The Jogering of Nicaragua

John Vandermeer

THE VERB JODER (pronounced ho-der, with an accent on the der) is central to the Nicaraguan vocabulary. Much like the Mexican chingar, immortalized in the film El Norte,joder enjoys an extremely diverse usage. No me joddás [quit buggin me], están jodiendo [they’re just flicking around], Oye jodido! [hey you bastard—-to a friend], Este jodido! [that asshole), Pa’ joder [because I damn well feel like it] are some examples.

On a recent trip to Nicaragua, a friend told me (I’ll paraphrase), ‘First the gringos invade, they put in a dictator, then they attack with the contras, now they’re jodering us again. Why can’t they stop their joder and leave us alone. What do those jodering people want?” And that’s the sense of it The gringos are “flicking us over again,” because they “damn well please,” to “screw us over” because we won’t get down on our knees.

Popular opinion in the United States seems to be something like “the situation must be awfully bad in Nicaragua if the U.S. Congress is willing to suspend aid.” The reality is quite different The United States has created a mess in Nicaragua and is allowing Jesse Helms to take whatever heat must be taken for continuing to mess it up further. But it’s not Helms’ fault U.S. government policy has been, and still is, that anarchy shall reign in Nicaragua—the price an upstart Third World nation must pay for attempting to take an independent path.

If the basic goals of the U.S. government are not depressing enough, let it be known that they are working very well. Nicaragua is rapidly sinking to a state of violent anarchy that none of us thought would ever come to pass. it is clearly jodered.

Modern Nicaraguan history begins with the overthrow of the dictator Somoza in 1979, and subsequent U.S. policy established by the Carter administration. Carter set the stae for Reagan, whose policies the Clinton administration seems quite comfortable with. George Bush’s administration, believe it or not, seems to have been the only one to even contemplate changing the policy, a possibility dashed by the 1990 electoral defeat of the Sandinistas. The rule, as devised during the Carter administration, is that Central American countries may choose one of two mutes. They may either have a military that is subservient to the interests of international capital or no military at all. Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras correspond to the first pattern; Belize and Costa Rica to the second; Panama changed from the first to the second pattern with the invasion of 1989 and the subsequent systematic destruction of the Panamanian Defense Forces. That leaves Nicaragua, still an enigma for U.S. policy.

Throughout the 1980s, Nicaragua resisted the U.S. agenda despite ruthless attacks at all three levels of imperialist power—economic, diplomatic and military. Indeed, Nicaragua became something of a symbol for the rest of the Third World, which, of course, made it especially dangerous. By the time George Bush was inaugurated, it was clear that the contra war had failed and the Bush administration seemed poised on the brink of a new policy, awaiting only the electoral victory of the Sandinistas in 1990. Exactly what that policy would have been we will never know, but most likely the military aspect of the contra effort was going to end.

It seems that the Bush administration had accepted the fact that it would have to deal with the Sandinistas in a new way that was unusual not only for Nicaragua but for all of Central America—as a country with a dominant political and military force that favored the interests of the people of that country.

But that experiment never was hatched. U.S. investment in the elections paid off, and the Sandinistas lost the elections. U.S. policy immediately reverted to its Carter plan and viewed the situation as one in which the Sandinistas were “down but not out,” planning strategies to extinguish all remnants of independence. That basic plan has been put into effect ever since the elections and has had much of the intended effect Nicaragua is worse off now than it has ever been (certainly much worse off than under the Sandinistas, and probably even than under Somoza), and the situation deteriorates each day.

The political landscape is very complex right now. In attempting to fortify the solidarity movement here, we need to understand something of those complexities. In that spirit I offer the following observations.

The Far Right

The far right, now seemingly the strong favorite of the U.S. State Department, revolves around three figures: Vice President VirgilioGodoy, former legislative assembly President Alfredo Cdsar, and Mayor of Managua, Arnoldo Alemán. It is difficult to place them in a convenient category of the right, since the categories used in the United States do not necessarily apply.

What unites the three is a hatred, seemingly visceral, of the Sandinistas, and a sense of personal opportunism that would shock most U.S. citizens, right or left They are members, leaders, of a significant offshoot of the UNO coalition that brought President Violeta Chamorro to power in 1990, and they have broken with her and become her main antagonists.

Alemán in particular seems to have had a typical Nicaraguan political trajectory. Elected under the UNO banner in 1990, he rapidly became tremendously popular as he apparently siphoned off money from the U.S. Embassy to projects in poor neighborhoods (it appears that most Nicaraguans expect politicians to steal the money they receive for other purposes—if they actually use some of it for which it was intended, that seems to be regarded as something quite out of the ordinary).

