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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 337 | Agosto 2009



With Major New Structural Reforms, The Ball’s Now in Our Court

A political analyst who in his own words has always had a love-hate relationship with the FSLN appraises the government’s most important achievements, and a few shortcomings, at it enters the second half of its administration.

William Grigsby

To assess what Daniel Ortega’s government has done after 30 months in office, the halfway mark, it seems to me that the first starting point should be that often forgotten platitude or truism: all political parties organize for the purpose of taking power. What differentiates one from another is their objectives in having power and what they actually do once they get it.

The second point is to discuss what we have and what we’re doing as opposed to what we could have had and might have done. In other words, talk about the present and the future to take advantage of political moments. If we stay in the past, we’ll get stuck in old glories or errors, and that’s useless at this point. The revolution we initiated in 1979 only serves as an historical reference point, a datum in the curriculum. What happened in the nineties or this decade doesn’t matter either. What matters is what we’re doing now. Admittedly, everything we do has its origins and they can’t be ignored or scorned, but neither should we be chained to them.

And the third point is to reflect realistically on the reality we’re operating in. I often hear comrades talking about the reality they dream of, then judging today’s reality based on those dreams. We have to take on board that we’re working with the existing reality, not the one we aspire to. Our aspiration is the objective, not the reality.

Anti-values have permeated us all

With these three points in mind, let’s start by looking at Nicaragua’s reality today. The first characteristic is that approximately 60% of the population wasn’t even alive during either the Somocista dictatorship or the Sandinista revolution. They only have references, which are often skewed one way or another. They don’t know what the authoritarian and dictatorial Somocista system was like, or the repression, or the insurrection; they don’t know about the war, the battles to pick coffee and cotton, the literacy crusade, the massive health campaigns, grassroots organization... In quantitative terms, that 60% represents at least three million Nicaraguans. And as that figure includes children, let’s only talk about the half of them who are now old enough to think for themselves: 1.5 million Nicaraguans who didn’t live through any of that and don’t know what it was all about.

We can’t assume that so many Nicaraguans understand what’s going on now. In addition, they’ve been educated in counter-values: in selfishness, social climbing and trampling down others to get ahead. That’s what they received in the educational system neoliberalism imposed in Nicaragua. And it has had concrete results, because neoliberalism isn’t just an economic system; it’s also an ideology that perverts and deforms human beings. The policy of “every man for himself” at whatever cost has ruined the whole value system that those of us formed in the revolution had.

That offensive left nobody unscathed. We Sandinistas are also within this ideological system and have been permeated by its ideology. Many of us are selfish, greedy and ambitious, just looking for backs to climb on. The system has also perverted us. We can’t claim to be an island of saints immersed in society. And I say this because that’s how many Sandinistas no longer in the FSLN see themselves: as an island of saints. But we’ve all been perverted, because that was the system that reigned in Nicaragua for a good 17 years, during which a whole generation was formed.

An economic model in crisis

Neoliberalism left terrible socioeconomic results: between 35% and 38% of the population illiterate; the whole curative and preventive health system abandoned; the public health and education systems privatized; only 420,000 Nicaraguans in the social security program; the vast majority of rural workers in precarious if not semi-enslaved conditions; 1.3 million Nicaraguans—a quarter of the population—who could only support their families by leaving the country to find work and send back remittances. This means that many people still in Nicaragua are just sitting around waiting for the money to come; they have no culture of organizing, of fighting to cover their own needs, and the fact they don’t aspire to do so has a strong impact on the ability to generate consciousness, social organizations, values, militancy…

Either open or hidden unemployment is also affecting half of the population, maybe more. Land tenure is insecure due to the lack of property titles. Like all financial sectors anywhere, ours is an opulent one that politically controls the dominant class and has enriched itself at the expense of the public treasury throughout these years, including the two-and-a-half years of this FSLN government.

And most important, we have an economic model in crisis. In the last 17-19 years, Nicaragua’s economic model has proved itself unable to resolve people’s problems. It produces lots of poor people and thieves plus a handful of rich people. But while that model is in crisis, it can’t be changed by sheer political will. Neither the FSLN nor Daniel Ortega can decree such a change by the mere desire to do so; it has to be replaced by building something new, with new relations of production, new production alternatives and new forms of international trade.

