Nicaragua: Washington threatens reprisals as poor make gains

February 11, 2012

In a fit of petulant anger, the US government lashed out on January 25 against the outcome of Nicaragua’s recent presidential election. The leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front's (FSLN) Daniel Ortega was easily re-elected president and the FSLN won a majority in the National Assembly.

John Riddell spoke to FSLN member Felipe Stuart Cournoyer, who gave his personal take on the situation. The interview is abridged from

* * *

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed that Nicaragua’s November 6 election “marked a setback to democracy in Nicaragua and undermined the ability of Nicaraguans to hold their government accountable”, but offered no particulars. What has roused Washington’s ire?

It’s quite simple. Daniel Ortega won with 62.66% of the vote, more than twice the total of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) candidate favoured by the US embassy.

Washington is not pleased when small, poor countries defy its will.

But Clinton says US concern is based on a report by Organization of American States (OAS) observers.

The OAS report notes that the official results were similar to the readings of pre-election polls, and to their own exit polls on election day.

OAS and European Union observer missions noted some irregularities and technical difficulties, but did not consider that they called into question the FSLN victory.

The main complaint of right-wing opposition parties was that Ortega should not have been permitted to run for re-election. The voters certainly gave a clear verdict on that one.

Clinton says the US will respond by a “review of our assistance” and “aggressive scrutiny” of loans by international bodies to Nicaragua. That sounds like sanctions. What’s this about? Have aid projects gone wrong?

On the contrary, aid projects under Ortega’s presidency have been enormously successful. Illiteracy was 30% when the FSLN was elected in 2006. Thanks to a literacy campaign carried out with help from Cuba and Venezuela, the United Nations has now declared Nicaragua to be free of illiteracy.

The recent projects assisted by Venezuela and other Bolivarian Alliance for the People's of Our America (ALBA) countries have had an immense effect. Also there have been useful World Bank projects, and the Bank says it is “optimistic” about Nicaragua’s performance.

The Nicaraguan economy has expanded well in recent years, particularly in the countryside. Despite the world recession, exports have doubled since 2006, and the rate of foreign direct investment has increased by about two-thirds.

Among the biggest projects include projects to double electrical generating capacity, along with ongoing projects to bring electricity to tens of thousands of rural families.

Economic expansion in 2010 and 2011 was the highest in Central America.

How has this expansion affected working people?

Employment has increased about 35% since 2006 in both formal and informal sectors. Extreme poverty has been cut in half: to 9% from 17%. Nicaragua’s reduction in income inequality ranks second in the region, after Venezuela.

What have been the changes on a community level?

Using solidarity aid from Venezuela and ALBA, the Sandinista government invested huge resources in programs such as aid to small businesses, credits to women farmers and small stores, and provision of zinc for roofs.

The success of such programs depends on going beyond the government bureaucracy and setting up new structures, run by new people ― a source of popular involvement and employment.

This took me by surprise.

Back in 2006, I predicted that the Sandinista government could only succeed if carried forward by a mass mobilisation. This has indeed happened, but not in the way I expected. Yes, there have been demonstrations, one of half a million in this country of six million. Also, starting in 2008, neighbourhood councils were established.

But above all it has been the government programs that have mobilized people – that was the only way these measures could succeed.

Organising a literacy campaign, for example, with more than 1 million people to be educated, is quite a task. Potential students must be identified, convinced to take part, and signed up. Structures must be established for all the volunteer teachers and administrators.

After literacy is achieved, there are follow-up programs. It’s nothing less than a mass movement. And the outcome is involving people socially, raising their political awareness, and enabling them to take part in community processes.

In the countryside, the government programs have a multiplier effect. They generate consumer demand, which helps small business. The road programs help in marketing products as well as creating employment.

The countryside is finally being electrified. This has a long way to go, but the progress is being noticed.

There is still a need for land reform, to undo the expansion of large estates in the 1990s. That is not posed for action right now.

Government initiative has aimed mainly at supporting the smallholders, including by promoting small farmers’ organisations and farm marketing cooperatives.

How are government relations with Nicaragua’s indigenous peoples?

This is an important achievement of the government. Under the first FSLN government, in the 1980s, the constitution incorporated measures for indigenous autonomy, including assuring these peoples of a share of natural resources revenue.

After the FSLN was defeated in 1990, the new governments refused to pass enabling legislation. Now that has been done. Indigenous communal lands have won recognition.

The FSLN has a strategic alliance with Yatama, the main indigenous party, which governs the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN). Indigenous representatives are also represented in the national government.

How do the changes play out in your Managua neighbourhood?

The biggest change has been in education and health care, both of which are now free. Operacion milagro ― largely staffed by Cuban doctors ― provides operations for those with limited eyesight, and has been an immense success.

There are many health campaigns initiated by the health ministry and carried out through popular participation at a neighbourhood level.

Would you say this process is socialist in its direction?

The historic program of the FSLN was for a transition toward socialist revolution, for mobilisation to get rid of capitalism. It included the call for nationalisation of the banks and the largest industrial firms. Some steps in that direction were taken in the 1980s.

