By Jeff Mackler Part IV in a series
[Editor’s note: In our previous two articles in this series, the recent BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa and, “The Unconditional Right of Self-determination For All Poor and Oppressed Nations,” we focused on a critical issue, today widely disputed on the socialist left. That is, can humanity’s historic struggle for freedom and liberation be advanced via alliances between socialists and capitalists, either at the international level (BRICS), or in the course of national liberation struggles, or via electoral alliances in the political arena, including socialists supporting capitalist parties in the name of preferencing the “lesser evil.” Here we reprint our 2018 article on imperialist-beleaguered Nicaragua, an article that both unconditionally supported its right to self-determination in the face of a US-orchestrated coup and criticized its chosen path rejecting socialist revolution in favor of an alliance with Nicaragua’s capitalist elite.]
Nicaragua: Dynamics of an Interrupted Revolution
By Jeff Mackler
The unfolding events in Nicaragua over the past three months pose two critical questions for socialists and antiwar activists. Where do we stand on the critical issue of U.S. imperialist intervention and where do we stand with regard to the dynamics of the still-unfolding confrontations?
That U.S. imperialism is intervening in Nicaragua today against the capitalist FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) government of Daniel Ortega cannot be denied. President Trump has openly threatened to send U.S. troops. Over the past three years a few million dollars, $4.1 million to be precise, has been openly sent by the CIA-controlled National Endowment for Democracy to various NGOs and other anti-FSLN groups.*
Every major U.S. newspaper today regularly blares shrill denunciations of the Nicaraguan government, demonizes Ortega, and quotes extensively from its sources in the Nicaraguan Catholic Church, the COSEP (Superior Council of Private Enterprise), and from some right-wing Nicaraguan student members of the capitalist-dominated Alianza Cívica por la Justicia y la Democracia (Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy)—who recently visited a few of most virulent Heritage Foundation reactionaries in Washington, D.C. These included the anti-Cuban Revolution Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who currently lead a bipartisan effort to urge Congress to impose sanctions on Nicaragua. Similarly, Civic Alliance students met in El Salvador with representatives of the long-governing death squad ARENA party.
History of US Imperialist Intervention and War
None of this is new, either with regard to U.S. policy in Nicaragua or anywhere else in the world. U.S. imperialism’s interventionist war budget exceeds $1 trillion annually, perhaps much more since the accounting excludes figures for the secret operations of the CIA and other covert government agencies organized to defend and advance U.S. “national security” interests by any means necessary.
U.S. intervention takes on a multitude of forms, depending on the specific situation in each country. These vary from direct intervention via overt wars, as is the case today in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Niger, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen (The New York Times, March 15, 2018) to special operation wars. The scope of the latter was reported in a revealing article in the Sept. 24, 2015, TomDispatch.com by Nick Turse, a fellow at The Nation Institute who has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Nation.
Turse states: “US Special Operations forces have already been deployed to 135 nations, according to Ken McGraw, a spokesman for Special Operations Command (SOCOM). That’s roughly 70 percent of the countries on the planet. Every day, in fact, America’s most elite troops are carrying out missions in 80 to 90 nations, practicing night raids or sometimes conducting them for real, engaging in sniper training or sometimes actually gunning down enemies from afar. As part of a global engagement strategy of endless hush-hush operations conducted on every continent but Antarctica, they have now eclipsed the number and range of special ops missions undertaken at the height of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Turse summarized his case demonstrating the scope of this sophisticated and unprecedented covert U.S. war machine: “In the waning days of the Bush administration, Special Operations Forces (SOF) were reportedly deployed in only about 60 nations around the world. By 2010 [under the Obama administration—J.M.], according to the Washington Post, that number had swelled to 75. Three years later, it had jumped to 134 nations, slipping to 133 last year, before reaching a new record of 135 this summer.” [Emphasis added—J.M.]
No doubt the figures under Donald Trump are similar. To these more hidden forms of U.S. intervention and war, we must add the U.S.-imposed embargoes, blockades, and sanctions, as well as the now routine and deadly covert drone wars. And we might add to the list the crippling U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund-imposed conditions that demand austerity as the price of usurious loans.