Typically Alemán would arrive in a poor neighborhood with an entourage of political hacks, and give a speech to the assembled neighbors (just enough so that everyone knew he was there). The next day trucks arrived to put in electricity, making Alemán appear to be the person who “gets things done for the people.” By 1992 and early 1993 he was riding a wave of popularity throughout Managua, which looked very much like a possible springboard for a presidential bid in 1996. But Nicaraguan politics are volatile, and the Nicaraguan electorate cynical and fickle. Several of his civic projects went soui, and by the summer of 1993 he seemed to have fallen into political oblivion.

On the other hand, Godoy and César remain powerful political symbols, although their power bases are questionable. They remain obvious choices of the U.S. embassy, but it is not clear where their popular support will come from. They certainly have the support of COSEP (the national council of private enterprise—the most notorious tight-wing influence in the country), and given the volatility of Nicaraguan politics their fortunes could rise or fall on a moment’s notice.

In addition to the “legitimate” political right, many former contra bands have reunited and rearmed. This movement, known as “recontra,” is itself quite eclectic. Some contra groups are rearmed for the fairly obvious purpose of highway robbery, simply using the training they received by the CIA to rob and pillage Others are rearmed with a clear political purpose and usually support the UNO opposition (i.e. Godoy, César and Ale-man). Others rearm for a short time, seemingly to negotiate a monetary settlement with the government.

The central rallying cry of much of the far right, echoed in the offices of Jesse Helms, is that military chief Humberto Ortega and Chamorro’s main advisor and decision-maker, Antonio Lacayo, be fired. It is not really clear why these two should be such consistent targets. Lacayo, never a Sandinista, has been actually quite willing to bend over backwards to satisfy the needs of the far right And while Humberto Ortega may be the most powerful man in the army tight now, the entire command structure is dominated by what the far right would call “Sandinista symps.” It is simply not possible that an anti-Sandinista could be found to take Ortega’s place even if he were fired.

It has been suggested that this demand was manufactured in the United States simply for the purpose of fodering, that whoever thought up the demand knew very well that Chamorro was simply not going to fire either Lacayo or Ortega. And that fact made it an especially divisive demand for the far right to make. Chamorro’s announcement recently that Ortega will be replaced next year came as quite a surprise to most people Exactly who will replace him is likely to become a contentious issue in the near future.

The FSLN in Historical Perspective

The other side of the political spectrum is dominated by the Sandinista Nation Liberation Front, the FSLN (usually referred to locally as “the Frente”), and its various supporters and left-wing detractors. The defeat of the Frente in the 1990 elections was not only unexpected, it turns out to have been truly disastrous. The dynamics of the immediate post-election politics was most important in setting the stage for the complexities that are seen being played out today.

Prior to the 1990 elections the Frente was, at least on the surface, a unified force, coupling economic and military power along with a significant popular mandate they won with the 1979 Revolution. Their most significant loss of popularity was not so much with their loss of the elections, but rather with the economic opportunism so evident in their subsequent legislative act popularly known as “la piñata” (a piñata is the ceramic animal stuffed with candy and other presents that children break open at birthday parties in Latin America).

The ostensible purpose of the Sandinistas’ postelection legislation was to legally codify the property rights that were gained throuh the agrarian reform program of the 1980s. Along with protection of legitimate land rights of workers and peasants were what many Nicaraguans, Sandinistas and non-Sandinistas alike, saw as blatant abuse of power, with houses, farms, restaurants and other properties entitled to Sandinista politicians. The Frente’s prestige suffered enormously from this act Indeed, the elections were nothing compared to the piñata.

Furthermore, the 1980s saw the war with the contras as a unifying force for the Frente. The FSLN had consolidated its position not as a force for constructing socialism, but rather as a force for overthrowing Somoza. As such it was originally an enormously eclectic political entity, enjoying support from legitimate revolutionaries as well as Somoza wannabees.

In retrospect it should have been evident that such an eclectic political force would naturally experience fractures once the unifying force of Somoza was eliminated. The only thing that continued to unite the FSLN was the contra war Ironically, Washington provided the Sandinistas with their only possible unifying force for the entire decade of the 1980s.