This program has never been repudiated, but it is not what the FSLN is doing now or what the majority of its members consider possible. The FSLN today says it is “socialist -- in solidarity -- Christian.” That is interpreted to mean an “option for the poor”: less poverty, more employment, social programs, and zero hunger.

Socialists are challenged to participate in this process and raise consciousness with respect to real events.

A key issue before the FSLN today is to tax the incomes of the rich, who are largely tax-exempt. Another is to challenge a huge fraudulent debt foisted on the government when two big banks failed some years ago.

I think the government should move to take a qualitatively greater share of revenue from mobile telephone and digital communications industries, and financial services, including – if necessary – nationalisation.

How have all these changes affected the outlook of young people?

There was good participation by youth in the election, and most of those who voted supported the FSLN. There is wide support for the notion of social solidarity and basic anti-imperialist consciousness. But this does not mean anti-capitalism. Earlier there was concern that an FSLN government would lead to renewed war and conscription, but these fears have collapsed.

Has the pressure for emigration eased?

Slightly, but it remains very great. There are more economic opportunities in the countryside now. College graduates have a bit more opportunity for a job in the country, but still far too many feel they have to leave.

Don’t forget how poor Nicaragua is ― the second-poorest country in the hemisphere. In 2006, the unemployment rate was 50%.

That’s improved, but it has a long way to go. Such a poor country can’t transform itself in five years.

Is it possible that the new US threats will stir up right wing disruption in Nicaragua?

As things stand, there is no campaign of active disruption by the right, as there was in 2008-09. For now, the more mature forces on the right are not interested in that. The economic expansion offers opportunities for capitalists as well as workers.

Of course, if the US turns up the heat on Nicaragua, the right may behave differently. But what we hear from Clinton may be just electioneering.

The right has suffered an enormous defeat ― reduced from 62% to 37% of the electorate during Ortega’s first term. They need time to regroup.

In the elections, they offered no alternative to government programs ― even promised to continue them. They campaigned that the Sandinistas were establishing a “dictatorship” ― but there was no evidence for that and it did not go over.

What is the role of Western imperialist corporations in Nicaragua?

They are powerful in the mining industry and in the maquila (free trade zone manufacturing) sector. Gold is Nicaragua’s third-most-important export (after beef and coffee), with the largest mines owned by Canadian capital.

But some things are different from conditions in nearby countries. The companies cannot use private militias to drive peasants or indigenous people off the land.

In case of conflicts with workers or neighbouring peasants, the companies cannot rely on help from police or army. Bear in mind that the police and army were established by the 1979 FSLN-led revolution of 1979, and this influence endures.

How are Nicaragua’s relations with its neighbours?

Good, with two exceptions.

First, there is a dispute with Costa Rica over a small scrap of territory that is now before the world court. Costa Rican construction of a road along its side of the San Juan river, which borders Nicaragua, has raised environmental concerns.

The Costa Rican government is right-wing, and it has allowed the US army onto its land, a potential threat that has not caused trouble so far.

Second, there is Honduras. Nicaragua led the international campaign against the June 2009 right-wing coup in Honduras. Porfirio Lobo’s subsequent election to the Presidency did nothing to alter the nature of the coup regime and efforts to restore Honduran democracy have not yet succeeded.

Meanwhile, Nicaragua is extremely vulnerable in a conflict with Honduras -- 60% of Nicaragua’s exports go through the Honduran port of Cortés.

Last year, the Cartagena agreement was signed in an effort to normalise the situation. Unfortunately, in Honduras, right-wing repression and assassinations continue. But Nicaragua has utilised the agreement to normalise its relations with Honduras.

What is the condition of women in Nicaragua?

There has been a big rise in political participation by women. Of the 62 Sandinista parliamentary deputies, 34 are women ― more than half.

Seventy percent of the Sandinista candidates in this year's municipal elections will be women. Women play the key role on the community level.

The FSLN leadership, including the president, has made women’s participation in governance and politics a national priority.

Pressure from the women’s movement also secured passage of a new law to counter violence against women, especially within the family.

The abortion question is still closed. Abortion has long been illegal, largely because of the strong Catholic bent of the population.

In 2006 the outgoing Liberal government, with FSLN support, extended the ban to therapeutic abortions.

However, despite this, the incidence of maternal death has declined.

In general, women’s situation is better because of the improvements in the countryside and in public health. Contraception is available if you can afford it.

And gay rights?

They are accepted, although not to the same extent as some other nations. Public display of affection, although not illegal, sometimes attracts police attention.

There is an active gay movement, influenced by developments elsewhere in the hemisphere. Although same-sex marriage is stalled in the US, it is now legal in Argentina and Mexico City and seems close to adoption in Cuba.

Young people are especially influenced by these trends.

What are the prospects for 2012?

We shall see. Before November, the FSLN faced an immense barrier: it was a minority in parliament and its measures could only pass with support of forces to its right.

Now the FSLN has a majority at all levels and greatly enhanced authority. Let us see what Nicaraguans can make of this opportunity.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.