Toni Solo: Nicaragua - Class & Ethics Of Vanity
Nicaragua : Class And The Ethics Of Vanity
By Toni Solo
"History ends up
looking like private property, whose owners are the owners
of everything else.
" Rodolfo Walsh(1)
Over the next few months the new coalition government in Nicaragua will begin to implement programmes to try and redress the immiseration of Nicaragua's people imposed by 16 years of corporate crony-capitalism. In January this year, the administration led by Daniel Ortega took over a government ransacked by their predecessors in the crudest possible way. This was only to be expected of the regime under former President Bolaños who had been Vice President to Arnoldo Aleman throughout the kleptocracy they both supervised between 1996 and 2001. But one hears no condemnation from North American or European governments or their corporate media of the Bolaños' "piñata".
After they lost the election in 1990, that was the term used to denigrate the Sandinista Front for National Liberation's frantic attempt to compensate thousands of functionaries and workers facing poverty and unemployment after a decade of service and sacrifice. It was also an attempt to try and keep hold of resources they believed would only be divvied up between the various factions of the incoming oligarchy. On that latter score, events proved their fears to be all too justified. Now the thoroughgoing corruption of the Bolaños administration is available for all to see. But this embarrassing reality has been kept very quiet by the foreign governments who consistently and fatuously praised the Bolaños administration for its commitment to root out corruption.
It has long been the case that the governments and international financial institutions that talk loudest about anti-corruption tend to be the very ones that promote corruption in the first place. Policies of privatization, deregulation and reduction in government services constitute a determined rejection of even notional attempts at redistribution of meagre macro-economic growth. In a small society like Nicaragua's, dominated even more noticeably than societies in North America or Europe by a greedy, venal elite, such a policy stew was bound to foment corruption. One leading analyst has calculated that the Nicaraguan Treasury has lost as much as US$13.6 billion to corruption, tax evasion, spurious tax exemptions and privatizations since 1990. (2)
After the watershed 1990 election, corporate capitalism's fierce propaganda onslaught against the legacy of the Sandinista Revolution promoted the individualist consumerism that facilitates private capital's assault on the common good. Its frontpersons, Violeta Chamorro, her son-in-law Antonio Lacayo and their colleagues, followed later by Arnoldo Aleman and Enrique Bolaños set about dismantling government's influence in all areas of economic and social life - from health and education to industry and agriculture. While the US and its proxy international financial institutions decried government intervention in society and the economy, they instigated ideology-driven interventions of their own in favour of big business. It is worth reviewing the subsequent history so as to understand some of the characteristics of Nicaragua's current political arguments, especially vis-a-vis the new government led by the FSLN.
16 years of neo-liberal Dark Side
The process of demolishing effective government had many effects. Apart from facilitating concentration of wealth in the country's oligarchic elite, wrecking government's capacity to redistribute wealth, it weakened the possibility of sustaining a coherent popular movement. As in the rest of Central America, trades unions found hard-won gains from earlier decades steadily eroded as the low-wage, high-profit "free market" model was ruthlessly implemented with enthusiastic government support. With credit harder to obtain and technical assistance cut back, the cooperative movement was deliberately undermined. Hundreds of co-ops broke up. By contrast, private non-governmental organizations proliferated. Many prospered from development funding from large international institutions and major foreign development agencies. Others tried to survive providing genuine grass-roots services.
Ideological arguments in the FSLN began soon after their 1990 electoral defeat and tended to mirror the fragmentation of society in general. They turned fundamentally around how far progressive political agendas could accommodate to aggressive corporate capitalism. It was easy in the mid-1990s to see revolutionary aspirations and especially Cuba's determined defence of those aspirations as an anomaly. "Globalization" seemed to sweep all before it. European-style social democracy and submission to "free market" capitalism-with-a-human-face looked attractive. In 1994, from that argument and the various personal acrimonies accompanying it, sprang the Movement for Sandinista Renewal (MRS) led by former Vice-President Sergio Ramirez, one of Latin America's pre-eminent novelists.
After losing the chaotic, fraud-ridden 1996 presidential elections to Arnoldo Aleman's Liberal Alliance movement, arguments within the FSLN became steadily more bitter. The main disagreement had to do with the nature and extent of the quid pro quo involved in dealing with Aleman's governing PLC party to facilitate legislation in the National Assembly. The disagreements were compounded by damaging but disputed accusations of sexual abuse against Daniel Ortega by his step-daughter in 1998. Despite, or perhaps thanks to, vicious attacks attempting to make political capital out of the affair, Ortega's credibility held up. He lead the FSLN's significant progress in the municipal elections of 2000, when the party won control of the capital Managua.
