Party and Army : Sandinistas: Twin Pillars of Power

Times Staff Writers

The computer on his desk is a symbol of the progress that Mayor Carlos Carrion envisions for Managua, but across the room sits a reminder of reality--the Coleman lantern he lights during frequent blackouts.

Pacing his office one evening, Carrion railed against another breakdown. The telephone company had mistakenly cut hundreds of lines and, like so many residents, the 32-year-old mayor could not get his home phone fixed.

“We need a way to defend ourselves against this arbitrariness,” Carrion complained, adding under his breath, “I’m not going to stand in that line at the phone company.”

A kinetic, chain-smoking workaholic, Carrion seems to understand, as well as any official, how frustrated people are with Sandinista rule. Blackouts, dead telephones and long lines are daily ordeals in steamy Managua.

A Challenge to Sandinistas

Although many Nicaraguans realize that the Contra war and the U.S. economic embargo have sapped resources, their discontent is a growing political challenge for the Sandinista National Liberation Front.


The Sandinistas are scheduled to hold presidential elections in November, 1990, and have promised municipal elections before then. Trying to end the six-year war, they have offered limited freedom to opposition groups and invited Contra leaders to come home and run for office. Without achieving a final peace treaty, the strategy has stopped most of the fighting and weakened the U.S.-backed insurgency.

But as the war winds down, the Sandinista revolution, now in its 10th year, is struggling. The economy is devastated, and a growing number of Nicaraguans say they are disenchanted. The Sandinistas control the ultimate source of power, the armed forces. But to make the country work and broaden their support, they are counting on their party--a wellspring of manpower and energy that is being shifted from the war effort.

It was with an eye toward elections that the Sandinista leadership in April named Carrion, already Managua party chief, to the mayor’s office. With both titles, he is the most important party official outside the national nine-man National Directorate. Managua is home to one-third of the nation’s population and, like most Latin American capitals, it is vital to political success. Lose Managua and the Sandinista front risks losing all of Nicaragua.

As the local Sandinista chief, Carrion can mobilize 300 paid party workers and up to 30,000 volunteers in the city to vaccinate children, build schools, fix bridges, clear trash and make other improvements.

The Sandinistas’ critics point to such mixing of party and government functions to support their claim that fair elections are impossible. The Sandinistas use party organizations to do the government’s job; Sandinistas dominate government institutions from city hall to the armed forces and use them for the party’s benefit. This gives them an undemocratic advantage and a lock on power, the opposition contends.

But the Sandinistas view their party organizations as channels of participatory democracy, at least as important as elections. Through these organizations, they say, citizens can make demands on the leadership, prove their commitment to the revolution and advance in the party. Many of Nicaragua’s brightest young people are committed to this system, in the belief that idealism and selflessness can transform a postwar Nicaragua.

At the core of the Sandinista party are 13,000 to 14,000 “militants,” or full-fledged members, and another 16,000 to 17,000 “aspirants” trying to earn admission. Together they make up about 1% of Nicaragua’s 3 million people.

Sandinista “militants” view themselves as the vanguard or enlightened leadership of society. “It is a nucleus of people more conscious and more willing to sacrifice and to respond to the interests of society, at times at a cost to their own interest,” explained party official Vanesa Castro.

Many earned their “militant” ranking in the insurrection that ousted Anastasio Somoza’s dictatorship in 1979. Victor Hugo Tinoco studied eight years at a Roman Catholic seminary before he was expelled by priests who called him a Communist for organizing the poor against Somoza. He later joined the Sandinistas and went underground, motivated by a Christian sense of social justice.

“To move from social justice to subversion was easy. Reality pushed you,” he said.

Party a ‘Life Option’

Now a deputy foreign minister, Tinoco said: “In the United States, a political party is like a business or a profession. Here it is a life option, almost like priesthood. Under Somoza, to be a member of the (Sandinista) front meant you were willing to die, so you developed the idea of giving your life to the cause.”

Admission to the party is based on willingness to work. Aspiring members are judged by job performance, military record, union activities and volunteer tasks.

For example, when the Milca soft-drink plant in Managua ran out of bottle caps and put its 800 workers on unpaid leave, “aspirants” were expected to go plant coffee in war zones where field labor is short. Ninety of the workers volunteered.

Sandinista leaders preach discipline. But while party members work hard, discipline is not a popular trait. Col. Hugo Torres, political chief of the Sandinista army, said young soldiers often wander off from assigned units or join others without orders.

“Sometimes they just go home to help out with a family problem,” he said with a shrug. “We’re pretty flexible about this.”

The Sandinistas are also relaxed about ideology. Party militants joke that colleagues who return full of dogma after years of study in developed socialist countries must be “re-educated” about life in tropical Nicaragua.

