In Nicaragua, visitors are struck by the reiterated invocation of “the Revolution” in official public discourse and comments by rank-and-file activists of the ruling party. This reference doesn’t seem to have a single cause because it unites several elements in a confused mixture.
On one hand it conjures up the images of the propaganda that bombards a population that was neglected by successive neoliberal governments. Added to this is the feigning by those who praise power in order to win favors. Plus there is even the psychological difficulty of “processing mourning” after two decades of having lost a struggle in which so many people gave their lives.
Mysticism and ignorance, hope and opportunism seems to meld together in the constant reference to the “second stage of the revolution.” Its traditional red and black symbols I found relegated to the public squares and streets, in contrast to the expensive omnipresence of “Christian, socialist and solidarity” banners and pink T-shirts whose designs reminded me a little of emancipator ideology and a great deal of the logos of the Mexican lottery.
“None of that revolution stuff, that’s nonsense. If I don’t work I don’t eat, and the rich folks continue on just the same, inside and outside of the government,” explained an irritated taxi driver who was taking me to Huembes Market.
Where the revolution seems to survive, despite time and betrayals, is in the imagery and practices of more than a few Nicaraguans of different sexes and ages. It is this way if we understand the revolution beyond the historical event as being a broad repertoire of practices, values, positions and customs that call for popular recognition and participation, equality and social justice, as well as the rejection of all forms of domination and hierarchy.
What is “revolutionary” is expressed within the emancipatory framework of social change that is sudden, radical and deconstructionist. Moreover, its inertia — when it is true — lasts beyond the time of its founding.
In Nicaragua this legacy is visible in the militancy of the women. Their broad and pluralistic movement in the defense of rights — in marked contrasts to other experiences of the region — directly opposes the alliance of all political and actual powers, determined to carry out a conservative crusade that threatens the liberal edicts of a secular government and the progressive accomplishments of a popular revolution.
A culture of political posturing
Even in the ranks of every day Sandinistas, formalized in the Sandinista front, I found critical and authentic positions that distance themselves from the high-sounding and prefabricated language of the party activists.
The mysticism and ethics of the revolution survived in the words I heard from a cultural promoter with the Coordinadora Social. She explained, “I joined the literacy campaign in the ‘80s, despite the opposition of my parents, and I supported the cultural festivals of the Sandinista Youth… Today I believe that we must go beyond the parties and governments that cut deals and manipulate people. It’s necessary to leave the offices and help people.”
All relations between the government, parties and social organizations simultaneously put at risk the diversity of identities and political options, as well as an asymmetry between actors with unequal shares of power. To understand this, there is nothing better than to interact with concrete players and verify this reality in their faces.
In an assembly with activists and community leaders, held at the UPOLI (Polytechnic University) in coordination with the Secretariat of the Managua Council for the Strengthening of Civic Participation, a health care activist insisted on the identification of Revolution-FSLN-Presidency.
She elaborated on her political assessment of former presidents saying: “Violeta (Chimorro) gave away our patrimony, Aleman became a millionaire thanks to Hurricane Mitch, and Bolaños put us in debt with the Union Fenosa power company. That’s why it’s necessary for President Daniel Ortega to win [re-election] in 2011 to guarantee the rights of the poor.”
A campesino leader put it this way: “Here, many people became landowners. With the three previous governments, emigration to the capital increased and presently we’re facing the catastrophe of overpopulation. But now the government doesn’t have anywhere to relocate those people. Our president, Commandant Daniel, has given us campesinos education and provided opportunities. I barely had a sixth grade education, I felt illiterate, but today I realize that I have potential.”
Meanwhile, adopting a slightly more critical position, although equally “Danielista,” one leader said: “In the ‘80s I was a member of the Sandinista Youth, and although I was a doctor I did my military service due to the revolutionary mystique… but now that mystique is gone. Today the politicians drive around in SUVs and bargain with the opposition and with capitalism. Commandant Daniel has some mysticism, but not the others. There’s no more mystique in Nicaragua.”
‘Left’ authoritarianism of people’s autonomy
In the debate generated after a presentation I made at a facility of the Managua city council, I highlighted how the political culture of Latin America — on the left as much as the right, and in organizations of civil society and in political parties — perverse values and practices are reproduced: authoritarianism that, from a position of power, imposes an agenda on the rest of society. It is represented by people who are motivated by the maximization of personal gain, and it is a form of clientelism that degrades the citizenry. They eliminate opportunities for the development of people’s rights and deal with them like a hungry mass of beggars, incapable of building their own future.
