Ortega wins Nicaraguan elections: where to now?

After 16 years the Sandinistas have made a comeback. The vote for Ortega represents a desire for fundamental change on the part of the masses. But Ortega has bent over backwards to reassure the capitalists that he can be trusted. No long-lasting reforms are possible in Nicaragua under the domination of US imperialism and as long as capitalism survives in the country.

With 91% of the votes counted what already seemed clear yesterday has been confirmed. Daniel Ortega has won the presidential elections in Nicaragua with 38% of the vote against the 29% of the right-wing candidate Eduardo Montealegre.

The turnout was massive with between 75% and 80% coming out to vote. This makes it the highest turnout in Latin America, and it goes without saying that it is also far bigger than what we are accustomed to seeing in the USA, where a little over 50% bother to vote.

The vote confirms a swing to the left taking place in Nicaragua after 16 years of conservative governments. This is in line with what we have seen in Venezuela, Bolivia, Mexico (in spite of the fraud) and right across Latin America.

US imperialism had tried to use its muscle by threatening to cut off aid if Ortega won. Another clear message was the presence in Nicaragua during the election campaign of Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver North, who became famous because of his role in helping the Contra under Ronald Reagan. He actively campaigned against Ortega, stating that, "If Ortega wins, he will have key regional allies... who together could create problems aplenty for the US and its democratic Latin American allies." This was a clear reference to Venezuela and Cuba.

No doubt US strategists are concerned about the victory of Ortega, not so much for the man himself, but because it reflects the mood that is developing among the Nicaraguan masses. They are also concerned that Nicaragua might go the same way as Venezuela. They also had a serious warning on their own backdoor in Mexico, where a mass movement developed in protest at the blatant fraud in the elections earlier this year. The picture facing them is one of one revolutionary movement after another affecting each and every one of the Latin American countries, posing a serious challenge to the domination of US imperialism in the whole region.

For now, they have changed their tune somewhat. The White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe, has declared that, "The United States is committed to the Nicaraguan people," and that, "We will work with their leaders based on their commitment to and actions in support of Nicaragua's democratic future." The US have stated that they will work with the new government, "if they back democracy". What they mean by this is of course that they will work with the new government if it respects private property, if it doesn't carry out any expropriations and if it carries out the dictates of US imperialism.

On the other hand we have the reaction of Cuba and Venezuela, that have welcomed the victory of Ortega. Fidel Castro announced on Cuban TV that the Sandinista victory "fills our people with happiness". Hugo Chavez went a bit further, stating that, "Latin America is leaving forever its role as the backyard of the North American empire. Yankee go home!"

The new Nicaraguan leadership will now be facing very big and contradictory pressures. The Latin American revolution and the masses in Nicaragua will be demanding a radical turn to the left, that the new leadership tackles the serious social problems facing the mass of workers, peasants and urban poor. The Nicaraguan oligarchy backed by US imperialism will be demanding a continuation of the same old rotten system that has served their interests very well for many years.

This poses a dilemma to the Sandinista leadership. The problems facing the Nicaraguan workers and peasants are many. The massive turnout and the big vote for Ortega underline one simple fact: the poor of Nicaragua are fed up of so-called "neo-liberal policies". They desire a fundamental change.

Social conditions

To understand why Ortega won we have to look at the real social conditions in Nicaragua. This is the second poorest country in all of the Americas. Only Haiti is poorer. Eighty percent of the population (4.2 million of the 5.7 million total) live on less than $2 a day and 47% (2.2 million) survive on less than $1 per day. In spite of the campaign to eradicate illiteracy when the Sandinistas were previously in power (1979-1990) there are now over one million illiterate people in the country, and at present hundreds of thousands of children are not attending school. Unemployment and underemployment are close to 50%, and Nicaraguan society is extremely polarised, with an ultra-rich elite at one end and the mass of poor at the other. Nicaragua now has also a very high external debt and internal debt.

