Sandinismo’s Tenuous Unity

Against the Current, No. 53, November/December 1994

Midge Quandt

WHEN VIOLENCE ERUPTED in the streets of Managua during last fall’s transport strike, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) Secretary General Daniel Ortega supported the people’s right to defend themselves against the Chamorro government. Sergio Ramirez, who heads the Sandinista bench in the National Assembly, responded in the national press that party leaders “are obliged to tell society in no uncertain terms that we repudiate violence.”

The strike brought into a focus a growing division within the FSLN over a number of issues that by February had led to the formation of two political tendencies. The economic crisis had sharpened disagreements over what stance to take toward the government. Both embrace a two-pronged strategy, one parliamentary, the other, extra-parliamentary, but the Ramirez-led “Majority” or Center current prefers to work in the legislative arena. Though it sees a role for belligerent actions, there in fact exists considerable ambivalence about disruptive street confrontations. The “Democratic Left,” headed by Ortega, is more militant and focuses on popular protest, fearing the dilution of revolutionary vision and the party’s cooptation by the forces of national and international capital.

Under the weight of political and economic forces, the alliance between Ortega and Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo, which at one time benefitted both sides, has crumbled. As the economic crisis deepened, the poor increasingly shouldered a disproportionate share of the burden. Meanwhile, the government continued to lose legitimacy in the eyes of the popular sectors. In these circumstances, the advantages accruing to the FSLN from cooperation with the executive branch disappeared.

Ideology, Strategy, and Tactics

Those in the Majority current favor social peace and the strengthening of democratic institutions, both of which, they say, will benefit the poor in the long run. To their mind, political instability only diverts attention from efforts to solve the country’s devastating economic problems. In addition, they believe that some accommodation to private capital is essential lest Nicaragua lose much needed foreign investment. But these Sandinistas contend that the Democratic Left has deliberately exaggerated Ramirez’s cooperation with the government and his acquiescence to neoliberalism.

In contrast to the Center current, the Left insists on the importance of mass mobilization and the danger of viewing legislation and negotiation as ends in themselves. Former General Secretary of the Foreign Ministry, Alejandro Bendana, warns Sandinistas against repeating the history of European and Latin American social democratic parties in the 1980s:

“It is imperative that the left institutionalized as a party be nourished from below, where the democratic social movements, those who neither sell out nor give up, are in action. The danger is that we, as `new moderate revolutionaries,’ could abandon our commitment to structural transformation and limit ourselves to putting a progressive mask on the neoliberal model.”

Meanwhile Monica Baltodano, a Managua City Council member and one of the most outspoken on the Democratic Left, worries about the 1996 elections. The Majority current has emphasized the need to move toward the center in order to capture more votes. In its eagerness for victory, argues Baltodano,

“…it insists that the party be a marketable product, that it adopt the logic of the market even if it means blunting the revolutionary impulse and neutralizing the social movements. There is a real danger that the FSLN will cease to be a leftist party.”

The party’s May 22-24, 1994 special congress  was an attempt to resolve the deepening conflict over strategy.

Though disagreements between the two camps are rooted in divergent assessments of the left in the new world order, other factors are at work. One is the location of party leaders. Ramirez and other Sandinista deputies to the National Assembly operate on a different terrain than does Ortega and union leaders, constrained as they are by the imperatives of political action in the legislative arena. (Opinions differ on the degree to which FSLN delegates have accommodated the Chamorro administration. Because debate between the two currents has been heated, charges of “selling out to the government” are somewhat suspect.) Moreover, since Ramirez’s political struggle is waged in the legislature, he has little opportunity to interact with the grassroots and is perceived as distant.

By contrast, Ortega’s role facilitates constant contact with the people at protests and meetings. “He’s not sitting in the National Assembly, he’s out in the streets defending our interests,” says Sandinista Workers Central (CST) unionist Noel Gonzales. Consequently, the popular sectors tend to gravitate toward Ortega.