I cite all of the above only to make the point that U.S. intervention against its perceived “enemies” in Nicaragua, and indeed everywhere on earth, is the rule—not the exception. In response to all of the above, and doubly or triply so with regard to poor and oppressed nations, the U.S. antiwar movement must stand unequivocally and unconditionally opposed to all U.S. imperialist interventions.
U.S. Hands Off! Out Now! Self-determination for Nicaragua and All Other Poor and Oppressed Nations! These demands are the precondition for any serious effort to build a U.S. antiwar movement capable of challenging and defeating the U.S. war machine and its record of mass murder, devastation, exploitation and conquest.
Antiwar Action and the Nicaraguan Revolution
In this anti-imperialist context, however, each component of any successful U.S.-based united front, democratic, mass-action movement must be free to express its own views on the internal dynamics operating in each nation where any form of U.S. intervention is underway. I say this because serious revolutionary currents with forces in the U.S. and worldwide, including in Nicaragua, can never be idle commentators with perspectives limited to U.S. politics. Socialist internationalists aim at building revolutionary socialist parties in every nation.
Hence, I present the views of Socialist Action with regard to Nicaragua today. But first a note on our credentials—on our standing to critique not only the policies of U.S. imperialism but the politics of the capitalist Daniel Ortega-FSLN government.
Beginning with the July 19, 1979 revolutionary victory of the FSLN over the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship and the events leading up to it, Socialist Action was among the central organizations that sought to construct a powerful and massive U.S. movement that demanded first and foremost, “No U.S. intervention in Central America and the Caribbean!
Four Promising Revolutionary Struggles
The times were propitious for such work. In addition to the defeat of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, who slaughtered 50,000 workers and peasants in the final months of his rule, the workers of Grenada and El Salvador were on the rise. Led by Maurice Bishop and his New Jewel Movement (Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education and Liberation), Grenadian revolutionaries toppled the murderous, Mongoose Gang dictatorship of the U.S.-backed, Sir Mathew Eric Gairy regime. Gairy was knighted “Sir” by the British House of Lords for his role as essentially Great Britain’s loyal “independent” colonial administrator.
In El Salvador, guerrilla fighters were on the move to challenge the U.S.-backed and armed death-squad regime that was responsible for the murder of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero and a group of visiting nuns from Cleveland, Ohio, as well as thousands of workers and peasants who opposed his murderous rule.
In Guatemala, revolutionaries were challenging the U.S.-backed Rios Montt dictatorship, which had murdered an estimated 400,000 indigenous people!
In this context, and still fresh from the massive U.S. mobilizations against the U.S. genocidal war in Vietnam that murdered four million Vietnamese, the antiwar movement had become a powerful force in U.S. politics. Tens and hundreds of thousands periodically mobilized against any U.S. threat of intervention in Central America to the point where the U.S. Congress was compelled to pass in 1982 the famous Boland Amendment to a House appropriations bill that banned military aid to the heinous Salvadoran dictatorship and to the Nicaraguan Contras, who sought to overthrow the then revolutionary Sandinista government.
During this period Socialist Action was prominent in every aspect of the rising antiwar movement. Our comrades were invited as prominent guests, representing the U.S. antiwar movement, to International Solidarity Conferences in Managua and Grenada. We were central to the periodic organization of national antiwar conferences in the U.S. that called major national mobilizations across the country. We met with, exchanged views with, and often interviewed in our press FSLN commanders including Daniel Ortega, Jaime Wheelock, Omar Cabezas, and Tomas Borge—to name a few.
The same collaborative relations were established with Grenada’s Prime Minister Bishop and other Grenadian revolutionists based on our key role in founding the broad Grenada Solidarity Committee. We helped to organize national U.S. tours and speaking engagements for several of these revolutionary leaders. We helped win the support of significant sections of the U.S. labor movement for non-interventionist positions, including some dozen national U.S. trade unions. In the San Francisco Bay Area the mass mobilizations that we played a leading role in initiating included endorsements and contingents from all seven Bay Area Central Labor Councils and some 100 trade unions from the area.
