On Nicaragua: to the left forces of the Sao Paulo Forum

See also: 

Nicaragua: Was Daniel Ortega’s re-election a gain for the left? Preface to three articles
Was Nicaragua’s November 7 general election fixed or fair?
Nicaragua: What have we learnt about the conflict of April-July 2018?  

By Iosu Perales[1]

San Sebastián, August 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Shortly after learning of the departure into exile from Nicaragua of Mónica Baltodano[2] and her family I sat down at the computer and began to write, without a prepared script, without an organised plan for producing a document. A sort of improvisation with its thinking focused on the critical reaction that the left should have, but—with a few honourable exceptions—will not have.

I will be clear from the outset. I feel and believe that no small part of the Latin American left has—along with its political project—been disabled intellectually. Instead of the rule of critical, combative thinking, we find a conservatism that does not match the achievements of a heroic past.

Painful separation

Nicaragua, more precisely the political and ethical behaviour of President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo, puts the Latin American left to the test. It either offers a criticism that reaffirms the reason for its very existence—telling the truth as a wellspring of revolution and moral value—or it persists in a preconception that explains everything by blaming our own evils on an external factor (imperialism). That always is and always will be a threat but cannot be used as a smokescreen to conceal our own mistakes.

What made a character like me, linked to the Sandinista revolution for more than thirty-five years, change his position on Daniel Ortega and what he represents? How could it be that an admired revolution ended up being denounced by eminent intellectuals? The late Eduardo Galeano, who had been a close friend of Tomás Borge, did it. As did Sub-Comandante Marcos and the Zapatista movement, José Pepe Mújica, Noam Chomsky, Boaventura do Santos, Colombian Gustavo Petro and theologian Leonardo Boff. I remember especially that in the months before she died Marta Harnecker wanted to have one of my critical articles on Nicaragua translated for distribution in English[3]. And she did that. Nobody on the left in their right mind would think of associating any of these names with foreign interests.

I could cite many people on the left who, like me, have signed on to articles and statements calling for Ortega to release political prisoners, bring to justice those responsible in April 2018 for the shooting of defenceless people, and for the government to start a dialogue and negotiate a democratic solution with other social and political forces in the country. I recall the first statement I signed, in 2005 [in Spanish]. I was joined by such honourable people as the 80-year-old Miguel Núñez[4], decorated by the Sandinista revolution and always loyal to the principle of telling the truth. Even then we denounced what had all the appearance of being an autocratic government, as the passing of time has only highlighted.

The truth is that the Ortega government’s main allies over the previous eleven years, up until the social explosion of April 2018, were the bankers, the country’s main businessmen and the leaders of the Supreme Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP). Together, they imparted constitutional status to his “model of alliances”. Ortega as head of state guaranteed social stability and opportunities to do business and get rich as never before, both for himself and for his partners in big capital (the Pellas family[5], for example). As caudillo and to maintain his electoral base Ortega balanced this neoliberal behaviour with palliative measures provided as social relief in clientelist fashion. Some right-wing intellectuals came to describe these manipulations as “responsible populism”.

Free trade agreements and good marks from the IMF

The truth is that, up until April 18, 2018, Ortega's relations with the United States were remarkably good. It could not have been otherwise, since he favoured all the free market policies: free trade agreements, facilities for maquilas and unconditional concessions to foreign capital. In addition, he applied gringo immigration policies with a heavy hand, and no-one who might have had plans to emigrate to the United States got across Nicaragua’s southern border. Ortega turned Nicaragua’s frontiers into Trump's beloved wall. Likewise, the Ortega regime authorised a US military presence and the activity of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Nicaragua under the pretext of combating the illegal drug trade. With all this, Ortega led to Nicaragua scoring top grades from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Interamerican Development Bank. For eleven years the government’s relations with the United States were among the most cordial, based on the principle that what mattered was what the Nicaraguan government actually did, not what it appeared to do, and even less what it occasionally said.

But April 2018 came, and the regime’s facade began to crack.

People protests, from below

The April 2018 protests against the five percent cut in pensions and against the increase in worker and employer contribution rates to the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS) should have led to the opening of dialogue between the parties concerned. As required by Nicaraguan law, the measures should also have been debated in the National Assembly, but an attempt was made to impose them by presidential decree. It is true that the government backed down in the face of the wave of protests, but instead of putting away their banners, the protesters took them out onto the streets and squares a second time, with questioning of the rule of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo now added to their demands.