On tactics, the two tendencies have a good deal in common. As the Left’s Victor Tinoco sees it: “It’s not an either/or proposition, with the Ramirez people backing legislative solutions and the Ortega people supporting popular protest. Each group sees merit in both tactics.” But Tinoco goes on to say that in practice the former “almost wish the popular struggle didn’t exist.”

Even before the transport strike, the Sandinista deputies were equating strikes with what the FSLN had officially condemned — the resort to armed struggle. And during the protest, they looked for a solution that gave the government a graceful way out while soft-pedaling workers’ demands. The bitter disagreement over the bill to privatize public services, coming two months later, exacerbated the division. Led by William Ramirez, the Sandinista bench introduced the bill into the National Assembly without consulting the unions’ umbrella organization, the National Workers Federation (FNT). In response, an angry FNT demanded the issue be taken up in the Sandinista Assembly.

Though both currents support civic struggle and grassroots mobilization, the emphasis in each case is different. “We should try to use all forms of struggle short of violence,” contends CST leader Roger Barrantes, speaking for the Left. “But if the state inflicts `institutional violence’ on the people or denies them the means to defend themselves by legitimate means, then we must defend our rights in whatever way possible.” Thus the Demoratic Left does not unequivocally renounce the use of physical force. Clearly Ortega does not go around publicly urging people to take up arms. But the official document of his current considers “legitimate all forms of group struggle, as long as they have wide consensus among the rank and file.” Some analysts consider this tantamount to legitimizing acts of violence.

In the eyes of the Left, just because strikes and protests can get out of hand (stability means little to the unemployed, the personally destabilized, notes Alejandro Bendana) is no reason to condemn either mass struggles or the mayhem that sometimes ensues. But the Majority current has engaged in this kind of condemnation. To define the boundary between a civic struggle and a violent struggle, as Sergio Ramirez has called for, is not easy. But it would appear that at least some in his camp equate disruptive strikes with violence. Few categorically reject mass mobilization, and the National Directorate’s Luis Carrion believes that “even violence may sometimes be legitimate,” but there is ambivalence about grassroots actions.

To those on the Left, the Center tendency seems to prefer less volatile forms of civic struggle, such as peaceful demonstrations, to more disruptive actions, such as mass strikes. An example of this attitude is former Minister of Transportation William Ramirez’s denunciation of the street barricades erected in Managua during the transport strike. Not only were they unnecessary and unpopular, says Ramirez; they were also “an offensive use of violence” because they conjured up images of war. “Unfortunately, the Ortega people try to sell the idea that street actions are the only way to struggle,” he added.

There are those who believe that Ramirez is reformist and social-democratic at heart, a commitment to parliamentarism overriding the need for popular mobilization, an accommodation to capitalism undermining a radical vision. Others insist that this is not a fair categorization, while Ramirez himself and Communal Movement head Enrique Picado, who coauthored the Majority current’s document, refuse to be so labeled. (“All who oppose the messianism of Daniel Ortega are said to be sellouts to neoliberalism,” observes Barricada journalist and board member Sofia Montenegro.) Whether this current’s concern for political stability would seriously discourage grassroots struggle down the road, as occurred with Europe’s social democrats, is a moot point.

Meanwhile, members of the Majority current reject the accusation that they have caved in to the Nicaraguan and the U.S. governments. They insist on their commitment to the revolution, to a radical vision, and to the poor majority. As Montenegro underlines: “Ramirez isn’t selling out to the government; he can’t negotiate on his own; he follows the party line in the National Assembly.” In any case, whatever cooperation he once gave to the executive branch, and whatever support he once gave to its economic model, appears to have ended. (“He saw that the ship was going down,” notes economist Adolfo Acevedo, who works with the Democratic Left.)

On the matter of tactics, the Center current’s most serious criticism is aimed at Daniel Ortega. Some of his opponents allege that he is responsible for part of the violence that occurs in the streets. Though the evidence remains sketchy, they contend that the erection of barricades and the use of weapons during the transport strike were done at his behest. Party members who weren’t in the transport sector organized a command center that put up the first barricades, mobilized people who weren’t vehicle owners, and coordinated actions, contends the National Directorate’s Luis Carrion. (Police reportedly confiscated seventeen guns at the barricades.)

