Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 6, 2018

Horizontalism and the Nicaraguan crisis

Filed under: nicaragua — louisproyect @ 4:59 pm

After spending most of yesterday combing through the radical press and Nexis, I have a better handle on the current crisis. At the risk of sounding like a “tankie”, what you will read here departs from the narrative of most of the left press so let me start off with a brief review of some of the more typical coverage.

Ortega on Trial was written for Jacobin by Courtney Morris, an assistant professor of African Studies at Penn State. Although not using the buzzword “horizontalism”, there is no doubt that she views the university-based April 19th Movement as part of this trend that has endeared itself to anarchists and autonomists:

The 19th of April Movement shares many characteristics with similar popular democratic movements that have emerged in recent years. Like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the Movement for Black Lives, and the Zapatista movement, this mobilization is defined by its diffuse, collective leadership model, strategic use of social media as a tool for collective protest, and the reclamation of public space as a site for direct political action.

However, these activists are not averse to drawing upon the authority of one of the most verticalist institutions in Latin America, the OAS: “The administration has refused, however, to allow representatives from the Organization of American States to lead the truth commission investigation as activists have demanded.” Perhaps Ortega has been influenced by other Jacobin authors, who have less confidence in an organization considered “U.S.-dominated”.

Dan La Botz poses the question in New Politics whether we are on the eve of another revolution in Nicaragua. Unlike most on the left who accuse Ortega of betraying the revolution in Stalin-like fashion, he thinks it was rotten from the start: “the central problem is that the Sandinistas have never held democracy as a core value, neither in their revolutionary past nor in their post-revolutionary and quite reactionary present.”

To show how the degenerate the FSLN was straight out of the womb, he alludes to the earliest sign: “While there was briefly an ostensibly coalition government, in fact the Sandinistas dominated the country from day one of the revolution, their coalition partners gradually resigning. The revolution was founded on deception.”

It is not exactly clear what sort of “coalition” La Botz is referring to but a five-person Council of National Reconstruction was formed in 1979 consisting of 3 FSLN members alongside Alfonso Robelo and Violeta Chamorro representing the bourgeoisie. Before the year was up, they resigned and became two top leaders of the Reagan-backed counter-revolution. Robelo joined UNO, the armed movement made up mostly of former Somoza’s National Guardsmen while Chamorro used La Prensa as an ideological battering ram against the government, resorting to lies that make Fox News look respectable. Deception? I don’t think so. I think it was more likely naivete on the part of the FSLN thinking that such figures could ever be trusted.

Writing for the ISO’s newspaper, my old friend Mike Friedman did think that the revolution was betrayed as the title “Nicaragua’s Tyrant and How He Switched Sides” indicates. You see, the regime “switched sides” by abandoning its early revolutionary goals and adopting “neoliberal and pro-business economic policies, selective repression and widespread patronage, the latter based on Venezuelan oil largesse.”

Anybody who questions whether Daniel Ortega is a “tyrant” is—ipso facto—some kind of “tankie”:

FRANKLY, I find the stance of U.S. leftists who continue to defend the Ortega/Murillo regime in Nicaragua–either because it is in Washington’s gunsights or because it somehow represents the legacy of the 1979 Sandinista revolution–utterly antithetical to anything remotely resembling a principled position.

Rather, this Manichaean perspective reflects a “campist” view hearkening back to the old supporters of the Stalinist Soviet Union (and China), who divided the world into opposing camps and thereby provided uncritical support to the USSR, its gulags and executions, and its repression of popular upsurges in Czechoslovakia and other Eastern Bloc countries.

Such voices have transferred their fixation on Papa Joe to any leader that has earned the ire of the U.S. and spouts anti-(Western) imperialist rhetoric. They conveniently ignore or forget the fact that we no longer live in a bipolar world, but rather one in which China and Russia have become aspiring imperialist powers themselves.

I got a big chuckle out of this. Not long after the Arab Spring began, Friedman began complaining about “regime change” supporters on Marxmail who did not understand the need to defend Gaddafi and Assad. When he posed the question of whether he belonged on such a pro-imperialist mailing list, I did him the favor of unsubbing him.

Like most people infatuated with the student movement, Friedman will have nothing to do with “verticalism”:

During my years in Nicaragua, I saw the revolution make strides toward mass participation, social justice and human well-being, and then recede and finally suffer defeat, primarily as a result of Washington’s shooting war and war of attrition, but also as a result of growing “verticalism” and popular disempowerment by the revolutionary government.

