Are the real Sandinistas in Nicaragua standing up?

People protest in Nicaragua. Photo: Julio Vannini/Flickr

The 1980s were an incredible time of change, challenge and hope in Nicaragua as thousands of international volunteers and aid workers flocked to that country in the wake of the 1979 Sandinista Revolution. They worked on brigades, joined special construction projects, delivered material aid, and provided technical assistance of all kinds. So many "internationalists" were eager to lend a hand -- with a focus on the agricultural sector -- to help ensure crops were harvested, scarce farm equipment repaired, and to support rural people and others in garnering production skills that would help them feed themselves and the country. Everybody was busy restructuring the society and trying to support the economy.

I've been thinking a lot about Nicaragua for the past few months, given the violence that began in April of this year. Since then, protests have left more than 450 dead and thousands injured, jailed, tortured and disappeared. As I write, three general strikes have been called and thousands have fled the country. Dissension has been met with violence and severe repression. The Nicaraguan diaspora is organizing across Europe and the Americas. Several human rights groups have called the Ortega government's violent response to unarmed demonstrators "disproportionate." And most recently the United Nation Human Rights Office published a scathing report on alleged human right violations, an investigation covering the period from April 18 to August 18.

"Repression and retaliation against demonstrators continue as the world looks away," UN human rights chief Zeid Raad Al Hussein said.

Meanwhile, the Nicaraguan government calls the report biased.

This implosion is having serious effects on the economy and Nicaraguan citizens -- as well as on all those with current or past links to that country. Like so many others, I volunteered in the 1980s for the Canadian Farmers Brigades to Nicaragua led by farmers, many from the National Farmers Union and by Oxfam-Canada. For those of us who shared the aspirations of the Nicaraguan people, and who saw the sacrifice, the hardship, the stamina, and the hope of a better future that the 1979 revolution promised, this recent spate of violence hurts a lot. It leaves us all a bit bewildered, frankly.

What happened to the revolution?

Many on the international left have been taken off guard and are reticent to acknowledge the violence or consider that the Ortega government might produce it. After all, is Daniel Ortega not a Sandinista? Was he not the Sandinista leader that so many respected in the 1980s? Re-elected in 2006, 2011, 2014, and again in 2016? What the heck is going on?

There have been signs since Ortega's 2006 election that things are not as egalitarian and revolutionary as they once were. For one, Ortega embraced the Catholic Church, almost like a born-again Christian, getting married to his common-law partner Rosario Murillo after years of so-called "living in sin." What for? Then, the Ortega government passed a law making abortion, even therapeutic abortion, illegal. Not quite the open-minded Sandinista Revolution that many foresaw.

In 2009, the Nicaraguan constitution was changed to allow for consecutive terms, which enabled Ortega to run in the 2011 elections. Then in the recent 2016 election, in a blatant move that most would call a conflict of interest, Ortega's wife, Rosario Murillo, became his running mate as vice-president. It all seemed strange -- and well, smacked of nepotism and corruption.

Then came news that the Ortega government had plans to build an interoceanic canal with a $50-billion investment from a Hong Kong-based industrialist, Wang Jing. Wang Jing was granted complete rights to develop, and even expropriate, lands from farmers in the path of the canal. Hadn't the Sandinista Revolution talked about how the Americans tried to control Nicaragua and build a canal? It was strange to think that a Sandinista would politically entertain such foreign investment, let alone ignore what it would do to Lake Nicaragua, the poor peasant farmers known as campesinos and the environment more generally.

While in the 1980s Ortega was called a communist, since his 2006 election, little of that revolutionary spirit for justice has been on display.

And now we're seeing the violence and deaths of hundreds of unarmed students and demonstrators who are protesting the policies of the Ortega government peacefully.

Could this same Daniel Ortega be so repressive and brutal? Or are the Americans trying to depose yet another left-wing government in Central America? After all -- look at the interventionist history of the United States and the list of leftist governments that the U.S. has sought to weaken or oust in one way or another. It would appear on first blush that the Nicaraguan government is under attack by the American empire, no?

That is what Daniel Ortega would like us to believe, judging from recent interviews he has undertaken with American and European media. According to Ortega, his Sandinista government is the target of yet another U.S.-led "soft coup." Would that it were so. I for one would much rather believe that the U.S. administration is destabilizing the Ortega government.

