[News] Et Tu, Daniel? The Sandinista Revolution Betrayed

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Sat Mar 7 12:21:31 EST 2009

Et Tu, Daniel? The Sandinista Revolution Betrayed

March 07, 2009 By Roger Burbach
Source: CENSA

Upon his inauguration as Nicaraguan president in 
January 2007, Daniel Ortega asserted that his 
government would represent "the second stage of 
the Sandinista Revolution." His election was full 
of symbolic resonance, coming after 16 years of 
electoral failures for Ortega and the party he 
led, the Sandinista Front for National Liberation 
(FSLN). The Sandinistas' road to power was paved 
with a series of previously unthinkable pacts 
with the old somocista and Contra opposition. The 
FSLN's pact making began in earnest in 2001, 
when, in the run-up to that year's presidential 
election, Ortega forged an alliance with Arnoldo 
Alemán, an official during the Somoza regime who 
had been elected president in 1997.

But even with Alemán's backing, Ortega was unable 
to win the presidency. So, before the 2006 
election, he publicly reconciled with his old 
nemesis, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, a potent 
symbol of the counterrevolutionary movement in 
the 1980s. Ortega and his longtime companion, 
Rosario Murillo, announced their conversion to 
Catholicism and were married by the cardinal. 
Just before his election Ortega supported a 
comprehensive ban on abortion, including in cases 
in which the mother's life is endangered, a 
measure ratified by the legislature with the 
crucial votes of Sandinista deputies. To round 
out his pre-election wheeling and dealing, Ortega 
selected Jaime Morales, a former Contra leader, 
as his vice presidential candidate.

Even with these concessions to the right, Ortega 
won the presidency with just 37.9% of the votes. 
Once in power, he announced a series of policies 
and programs that seemed to hark back to the 
Sandinista years. Educational matriculation fees 
were abolished, an illiteracy program was 
launched with Cuban assistance, and an innovative 
Zero Hunger program established, financed from 
the public budget and Venezuelan aid, that 
distributed one cow, one pig, 10 hens, and a 
rooster, along with seeds, to 15,000 families 
during the first year. Internationally, Nicaragua 
joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the 
Americas (ALBA), a trade and economic cooperation 
pact that includes Cuba, Bolivia, and Venezuela.

But the Ortega government's clientelistic and 
sectarian nature soon became evident when Ortega, 
by presidential decree, established Councils of 
Citizen Power under the control of the Sandinista 
party to administer and distribute much of the 
social spending. Even more importantly, under the 
rubric of ALBA, Ortega signed an accord with 
Venezuela that provides an estimated $300 million 
to $500 million in funds personally administered 
by Ortega with no public accountability.

As Mónica Baltodano, the leader of Resacte, a 
dissident Sandinista organization, argued in a 
recent article, Ortega's fiscal and economic 
policies are, in fact, continuous with those of 
the previous governments, despite his 
anti-imperialist rhetoric and denunciations of 
neoliberalism.(1) The government has signed new 
accords with the International Monetary Fund that 
do not modify the neoliberal paradigm, while the 
salaries of government workers remain frozen and 
those of teachers and health workers are the 
lowest in Central America. According to the 
Central Bank of Nicaragua, the average salary has 
dropped the last two years, retrogressing to 2001 levels.(2)

Moreover, the government and the Sandinista party 
are harassing and repressing their opponents. 
During an interview in January, Baltodano told me 
the right to assembly has been systematically 
violated during the past year, as opposition 
demonstrations are put down with goon squads. 
"Ortega is establishing an authoritarian regime, 
sectarian, corrupt, and repressive, to maintain 
his grip on power, betraying the legacy of the 
Sandinista revolution," she said.

The core of this legacy was the revolution's 
commitment to popular democracy. Seizing power in 
1979 from the dictator Anastasio Somoza, the 
Sandinista movement comprised Nicaragua's urban 
masses, peasants, artisans, workers, Christian 
base communities, intellectuals, and the 
muchachos­the youth who spearheaded the armed 
uprisings. The revolution transformed social 
relations and values, holding up a new vision of 
society based on social and economic justice that 
included the poor and dispossessed. The 
revolution was muticlass, multiethnic, 
multidoctrinal, and politically pluralistic.