What worries Carrion more than the violence per se is the likelihood that the FSLN as an electoral party advocated it. According to journalist Ramon Meneses, who is ideologically left of center but belongs to neither current, “Ortega controls the party structures, and very few things are done without his imprimatur. So the orders, if not the specific methods, almost certainly came from him.” Despite suggestions that Ortega was responsible for the violence, no one is in a position to say that this is definitely true. But the fact that it is perceived to be true by a significant number of people accounts for the bitterness surrounding the debate over tactics.

The Majority current objects to the use of violence on a number of grounds, one being that political stability and economic recovery require the rule of law. Beyond that, says Luis Carrion, an electoral party should build stable political institutions and strong social movements that can interact so as to further the interests of the poor majority. “Violence wouldn’t be necessary,” he maintains, “if these were stronger.” (But as Victor Tinoco points out, people who are hurting have trouble taking the long view).

Another reason for the opposition to violent tactics involves their linkage to what is still a troubling issue for the FSLN-vanguardism. For Dora Maria Tellez, the use of small groups of Sandinistas to organize key elements of the transport strike exemplifies a larger problem: “The leaders of the party and the popular organizations see themselves as the spearhead of the Frente, they’ve forgotten about organizing work at the base. These people should be empowering the unions rather than relying on small cadres.” Tellez and Carrion agree that this remnant of vanguardism has weakened some of the social movements (the communal movement and parts of the women’s movement being exceptions).

Finally, the widespread antipathy to violence among most Nicaraguans makes the Center current look askance at its use. Much of the population of Managua, though supporting the transport strike, resented the barricades and the attendant damage. Alienating potential voters is hardly in the interests of the FSLN as it looks to the 1996 elections. The party has already lost considerable support among women, youth, campesinos, and ex-contras. The last thing it needs, says the Ramirez current, is to project the specter of violence. “We have to erase the image of a war-mongering and destabilizing party,” insists Tellez. “Otherwise we’re lost.” Though the debate about tactics has been heated, it may become less of an issue in the next year or two. The views of the two tendencies may converge if, as some speculate, Ortega turns his back on belligerence and adopts a more statesmanlike posture as an electoral strategy.

Washington & the Nicaraguan Economy

In an effort to reduce the political polarization that threatens to make Nicaragua ungovernable, the Clinton administration asked the FSLN and the UNO in the fall of `93 to build a consensus between the two parties and between themselves and the government. This move conferred legitimacy on the Sandinistas. Soon the U.S. Agency for International Development was talking about poverty more than politics. But other economic change was not forthcoming.

Although some policy analysts like George Vickers, who heads the Washington Office on Latin America, believe that Washington may yet use its influence to shift the policies of the international lending agencies, so far that has not happened. In its most recent accord with the Chamorro Government, the IMF, virtually an “international arm of the Treasury Department,” remarks the magazine Envio, neither softened its line on neoliberalism nor reduced the stringent conditions on aid. The Extended Structural Adjustment Fund (ESAF) agreement, signed in April, requires further cuts in government spending, a move which can only have a recessionary impact on an already depressed economy.

With regard to Washington and its policies, the FSLN’s two currents again part company. Wary of the political and economic repercussions of belligerence, the Majority current has a consistent commitment to good relations. By contrast the Left is more critical and more unabashedly anti-imperialist. For Alejandro Bendana, the issue cuts deeper: “The U.S. wants the FSLN to be just another party, not a movement or a evolutionary front. The Frente would have to join the establishment,” thereby gutting Sandinismo and the social movements.

Dissimilar attitudes toward Washington at points overlap with divergent positions on economic matters, one example being the ESAF accords. Both groups opposed the contents of the U.S.-backed agreement, but it was Ortega who insisted that the party not meet to discuss it with the government. Since Lacayo clearly called a meeting for the express purpose of getting support for the accord from various quarters, Ortega would have none of it.