Maybe it is time for people like Friedman and La Botz to reread what happened in the Soviet Union during “War Communism”. By comparison, Nicaragua in the late 80s was a much more “horizontalist” society—not even using the death penalty that had become necessary in the Soviet Union as Trotsky explained in “Their Morals and Ours”.

Finally, we come to horizontalism incarnate. The anarchists at “It’s Going Down” conducted a long interview with one of their co-thinkers who was in the April 19th Movement that led the protests against Ortega. He (or she) describes himself (or herself) as the son (or daughter) of an ex-military poet. My eyes lingered over that term since I wondered what other country in the world would make a place for military poets.

Reading through the interview, I searched in vain for some sort of program or strategy. Alas, there was nothing but this:

Q: What are the sources of the horizontal values and structures within the movement?

A: The main source has been the realization that we don’t want to replicate the authoritarian and vertical model represented by the government. As young people, we don’t want to be told what to do by people who claim to be smarter than us. Therefore, it was necessary to experiment with other models. Some sectors only spoke briefly of these models, but it was the right time to implement them and they were beautiful to see. These models are now part of our collective vocabulary. For the first time, thousands of people are listening to groups speak, how they talk, learning how the pass around the microphone, how to speak as a “we.”

“As young people, we don’t want to be told what to do by people who claim to be smarter than us. Therefore, it was necessary to experiment with other models.” Maybe it isn’t a great idea to be spending too much time experimenting with models unless you’ve been reading Michael Albert. He’s been recommending his cookbook for 40 years at least and it hasn’t gotten us very far.

It isn’t as if this kind of activism hasn’t been tried before. Anybody remember the Piqueteros in Argentina? Starting in 1996, they organized blockades to protest the right-Peronist government of Carlos Menem as well as forming co-ops and building ties with the “recovered factories” movement. In a breathless article for TomDispatch, Jim Straub could have been describing Nicaragua today:

As a result, many of these groups broke with traditional leftist practices, turning instead to a number of strikingly participatory, directly democratic ways of acting and mobilizing. The emphasis was on broad participation and internal equality in decision-making, which came to be called “horizontalism.” They also rejected the “clientelism” which political parties in Argentina have long used to co-opt popular organizations (in which an organized community’s votes are simply traded for favors, money, or bags of groceries); and they staked out a fierce independence from all existing Argentine politicians (a strategy of political independence that they call “autonomy”). Horizontalism and autonomy can be seen as the conceptual heart of the Piquetero movement — fundamentally new political strategies used by the poorest of Argentina in their fight to create a new economy.

So whatever happened to the Piqueteros? The same thing that happened to the Zapatistas. They withered on the vine. When you consciously avoid politics, as is the custom of anarchism going back to Bakunin’s day, you surrender to class forces that do use the state on their own behalf—including Ortega’s caudillo regime.

But if you are talking about real “verticalism” as opposed to a government that dropped the Social Security “reform” like a hot potato and whose chief of police resigned under pressure on April 28th, you must consider the man most likely to replace him, one Eduardo Montealegre who was Minister of Finance in the government led by President Enrique Bolaños that preceded Ortega’s first re-election in 2007. He ran against Ortega that year and was the choice of both George W. Bush and the Sandinista Renovation Movement that consisted of people supposedly committed to the original goals of the revolution. He was ruled off the ballot in 2016 due to a technicality but will likely be cleared for the new elections the April 19th Movement is demanding.

An article written by Toni Solo in 2003 is a useful reminder of what Nicaragua’s economy was like under the economic program administered by Harvard Business School graduate Eduardo Montealegre:

Nicaragua has already privatized its telephone utility, creating a monopoly of landline phones. It did the same with electricity distribution, sold to a Spanish multinational, Union Fenosa. Consequently, stories of over-charging abound, such as the woman tortilla maker living in a shack with just a small television and a couple of light bulbs, earning around US$28 a month. Accustomed to bills of US$3 or 4 a month, she suddenly received one for US$200. Forced to pay these exorbitant demands or go without, many Nicaraguan families sink deeper into debt.

Get it? All of a sudden, you had to pay 50 times more for electricity. Meanwhile, the anarchists in Nicaragua were ready to take these measures when Daniel Ortega initially called for a 5 percent reduction in pension benefits, caring little that the net result will be a return to power by the truly “verticalist” regimes of the past.

 

10 Comments »

  1. Critiques of “horzontalism” are really not relevant in these circumstances – it’s a more elemental question of Which side are you on? The killings of students and protesters in Managua and other cities are on a scale comparable to the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico. The Ortega-Murillo regime has about the same relationship to the Sandinista Revolution and the FSLN of 1979-90 as Diaz Ordaz had to the Mexican Revolution and Emiliano Zapata.

