By Stephen Marks
MANAGUA — The FSLN congress held here May 20-22 made important advances in strengthening the largest party in Nicaragua and one of the largest left-wing organisations in Latin America. Called last year with the agenda of reforming the statutes and program of the organisation and electing a new leadership in the face of Nicaragua's severe social and economic deterioration, the congress was preceded by discussions and assemblies at all levels of the FSLN and an intense public debate in the pro-Sandinista media.
Out of this debate two major currents developed around the documents "For a Sandinism which returns to the Majorities", put forward by the "Majorities" tendency and "For the Revolutionary Unity of the FSLN" presented by the "Democratic Left".
Although many of the political positions in the two documents are similar, the debate around the reforms to the party's statutes was one area where the differences were clearly expressed. Other looser groupings which formed were the "self-convened women" and those "Without current".
The FSLN statutes had previously reflected the party's origins in the armed struggle against the Somoza dictatorship and the realities of the US-organised counter-revolution during the 1980s. The first congress, held in 1991, began the process of replacing the inherited vertical structure with a more participatory rank and file democracy.
The "Majorities" advocated methods of organisation which they argued would modernise, broaden and democratise the party so as to enable it to win back majority support. Amongst statutes proposed for change were references to "the vanguard party", the FSLN leadership the "National Directorate" (ND) and the two categories of membership "militant" and "affiliate".
The congress majority rejected these proposals and supported the view, advocated by the "Democratic Left", that the FSLN should be a mass revolutionary vanguard party based on a conscious and committed membership, but open to all participating in the struggle.
Some of the reforms to the party's leadership structure, however, won wide support. New statutes promote the participation of women and regional leaders in party leadership bodies, and allow for votes for individual candidates rather than voting based on slates.
Approval was also given for Sandinistas on the Atlantic coast to have autonomous status within the organisation.
Clashes occurred over the structure, as well as the composition, of the party's central leadership body, the National Directorate (ND). Widely respected and long-time FSLN leader Henry Ruiz proposed that the ND be expanded from 9 to 21, arguing that this would allow for the inclusion of leaders from the different tendencies and those who did not identify with any current, which included Ruiz.
While the "Majorities" current supported Ruiz's motion, the "Democratic Left" proposal called for a tighter leadership body of 15 members. In the first of many tense votes, this vote, two to one in favour of the "Democratic Left", set the general pattern for the rest of the conference.
Discussion around the FSLN's program centred on a document drawn up with a view to finding common ground between the various tendencies. Few of the central leaders contributed to this debate. A crucial theme introduced into the program was the indication that the FSLN will adopt a more oppositionist approach to the right-wing Chamorro government.
A special resolution discussed a proposal coming out of an assembly of 500 campesinos held just days before. While pointing to the gains of the revolution, the campesinos identified mistakes such as the overly rapid formation of farm cooperatives, which lost the FSLN much support.
Defence of small farmers' property, land reform and access to loans were identified as essential to regaining a strong social base in the countryside. Two former contras, observing the congress as special guests, were acclaimed with an ovation when introduced during this session.
As well as the organisational statutes, the leadership elections dominated the Congress. Many delegates voted according to strict factional lists.
The Sandinista Assembly is the authoritative national leadership body between Congresses. Of the 113 members elected to the Assembly, only four names appeared on both factional lists. According to the Sandinista daily Barricada, the "Democratic Left" won 74, or 65%, of these positions.
For the ND, two of the previous nine members were not re-elected. Jaime Wheelock, the architect of the Sandinista land reform, stood aside, and Sergio Ramirez, former vice president and parliamentary leader of the FSLN, failed to gain enough votes.
Ramirez was not the only top leader of the FSLN who came in for harsh judgment from congress delegates. For the first time all major positions were directly elected, and no party leader could feel they owned their position.
Central FSLN leader Daniel Ortega was re-elected general secretary only after facing a challenge from Henry Ruiz. Ruiz, who called Ortega's candidacy an obstacle to party unity, received the endorsement of the "Majorities" tendency and gained 147 votes against Ortega's 287. Another prestigious leader, Tomas Borge, was elected deputy general secretary only after the conference rejected his candidacy for party president by voting against the creation of that post.
Although Ramirez remains in the Sandinista Assembly, his failure to be elected to the ND and the clear majority won by the "Democratic Left" in the ND and the Sandinista Assembly caused a furore. Media outlets and commentators, including some pro Sandinista ones, accused the "Democratic left" of carrying out a witch-hunt against their opponents. As Sergio Ramirez had indicated his availability to be the FSLN's presidential candidate, some commentators have predicted the defeat of the FSLN in the next elections.
Further ire was created when newly elected ND member Monica Baltadona implied that editorial changes to Barricada would be likely. During the pre-conference discussion, the print media were regarded by many as generally being identified with "the Majorities" and the electronic media with the "Democratic Left".
Delegates frequently called for unity during the conference and specifically rejected the formation of permanent currents. Daniel Ortega also specifically rejected the formation of factions. He and Borge, for example, never formally joined the left faction, although it was widely believed they identified with much of its thinking.
Debate and comment around the congress have continued in the media with a certain campaign to disqualify conference decisions. While a certain amount of this can be put down to the ire of unsuccessful candidates and disappointed hopes, clearly the congress endorsed the views of the tendency with which the parliamentary wing of the FSLN did not identify.
However the political differences, as was recognised by many interventions in the conference, were not debated and are not clear. The declaration of individuals for either, or none, of the tendencies produced many surprises. When the politics of the FSLN's program are finally discussed, different realignments may yet occur.
National elections are due in November 1996 and the next FSLN congress in 1995. Eventually the real political differences which underlay the debate over leadership and the party statutes will have to be debated.
Differences there are. Barricada, for example, quoted Ortega as saying that the root of the division was the infiltration of the government's neo-liberal policies into some sectors of Sandinism. DN member Victor Tirado Lopez made one of a number of appeals for the root of the divisions to be addressed, appealing to Ruiz, Ortega and Ramirez to "lay their cards on the table".
The congress reflected progress in the democratisation of the FSLN and installed a leadership more representative of Nicaraguan society. Although omissions or mistakes may have occurred, the new leadership is more broadly representative of areas outside the capital and poorer sections of Nicaraguan society.
Many votes and decisions were made on the basis of the contributions heard on the floor of the congress rather than factional deals stitched up behind closed doors. This can only encourage democratic debate when the cards are finally laid on the table.