People in the Ramirez current, on the other hand, thought that the party should attend, if only to present its case. As Enrique Picado put it: “Nicaragua needs the money, and it needs to have its feet on the ground with regard to external constraints. To refuse to get involved is no answer.”

On other economic issues, the willingness to work with the executive branch that characterizes the Majority current contrasts with the Left’s more oppositional stance. The transport strike is a case in point. While the Ortega people were in the streets, the Sandinista deputies were at various points urging the workers to accept the government’s proposal.

The division over the November bill to privatize some state services represented another area of disagreement. Arguing that a legal framework was needed to keep the government from unilaterally stepping up privatization, almost all of the Sandinista bench supported it. The left opposed it, fearing more unemployment and the privatization of crucial sectors such as health and education. Though the differences were finally reconciled in the Sandinista Assembly, the struggle revealed a divergence in ideology. The Center envisages a smaller role for the state and a larger one for the free market than does the Left. Not that the latter wants state socialism, but it does seek an alternative to capitulation to the market, what Bendana calls “neoliberalism with a conscience.“ The problem is how to fashion such an alternative.

Despite differences between the two tendencies, there are important commonalities. All Sandinista forces criticize current policy and its consequences: the severe recession; the vicious burden on the poor; and the failure to provide small and medium producers with credit. But a critique is no substitute for an alternative, and this neither current has come up with.

Prominent figures on each side agree that little effort has gone into this project. Some analysts argue that the party leadership has been more involved with the property question because it lends itself to manageable solutions. (Economist Adolfo Acevedo, who advises Ortega, adds that a number of Sandinista businessmen and political leaders have benefitted financially from the government’s economic model.) Some believe that coping with political instability has absorbed everyone’s energies. Others attribute the problem to Sandinista pragmatism, a legacy which impedes the theorizing needed to construct a coherent ideological and programmatic alternative. (But as Daniel Singer notes in the July/August issue of this magazine, the left in Western and Eastern Europe has not been able to envisage a new radical project either.)

Whatever the reasons, the absence of such an alternative is one reason that many of the FSLN’s rank and file take little interest in party polemics. “Daily life is hard,” observes Luis Carrion, “and people at the base see that the debate between the two currents isn’t focused on what matters to them — getting Nicaragua out of the mess it’s in.” And then there is the question of the populace at large. Notes Carrion: “If we don’t draw up an economic plan before 1996, we can’t possibly win the elections.”


The FSLN’s 1990 electoral defeat ushered in a period of greater party democracy. Responding to the rank-and-file’s pent-up frustration with verticalist styles of leadership, the FSLN Congress of 1991 instituted a variety of democratic procedures. But top-down practices persisted, and many at the grassroots have been criticizing its remnants: the concentration of power in the National Directorate; the absence of women in leadership positions; and a membership structure which privileges an elite of the truly committed. Because of the widespread consensus about the need for further democratization, the issue was put on the agenda for the special congress. A document laying out possible statutory changes was drafted by the National Directorate’s Bayardo Arce, reportedly a mediator between the two currents.

Both camps agreed that changes in the National Directorate were in order, but not on how to implement them. The Majority current wanted the name changed because it was associated in the popular mind with a vanguardist image and authoritarian practices. In contrast, the Left wanted to retain the name because it has historically signalled a commitment to Nicaragua’s poor.

Beyond the name, there was the issue of structure and function. Some in the Ramirez group wanted to replace the governing body with a national council and an executive committee that would better represent the diversity of interests within Sandinismo, arguing that “the concept of a national directorate belongs to a historical period now in the past.” In response to the different positions, the Directorate came up with a compromise proposal: keep the name but increase the number of members.

Another contested matter was the system of membership. The Arce document suggested that it was closed and undemocratic, since it divided the members into two groups: militants, who could vote and hold office, and affiliates, who could do neither. Party militants obtained their privileges by passing through a probationary period in which they demonstrated their commitment to the FSLN and their ability to carry out assigned tasks. If they measured up, they got the green light. Affiliates, on the other hand, required a longer period of testing and usually did not move into the active category. In the opinion of journalist and Sandinista militant Daniel Alegria, this system is outmoded: “It had its merits during wartime because you had to have enough people you could trust, but now it’s obsolete.”

