Nicaragua : Class And The Ethics Of Vanity
"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
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
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'
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
6. "Megacapitales en Nicaragua" - see Note 2.
7. "¿Hacia dónde va el país?", Carlos Tünnermann Bernheim, Nuevo Diario, March 28th 2007
toni solo is an activist based in Central America - see http://toni.tortillaconsal.com