Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 4, 2018

Nicaraguan contradictions

Filed under: Counterpunch,nicaragua — louisproyect @ 5:13 pm

Juan and Eva Perón

Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo


So what had happened in Nicaragua since Daniel Ortega became the president once again in 2007 and was reelected two more times? I really hadn’t paid much attention to the country other than to call attention to what was obviously an environmentally unsound project to build a new canal underwritten by a Chinese investor.

After reading more than a hundred pages of mostly scholarly material from behind the JSTOR paywall, I have come to the conclusion that Ortega can be described in Marxist terms as a left Bonapartist or what is commonly known in Latin America as a caudillo. He abandoned the FSLN’s original program that promised once in power to “plan the national economy, putting an end to the anarchy characteristic of the capitalist system of production.” Instead, he embraced capitalist measures, even to the point of enlisting the support of COSEP, the powerful instrument of Nicaragua’s bourgeoisie. However, unlike Violetta Chamorro, whose neoliberal policies tore apart the country in much the same way that Pinochet’s did in Chile, he adopted what Ortega’s economic adviser Bayardo Arce called a “market economy with a preferential option for the poor”.

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  1. “For example, in debates with ISO’ers in the past, I was told that Cuba was no big deal. Without having a revolution, Barbados had superior human development indicators. When I tried to explain that the island was established as an offshore banking shelter by British colonialism without the brutal exploitation of the countryside found in Batista’s Cuba, it fell on deaf ears.”

    The comparison I’ve often seen is between Cuba and Costa Rica. Steve Shalom:

    “It is true that a resident of Brazil’s favelas might choose Cuba’s heath care over her own country’s formal democracy. But Costa Rica, no paragon of socialist enlightenment, offers both [multi-party] democracy and a life expectancy equal to that of Cuba’s.”

    I know almost nothing about Costa Rica. Whether or not Costa Rica would have a life expectancy equal to Cuba’s if Cuba wasn’t already “socialist” (not the word I’d use — “socialism” and “communism” used to be synonyms and should be again), that’s a question I can’t answer.

    I do have to read Dan’s whole book one of these days. I gather that he tries to prove that in secret Daniel Ortega et al. were USSR-aligned “Marxist-Leninists” while in public they appeared as non-authoritarian left-wing social democrats.

    (My friend Paul Le Blanc once wrote a pamphlet called “Permanent Revolution in Nicaragua.” This was wishful thinking.)

    Comment by jschulman — May 4, 2018 @ 6:34 pm

  2. Journal of Latin American Studies, February 2018
    by Robert J. Sierakowski
    University of the West Indies, Mona

    Throughout the 1980s, the Sandinista Revolution was a focal point of inspiration for the international Left, as solidarity movements mobilised to support Nicaragua in the face of US-backed military aggression. In 1990, however, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was voted from power by those who had cheered the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship just over a decade earlier. In this study, Dan La Botz turns to Nicaraguan history to understand why the revolution did not live up to its supporters’ expectations and instead permitted the rise of neoliberalism in the 1990s. In explaining these developments, he disagrees with those observers who blame the revolution’s fall from grace on unrelenting US political, military and economic pressure, or on the Machiavellian intrigues of President Daniel Ortega. In La Botz’s assessment, the Sandinistas’ ‘failure’ was rather the product of a congenital defect found in the organisation’s undemocratic nature and its commitment to top-down methods (p. xiv). He argues that a direct line can be drawn from the FSLN’s vanguardist origins as a guerrilla army inspired by the Cuban Revolution to the corrupt Sandinista business elite that governs the country today.

    To explain ‘what went wrong’, La Botz traces Nicaraguan history from pre-Columbian times to Ortega’s latest controversial re-election in 2016. He synthesises the secondary literature on the country, as well as a number of recent memoirs by disillusioned former Sandinista leaders. In doing so, La Botz makes a serious contribution to the literature; there simply is no other comparable English-language narrative of Nicaraguan history that brings the reader up to the present day. In the course of his account, La Botz discusses the Nicaraguan state over the longue durée, considering its evolution during the nineteenth century, the various US military interventions, the Somoza dictatorship, as well as the 1979 Revolution and its aftermath. He also provides accounts of a whole range of important figures in the country’s history, including William Walker, Cornelius Vanderbilt, José Santos Zelaya, Augusto César Sandino and Carlos Fonseca, among others. Though the explicit link between these figures and his argument about the revolution’s failure is not always clear, La Botz demonstrates an eye for interesting and telling details which have been ignored by other scholars. Where he breaks new ground is in Chapters 8, 9 and 10, which deal with the political degeneration of the FSLN after its fall from power in 1990 and through the period following its return to the presidency in 2006. He describes how the Sandinistas reinvented themselves during those years in the wilderness, eventually coming to form what he calls the ‘conservative, dictatorial and capitalist government’ of Daniel Ortega (p. 368).