In 2001, he stood as presidential candidate for the FSLN-led Convergencia Nacional coalition. Despite the openly corrupt use of post-Hurricane Mitch aid money by the sitting government, that election was won by Enrique Bolaños following a campaign in which US ambassador Oliver Garza openly and actively campaigned on Bolaños' behalf. Then FSLN vice-presidential candidate, Agustin Jarquin, related how on the night of the election count Garza stalked into the count centre in Managua, halted the vote-counting process and demanded changes in personnel, which were made. The election took place in the shadow of the horrific attacks in New York and Washington, which the US embassy and its protégé Bolaños shamelessly exploited, accusing the FSLN of being supporters of terrorism.
Following yet another loss in presidential elections, leading Sandinista dissidents insisted that either a change of candidate and policies, or both, were essential for the FSLN. But their arguments faltered when the FSLN-led Convergencia Nacional made significant gains in the 2004 municipal elections. Even so, disenchanted with the FSLN's political deal with the PLC, still led by disgraced ex-President Arnoldo Aleman, several talented and experienced leaders like Herty Lewites, Henry Ruiz, Victor Tirado, Victor Hugo Tinoco, Luis Carrion and Monica Baltodano either left the FSLN or were expelled. In 2005, the party they supported, the Movement for Sandinista Renewal led by the widely respected Dora Maria Tellez left the Convergencia Nacional in order to support the presidential candidacy of former FSLN mayor of Managua, Herty Lewites.
With both the Sandinistas and the Liberals split, the 2006 elections seemed to mark a possible change in the loyalty inertias that have characterized Nicaraguan politics since the Contra war of the 1980s. Herty Lewites' untimely death in July of that year lead to the MRS substituting a former top-level official of the Inter-American Development Bank, Edmundo Jarquin, experienced and capable, but not nationally well-known. Immediately prior to the election, in an apparent attempt to embarrass the FSLN, President Bolaños submitted a request to fast track an anti-abortion law through the National Assembly. The move followed a Catholic Church organized anti-abortion rally of around 200,000 people as part of an unscrupulous campaign to take advantage of electoral considerations. The legislation passed easily since no party was prepared to risk the electoral consequences of bucking the political and economic power of the Catholic Church hierarchy.
Kinds of ethics worth wanting (3)
It is in this context that the FSLN came to power for the second time led by Daniel Ortega. The FSLN's electoral programme was clear, a return to genuinely free education, more resources for health services, food security programmes for areas suffering hunger and malnutrition, prioritizing financial and technical support for small agricultural producers and cooperatives, working with Venezuela to guarantee energy supplies, promotion of foreign and national investment so as to increase employment, a non-aligned foreign policy and improved management of the environment and natural resources. Two key FSLN commitments are to promote more direct democracy and to encourage national reconciliation.
Despite the clarity of the FSLN's programme for government, anyone trying to follow Nicaraguan affairs through the corporate media - including the two most important Nicaraguan national dailies La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario, both owned by members of the elite Chamorro family - would find it hard to get a coherent account of government measures. Disinformation abounds. Likewise, coverage in alternative media also tends to be dominated by the views of the FSLN's political opponents in the MRS. One might think this is simply an accident or a coincidence, that people from diverse backgrounds happen to concur in their views of what is happening in Nicaragua and that therefore their views must present a reasonable account of reality.
Another view is that available interpretations of events in Nicaragua are inextricably, viscerally linked to class. A good example is the clear preference in the foreign solidarity and development managerial class for social democrat MRS interpretations of Nicaragua's political reality as this quote from a recent article by Witness for Peace in the Countercurrents web site clearly demonstrates. "For years, civil society groups' concrete proposals for change have fallen on deaf ears as the government insisted on adhering to the U.S. or IMF policies that provoked popular protest. While the details of policy shifts are difficult to predict at this early point, the Ortega administration's initial action and discourse offer some indication that several civil society demands for change may now be heeded." (4)
The appeal to the sacred "civil society" cow as some kind of arbiter of FSLN government policy is remarkable for its vanity. FSLN government policy lines were clear from well before the 2006 election, but Witness for Peace suggests the Ortega government needs "civil society" in order to know what it should do about 16 years of neo-liberal economic war on the impoverished majority. This reads suspiciously like the liberal social democrat managerial class staking out its claim for funding from their respective donors.
