The NI Interview
issue 314 - July 1999
The NI Interview
Tim Gaynor in Nicaragua talks with one of the
key architects of the Sandinista revolution.
photo by TIM GAYNOR
It is now two decades since the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) marched triumphantly into the Nicaraguan capital of Managua. But Daniel Ortega, one of the key strategists of that revolution, has not lost his enthusiasm for the Sandinista vision of a more just society.
Twenty years ago a hard-fought guerrilla war forced the US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza into exile and a new mood of hope and possibility buoyed the country’s poor majority. Sadly, the intervening years have not been kind to Nicaragua or to the Sandinista’s egalitarian dream. The desperately-poor Central American country has endured a deadly civil war, a brutal US-led economic blockade and defeat for the FSLN in two presidential elections. These traumas have inevitably tarnished the triumphs of the 1979 uprising.
Nonetheless, from his shady office in Managua, Ortega continues to stress the achievements of the Sandinista victory. ‘The revolution broke the Somoza family’s hold on military and economic power,’ he explains. (The corrupt Somoza family had ruled the country from 1933 until the FSLN victory in July, 1979.) But more importantly: ‘It gave back to Nicaraguans their human dignity. People gained the right to free thought and free expression in every respect. This was accompanied by education, health and social programmes that benefited everyone.’
Ortega’s speech is marked by the rhythmic cadences of a natural orator and I am struck by the distinctive patterns of his Nicaraguan Spanish. He pauses a moment before summing up: ‘At the end of the day what underpinned the Somoza regime was capitalism. Since our 11-year government ended in 1990 there has been a resurgence of the past model of domination. Neo-liberal policies have been used like the thin edge of a wedge to overthrow all the social gains that we put in place.’
The historical trajectory which saw socialism eclipsed by the return of the free market was also felt within the FSLN. Party stalwarts who once fought for collective ownership are now themselves owners of some of Nicaragua’s largest banks and businesses. While they once evicted rich landowners from their plantations they now own estates producing sugar, coffee and bananas for export. The wheel seems to have come full circle.
Still a youthful 53, Ortega is a charismatic figure for many Nicaraguans. In a culture which tends to venerate its caudillos (strongmen), the comandante occupies a place in the national mythology alongside the FSLN’s namesake – the Nicaraguan patriot Augusto Sandino. Ortega’s image pops up everywhere: in newspapers, television news bulletins and on colourful wall murals. And he is still capable of mobilizing large sectors of the Nicaraguan population. (When I tell a Nicaraguan friend that I have just spoken with and photographed Daniel Ortega, she asks somewhat wide-eyed if I will give her one of the pictures.)
But Daniel Ortega’s leadership has suffered serious setbacks, too. Accusations of rape and sexual abuse made last year by his stepdaughter, Zoilamérica Narvaez, broke the leader’s spell on his international admirers. For several months he withdrew from public life and refused to give interviews. More than a year later Ortega has returned to the political fray, but the charges remain a sensitive area. While he is happy to discuss the FSLN revolution and the broad strokes of contemporary policy, the issue of Zoilamérica is strictly off-limits.
Nor was he keen when I attempted a frank discussion of his leadership style. In spite of his claim that FSLN meetings resemble ‘those of an anarchist party’ there is widespread discontent in party circles over his tendency to stifle debate. Before the interview I spoke to a leading Sandinista dissident who complained she had been sidelined in the FSLN for questioning Ortega’s leadership.
For his part Ortega refuses to speculate on a possible successor, preferring to focus on more pressing concerns like ‘taking power in the elections in 2001’.
One of the main planks of the party’s policy remains democratization, particularly of property, which Ortega says is: ‘Fundamental for stability and development in Nicaragua. When we were in power we put land in the hands of 120,000 campesinos – as well as creating workers’ co-operatives. People like these need to receive state support so that they can be productive. I am not talking about absolute control but rather a strategic intervention to influence the direction the economy takes – to counter the tendency of the market to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few.’
Finally, I ask his opinion on the class make-up of the present-day FSLN. Is it still a party of workers, peasants and intellectuals?
‘The majority is still made up of workers and the unemployed,’ he claims. ‘But we do have a minority who represent the business community – and that includes small, medium and large-scale enterprises.’ Ortega admits this generates a series of contradictions at the heart of the FSLN but that ‘market contradictions’ in Nicaraguan society are inevitably reflected in the organization.
‘If we were an order of monks rather than a political party it might be possible to avoid such realities,’ he quips. ‘But we are not. How can we win an election if we turn our backs on the market? China, Vietnam and Cuba have all had to incorporate elements of the market economy without giving up their alternative socialist project.’
Tim Gaynor is a freelance writer based in Central America.