While socialism was part of the public discourse, 
it was never proclaimed to be an objective of the 
revolution. It was officially designated "a 
popular, democratic, and anti-imperialist 
revolution." Radicalized social democrats, 
priests, and political independents as well as 
Marxists and Marxist-Leninists served as cabinet 
ministers of the Sandinista government. Images of 
Sandino, Marx, Christ, Lenin, Bolívar, and Carlos 
Fonseca, the martyred founder of the Sandinista 
movement, often hung side by side in the cities and towns of Nicaragua.

A central attribute of the revolution that has 
made its legacy so powerful is that it was a 
revolución compartida, a revolution shared with 
the rest of the world.(3) As Nicaragua, a country 
with fewer than 3 million inhabitants, defied the 
wrath of the U.S. imperium, people from around 
the world rallied to the revolution's support. In 
a manner reminiscent of the Spanish civil war 
half a century earlier, the Sandinista revolution 
came to be seen as a new political utopia, 
rupturing national frontiers. It marked a 
generation of activists around the globe who 
found in the revolution a reason to hope and believe.

With the deepening of the U.S.-backed 
counterrevolutionary war from military bases in 
Honduras, activists from the United States came 
to be the largest contingent to support the 
Sandinista revolution. An estimated 100,000 
people from the United States visited Nicaragua 
in the 1980s, many as simple political tourists. 
Some came as part of delegations, but most of 
them arrived on their own. It was an experience 
totally different from that of Cuba, where the 
prohibition of U.S. travel to the island meant 
that only organized delegations arrived via 
Mexico or Canada with assigned accommodations and 
structured tours. But it was not just the travel 
arrangements that were different. Those going to 
Nicaragua found an "open door" society: They 
could talk with anyone, travel to the 
countryside, and stay where they pleased with no 
interference from the government.

The Sandinista revolution's commitment to 
democracy led it down a new political path. This 
was not a revolutionary government conducted, in 
the classical sense, by a dictatorship of the 
proletariat. While the National Directorate of 
the FSLN oversaw the revolutionary process, it 
was not dictated by a single strongman but by 
nine people who reached consensus decisions with 
input from popular organizations. The Nicaraguan 
Revolution thus responded to internal and 
external challenges by deepening its democratic 
and participatory content, rather than by declaring a dictatorship.

In October 1983, when a U.S. assault appeared 
imminent in the aftermath of the invasion of 
Grenada, the National Directorate adopted the 
slogan "All Arms to the People" and distributed 
more than 200,000 weapons to the militias and 
popular organizations. I was there as U.S. 
aircraft flew over Managua, breaking the sound 
barrier, trying to "shock and awe" the populace. 
Bomb shelters and defensive trenches were hastily 
built as the country mobilized for war.

We may never know whether the threatened invasion 
was a ruse or if the popular mobilization 
forestalled a U.S. attack. But it did reaffirm 
the revolution's commitment to democracy. In 
1984, in the midst a deteriorating economy and 
the escalating Contra war, the country held an 
election in which seven candidates vied for the 
presidency. The election was monitored by "at 
least 460 accredited observers from 24 
countries," who unanimously described it as 
fair.(4) A reported 83% of the electorate 
participated, and Ortega won with almost 67% of 
the votes.(5) The election demonstrated that a 
revolutionary government can solidify its hold on 
power in the midst of conflict, not by adopting 
increasingly dictatorial powers but by building mass democratic support.

The adoption of a new constitution in 1986 marked 
yet another step forward in the democratic 
process. The constitution, which established 
separation of powers, directly incorporated human 
rights declarations, and abolished the death 
penalty, among other measures, was drafted by 
constituent assembly members elected in 1984 and 
submitted to the country for discussion.(6) To 
facilitate these debates, 73 cabildos abiertos, 
or town meetings, were attended by an estimated 
100,000 Nicaraguans around the country. At these 
meetings, about 2,500 Nicaraguans made 
suggestions for changes in the constitution.

