by the family of Daniel Ortega, or owned by business interests that have no interest in criticizing the government and probably benefit because they don’t.  The government is able to starve those that remain of state advertising as well as of some private advertising.  In an age of media convergence and media democratization however, the attempt to control the political economy of the media will only get so far. El Nuevo Diario has been purchased by Ban-Pro so has lost its critical edge but La Prensa remains a critical if conservative source of news. For the minority of Nicaraguans that have access to the Internet, the critical voices of opposition to Orteguismo are very loud, both in online journalism and in social media, especially Twitter. Here people repeatedly say that Nicaragua is becoming a dictatorship and note the many similarities between Somocismo and Orteguismo. There are many differences of course, there are no political prisoners, assassinations or people being forced in exile like there were under Somoza. There is no state-sponspored torture. But for León Nuñez (2014), dictatorship is when legislative, judicial and electoral power is subject to the will of the ruler, there can be dictatorship “without killing, imprisoning or sending people into exile”. The FSLN knows that if it did go down that route, it would all be over for them very quickly. Hence the investments in creating a hyperreality through officialized media, billboards, painted benches and urban electrification. In other words, if you keep telling people how much progress the country is making, and if you see pretty lights all over the capital, maybe they will start to believe it, even if everyday life continues to be characterized by multiple forms of precarity.  Of course, in Gramscian terms, the people’s good sense can never be extinguished by the hyperreal and manufactured common sense. The government knows that people are organizing, the opposition is becoming more coherent, even though how it will change is not all clear at this stage. What is clear is that Nicaragua and Nicaraguans deserve something so much better than this.

References

Cupples J (2009) Rethinking electoral geography: Spaces and practices of democracy in Nicaragua. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34(1): 110-124

Nuñez L (2014) La dictadura. La Prensa. 27 January http://www-ni.laprensa.com.ni/2014/01/27/voces/179990-dictadura

Riley B (2010) Nicaragua and Albanisa: The privatization of Venezuelan aid. COHA 13 August http://www.coha.org/nicaragua-albanisa-the-privatization-of-venezuelan-aid/

Salinas Maldonado C (2013) El nuevo símbolo del poder en Nicaragua. El País Internacional 18 December http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2013/12/17/actualidad/1387303716_871550.html

Salinas Maldonado C (2014) ¿Por qué se calla, Comandante Ortega? El País Internacional 22 January http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2014/01/22/actualidad/1390352905_814181.html