Along with the demand for the release of prisoners arrested during the protest, a very important part of the people felt that it was time to demand radical changes to the policies of Daniel and la Chayo[6]. As far as social order is concerned there was no change in the country except for the worse, in an economy obedient to the dictates of the IMF, with rising social inequality as a result. The strategy of social relief always advantages a government, but there is little to recommend it as far as transforming society is concerned.

No, we are not in any “second stage of the Revolution”—what is being implemented in Nicaragua is not radical change to consolidate a system of social justice. Quite the contrary, a corrupt socioeconomic regime has been strengthened as never before: the poor are condemned to pursue a livelihood in informal, casualised work, self-employment, or to work long hours for miserable wages. They are condemned to emigrate to other countries in search of work and condemned to precarious pensions on retirement. We are dealing with a regime of social inequality with a growing process of concentration of wealth in minority groups. Some spokespeople for groups that unconditionally support the ruling Ortega-Murillo couple allude to a supposed improvement in the economic and social reality of the population. It is not true. Conditions for regime loyalists have improved, but by very little. However, no possible social advance justifies the systematic violation of human rights and the continued arbitrary repression practiced by the government.

Second, the country's subordination to the global dynamic of capital has intensified. Nicaragua has been surrendering itself to large transnational companies and foreign capital, which come in to exploit its natural wealth or to take advantage of cheap labour, as is the case of the maquilas. The most pathetic case of this dynamic of handing over the country and its resources is the concession to a Chinese businessman of the construction of the Interoceanic Canal. But there had previously been many other concessions in mining, forestry, fishing, and power generation, producing an economic occupation of the entire country.

Third, the socioeconomic system now prevailing in Nicaragua tries to reduce the expression of social resistance to a minimum. On the other hand, a process of excessive concentration of power in the Ortega-Murillo couple and their innermost circle has developed. It is a power that threatens to destroy every vestige of democratic institutional functioning. Nicaragua currently runs as if there were a single party, with the odd parasitic party of the right[7] providing cover for the regime. It operates in concentric circles: the smallest is made up of Ortega-Murillo and some long-time family members and friends; the second is that of some loyal veterans in the army and the police; the third that of the party secretaries in the territories; the fourth that of militia groups under the command of Rosario Murillo.

The coup that never was

But what really happened that April of 2018? I read the Havana statement from the 2018 Sao Paulo Forum[8] and had to rub my eyes. It endorsed the version of Ortega-Murillo, completely untenable from the standpoint of rationality. I can understand that the declaration was about lending a hand to the real power in Nicaragua and to its repressive practices, but not at the price of denying common sense.

Ortega-Murillo, the ruling couple, claimed that April 2018 was an attempted coup. The fact is that there was a parliamentary and judicial coup in Brazil, to eliminate Dilma Rousseff; there were parliamentary coups in Honduras and Paraguay, to remove Zelaya and Lugo as presidents. But in Nicaragua all power is concentrated in the government. The army, the police, and the parliament itself (71 out of ninety-two members) are loyal to Ortega-Murillo. Are the coup plotters the students? Where and who are they? Are they the mothers who protested in Managua in defiance of the snipers? Where are the weapons of the coup plotters? What could Daniel Ortega desire more than the opportunity to present the coup plotters and their weapons to the media? But they do not exist. That US intelligence tries to take advantage of the wave of popular protest to infiltrate its propaganda is another issue. That is always to be expected and does not change the view that the famous coup is an invention to cover what has been happening over the last three years: the persecution and detention of hundreds of young people on charges of terrorism. I remember that in the USSR the regime used the language of Marxism to justify state capitalism. The same is happening in Nicaragua, with Ortega's anti-imperialist jargon justifying the concentration of power.

The truth is that it is laughable to call the events of April 2018 a coup d'état. None of us with any common sense could endorse such a hypothesis. I insist: can anyone identify the coup plotters? Or show us their weapons?

