William Grigsby, March 20th 2011
Summarized version of a recent talk by political analyst William Grigsby Vado for members of the Revista Envío, edited and translated by Karla Jacobs
During the last four years in which the Sandinista Front of National Liberation (FSLN) has been in power, the Sandinista government's work has been aimed, above all, at redefining the country's social and economic priorities.
Apart from the changes we already know about – the reintroduction of free healthcare and free eduation and the social programs which are this government's flagships – one of the most important government achievements has been the gradual recuperation of the State as an important force within the economy.
The refounding of ENABAS (the Nicaraguan Basic Food Company), for example, which now performs the function of effectively regulating the price of certain food products, a faculty which makes the company a key factor in the government's strategy to maintain a balance in the economy of ordinary families.
Another example is the strategic State policy on energy sector investment which has established clear State leadership within all aspects of the energy sector.
Another example is the redefinition of priorities in terms of the government's road building policy. Up until four years ago the priority was the international highways and trunk roads. Now the priorities are different.
These are just a few examples of new priorites which will have a very significant impact on the nation's future.
The dual backbones of the government's Development Plan are clearly defined: the farming and livestock sector and the energy sector. Within the farming and livestock sector the government has prioritized small and medium producers who today enjoy greater access to credit and to markets than they did four years ago.
If you go back and revise the program of government that the FSLN presented during the 2006 election campaign you will see that the FSLN has fulfilled its campaign promises almost 100% and that, in certain areas of national life, the government has done a lot more than it promised.
In Nicaragua today we have a government whose social and economic policies have produced concrete results in terms of reducing hunger and strengthening new forms of organization in the countryside mainly as a result of the Zero Hunger program which has organized 60,000 rural women in campesina cooperatives. These women are the seed for new organizational structures which will emerge during the next five years of Sandinista government.
In general, what the FSLN government has worked towards during the last four years is the recuperation of the State's presence and the State's function within certain sectors of the economy in order to pave the way for a qualitative leap in structural and political terms once we win the elections in November.
Differences between 1979 and 2007
There has not been, nor will there be, a structural rupture in Nicaraguan society [as a result of the FSLN coming to power in 2007]. This time round it is not like 1979 when, following the popular insurrection, the Sandinista Front came to power and assumed total control of the country forging the construction of a new State complete with armed forces. This was the case in 1979 because the institutions of the old State power were, literally, burned to the ground.
Also during the 1980s, the FSLN constructed a legal framework for the country – the Constitution.
The situation is very different now, among other things because the political reality, both nationally and internationally, does not permit us to carry out a similar transformation, but also because that is not part of the FSLN's vision today.
What we have seen with this FSLN government are changes in the State's priorities so that the very top priorities have become helping the poorest sectors of society overcome their situation of extreme poverty and promoting a higher standard of living for the population as a whole.
And we have achieved this within a political context which is not favourable for the FSLN. Because we won the presidency without winning a parliamentary majority and without having an ideological majority within Nicaraguan society.
Looking back to January 2007, what we had was an FSLN that aimed to use its term in government to extend and expand its influence and level of popular support to the point of consolidating itself as the majority force in the country both in political and ideoogical terms.
Strengths and weaknesses of the FSLN today
In my opinion, the FSLN's main weakness during this period of government is not having been able to foment a greater level of popular organization. The government has not succeeded in turning the CPCs (Citizen Power Councils) into a large scale instrument of grass roots organization. The CPCs have not caught on and that is more than obvious in the results. Nor has the government been successful in promoting other forms of popular organization that facilitate widespread direct links between the government and the people.
There are many factors working in our favour, however, as we approach the elections in November. One of the FSLN's undoubted strengths is that it has demonstrated itself as a government with a clear vision for the country and a government capable of taking the necessary steps to get to where it wants to go.
Another factor working in our favour is the FSLN's very efficient electoral organizational structure.
On top of this, the international situation is favorable to the consolidation of the FSLN's program, and not just because of the existence of ALBA but also because in Latin America generally there are many governments that have nationalist stances and are less subordinated to US interests.
The fact that the gringos are preocupied with events in other parts of the world and therefore not so interested in what happens in Nicaragua and Central America is also a factor that is favourable to the FSLN.
The FSLN has succeeded in severely weakening the opposition
It is with the 19th Century maxim - “the US has no friends, only interests” - in mind that I conclude the FSLN's greatest success during the last four years in terms of its strategy regarding the political opposition is not to have kept them divided – although that in itself is a major achievement – but to have stripped the opposition of its status as interlocutor for the national oligarchy and for US interests in Nicaragua. Today the US defends its interests in Nicaragua on its own – sometimes with the opposition and sometimes with the government.
Could you describe the opposition as friends of the US? Yes, but the US no longer regards them as their indispensable intermediaries.
