Funding the Right: Rhetoric Vs. Reality in Nicaragua

Against the Current, No. 37, March/April 1992

Midge Quandt

“NED [Ihe National Endowment for Democracy] wants to do civic education … and teach the Nicaraguan people to be members of a democratic society….” —interview with Diane Ponasik, Nicaragua Desk officer, U.S. Agency for International Development, May 16, 1991

“There has been a great decadence in values … Nicaraguan youth need a moral and Christian orientation.—interview with Pablo Avendaño, Director of Programs, Center for Youth Formation, Managua, June 26, 1991

IN POST-SANDINISTA Nicaragua, the United States is funding a set of projects “to strengthen the Nicaraguan people’s understanding of democratic processes and institutions.” Officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and the pass-through organizations that administer the grants, use the language of North America liberalism to describe their goals: citizen participation; democratic/civic education; and an open society.

“Critical consciousness,” says Ray Kennedy of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, “will make fanaticism a thing of the past.” In a thinly veiled attack on the Sandinista regime, U.S. officials contrast the ethos of Chamorro’s Nicaragua with “closed societies” and “totalitarian governments” that manipulate and indoctrinate their subjects.

Echoing their North American benefactors, leaders of the U.S.-funded groups in Nicaragua are quicktoendorse pluralism, peaceful change and democratic elections. They also talk about the virtues of dialogue and citizen involvement. Nonetheless, the liberal principles they invoke serve a profoundly conservative end.

The right and ultra-right organizations funded by AID and NED are part of an UNO government and Church-led crusade to turn back the clock in Nicaragua. Together they have launched a cultural counterrevolution whose aim is the erasure of Sandinismo and the pacification of the popular classes. Taking advantage of the horrendous economic situation, the campaign plays on the simmering fatalism of the lower middle class, workers and campesinos so as to curtail mass organizing and delegitimize class-based protest.

Inorderto fashion a politics of passivity, right-wing forces inside and outside the government promote a set of traditional values that include deference to the state and the institutional Catholic Church- respect for religion, parents and Christian morals; and sexual restraint.

In their view, the Sandinista Revolution, by assaulting customary Nicaraguan beliefs, upset the natural order of things that they will now set right. So when the heads of U.S.-funded groups speak about an “active citizenry” and “democratic participation,” they mean to enlist the populace in an ideological counteroffensive in their neighborhoods, schools and places of work.

Everywhere the contrast between North American liberal rhetoric and the substance of reaction is striking.

Education for Obedience

Take the field of public education. AID has given the Ministry of Education seven million “politically neutral” textbooks to replace the ones used in the Sandinista-dominated schools.

At the same time, U.S. officials and educators profess an interest in “critical thinking,” cooperative learning techniques and training for citizenship. Theirs is a secular and instrumental vision of education for Nicaragua that John Dewey would be proud of. The civics texts adopted by the ministry, however, use the Ten Commandments to teach conservative religious and family values —the evils of abortion and divorce, the importance of obedience and respect for authority.

David Dorn, Director of the International Department of the American Federation of Teachers, defends the educational program as appropriate for this Catholic country without seeming to notice the political purposes to which it is put. Though the textbooks contain brief homilies to Abraham Lincoln, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau, the bulk of them underscore the values of submissiveness and docility; the importance of traditional parental roles (“If the father is pictured washing dishes, people will say he’s gay,” noted the General Secretary of Education, Maria Teresa de Bendana); and the beauty of sexual purity (“God wishes us to control our impulses,” advises the sixth-grade text).

The Christian moralism of the texts is part of an ideological effort on the part of the Ministry of Education to wipe out the revolutionary legacy of popular empowerment. The ideologues of this campaign, including Chamorro advisors Pablo Antonio Cuadra and Carlos Mantica (both of whom are close to Cardinal Obando y Bravo), and Minister of Education, Humberto Bell, are spokesmen for traditional Catholic notions of order, hierarchy and corporatism.

Belli belongs to the reactionary and secretive society, the Ciudad de Dies (as do textbook editor, Elida Solórzano and Belli underling Dolores Hurtado, according to Nicaraguan journalist Noel Was). Interpreting the UNO victory as a sign from God, sect members have taken up the political and ideological battle against the devil-inspired Sandinista Revolution. According to Irias and Father Césarjerez, the former rector of the Central American University in Managua who died of a stroke this past fall, the Ministry of Education is at the center of this war.

U.S.-funded civic organizations also play a part in the counterrevolution. The pro-UNO ‘Nicaraguan Women of Conscience” (MNC), whose NED grant is administered by the Delphi International Group to promote political participation,” is one of these. Delphi’s Associate Area Coordinator Sora Friedman notes that it is through women that one can reach the population at large about democratic rights and responsibilities.

