swimming against the mainstream

There are two schools of reporting on Nicaragua which most people see. The first is straightforward hatchet jobs, perfected by former Latin America Guardian correspondent Rory Carroll. The latest re-incarnation is in the on-line newspaper The Nicaragua Dispatch. A good example of their output is the recent article about the US Ambassador’s speech to Nicaraguan business leaders (see here). Her remarks were reported without a trace of irony or analysis, a summary of which could be ‘you will remove the Sandinistas from power‘. A more subtle variant of this is the Good Left/Bad Left labelling of Latin American countries, with Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba firmly in the latter camp.

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The second school is found away from the mainstream. On the face of it the writers say they are supportive of the Nicaraguan people. They usually remember fondly their time in the 1980s in Nicaragua during the revolution. Then they list their disappointment with the present Sandinista government, though any facts and figures of how the government has performed since returning to power in 2007 are rarely included.

What we usually have is the writer’s personal journey. It begins with the disappointment of losing the 1990 elections. It moves on to the next disappointment, the acrimonious splits within the ranks of the FSLN in the mid-90s, as the party struggled to come to terms with its defeat. They usually continue with the allegations of sexual abuse against Daniel Ortega by his step daughter, Zoilamerica. Then comes ‘el pacto‘ with the PLC – the Liberals – as the Sandinistas agreed on power sharing arrangements in return for changes in the constitution which lowered the winning threshold for first round victories in the Presidential elections. They usually conclude with the election results since 2008, which have been ‘fixed’ by the Frente.

The final source of disappointment appears in both mainstream and alternative media on a regular basis. The Sandinistas supported the Bolanos government’s proposal to ban therapeutic abortion, which went before the Nicaraguan Parliament a week before the 2006 elections, after massive mobilisation by the Catholic and evangelical churches.

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Pic: Sioned Haf

A further variation is a form of reporting which is ‘episodic’, painting a picture of life (usually in Managua, as the reporters rarely travel further afield), which then includes swipes at the government. A recent example was by Michael Kelly, which appeared on, amongst other places, the radical website ZNet (see here for The Watchmen, the Hunters and Gatherers and the Street Vendors). Even more recent, and even worse, was a blog post by Javier Farje, editor at the Latin America Bureau and former BBC World Service journalist (see here for the post and comments). A long list of the shortcomings of the FSLN is balanced by one sentence – “Ortega’s government is implementing some of the region’s most progressive policies for the use of renewable energy, and poverty has fallen during his government” – buried in the last paragraph of the post.

The allegations by Zoilamerica are serious, and have never been adequately dealt with, but the FSLN continued to choose Ortega as their candidate. Regarding the other charges, after the collapse of the Revolution the FSLN leaders would have had to have been super-human not to descend into a bitter dispute. Despite the unpleasantness of doing a deal with Aleman, it was shown to be correct as a political strategy, allowing the FSLN to regain power six years ago. This enabled them to join the ALBA, and promote a programme of pro-poor policies, which saw their vote jump to 62% in the Presidential elections in 2011. The accusations of fraud fail to mention that this was roughly what the polls were predicting, and where FSLN support remains since the elections. Therapeutic abortion needs to be re-instated, but nowhere is there serious consideration of how this can be achieved given the continued power of the church in Nicaragua, and the majority support there is for the law at the moment.

This lack of weighing the record of the Sandinistas – both their achievements and their failings – leads to an overwhelming bias against the present FSLN government. Some of this may be personal, not liking the fact that Daniel Ortega still leads the Frente. Some of it may be political, a genuine disagreement about what direction the party should have taken which led to the MRS splitting from the Frente in the mid 90s. However, much of it has to do with that many former supporters haven’t got over the fact that the Revolution was overturned in 1990; that all sorts of ‘dirty’ compromises were done in order to regain power (see our recent blog here which looked at the matter);, and that the Sandinistas have come to an accommodation with their national capitalists as they seek to rebuild the country after sixteen years of disasterous neo-liberalism, and seek to pursue pro-poor programmes.

There do exist descriptions of what the Sandinistas have achieved since returning to power (see here for an end of year round up for 2012). A full list would run to several pages. To take just two examples. Nicaragua announced in the past fortnight that it has cut child malnutrition from 27% in 2004 to 11.6% this year. Together with the integrated programmes that it has developed to kick-start the rural economy after the fallow years of the Washington Concensus, no wonder that it is held up by organisations like the FAO as an example of what food sovereignty can achieve.

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Pic: Sioned Haf

The progress in the energy sector has been no less remarkable. All that successive right wing governments achieved by 2007 was 12 hour electricity outages for most of the country. This was not only inconvenient, it also took it’s toll on businesses large and small, on children’s education, and on people’s health. The Sandinistas solved the crisis within the year, with the aid of Venezuela. They have since developed a bold plan which has made Nicaragua one of the world leaders in moving to renewables, with 50% of the electricity supply coming from wind, solar, hydro and geo-thermal. With other developments coming on stream (the not least of which is the Tumarin dam – not without its problems), Nicaragua is looking forward to getting 90% of it’s electricity from renewables by 2017. This would be a remarkable feat for a developed country with a strong commitment to de-carbonising the economy. That Nicaragua – the second poorest country in the Americas – has achieved it is nothing short of a miracle.

Two excellent analyses have recently appeared. The first helps put Nicaragua in the context of developments in Latin America. The second looks at how the governments of the FMLN in El Salvador and the FSLN in Nicaragua have fared.

Steve Ellner’s Radical Left in Power in Latin America (see here) sweeps through the last decade (and more) of the Left on the continent. It identifies all the main streams of thought, the different governments and their relations, the nation building and the creation of a continent wide force to challenge US hegemony. It rejects the Good Left/Bad Left dichotomy. Ellner says:

The debate over the ‘good left’-‘bad left’ theses needs to be framed along different lines. Even if the premise of the two-left thesis regarding the basic similarities of the ‘left’ governments is accepted, the theory is fundamentally flawed. Regardless of the degree of diversity… the two-left thesis is simplistic because it ignores the complexity of the challenges they face.

The Twenty First Century Left in El Savador and Nicaragua: Understanding Apparent Contradicitons and Criticisms, doesn’t duck the problems and failings of the governments of Presidents Funes and Ortega. But the paper- by Hector Perla Jr and Hector Cruz Feliciano – in the March edition of Latin American Perspectives, gives a thoughtful description of what has been achieved by the respective governments. It leaves to Orlando Nunez, veteran Sandinista and one of the instigators of the Zero Hunger programme, to describe the road the FSLN in following:

The victory of the Sandinista Front means, in the first place, the containment of neoliberalism and the end of neoliberal measures. Secondly, it means conquering sovereignty in the face of U.S. and European meddling. . . . In the third place, the construction of citizens’ power, as a means of restoring citizen rights, . . . means the possibility of revolutionizing representative democracy, overcoming its limitations through direct democracy. In the fourth place, but no less important, it means the associative and self-managed organization of workers and small and medium-sized producers through cooperatives and federations . . . with the purpose of recovering the surpluses drained by the market and increasingly participating in the management of the state and the market. We believe these four elements to be sufficient to talk about revolutionary struggle in any country of Latin America or the Third World.



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