Nicaragua has entered a convulsive process. The profound contradictions of capitalist society are spontaneously surfacing and expressing themselves, and in the absence of revolutionary leadership, they are manifested in a confused manner.
The drastic changes that were expected with the return of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) to power in 2007, after almost two decades in opposition, did not come to pass. What we have seen in recent years in Nicaragua, under the government of Daniel Ortega, is a pact with the capitalists and the Catholic Church to guarantee ‘social peace’ on the basis of the exploitation of the working class. This has nothing to do with revolutionary socialism, nor the historical aspirations of the Sandinista masses.
The parties of the deformed left have been unable to carry the socialist revolution to completion and, on their arrival to power, carried out bourgeois policies. This, coupled with the absence of channels for workers’ political participation – through which to demand an independent working-class policy – chokes the development of the revolutionary processes and prepares the conditions for a violent reaction by the ruling class. This is the result of the FSLN’s reformism and class collaborationism, all within the limits of capitalism. It represents their betrayal of the working class by refusing to develop the revolutionary struggle with a socialist programme. These errors and distortions are not unique to Sandinismo, but they are a general tendency for recent governments of the traditional left in Latin America. It is necessary to clarify that what is failing in Latin America is not socialism, but the refusal to drive socialism to its ultimate conclusions. We have not experienced socialism but reformism under the conditions of capitalist crisis.
Ortega's relations with the United States
It is no secret that the Ortega government enjoys friendly relations with the United States. The government has met with the approval of recent American presidents. Unlike other Latin American countries with ‘progressive’ governments, Nicaragua has maintained relative stability, without imperialist intervention and harassment, in contrast with the constant harrying of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, where furious imperialist campaigns – including direct interventions – have striven to depose elected regimes, in recent decades.
Following his pact with right-winger and ex-president, José Alemán in 1998, Ortega came to a modus vivendi with the bourgeoisie and the bishops. This policy became more acute with the return of the FSLN to power in 2006. Ortega made guarantees to the national and foreign capitalists that he would maintain the exploitation of the working class, and the ruling class allowed him to power without serious opposition. This pact, which saw the participation of COSEP (the main employers’ organization) and the American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) – representing the interests of foreign investors – has managed to eliminate all the parties of bourgeois opposition. This pact was maintained by the Ortega government's servile relationship with imperialism. It has permitted all the necessary conditions for the extraction and looting of wealth by imperialist multinational corporations in exchange for millions of dollars in state projects, led by USAID. For example: the US provides investment via its companies in the Free Trade Zones in the finance sector, hospitality, commerce and so on. This investment generates about 300,000 jobs. But in the Free Trade Zones there are more than 120,000 exploited workers on the lowest minimum wage in Central America. These are very precarious jobs in conditions of modern slavery, and, despite all this, these companies receive great privileges from the state and enjoy almost complete tax exemption.
In the words of Ortega:
“In Nicaragua’s development model, laws are negotiated with businessmen and bankers, who were previously taken by surprise.”
This policy was accompanied by welfare and social programs, financed by importing oil from Venezuela at an advantageous price. This, together with the complete domination of the unions by the Sandinista central government, managed to maintain ‘social peace’.
The United States even awarded Nicaragua preferential status, under the Tariff Preference Level (TPL), allowing it to commercialise merchandise, made with raw materials outside DR-CAFTA (Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement), without paying taxes. These were conditions that no other country with commercial agreements in the Central American and Caribbean region enjoyed. Another expression of the harmonious relations that developed between the Ortega government and the United States is the timely payment of external debt to the international organisations; often, financial institutions presented Nicaragua as an example of how governments should approach their national debt.
However, these cordial relations between Nicaragua and the United States began to change when there was a shift in international politics, and the Ortega-Murillo government began to establish trade relations with powers such as China and Russia in 2014. From this emerged, for example, the treaty for the construction of the interoceanic canal (which is currently on hold): an ambitious $40bn USD project that would concede a 278km-long strip to a Chinese private company for 116 years. Add to this arms deals with Russia: the purchase of 50 T-72B1 tanks, MiG-29 aircraft and military equipment. These dealings have made the US imperialists very nervous, and the state of harmony has begun to falter. Nevertheless, the Ortega government so far retains the approval of the most influential wing of politicians in the foreign policy of the United States.
A dramatic year
2018 has been a hot year for Nicaragua. In the first months, there was a forest fire in a nature reserve that had a big impact on the conscience of the people, due to the negligence of the state in resolving it. This event sparked mobilisations from various sectors of society, but this would only be a prelude to the eruption of forces that were bubbling below the surface. We had also previously seen protests by peasants against the possible construction of the interoceanic canal with Chinese capital, reflecting the growing popular discontent with the policies of the Ortega government.