In 1987 and 1988 I had many long conversations—-sometimes aided by a few beers, with Sandinistas and former Sandinistas–I detected a clear undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the leadership, especially at local levels. One institution, for example, had begun with the base committee composed of respected revolutionaries. (The FSLN organized all their institutions around the “base committee,” the political committee that was responsible for developing the institution and insuring that its development was in basic conformity with the political principles of the FSLN.) But the bureaucrat responsible for the institution was unsatisfied with the independence of the members of his base committee, and one by one he replaced them with others whom he could control.

Seven years later, in 1987, the base committee was composedof political hacks whose only claim to power was their willingness to say yes to whatever this petty bureaucrat wanted. The rest of the institution knew this entire history and was incredibly bitter about it One by one they could summarize the history of political opportunism of every base committee member, including how each managed to escape any significant fighting during the 1979 Revolution.

The FSLN Today

Such undercurrents existed throughout Nicaragua by the late 1980s. Support for the ideals of the Revolution was still strong, but cynicism with the FSLN had grown enormously. The contra war kept the cynicism secret No one I talked to in the late 1980s would ever publicly criticize the FSLN despite what they were willing to say in private—the war required everyone to close ranks, and all members and supporters of the FSLN did so. But dissension was clearly under the surface, and undoubtedly contributed to the electoral defeat.

With all of the above combined in 1990—ten years of growing dissension within the ranks of the Sandinistas now released by the evident defeat of the contras, the pinata, confirming what many rank-and-file members of the FSLN had strongly suspected all along, and finally the reality of disparate class interests within the Frente s ranks—the FSLN no longer could retain its united public face. As a university student told me last year, “I am a revolutionary-4 used to be a Sandinista.”

While this history makes it unsurprising to find that today’s Sandinistas are divided on a variety of issues, it should also be noted that the Sandinistas are still the dominant political force in the country, controlling the army (more on that below), much of the police force, a great deal of economic activity (probably more than the business federation COSEP), and still representing something of the spirit of national independence that emerged in 1979. It would thus be a mistake to assume that Sandinismo is dead. It is very much alive, but it has changed, and is no longer a united force.

There are at least four major fault lines that are observable: First, the army versus the party; second, rearmed revolutionaries versus government collaborators; third, the labor/peasant leadership and the national directorate; fourth, the ideological splits that characterized the early stages of the revolutionary war.

The army/party split is a natural result of the philosophical distinction between a “national army that in fact protects bourgeois interests (as does, for example, the military of the United States), and a “popular” army that protects the interests of the working class, the peasant class, and whatever other class fractions might be classified under “popular’ The El’S (Spanish acronym for Sandinista Popular Army) is attempting to do both. That simply may not be possible in the end.

General Humberto Ortega is clearly in charge of the formal military structure of the country. He is a former Sandinista, breaking with the party after the 1990 elections so as to project a politically neutral impression of the army. The elected civilian government has control over the army, something that is certainly true in theory, and thus far seems to be true in practice. That, of course, could always change. Since the elected civilian government was elected mainly to promote the interests of the bourgeoisie, it is not surprising that the army now appears to be in support of bourgeois interests. Yet this brings it under the criticisms of those who think its title of “popular” army requires it to behave according to deeper political principles.

Thus the army receives critical reviews from both sides—the right decries its “popular” formation, knowing full well that bourgeois rights cannot survive without the rule of force, while the left decries its collaboration with a government whose charge is to promote bourgeois interests.

This dilemma is critical for the FSLN. If the army openly espouses the “popular” philosophy that it is in support of the political interests of the popular classes, this would certainly invite further U.S. intervention. But its actual position of openly espousing the interests of the current government has resulted in a moor rift between the party and the army, with the party newspaper Barricada frequently criticizing the army more than the right-wing newspapers.

Further complicating this dilemma is a question recently emering concerning the institutionalization of the army. While most theorists view military might as something that supports political power, Central America has been characterized by military might that sometimes defines its own political power In particular, the Salvadoran and Guatemalan military have frequently acted as quite independent political forces, usually in considerable agreement with national bourgeoisie, but sometimes simply independently of all political forces
outside the military itself.

The Salvadoran army, for example, is one of the most powerful economic entities in the country and, according to some observers, can no longer be counted upon to protect the rights of the traditional bourgeoisie (Le it now has its own economic interests to protect). Similar questions have recently been raised about the EPS. When the EPS sells attack helicopters to the Peruvian mi1itary, when the EPS, alone amongst Nicaraguan institutions, does not seem to feel the economic crisis of the 1990s because of a large number of independent financial arrangements, when General Ortega openly criticizes former comrades from El Salvador—doubts are growing about the ultimate role of the EPS.