I agree with those who argue that the neoliberal version of the capitalist economic system can’t be broken in a single country, without alliances among countries and peoples. No Latin American country can break with that system and build an alternative all by itself, as demonstrated by recent experience. A new model can only be built by an alliance among countries taking a different path.

The economic consequences of neoliberalism in Nicaragua go very deep, starting with the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States and ending with the financial market, the capital market. The main country receiving our exports is the United States and the main regional destination is Central America; the two are almost neck and neck, at 34% and 32%, respectively. But on the import side, 80% of everything we buy comes either directly from the United States or from its affiliates in Central America. Another factor to consider is the 7-800,000 Nicaraguans who work in the United States and send money back home. Those family remittances total US$600 million a year, while Nicaraguans working in Costa Rica send home another $200 million.

The businesses or forms of production left by the revolution’s economic model and what remained of the “area of workers’ property” after the concertation agreements of the nineties are also precarious. Very little has survived, but there’s still something, above all in the countryside, that could serve as a lever for developing an alternative model. But first the property titles and credit policies have to be resolved.

The first strategic reform:
The productive model

How can we break with this model in crisis? The FSLN government’s first decision, and it turned out to be a wise one, was to work toward food self-sufficiency and prioritize the agricultural sector. One of many reasons for that was that, given the way the country was heading, in five more years we would have lost the capacity to produce the basic foodstuffs of all Nicaraguans: gallopinto and tortillas. We would only have had consumers of imported rice, beans and maize. Something similar has happened in Mexico, the land where our ancestors domesticated maize; incredibly, Mexico now imports the bulk of the maize it consumes from the United States.

Achieving food self-sufficiency means recovering the country’s agricultural activity, investing our main resources in agriculture, which is currently being done. This plan has various components: credit, property titles, road repair, provision of seeds and fertilizers, technical assistance and the search for markets. Once local self-sufficiency and national needs are covered, what do we do with the surplus? We diversify our markets: Brazil, Venezuela, Central America, Mexico. It’s very important to get all these components operating at the same time and give peasants the possibility of exporting their production surplus at good prices to markets other than just the United States.

The government has also decided to take advantage of the boom in food prices. A couple of years ago a global food crisis was decreed and today food is as expensive as other raw materials. Food exports could increase the gross domestic product. Only a few years ago peasants and their plows were scorned, seen as third-rate economic factors. But the countryside has now regained the vital importance it once had in Latin America. The government is also banking on exploiting the historical opportunity to industrialize, to process the raw materials we produce with our own resources in agroindustries producing cheese and other dairy products, processed meats, sausages, etc. This is a response to the current situation in which cheese from Boaco and Chontales is sent to El Salvador, where it’s processed and packaged then sold in Gringolandia with a “made in El Salvador” label. It’s a similar story with peanuts: we export peanuts and they come back packaged with the Brander label. Such industrialization doesn’t spring up overnight; it needs private, state and mixed investment, and that’s the direction we’re going.

Social components
are part of the plan

The government’s economic decision also has social components, because you can’t make all this investment in the countryside without investing in health, education and security programs at the same time. And that’s being done.

Anyone who knows Nicaragua knows that the poverty in the countryside is offensive, obscene; it’s total misery; there are people with no access to anything or any opportunities at all. Sometimes I come across comrades who judge Nicaragua’s reality through Managua eyes, displaying a total lack of objectivity and reality. Some 45% of Nicaragua’s population lives in the countryside in miserable conditions with minimal opportunities for survival and none for progress. And we get way beyond 45% if we add the misery of those living in Managua’s poverty belts. And this doesn’t even include the Caribbean Coast, the country’s most historically abandoned area.

The peasants’ problems aren’t just limited to health, education and security; there are also enormous problems related to housing, drinking water, electricity, roads, transport… The government is dealing with an accumulation of associated problems to improve the life of rural people.

How do we do all this
without affecting the wealthy?