But this bold Sandinista experiment in 
revolutionary democracy was not destined to 
persevere. As occurred in the Spanish civil war, 
the tide of history ran against the heroic people 
of Nicaragua, sapping their will in the late 
1980s as the Contra war waged on and the economy 
unraveled. Often as I departed from the San 
Francisco airport on yet another flight to the 
Central American isthmus, I would look down on 
the Bay Area, with its population roughly the 
same size as Nicaragua's and an economy many 
times larger, and wonder how the Sandinista 
revolution could possibly survive a war with the most powerful nation on earth.

Perhaps the die was cast in neighboring El 
Salvador with the failure of the guerrillas there 
to seize power as the United States mounted a 
counterinsurgency war. The inability to advance 
the revolution in Central America seemed to 
confirm Leon Trotsky's belief that a revolution 
cannot survive and mature in just one 
nation­especially in small countries like 
Nicaragua with porous borders, which, unlike 
island Cuba, lend themselves to infiltration and 
repeated forays from well-provisioned military bases.

To end the debilitating war, the Sandinista 
leaders turned to peace negotiations. Placing 
their faith in democracy, they signed an accord 
that called for a ceasefire and elections to be 
held in February 1990, in which the Contras as 
well as the internal opposition would be allowed 
to participate. Once again the popular 
organizations mobilized for the campaign, and 
virtually all the polls indicated that Ortega 
would win a second term as president, defeating 
the Contra-backed candidate, Violeta Chamorro, 
whose campaign received generous funding from the United States.

Nicaraguans and much of the world were shocked 
when Chamorro defeated Ortega with 55% of the 
vote. Even people who were sympathetic to the 
Sandinistas voted for the opposition because they 
wanted the war to end, as the threat of more 
U.S.-backed violence remained looming. The day 
after the election, a woman vendor passed me by 
sobbing. I asked her what was wrong, and she 
said, "Daniel will no longer be my president." 
After exchanging a few more words, I asked whom 
she had voted for. "Violeta," she said, "because 
I want my son in the Sandinista army to come home alive."

During the next 16 years, three Nicaraguan 
presidents backed by the United States 
implemented a series of neoliberal policies, 
gutting the social and economic policies of the 
Sandinista era and impoverishing the country. 
Ortega ran in every election, drifting 
increasingly to the right, while exerting an iron 
hand to stifle all challengers and dissenters in 
the Sandinista party. Surprisingly, Orlando 
Nuñez, with whom I wrote a book with on the 
revolution's democratic thrust, remained loyal to 
Ortega while most of the middle-level cadre and 
the National Directorate abandoned the party.(7) 
Many of these split off to form the Sandinista 
Renovation Movement (MRS), the largest dissident 
Sandinista party, founded in 1995.

When I asked Nuñez about his stance, he argued 
that only the Sandinista party has a mass base. 
"Dissident Sandinistas and their organizations," 
he said, "cannot recruit the poor, the peasants, 
the workers, nor mount a significant electoral 
challenge." Nuñez, who works as an adviser on 
social affairs to the president's office, went on 
to argue that Ortega allied with Alemán not out 
of political cynicism, but for the sake of 
building an anti-oligarchic front. According to 
this theory, Alemán and the somocistas represent 
an emergent capitalist class that took on the old 
oligarchy, which had dominated Nicaraguan 
politics and the economy since the 19th 
century.(8) A major thrust of Ortega's rhetoric 
is bent on attacking the oligarchy, which is 
clustered in the opposition Conservative Party.

But it is also true that some of the most famous 
Sandinistas, many of whom are in the dissident 
camp today­like Ernesto Cardenal, Gioconda Belli, 
Carlos Fernando Chamorro, and others­are 
descendents of oligarchic families. Accordingly, 
Ortega and Murillo have accused them of being in 
league with conservatives in an effort to 
reimpose the old order on Nicaragua. While the 
dissident Sandinistas have yet to mount a 
significant electoral challenge, the Ortega 
administration has nonetheless gone after them 
with a particular vehemence. Case in point: 
Chamorro, the onetime director of the Sandinista 
party newspaper, Barricada. In June 2007, 
Chamorro aired an investigative report on Esta 
Semana, the popular news show he hosts. According 
to the report, which included tape-recorded 
conversations, FSLN functionaries tried to extort 
$4 million from Armel González, a partner in a 
tourist development project called Arenas Bay, in 
exchange for a swift end to the project's legal 
woes, which included challenges from campesino cooperatives over land disputes.