Based on our direct experience in Nicaragua and regular contact with Nicaraguan leaders and activists and with access to a wide range of documents, speeches, visits and personal encounters, we were able to detail and record with precision the unfolding and always changing dynamics. Socialist Action produced two major books and countless articles expressing our views of the strengths and weaknesses of the FSLN. These included, “Nicaragua: Dynamics of an Unfinished Revolution,” by Alan Benjamin, in 1989, and “Assault on Nicaragua: The Untold Story of the U.S. ‘Secret War,’” in 1987.
The latter includes an article by this author entitled, “Nicaragua/Contragate: Strategic Questions for the U.S. Antiwar Movement.” This was published before the sensational Iran/Contra congressional hearings that revealed the illegal U.S. funding of the infamous Nicaraguan “Contras” via CIA agents and their accomplices, who facilitated bringing crack cocaine into the U.S. in collaboration with the infamous drug-smuggling Colombian Medellin Cartel. Much of the proceeds from the sale of this cocaine was then funneled to the Contras. Additional covert Contra funding was obtained by the CIA from the secret sale, via National Security adviser Oliver North, of U.S. surfaced-to-air Tow missiles to the Iranian government and from funds secured from Zionist Israel and the Saudi Monarchy (See “Inside the Shadow Government,” by Daniel Sheehan, 1988).
In short, Socialist Action’s 10-year record of opposing U.S. intervention in all its forms afforded us a modest but important national and international platform from which we attempted to influence the course of events in the U.S. and in Nicaragua through direct contacts with the leading Nicaraguan revolutionaries based on our record of unconditional support to Nicaragua’s right to self-determination.
“Revolutionists of Action”
And just what was our stand in relation to the FSLN leadership? While we considered Daniel Ortega at that time, and the FSLN’s central leaders, “revolutionists of action,” that is, honest revolutionaries who desired important changes in Nicaraguan society, we recognized that they were fundamentally adverse to breaking with Nicaragua’s capitalist class—the major component of which, along with the Catholic Church, also opposed the Somoza dictatorship, but for its own reasons. In this decisive matter, we were among the FSLN’s harshest critics.
Nicaragua’s capitalists began to break with Somoza in the years following the 1972 earthquake that leveled Managua, killed 10,000 people, and left 250,000 more homeless. They, along with the Catholic Church, especially objected to Somoza’s stealing millions of dollars in relief funds from the U.S. and elsewhere. When they supported the FSLN-led 1978-79 uprising, Somoza’s response was to send his army’s helicopters to drop 500-pound bombs on their factories.
Somoza’s 1978 murder of La Prensa editor Pedro Joaquin Chamorro sealed his government’s fate, as the opposition capitalists soon after formed a series of political alliances with the FSLN culminating in the June 1979 Junta of National Reconstruction (JGRN) headed by five figures—Daniel Ortega and two others close to the FSLN; a leading capitalist, Alfonso Robelo, who later became a central Contra leader; and Violeta Chamorro, wife of the slain La Prensa owner and editor. Chamorro founded UNO (United National Opposition) and later similarly supported the Contras. She went on to defeat Ortega in the 1990 presidential elections.
The JGRN, a coalition capitalist (multi-class) government alliance, was originally pressed by the Jimmy Carter administration via its Special Ambassador William Bowdler, along with the heads of state of Costa Rica, Venezuela, and Panama, to add two additional capitalist representatives for a total of seven, in order to give the main representatives of Nicaraguan capital a majority. Somoza would leave, they agreed, taking with him Nicaragua’s treasury, while his National Guard army would be fused with the FSLN’s fighting forces—its head to be approved by the U.S. This would be followed, according to what became known as the “Carter Plan,” by the convocation of a “government of national accord” whose representatives would be two-thirds capitalist and one-third FSLN. The plan was unacceptable to the FSLN, and often dubbed “Somozaism without Somoza.”
Somoza did depart, but his leading generals continued their mass slaughter in a final but unsuccessful effort to demolish the FSLN forces. In the final months of struggle, the FSLN organized an insurrectional general strike, at great cost, stormed the remaining Somoza bunkers in Managua, and completely defeated and captured Somoza’s National Guard army.