Simplified Texts

The party’s political school offers advanced teachings in Marx, Lenin and Third World revolutionary theorists, but the basic 10-day course taken each year by 5,000 party activists uses texts simplified for slow readers and is geared to practical field work. Students visit a neighborhood or cooperative and are given a problem to tackle.

“We don’t want parrots,” said Castro, the party official. “We want people who can solve problems.”

Moving to expand its reach, the party decided two years ago that its membership standards were too rigid and created a third category, called “activist.” This allowed tens of thousands of people who support the revolution to call themselves Sandinistas without doing all of the work required of a “militant” or an “aspirant.”

The party claims to have drawn several hundred thousand youths, women, workers and others into its separate mass organizations. But party leaders admit that participation has declined, and they are reacting in two distinct ways.

The Sandinista labor federation, faced with rising worker discontent over severe wage erosion, has resorted to force to keep control of several factories. After 480 workers at the Tona brewery in Managua recently switched their affiliation to a Communist federation, scores of Sandinista workers and army reservists seized the plant and “elected” a new, pro-Sandinista union board.

While reserving such harsh methods for the political or labor opposition, the Sandinistas are moving in the other direction to shore up support among Nicaraguans who are disillusioned but not adversaries. For example, the party has softened the strong-arm tactics that discredited the Sandinista Defense Committees, its neighborhood block organizations known as CDSs.

Played Major Role

Initially copied from Cuba, the CDSs played a major role in vaccination and literacy campaigns. By 1984, they claimed a membership of 500,000. But people withdrew as CDSs were used for army recruiting and political haranguing and as abusive leaders withheld food ration cards from neighbors they didn’t like. Party officials say at least half of the 1,000 committees disbanded.

The party has assigned a charismatic former guerrilla commander, Omar Cabezas, to revive the CDSs. He has abolished their police functions and withdrawn their power, too easily corrupted, to issue certificates required for a food ration card, a job or a passport.

Emphasizing community service, Cabezas has called on “Christians, Communists, blacks, whites, priests, atheists, Sandinistas and people with or without a party” to join. The change is starting to show. Four CDS leaders were stripped of their party affiliation for abuse of power. In the poor barrio of Acagualinca, a long-inactive CDS built a school for 1,200 children with donated materials and volunteer labor.

When the government published its price list for this year’s crops, dozens of Sebaco Valley farmers gathered in a mango grove to hear an imposing man in Jordache jeans and cowboy boots vent his rage at the bureaucrats who had set them so low.

“They are people who have never planted onions in their lives,” Daniel Nunez shouted, banging his fist on a picnic table. “Don’t be intimidated by anyone behind a desk with a serious look on his face!”

For years, Nunez has led an agrarian revolt against Managua. Deriding what he calls “Marxologist” central planning, he has enlivened many a rural gathering with wry humor and barnyard expletives. But the 50-year-old dairy farmer is not a counterrevolutionary. He is a leading Sandinista. That such talk comes from the party itself shows how flexible it can be in trying to embrace a wider following.

Nunez heads a union of 125,000 small private farmers and cattlemen. It was formed by the party not to breed Sandinista “militants,” as the other mass organizations do, but to keep cowboys from becoming Contras. Under Nunez’s strong leadership, however, the farmers have changed the nature of Sandinismo, drawing the government toward their own free-market principles.

Joined in 1972

Nunez joined the Sandinista insurgency in 1972 after Somoza sided with a foreign timber company poaching mahogany trees on his ranch. As the Contras took up arms, Nunez was assigned to keep the farmers with the revolution and the revolution with the farmers. He was agrarian reform administrator in a war zone in the early 1980s when he realized, and convinced Managua, that its land confiscations and moves toward collective farming were fueling the Contra ranks. The Sandinistas slowed collectivization and assigned Nunez in 1984 to organize the farmers union.

The union has opposed government attempts to redistribute wealth by obliging farmers to sell to the state and setting low food prices for wage earners. Instead of cooperating, many farmers withheld food to provoke shortages, then sold to the black market. Having failed to stop speculation with force, the government gradually abolished most price controls and began paying farmers part of their export earnings in dollars.

“Sandinismo means changing things that are incorrect,” Nunez told the farmers in Sebaco. “I am a Sandinista, but we are all producers. We don’t invent solutions from ideological textbooks. We draw from our experience.”

As they try to broaden their base, the Sandinistas occasionally find their party is not big enough at the top. Eden Pastora, the legendary Commander Zero of the Sandinista insurrection, became a Contra six years ago. Roger Miranda, a Sandinista army major and top aide to the defense minister, slipped away last October to collaborate with the CIA.