Compare this from a leading ideologue of the MRS, Carlos Tunnerman Bernheim, commenting on FSLN government proposals for more direct democracy, "Solid democratic governance relies on the existence of broad social and political agreement....a balance between the powers of State is not sufficient, constructive relations with civil society are also necessary that permit long term policies to rest on broad national consensus.........While political action aims to attain power, when it is inspired by ethical principles the drive to power does not end with power in itself but rather in the capacity to respond to the demands of the citizenry in a context of full respect for human rights and the rule of law."(5)
Tunnerman shares with Witness for Peace the social democrat vision derived from liberal middle-class experience of political pluralism in North American and European capitalist societies. The underlying assumption is that the analysis of the managerial class embodied in what they call "civil society" - namely, they themselves - should be privileged and that it is necessarily benign and "ethical". Anyone unaware of the bitter political sectarianism from which the MRS sprang might find these clear arguments for European-style social democratic societal consensus appealing. But there are other ways of looking at things which pose legitimate questions about this particular variety of class-bound "ethics".
Ethics and fundamental loyalties
When Oscar Rene Vargas suggests "real power no longer lies with the political class but rather is wielded by the economic class via opinion moulding and "manipulating" political professionals"(6), he might well be alluding to the plethora of stakeholders in Nicaragua's continuing neo-colonial subjugation, including the academic, intellectual and "non-governmental" managerial classes among whom sympathy for the MRS is strongest. It is striking that the labels they apply to the FSLN - "undemocratic", "authoritarian", "opportunist" - conform closely to concerns expressed about the FSLN in North American and European government pronouncements supplemented faithfully by commentary in those countries' corporate media.
When FSLN opponents appeal for liberal social democrat political and economic arrangements in Nicaragua they neglect a deep historical fact. Namely, the countries currently enjoying such Panglossian arrangements are only able to do so on the back of centuries of racism, slavery and colonial pillage - a record sustained to the present day via debt, "aid" and inequitable terms of trade locked into place via the World Trade Organization and "free trade"-in-your-sovereignty deals. The FSLN won the election in 2006 on promises to improve the material conditions of life of the impoverished majority of people in Nicaragua resulting from that history. They are unlikely to be able to do so by adopting the very structures, standards and logic that have sustained Nicaragua's immiseration since the 19th century.
Essentially, the political argument in Nicaragua is between the right and centre on one side arguing that Nicaragua is best off colluding faithfully in the designs of the imperial powers and, on the other side, the FSLN and nationalists like Jaime Morales Carazo who seek to broaden available economic options through links with the various integrationist models being worked out in Latin America. So the MRS academic and intellectual class string along with their right-wing allies' diffidence about the ALBA development cooperation agreements between Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba. They prefer existing models like the development cooperation agreements with the European Union which tend to be seen as more benign than those of the United States.
One of the leading representatives of the European Union countries in Nicaragua is Eva Zetterberg, Sweden's ambassador who helps manage some effective development projects in Nicaragua via Sweden's development cooperation programme. In an interview she gave me in September last year, Zetterberg discussed varieties of intervention including those of the US, the EU and Venezuela. Zetterberg remarked in passing that the EU intervention in Nicaragua was necessary and important because Nicaraguans have been unable to manage their affairs successfully on their own. However well-intentioned such a remark may be, especially from someone so clearly committed to doing their best for Nicaragua's people, it very clearly indicates the colonialist attitudes that still underlie contemporary development cooperation relationships with member countries of an imperialist bloc like the European Union.
While differences of emphasis and style certainly exist between US diplomats like ambassador Paul Trivelli and his European counterparts, all of them prefer the pro-free market policies of the MRS and all to a greater or lesser degree have reservations about the FSLN, whatever diplomatic niceties may be exchanged for public consumption. During the election campaign Trivelli consistently contrasted the "undemocratic" FSLN with the "democratic" MRS and with right-wing banker Eduardo Montealegre's Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance party (ALN). So at that fundamental ideological level the MRS tends to identify with the designs of the governments of the United States and Europe to keep Nicaragua securely within their imperial orbit. One might argue about the ethics of that.
Ethics and neo-colonial perception management
Beyond that fundamental moral question - why should the interests of Nicaragua's impoverished majority be subordinated to the neo-colonial designs of the great powers? - critics of the FSLN in Nicaragua also seem to be ethically-challenged when it comes to reporting specific events and their context. In 2005, during the week of the vital vote on the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) I met up with Canadian writer Jonah Gindin of Venezuela Analysis. He had just come from one of the Thursday morning information briefings run by members of the local North American solidarity and development community in Casa Ben Linder. Jonah asked me why the FSLN supported CAFTA.