    La Botz demonstrates that the romantic solidarity literature of the 1980s obscured abuses of power and undemocratic behaviour by the Sandinistas. Indeed, this lack of commitment to democracy by the FSLN helps explain many of their missteps and failure to maintain public support. The author, however, overreaches by elevating this insight to the level of metanarrative, casting the story of the revolution as one of ‘duplicitous’ revolutionaries secretly seeking an orthodox ‘Cuban-style bureaucratic collectivist state’ while publicly proclaiming a sui generis democratic revolution (pp. 175, 243). Though phrased as a critique from the left, La Botz uses terms like ‘Marxist-Leninist’, ‘Communist’, ‘Stalinist’ and ‘Castroite’ so often as terms of derision for the FSLN that it will surely remind some readers of the many reports published by Ronald Reagan’s State Department.

    While La Botz proudly subtitles his study ‘A Marxist Analysis’, there is surprisingly little attention paid to social class formation, shifts in the country’s economic structure, and exactly how these developments were related to the political processes that he describes. Furthermore, while the author promises a ‘socialism from below’ approach (p. xxi), the study is largely missing the voices, achievements and experiences of the countless regular Nicaraguans who rose up in the 1978–9 insurrection and later defended the revolution’s achievements. For example, at various moments in the text, we see hints of the FSLN’s militant working class and campesino grassroots base bubbling up from below in the post-1990 period (see pp. 257, 266–8, 272, 340), and yet this goes nearly unremarked and attention remains solely on the leadership. In the Introduction, he explains that Nicaragua is studied as a ‘particular version of what happened in so many Third World or developing nations’ during the twentieth century (p. 2). The implicit argument is that the failure of countless national liberation movements to achieve almost utopian aims was largely the result of nationalist leaders’ mistaken ideology, rather than the overwhelming economic and geopolitical structural constraints they faced in their efforts.

    The account concludes with a counterfactual and somewhat ahistorical set of suggestions as to the plan La Botz feels that the FSLN should have followed beginning in the 1960s. This makes for strange reading, for, as he notes earlier in the text, the Sandinistas’ guerrilla strategy ‘was typical of what was happening throughout Latin America … but everywhere else it was a disaster and only in Nicaragua was it successful’ (p. 109). The difficulty with this work’s narrative structure, though, is that by locating ‘what went wrong’ well prior to the revolution itself, there can be no turning point at which this ‘successful’ revolution was betrayed or its leaders turned their back on its principles. Thus, while La Botz raises vital criticisms of the Sandinista governments both of the 1980s and of today, the study ends up painting an unnecessarily dreary vision of Nicaragua’s historical trajectory.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 5, 2018 @ 12:26 pm

  3. I know I’m drifting away from the good class analyses of today’s Nicaragua but feel compelled to mention that on my one visit to Nicaragua in 1983 I was deeply impressed by the attempt to empower women politically and economically. There were even plans afoot requiring men, heaven forbid, to share the housework and child care. After years of FSLN rule, it’s unconscionable that Nicaragua has among the world’s most draconian rules concerning abortion. Yes, Catholic Church influence, blah blah, but still, no excuse to imprison women, sometimes underage and victims of sexual violence, to force the female population to bear unwanted children. No revolution can be deemed successful if women have no control over reproduction.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — May 5, 2018 @ 2:35 pm