In 2004 the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund agreed to cancel 80% of Nicaragua's foreign debt. The $4.5 billion debt cancellation reduces the per capita debt burden from $1,573 to $463. Its debt stood at $6.5 billion, more than three times the level of its GDP, and servicing that debt amounted to paying out a third of its annual foreign income in interest payments. In spite of the cancellation, all experts are of the opinion that Nicaragua to survive will have to borrow more, pushing up the debt burden once more.

Nicaragua earns about $600 million per year from its exports, but it depends heavily on foreign aid which amounts to $500 million. It also depends heavily on money sent home by the large number of Nicaraguans who have been forced to emigrate to the USA. This figure amounts to around $1 billion per year. But let no one have any illusions. This debt cancellation comes with a heavy price. The country must continue with the infamous "structural adjustment policy" (SAP) imposed by the IMF and World Bank. This policy is applied throughout the former colonial world and is one that forces all local governments to proceed with such things as cuts in social subsidies, privatisations and so on. So they give with one hand and take even more back with the other! This means that in spite of the partial debt cancellation nothing much will change.

The fact that the debt cancellation meant very little in real terms was confirmed last year when rises in fuel prices and the cost of living sparked off weeks street protests which at times turned violent.

The debt will build up again and the country will still have to pay large amounts in servicing the debt. Meanwhile what little was left of welfare will be dismantled. The clock has well and truly been turned back since the right wing regained control of the government in 1990.

The Nicaraguan ruling class has never been able to seriously develop the country's economy. They have been happy to siphon off the wealth of the country for their own personal benefit while loyally serving their imperialist masters. The Nicaraguan economy is a typically underdeveloped one, largely based on the export of cash crops, such as coffee and bananas. The profits from these exports have always been concentrated in the hands of a few elite families, particularly the Somoza family, which ran the country - with US backing - almost as a personal fiefdom until they were overthrown by the Sandinista revolution in 1979.

The 1979 Sandinista Revolution

A key question that has to be posed here is this: why is it that the country is in this situation when back in 1979 the hated Somoza dictatorship was overthrown by the Sandinista revolution? The old state apparatus collapsed and the Sandinista guerrillas entered Managua and set up a new regime. That regime seriously challenged the power of the oligarchy. The properties of the Somoza family were expropriated, which meant a large part of the economy fell into state hands. Combined with this there was a serious programme of reforms set up to combat poverty, homelessness, illiteracy, lack of healthcare etc.

This was a radical break with Nicaragua's past. The country had always been under the firm control of US imperialism. It is a country of key strategic importance for the USA, as it is the gateway to South America. So important is it that nearly one hundred years ago the US established military bases in the country. This led to the 1927-33 guerrilla campaign against the US presence, led by Augusto Cesar Sandino, from whom the name Sandinista derives. Sandino was betrayed and assassinated under the direct orders of General Somoza in 1934. The defeat of that movement prepared the ground for more than 40 years of dictatorship under the Somoza family.

In the early 1960s the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was founded and a long guerrilla war ensued. This was to culminate in 1979 with a general strike that dealt the final deathblow to the Somoza regime and brought the FSLN to power. The following year Ortega, at the head of the FSLN government nationalised the property of the Somoza family.

In reaction to this by 1982 the Contra rebels began their operations, backed by US imperialism, and a state of emergency was declared in the country. Thus, while carrying out significant reforms, the Sandinistas were also forced to organise the war against the Contra.

The tragedy was that the revolution was not completed. In spite of the many reforms and the expropriations, a significant part of the economy was left in the hands of the oligarchy. This proved to be a key mistake. Through their control of the economy the Nicaraguan capitalists were able to manoeuvre against the Sandinista government. They combined this with the devastation provoked by the Contra counter-revolutionary insurgents.

