Nicaragua: A Return to Power for the Sandinistas?

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In this year of elections in Latin America, a half-forgotten name has re-emerged.

Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front of Nicaragua (FSLN) was one of those who led the revolution that overthrew the 43-year dictatorship of the Somoza family in 1979. In 1984 he was elected president, but in 1990 he was defeated and replaced by a right wing alliance under Violeta Chamorro.

During the decade of Sandinista rule Ronald Reagan's government invested millions of dollars to undermine and destroy the new Nicaraguan state. A counter-revolutionary army, the Contras, waged a well financed war that left 50,000 dead. It culminated in 1990 with the Sandinistas' electoral defeat. By then, the mass of Nicaraguans had grown disillusioned with the Sandinistas, who had protected their middle class allies but brought little respite to those at the bottom of society. The Sandinistas had grown wealthy and remote from those who had supported them with such enthusiasm ten years earlier.

Since 1990 Ortega has presented himself as a presidential candidate four times - and each time he has lost by a larger margin. While those in Europe and the US who enthusiastically supported him in earlier times remember Ortega as a symbol of the revolution against Somoza, his reputation within Nicaragua is very different. Before they left office the Sandinistas pillaged the state, transferring state owned properties into their private estates and diverting state bank accounts into private hands. Ortega, meanwhile, remained as leader of the Sandinista group in the national assembly. And while he retained some power there, mass support was waning fast. Within the FSLN, debate was stifled and any challenge to Ortega was met with repression. A stetson hat and cowboy boots came to replace the olive green uniform of the Sandinistas.

The FSLN was never a particularly democratic organisation - its main slogan was "let the National Directorate decide" - but increasingly the FSLN became a one-man machine, and some of the old members began to peel away. In the mid-1990s a group of Sandinismo's leading figures - former vice president Sergio Ramirez, former minister of culture Ernesto Cardenal, and guerrilla leader Dora Maria Tellez - formed a new party, the Movement for Sandinista Renewal (MRS). But the MRS failed to make much of an impact on Ortega's hold on the FSLN. It was when Ortega's daughter publicly accused him of sexual assault and bullying that the mask really started to fall away. Meanwhile Ortega was beginning to build links with leading figures in the US.

Disastrous

In 2000 Arnaldo Alaman became Nicaragua's president. A deeply corrupt banker, his distribution of whatever investment capital came into the country as graft and bribery was soon exposed. By 2004 he was accused of misuse of some $20 million and jailed. Yet a year later, he was out of jail, and Ortega forged an alliance with him against the latest reactionary president, Enrique BolaƱos.

The next presidential elections will be in November, and Ortega seems to think he has a chance of victory. Commentators abroad who seem to be unaware of Ortega's real role have argued that this victory would be another link to the chain of radical governments on the continent. Of course, Ortega has opponents on the right, but the biggest threat to him comes from the coalition of ex-Sandinistas led by the former mayor of Managua, Herty Lewites.

Nicaragua's economic situation is disastrous, yet Ortega and his organisation supported a new Central American Regional Block integrating Central America into the global economy. No wonder, then, that recent Ortega rallies attracted only a few hundred people, even though thousands had taken to Managua's streets just days before in protests at new neo-liberal measures.

The truth is that Daniel Ortega is no longer the leader of a mass movement but a politician concerned only with power. To make public alliances with the corrupt and disgraced politicians who oversaw the impoverishment of the mass of ordinary Nicaraguans is to make a mockery of the claim to represent a revolutionary liberation front.


Mike Gonzalez is head of Hispanic studies at the University of Glasgow.