The government's response to the bad publicity 
was swift and ruthless. While the district 
attorney buried the case, González was charged 
and convicted of slander. National Assembly 
deputy Alejandro Bolaños, who backed the 
denunciation, was arbitrarily removed from his 
legislative seat. And Chamorro was denounced in 
the Sandinista-controlled media as a 
"delinquent," a "narco-trafficker," and a "robber of peasant lands."

The harassment of Chamorro and other government 
critics continued during the run-up to 
Nicaragua's November 2008 municipal elections, 
which were widely viewed as a referendum on the 
Ortega administration. The Ministry of Government 
launched a probe into NGOs operating in the 
country, accusing the Center for Communications 
Research (Cinco), which is headed by Chamorro, of 
"diverting and laundering money" through its 
agreement with the Autonomous Women's Movement 
(MAM), which opposes the Ortega-endorsed law 
banning abortion. This agreement, financed by 
eight European governments and administered by 
Oxfam, aims to promote "the full citizenship of 
women." First lady Murillo called it "Satan's fund" and "the money of evil."

Cinco's board of directors were interrogated, and 
a prosecutor accompanied by the police raided the 
Cinco offices with a search warrant. Warned in 
advance of the visit, some 200 people gathered in 
the building in solidarity, refusing the police 
entry. Then as night fell, the police established 
a cordon around the building and, in the early 
morning, police broke down the door. After 
kicking out the protesters, the police stayed in 
the office for 15 hours, with supporters and 
onlookers gathered outside, shutting down traffic 
for blocks around. The police rummaged through 
offices, carting off files and computers. Since 
then, no formal charges have been filed, but 
Chamorro remains under official investigation.

Along with MAM, the broader women's movement in 
Nicaragua, which firmly opposes the Ortega 
government, was among the first to experience its 
repressive blows. In 2007 the government opened a 
case against nine women leaders, accusing them of 
conspiring "to cover up the crime of rape in the 
case of a 9-year-old rape victim known as 
‘Rosita,' who obtained an abortion in Nicaragua 
in 2003."(9) In August, Ortega was unable to 
attend the inauguration of Paraguayan president 
Fernando Lugo because of protests by the 
country's feminist organizations; from then on, 
women's mobilizations have occurred in other 
countries Ortega has visited, including Honduras, 
El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Peru.(10)

Charges were levied against other former 
Sandinistas who dared to speak out against the 
Ortega government, including 84-year-old Catholic 
priest Ernesto Cardenal, the renowned poet who 
once served as minister of culture. In August, 
after Cardenal criticized Ortega at Lugo's 
inauguration, a judge revived an old, previously 
dismissed case involving a German citizen who 
sued Cardenal in 2005 for insulting him.(11)

In addition to harassing critics, the Ortega 
government also displayed its penchant for 
electoral fraud during the run-up to the November 
municipal balloting. Protests erupted in June, 
after the Ortega-stacked Supreme Electoral 
Council disqualified the MRS and the Conservative 
Party from participation. Dora Maria Tellez, a 
leader of the renovation movement, began a public 
hunger strike that led to daily demonstrations of 
support, often shutting down traffic in downtown Managua.
Meanwhile, bands of young Sandinista-linked 
thugs, claiming to be the "owners of the 
streets," attacked demonstrators while the police 
stood idly by. Then, to prevent more 
demonstrations, Ortega supporters set up 
plantones, permanent occupation posts at the 
rotundas on the main thoroughfare running through 
Managua. Those who camped out there were known as 
rezadores, or people praying to God that Ortega 
be protected and his opponents punished.