The two currents have been divided on the matter of membership. Because it is important to know who can be relied on, the Left wanted to retain the two-tiered structure. “Militants have to deliver more,” notes Alejandro Bendana. This category, therefore, should cover those with greater commitment and willingness to sacrifice. “We need to know who our real supporters are, who are real workers are,” maintains Monica Baltodano. “We’re not just an electoral party like those in the United States. It’s important to have an ongoing, reliable contingent of people who you know are willing to do the permanent work of consciousness-raising and education.” And Baltodano denies that this creates a vanguard within a vanguard. “Militants communicate with and learn from the grassroots,” she contends.

Those in the Majority current are less happy with this arrangement, arguing that it gives too much power to those at the top of the ierarchy. In addition, they believe it creates an unhealthy distance between militants on the one hand, and affiliates and ordinary citizens on the other. “There’s a moral gloss to being a pure revolutionary
that isn’t good for the party,” maintains Dora Maria Tellez. Among other things, it reinforces the unpopular image of vanguardist superiority for the populace at large. And it discourages young people from joining the FSLN in a country where fifty-six percent of the population is under 18. The membership requirements appear intimidating and burdensome at a time when survival is a full-time occupation. In order to deal with this problem, the special congress changed somewhat the membership structure.

The problem of, and resistance to, verticalism in the FSLN is not unrelated to a similar issue in the Sandinista labor movement. Though the unions have shed some of the hierarchical characteristics of the `80s, others linger on. One legacy of that decade is the party’s enduring, though much attenuated, power over the unions.

With regard to the CST, for instance, the leadership is accused of doing what is in the FSLN’s political interest rather than what is in the economic interest of the majority of workers. The Area of Workers Property (APT) is a case in point. The APT consists of the twenty-five percent of state enterprises privatized to the workers. According to economist Carlos Barrios, the party and union leadership is bent on creating an entrepreneurial group that exercises bureaucratic control. Though this form of collective property has democratic potential, the APT is currently run by party technocrats and union functionaries. Moreover, in the view of the rank and file as well as some union officials, the needs of workers in the seventy-five percent of the enterprises not privatized to them are being neglected. The situation in the Sandinista agricultural union (ATC) is similar.

To varying degrees, there is criticism of, and resistance to, the top-down leadership style within the unions, though there is more dissension in the CST than in the ATC. In both unions, there has been dissatisfaction with the corporate model. Because of worker opposition, the idea of one holding company atop the APT structures has reportedly been dropped. (The ATC has one company in each crop sector.)

Discontent within the CST also exists with regard to other aspects of internal democratization. In its congress of April `94, a slate of candidates opposed to the existing leadership. According to union official Josefina Ulloa, CST leaders opposed the notion of competing slates, though they are permitted in the statutes, contending that they undermined unity. Many at the base view this as undemocratic. A number of other issues were also at stake. One was the neglect of gender demands made earlier at a women’s congress. Another was the matter of strategy. The dissident candidates called for a more confrontational policy toward the government than union head Lucio Jiminez advocates. Though the dissidents lost the election, the conflict continues.

Within the Sandinista unions, the process of democratization and worker empowerment inherent in the APT continues as a live option. In June of `93, the Swedish trade union movement embarked on a $1.5 million project with the FNT to educate union members and workers in enterprises privatized to them. First, those on the boards of directors took courses in basic economics and corporate structure. Similar courses are being given in 1994 for 10,000 workers. The training is designed in part so that workers can exercise their rights more effectively and play a role in policymaking.

The FSLN Special Congress

The special congress was more participatory than the regular Sandinista congress of 1991, and it was marked by the continued democratization of party structures. From now on, women will comprise thirty percent of the elected leadership at all levels, and starting in 1995, youth will have a ten percent quota. People can now choose which type of party member they wish to be, a change that is likely to make the FSLN more accessible.