The US knows that a divided opposition in Nicaragua cannot win the elections. They know that the FSLN is set to win the elections and so they are not going to declare themselves enemies of the FSLN because that would go against their interests. The US will support and encourage the right wing in their attempt to hold on to their seats in the National Assembly, but that is all.
So the FSLN has the great advantage of a divided opposition whose main structures have basically collapsed – an opposition that lacks clear leadership and that does not have a viable political program to offer.
The FSLN's opponents are weak, and that weakness is not just the result of ongoing divisions but also based on ideological reasons. Because it was the opposition that imposed the privatization of health and education in Nicaragua. Indeed the entire political and ideological model promoted by the opposition during their time in government has been completely undermined in recent years. And as a result, the opposition's rhetoric is an empty rhetoric as far as ordinary Nicaraguans are concerned.
So the FSLN has the advantage of running against opponents whose political proposals are weak and whose record in government plays against them.
Without international crises that directly affect Nicaragua, the FSLN will win comfortably
We don't know under what international circumstances the November elections will take place. The world today is in upheaval – with each day that passes the world becomes more like Nicaragua where things change from one day to the next. We don't know what will happen in the Middle East or in the rest of the world. Nor can we predict what the climatological situation will be in November.
But if events take place within the limits of relative “normality” - without a second global economic crisis, without an international catastrophe that directly affects the country, without dramatic natural disasters affecting Nicaragua – then I think the FSLN has an excellent chance of winning a comfortable victory on November 6th.
The decisive battle for a parliamentary majority will depend on the results from four departments: Managua, León, Chinandega and Matagalpa which, between them, elect 37 deputies – almost 40% of the seats in the National Assembly.
By means of a simple adding up and subtracting excercise based on recent election results and taking into account the seats won by the FSLN in 2006 it is possible to determine that the FSLN has an exellent chance of winning a simple majority (47) in the Assembly and a good chance of winning a comfortable majority of at least 50 deputies. Winning a super majority (of 55, needed to pass certain laws and to reform the Constitution) will be a more difficult task, though.
What an FSLN victory in November will mean for the country
The key question in this political dispute which will be played out in November is what we hope to achieve if we win. There are Sandinistas who sometimes forget the reason we want to take power is so as to bring about a better standard of living for ordinary Nicaraguans. We do not aim to take power so we can be better nationalists or more anti-imperialist or so we can better defend the River San Juan … or make a nice little income for ourselves. We aim to take power in order to combat poverty, so that the entire population can improve their standard of living.
How do we imagine the country after five more years of FSLN government? We imagine a country which has reduced the rate of chronic malnutrition to 4 or 5% (right now it stands at 19%, it was at 27% when we took power). We imagine a country where all citizens have the chance to finish primary school. We imagine a country which produces nearly 10 million hundredweight of rice and beans a year and which has begun a process of agroindustrialization of dairy, meat and basic grain production. We imagine a country that is much more integrated in every way.
Have people's lives improved during the last five years?
Have people's lives improved during the last five years? Everyone's experience has been different, there is no universal answer. There are lots of people whose lives are better, there are some whose lives are worse, there are others whose lives have neither improved nor gotten worse. But the overall indicators tell us that the country and its people are in better shape than in 2006.
Five years ago parents had to pay so that their children could receive a public education, today they don't. Five years ago patients had to pay for treatment in public hospitals, today they don't. Five years ago there were daily power cuts, today there are none.
I think Nicaragua is in better shape today than five years ago and I believe that we have created the conditions to continue improving people's lives at a faster rate during the next five years of Sandinista government.
Poverty is still there, of course. To fully overcome poverty we need to grow at least 10% a year for 20 years. It's a daunting task, the fulfillment of which does not just depend on what happens in Nicaragua but within the global context.
Let's be clear – poverty cannot be overcome with political will alone. Political will is important, but it is not enough.
The FSLN's main challenge when we took power in 2007 was how to be a progressive government with the ability to defend the interests of the impoverished majority without falling out with the gringos, without falling out with the national oligarchy and without falling out with Catholic hierarchy. And we have managed it – we haven't fallen out with the US or with the oligarchy.
Where we haven't been so successful is in our relations with the Catholic Church heirarchy, but even here things have been adecuately mediated and the damage has been kept to a minimum.
These elections will be the freest of the last 20 years
Our relations with these sectors have constituted both our greatest challenge and what ordinary people were most concerned about. Many people were scared into believing that if the FSLN won we would confiscate property, we would enter into conflict with the US, that investment capital would flee the country, that family remittances would be cut off.
Now those fears have evaporated. And it is for this reason that the elections in November will be the freest elections Nicaragua has enjoyed in the last 20 years: People are no longer scared that if they vote [for the FSLN] a war will break out or foreign investment will leave the country. In this sense, we can say that the upcoming elections will be immensely free elections.