Besides the FSLN, two major political parties 
remained on the ballot, the Liberal 
Constitutionalist Party and the Nicaraguan 
Liberal Alliance. While independent surveys 
indicated that the opposition candidates would 
win the majority of the seats, the Supreme 
Electoral Council, which had prohibited 
international observers, ruled that the 
Sandinista candidates won control of 105 
municipalities, the Liberal Constitutionalist 
Party won 37, and the Alliance won the remaining 
six. An independent Nicaraguan group, Ethics and 
Transparency, organized tens of thousands of 
observers but was denied accreditation, forcing 
them to observe the election from outside polling 
stations. But the group estimates that 
irregularities took place at a third of the 
polling places. Their complaints were echoed by 
Nicaraguan Catholic bishops, including Managua's 
archbishop, who said, "People feel defrauded."(12)

After the election, militant demonstrations 
erupted in Nicaragua's two largest cities, 
Managua and León, and were quickly put down with 
violence. The European Economic Community and the 
U.S. government suspended funding for Nicaragua 
over the fraudulent elections. On January 14, 
before the election results were even officially 
published by the electoral council, Ortega swore 
in the new mayors at Managua's Plaza de la 
Revolución. He declared: "This is the time to 
strengthen our institutions," later adding, "We 
cannot go back to the road of war, to 
confrontation, to violence." Along with the 
regular police, Ortega stood flanked by camisas 
rosadas, or redshirts, members of his personal 
security force. A huge banner hung over the plaza 
depicting Ortega with an up-stretched arm and the 
slogan, "To Be With the People Is to Be With God."

"This despotic regime is bent on destroying all 
that is left of the Sandinista revolution's 
democratic legacy," Chamorro told me in January. 
"Standing in the way of a new dictatorship," he 
continued, "are civil society organizations, the 
independent media, trade unions, opposition 
political parties, women's organizations, civic 
leaders and others­many of whom can trace their 
roots back to the resistance against Somoza."

As the Nobel-winning novelist José Saramago put 
it: "Once more a revolution has been betrayed 
from within." Nicaragua's revolution has indeed 
been betrayed, perhaps not as dramatically as 
Trotsky depicted Stalin's desecration of what was 
best in the Bolshevik revolution. But Ortega's 
betrayal is a fundamental political tragedy for 
everyone around the world who came to believe in 
a popular, participatory democracy in Nicaragua.


1. Mónica Baltodano, "El ‘nuevo sandinismo' es de 
la izquierda? Democracia pactada en Nicaragua," 
Le Monde diplomatique, Southern Cone edition (December 2008): 16-17.

2. Ibid.

3. The concept of revolución compartida is 
developed in Sergio Ramírez, Adios muchachos: una 
memoría de la revolución sandinista (Mexico City: Aguilar, 1999).

4. Rosa Marina Zelaya, "International Election 
Observers: Nicaragua Under a Microscope," Envío 
103 (February 1990), envio.org.ni/articulo/2582.

5. BBC, "1984: Sandinistas Claim Election 
Victory," available at news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday.

6. Harry E. Vanden and Gary Prevost, Democracy 
and Socialism in Sandinista Nicaragua (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1996), 84-85.

7. Roger Burbach and Orlando Nuñez, Fire in the 
Americas, Forging a Revolutionary Agenda (Verso, 1987).

8. Nuñez develops this argument in his book La 
Oligarquia en Nicaragua (Managua: Talleres de 
Grafitex, 2006). See also Nuñez, "La Agonía 
política de la oligarquia," El 19 no. 14, 
November 27-December 3, 2008, available at sepres.gob.ni.

9. Human Rights Watch, "Nicaragua: Protect Rights 
Advocates from Harassment and Intimidation," 
October 28, 2008, available at hrw.org.

10. Baltodano, "El ‘nuevo sandinismo' es de la izquierda?"

11. CBC News, "Latin American Artists Protest 
Persecution of Nicaraguan Poet," September 6, 2008, available at cbc.ca.

12. "How to Steal an Election," The Economist, November 13, 2008.

*This article appears in the NACLA Report on the 
Americas, Revolutionary Legacies in the 21st Century, March/April, 2009.

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