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Being Outsiders Stirs Sandinistas to Inside Debate : Nicaragua: The leftist revolutionaries were voted out of power in 1990. Now they’re searching for an identity after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Sandinista National Liberation Front, united throughout a decade in power and while fighting a U.S.-backed guerrilla war, is torn today by internal debate over its role as an opposition party and its political future.

Like leftists everywhere, the Sandinistas are searching for an identity after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. Several currents of thought have emerged as to the direction the party should take, and all are passionately debated in the pages of the revamped Sandinista newspaper, Barricada.

The Sandinista leadership, unquestioned by a disciplined rank and file during the war against the American-supported Contra guerrillas, is openly challenged now. The comandantes once revered for leading a revolution against dictator Anastasio Somoza have been cut down to size by their stunning electoral loss to conservative President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.

“The election made it clear that they were common human beings who make mistakes,” said party militant Silvio Prado. “They are ordinary people subject to criticism.”

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For critics such as Prado, the party leadership lost its “moral authority” when it turned a blind eye to Sandinistas who grabbed hundreds of expropriated houses and farms, plus cars, computers and other booty--known collectively as the pinata-- after the February, 1990, election.

Increased disillusionment with the leadership was expressed at the party congress in July, 1991. Many militants expected a chance to vote on each of the nine members of the party’s national directorate--a step that would have allowed them to eliminate several ineffectual members and include at least one woman.

But arguing the need for unity, former Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega presented a slate of the old all-male leadership, which was grudgingly approved.

Critics charge several comandantes should be replaced because they are doing little for the party. Tomas Borge, the only surviving founder of the Sandinista Front, spends more time in Mexico than Nicaragua, they say, and Luis Carrion has been studying at Harvard. Jaime Wheelock is widely criticized for his arbitrary and inept handling of agrarian reform, and Bayardo Arce has been in disfavor since he ran the fatal election campaign against Chamorro.

The debate over policy centers now on the Sandinistas’ relationship with the Chamorro government. In the name of stability and national reconciliation, the party often has supported Chamorro against the right-wing coalition on whose ticket she ran for president. But poor workers, farmers and the unemployed who make up much of the Sandinista base have suffered most from Chamorro’s economic policies.

“Why are we protecting the interests of the state when we’re not in power?” asks Prado. He adds that the leadership is out of touch with the masses and still running the party from the top down.

The National Opposition Union, known as UNO, which supported Chamorro’s candidacy, now charges that she has abandoned the conservative agenda and has included the Sandinistas in a “co-government.” Critics within the Sandinista Front agree that the party is acting that way, but say they have no Cabinet posts or voice in policy to show for their support.

Former Vice President Sergio Ramirez, head of the Sandinista minority bloc in the legislature, says there is no co-government. “I would say the front and the government are adversaries that manage to understand each other on some basic issues and disagree on others,” he said.

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Ramirez and Gen. Humberto Ortega, who is chief of the army and Daniel’s brother, are considered the leaders of a centrist current within the party. This group argues that the Sandinista Front must pursue stability and build national institutions to ensure democracy.

Under President Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista party and government were effectively one; the national directorate set government policy, and members held the key government posts. Now, Gen. Ortega argues that the armed forces must support Chamorro, the elected president, even if it means moving against Sandinista demonstrations, land takeovers and factory occupations.

During a university student strike last summer, Gen. Ortega announced that he would not tolerate disorder in street demonstrations, and Sandinista students burned an effigy of him--a first for one of the comandantes.

“Humberto has tried to push a moderate position, and he has been criticized by some sectors of Sandinismo ,” said Col. Joaquin Cuadra, the general’s second in command. “But his line of reconciliation, of backing the government, also has generated a moderate tendency. He has played an institutional role as head of the armed forces, and this has begun to have an echo in other sectors.”

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Tens of thousands of Sandinista soldiers, government workers and party employees lost their jobs when Chamorro took over. In addition, her economic policies have fed unemployment, estimated at 40%. Yet many centrist Sandinistas support the government’s policies, including privatizing the state-owned companies that the Sandinistas had nationalized.

“We support privatization,” Cuadra said. “The thinking has changed. We are for a mixed economy with a strong state, but no longer state control. There is a different world tendency now.”

While the Sandinistas who would raise barricades and shut down the government--as they did with violent strikes in July, 1990--seem to be a minority within the party now, there are many party members who still believe in socialism and class struggle. But they have yet to put forth an alternative economic and political proposal.

The Sandinista Front is still the largest political party in the country and, as secretary general, Daniel Ortega is trying to keep it from fracturing into the array of micro-parties that plague Nicaragua’s political right. But his role is often contradictory. He may project a rabble-rousing image before a crowd one day, then negotiate with the government the next. He is a lightning rod for criticism--judged too quick to compromise by some and too radical by others.

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“Daniel can’t continue with confrontation,” said Daniel Nunez, leader of the Sandinistas’ National Union of Farmers and Cattlemen. “You can’t have a party of workers here because there aren’t enough factories.”

Prado and many others air their views in Barricada, which is trying to broaden its own appeal. Although still owned by the Sandinistas, the newspaper has abandoned its role as “official organ of the Sandinista National Liberation Front.” The new slogan on the masthead simply says, “For National Interests,” and the old logotype--a guerrilla aiming his rifle over a brick barricade--is gone.

The Sandinistas’ base of support is hard to gauge today. Without access to government funds, thousands of paid party workers have been laid off and are trying to find nonpolitical employment. According to Prado, only 20% of the Sandinista membership turned out to vote for their party’s district leaders last February. But it is difficult to know if that means Sandinistas are turning against their own party.

Ramirez, the former vice president, says no.

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“It is natural to have discussions over why we lost, what our role is in the opposition and how to win elections. I think we will see the debate become even more heated as (1996) elections near and we have to choose a platform and candidates. It doesn’t frighten me. That is part of the process of renewal.”


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