  4. I think you are making a mistake by looking at Ortega’s second presidency as a single thing. A lot has happened during the past 12 years (which, by the way, is longer than the FSLN was in power the first time around). During the first half of that time, Ortega achieved a lot of popular reforms, but in recent years, he has slid to the right and grown closer to COSEP and the IMF. Partly, this has been a pragmatic response to the drying up of aid from Venezuela. However, it is also the logical outgrowth of the pact that Ortega made with Arnoldo Aleman, and the way in which Ortega has enriched his family through deals with Nicaragua’s corrupt elites. As someone with a net worth of $50 million, his interests align much more closely with COSEP than with the poor. I don’t put much stock in the ISO’s criticisms (i.e. Ortega was an “authoritarian” all along, so nothing he ever did was ever any good), and Ortega even in 2018 is obviously much better than someone like JOH. In fact, he has probably accomplished more to empower the poor than Sanchez Ceren (a.k.a. “cara de nuegado”), who has been disappointingly ineffectual. Also, greatly to his credit, he abandoned the reforms to the INSS (which were bad, but nowhere near as draconian as what COSEP and the IMF wanted) almost immediately after the protest started. However, the violent repression of student protesters by a “left” leader is not a good thing for the Latin American or international left.

    Comment by Dave Palmer — May 5, 2018 @ 4:36 pm

  5. A “bundle of contradictions that could not be easily resolved” is an appropriate summation of the Sandinista era. Summarizing adequately what happened would take far too long in a comment and I won’t try here. I did spent 140 pages analyzing it my book, and I think the quote in it that comes closest to summing it up is from Roger Burbach in a NACLA article. Burbach wrote: ““The day after the election, a woman vendor passed by me sobbing. I asked her what was wrong, and she said, ‘Daniel will no longer be my president.’ After exchanging a few more words, I asked whom she had voted for. ‘Violeta,’ she said, ‘because I want my son in the Sandinista army to come home alive.’ ”

    Dave Palmer, in his comment just above, is correct in tying the trajectory of Ortega’s return to power with his pact with Alemán; certainly Ortega, with all his faults, is better than the right-wing alternative, but there are limits to how far Ortega will go. His return to power is a personal government, not the FSLN government of 1979-1990, and with that is all the contradictions of Ortega, including his militant rhetoric paired with his willingness to repeatedly cut deals with the IMF and unwillingness to stand up to the Catholic Church. Amnesty International put out a report a few years ago noting that pregnant women in Nicaragua are routinely denied treatment because doctors can be sentenced to years in jail if a fetus dies, regardless of what medical necessity might dictate as to treatment. It is difficult to consider such a government as “progressive.”

    Comment by Systemic Disorder — May 5, 2018 @ 7:51 pm

  6. “Also, greatly to his credit, he abandoned the reforms to the INSS… almost immediately after the protest started.” He abandoned the reform only after at least 30 students were shot dead in the streets by his crooked cops. He barely mentioned these deaths in his speeches. “Ortega, with all his faults, is better than the right-wing alternative.” Dude, he literally sent out his troops to shoot at least 30 student protesters. That’s not a minor thing. Let’s not underplay the profound gravity of this event. It is a turning point in Nicaragua history. This is not, like, a normal event in Nicaragua or Central America or Latin America– this is a crime on the level of Ayotzinapa, Mexico. One student murdered would have been enough to discredit this so-called “people’s government.” As sad as this is to admit, even the monster Somoza never ever shot down dozens of unarmed, student protesters like that. Go back and check the historical record, I wish I was bullshittin’ ya but the “Masacre Estudantil” committed by Somoza was of 4 (four) young men in 1959 who are still considered famed martyrs to this day. Somoza’s true massacres of civilians (which were even worse than Ortega’s… to date) took places once the FSLN were armed with guns and shooting at the Guardia Nacional. Louis vaguely mentions this event in his long post while Podwill and Systematic Disorder downplay the massacre as this is an additional detail in Daniel’s overall record. It’s not… In Nicaragua, almost everyone who was apathetic, “lesser of two evils,” or even mildly pro-government has flipped sides and wants to see homeboy out on his tuchus.

    Comment by Roger Norredor — May 6, 2018 @ 11:11 pm

  7. Not sure where this fits, but most Iranian socialists would consider Ortega’s support for the Iranian theocratic regime as a stab in the back of the thousands of Iranian socialist activists who have been killed, or else imprisoned and tortured over the years by this regime. Just in the summer of 1988, between three to five thousand Iranian leftist activists were summarily executed and buried in secret mass graves.

    To give support and succor to such a regime cannot be excused, no matter how much we may twist the ‘geo-political’ chess game.

    The puzzling bit for a lot of us is that it was Iranian cash that was helping to support the Contra’s (remember Iran-Contra). So, you’d think Ortega would know his enemies.