This coup theory appears as ridiculous as saying that Zoilamérica's accusation of sexual abuse was a CIA hoax. No-one will be more radical than me when it comes to condemning US policies but saying that all we do wrong is the result of the work of imperialism is a smokescreen that prevents us from achieving analysis of what is really happening.

Mújica, Galeano, Saramago

In contrast to the meeting of the Sao Paulo Forum in Havana, José Mújica, former president of Uruguay, stated on those same days: “An autocracy is ruling Nicaragua.” That is, a political regime in which a single person governs without submitting to any type of limitation. It is synonymous with dictatorship. Mújica’s words were: “A dream goes astray; you get an autocracy. Those who were revolutionaries yesterday lost the meaning of life,” he said in relation to Ortega, and then asked him to leave the presidency of his country. Much earlier, in August 2008, the writer Eduardo Galeano, also Uruguayan, regarding the trial instigated by the Ortega government against the monk and poet Ernesto Cardenal, wrote: “All my solidarity with Ernesto Cardenal, great poet, splendid person, soul brother, against this infamous sentence by an infamous judge at the service of an infamous government.” In those same days, José Saramago, a great writer and communist, described Ortega as unworthy of his own past. When I heard these reactions, I thought that at least some voices on the left were providing illumination.

The greatness of the left lies in its capacity for withstanding unpleasant truth. Yet often the truth is either not recognised or is silenced.

The days of April 2018 were terrible. According to cross-classification data from different human rights organisations, between 325 and 350 people were murdered. Of these, 85 percent were victims of the regime and 15 percent of violent groups against the police and paramilitaries. The fact is that the government of Daniel Ortega had and has responsibility for safeguarding the lives of all the victims, even if there were signs—which there are not—that the protests were following instructions to use violence.

Lives cannot be taken for the sole purpose of instilling terror. The left, as bearer of humanist values, has nothing to gain from those who despise the lives of others.

Some names from the repression

From the bottom of my heart: we know most of the people now being persecuted and many already held in solitary confinement. The left of the Sao Paulo Forum knows Víctor Hugo Tinoco, former General Hugo Torres, Dora María Téllez, Ana Margarita Vijil, Mónica Baltodano, Sergio Ramírez, Julio López[9], Irving Dávila[10], Tamara Dávila, Suyen Barahona, Gioconda Belli, Henry Ruiz, Edgar Tijerino[11], the Mejía Godoy brothers (Carlos and Luis Enrique), Norma Helena Gadea[12], René Vivas[13], Víctor Tirado[14], the Carrión brothers (Carlos and Luis, already in exile), the Cardenal brothers (Fernando and Ernesto, now deceased) all of them genuine Sandinistas, like commander Henry Ruiz. Can we believe that they are traitors to the country, as Daniel Ortega proclaims? That they are in the service of the United States?

Against them and what they represent comes repression, also directed against a long list of liberal, conservative, and dissident Sandinista opponents, all of whom have the right to organise and present tickets in the November elections. Business people are also being persecuted and detained, but with one exception: the big national fortunes are treated with kid gloves.

Many of the detained and imprisoned people have been arbitrarily charged with the crime of treason to the fatherland, a legal device created ad hoc that allows Ortega and Murillo to order new arrests every day and make freedom of expression a crime. Ortega tries to dehumanise the opposition by stating that “they are not the opposition, they are criminals”. Appalling. Many of the arrests take place on the presumption of guilt. There is no application of the law, but revenge and a settling of accounts. An overwhelming majority of Sandinista leaders of the 1970s and 1980s have left the party of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), but without ceasing to be Sandinistas, critics of the ruling couple's concentration of power. A couple to which Ortega contributes revenge and Murillo esotericism.

I repeat: The left has nothing to gain from Daniel Ortega. And what is worse, defence of his policy of aggression and violation of human rights also besmirches the left’s collective history.

The truth is always evolutionary

I recognise that for years I have been a participant in the behaviour of the left that consists of keeping silent, silencing, and turning our backs on realities that we do not like to criticise, because we reckon, mistakenly, that by doing so we harm our cause. The declaration signed in 2005 by a group of people linked to the history of solidarity with Nicaragua does not excuse me of responsibility. I should have assumed the ethical principle that the truth is always revolutionary. Really, what hurts us is covering up and justifying actions by the left that should be criticised by others on the left. For our own good health, we should be interested in clarifying the truth, to strengthen ourselves politically and morally.