    Additional sources worth consulting – Lori Hanson, “Roadblocks and Possibilities: The Nicaraguan student insurrection” at http://newsocialist.org/roadblocks-and-possibilities-the-nicaraguan-student-insurrection/ and an interview with Mónica Baltodano, “Este régimen no es ni progresista ni de izquierda” at https://www.nodal.am/2018/06/monica-baltodano-excomandanta-sandinista-este-regimen-no-es-ni-progresista-ni-de-izquierda/

    Comment by Fred Murphy — June 6, 2018 @ 6:04 pm

  2. Critiques of “horzontalism” are really not relevant in these circumstances. Really? Lori Hanson wrote:

    Hicks: Roadblocks are a key strategy being utilized by the student movement. What was travel in the country like?

    Hanson: When I travelled north along the Pan-American Highway to Estelí, I passed through five different tranques (roadblocks) set up and maintained by students with local community support. Think about that – students control movement along the main transportation artery of the country, which connects Canada and the US through Central America and south as far as Argentina and Chile. In that way, the students are having a huge impact on the economy of Nicaragua (estimates of economic loss and decrease in the growth rate are staggering)

    Neo-Piqueteros. I’ll bet they’re having a huge impact on the economy. Just what some poor campesino needs. They are trying to topple the Ortega government to bring about new elections. Who will likely be the president that replaces Ortega? None other than Eduardo Montealegre. This bastard was backed by the Sandinista Renovation Movement. Frankly, I’d stick with Ortega’s corrupt populism rather than another round of the misery Aleman and Bolanos wrought.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 6, 2018 @ 6:06 pm

  3. Another perspective on the killings, in Spanish though: https://nicaraguaymasespanol.blogspot.com/2018/05/nicaragua-cuando-las-mentiras-ganan-y.html?m=1
    By the way, great blog Louis! Just a question: why not use social networks like Twitter? I think you would reach a wider and younger crowd hungry for radical thought. Cheers.

    Comment by Miguel Gomez — June 7, 2018 @ 7:49 pm

  4. Another detail: Eduardo Montealegre is politically dead. Looks like the oppositions candidate will be Felix Maradiaga. Look him up!

    Comment by Miguel Gomez — June 7, 2018 @ 7:51 pm

  5. “The 19th of April Movement shares many characteristics with similar popular democratic movements that have emerged in recent years. Like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the Movement for Black Lives, and the Zapatista movement, this mobilization is defined by its diffuse, collective leadership model, strategic use of social media as a tool for collective protest, and the reclamation of public space as a site for direct political action.”

    This sort of thing gets pulled out of the hat again and again in relation to Central and South America. About ten years ago, Venezuelan students were romanticized as descendants of ’68 It has been updated with references to more current protest movements in the hope that it will be more persuasive this time.

    Comment by Richard Estes — June 7, 2018 @ 8:21 pm

  6. Here’s the article: “Reading Arendt in Caracas” from 2007.

    https://www.thenation.com/article/reading-arendt-caracas/

    Comment by Richard Estes — June 7, 2018 @ 9:36 pm

  7. I apologize for the following totally off-topic suggestion: if those highly recommended premier Indian mangoes cannot be found, pick up a Kent, my favorite. BB

    Comment by Bill Boyd — June 8, 2018 @ 2:03 pm

  8. Miguel Gomez, is there an english version of the Por Giorgio Trucchi article? I’m thinking of editing the google translated text.

    I started working on a video list but I think a lot more video inspection, translation, and formatting needs to be done. For now here is what I came up with, and here is my pre-written take after having done a deep dive into how the clashes of April evolved: “According to the press an unpopular pension reform had mobilized students and others to protest and confront the government. Repetitively, the international media has claimed president Daniel Ortega’s forces had responded with violence, that police are killing protesters, and a repressive clampdown is in effect. But contrary to such distortions many Nicaraguan pensioners, workers organizations, and government supporters had *embraced* the (INSS) reform resolution; because its design included an increased burden on employers. Furthermore the clashes far from representing viscous government suppression are characterized by relatively equal violence perpetrated from each side of this conflict. Riot police used mild crowd dispersal techniques prompting anger on the part of the protesters. So they gathered in the streets, lit fires, and set about launching stones and explosives at authorities. The following day the country exploded in violence; running battles left people dead on all sides, nearly a whole city block was torched by anti government vandals, looting and destruction became rampant. The government is now framed with the charge its forces have killed dozens of civilians and yet many of the supposedly dead are in fact alive; and they are angry at the protest movements manipulations. A government supporter/journalist was shot dead on camera by a looter lurking in a busted up bank and yet his death was broadcast worldwide as supposedly representative of “systematic government abuse”. This video selection is meant to be an antidote to the distorted coverage prevalent in primary news media. The initial clips are from ‘mainstream’ sources meant to provide context as well as highlight what I claim to be an miss-representative media line covering the events. They are followed by local sources underscoring a moreso pro government outlook.”

