Nicaragua’s tyrant and how he switched sides

May 8, 2018

Michael Friedman, a U.S. socialist who lived in Nicaragua during the revolutionary era after the 1979 overthrew of dictator Anastasio Somoza, celebrates today's mass protests against President Daniel Ortega as a revival of the spirit of the Sandinista revolution.

FOR THE past month, the authoritarian Nicaraguan regime has been challenged by a growing popular upsurge, led primarily by the country's youth. Directed initially at austerity measures, the protests have increasingly demanded that President Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, step down.

The protests have been met by state repression reminiscent of the Somoza regime that was overthrown in 1979 in a popular revolution led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), of which Ortega was a historic leader. I am deeply saddened that, once again, the Nicaraguan people face such repressive violence, and concerned for family members, but I am, also again, utterly in awe of ordinary Nicaraguans' will to resist.

THE SANDINISTA Revolution of the 1980s was my political epiphany. Early in the 1980s, as a solidarity activist, I was invited to work for the Sandinista newspaper Barricada Internacional, and later the Nicaraguan Fisheries Institute, and experienced what a genuine social revolution was, as both transformer of society and transformer of the working people who collectively made that revolution.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (left) and Vice President Rosario Murillo
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (left) and Vice President Rosario Murillo

My life has been intertwined with that country and its people ever since. My son is currently a student in the National Engineering University, one of the centers of the student movement that is challenging the regime.

During my years in Nicaragua, I saw the revolution make strides toward mass participation, social justice and human well-being, and then recede and finally suffer defeat, primarily as a result of Washington's shooting war and war of attrition, but also as a result of growing "verticalism" and popular disempowerment by the revolutionary government.

By the time I returned to the U.S. in 1987, co-workers at the Fisheries Institute--where, earlier, we had enjoyed a belligerent and active union--were largely demoralized and apathetic. Formerly active neighborhood committees in the communities in which I lived were similarly declining to small circles.

I witnessed the dispersal and atomization of the Sandinista base, following the electoral loss to neoliberal Violeta Chamorro in 1990. I saw the Ortega group dismember and then reconstitute the FSLN, as an apparatus at their personal command, serving their interests.

I was invited by former Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto to a meeting with Ortega early on, when the first of the FSLN splits and purges occurred, involving the group around writer Sergio Ramirez. A Sandinista friend warned me at the time: "Both sides are the same, just interested in their own power."

During the time the new FSLN spent as parliamentary opposition after Chamorro's victory, its tenure was characterized by pacts and horse-trading with the most reactionary political forces in society, particularly with former Somoza supporter Arnoldo Aleman's Liberal Party. As mayor of Managua under Chamorro, Aleman had played a major role in decimating mass organizations and the Sandinista's poor and working class base.

When Ortega was first re-elected president in 2008, he almost immediately acted to placate his allies on the right by passing a draconian anti-abortion law that penalizes even medically necessary abortions. He had already established a misogynistic track record after his stepdaughter Zoilamerica alleged that he had raped her as a minor, allegations that were backed up by major former Ortega allies.

The Ortega-Murillo regime has been characterized by neoliberal and pro-business economic policies, selective repression and widespread patronage, the latter based on Venezuelan oil largesse.

The ruling couple has pushed through legislation making Ortega president in perpetuity, banning opposition groups from elections, and consolidating their personal control over the police and military. They also began a major and environmentally destructive canal project with a Chinese billionaire that has been widely contested by environmentalists within and outside the country.

And while this administration has provided some benefits to a few sectors, given Nicaragua's grossly unequal economic structure, this could not be sustained in the absence of Venezuelan assistance, according to one collaborative IMF report.

THE SITUATION has dramatically changed over the past four weeks. First, there was a destructive forest fire in the Indio Maiz biosphere reserve, in which financial interests and dubious settlement policies may be implicated. Rightly or wrongly, the government was widely perceived as fiddling while the reserve burned.

Next, the Ortega administration imposed cutbacks on social security payments. That was the straw that broke the camel's back, provoking widespread and growing street protests and occupations, largely led by the country's university and secondary school students.