Recent strife has roots in past struggles

These tragic happenings have brought the strife of Nicaragua back into the fore. As reports on social media filter through, and media reports from some Nicaraguan sources emerge, we are left to wonder: why are so many protesters dead? It appears most are unarmed, just demonstrating…. but if this is American intervention, why do the protesters use the language of Sandinismo -- Sandinista philosophy -- such as the popular slogan yelled by Sandinista revolutionary Leonel Rugama just before former dictator Somoza's guards killed him in January, 1970: Que se rinde tu madre! (Let your "effin" mother surrender!)

Why are these young students marching with fists of struggle raised high in the air? Why do the mothers of fallen students loudly voice that they have been Sandinista supporters all their lives, so why do their children (or they) deserve this? There are parallels between the revolutionary struggles of the '70s and '80s and those of today.

For all of those international volunteers -- the "Sandalistas" -- who lived and worked in the Nicaragua countryside in the 1980s, who were befriended by and hopeful alongside the poorest of rural Nicaraguans, it's hard to fathom what is currently happening.

Has Daniel Ortega betrayed the Nicaraguan Sandinista Revolution? Two articles, whose titles translate as "The Open Veins of Nicaragua" and "Nicaragua and the responsibility of the Left," available only in Spanish, help to explain why it is so difficult for the left to grasp the current situation in Nicaragua, but why it is important to separate Ortega from the Sandinista movement and the Frente Sandinista de Liberation Nacional (FSLN). These articles, written by supporters of the Sandinista movement, chronicle the steps that led to this violence. They note the fissures in the Ortega government, the policies that are more right-wing than left, the well-recognized leaders of the revolution who have broken ties with the Ortega government, and the quashing of all opposition in the name of protecting the revolution. The articles also underscore how hard it is for those on the left to admit that Ortega is not a socialist leader, but is in fact closer to neo-fascist.

Problems below the surface

Until April Nicaragua was considered one of the most stable countries in Central America. Its economy had been growing at a rate of about five per cent a year, and there was a system of social programs and public services in place. It had bank reserves and what appeared to be a stable monetary system with inflation coming in at around four per cent a year, and interest on mortgages and loans running between eight to nine per cent. This is what the statistics show -- the surface. But below the surface is a country still considered to be the second poorest in the Western hemisphere, bested only by Haiti. And that basically means that a large share of the population -- close to half -- struggle to meet basic daily needs. The urban working-class poor and the rural peasant population are living on the edge.

For years there have been questions of how elections, including the most recent in 2016 in which President Daniel Ortega won what was touted as a landslide victory, have included widespread fraud and suppression of candidates other than those selected by Ortega. A socialist system is generally one party, so on the surface that might not seem unusual -- and we all know that multi-party capitalist systems are fraught with problems. But the dissenting voices regarding Nicaraguan elections have often come from within the same Sandinista government.

And therein lies the rub. There are Sandinistas in the Ortega government, and there are many more Sandinistas in the streets, along with the students, the Church, business leaders, and farmers.

Could it be then that Ortega has gone rogue? Respected voices on the international left, such as Pepe Mujica, the revolutionary former president of Uruguay, are calling on Ortega to step down. On the list questioning Ortega's use (and abuse) of power are his brother, Humberto Ortega, who fought alongside Daniel in the revolution, and one-time Commandante Jaime Wheelock, as well as one-time vice-president and well-respected author Sergio Ramirez, liberation theologist and poet Ernesto Cardenal, writer Gioconda Belli, and many others.

Many of these political differences have festered for several years.

Those of us on the outside will have to be forgiven for not having kept up with all of the detail, policy changes, and yes, right turns, in the Ortega government. It is why it is also taking us some time to catch onto what is currently going on in the country.

And what of the poorest of the poor in the Nicaraguan countryside -- the peasant farmers? Part two of this series will examine the agrarian reform which was to have lifted the country's poor out of poverty -- and the Nicaraguan revolution 40 years on.

This is the first part of a series of columns on Nicaragua. Follow the full series here.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Photo: Julio Vannini/Flickr

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