Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Nicaragua: The Rehabilitation of Daniel Ortega

(First published in Sinhala and dated 30 November 2006) 

Daniel Ortega’s victory in the Nicaraguan presidential election on November 05 confirms the continental trend in Latin America as popular classes reject neo-liberalism and favour the Left.
Ortega himself is synonymous with the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 when a broad leftwing alliance known as the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) grouping parties and people from the revolutionary to the centre-left and including Communists, Trotskyists, Christian Marxists, trade unionists and intellectuals, overthrew the Somoza dictatorship that had been a loyal ally of US imperialism.

Our hopes were raised by their victory and bold efforts to give the poor access to education, health and land and to address the grievances of the indigenous minorities.

We willed them to succeed in transforming the social, political and economic structure of a poor Central American country of three million people, exclusively dependent on coffee for its export earnings, and bled dry by the greed of the Somoza family and US trans-nationals.

Our fears were realised when the might of US imperialism reacted to this blow against oppression and injustice by destabilising that country as it had Chile in the early 1970s when Salvador Allende came to power.

Washington DC funded, trained and armed paramilitary guerrillas known as contras who plunged Nicaragua into bloody and bitter civil war that  took almost 100 000 lives in a population of only three million. Finally, worn out by a decade of conflict and a devastating US economic embargo, Nicaraguans voted the FSLN out of office in 1990.

No supporter of the Sandinistas in the 1980s or opponent of US hegemony can fail to be unmoved by Ortega’s political resurrection some 16 years later.

Despite the low margin of victory – 40% of the total vote in a five horse race – the FSLN leader’s triumph is a slap in the face to the US.

US ambassador to Nicaragua, Paul Trivelli, repeatedly intervened in the electoral campaign to warn Nicaraguans of dire consequences in the event of Ortega’s return to power including withdrawal of US aid. One US Congressman threatened to block all remittances from Nicaraguans living in the US.

This financial flow totalling US$500 million annually is equivalent to 70% of total export revenue and keeps hundreds of thousands of people afloat in a sea of poverty. After 15 years of neo-liberalism, Nicaragua has an external debt of US$3.5 billion, massive unemployment, food insecurity and malnutrition and among the worst income inequalities in the region.

However despite his endorsement by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, one should not assume that there is uniformity in the recent Left electoral victories in Latin America, or that all these victories are unambiguous.

The new President is a deeply compromised individual, while his party is a pale pink version of its former red-blooded socialist self.

Financial and sexual scandal surrounds Ortega from his previous tenure in government as along with other FLSN leaders, state assets were appropriated on the eve of defeat to transform themselves into landowners and entrepreneurs. Later, Ortega was accused by his step-daughter of long term sexual abuse but was able to escape prosecution.

The FSLN fractured as the faction associated with Ortega captured control, while those who remained true to its original ideals either remained mute out of loyalty or were driven out through repression and purges to form new parties such as the Movement for the Renovation of Sandinismo (MRS) associated with Sergio Ramirez and Commandante Dona Maria Tellez.

Social movements that had emerged and grown in the political space created by the 1979 revolution were unfortunately lacking in political and organisational autonomy. They became subordinated to the FLSN or co-opted through distribution of perks and governmental office, tying their fortunes to those of their Sandinista patrons; while social struggles became bargaining chips in political manoeuvring between the FSLN in opposition and right-wing governments.

During the electoral campaign itself Ortega tried to face both ways as a friend to business but also critic of neo-liberalism, or “savage capitalism” as he described it.

Symbolising his constant refrain of ‘Reconciliation’ – including it appears even with capitalist market ideology – Ortega adopted a former contra leader as his Vice-Presidential running mate.

Underlining his recent embrace of the conservative but extremely influential Catholic Church, Ortega disgusted feminists around the world when he publicly supported recent legislation removing the previous limited tolerance for abortion where the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life.

A new political force has emerged to challenge the FLSN’s hijacking of the political legacy of the Nicaraguan revolution. The Movement for the Rescue of Sandinismo (MPRS) includes historic Sandinista personalities such as Ernesto Cardenal, Victor Hugo Tinoco, Monica Baltodano, Gioconda Belli, Carlos Mejia Godoy and others.

The MPRS formed an alliance with the MRS and other ecological and left parties to contest in this election as the MRS Alliance. It received 7.5% of the popular vote, which is an impressive result for a new force without the financial resources of right wing parties or the FSLN.

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