On July 19, 1979, undoubtedly with the support and approval of the Nicaraguan masses, they moved to establish a governmental framework that gave them a political majority in the central institutions of the new state. But the FSLN’s political majority was never matched by its control of the basic economic institutions of the post-Somoza state. Here, the old capitalist class ruled with impunity and with the assent of the FSLN:
• During the first six months following the July 19 victory, the heads of 15 of the 18 new government ministries were capitalists.
• Nicaragua’s bankrupt banks and related financial institutions were “nationalized” but only to guarantee that most of the debts incurred by the Somoza government would be paid over time to various international banking institutions. A JGRN proclamation stated, “It is necessary to preserve the prestige of the country among the international financial centers by assuming the payment of the international obligations contracted by the private sector.” This included a negotiated agreement with some 100 commercial banks to pay off in installments the Somoza government’s $1.6 billion debt.
• Nicaragua’s major agro-export crops, the central source of its wealth, remained in capitalist hands.
• In regard to land reform, the FSLN government nationalized only Somoza’s land, some 20 percent of the total. The rest largely remained in capitalist hands. In short, and shockingly, there was never a major land reform in the first decade of Sandinista rule and there has never been one to this day. The majority of arable land remains in capitalist hands.
• The major and powerful capitalist alliance, the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) established by the anti-Somoza elites, remains in place to this day and operates as the dominant force in Nicaragua’s capitalist economy.
• Less than a month after the July 19 FSLN seizure of power, the JGRN decreed that all land and property belonging to the non-Somoza capitalists that had been “illegally” seized by insurgent peasants had to be returned to its former owners.
• Following the FSLN’s coming to power, this anti-Somoza bourgeoisie controlled the commanding heights of the Nicaraguan economy—especially with regard to the agro-export sector. In 1982, 73 percent of all productive activity was in private hands. In agriculture, which accounted for 70 percent of all exports in 1982, 86 percent of Nicaragua’s productive assets were in private hands. The economic facts in Nicaragua today differ little from what the FSLN established in 1979, whether the FSLN was formally in governmental power or not.
The figures above are not accidental. They reflect, as we shall demonstrate, the considered view of the FSLN leadership that capitalism – the domination of society by an elite ruling class of private property owners that control Nicaragua’s land, banks, financial institutions, and foreign trade—and not the construction of a socialist society—is the only social system capable of meeting the needs of the people!
“You can’t make a half a revolution,”
A few years after Daniel Ortega’s 1990 presidential election loss to Violeta Chamorro, the electoral representative of the political forces that backed the Contra war against Nicaragua, I visited revolutionary Cuba and had an opportunity to discuss the situation in Nicaragua with several Cuban leaders. They included the head of the Cuban Communist Party’s cadre school, who for 10 years had overseen Cuba’s efforts to spread Cuba’s revolutionary ideas across Latin America. He had been Cuba’s liaison with Che Guevara when Che was sent to Bolivia to partake in the guerrilla effort in that country. His incisive comment on Ortega’s election loss to Chamorro’s UNO remains with me to this day. “You can’t make a half a revolution,” he stated.
His reference was to Cuba’s 1959 revolutionary break with capitalism and its massive distribution of Cuba’s land to its landless peasantry, as compared to the FSLN’s maintaining the essentials of Nicaraguan capitalism intact, including the private ownership of land by Nicaragua’s previous oligarchs and super rich. In Fidel Castro’s words on this critical point, “We nationalized the Cuban capitalist class down to the nails in the heels of their boots.” In sharp contrast, here’s what leading FSLN spokespersons had to say on this question:
FSLN Leaders Reject Socialist Orientation
Commander Tomas Borge, New Left Review (July/August 1987), said, “There is not—nor could there be [in Nicaragua]—an ideological project as clearly defined as the one that existed in Cuba. … It is no accident that the [Nicaraguan] bourgeoisie has been given so many economic incentives, more even than the workers; we ourselves have been more attentive to giving the bourgeoisie economic opportunities than in responding to the demands of the working class. We have sacrificed the working class in favor of the economy as part of a strategic plan.”
Francisco Pizarro, top economic adviser to the FSLN, in the French Fourth International magazine Inprecor (No. 185, July/August 1987): Taking the Cuban socialist road “would not only be naïve but also deeply irresponsible in the case of Nicaragua … a profound program of expropriation of land, industry and commerce … would be disastrous in a country whose economic structure is marked by the important weight of agricultural production and by an atomization of property in the countryside, in industry and in commerce.”