Perplexed, I explained to him that in fact the FSLN legislators had voted unanimously en bloc against CAFTA on the Monday of that very week. Jonah had spent a 90-minute briefing on CAFTA and emerged from it without being told the FSLN had clearly opposed the measure in the National Assembly. Not everyone is as determined to get the whole story as Gindin. The disinformation campaign on that issue mounted by the MRS and its sympathisers was consistent and thorough. To his credit, Sergio Ramirez has subsequently clearly acknowledged the fact of the FSLN's vote against CAFTA. Others, in particular Monica Baltodano, seem deliberately to have spread the falsehood that the FSLN supported CAFTA. The hypocrisy of this takes some beating since both the MRS presidential candidates, Herty Lewites and then Edmundo Jarquin, supported CAFTA themselves.
Any fair coverage of Nicaragua's recent political history would explain that since 1990, the FSLN, while always being Nicaragua's single largest political party, has never had a majority in the National Assembly. They have always been out-voted by the combined Liberal parties and have only succeeded in promoting legislation of their own through deals with whichever of the Liberal parties has been inclined to work with them. That is the origin of what critics of the FSLN and the PLC call "El Pacto" (the Deal) - supposedly the epitome of anti-democratic under-the-table chicanery. (It may be worth noting that no politicians in Nicaragua, either right or left, are prepared to foment violent conflict to force radical change.)
Critics of the FSLN never refer to the fact that in the 2006 election the "pacto" parties of the PLC and the FSLN won over two-thirds of the vote while the "anti-pacto" parties won just 35%, including a bare 6% for the MRS. That may well be interpreted as the Nicaraguan electorate blowing a huge raspberry at MRS and ALN hypocrisy, since those parties themselves made a little publicised deal in in Miami, along with the PLC, in June of 2006 agreeing to cooperate against the FSLN. That particular arrangement with the right-wing mirrored an MRS funding agreement with the electoral intervention specialists of the US International Republican Institute, including a meeting with IRI board member Jean Kirkpatrick, supporter of mass-murderer and fraudster Augusto Pinochet, Guatemala's genocidal Efrain Rios Montt, the "dirty war" Argentinian military junta and promoter of the US-fomented Contra terror war in Nicaragua. One might think in amongst all of that some ethical problems might suggest themselves .
Another issue which has been manipulated against the FSLN is that anti-abortion vote in the National Assembly, shortly before the presidential elections. Reporting of the vote generally failed to provide context, for example noting that the legislation was presented by Enrique Bolaños under a fast track procedure, or noting the massive anti-abortion march just weeks earlier and the ruthless pressure around the vote from the Catholic Church hierarchy. Instead, much reporting suggested that the vote had been actively driven by the FSLN and ignored the role of the other parties who were indeed determined to pass the measure and were hoping to embarrass the FSLN immediately prior to the presidential vote.
MRS women's activist Sofia Montenegro, a leading member of the local feminist managerial class, has correctly pointed out that Daniel Ortega's politically influential wife, Rosario Murillo, is personally opposed to abortion. Unfortunately for the commitment to democracy espoused by Montenegro and her MRS colleagues, Murillo shares that view with a clear majority of people in Nicaragua. Nicaraguan society remains firmly under patriarchy, with both the Catholic Church and the increasingly influential evangelical churches policing traditional Christian taboos. Montenegro and her MRS colleagues could always try dissolving the Nicaraguan people and electing another one - though the ethics of such a step might be questionable. However, one should not be flippant about an issue which puts the lives of many vulnerable women and girls at risk.
In that case, it may be legitimate to ask, since fierce critics of the FSLN like Montenegro, Monica Baltodano and leading Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal are genuinely concerned about human life, how many more women might have died untimely deaths as a result of the overall policies of a neo-liberal ideologue like Eduardo Montealegre becoming president rather than a socialist like Daniel Ortega. The June 2006 MRS deal in Miami with Nicaragua's Liberal parties aimed for a win by the ALN's Montealegre or the PLC's Jose Rizo. Ernesto Cardenal agressively and explicitly suggested people should vote for a right wing candidate in preference to the FSLN's Ortega. In fact, the chances of getting the new anti-abortion legislation modified to protect vulnerable women and girls are very much higher under an FSLN government than under one of the right wing Liberal parties.
The vicious personal attacks against the FSLN's Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo by leading MRS figures, like Baltodano, Cardenal or Montenegro, find their echo among influential foreign sympathisers. One has to ask what the ethics are of criticising Murillo and Ortega for driving Mercedes Benz - a regular anti-FSLN jibe - when on any Thursday morning in Managua outside the Casa Ben Linder the congregation of SUVs belonging to the local North American solidarity and development outfits mark a lamentable disregard for the planet's ozone layer. Nor are Montenegro or Baltodano famous for their cycling exploits - they too enjoy the material trappings of Nicaragua's political and intellectual managerial class in which they play a talented and important role.