The fact is that we find ourselves in a surreal political scene. The ruling couple seems to want to enshrine a dynasty, to the point that their own children irregularly occupy responsibilities of state by autocratic mandate, replacing ministers and even the foreign minister on official trips. The truth is that all power is concentrated in the Ortega-Murillo family and in a small group of stalwarts who feed the existence of a chieftaincy that provides them with a guarantee of holding public office with the right to expand their fortunes. As legendary guerrilla fighter Henry Ruiz states: “There is no longer ideology, there is no mystique, there are no rules, there is no debate, there is nothing.”

However, this vacuum does not prevent Ortega from continuing to exercise a significant ascendancy over a large part of Nicaraguan society through the discourse of anti-imperialism: partly because of support that comes from the times of the revolution and partly because of a patronage practice that is based on social provision in the form of small rural holdings, zinc sheeting for building, bicycles and other donations funded up to now with funds from Venezuelan oil largesse. In addition, the rigid social network set up by Vice President Rosario Murillo according to the formula of “citizen participation” deals out personal favours, prizes, and punishments with daily vigilance, creating a force that provides services to the government

Legendary commander Henry Ruiz, the most veteran of guerrilla fighters in the mountains, denounces this system: “At first it seemed to us that his program was pointing towards an economy of national development. It was a mirage. He [Ortega] quickly went to the Central American Institute of Business Administration (INCAE) to assure national big businesspeople that he would respect their enterprises and promote privatisations. You do the economy, and I will do the politics, he told them.”

Why keep quiet?

Why is there a lack of courage on the left to acknowledge the overwhelming message of the facts? Why keep quiet?

Self-criticism strengthens us, complacency gives us a facade without foundations. It soon collapses under its own weight.

On the left there is much that is conservative. Being from the left is not synonymous with being a revolutionary, not even in Latin America. On the other hand, to be a revolutionary is always to be on the left.

The left’s great strategic reserve lies in not failing the people, in credibility, in telling the truth, in being a courageous and transparent force. That is why self-criticism is so necessary. And that is because the society we pursue can only be achieved if our acts, our actions, our words, are in line with what we say. With false rhetoric we abandon our educational role in society.

We cannot accept being associated with a repressive project that violates human rights, freedom of expression, and the civil and political rights of sections of the Nicaraguan population. The repression of the people is the opposite of what we preach and what we fight for. Covering up erratic behaviour on the left poisons us and deprives us of all credibility.

We, the left, the various forces of the left, defend freedom and, as Rosa Luxemburg said in Reform or Revolution, freedom is especially so for those who think differently.

After the negative experiences of the Eastern countries, we revolutionaries cannot be associated with these realities. Indeed, human rights form today an agenda allied to that of the left and of revolutionaries. In the right-wing world in which we live, under the sway of financial Mafias, human rights are an opportunity, a program, for the left. Well then, human rights are not respected in Nicaragua. The left must raise the flag of human rights: that must be non-negotiable.

I do not know at what precise chronological point this degeneration of the Ortega-Murillo couple began. But the pact with Arnoldo Alemán was a decision that has forever marked Daniel Ortega. In exchange for voting against a law allowing therapeutic abortion he negotiated his access to power with a person convicted by the courts of corruption, as well as with the more conservative sector of the Catholic Church. Daniel's conversion, his sudden televised Sunday appearances in Managua cathedral, even with Lenin Cerna[15], struck me as pathetic. Not credible in the slightest, just pure opportunism. Is it normal for a party that considers itself to be on the left to proclaim that the country is officially Christian? “Christian, solidarity-based and socialist Nicaragua” is the government's motto. Such confessionalism in the XXI century is unacceptable, mere manipulation of popular sentiment. In truth, the regime’s pseudo-religious spin is disgraceful. Rosario Murillo, the vice president, has created a kind of gospel of her own, invoking God and the Virgin and clothing her companion, Daniel Ortega, with mystique: there is “God” and there is “Daniel”. This “gospel” clashes with democratic culture, including the values of the left. The preaching of predestination plus a leadership cult is an evil combination that has done great damage in Latin America.

