Lessons From Nicaragua

“Somoza y Ortega son la misma cosa” - Somoza and Ortega are the same thing. That is the message from protesters in Nicaragua, who cite human rights abuses and murder of civilians. Joan Rowley and Norman Lockhart, Scottish Medical Aid to Nicaragua volunteer in the 1980s, says there are lessons to be learned and that the working class revolution in the country has been betrayed...

The situation in Nicaragua as not been extensively reported here in the UK so, first, an explainer. Since mid-April, over 300 hundred people have been killed (mainly by police) and thousands injured or disappeared for protesting against the regime of President Daniel Ortega. Ortega was once a respected leader of the Sandinista movement, the populist left wing group which overthrew the tyrannical Somoza dynasty and established a revolutionary government in its place. Today, the government is a family dynasty in itself with Ortega as president. His wife Rosario Murillo is vice president, which contradicts the country's constitution, and various family members run the media, business and judiciary. There's no dividing line between the party and the state.

Since the Sandinista revolution in 1979 replaced the Somoza dictatorship, socialists have supported the progressive direction of self determination taken by Nicaragua, the second poorest country in its hemisphere. This article will identify the difference between previous Sandinista-led governments and what has effecitvely become Ortega family rule (commonly referred to as Orteguistas). As a Nicaraguan eloquently put it at a recent public meeting in Edinburgh: the country can no longer be presented as the source of left wing romantic illusions.

Some background: the Sandanista FSLN (Sandinista Front for National Liberation) victory in Nicaragua was motivated by a corrupt dictatorship led by the Samoza family dynasty, which was in power from 1936-1979. Anastasio Somoza (the first) installed himself as president in 1936 after the assassination of Augusto Sandino, a Nicaraguan revolutionary and leader of a rebellion against the conveniently forgotten US military occupation of Nicaragua between 1927 and 1933. Western liberals who might point to the situation now should be reminded of this simple fact: the USA backed the Somoza dictatorship for their 34 year period of rule.

An important tactical mass civilian retreat overnight from the capital, Managua to the nearby town of Masaya established the basis for a united insurrection and led to the seizure of power on July 19th 1979. Somoza was overthrown and Ortega became leader of the country. In the 1980s – a time when Thatcher and Reagan were in power – the Sandinista popular rule was an inspiration for many. There are many different lessons to draw from this anti-imperialist struggle. Importantly, the FSLN was able to bind together at least various traditions – namely Castroist, Maoist and Nationalis – in order to successfully unify the working class and remove the dictatorship.

The FSLN's political programme when it came to power included land reform, free unionisation of all workers, equality for women, improvements in health, education and housing. Over 100,000 Nicaraguans participated as literacy teachers and within six months half a million people had been taught basic reading. This reduced the national illiteracy rate from over 50% to just under 12%, creating a literate electorate which would be able to make informed choices at the elections. This programme received international recognition at UN level.

Although the first years brought many dramatic changes in health, literacy and human rights, the country was still engaged in a civil war led by the counter-revolutionary Contra forces. This group was originally based on the ex-Somoza National Guards but included a wider opposition and was financed, directed, trained and organised by the CIA. In 1984, while the revolution was ongoing, Nicaragua had its first free elections with seven parties taking part. Crucially, impartial observers from international groupings like the European Economic Community (precursor to the EU) concluded the elections were completely free and fair. The FSLN won outright but the USA ignored this outcome and continued to finance the Contra and set up a trade embargo.

By 1990, the population was exhausted by war and elected Violeta Chamorro, widow of the assassinated editor of national establishment newspaper La Prensa which had consistently criticised the series of Somoza family 'caudillo’ regimes. Ortega remained in opposition and moderated his political viewpoint to that of a social democrat, now actively pursuing neo-liberal policies. He was re-elected as president in 2007. Nicaragua has had many links with Scotland over the years: we supported the country through Scottish Medical Aid for Nicaragua, twinned with Bluefields on the Atlantic coast and hosted Daniel Ortega in Edinburgh in the 1980s.

But discontent with Ortega's government didn't simply occur happen overnight. Over the past few years, we've seen Ortega's authoritarian streak develop e.g. changing electoral laws to allow fraudulent elections. He made an enemy of the feminist movement when his step daughter accused him of sexual abuse but he avoided investigated due to complicity of the judicial system. With the support of the Catholic church, he also reversed the Abortion Right Law, now making it illegal to have an abortion in Nicaragua regardless of circumstances – an extremely socially conservative policy from a proclaimed leftist.