    Comment by Reza — May 7, 2018 @ 1:08 am

  8. Oh, and by the way … Ortega’s support for their international ally, the Iranian regime, must also extend to support for the butcher Assad. That’s about as disgusting as it can get for a “leftist” icon. Wretched us, that we have such “icons”.

    Comment by Reza — May 7, 2018 @ 2:35 am

  9. Honduras is still a much more dangerous place to be a student, an activist, or a civilian of any description than Nicaragua, so I stand by my statement that “Ortega is better than the right-wing alternative.” Unfortunately, murdering students — besides being, on its face, totally reprehensible — undermines Ortega’s legitimacy. Since there is no viable left alternative, this makes it much more likely that the right will take advantage of the crisis to return to power, and that Nicaragua will wind up like Honduras (or worse). If this happens, it will be entirely Ortega’s fault.

    And of course Reza is correct that Daniel’s support for the Islamic Republic, for Bashar al-Assad, and Vladimir Putin (among others) doesn’t do any favors to his “leftist” credentials. Unfortunately, this seems to be the default position for most of the major Latin American left parties today.

    Comment by Dave Palmer — May 7, 2018 @ 4:24 am

  10. Perhaps but we’d have to see the stats for student activists killed in Honduras vs. Nicaragua. Until 2 weeks ago, I’m 100% sure you’d be right. We activated all our solidarity networks for indigenous leader Berta Caceres murdered in Honduras. However, another Nica student died last night in the hospital. That brings the number to 46 murdered (Even if we include 2 police officers and probably handful of a number of Juventud Sandinistas–thugs backed up by the pigs–these are Israel/Palestine ratios).

    Comment by Roger Norredor — May 7, 2018 @ 12:13 pm

  11. “Since there is no viable left alternative, this makes it much more likely that the right will take advantage of the crisis to return to power, and that Nicaragua will wind up like Honduras (or worse). If this happens, it will be entirely Ortega’s fault.”

    Exactly. That’s what opportunistic leftist leaders who take power don’t pay attention to.

    Also, from the perspective of international solidarity, here’s what happens: The likes of Ortega support semi-fascistic regimes (like Iran’s theocrats) that give them money or whatever; the class forces in such counties that would otherwise be supportive of the likes of Ortega are stabbed in the back, at the same time that those same social forces in Iran or elsewhere become more and more isolated and become easier pray for our local oppressors; so when the likes of Ortega come under attack from the right, there is no international support for them from the people’s side (only from semi-fascistic state types).

    And this cycle is repeated ad nauseam. In the end we’re all losers; killed at our own hands!

    Comment by Reza — May 7, 2018 @ 3:48 pm

  12. Ortega is not under attack from the right. He’s under attack from below.

    Comment by Wolf — May 7, 2018 @ 10:23 pm

  13. @13
    And quite rightly so! Amen!
    Let’s hope there will be some positive changes as a result of the attack from below.
    Of course, the right is a sneaky snake, and they try to turn any situation to their benefit.

    Comment by Reza — May 7, 2018 @ 11:14 pm

  14. @ Roger Norredor — May 6, 2018 @ 11:11 pm:

    The thousands who were tortured to death in Somoza’s jails likely would would not have agreed that Ortega’s current rule is worse than the Somoza regime. Because these killings might have been one at a time rather than in groups means they aren’t so bad? There were plenty who were tortured and/or killed by the Somoza family before the FSLN ever took up arms and continued during periods when the FSLN had ceased carrying out attacks. During the final insurrection, the last Somoza is responsible for killing 50,000 people, destroying much of what little industrial infrastructure the country had and looted the state treasury upon fleeing. And let us not forget pocking the international assistance sent after Managua was leveled by the earthquake.

    Yes, Ortega’s police massacring 30 students calls for unambiguous condemnation, as do many of Ortega’s other policies, including condemning pregnant women to death because of the anti-abortion laws, among the world’s most repressive. We can both cite other crimes of Ortega. But to point out that Somoza was vastly worse, or that a return of the Right will lead to worse than Ortega, isn’t to “downplay” the shooting of the students, simply to point out the degeneration of a revolution. A Left uprising and a return to Sandinista principles in a government without Ortega and Murillo would be a welcome development. But is that the likely alternative? That Nicaraguans have decided that Ortega needs to go shouldn’t mean that he be replaced by the Right.

    Comment by Systemic Disorder — May 12, 2018 @ 9:20 pm

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