In the 1990 elections the Nicaraguan people went to vote with a gun to our head - “if you keep on voting for the Sandinistas the war will continue.” And in 1996, 2001 and 2006 we were told the same thing.
But that is in the past now. This time around people will be able to vote according to their conscience, free of that past fear.
The FSLN and Nicaragua's democratic institutions
The main argument that has been used against the Sandinista Front is that it has compromised the country's institutional and juridical framework. The government, and in particular Daniel Ortega, is accused of undermining Nicaragua's democratic institutions, of acting in an authoritarian fashion, of violating the Constitution and the law.
But we must remember that all institutional frameworks, all juridical frameworks, are defined by the political majority. There is not a society in the world in which the political majority does not construct that society's institutions.
Nicaragua's juridical framework has its origin in the Revolution of 1979. The Constitution, which was passed in 1987, is a product of the Revolution as are the Nicaraguan State, the Army and the Police.
But that Constitution, under which the presidential elections of 1990 were carried out, was administered and reformed according to the interests of the political majority that emerged from those elections so that the interests of this new majority were reflected in the Constitution and in the rest of the country's legislation.
One example of the long term effects of the reforms brought about during that period are the protests that have been taking place during recent weeks involving thousands of elderly people who made social security payments during a certain period of time but who, in the end, did not make sufficient payments to receive a pension. And the reason they don't receive a pension is because the government of Violeta Chamorro reformed the law of social security taking away that right.
And what was the effect of legislative reforms during this period on the State owned means of production? The Chamorro government sold them off and privatized them.
And what happened to the country's financial system? The 1987 Constitution established State control over the banking system, but as of 1991 private banks began to operate in Nicaragua despite the fact that the Constitution, which prohibited private banking operations, had not been reformed. In fact it was not until 1995 that the appropriate reforms were made to the Constitution.
How was all this possible? It was possible because the political majority of the time imposed their interests. Because it is the political majority that constructs a society's juridical and institutional framework.
Analysis of last year's political standoff
At present no one has a political majority in the Nicaraguan National Assembly - the struggle to establish a new political majority will be played out in the country's November elections. In the meantime the political forces use the instruments they have had at their disposal to impose their political will.
That is what the FSLN does and that is what the FSLN did when it issued presidential decree 3-2010. (In January 2010 President Ortega issued a decree ordering 25 high level government officials whose periods in office were due to expire, to remain in their positions until the National Assembly named their substitutes.)
The FSLN knew that without a political agreement with one of the two liberal benches – Montealegre's bench or the PLC bench – they would not be able to elect the 25 top posts (which include magistrates in the Supreme Court, the Electoral Council, the Comptroller's Office, etc.).
And they also knew that their political opponents' intention was simply not to elect those posts, to leave them empty, as part of a plan to paralyze the State powers and impose a situation in which to negotiate with the government under more favourable conditions.
Aware of this, President Ortega beat the opposition to it and issued a decree ordering the top level officials to remain in their posts until the National Assembly elected their substitutes.
Some have argued that the President of the Republic does not have the faculty to maintain officials in these posts. And it is true that the national legislation does not explicitly give this faculty to the President, but it is also true that national law does not prohibit it. The fact that the opposition has never formally appealed the decree underlines this.
The rightwing's institutionality spread hunger and misery for 17 years
The famous institutionality our political opponents talk so much about let the people go hungry for 17 years – but it was all legal, it was all institutionally legitimate. Former Finance Minister Eduardo Montealegre was fully within the legal constraints of this juridical framework when he cut the program providing the nation's school children with a glass of milk each day. Similarly the former right wing governments acted according to the nation's juridical framework when they cut access to credit for small producers.
And these are just two of the numerous examples of how the much mentioned juridical and institutional framework was used to protect and promote other interests, namely economic interests, during 17 years.
Now we are trying to construct a new framework, a framework which takes into account the new political majority that is set to emerge from the November elections. Obviously, there is a political dispute going on as we move forward towards our aim. And that is the way it always is – we must not forget that every election process is a power struggle.
Like anywhere else it is the political majority in Nicaragua that determines the institutional framework
So yes, there are many people who underline the importance of upholding the State based on Law. But it is more than clear that in all countries of the world it is the political majority that constructs the State based on Law and that decides who occupies the top posts within that framework.
Who elects the Supreme Court judges in Spain? The parliamentary deputies who divy up the posts between progressives and conservatives. And we are told that Spain is a democratic haven.
Who elects the Supreme Court justices in the US? The President. Does he elect his adversaries? No, he elects his buddies. And he elects them for life because they are life long positions.
Who elects the Supreme Court judges in Costa Rica? The party or alliance with most deputies in the parliament.
What I am getting at is the fact that it is the political majority in any given society that determines the society's institutional and juridical framework and not the other way round.