The left and conservatism

To finish. Some voices on the left defend Daniel Ortega's regime, alluding to the fact that things would be worse with the right in power or that the fight against neoliberalism justifies the use of any means, to the point that any criticism of “our side” gets interpreted as a gift to the enemy. The Latin American left has often fallen into a functional pragmatism in defending the indefensible, without that exploration via honest explanations that allows us to attain objective understanding of reality. That is why it has tolerated the suppression of freedom in the name of freedom. And it has tolerated the corruption and despotism of some of its leaders, for example Ortega, in the name of the urgent need to achieve power or stay in power. But a morality that would improve the world we live in cannot be built on despotism and corruption.

The conservative spirit on the left usually manifests in the inability to cultivate a sense of crisis, of continual critical attention to what is happening in real life. It prefers to ignore the facts or in any case to set them in a one-sided, unquestioning explanatory framework, so as to preserve some ideological and political categories that are already out-of-date. This conservative spirit is not prepared to review ideological legacies and produce ideas and visions that are richer and more appropriate to new situations. It turns what is revolutionary into an archaeological find instead of making it a tool with which, if need be, to start over again. It is true that the idea of criticising our own side does not have a very long history and that of critical thinking even less, but we people on the left need to follow a path that frees us from the intellectual straitjackets that we, inhibited by our own fears, have made for ourselves.

The Nicaragua that was and today

Much thinking on the left has an obsolete view of the reality of Nicaragua. Obsolete because it belongs to what it was, not what it is today. This thinking gives expression to an ideological construction that does not start from data but rather ignores them because only in this way can the ideology created by preconceived ideas prevail. It pains me, because the desired new society needs more than ever to be built from the data of living reality, whatever they may be.

I would humbly advise Ortega's defenders to visit Nicaragua these days. Let them speak with the authorities if they wish, but let them also speak with the people, let them go to the universities and neighbourhoods, let them discuss with the residents and listen to their testimony denouncing the use of paramilitary forces and roundups of opponents for the mere fact of being so. Go, go to Nicaragua, and follow consistently the idea that the truth is always revolutionary.

¡Viva Sandino! Long live Sandino!

Translation: Dick Nichols (eurodesk@greenleft.org.au)


[1] Basque writer and political analyst Iosu Perales (Tolosa, 1946) was active in the solidarity movement with Nicaragua and El Salvador for over 30 years. His books, in Spanish, include Guatemala insurrecta (1990), El perfume de Palestina (2002), Los buenos años: Nicaragua en la memoria (2005), Los Años de Plomo en El Salvador, 1981-1992 (2009) and Algo he visto del mundo. Crónicas viajeras (2013).

[2] Former guerrilla leader Mónica Baltodano was among the FSLN detachment that headed the 1979 insurrection in Managua that led to the fall of the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza on July 19, 1979. She was a member of the first FSLN government (1979-1990) and an FSLN MP between 1997 and 2002. She was expelled from the FSLN in 2002 for criticising the autocratic leadership of Daniel Ortega. She returned to the parliament as an MP for the Movement of Sandinista Renewal (MRS) between 2007 and 2012. The MRS is today known as the Movement of Democratic Renewal (Unamos), and most of its leading members have been arrested.

On August 13, Baltodano announced that she and her family had left Nicaragua due to the "harassment and political persecution of the Ortega-Murrillo dictatorship" after "months of practically living underground, and in the face of the brutal wave of repression being experienced by the country".

[3] Marta Harnecker distributed Perales’ "excellent article", What is happening in Nicaragua. questions and answers from the left, to her private list.

[4] Miguel Núñez (1920-2008) was a leader of the Communist Youth (JJCC) during the Spanish Civil War, and later of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) and the United Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC), conducting underground work for both during the Franco dictatorship. He was arrested and tortured on two occasions and spent 17 years in jail in total. Nuñez was later a PSUC MP in the Spanish congress (1978-82) and, after visiting Nicaragua in 1985, founding the left non-governmental organisation ACSUR-Las Segovias to build solidarity with and aid to the Sandinista revolution.

