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Power left behind

The first thing you notice in Nicaragua are the dogs—mangy, often lame, with fearful eyes, roaming the streets in packs. The writer Robert Kaplan says one way to tell the progress of a country is by the condition of its stray dog population. If this is so, then Nicaragua has always been desperately poor because, for as long as anyone can remember, the dogs have prowled the barrios, and even the beaches, of this Central American nation.

It is 25 years since the revolution that brought the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) to power and 14 years since the controversial election that ended the rule of the Sandinista government in favour of a series of centrist and right-wing regimes. In the past quarter century, Nicaraguans have experimented with left-wing populism and free-market capitalism. Neither seems to have worked.

It is still the poorest country in the region and despite four free elections since 1984, no one can seriously call Nicaragua a complete and authentic democracy. ‘We have a certain degree of pluralism, but that is it’, says Carlos Chamorro, a former Sandinista revolutionary and now one of the country’s leading intellectuals, through his daily television program and weekly magazine.

‘In a sense, we have two countries in one. On the one hand, institutions work pretty well; the business world, the press. But if you go into the countryside, you will see the role of the state is very small and there is a large segment of the population that lives in poverty and does not enjoy the same rights as other citizens.’

When the Sandinistas assumed power on 19 July 1979, they were welcomed almost everywhere—in Latin America and the Caribbean, in Europe (east and west), even in the United States, which for 40 years, had sponsored the Somoza family and its dictatorship of ever-increasing brutality. As Franklin D. Roosevelt had once said, in a rare moment of candour, ‘Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch’.

By 1979, the Carter administration was no longer willing to succour the regime. As the Sandinistas—who had been operating as a guerilla force in the countryside, directed by a government-in-exile in neighbouring Costa Rica—reached the capital Managua, Carter dispatched his Under Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs to join them.

For Carter, the reassuring factor was that, while unmistakably leftist, the Sandinistas were not Marxist-Leninists. Their leadership—principally guerilla commander Daniel Ortega, writer Sergio Ramirez and businesswoman Violeta Chamorro (Carlos Chamorro’s mother)—also included several Catholic priests, among them the Maryknoll father, Miguel D’Escoto Brockman, and two Jesuits, Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal.

‘We were nationalists’, explains Brockman, sitting in the living room of his home in the hills above Managua—the walls lined with books, modern art and Christian iconography, including a large crucifix at one end. ‘We were progressive nationalists with a strong ingredient of social justice. We believed in taking the reins of our own destiny and not accepting foreign meddling.’

The Sandinistas certainly planned to reform Nicaragua by breaking up the large estates of the handful of Somoza cronies who had dominated the economy. Yet theirs was more a redistribution of small plots to the peasants rather than any Soviet-style farm collectivisation. Their second major goal was universal education to lift one of the lowest literacy rates in the Americas.

Even such relatively modest changes proved too much for the man who succeeded Jimmy Carter as president, Ronald Reagan. ‘Reagan was a completely ideological warrior’, says Chamorro. ‘Whatever gradualist, nationalist reforms the revolution might have accomplished, he would have rejected.’

The revolution was also bittersweet for the Catholic clergy who accepted official posts in the Sandinista government. Brockman, the Cardenal brothers and two other priests, Alvaro Arguello and Edgar Parrales, were all suspended from the priesthood by Pope John Paul II, a status to which Brockman is still confined, despite being in good standing with the Maryknoll congregation.

For eight years, between 1981 and 1989, Reagan fuelled a civil war, using remnant Somoza loyalists, who called themselves ‘contras’, to effectively cripple any chance of reform in Nicaragua. ‘Initially, the purpose of the war was to overthrow the Sandinistas’, recalls Brockman. ‘But soon enough, they learned they could not, so they aggravated things, to wreck the economy, so the people would get the point that, if they want things to improve, they should do away with the Sandinistas.’

And so it came to pass.

At the elections in 1990, Ortega and the Sandinistas—who in 1984 had won an election with 67 per cent of the vote, a result recognised as fair by all but those in government in Washington—lost to a 14-party coalition led by Violeta Chamorro, who had broken with the junta early in the Sandinista era. As Carlos Chamorro recalls: ‘My mother tried to establish reconciliation but her supporters were not able to build a permanent alternative and when she left power the country swung to the right’.

There it has stayed since 1996, when Chamorro’s rightist successor as president, former Managua mayor Arnoldo Alemán came to office. Nicaragua is also deeply mired in the corruption that afflicts so much Latin American politics. Alemán has since been jailed for 20 years for embezzling $US100 million in public money, much of it intended as aid to assist rebuilding following the devastation wrought in 1998 by Hurricane Mitch. For Nicaraguans, it was a sad reprise of the Somozas’ appropriation of reconstruction funds after the devastating 1972 earthquake.

Nicaragua is also weakened by the culture of deal-making and ‘big man’ politics in the post-Sandinista era. After his second election defeat in 1996, Ortega struck an agreement with Alemán to divide control of key institutions, such as the national assembly and the judiciary, between them. ‘They have concentrated a lot of power’, says Chamorro, ‘and this is problematic to the development of further democracy because they subordinate everything to their own traditional politics’.

There are deep divisions within the FSLN, with the modernisers, who believe Ortega’s tight grip is holding back the party’s revival, coalescing around the Sandinista mayor of Managua, Herty Lewites, as an alternative standard-bearer. ‘It would [be] very good for this country for the FSLN to win an election’, adds Chamorro, ‘but it is difficult for them as long as Daniel Ortega pretends to be the eternal presidential candidate because, whenever he is, the rest of the country unites against him’.

Ironically, Ortega had less power as Nicaragua’s president, when he governed as part of a collective leadership. Indeed, the presence of a strong vice-president and other cabinet members, many with their own bases of support, meant Nicaragua under the FSLN never became truly authoritarian, unlike Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

The US also continues to intervene in Nicaraguan politics. Just before the 2001 election, when Ortega appeared to be rallying in the polls, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, whose state is home to many of the Somoza cronies who remain in exile, published full-page advertisements in the Nicaraguan newspapers, saying how disappointed his brother, George, would be if the people restored the FSLN to power. ‘The people went to vote with a gun at their heads’, said Brockman, referring to the renewed threat of civil war. ‘You know that when a dog that barks has a record of biting then you have reason to fear when you hear it barking again.’

In a further irony, Nicaraguans themselves seem to be losing faith in democracy, slipping into the pattern of countries that have toyed with free markets and imperfect elections since the fall of the Berlin Wall 15 years ago. In the latest ‘Latino Barometer’, published in The Economist, Nicaraguans, more than any other Central Americans, said they would be willing to accept any kind of government—democratic or otherwise—that would improve their material lot.

‘It is impossible to talk about democracy among people who are starving to death’, argues Brockman. ‘Extreme poverty does not help to consolidate democracy and poverty is only growing in Nicaragua.’

Still, Brockman and Chamorro agree that, despite their growing ambivalence about democracy, Nicaraguans cling tightly to one enduring legacy of the revolution of 1979, something they believe will ultimately spare the country another dictatorship. ‘I think it is something intangible’, says Chamorro. ‘It is a sense of autonomy, a sense of Nicaraguans no longer being willing to let others impose on them or violate their rights.’  

Andrew West is a Sydney journalist and author, most recently of Bob Carr: A Self-Made Man, published by Harper Collins.



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