Options for Nicaragua
By Joyce McCracken
January 12, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — For more than two years, politics in the Central American republic of Nicaragua has resembled the volcanoes that dominate its landscape. At times in violent eruptions, sometimes rumbling. At times hidden from view, sometimes in plain sight. Always threatening, always less than stable.
The situation is often not clearly understood and is certainly open to different interpretations. What follows is a guide to the present, if shifting, reality. It is not a road map with a guaranteed seal of approval.
Whatever road the country was on under the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) government of Daniel Ortega, it took an unscheduled turn following the events of April 2018. Mainly young people had been protesting against government policies for some time. Then one day in April, they were met with what can modestly be described as a heavy-handed response. Therein after everything changed.
The movement with the main nuances and activities is centered around the ruling Sandinista party. This is now often referred to as the Red and Black, after the FSLN colours.
President Daniel Ortega, Vice–president and Ortega’s wife Rosario Murillo, their family and a long standing circle of associates are the principal actors in this bloc. There is no doubt that it has a solid base of support and the capacity to mobilize people in the cities and countryside. It can draw on state resources to make its presence felt. And as members of the Ortega family are owners of TV channels, their word and image are assured a wide audience.
As coordinator of communication for the FSLN party and government, Murillo speaks daily to the nation on radio. After every TV appearance by Ortega, she faces the cameras alone and delivers a monologue without the inconvenience of a question and answers option. She has some influence and following, particularly among sections of the youth. But is notably distant from Nicaragua’s various feminist organizations.
Byardo Arce is a long standing associate of the president. He has connections and influence with the business sector, which up until the disturbances of April 2018 was on the up and up. However, even before COVID-19, tourism and hospitality were hard hit. With a leading role in the FSLN party and state, Arce is a player of considerable importance in any development in Nicaragua.
Carlos Fonseca Terán is the son of Carlos Fonseca Amador, the much revered founding father of the FSLN and the Popular Sandinista Revolution of 1979. Fonseca senior was killed fighting the Somoza dictatorship in 1976. Fonseca Terán does have some following but is considered by many as something of a hard liner. He is well known but not always front and centre when it comes to leadership appearances. He articulates an era that appeals to some, but that others believe has little relevance to the present day.
Also worthy of consideration is another element of the Red and Black camp. These are the women and men who took up arms to fight the Somoza dictatorship and are now known as historical combatants. They are certainly a credible voice in the community. But Nicaragua has a young population and as this group is mostly in their late 60s and 70s, it’s difficult to gauge their collective impact on present developments.
The main opposition movement takes the form of a group that certainly does not display a united front. In fact it comes close to denying any definition. However, it has earned the popular name of Blue and White, after the colours of Nicaragua's national flag.
It is an amalgam of some citizens who came to prominence after the civil disturbances that emerged following April 2018. Added to this are other formations not at one with the present government.
Two of its most public faces come from the Chamorro family. As far as the media is concerned, there is Juan Sebastian Chamorro, a US-educated economist and meat exporter, and his journalist cousin Carlos Fernando Chamorro. The family has a long pedigree of big landowners, army generals, a Conservative newspaper owner and presidents of the republic.
After April 2018, the traditional political parties of the right, the various Liberals and Conservatives, found themselves wrong footed. The inexperience of the young protesters, born of an unpredictable mould not versed in Nicaragua’s ways of duplicity, pacts and deals, were unappealing bedfellows to them. And to be fair to the young protesters, they were in no hurry to invite the more mature sages of a mistrusted generation to their gatherings.
Increasingly, more senior faces appear in the Blue and White camp, while the more fresh faces do not have the presence they once had. But as always in Nicaragua, the roll call varies on a near weekly basis, as individuals and groups pull in and out of alliances and at times back in again.
Certainly, in the Blue and White camp, there are genuine believers of a different political order. The Supreme Electoral Council, which is in charge of running elections and exists under the patronage of the ruling FSLN party, is often sighted for change. At the same time, there are individuals who have historically been opposed to the social and economic reforms that won the admiration and support of the international left decades ago.
Churches, both Catholic and Protestant evangelical, make up another formation. Liberation theology is not the force it once was, so the voice of any organized religion provokes less controversy and has lost a lot of its mobilizing ability, either radical or conservative. The government’s handling of COVID-19 appears to count for little in the present crisis.
Another formation worthy of consideration might be labeled Chameleon, after the lizard that changes its outward appearance to fit into differing surroundings. This group has two components. There is nothing new in people switching their political allegiances to make economic gain or polish their own public image. Donald Trump was once considered to be a Democratic Party follower.
The other component consists of functionaries at various levels in education, health, local government or other state institutions. They are expected to turn out for government-supporting demos; keeping their jobs depends on their turn out. So who would blame them?
Nicaragua is a political society, in the sense that political identity is seldom far below the surface. At one time there were more than 25 political parties contesting elections. But it has never been a society steeped in ideology. The liberals grew out of the conservative tradition but never really parted from it. It is more like new money emerging from traditional landed elites.
The FSLN had a left identity up until it lost the 1990 elections. But soon after that, the leadership showed itself more concerned with cosmetics and rhetoric, culminating in the famous “El Pacto” (The Pact) with its traditional adversary, the Constitutional Liberal Party. Marxism-Leninism, Trotskyism, the Fourth International and variants of social democracy, were never the concern of intense debate.
Despite this, a multitude of left of centre opinion, along with a considerable religious input, came to support the Sandinista Popular Revolution during the 1990s. While support for the FSLN in the form of the Red and Black grouping has been shattered domestically, it remains far from a fractured collapse. And it still holds sway among many on the international radical left.
Some of this may be due to sentiment about democratic and progressive achievements of bygone days. A belief persists that criticism of Ortega will initiate a domino effect, bringing political collapse to his government and those of Cuba and Venezuela. These external supporters, uncritically following the FSLN line of a US-fomented coup attempt during April 2018, are hardly operating in the realm of rocket science.
Of course the US State Department will take advantage of any Central American incident to further the US agenda. Of course the US will explicitly foment trouble to take advantage of this and has its local helpers willing to assist. But credit should be given to Nicaraguans, who are capable of registering their own discontent and protest, without seeking or succumbing to US manipulation.
Status quo or change?
Nicaragua has a tradition of accepting a status quo for about 40 years, then going for a violent change. This has been the pattern since independence from Spain in 1821. We are at the end of such a period but there are few signs that people are considering an armed uprising.
Nicaragua’s choice today appears to be between the newly enriched Ortega circle or the well-established Liberal/Conservative get together. Either way the winner would be a millionaire. Elements of the Red and Blacks and the Blue and Whites could live with that, as long as their economic base remained more or less intact.
What keeps the principals of both formations up at night is the thought that the youth and others looking for a radical change will make their presence felt in the November 2021 elections.
But with less than a year to go to the elections, political unity in the Blue and White camp remains unlikely. An electoral agreement solely for putting forward the most likely candidate to unseat a ruling FSLN incumbent is still a possibility.
What keeps violent change at bay is dread of an internal war, to say nothing of the long established practice of duplicity, pacts and deals.