Perhaps the most internationally visible division within the FSLN is that between the “recompas” (rearmed Sandinista soldiers—during the contra war EPS soldiers were commonly referred to as cornpas, short for compafiero or comrade) and the party hierarchy. While some right-wing ideologues have tried to link the party to the rearmed Sandinistas, there is certainly no evidence to this effect that can be detected in Nicaragua. Indeed, the party hierarchy basically agrees with the central government and the army that the rearmed groups, both recontras and recompas, are having a negative effect on possibilities of developing the country.

Recompas seem to be divisible in two major types. First are relatively local groups that evolved out of disaffection from the new government (and in part, the collaboration of the upper levels of the FSLN thereof). They saw the new government as having promised much to the peasant and working classes but having delivered only to COSEP and other bourgeoisie elements. These groups would then came under the leadership of a former army officer and engage in military-style operations aimed at forcing the government to keep its promises. Frequently these groups were made up of both former EPS members and former contras, in which case they were referred to as revueltos (scrambled).

Second are groups that aspire to something more national, usually with a more ideological base at their formation, and usually remaining underground. Most famous is the ex-Sandinista Frank Ibarra and his “punitive forces of the left,” a group of unknown size that engages in guerilla actions in support of revolutionary principles. Its most notable action thus far has been the assassination of a prominent right-wing leader and agitator The recompas (said to include a few recontras also) led by Pedrito the Honduran, that took over Esteli in July of 1993 was also an important national roup. More important is the “40 command of national dignity” who sequestered virtually the entire UNO leadership in August of 1993 in response to the kidnapping of Sandinista officials in the north of the country by recontras.

The most talked about division within the FSLN is between the labor/peasant leadership and the national directorate. The 1990 elections surprised everyone, even those who won. Since the United States had ensured that Nicaragua never had even bourgeois democratic institutions for the past hundred years, an orderly change in administrative political power had never happened before in Nicaragua. Indeed, through much of Central America the political tradition follows along the more ‘revolutionary’ idea that the winner takes alL

This meant that the 1990 loss of the Sandinistas meant to many on the right that the Sandinistas ought to disappear from the face of the earth—after all, they lost the election. The leadership of the FSLN certainly realized that this would be the attitude, and quickly moved to protect the institutions that would allow it to remain as a political force—in opposition to the government, but still a force.

Thus the FSLN leadership entered into negotiations with the new government, initiating a pattern that has been very unpopular on both the right and left of the government It is difficult to see how the FSLN could have done anything else, given on the one hand its legitimate loss at the polls and on the other hand the right wing’s clear expectation that the FSLN should completely disappear But that negotiation, continuing to the present day, has been a politically destabilizing force for the central government.

On the one hand, the right wing claims that the FSLN is actually a co-governing body, that Chamorro and her chief advisors (especially her son-in-law Antonio Lacayo) are simply Sandinista sympathizers who take their marching orders from the leadership of the FSLN. On the other side, much of the rank and file of the FSLN is highly critical of the party leadership for collaborating with the central government The party, they argue, ought to be the legitimate opposition to what is effectively a bourgeois regime, not a collaborator with that regime.

This dynamic has left the central coalition—the leadership of the FSLN and the core of the elected government—with questionable support in the country. The left accuses the FSLN leadership of having sold out and become collaborators with the bourgeoisie who currently hold power The right accuses the government of having sold out and become collaborators with the Sandinista communists. Meanwhile, the center coalition seems increasingly isolated.

This dynamic has left the FSLN split along tactical lines. The main leaders of the union movement and peasant organizations tend to take an oppositionist stance, calling on the FSLN to conform to its historical mission of protecting the rights of the popular classes Thus, they argue, the FSLN ought to be mainly in opposition to the current government, which they see as representative of the bourgeoisie The leadership of the FSLN sees collaboration with the current government as the only form of modern politics that is available to them—-bipartisanship.

There are some very difficult and contentious theoretical issues involved here. The FSLN leadership effectively wishes to institutionalize the revolution by becoming one of the accepted and legitimate political forces in a Western-style democracy. They feel that the armed struggle stage of the Revolution is over, and strictly political struggle is now on the agenda, that the political struggle must now take the form of Western-style politics, albeit with one of the dominant players an openly leftist party, whose legitimate participation is guaranteed by a “popular” armed forces. They regard the left wing of the party as being dangerously close to adventurism, and groups like that of Frank Ibarra as vulgar Marxist adventurists.