Now right-wing forces, comments Nicaraguan sociologist Oscar-René Vargas, also target women of the popular classes as bearers of political culture, but count on them to perpetuate conservative values. Thus, the women’s group director, Deputy Attorney General Francis Blandón, while enthusiastically supporting BelWs notion of civic education, emphasizes the importance of religion and the two-parent family.

Moreover, Blandon’s organization reinforces government efforts to get women out of salaried jobs and into the kind of work they can do from their homes. (Friedman comments on the salience of traditionalism in the women’s organization: “it’s so Latin, so Catholic you can’t separate civics and religion in Nicaragua.”)

So NED and Delphi International finance “democratic education” for women, while the MNC works to revitalize conservative social mores.

The Chinch In Everything

Delphi International also administers an NED grant to UNO’s Center for Youth Formation (CEFOJ) to “train leaders in civil education and leadership skills.” Fanor and Pablo Avendafto, who run the organization, emphasize the importance of -tolerance, dialogue and negotiation” for overcoming the Sandinistas’ authoritarian legacy among youth.

But young people (half the population is under sixteen) are also central to the right’s ideological offensive It is hardly surprising therefore, that the Avendaño brothers endorse Bell’s vision of education. “Such a religious and moral education,” says Pablo Avendaño, “is necessary to counter the massive indoctrination of the young by the atheist Sandinistas.”

According to the Avendaños, the Sandinista’s Marxist-Leninist teaching cut youth’s ties with the family and the Church; it has also undermined morals—witness the unilateral divorce law still in effect (Friedman maintains that CEFOJ does not mingle politics with religion; it’s just that in Nicaragua, “the Church is involved in everything.”)

Besides promoting a conservative social agenda, the youth organization appears to support the far right’s political goals. The brothers are harshly critical of the government’s moderation, favoring instead thepolitics of the ultra-right and vengeful UNO mayors, who for the last year have been trying to destabilize the country. So much for NED’s “hope that [their] programs … support a peaceful democratic transition in Nicaragua.

NED’s rhetoric also fails to capture the reality of Via CIvica, a “non-partisan” organization that does grassroots civileducation and training. Director Carlos Quinones, M.D., the former head of Nicaragua’s right-wing professional association (CONAPRO), defines his mission as the “formation of the Nicaraguan citizen and the development of civic education in the community.”

What does this mean in practice? For one, Dr. Quinones organizes parents’ groups to make the public schools “teach the new textbooks correctly.” (Textbook editor and Cuidad de Dios associate Solórazano is on Via CIvica’s board.)

It is unclear whether these parents’ groups are outgrowths of the Christian Parents-Teachers, an organization that functioned as a front for the Cuidad de Dios in the 1980s. But in its community organizing Via Civica works, in the words of the director, to instill “respect for parents, family and religion as the core of society.” Thus, Quiñones appears to combat Sandinista “indoctrination and fanaticism” by teaching what he calls the “new values.”

One of these values is local democracy. Currently a group of ultra-right mayors is pushing for greater independence from the more centrist executive branch in its vehement attack on the Sandinistas and the government, it has called for the dismissal of Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo for “collaborating’ with the FSLN.

Meanwhile Via CIvica has been running a series of seminars on municipal autonomy for these mayors. Is this the politics of peaceful transition that NED has in mind?

Reconciliation Or Hegemony?

Other U.S.-funded groups likewise fail to support national reconciliation or democratic transition. The Permanent Commission on Human Rights attacks the government’s moderation and supports the vindictive property law that currently threatens chaos in Nicaragua. The law would undo eleven years of urban and rural land reform.

Radio Corporaclon, which Delphi International insists is not “a mouthpieces of ownerJosé Castillo’s National Conservative Party, nonetheless backs his party’s property law. Castillo, along with Cardinal Obando y Bravo and Vice President Virgilio Godoy, appeared with U.S. Ambassador Harry Schlaudemann at the National Assembly on July 9 for the discussion of the property issue.

Taken together, U.S. money for “civic” purposes supports the work of the political and religious right in its effort to restore conservative hegemony in Nicaragua; hence the juxtaposition of the liberal rhetoric of civic activism with the substance of Catholic traditionalism.

But the North American liberal model of politics is more than a cover for conservatism. It is also a way of undercutting class loyalties and class-based organizing in post-Sandinista Nicaragua. According to the idea of liberalism, people express themselves by voting in elections and by participating in voluntary organizations—not as members of a group but as individuals.

Liberalism, however, is no more able to challenge institutional and corporate power in the United States than it is to check the neoliberal restructuring of Nicaragua. Fortunately for the majority of Nicaraguans, neither the liberal nor the conservative model can so far claim

March-April 1992, ATC 37