    Brief political history: “Protest erupt over Ortega victory in Nicaragua” (2011)

    More history (history of political polarization):

    “Nicaragua president scraps pension reforms after deadly protests” – Al Jazeera

    “Nicaragua scraps reform behind deadly protests”

    “Nicaragua Protests: Several dead in social security demonstrations”

    “At least 10 people dead in Nicaragua protests”

    “Protest in Nicaragua turns violent between students and police”

    Leon Nicaragua protest becomes an arsonist riot (initial police dispersal was mild but unjust)

    Nicaraguan families participate in the Walk for Peace and Dialogue

    Workers from the department of Rivas support government measures to strengthen social security

    FETSALUD unions support measures to strengthen social security

    Chinandega supports measures to strengthen social security

    Boaco families walk in support of measures to strengthen social security

    “They try to destroy Dennis Martínez National Baseball Stadium”
    Faced with ravages and damage to the facilities of the town and the intention to destroy one of the largest recreational works of Nicaraguan families, at the Dennis Martínez National Stadium, violent opponents with Molotov and other weapons, and bombs, attacked. The national police guarded the facilities of La Casa del Juego Perfect, in addition, young people also called to protect the baseball field to avoid destroying it.

    Protests in Monimbo (supposedly) against reforms to the Inss. In reality these are prfessional provacatours
    harrassing the city with grenade launchers.

    Families of San Rafael del Sur support social security reforms

    Violent demonstrators leave families in District V without water and electricity

    National Union for the Elderly supports resolution to strengthen social security

    Broad support of workers to reform proposal to strengthen social security

    Sandinista Youth participates in cultural festival in support of social security reforms

    Workers of Matagalpa support measures to strengthen social security

    Elderly of Carazo support measures to strengthen social security

    Representatives of UNAM support resolution to strengthen social security

    Despite the insults and provocations, those who call “VAGOS” did not respond with more violence. Is that how a supposed student behaves? Shame on you.

    People of Nicaragua mobilize in defense of the gains of social security

    Destabilizing groups on the right assault families and cause damage in Masaya

    Sandinista Government guarantees well-being of Nicaraguan families with INSS reforms

    Sandinista Youth and workers of different sectors were assaulted when they demonstrated in a peaceful way their support for the reform of the Nicaraguan Institute of Social Security (INSS), from the Plaza de Las Victorias.

    In evidence: spell binding weapons, gang lawsuits and vandalism in the UPOLI sector

    Destabilizing groups on the right cause economic damage and losses in the UCA sector

    Nicaraguans participate in the walk #NoALaViolencia, #AMORANICARAGUA

    INSS branches make advance payments for May to pensioners and retirees

    One deceased and several injured by rightist violence in Tipitapa

    Nicaraguan workers join in the call for peace and nonviolence

    UNE-FNT supports measures to strengthen social security

    Families join chain of prayer for peace and tranquility in Nicaragua

    Family members of William González, deceased due to heart attack, reports that government forces killed him are false news and manipulation

    Violent protesters leave families in District 5 without power and water

    People in the UPOLI sector denounce gang siege and reject violence

    “The students of the Polytechnic University (UPOLI), together with the members of the National Union of Students of Nicaragua (UNEN), demand that order be restored in this center of studies, since the people who have taken the Campus are not university . They assured that the MRS supplies the youths with weapons, clothes and food, who remain in this university.”

    Students of the UPOLI denounce that MRS and right-wing groups have kidnapped the university

    Increase in reports of false news and manipulations in social networks
    “Government opponents claim deaths of those who are alive and deaths of those who died of natural causes. They are framing the
    government with false accusations.”