[5] The Pellas Group is a corporate entity, headed by Carlos Pellas, that organises 25 firms involved in banking, agribusiness, tourism, motor vehicle distribution, rum production, and sales, telecommunications and production in free trade zones (maquilas). It is present in all Central America and the Dominican Republic. Carlos Pellas was head of the Nicaraguan Chamber of Industry for more than 20 years.

[6] Chayo is the familiar abbreviation of Rosario. "Daniel and la Chayo" is the common way in Nicaragua of referring to the ruling couple.

[7] Literally, "mosquito party", a reference to the parties of the right set up to suck resources from the Nicaraguan state.

[8] The Sao Paulo Forum resolution on Nicaragua, adopted in Havana on July 17, 2018. reads:

The XXIV Meeting of the Sao Paulo Forum, held on July 15, 16 and 17, 2018, pronounces itself in relation to the events that have taken place since April in the sister republic of Nicaragua:

We reject the interference and foreign interventionism of the United States government through its agencies in Nicaragua, organising and directing the local extreme right to apply once again its well-known formula of the so-called "soft coup" for the overthrow of governments that do not respond to their interests, as well as the biased actions of international organisations subordinate to the designs of imperialism, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

We condemn the destabilising, violent and terrorist actions of the coup-mongering right which, following the same strategy applied in other countries such as Venezuela, aims to ignore the constitutional order of Nicaragua after failing in its initial objective of overthrowing the Sandinista government headed by Comandante Daniel Ortega Saavedra, which has promoted dialogue and consensus as a way to overcome the crisis that has arisen.

We denounce the serious acts of barbarism and violation of human rights committed by the Nicaraguan right-wing coup-plotters and terrorists with denial of the right to free movement, destruction and burning of houses and public buildings, kidnappings, torture and murders, as well as the kidnapping of entire cities by the criminal hordes of fascist groups at the service of North American imperialism, imposing terror and death on their inhabitants and, in particular, on the Sandinista population.

We recognise the legitimate right to defence exercised by the Sandinista government against the aggressions perpetrated against it by the lackeys of the empire; legitimate defence that has tried to be presented by the right-wing media as massacres of the people, just as they pretend to present criminal offenders and torturers captured by the Nicaraguan authorities as political prisoners.

We express our deep regret for the deaths that occurred as a result of the wave of violence that has struck Nicaragua, initiated and encouraged by reactionary sectors related to US imperialism. Deaths that the right-wing media have manipulated, presenting them as the product of massacres perpetrated by the authorities, when in reality they have been the consequence of confrontations provoked by the fascist right, as demonstrated by the fact that there is a similar number of dead among the opposition ranks and the Sandinista ranks, as recognised by the experts sent by the OAS. While for its part, the IACHR - despite its evident bias against the government - has been forced to recognise that there have been no practices of torture against those detained by the National Police, which contrasts with the actions of the coup groups against the people who have fallen into their hands.

Consequently, we support the continuation of the investigations and clarification of all the crimes committed, as well as the punishment of those responsible. In this regard, we highlight the role that the Truth Commission [of the Nicaraguan Parliament] has been playing.

We support the calls made by the Nicaraguan government in favour of peace and overcoming the situation through dialogue within the framework of the Constitution and the law.

We support the Nicaraguan government for its progress in restoring order, as well as the rights of the Nicaraguan people, violated by the right-wing coup plotters, including the right to free movement.

We call on all progressive and revolutionary forces in the world to strengthen solidarity with the struggle of the sister people of Nicaragua for the restoration of peace in the face of criminal destabilising attempts of the oligarchy and the pro-imperialist right, with all of us coming together in support of the slogan #NicaraguaWantsPeace.

[9] Julio López Campos was head of the FSLN’s Department of International Relations during the 1980s.

[10] Former FSLN military commander, who died in Mexico in 2017.

[11] Edgar Tijerino is a famous sports commentator in Nicaragua.

[12] Famous Nicaraguan singer. See here for an example of her work.

[13] Head of the Sandinista National Police (1979-1982, 1989-1990) and Director General of the National Police (1990-1992).

[14] Mexican revolutionary who early joined the FSLN. In 2008 he would say: "Daniel buried the revolution."

[15] Long-time FSLN leader, Head of State Security in the first Sandinista government, he was nominated "Political Coordinator of the Judges and Magistracy" in 2013.