A more awkward defection occurred recently when Moises Hassan became the first high official to quit the party without joining its enemies or leaving the country. Because he still calls himself a revolutionary, his departure raised important questions about the party: How democratic is it, and how much internal dissent can it tolerate?

As revolutionary careers go, Hassan’s was exemplary. First arrested as an anti-Somoza troublemaker in the 1950s, he became an early member of the Sandinista front. With a doctorate in physics from the United States, he returned to Managua to organize a guerrilla network in the slums and helped lead a 1978 uprising that weakened the dictatorship. When Somoza fell in 1979, Hassan was named, with Daniel Ortega and three others, to the first governing junta.

But Hassan’s star fell quickly. The junta was reduced to three, excluding Hassan. He was demoted to deputy interior minister and to minister of construction. Later he was named mayor of Managua but given little power, then dropped from the Sandinista Assembly.

Hassan took each demotion with discipline, refusing to criticize his superiors openly. But when they removed him as mayor this year, he quit the Sandinista front, calling it too rigid to accommodate “rebellious” people like himself.

“The military structure of the party makes dissent very difficult,” Hassan, 46, said in an interview. “There is no mechanism for participation in the making of important decisions. These are made only by the National Directorate.”

Measuring his criticism, Hassan says the Sandinistas could not have survived the war any other way. The party has been hierarchical since its guerrilla days, and Hassan sounded doubtful that it would change in peacetime.

Simmering for Years

Hassan has complained privately for years that bureaucratic mismanagement and labor indiscipline have “contributed effectively to the Reagan Administration’s goal of destroying the Nicaraguan economy.” But only this year, with the war winding down, did he feel he could quit without seeming a traitor.

Fractious dissent in the party does not appear widespread. Some militants say the leadership compensates for a lack of internal democracy by allowing them freedom in their private lives. But Hassan’s departure suggests that some Sandinistas may feel freer in peacetime to challenge the leadership. If the party is to maintain its broad spectrum of talented cadres, win elections and manage the country, it may have to become more democratic.

The party is structured on the Leninist model. Each militant belongs to a base committee in his neighborhood or workplace, and these are overseen by zone and regional committees. Ultimate authority rests with a self-appointed National Directorate of nine comandantes. They pick the regional party chiefs, who in turn pick zone officials. A Sandinista Assembly of about 100 members is also named by the directorate and consulted about policy.

Sandinista leaders are aware of democratic rumblings within the party. Recently they held elections of a few sub-zone committees, with mixed results. Vanesa Castro said some winners were local bosses--not the best leaders. “We’re trying to be more democratic,” she said, “but Nicaragua has been a school for dictatorship. Our political culture was not exactly democratic discussion but how to kick out Somoza.”

On the wall of Virgilio Godoy’s office hangs a portrait of Augusto Cesar Sandino, the late Nicaraguan nationalist and namesake of the Sandinista front. Underneath, the Sandinista slogan “Free Fatherland or Death” is crossed out. In its place is written “A Great Liberal.”

Godoy is president of the Liberal Independent Party, part of a small but vocal opposition that claims to speak for the majority of Nicaraguans who do not belong to Sandinista organizations. In Godoy’s iconoclastic view, Sandino was really a liberal whose mantle was hijacked by the revolutionaries on their way to power. By law, they have forbidden other parties to use Sandino’s name.

“The Sandinistas like exclusivity,” Godoy said. “Here you have the Sandinista Popular Army, the Sandinista Police, the Sandinista Television System. Their power rests on a confusion of the party and the state. Unless you change the nature of the regime, democracy is not possible.”

Opposition leaders insist that war and inflation have turned most people against the Sandinistas. Until recently, such claims were hard to judge. An independent poll--the first ever in revolutionary Nicaragua--showed that the Sandinistas have lost support since they won a two-thirds majority in the 1984 election. In the July survey of 1,129 Managua residents taken by the Jesuit-run Central American University, 28% identified with the Sandinista front and 9% with opposition parties.

Some Sandinista officials expressed surprise at how little support their party was given. Others, including Mayor Carrion, said they are certain the uncommitted majority could be won over in an election.

Control Key Instruments

In this battle, opposition leaders claim the odds are stacked against them. Not only can the Sandinistas mobilize their mass organizations, they also control key instruments of the state. They can give thousands of public employees time off to campaign and bus them to the polls. The ruling party controls both television stations. The opposition considers the Sandinista advantage so overwhelming that 14 parties, from conservatives to Communists, have joined in demanding steps to neutralize it.

Control of the state, the Sandinistas argue, is the business of parties in power everywhere and does not make them a dictatorship. What is important, they say, is that all unarmed groups are free to organize and air their views. A new election law guarantees those rights and offers some safeguards against vote fraud.