On 18 April, Ortega announced a reform to the pension system, which included a 5 percent tax on pensions and a percentage increase in employer contributions. The reform had been demanded by the IMF, with the argument that the pension fund “was empty”. At first, the IMF demanded tougher measures, including the reduction of the base contributions and the extension of the retirement age, among other cuts. The Ortega-Murillo government, after the experience of the protests against social security reform in 2013, knew that these measures could mean a severe blow to its popularity. And so, it accepted only part of the IMF’s demands and announced the reform without consulting COSEP, thus breaking the ‘social partnership’ model.
In reality, the most serious measure was the 5 percent pension tax to pay for healthcare expenses, which obviously meant a direct cut in pensions. The increase in the employers' contributions was largely offset by the fact that business contributions were given tax rebates.
Immediately after the announcement of the reform package, spontaneous movements of students were called in the streets and took over some of the semi-private universities, such as the UCA and the UPOLI. There were three days of intense fighting between the government and the demonstrators, who were mostly students.
The government's response was sharp and strongly repressed the protesters, leaving dozens dead: mostly young people from both sides. The Ortega government used the Sandinista Youth as armed shock troops against the demonstrators. The capitalists opportunistically came out to publicly support the mobilisations.
In the end, Ortega felt the need to back down from the reforms. This reflected the fact that the movement was spreading and had gained strength in wider layers of society. Ortega could not afford to have this develop on a larger scale; it was extremely dangerous to his government’s stability. Significantly, Ortega’s announcement of the retirement of the pension reform was made in an official event in which he surrounded himself with the main investors in the free trade zones:
“They accompany us, from the textile sector, Alejandro Chang of the United China Enterprise; this Chinese textile company creates 3,000 jobs. The President of the Korean Textile Association, Jesús Ling, is here with us; they employ 53,000 Nicaraguans. The Vice President of Operations of SITEL Nicaragua, Val VanDegrift, represents call centres that employ 3,000 Nicaraguans; along with Mr. Carlos Muñiz, Director of Operations of SITEL Nicaragua… Chris Marlett (MDB Capital Investment Group, one of the largest foreign investors)... Roberto Bequillard of the Association of Textiles and Clothing... Gregorio King, from Astro Parque, this industrial park generates 10,000 jobs.” (Message from the President-Commander Daniel Ortega to Nicaraguan Families, published in La Voz del Sandinismo 04/22/18)
Meanwhile, the capitalists of COSEP and AMCHAM, along with the Catholic Church, had called for a mobilization the following day “to re-establish peace”. A day earlier at the press conference, Ortega called for dialogue, not with students and demonstrators, but with private enterprise, arguing that peace should be reestablished. On the day of the conference, Ortega refused to release imprisoned students; however, under the pressure of the continuing violence, he was forced to release them later.
From April to May the repression and the escalation of violence intensified, but also the movement spread, advancing along a path of confusion, without a leadership to clarify the overall objective and necessary forms of struggle. The student resistance in several universities sparked the solidarity of the neighbourhoods, which came out to defend them from the repression of the government. Barricades (tranques) were erected throughout the country. It is important to note that these barricades were erected in a series of areas with a strong Sandinista tradition, such as Masaya (including the indigenous neighbourhood of Monimbó), León, Jinoteque, etc. In most cases, it was a spontaneous response to government repression. These developments are impossible to understand without factoring in the passive or active support of the traditional base of Sandinismo in these areas.
On 10 May, the government demonstration paled in comparison to the thousands of protesters convened by the Civic Alliance for Democracy and Justice. On 14 June, the Alliance and the private capitalists organised a national strike that was supported by thousands of merchants and communities, with traffic jams paralysing the roads. A unifying slogan called for the end of Ortega's mandate and for early elections.
What kind of movement has developed in Nicaragua?
Ortega’s form of governance has prepared the conditions for a civil war. It has deepened the alienation of the youth, who did not live through and cannot recall the conquests and the heroic struggle of the FSLN more than 40 years ago. They want to destroy what, for them, is a suffocating dictatorship, led by Ortega and Murillo, which does not represent the true legacy of heroic Sandinismo.
Many of the slogans of the students at the barricades are traditional slogans of Sandinismo: “no one surrenders here,” “they shall not pass,” “let your mother surrender.” During the funeral of several of those killed by the repression in Masaya, songs of the Sandinista Revolution like ‘Nicaragua, Nicaragüíta’ could be heard.
However, due to the enormous vacuum on the left in Nicaragua, the political leadership of the protests (which have reached insurrectionary proportions) is dominated by businessmen and right-wing organisations. For example, the spokesman for the ‘rebel government’ that was proclaimed in Masaya at the beginning of June is an activist of the Movement for Nicaragua: a right-wing political group. The Civic Alliance is dominated by COSEP, AMCHAM and the Church. Although the anti-canal peasant movement expressed some reservations, in reality in their communiques they fully accept the idea of a ‘necessary’ alliance with the capitalists. Both the peasant movement and the students called on businessmen to launch the national strike of 14 June.