    Thousands of Nicaraguans gather in the Plaza de Las Victorias in favor of Peace and Dialogue

    Resedents denounce constant confrontations between gangs in the UPOLI sector

    Organizations of people with disabilities request participation in dialogue

    Relatives of William González ask respect for the memory of their son, a victim of false news claiming he
    died by police fire in the student protests

    Villagers of Villa Progreso and Colonia Rafaela Herrera denounce gang siege

    Historical fighters from Masaya support a dialogue table and call for peace

    Historical Sandinismo of León is pronounced in favor of dialogue and peace

    ANDEN (Education Workers Federation) joins the call to guarantee peace and harmony in Nicaragua

    The Office of the Procurator for the Defense of Human Rights (PDDH) informed the people of Nicaragua that it will form the Victims Committee, to demand punishment and reparation

    Nicaraguans ask God for peace and non-violence in Nicaragua

    Goverment supporters come out to pray for peace. “We defend peace, not violence”

    Residents of neighborhoods close to UPOLI denounce gang siege and reject violence

    They continue resurrecting the dead in Nicaragua, citizens denounce manipulation in social networks:

    They irresponsibly took a picture from facebook of José Daniel García, 41 years old, and printed it in large format to inflate the list of alleged dead in the protests supposedly in favor of peace. This manipulation of information has worsened the health of José’s mother.

    Comment by Jim Rodney M — June 13, 2018 @ 4:09 am

  9. Hi Louis! I’m a Nicaraguan college student who has taken part of the protest movement since day one. I’ve been visiting your blog on and off since last year, and I’ve been a fan of you since I saw that short documentary you shared about the work Tecnica did during the Sandinista Revolution. I’m majoring in System Engineering, so watching programmers help the Revolution felt incredible! Thank you for what you did alongside your Tecnica co-workers in those years.

    About your post, your analysis (I’m getting), relies heavily on news articles because you weren’t up to date with what’s been happening in Nicaragua since Ortega took power in 2007.

    If you could re-connect with old local friendships, (and I say this without really knowing, maybe they’re Orteguistas — luckily not) you would hopefully have a more supportive outlook on these movement that is trying to oust Ortega.

    This overemphasis on horizontalism you mention: It’s there because it’s real. I’m no anarchist, so unlike the person who wrote the article for It’s Going Down, I don’t think it was a conscious decision, it wasn’t a “I don’t want to replicate the structures my enemy is using” kind of thing, it happened that way out of necessity. For years there has been no structure to join with. There’s no real opposition (not to mention, reactionaries), no big social movements, (the “biggest” one is probably the feminist movement) and the state has been entirely co-opted by Ortega. A sign that you have been withdrawn from Nicaraguan politics is that you mention Montealegre as a potential opposition candidate; as someone else mentioned in this comment section, he’s politically dead. He figures nowhere in 2018 Nicaragua, and it has been that way for a few good years already.

    I agree with you that this movement has no clear program, but I think this is an unfair call to make since we’ve been forced to organize overnight. All the spaces you would tradionally use as way to organize have been broken up or co-opted by Ortega. UNEN, the university student union is merely another branch of his corrupt government, there’s no real unions in the private sector (some economic sectors even have them banned) this being a clear example of Ortega’s tie-knight relationship with the Nicaraguan capitalists.

    “Anybody who questions whether Daniel Ortega is a “tyrant” is—ipso facto—some kind of “tankie””
    We’re up to more than 160 deaths caused by his police force and his state-sponsored paramilitary forces (there’s plenty of videos online about this) he’s unquestionably a tyrant by now.

    I also wanted to mention that this wasn’t “just a 5 percent reduction in pension benefits”, this was only the straw that broke the camel’s back, but it was years of abuses of power, rampant corruption and a model of government that sidelined the people, a “consensus” model that defined the government and the private sector as the sole actors.

    I would love to get a response from you and if you have any questions/objections I will try my best to answers them.

    Comment by A nicaraguan student — June 15, 2018 @ 5:02 am

  10. Im sorry to jump on your thread but I thought it was interesting. Im also nicaraguan and a student. I completely understand that there is people with good intentions protesting, like you appear to be. But you have to recognize that it is not by taking sides with the catholic church, big capital and foreign NGOs that you will “save” the country. Daniel has tried to do that and look where he is at the moment. Every leftists knows that we stand with the working class, poor and marginalized people everywhere. And, eventhough social movements are not “ideal” as we would want to, with all of their flaws they stand with the FSLN and Daniel. Im talking about Asociacion de Trabajadores del Campo, Frente Nacional de Trabajadores, Comision Nacional de la Micro y Pequeña Empresa, etc. These are the “real” asociations of working class people, family farmers and small businesses, we have in the country like it or not. If Unions have a pact with the FSLN it is because of convenience, because of (class) interests. Workers are not dumb, neither are they hopeless victims. It is not by starting your own adhoc movement, totally disconnected from the past or present of social struggle in Nicaragua and alligning with the most regressive elements of society that will achieve your “revolution”.

    Comment by Miguel — June 15, 2018 @ 3:58 pm


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