The congress also dealt with the issue of political currents. In the end, participants sided with the Democratic Left, re-electing Ortega Secretary General of the FSLN, while dropping Sergio Ramirez from the National Directorate. Ten of the new Directorate members are from the Ortega current while five are from the Majority current. When it came to strategy, the Left also won out: the FSLN will now side decisively with the poor majority; it will take a tougher position toward the government; and it will encourage people to choose their methods of struggle, including mass protest. In addition, congress participants decided to retain the name of the National Directorate and the status of the Sandinista Front as a vanguard party.

As expected, some were happier with the results than others. People in the Majority tendency were angry over the fact that so many of them were dropped from the Sandinista Assembly and that Sergio Ramirez was unceremoniously dumped from the National Directorate. The message, says Luis Carrion: “If you don’t conform, you’re out!” A number of party activists who support Ortega think it was wrong “to throw Ramirez out.” For the alternative candidate for 1996 to be treated this way, they maintain, damages the image of the FSLN.

In some quarters, it is thought that the campaign against Ramirez went too far. “He was singled out as the villain, as the traitor to the Revolution,” observes Carrion. Many FSLN members, however, believe that Ramirez and his sympathizers are sacrificing a radical vision for the safer waters of social democracy and are too willing to ally with non-left parties.

In the aftermath of the congress, feelings ran high. After Monica Baltodano called for the resignation of Ramirez from his position as head of the Sandinista bench and for the ouster of Carlos Fernando Chamorro as editor of Barricada, there was fear of a purge of the Majority current’s leadership. But this has not occurred. “The move to purge Carlos Fernando — the first target — did not carry enough steam,” states Luis Carrion. “There was not enough agreement on the part of the majority on the National Directorate to push him out.” And as of August, the open criticism among the currents had died down considerably. In September, however, conflict erupted anew when the Sandinista Assembly, which objected to the introduction of a constitutional reform bill by the FSLN bench in the National Assembly, ordered Daniel Ortega to take Ramirez’s seat in that body.

As Sandinistas look ahead to the elections of `96, issues raised by the congress move to center stage. On one level, there is the question of what message the FSLN should send to the Nicaraguan people. The Left current believes that maintaining continuity with traditional symbols, such as the term “vanguard,” strengthens the party’s ties with the popular sectors.

The Majority tendency disagrees. In its eyes, the FSLN is clinging to established ways of doing things at a time when people are in the mood for change. “The party is holding on to traditional symbols and methods of organizing, using styles that have been discredited in the new political climate,” argues Carrion. “In this regard, the congress hurt our chances for `96.”

The other concern that emerged from the congress regarding the elections is programmatic. The Majority current maintains that a radical program cannot possibly win the day. This from Dora Maria Tellez:

“There are two alternatives. We can reconnect with the majority of people that we lost, or we can become an irrelevant but active minority within the country…. There are those who think we can present an even more radical plan than we had when we were in government and win. That’s absurd!”

Those in the Democratic Left take issue with a centrist strategy for `96. To their mind, a moderate image for the FSLN is certainly no guarantee of success. “People might well say `the Frente will promise anything to win votes. It’s just another party,” says Alejandro Bendana.

Then there is the threat posed by the far-right Mayor of Managua, Arnoldo Aleman. His populist image, based in part on a spate of construction projects in the capital, has boosted his popularity as he looks to his own candidacy for the presidency of Nicaragua. Aleman is also capitalizing on anti-government sentiment to win over large segments of the population. In Bendana’s view,

“If the majority current had prevailed at the congress, Aleman could have said that the FSLN was part of the problem, because it would have signalled a continuation of co-government. Therefore it was essential for the party to take sides and support the poor. Now it can put forth the kind of coherent program that it was unable to do before.”

In the light of the continuing division within the Sandinista Front, Dora Maria Tellez sounds this cautionary note: “[We in] the FSLN still have a very strong debate ahead of us. But every day is a day lost.”

ATC 53, November-December 1994