In an interview on ElFaro.net, one of the leaders of the student movement, Harvey Morales, explained how the movement is financed:
“We have to ally ourselves with other sectors, such as the private sector and civil society. It is not only the private sector, it is Oxfam, the María Elena Cuadra Movement, the agricultural and livestock producers, etc...”
Asked about the trip undertaken by several student leaders to the USA, where they met with Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Morales explained:
“That trip was very strange. We are very unhappy with that trip. Including with our representative. When we planned it, there were already many actors wanting to intervene with an agenda. That happened from the beginning. I refer to organisations, to opposition politicians, some more to the right... This trip was financed by the United States (Freedom Foundation) and an agenda was imposed on them, and that is terrible. It was they who decided which students would go.”
“All the movements now have advisors. People who manoeuvre and lead. Children of politicians, businessmen... They have a very clear political line.”
The problem is that, although some like Morales criticise decisions such as the trip to Washington and declare themselves to be on the left, in the end they accept the idea that: “we have the businessmen as allies on the side of dialogue, but we do not have confidence in them... We know the risk we take because we are receiving their support.”
What is clear is that it will not be the students or other such well-intentioned layers that use the capitalists, but rather the other way around. The businessmen are the ones who are going to make the decisions, although it is certainly not them who have stood on the barricades, nor faced repression.
The so-called Sandinista Renovation Movement deserves special mention, as it brings together a whole series of Sandinista dissidents. In reality, it is opposed to Ortega not from the left, not on the basis of a revolutionary policy, but on the right, from a liberal point of view. From this perspective, the MRS has not hesitated to make electoral alliances with sectors of the right, and now it simply gives the capitalists a ‘left’ cover.
So far, US imperialism in Nicaragua has limited itself to verbal condemnations, declarations and sanctions against isolated individuals. If the US really wanted to overthrow the Ortega-Murillo government, a trade and economic embargo would suffice. But the matter is not so simple from the point of view of Washington. In the first place, what imperialism does not want is an overthrow resulting from a mass insurrection in the streets. All their pressure so far has gone in the direction of curtailing the movement in exchange for negotiations about early elections. Several senior US officials have visited Nicaragua in recent weeks to hold closed-door meetings with Ortega. What they would prefer is some kind of early elections agreement that allows the movement to be deactivated, and above all maintains ‘peace and order’ as a prerequisite to continuing with their businesses.
What we have therefore is a bourgeois, bonapartist government using brutal repression against the protests on one hand, but on the other, a protest movement whose leadership is being taken over by the national private capitalists and the parties of the right. Victory for a movement of this kind would not mean an improvement in the living conditions for the workers, and it would not provide democratic rights either.
A class alternative is necessary
In this situation, the great absentees are the majority of the workers. Although there are some who have come out to demonstrate individually, the bulk of the working class is not participating fully—a situation that is due to the strong domination of the Ortega government, which has co-opted all the unions. In Nicaragua the unions are an empty shell and lack class independence; they are not really a tool of struggle but a brake on it.
The most urgent task in Nicaragua from the point of view of the working class is the need to enter the scene with a programme of class independence, that confronts both the repressive bourgeois government of Ortega-Murillo and the businessmen (who barely three months ago supported him blindly), the right-wing and imperialism.
We must fight for decent wages, union rights and safe working conditions in the Free Trade Zones; for decent pensions – with costs borne by the capitalists out of their million-dollar profits – against repression; for the punishment of those responsible for the more than 200 deaths these past months; and for decent wages for the entire working class.
The history of Nicaragua has taught us about the cowardly role of the so-called progressive bourgeoisie and its inability to solve the problems of the masses. In the Sandinista Revolution of 1979, it was the general strike and the popular insurrection that swept away the old regime and laid the foundations for social transformation. The bourgeoisie did not play any role, and on the contrary, betrayed the revolution. In these favourable conditions the Sandinista Revolution could have destroyed capitalism; however, the leaders of all the Sandinista currents gave in, instead of maintaining class independence as Carlos Fonseca Amador always advocated. Instead of fighting for socialism, a ‘mixed economy’ was proposed, in which they sought to reconcile the public sector with the private: an expression of poisonous class collaborationism.
We must rescue the true historical memory that shows the heroism of the workers, peasants and students and proves the nefarious role of the politics of class collaborationism and the treacherous role of the bourgeoisie. We must redeem the real revolutionary traditions of Nicaragua and build an independent class leadership and genuine socialist programme based on the traditions of workers’ democracy.