Beyond "ethics" - what is to be done?
While the MRS and its sympathisers work out how far they are prepared to accommodate to the continuing neo-liberal agenda of the imperial powers, the FSLN is trying to work out its own set of contradictions at the same time as coping with the exigencies of government. Influential intellectuals like Carlos Tunnerman have the luxury of putting sententious rhetorical questions about policy direction.(7) By contrast, the FSLN is trying to implement its domestic programme of government as a minority party in an ideologically hostile legislature and in conditions of extreme uncertainty in the international economy. An oil price spike following a US attack on Iran would send most countries in Central America into economic crisis. Even without that catastrophe, market uncertainty about the dollar tends to make economic planning a lottery for a country located in a dollar-dependent region. Nor can the possibility be ruled out that the US government, in cahoots with the international cartel of Central Banks, is managing dollar decline as a Damocles' sword, held over dollar-dependent governments to keep them compliant.
Currently, the Ortega government's credibility is high. The early decision to slash and cap ministerial salaries has been followed up by unequivocal support for moves against corrupt officials, whatever their party affiliation. Sandinista mayors have been among those removed from office for misuse of public funds. With support from Venezuela worth over US$400 million, the government has managed to stabilise the country's long-standing energy crisis. As the rains that herald the planting season draw near, more viable credit arrangements are being made for agricultural producers, especially cooperatives. Increased technical support, assistance with mechanization and the provision of cheap urea for fertilizer should encourage production of basic grains and valuable export crops like sesame seed.
Ortega's recent criticism of President Bush's agreement with Brazil's President Lula on ethanol production indicates that the FSLN is well able to manage a critical policy line between trying to encourage socially responsible private investment while protecting the natural environment and promoting sustainable agriculture. The division of labour between Ortega and Vice-President Jaime Morales seems to reflect the balance the FSLN wants to maintain between a willingness to work with corporate big business and a determination to carve out wider government-managed economic policy options. Infrastructure improvements have already begun on the country's water system and long-neglected highways, like the one linking Sebaco, Matagalpa and Jinotega.
Foreign solidarity and development organizations have a relatively limited role to play in helping rebuild Nicaragua's economy and create employment. It is mostly in the area of social policy that such outfits can accompany people in Nicaragua and work with them to improve their lives. Nicaragua needs these organizations because they bring in foreign exchange, generate economic activity and provide valuable health, education and social services in a country where around 70% of people live in poverty and where government services have been systematically cut back for over 15 years. The policy of many of these organizations starts from the initial question, "Who should we work with?" Their answer is to work with people in partner organizations who tend to think like them and to share the same managerial class view.
It might be more ethical to start with the question "What should we do?" A government is in power committed to working seriously via clear policies to transform the conditions of material life for Nicaragua's impoverished majority. People in Nicaragua cannot afford the vanity with which we in the solidarity and development managerial classes preen ourselves on our dubious moral cleanliness. For once, we should perhaps acknowledge our own contradictions and think about what we can do to help the FSLN government deliver on its policy commitments to Nicaragua's people. We certainly have no business colluding with an unscupulous local social democrat managerial class trying to take ownership of perceptions of what the FSLN is trying to do.
1. 'Nuestras clases dominantes han procurado siempre que los trabajadores no tengan historia, no tengan doctrina, no tengan héroes ni mártires. Cada lucha debe empezar de nuevo, separada de las luchas anteriores: la experiencia colectiva se pierde, las lecciones se olvidan. La historia aparece así como propiedad privada, cuyos dueños son los dueños de todas las otras cosas?. (Reportaje de Ricardo Piglia a Walsh. Marzo 1970). "Palabra de Walsh", Roberto Baschetti, AGENCIA RODOLFO WALSH, Argenpress 4/4/2007
2. "Megacapitales en Nicaragua", Oscar-René Vargas , Nuevo Diario, March 15th 2007
3. Apologies to Daniel Dennet whose book "Elbow room : kinds of free will worth wanting" can be read as a notable indirect contribution to political philosophy as well as to the philosophy of consciousness.
4. "Ortega Government Shows Some Response To Civil Society Demands", Witness for Peace, Americas Program, Countercurrents, April 1st 2007
5. "Gobernabilidad democrática versus gobernabilidad autoritaria", Carlos Tünnermann Bernheim, El Nuevo Diario, March 7th 2007
6. "Megacapitales en Nicaragua" - see Note 2.
7. "¿Hacia dónde va el país?", Carlos Tünnermann Bernheim, Nuevo Diario, March 28th 2007