Eventually all this wore down the revolution and the masses that backed it. By not breaking the back of the capitalist system in a decisive manner, the old ruling class was able to make a comeback. In 1984 Ortega was able to win a decisive victory in the elections. This was a reflection of the massive popular support for the 1979 revolution. But by 1990 the Sandinista leadership had been weakened. The 1990 elections were held as part of a "peace agreement". Thanks to the sabotage and Contra war, Nicaragua's per capita income had fallen drastically and much of its infrastructure had been seriously damaged. The revolution seemed to be facing an impasse. It was in those conditions that the right wing made a comeback. They won the elections with Violeta Chamorro becoming President and have governed the country until now, undoing the Sandinista reforms, and reimposing the barbaric conditions that the people had lived under in the past.

In spite of that experience and the defeat of 1990, many people still remember what the Sandinistas had achieved at the height of their period in power. As even the BBC has had to admit, "The Sandinistas began redistributing property and made huge progress in the spheres of health and education."

Revolutionary traditions

The attitude of the ordinary people in the build up to Sunday's elections was very well expressed by BBC reporters, who spoke to some of these before and during the elections. "He [Ortega] is the only one who looks out for the poor. All the others are just for the rich," said William Medina outside a Managua polling station. Nora Ramirez, who lives in one of Managua's poorest neighbourhoods, said, "He led us well in the 1980s and he will do so again. Daniel gave us milk, cheap schools and good hospitals... But now everything is so expensive and we eat refried beans and rice."

Here we have the memory of the Nicaraguan revolution still embedded in the minds of the country's poor. Some of them still refer to Daniel Ortega as "el Comandante", a clear reference to the days when he led the Sandinista guerrillas against the oligarchy and their backers.

It is this past which makes Ortega a hated figure for the rich. The rich of Nicaragua almost saw their whole power base destroyed in the 1980s. They could have lost everything. They desperately fought the Sandinistas, organising the terrible and brutal Contra war, with the backing of US imperialism. The Nicaraguan people fought bravely to defend their revolution and could have eradicated capitalism and landlordism forever.

The vote for Ortega is therefore a vote for serious change. The people want the reforms of the past. They lived for decades under the old Somoza dictatorship. They then had a taste of what would be possible if the wealth of the country were controlled by those who produce it, the workers and peasants. This was then all taken back and the people have had to suffer terribly once more. Now the wind of revolution is blowing across the whole of Latin America and it is rekindling the revolutionary embers that have never really gone out completely in Nicaragua. After three unsuccessful attempts to win the presidential elections, now Ortega is back.

Ortega's turn to the right

The question of questions, however, is: what is he going to do now? His statements unfortunately do not bode well. He claims he is a changed man, no longer the revolutionary who seized the property of the rich after the 1979 revolution. He says his main priority is to secure foreign investment. That means he must not even hint at the possibility of expropriating the property of the rich.

That obviously explains the following paragraph in Ortega's election manifesto, which appears under the subheading, "Our commitment to private property":

"The Government of National Reconciliation and Unity [the name of the future Sandinista government], recognises the role of the workers, peasants, private enterprise, cooperatives and the private banks, among other key sectors, to build a new Nicaragua free from corruption and looting. Therefore, our commitment to respect private property, small, medium and large, is total: no confiscations, no expropriations, no occupations will be allowed by the Government of National Reconciliation and Unity."

This idea encapsulates the shift to the right on the part of Ortega since his days as "el Comandante". Ortega has in fact undergone an extreme transformation. It would seem that only the outer shell of the former "Comandante" remains. He has even abandoned the traditional colours of the Sandinista movement, red and black, and has adopted pink! The colour is a fitting one, the colour of subservient Social Democratic reformism, the colour of those who go grovelling before the bosses begging for some crumbs to alleviate the suffering of the poor, not the colour of revolution!

As if this were not enough, Ortega chose as his running mate for the Presidency - the man who would become Vice-President - Jaime Morales, a banker and former leader of the Contra. The Contra war cost the lives of 50,000 Nicaraguans. It forced the Sandinista government to dedicate resources to fighting a war, instead of being able to use these to the benefit of the ordinary working people. And now "el Comandante" is prepared to run the country with former Contra leaders. Back in the 1980s one would have been accused of dabbling in science fiction had one raised this possibility.

