Nicaragua: the ortega complex

Opposition in nicaragua grows

For the second time in less than four weeks, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of managua on wednesday against the neo-sandinista government of president daniel ortega (fsln). The protest was directed against high food costs and the decision of the supreme electoral council to exclude two parties represented in parliament from participating in the municipal elections in november and the presidential elections in 2011. In addition to the conservative pc (the country’s oldest party, with a 100-year history, but which has played a negligible role for some time), the "sandinista renewal movement" (mrs), which split off from the fsln in 1995 as a social-democratic trend and today has over 10,000 members, is also affected.000 members. Meanwhile, the frente sandinista did not like to make public the number of members of its "mass organization".

Since then, social-democratic ideas have determined the political line of the mrs, which is supported by numerous international organizations, is close to the u.S. Democrats in some cases, and came in below expectations in the elections with 6.4 percent. But former sandinista heavyweights such as liberation theologian and ex-minister of culture ernesto cardenal, revolutionary bard carlos mejia godoy and three ex-comandantes have also come under the umbrella of the movement; the revolutionary-sandinista current "rescue movement of sandinism" (rescate sandinista) provides a member of parliament in the form of ex-comandante monica baltodrano. The former commander of the sandinista liberation army, dora maria tellez, who protested the decision of the electoral court with a 12-day hunger strike, is enjoying growing popularity as a representative of the mrs left.

The base is bubbling

Despite the decision of the electoral tribunal, the sandinista renewal movement is currently sensing morning air. Opposition to ortega’s pact with ex-president arnoldo aleman (plc), who was convicted of corruption, and ex-somoza man jaime morales carrazo (the former contra commander is now vice-president under ortega), and to the fsln faction’s absolute ban on abortion in nicaragua, has so far remained limited to the small circle of intellectual organizations; this now seems to be changing. Important strongholds of the sandinistas are campesino organizations – and there, too, things are beginning to rumble at the grassroots level.

Criticism begins with the implementation of the "zero hunger" program, which has benefited 75.000 destitute smallholder families with a total of $150 million to claim. But this is too mechanical and does not address the strengths and weaknesses of the campesinos in question. And the criticism today goes as far as disagreement with the exclusion of the parties from the elections, which was justified by the electoral council as a violation of the party’s own statutes.

The current strategy of the mrs leadership frightens off more than a few veteran sandinistas. For example, ex-comandante luis carrion’s proposal for the formation of a "rough front" against the fsln, together with politicians and business representatives inspired by the somoza dictatorship. It sounds stale when young speakers from the mrs-pc alliance called for a "new revolution for democratic rights, bread and social justice" at last friday’s mass demonstration.

The poor in power?

Nicaragua is the second poorest of the americas after haiti. Half of the population lives in poverty – in rural areas the figure is as high as 70 percent – almost 15 percent of all nicaraguans live in extreme poverty, and eight out of ten adults have to make a living on less than two us dollars a day. This has changed little in the second year since ortega’s election victory, and the current global food crisis is exacerbating the situation.

His government has an important base among the urban and rural poor, who firmly believe that things will change for the better. This time, however, there will be no revolution; ortega is counting on "peaceful change from within. Some 38 percent of the electorate voted for this option in november 2006, under the slogan "the poor to power!". There was a strong approval of young voters who were fed up with the corrupt neoliberal elite that had been steering the country’s destiny for 16 years.

28 years ago, ortega was one of the comandantes which overthrew the fascist somoza dictatorship in the sandinista revolution. He belonged to the socialist-oriented government and was elected president in 1984. The sandinistas – named after the freedom hero augusto sandino, who was assassinated in 1934 – failed, especially because of the dirty war waged by the united states against the small country.

Today, conservative critics of ortega are particularly concerned about the partnership between neo-sandinista nicaragua and venezuela. At present, aid payments from latin america to nicaragua significantly exceed those from the european union. Ortega supports hugo chavez and the bolivarian alternative for the americas (alba) in the international arena. However, nicaragua is the only alba state that is also a member of the neoliberal cafta treaty initiated by the united states. The president has publicly regretted this, but the frente sandinista did nothing about it, neither at the time of ratification nor after the takeover of the government.

Ban on abortion like in iran

The case of mirianita, a 12-year-old girl who was raped, has reignited the debate about the country’s absolute ban on abortion. With the sandinista-sponsored law abolishing the law on therapeutic abortion, nicaragua has catapulted back 100 years in women’s rights.

The approval of the abortion ban was not a short-term manover, and to this day the frente refuses to change it. There is no more room for progressive women’s policies; in the first year of government, the two female ministers resigned.

Martha juarez, spokeswoman for nicaragua’s feminist women’s movement

Personally, the president and his co-ruling wife rosario murillo are participating in the legal prosecution of nine feminists who supported the abortion in the case of "nina rosa," another raped nine-year-old girl. The state does nothing against anti-women violence; neither the government nor the parliamentary factions of the fsln, liberals and conservatives. In 2007, the number of women murdered in sexual crimes increased ninefold. The police recorded 62.322 crimes against women, 54 were murdered – the majority by their partners – and another 82 died due to complications in pregnancy, lists women’s rights activist martha juarez. This did not come from nowhere, because ortega had not only entered into a strategic alliance with the arch-conservative catholic church, he was now structurally consolidating its rule.

The movement for homosexual rights, however, scored a small success: in the course of a reform of the penal code by the sandinistas, same-sex sexuality, which had been criminalized since 1992, was made exempt from punishment again as of march 2008.

Ratedemocracy or dictatorship?

Also controversial is the establishment of the so-called committees of citizen power (cpc), which are being set up in all municipalities in nicaragua as a parallel power structure to the local governments. Equipped with their own budget, their task is to take care of communal affairs; they are also networked nationally. Ortega has created the citizens’ committees as "elements of direct popular democracy" and sees them as a continuation of the revolutionary committees that were abolished in the 1990s.

In some places the committees work well, but in others they clash with existing community development committees. Often the conditions are not clear. But the arguments against the committees are different, many liberals and conservatives not only consider them unjustifiable, they fear that too much power is given to the poor. Other critics emphasize that the committees serve to consolidate the rule of ortega-sandinism, because only fsln members loyal to the line could take positions there. To top it all off, first lady rosario murillo has taken charge. The only woman with a say in the country was not democratically elected by anyone, feminists cynically note.

Daniel ortega is a caudillo, but it is very questionable whether he really wanted to establish a dictatorship in nicaragua, as critics from the conservative party to the renewal sandinistas accuse him of doing. It seems more realistic to ame that the frente sandinista (fsln), which is ironically dominated by his supporters, and the liberal opposition party, the plc, will lie with a two-party system.

Torge loding works for the independent communications center voces nuestras, san jose, costa rica.

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