FSLN Defense Minister Humberto Ortega, (see Francis Pisani’s Le Volca Nicaraguayan, 1984), said, “We cannot resolve at the same time the problems of national liberation and those of social liberation. We must first complete the stage of national independence and national liberation.”
FSLN Minister of Agriculture Jaime Wheelock, (see Jaime Wheelock, “El Gran Desafio” [“The Great Challenge”], Managua, Editorial Nueva Nicaragua, 1983, p. 101): “It is important to understand that the socialist model is a solution for contradictions that only exist in developed capitalist countries. … Even though we have socialist principles, we cannot effect the transformation of our society by socializing the means of production. This would not lead to socialism, rather, on the contrary, it could lead to the destruction and disarticulation of our society.”
FSLN Rejects Land Reform
In truth, and notwithstanding the horrors perpetrated by the U.S.-backed Contra war against the FSLN government that took the lives of some 15,000 Nicaraguans, the FSLN’s failure to distribute “land to the tillers” and its failure to nationalize capitalist property more generally had the effect of deeply alienating the Nicaraguan masses. In 1990, when the FSLN itself organized every aspect of the electoral process, it shockingly lost the presidency to the forces backed by COSEP, the Catholic Church, and the U.S. government!
Infamous Piñata Affair
While the FSLN ceded governmental power to its rivals, in the brief interim between its 1990 loss and the installation of the new government, a number of its central leaders in the infamous Piñata Affair seized the opportunity to enrich themselves by appropriating public buildings and major hotels, and establishing control over major logging, agro-industrial operations, and some banking institutions. In short, leading FSLN revolutionaries became capitalists!
In 1996 and 2001 Ortega lost his second and third bid for the presidency but returned to this post in the elections of 2006, 2011, and 2016. However, during this entire period the essential nature of Nicaragua’s economy has been capitalist and Nicaragua has remained the second poorest nation in the hemisphere.
Early FSLN Reforms
It is true that the FSLN early on, and with the help and influence of the Cubans, did seek to introduce some critical reforms, including a national literacy campaign, the establishment of important women’s and student organizations, a national trade-union federation, and improvements in health care. During the recent decade—relying only on oil-based funding assistance from Venezuela, as opposed to at the expense of Nicaraguan capitalists—the FSLN introduced some social programs aimed at providing direct assistance to the nation’s poor. (This “asistencialismo” is now diminishing in proportion to Venezuela’s ever-deepening economic crisis.) But as with all the other “pink revolutions” in Latin America, the essentials of capitalism remained intact, in time dooming the masses to a life of poverty and deprivation.
Nicaragua Under Capitalism
Nicaragua’s wages are among the lowest in Latin America; its foreign-owned free economic zone sweatshop maquiladoras, as with everywhere else in the world, serve imperialist needs for cheap labor. The majority of the population is relegated to the “informal” sector of the economy—hat is, to selling trinkets and other petty commodities and food on the streets and elsewhere to eek out a minimum living.
Nicaragua’s heinous law formally banning abortion includes a penalty of six years in prison for violators. It is a prime example of FSLN collaboration with the extreme right and the Catholic Church. When the political parties representing the latter introduced this reactionary legislation into the National Assembly, the FSLN freed its parliamentary representatives from party discipline. This allowed for enough FSLN “yes” votes to pass this reactionary legislation, among the most backward laws in the world—albeit to date, no one has been jailed for its violation.
I might add that the FSLN votes banning abortion paved the way for its newfound 2006 electoral alliance with the Catholic Church and its leading prelate, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. This alliance returned Ortega to the presidency. Obando, who had travelled to the U.S. decades earlier to lobby Congress for aid to the Contras to overthrow the FSLN government, went on to be an FSLN supporter. He presided over Ortega’s wedding to Rosario Murillo, today Nicaragua’s Vice President. “I am a Catholic man,” Ortega told a recent mass FSLN rally in Managua to boost support for his beleaguered government, and perhaps, to once again signal that the FSLN’s alliance with the Catholic Church might well be re-established.
