Nicaragua between Caudillismo and modernity: the Sandinistas Redux?

Author:Feinberg, Richard
Position::Sandinista National Liberation Front

In 1978, when she was a 22-year-old medical student known to the world as Comandante 2 of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, Dora Mafia Tellez helped lead an armed assault on Nicaragua's National Palace and took some 2,000 government officials hostage. After a two-day standoff with the military, she fled to Venezuela, but she soon returned to Nicaragua to command the guerrilla takeover of the country's second-largest city--a dramatic victory on the way to the triumph of the Sandinista revolution in 1979. She became minister of health in the revolutionary government and, later, a member of the Sandinistas' National Directorate. Just last year, she was denied a U.S. visa because of her alleged involvement in "terrorist activity."

But on a muggy evening in Managua, Nicaragua's capital city, in February, Tellez applauded enthusiastically when one of her old revolutionary allies proclaimed that "yes, the Sandinistas can have good relations with the United States." She nodded along as the speaker called for new efforts to foster private enterprise, expounded on the potential benefits of free trade, and denounced "revolutionary hypocrisy." "I will be a Sandinista until I die," she said when the speaker finished. "But this kind of vision is exactly what Nicaragua needs."

The Sandinistas' revolution came to a premature end in 1990, when they were voted out of power after a decade of political and social discord, economic disaster, and grinding war with the U.S.-backed Contras. In the euphoria of the Cold War's final days, the rest of the world quickly consigned them to the dustbin of history--a last gasp of Marxist agitation in Latin America. The Sandinistas themselves, however, had other plans. Daniel Ortega, the president of the revolutionary government, vowed that he would continue to govern, but "from below." Even while peacefully handing over power and acknowledging the Sandinista National Liberation Front's new status as a left-wing opposition party, he set about cementing his base among the poor and working classes and his hold over key centers of power in Nicaragua.

The strategy worked. Through a combination of ruthless political maneuvering, populist charisma, and deft use of the revolution's remaining symbolic force, Ortega made sure that Sandinista power survived long past the end of Sandinista rule. Now, a decade and a half later, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (known as the FSLN, its Spanish acronym, or simply "the Front") controls 40 percent of the seats in Nicaragua's unicameral legislature, 60 percent of the country's increasingly influential mayors' offices, including those of its biggest cities, and most of the key labor unions. Sandinista cadres are strategically placed throughout the judicial system, the comptroller's office, the Electoral Council, the executive branch bureaucracies, and, to a lesser degree, the military. Ortega has managed to win around 40 percent of the vote in every presidential election since 1990.

But in recent years, while Ortega has been busy defending against "the Yankees and forces of reaction," to use his phrase, a bigger threat to his power has been growing within the FSLN's own ranks. The speaker whom Tellez was applauding that evening in February was Herty Lewites--a Sandinista gunrunner in the 1970s, the Sandinista minister of tourism in the 1980s, and the popular Sandinista mayor of Managua from 2001 through 2004. A year earlier, in 2005, Ortega had expelled Herty (as he is universally known) from the FSLN when it became clear that--with national elections scheduled for November 2006 and left-wing candidates surging across Latin America--he had presidential ambitions of his own. Herty responded to the expulsion by announcing his candidacy anyway. Within months, he and Ortega were vying for the lead in polls.

Herty and Tellez are hardly the only top Sandinistas who have broken with Ortega. Many former comandantes and officials have become increasingly distressed by Ortega's unbendingly militant ideology and by his seeming willingness to do anything to preserve and expand the FSLN'S power--and tighten his own grip on the party apparatus. Ortega, they charge, has turned Sandinismo into Danielismo. Herty has gathered many of these Sandinista dissidents behind him, and he calls his new political organization the Movement to Rescue Sandinismo.

Tellez and several other prominent Sandinistas had joined Herty to celebrate the opening of a new campaign office, a small house draped in orange "Herty 2006" paraphernalia for the occasion. Compact and fit, dressed in blue jeans and a vaguely military-looking khaki shirt, she was flanked by Luis Carrion and Henry Ruiz, guerrilla leaders who had been ministers in the Sandinista government. Seated nearby were Ernesto Cardenal, a white-maned, beret-wearing poet and priest who was one of the Sandinistas' most eloquent spokesmen, and Sergio Ramirez, a novelist who had served faithfully as Ortega's vice president. "Nicaragua still needs Sandinismo, but Danielismo is a corruption of Sandinismo," Tellez said. "The alliance behind Herty represents the true spirit of Sandinismo: helping the poor by working with all sectors of society."

When Herty spoke to the small crowd, he harped on Tellez's point about the "true spirit of Sandinismo." "I fought from the inside to make the Front modern and democratic, but Daniel will not allow it," he said. "So I must do it from the outside."

Herty was less clear, however, about just what the "true spirit of Sandinismo" consists of. He talked about the virtues of small business, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), and the need to develop strong political institutions. He said he would take advantage of globalization instead of fighting it and combine free-market economics with a strong government that targets poverty and stimulates growth. He accused Ortega of "corruption" and "authoritarianism" and called for government transparency and broad-based cooperation across the political spectrum. Repeating a well-worn catchphrase, Herty declared, "The Left knows how to give but not how to produce, while the Right knows how to produce but not how to give." Then, he culminated with a line that could well be the slogan of all of Latin America's social democrats: "We need something other than an extremist left and an inhuman right."

With the presidential campaign entering its final months, most polls show that Herty and Ortega are fighting over around half of the vote. The center-right candidate, Eduardo Montealegre, edges out both of them, with just over 30 percent. Before November, Herty will have to add substance to that slogan--and in the process build a broad center-left movement that can wrest Sandinismo from Ortega's grip.

"Thanks to Daniel"

When the Sandinistas took power in 1979, they seemed to represent, as the Mexican political scientist Jorge Castaneda has written, "a picture-perfect revolution: young, moderate, uniting an entire country in a cut-and-dried, morally irreproachable fight against the epitome of dictatorial rule." The autocratic cruelty and unabashed corruption of the...

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