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Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista Revolution Betrayed

New America Media, Commentary, Roger Burbach Posted: Feb 22, 2009

Editor's Note: Daniel Ortega's election as Nicaragua's president two years ago did not mark the triumph of the Sandinista revolution and the democratic principles that propelled it 30 years ago. Instead, his rise has been the tragic tale of betrayalof the real revolutionary movement, of his Sandinista comrades and of the Nicaraguan people. Roger Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas in Berkeley, Calif. A more comprehensive version of this article appears in the March-April issue of NACLA's Report on the Americas. See http://nacla.org/naclareport

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 Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN), the party he led. But Ortega's road to power has been paved with compromise, retreats and alliances between the FSLN and former opponents on the right. His story is about the tragic betrayal of a movement, the democratic principles that it embodied and many of his former Sandinista comrades-in-arms. Central to the tragedy is Ortega's transformation into a leader under whom repression, power abuse and corruption seem to be spreading.

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 Alemn, an official during the Somoza regime who had been elected president in 1997. But even with Alemn'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 percent of the vote. 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 Mnica 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.

Equally troubling, the government and the Sandinista party are harassing and repressing their opponents. During an interview in January, Baltodano told me that 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 multiclass, 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, Bolvar and Carlos Fonseca, the martyred founder of the Sandinista movement, often hung side by side in the cities and towns of Nicaragua.

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. 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. 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. 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 funding from the United States.

Nicaraguans and much of the world were shocked when Chamorro defeated Ortega with 55 percent 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 Nuez, with whom I wrote a book on the revolution's democratic thrust, remained loyal to Ortega while most of the middle-level cadre and the National Directorate abandoned the party. Many of these split off to form the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), the largest dissident Sandinista party, founded in 1995.

When I asked Nuez 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." Nuez, who works as an adviser on social affairs to the president's office, went on to argue that Ortega allied with Alemn for the sake of building an anti-oligarchic front. According to this theory, Alemn and the Somozas represented an emergent capitalist class that took on the old oligarchy, which had dominated Nicaraguan politics and the economy since the 19th century. 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: Carlos Fernando 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 Gonzlez, 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, Gonzlez was charged and convicted of slander. National Assembly deputy Alejandro Bolaos, 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 few days later a prosecutor accompanied by the police came to the Cinco offices with a search warrant. Warned in advance of the visit, some 200 people had gathered in the building in solidarity refusing them entry, saying no charges had been filed to back up the warrant. Then as night fell, the police laid siege to the building establishing a cordon around the building. At 6 a.m., a contingent of 50 police broke down the door and marked out the "crime scene," a 200- meter corridor around the building. The occupation lasted for 15 hours, with supporters and onlookers gathering and shutting down traffic for blocks around. The police rummaged the 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." In August, Ortega was unable to attend the inauguration of Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo because of protests by that 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.

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

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. 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." 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.

After the election, militant demonstrations erupted in Nicaragua's two largest cities, Managua and Len, 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 Jan. 14, before the election results were officially published by the electoral council, Ortega swore in the new mayors at Managua's Plaza de la Revolucin. "This is the time to strengthen our institutions," he declared 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 democratic legacy of the Sandinista revolution," Chamorro told me in January. "Standing in the way of a new dictatorship," he said, "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 laureate and novelist Jos Saramago puts it, "Once more a revolution has been betrayed from within." Nicaragua's revolution has indeed been betrayed, perhaps not as dramatically as Trotsky depicts 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.

Related Articles:

Latino Media Ask: Who Is the Real Daniel Ortega?

Nicaraguan Anniversary Lesson: U.S. Can't Shape True Democracy With Guns

Off Course: Current U.S.-Latin American Relations

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