Our point here is to demonstrate once again that from the 1979 Revolution to this day, FSLN policy has been to govern in coalition with Nicaragua’s capitalist elite. In more recent years, the “socialist” facade of revolutionary integrity has all but disappeared, occasional rhetoric notwithstanding.
Latin America’s “Pink Revolutions”
Tragically, we must say the same with regard to all Latin America’s “pink revolutions” over the past decade and longer. Upon coming to political power, the governments of Lula/Brazil, Morales/Bolivia, Kirchner/Argentina, Ortega/Nicaragua, Correa/Ecuador, and Chavez-Maduro/Venezuela, rhetoric aside, never contemplated a revolutionary break with capitalism.
Whatever differences distinguished one from the others regarding the implementation of sometimes substantial reforms were subordinate to the fact that in all cases the essential social structures and institutions of the capitalist state remained largely intact. “INTACT,” again, means that the fundamental ownership and control of the commanding economic heights of the nation were to remain in capitalist hands; the land and natural resources, the key banks and financial institutions remain today in capitalist hands. With regard to key oil and natural gas resources, even these, albeit sometimes formally “nationalized,” were weakened or nullified by many of the traditional “small print” or fake nationalization agreements with foreign capital that guaranteed their interests.
Unlike the Cuban Revolution of 1958-59, in which the Fidel Castro leadership definitively broke with capitalism, none challenged private ownership of the banks and leading financial institutions. None challenged corporate ownership of the major media. None fundamentally broke with international capitalist trade organizations. None established a monopoly of foreign trade and none established any semblance of control by the working masses over the political institutions that governed their lives.
All of these “pink revolutions,” with Nicaragua’s tragically evolving to become perhaps the faintest shade of all, proved to be incapable of guaranteeing that the measures implemented to alleviate the terrible conditions endured by the masses for decades and longer would become permanent or institutionalized. All of these reformist regimes attempted to co-exist with capitalism, a fatal and impossible project that in time doomed them to inevitable retreat, if not devolution to the rule of the previous elites. Nicaragua was no exception.
Recent mass upsurge
Over the past three months, and following the FSLN’s now withdrawn decree lowering pension payments by 5 percent and increasing taxes on the poor, we have witnessed massive mobilizations for and against the FSLN government. Most of the spokespersons for the anti-FSLN forces appear to originate from the right, indeed, in some cases from the most reactionary sections of society that look to the U.S. but who were previously aligned with the FSLN. In the absence of clear revolutionary socialist forces on the scene, this is tragically inevitable.
Undoubtedly, however, a huge measure of the mass alienation from the FSLN today is due to its own policies, not only its proposed pensions reductions and tax increases but to its granting of important areas of land to private interests to facilitate an Inter-oceanic Canal, its delay in taking decisive moves to stem a series of raging wildfires, its violent response to initially peaceful demonstrations, as well as the overall grinding poverty of the majority of the Nicaraguan people.
Again, we stand in opposition to any and all forms of U.S. intervention. It makes a difference to revolutionary-minded workers who replaces governments and institutions that stand as obstacles to revolutionary progress and what those forces put forward as an alternative. The “right to revolution,” the right of the vast majority to seize control of their fate and build a new world, belongs only to the oppressed masses themselves.
For now, it appears that the violent physical confrontations that have polarized the country for the past three months have receded and, perhaps, yet another round of reconciliation negotiations are on the horizon. We have no reason to believe that today’s major players, as in the past, are not fully capable of reaching agreements that once again subordinate the interests of the Nicaraguan masses to the rule of capital. We have no interest in such negotiations, other than to demand in the U.S. that imperialism keep its bloody and grasping hands off Nicaragua.
Need for Revolutionary Party
Needless to say, we are staunch advocates of the construction of a mass revolutionary socialist party in Nicaragua today, a party organized independently of and against all imperialist interventions and against the rule of capital in Nicaragua itself. This must be a party that is deeply imbedded in the just struggles of the Nicaraguan people for a society free from capitalist plunder and exploitation.
*We note here for perspective that in recent years U.S. NGO and NED funds to boost the projects of Nicaragua’s FSLN-pampered capitalist class, or even FSLN “civil society” projects have been more often than not overt, if not welcomed.