Several hundred thousand protesters took to the streets in Managua and other cities and towns twice during the past two to three weeks, first convened by civil society groups, then by the Catholic church.

Initially, protesters demanded that Ortega rescind the social security "reform." He did, but as repression grew in response to the protests, the majority began demanding that he and his wife step down, with many now calling for the convocation of a national interim power consisting of all social sectors, the dissolution of Ortega's Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the convocation of new elections.

The protests were met by increasing measures of state violence, with at least 46 deaths, hundreds of injuries and many "disappearances" at the hands of the police and paramilitary gangs (the so-called "Juventud Sandinista") supported by the police.

The youngest victim was a 15-year-old child, who committed the crime of delivering water to protesters. A journalist was killed by police while delivering a report on protests in the Caribbean coast town of Bluefields. Police have been accused of deliberately shooting out protesters' eyes, and there have also been substantiated reports of torture.

On May 1, Ortega convened his base for a rally, with many reports that state workers were threatened with firing or other sanctions if they failed to attend the pro-government rally. The crowd was big, although not as large as the protests the previous week. This shows that Ortega-Murillo still has some base of support.

The regime has also been making hay with early calls for dialogue--in which the principal interlocutors would be the government and the High Council of Private Enterprise (the Nicaraguan equivalent of the Business Roundtable in the U.S.). Ortega's calls for dialogue are seen as a subterfuge, and have been continuously accompanied by efforts to disparage the protesters, dismiss the repression ("gang violence") and call for further reprisals against demonstrators.

FRANKLY, I find the stance of U.S. leftists who continue to defend the Ortega/Murillo regime in Nicaragua--either because it is in Washington's gunsights or because it somehow represents the legacy of the 1979 Sandinista revolution--utterly antithetical to anything remotely resembling a principled position.

Rather, this Manichaean perspective reflects a "campist" view hearkening back to the old supporters of the Stalinist Soviet Union (and China), who divided the world into opposing camps and thereby provided uncritical support to the USSR, its gulags and executions, and its repression of popular upsurges in Czechoslovakia and other Eastern Bloc countries.

Such voices have transferred their fixation on Papa Joe to any leader that has earned the ire of the U.S. and spouts anti-(Western) imperialist rhetoric. They conveniently ignore or forget the fact that we no longer live in a bipolar world, but rather one in which China and Russia have become aspiring imperialist powers themselves.

But that isn't their biggest failure. To this fixation on "great leaders," they subordinate--or completely abandon--core principles of socialism, such as working-class solidarity, and the idea that revolutions are the result of self-organization and empowered collective action from below. Without this, there can be no meaningful social change, no matter how "revolutionary" the leadership.

In fact, there can be no meaningful resistance to the real, existing threat of U.S. intervention without such an empowered population. Nothing is guaranteed either way, but Ortega's repression is the surest path to U.S.-orchestrated "regime change" and a "disaster capitalism" regime in Nicaragua.

The campist "left" actually undermines such a resistance, both within Nicaragua and abroad. Within, because these leftist foreigners appear to be supporting a regime that is brutalizing Nicaraguans, who might rightly ask, "So who are our friends?" And abroad, because the most effective way to build an antiwar movement is without litmus tests, especially ones involving brutal regimes.

Ortega and Murillo are no revolutionaries, nor even "progressive," and their regime doesn't inherit any revolutionary mantle. Nor is this regime "anti-imperialist" in any meaningful sense, as its compliance with the IMF and willing participation in Washington's "war on drugs" would indicate.

Perhaps the most abhorrent aspect of the campists' position is the sheer hypocrisy.

We rightfully denounce murders by police in the U.S. or torture by Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, but when it's in Nicaragua, the campists blather about "colored revolutions."

We rightfully denounce Israeli military assassinations and outright butchery of young people and journalists in Gaza, but when it comes to Nicaragua, these "revolutionaries of the word" alert us to the "bigger threat."

We condemn the Indian occupation army in Kashmir for deliberately shooting out the eyes of Kashmiri protesters, yet when the Ortega police do the same to protesters, our campists decide it is more important to remind us of the Nica Act.

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