Confronted with this political culture of domination, a new vision of the left should build a political culture of emancipation, opposing authoritarianism with autonomy so that people define their norms and structures without being subordinated to parties, governments or companies. We must combat commercialization with self-management. We must develop our own resources so as not to have to depend on other powers, while barring clientelism through relations based on reciprocity, symmetry and mutual support.
When defending the value of autonomy, a leader of the Community Movement said: “Autonomy in our movement was built in the Revolution, in 1988, and one lesson learned was that we can be revolutionaries and leftists without subordinating ourselves; but it’s necessary to enter into debate about how to do this. Today we are witnessing a historical error, because community and popular participation is being stifled.”
In reference to the absence of debate and a changing of the guard, another veteran leader of this movement asserted: “The political leaders and those of the social organizations are always the same. I myself have been a leader here for 32 years. In the first years of the revolution errors could be pointed out, but now you can’t say anything. They don’t even invite me to meetings of the [Sandinista] Front anymore.”
For another leader, the new structures for participation affected previous work and divided the Front itself. “The Community Movement has Sandinista roots, but with the creation of the CPC (Civic Power Councils) they looked at us like strange animals and branded us counter-revolutionaries. That caused the division. But we are all Sandinistas, and we all defend the rights of the poor.”
In contrast, pointing to the grassroots bases as the cause of the misunderstanding, another community leader argued: “The government has tried to develop a model so that we can all participate without exclusion, but we don’t know how to form alliances from below, though we have common problems. There should be no exclusion. When we come to understand this, we will strengthen the model. We mistook the Civic Power Councils as being something exclusive. We must all be involved in them so that our communities can develop.”
Without abandoning the radical line or loyalty to the ruling party, but without hiding the deformations in “Citizen’s Power,” a leader of the Disabled Peoples Association protested: “Causing division among organizations is part of the strategy of the gringos. But one of the main obstacles to people uniting is that we see that the leaders live better than we do. It happened that way in the ’80s; the leaders didn’t want to get out of their cars to speak with the base and meet with them.”
Testimonies of Sandinista activists and researchers consulted at the Central American University (UCA) and in the Autonomous National University (UNAN), in Managua, pointed out that pragmatism, professionalization, de-ideologization (or attempts at eclectic re-ideologization) and the incorporation of counter-intelligence methods in the construction of the “new FSLN” are establishing dynamics that are completely different from those of 1980s. They are shutting the door to a party endowed back then with a certain capacity for internal dialogue opening the way today to become a party of political operators and police conspirators.
In Latin America (and in Nicaragua, which is no exception) a large portion of the progressive forces have committed themselves to “structural transformations”; however, they have relegated the idea of autonomy to being an incidental element — brandishing it only in the face of the opposition or when confronted by the right — and by doing so have eliminated the antibody that all revolutions need.
When it is believed that only the vanguard can “send out truths,” then emancipation cannot be won, because it can only be revolutionary when the power is transferred to society and not when it is concentrated and perpetuated in a clique. Also, if commitment is reduced to being around an individual leader, then the situation worsens because personal preferences and pathologies have a high probability of becoming State policy.
Although we can recognize the strains caused by neo-liberalism and the difficulties of forming and implementing policies under conditions of extreme poverty, I believe that the absence of a political pedagogy is a responsibility clearly attributable to the bodies of leadership and the professional structure of the FSLN.
When the sincere recognition of the highest levels of leadership by the base is amplified by propaganda, when critics are censored and merits are magnified, one cannot speak of “spontaneous support by the people” but of a deliberate strategy to perpetuate the political status quo.
In a meeting with a couple dozen of leaders of the of Sandinista Leadership Committees and the Civic Power Councils, held in Matagalpa, a comparison was made of “Comrade Daniel to Che Guevara, because he is an indispensable man, a statesman of international stature, the sole president who has concerned himself with the poor and the sole leader who remained faithful to Sandinista principles.” I couldn’t stop thinking: doesn’t this kind of propaganda act like a dike that blocks the ascent of new leaders? Doesn’t it constitute a form of the cult of personality?
In the current Nicaraguan conjuncture, several questions are posed, of which I will raise two. Concerning the supposed and recent opening of the Civic Power Councils to people of Liberal Party political affiliations, MRS supporters or independents, shouldn’t we ask whether this mutation obeys to the recognition of the perverse effects of the politics of exclusion practiced previously, or is this a tactic to absorb and coopt the opposition at the base (or the confluence of both processes)?
If the Commandant-President wins in the 2011 elections, it will prove that this pragmatic and deal-cutting mutation of the government-party simply obeyed to the logic of the electoral circumstances and the correlation of forces in the National Assembly, both mutable, or will it show that the nature his leadership will continued to be tied to a neo-patrimonial model that doesn’t move in the direction of any form of socialism.