The left wing of the FSLN (mainly the leadership of the unions and peasant organizations) regards the FSLN leaders as bourgeois collaborationists. In June of 1993 a grouping of twenty-nine of the most important leaders of the left FSLN wrote a letter to the national directorate demanding that the FSLN distance itself from the central overnment. Since the centralgovernment was becoming ever more unpopular with the popular classes (actually with the bourgeoisie also) they argued, it is not in the party’s best interests to be so closely associated with it. Furthermore, the historical role of the FSLN is to protect the interests of the popular classes, which the central government certainly had no intention of doing.

Finally, an old tendency seems to be emerging again. During the late 1970s the FSLN became divided along lines associated with revolutionary theory. Three tendencies emerged associated with differences of opinion as to how a revolutionary organization should formulate its actions (a long-term strategy of popular warfare, collaboration with bourgeoisie elements in order to seize political power, or a combination of these two referred to as the “third” way). These three tendencies became submerged with the revolutionary victory of 1979, and what may have been underlying differences of political philosophy were subordinated to the task of national unification and subsequently to the need to close ranks during the contra war, In late 1993, according to rumors on the street, these three tendencies are surfacing once again. The consequences of this new debate are far from clear.

The Central Government

There is not much to say about the central government, other than that it appears to be becoming ever more marginalized. It still represents political legitimacy, but its base of support has all but disappeared. The right wing abandoned it because of its collaboration with the Sandinistas, and the left never was on its side in the first place. Indeed, the continued collaboration of the directorate of the FSLN has even placed the latter’s position within its own party in jeopardy.

To be fair it must be admitted that the central government was put in an almost impossible situation from the start Having been promised, both formally and under the table, enormous sums of money from the United States, the election campaign included a large number of campaign promises that were central to its victory. But those promises were based to a large extent on assurances of U.S. monetary support.

For example, resettling ex-contras with new land titles, agricultural credit and technical assistance required money. That money was available in the promises from the United States; when Washington reneed the central government was put in the awkward position of being unable to make good on its campaign pledges. The result—disaffected ex-contras. The result—re-contra.

Furthermore, United States interference in Nicaragua, which apparently can be countered upon, has exacerbated what had already been a difficult situation. While the Chamorro victory was clearly a mandate, ner political base was fragile. The Sandinistas, even though they lost the election, were still the most potent legitimate political force in the country. Chaniorro was faced with an extreme right wing that demanded a “winner take all” approach to the succession of power Had she acceded to these demands there would clearly havebeen civil war She wisely chose to negotiate the transfer of power, thus jettisoning the most right-wing elements of her coalition from the start.

Entering into discussions with the Sandinistas was also anathema to the U.S. State Department who saw the elections as an important opportunity to eliminate Sandinismo entirely. Thus was set up the impossible situation of choosing either civil war or loss of promised U.S. funds, the latter of which were essential elements of the new overnment’s pacification and development plan.

Faced with this impossible dilemma, the Chamorro government, at first in loose cooperation with both the FSLN and the UNO, began trying to walk a tightrope through the various political interests puffing and pushing it. Rapidly that tightrope disappeared and popular support began to erode dramatically. Curiously, the first major loss of support was from her own party. Gradually thereafter various sections of the FSLN began withdrawing the weak support they had given, and currently the central apparatus of the government and the national directorate of the FSLN seem to be the only social base the government can legitimately claim.

This then is politics in Nicaragua. And what of the United States? Like a schoolyard bully who just finished beating up on a small kid, it watches as the other small kids come in to continue the beating, cheering on from the sidelines, occasionally jumping in for a quick punch or kick. Despite the elimination of any of the various pretexts used in the past, the bully continues looking for openings to joder. It is getting increasingly difficult, even for a cynic, to understand why.

Granted, Nicaragua used to represent the threat of a good example. It had to be crushed before popular democracy might spread to neighboring El Salvador and Honduras. But flow? The threat is simply no longer there. Central Americans have learned well from the Nicaraguan example—you don’t sass back at a bully. And Nicaragua as the center of a terrorist network? Really! Next we are going to hear that those extraterrestrials that have been kidnapping Jesse Helms’ supporters have luxury resorts in Managua from which they launch their UFOs.

Nicaragua is, as the Nicaraguans say, jodered. Unemployment figures are so high they loose meaning. Economic growth is non-existent. It is the only country in the world whose per capita income today is less than in 1960. It is rapidly approaching Haiti in development statistics. The U.S. plan has been an utter success.

November-December 1993, ATC 47