Ortega has even asked for "forgiveness" for his "mistakes" of the past. He now underlines the fact that he is a Christian. Shortly before the elections the Sandinistas voted in favour of a total ban of abortion. This is an attempt to appease the Catholic Church hierarchy. This is how Ortega thinks he can attract foreign investment, by marrying all the values of the ruling class.

This sharp turn to the right on the part of the Sandinista leadership may also explain why Ortega only received 38%. In the conditions of Nicaragua, with 80% of the population living in poverty, one would think that Ortega would have won by a much bigger margin. What this shows is that in spite of his attempts to appease the ruling oligarchy, to give the rich guarantees about their property and so on, this does not win the support of a significant section of those who should be voting for the Sandinistas.

By not putting forward a convincing revolutionary programme, Ortega has sent out a message that he will not challenge the fundamental interests of the rich who control the Nicaraguan economy.

If Ortega really wanted the vote of all the poor then that could only have been achieved by putting forward a revolutionary programme. It is true that he has promised better schools, hospitals and so on. But he has not explained how he is going to pay for all this. Unless he takes away the wealth from the oligarchs and imperialists he will not have at his disposal the means by which to achieve these reforms. Back in the 1980s he had much more control over the economy and even then he was not able to complete the revolution. He left an important part of the wealth in the hands of the capitalists. Today he has even less control over the country's resources.

Imperialist pressures

US imperialism after the defeat of the Sandinista revolution has reaffirmed its grip on the economy. It is dictating economy policy through the IMF and World Bank. A further move in this direction came this year in April when a free trade deal with the US came into effect after Nicaragua's Congress had voted the Central American Free Trade Agreement (Cafta) back in October of last year.

From all this it abundantly clear what policies must be carried out if Nicaragua is to continue getting "aid" from the imperialists. What the people of Nicaragua want is in direct contradiction with the policies being imposed by imperialism. There can be no compromise between the two. Ortega is fomenting illusions if he thinks that genuine, long-lasting reforms can be achieved while at the same maintaining the property of the oligarchs and the imperialists.

A layer of the masses clearly have illusions that the Sandinistas can bring back the reforms from the days of the revolution. But if Ortega sticks to his commitments to respect private property, to respect the bankers and capitalists then none of his promises can be maintained. He has a banker sitting next to him to make sure he sticks to this commitment!

The contradiction between the aspirations of the masses who voted for Ortega and his declared programme was graphically shown during the elections campaign. Ortega surrounded himself with his new colour, pink, but the people still turned up with the old red and black colours.

According to the "structural adjustment policy" the electricity company should be up for privatisation. Will Ortega oppose this or will he bend to the pressures of imperialism? Will he increase spending on health and education, something the SAP does not allow for?

All this will put to the test Ortega and his government. Many sincere rank and file members of the Sandinista movement will be looking to serious change, to a return to the revolutionary traditions of the past. They will learn some important lessons over the coming period. In the past they tried to carry out a revolution and were stopped half way. Then they had the power in their hands but let it slip. Now they are being offered another chance.

What is in their favour is the general international situation. Revolutionary movements are unfolding across the whole of Latin America. This enormously strengthens the Nicaraguan masses. There is no real excuse for compromising now. A new Nicaraguan revolution would not be isolated. It would be much more difficult for the USA to intervene. They have much bigger problems in Venezuela, Bolivia, Mexico and so on. A real and completed revolution in Nicaragua would have the effect of lighting the fuse throughout the whole of Latin America.

Daniel Ortega, so far, has given no indication that he is prepared to return to his own revolutionary past. On the contrary, he does everything possible to reassure the local capitalists and the US imperialists that he can be trusted, that their economic interests are safe in his hands. That does not mean at all that from within the Sandinista movement a real revolutionary opposition cannot develop. In fact it will develop, as the ranks in touch with the people move to change things and Ortega from above attempt to hold the movement back.