Today, many Sandinistas, not all of whom are in the FSLN governing party, ask ourselves ever actually achieved power—that is the power to effect revolutionary changes not only in terms of dismantling of the old, but the introduction of another model of economics, politics, and society.
There was no guide or ideological foundation, and maybe that’s where the problem arises. Something called “Sandinismo” inspired the creation of the FSLN en 1961. Sandinismo was linked to the figure of Augusto C. Sandino who waged a heroic resistance against US troops that occupied Nicaragua between 1926 and 1933.
Less well known — and here begins the myth — was the ideology of Sandino and that first Sandinismo: denounced as banditry by the imperialists and as traitorous to the international proletariat cause by the Communist Parties and Communist International (or Comintern).
Those of us who study Sandino today would place him in the school of anarcho-syndicalism and libertarian socialism of the era assimilated during his stay in Mexico as a worker in the Mexican oil production zone between 1923 and 1926 form where he returned to Nicaragua to create what became known the Army in Defense of the National Sovereignty of Nicaragua.
The Comintern and the Comunist Parties of the region, after initially supporting his struggle, insisted on the movement’s political subordination to the internationalist cause of the world revolution. Failing that, he was then denounced (along with Jose Carlos Mariategui of Peru) as an insubordinate peti-bourgeois nationalist figure. Sandino was a socialist but more in the school of what derisively was termed “utopian socialists”—however he lived to witness the utopia of a Nicaragua free of US troops transforming his movement into a cooperative mutual aid entity, disdainful of private property and bosses.
Three years before taking “power” in Nicaragua (July, 1979), the actual number of full-time militants of the FSLN guerrilla force probably didn’t number more than 150 people. But the flag and figure of Sandino emerged explosively in the face of the abuses of the Somoza family dictatorship, driven not by an organic movement but what we might call the myth of power — the figure of Sandino in resistance – that inspired a generation to rise up and lend its support to the FSLN. Without having organically been part of that organization, they were at the core of the revolution..
The FSLN both had and didn’t have power. It was the last revolution of the 20th century able to destroy the existing military state structure. It gave rise to social, educational and cultural programs, nationalizing banking, commerce and mining, among other sectors. It tweaked the economic structures of the country, but more as a result of the nationalization of Somoza’s land and companies than as a result of class conflict. The FSLN in theory represented a pluri-class configuration, including the bourgeoisie and its “patriotic” capital. Yet at the same time, FSLN leaders introduced Marxist-Leninist training was introduced among the party militants and made it clear among them that Nicaragua was on its way to constructing socialism. The same point was repeated to Soviet bloc countries who were supporting the new Nicaraguan Army against the US-backed “contras”.
But today it is clear to us that, during the 1980s, there was neither the power nor the will a to transform the traditional agro-export model persisted. It was not a government of the working and peasants; the top-down model of mass movements as transmission belts for the party was introduced, but the party was at the same time co-opted by the government, putting aside the task of ideological orientation and class-based mobilization. Due to military and economic pressure from the United States, the FSLN government ceded more and more political and economic space to the capitalist bourgeoisie. It was said to be “tactical” and temporary, but in the end it proved “strategic” and irreversible.
The FSLN lost the 1990 election and there followed 17 years of classic neoliberal governments that privatized right and left. In 2006 the FSLN “won” the presidential elections, with Daniel Ortega as its candidate, with only 38% of the vote. Once again, it was in the government but not in power because Ortega made huge concessions to the right (free trade regime, criminalization of abortion). Despite its definition as a force of the left with a socialist commitment (now 21st century socialism), the FSLN government, like the FSLN itself, entered into an alliance with the business class, churches, and international financial institutions. In a fundamental sense, it ceased to be a political party inasmuch as Ortega was able to banish all dissent within the party and functionally dismantle the internal governing and accountability bodies of the party—a process facilitated by the historic absence of democracy within the FSLN.
Anti-imperialism only figured into the discourse after Daniel Ortega’s administration had prioritized collaborations with the United States on security and anti-drug efforts, and commercial and financial liberalization, which was also needed for the consolidation of a Sandinista bourgeoisie and powerful economic class fed by generous subsidies from oil agreements signed with Venezuela. This, at the same time, helped them avoid changing the relations of power, mitigating through assistance programs the effects of neoliberal macroeconomic instability and generating an important crop of supporters through “clientelist” politics.
Today Nicaragua is neither a rent-dependent (rentista) or an extractvist country as seems to characterize the South American ALBA countries. It is, rather, “sub-rentista” and “sub-extractivista”: it enjoys the benefit of the Petrocaribe scheme created by Hugo Chávez, under which 50% of its oil purchases spending is retained as a concessional credit administered by a joint private company in which PDVSA (the Venezuelan oil company) is the counterpart. The proceeds do not form part of the national budget and are used to finance investment and social assistance programs controlled directly by the Ortega family and which has allowed for the consolidation of the Sandinista bourgeoisie and its alliance with traditional big capital in Nicaragua. Annual proceeds have been in the order of 500 million USD, equivalent to 25% of the country’s export. The Chinese-supported canal project, on the other hand, serves an “extractivist” logic assisting with the channeling of the region’s raw materials to China, among other purposes. The collapse in oil prices and Venezuela’s internal economic problems also means a contraction in the revenue that allowed the Nicaraguan regime to neutralize social pressures and demands for Ortega to end the centralization of political power and respect liberal democratic rules. Social resistance to the canal, on the other hand, has heightened awareness of the need to respect of nature and the land indigenous communities, both in danger of expropriation. Both developments are key to the future of democratic processes.
The State in Nicaragua, instead of advancing on the ALBA model, has steadily regressed as it is the expression of the ruling interests of a bureaucratic economic elite allied with traditional capital and its business sector which today enjoys unprecedented profits, influence and state protection. Conservative cultural traits are now reinforced by a supposedly progressive government that manipulates religiosity, proclaiming itself Christian forcing real progressive but also classical liberals to re-engage in a 18th century battle to establish secular governments.
As elsewhere, capital continues to dominate society only this time reinforced by the state fostering of religiosity as evidenced in the unbelievable proclamation of the Ortega government (and the FSLN) as being both Socialist and Christian. The concept of development remains the same, not even progressing to the ALBA level of state directed capitalist development. “Modernity” is defined by the market which means, perhaps temporarily in Nicaragua at least, maintaining minimal public assistance programs and fostering of religion and illusions about a canal bonanza to keep the poor confused and therefore at bay.
No doubt that the global systemic crisis is reflected in its own small way in Nicaragua pushing us to look into systemic alternatives. The canal concession took environmental consciousness to a new dimension (the possible loss of the ecological balance Lake Nicaragua), an economic crisis that will result from the contraction of Venezuelan oil revenue, the social crisis linked to the unprecedented concentration of wealth in Nicaragua and the reappearance of increases in the poverty rate, awareness of over consumption and over exploitation of nature, the institutional crisis underscored by the perception of Ortega controlled bodies and elections as illegitimate. More and more, the regime—which is to say capital—is resorting increasingly to violence and authoritarian measures to impose its expansionist plans.
As Francois Houtart has argued, taking power at the State level and just reproducing the hegemonic order to serve new beneficiaries of modern capitalism or a bureaucracy that becomes not a means to an end but an end in itself is not a solution. But when the state itself is more part of the problem than of the solution—when not only winning elections but controlling the totality of state institutions—it is time to think about non-State centered alternatives. Perhaps time to review what Sandino had to say cooperatives, worker-peasant self-management, the predominance of labor over capital and capitalists and the building of community wealth, solidarity economies as the basis of alternative forms of aggregated power.