On April 18, Nicaraguan students took to the streets to protest the increases in social security charges on workers and small businesses as well as simultaneous decline in pensions. They have also showed solidarity with campesinos (peasants) in their protests against Ortega (below) after he planned to promote a Chinese company building a canal across Nicaragua, including the jungle, to join the Atlantic and Pacific for cargo boats too big for the 100-year-old Panama Canal. They have taken to the streets every day since April 18 – phones, the internet and non-violence have been their most powerful weapons.

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A Nicaraguan student speaking in Edinburgh explained that: “Shunning violence was not simply about being good people. It’s a political calculation. We know that if we respond to the government’s violence with violence, our whole agenda will fall away. Rationally, we know violence would hurt us more than it would help us.” And so protests have grown in determination in spite of murders: 19 protesters were killed by snipers on a peaceful Mother's Day march led by mothers whose children had been killed. What we have seen is a Civic Alliance of autonomous groups, effectively a social movement in communities, organising in different areas to maintain pressure on the grovernment. Each group has adapted to the needs of their community, whether it be rural, developed or student.

Public protest has sprang up in towns all over Nicaragua against the policies put in place by the government. There is a recognition that this is an institutional dictatorship as it controls all local governments, judiciary, press. Police and hooded paramilitaries initially killed 44 people in towns across the country, including a radio journalist in Bluefields, and civil disobedience has been met by snipers killing people at tranques (roadblocks are a traditional method of defensive protest by slowing/controlling traffic). Students have responded by occupying buildings.

As the struggle has gone on, the Civic Alliance has called for stoppages or 'paros'. These are akin to strikes but not as we know them – in Nicaragua, as self employed trades, shops, farms and the public sector are the main sources of work, this would effectively paralyse normal daily and commercial activity. Nicaraguan people themselves have been surprised by both the scale and strength of the civic protest and the murderous repression of the government and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the systematic policy of violence and murder to silence the protesters.

Another feature has been the role of church as mediator in negotiations. Previously it wasn't trusted after Ortega made deals to assure support in recent elections, which were widely boycotted. However, as an institution the church has credibility and the trust of people and so continues to act as a mediator for national dialogue and as a sanctuary for the people. This position has led to even priests and churches being attacked. Sadly, some of the main perpetrators of violence are the Sandinista Youth. The government has tended to buy their support with concessions and political favours, lifting them out of poverty but not establishing political conviction. Now, means “poor people giving their lives to the cause” means being used and paid to murder your own citizens.

While the army has not been used overtly, the constitution says it has a duty to stop killings by paramilitaries. Instead, Ortega has been filmed accompanying them both at the same time. The army is also suspected of providing marksmen/snipers to target and kill peasant and student leaders from high buildings. Regrettably, the Nicaraguan Solidarity Campaign (NSC) has accepted the Orteguista argument that this is part of a US-backed plot for a coup to topple the regime, but video & media footage demonstrate there was a miserable mobilisation to celebrate the 19th July in Managua. This contrasted heavily the 250,000 strong protest (from a population similar to Scotland) demonstrating on the Mother's Day march. In Ortega's words, these people are “terrorists” for demanding his resignation.

The autonomous groups appear to be coordinated and the church has realised that fair negotiations require the Orteguista government to stop killing its own people. The other demands are that Ortega must resign and an interim government should be set up to bring about free and fair elections in March 2019. But activists' first demand must be for an end to the killing. In Scotland, we must pressurise our MSPs to actively support this call from the Nicaraguan people. This statement along the following lines can be used to demand active support from local MSPs in Holyrood: “We support the UN Secretary-General’s calls for the Nicaraguan Government to ensure the protection of human rights of all citizens, particularly the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. The Scottish Government condemns violence against peaceful protesters, arbitrary detentions, media restrictions, and the use of live ammunition, and urges the Nicaraguan government stop repression of peaceful protests and to ensure a thorough investigation of all reports of human rights abuses.”

If 1979 was the Nicaraguan 1905, then perhaps this is the start of their 1917 or North African spring. Chaotic, confusing and not like anything we know from history, but to be positively supported. As socialists, we must recognise and call out authoritarian tyrants whether they're perceived to represent our own side or enemies. Real socialism means democratic workers' led revolution, not murder of civilians.