It is hard to find a Sandinista who worries about losing a fair election, to the Contras or anyone else. Beyond its anti-Sandinista agenda, the fragmented opposition lacks a program, strong mass organizations or a popular leader.

President Ortega created a stir a few months ago when he declared that, if voters ever reject the Sandinistas, the party will “turn over the government but not power.” The people wield power through the armed forces, he said, and they would rise up against any meddling with the Sandinista land reform or the army itself.

Ortega’s implicit threat of a coup has prompted the Contras and the opposition parties to demand a reduction of the army and its separation from the party.

On these points, the Sandinistas have shown little willingness to change. Even if the Contra war ends, the Sandinistas say they will maintain a large military through conscription. While slightly reducing the 85,000-man regular army, they would expand the militia and reserves to several hundred thousand part-time soldiers.

The Allende Lesson

The Sandinistas concluded from President Salvador Allende’s overthrow in Chile 15 years ago that even an elected socialist is vulnerable to U.S.-backed destabilization unless he controls the military.

After defeating Somoza’s National Guard, the Sandinistas turned their guerrilla forces into a conventional army under the command of Gen. Humberto Ortega, the president’s brother. By 1981, they had purged more than 100 Communists from the new national army, ending the only attempt by a rival party to gain a foothold in the military.

Today, virtually all officers above the rank of captain are Sandinistas who fought in the insurrection. Sandinista ideology is part of basic training. The army is not only the Sandinistas’ power base but a testing ground for new militants.

Own Command Structure

In important ways, however, the army is separate from the party. By instituting the draft in 1983, the Sandinistas required every young man to do two years’ military service and opened the army to non-Sandinistas. Several hundred men who are not party members have become low-ranking officers, army officials say. Though led by a member of the party directorate, the army has its own command structure; the other comandantes cannot intervene.

The Sandinistas offered, in peace talks with the Contras, to negotiate guarantees that the army and other state institutions will serve the national interest. But Sandinista officials insisted that the national interest is the revolution.

Col. Torres, the army’s political chief, said a review board will continue to screen officer candidates on their political views, rejecting “those who question revolutionary power or reject our political program.” While no rule expressly bars an opposition party member from becoming an officer, Torres could not recall any who had even applied.

“When the opposition talks about separating the party and the army, it is trying to deny the two basic pillars of the revolution,” Torres said. “They have to understand that our revolutionary project has been ratified in the constitution, and the army’s role is to defend it.”

The floppy khaki hat that Omar Alfonso Baca wore to fight the Contras lay atop his coffin. A red headband tied neatly around the hat displayed his badges of honor: one for the literacy crusade, one for militancy in the Sandinista Youth, one for militancy in the party.

In his short life, Baca was a model Sandinista activist, poet and volunteer soldier. In death on the battlefield at age 23, he became a martyr, joining a pantheon of Sandinista heroes whose blood has fueled revolutionary fervor since the murder of Sandino in 1934.

Combat has shaped a generation of Nicaragua’s future leaders. The young Sandinistas vividly recall the bombings, bank robberies and arrests of a decade ago, and the companeros killed by Somoza’s National Guard. Thousands of younger soldiers have earned their badges fighting Contras. For the survivors, there is strong camaraderie and peer pressure to carry Sandinismo into civilian life.

Baca’s death, two weeks before he was to be discharged from the army, offered a glimpse of this generation. For three days, hundreds of Sandinista youth paraded his coffin from one wake to another in the back of a red Toyota truck, then packed his high school auditorium for a Roman Catholic Mass. They laughed uproariously at a videotape of his ribald jokes around a campfire at the war front. And they cried in outrage against the ultimate enemy, “Yankee imperialism.”

Hardened by War

Much in these cathartic proceedings suggested that the Sandinistas are hardened by war and unwilling to include their enemies in a more democratic Nicaragua. When a priest at the Mass asked forgiveness for Baca’s killers, a chorus of “militants” chanted: “For our dead, we swear to defend the victory!”

But some mourners were eager to put war behind them. While Baca became a hero in armed combat, they noted, he earned his first medal in the civilian crusade against illiteracy. “We are tired of war,” said Guillermo Jimenez, a Sandinista student leader and combat veteran. “The future of our revolution should be humanistic. We who fought need to study, to develop Nicaragua.”

This is the challenge of the party brought up on war--to channel the talent of its natural leaders into the gigantic task of rebuilding the country, without need of mortal enemies or new martyrs. Pedro Antonio Blandon Jr., a Sandinista soldier who lingered in the school auditorium after his friend’s funeral, said Baca was a leader, his death a tragic waste.

“He was sincere in his convictions, and he knew how to spread his enthusiasm,” Blandon said. “It was not his time to die.”