Three reasons motivated those of us who decided to become Sandinistas before the revolution: first, to get rid of the National Guard, the repression and death, and to win our democratic freedoms; second, to recover national sovereignty, to get the Yankees to stop meddling so we could have our own national project; and third, to pull the country out of poverty, to progress. These were the three reasons underlying the decisions that inspired young people to join the FSLN thirty years ago or more, although not necessarily in the same order for everyone. And those reasons are still valid.

How can we create that country we wanted—and still want—without provoking a social rupture or a war with the United States? And how can we resolve the rural social problems without touching the interests of the wealthy? We can’t. It’s impossible to resolve Nicaragua’s social and economic situation without affecting the interests of the country’s wealthiest people, whether through taxes or other means, and it’s totally unrealistic to expect them to be responsible and generous enough to pay their taxes.

The FSLN government has put off dealing with this contradiction, but I think it’s inevitably going to come up, because you can’t have a self-sufficient budget without a tax reform in which the rich pay according to their income and the poor according to theirs. Right now the poor are sustaining government expenditures every time they buy something because the value-added tax they pay on consumer goods is the bulk of the government’s tax base. Journalist Eloísa Ibarra recently demonstrated that during the Alemán administration bankers only paid 7% in income tax, while the better paid salaried employees contributed 30%. That can’t go on; it’s an insult to intelligence and to political decency.

The government is putting off the tax reform to avoid it spilling over into other contradictions: the political one and the one with the United States. But in my opinion, the longer a tax reform is postponed, the worse it is for both the government and the country. Every day that goes by without a tax reform is negative. I can’t understand why the FSLN hasn’t made a tax reform, and I believe the government lost its golden opportunity to do it in its first year, in 2007. I don’t know what trap it fell into; why it didn’t do it then, and I’m not convinced by the reasons they’ve given me. I was surprised by Daniel Ortega’s agreement with COSEP’s big business leaders a couple of months ago not to reform the tax system in the next two years. It seems they sold the government the idea that a tax reform isn’t appropriate in a crisis period because it drives investments away and causes more unemployment. But COSEP’s big businesses, the ones that don’t pay taxes, only generate 8% of Nicaragua’s employment. The only explanation I can come up with is that you need two things to implement a tax reform: a parliamentary majority—which the FSLN has for other things, but not for this—and consensus, not necessarily among business people who’ll be the hardest hit, but among other social and economic sectors. I think the FSLN should introduce the tax reform this year. It’s the only way to generate the resources needed for the country’s enormous social tasks. The tax reform is a cornerstone of everything we need to be able to do in the future.

Contradictions within the FSLN

To understand how decisions like this can be postponed, we need to remember that the Sandinista National Liberation Front is just that, a front, and has in it different sensibilities—to use the most elegant term. There are clearly social democratic sectors with very important economic interests as well as sectors linked to the grassroots movement and those who have been professional FSLN cadres for many years. Harmonizing all these sensibilities is sometimes difficult, above all when it comes to applying certain policies.

There are also people in the FSLN who use their positions to peddle influences, who are job parasites, who just receive a salary and do nothing, or even stop others from doing anything. The best way to avoid all this is people’s participation, what some also call social oversight, in which people keep on challenging things until they change. I believe change will come with the new people who are joining the FSLN.

Is there room for criticism within the FLSN? My own view is that a culture of complaining leads to frustration and we should replace it with a culture of doing something, even if it means reprisals. Do you want permission to fight? I don’t know any fight that doesn’t have consequences. They all have a cost. If we want to change things, we have to take risks. The ideological poverty that may exist within the FSLN—which certainly exists in some areas—can only be corrected by attacking it, not just denouncing it.

There are those who say, ‘But how am I going to get into the FSLN to fight if I have to accommodate to its thinking?’ That’s logical. The FSLN isn’t some social club; it’s a political party, and if you join it it’s because you want to take on its politics, its principles. If not, don’t join. Perhaps there’s a need to seek out other arenas to fight in.

The second strategic reform: education

While the tax reform hasn’t happened, the reform that has taken place is the educational one, which is strategic. Perhaps because there’s so much hostility or skepticism in the media, this reform hasn’t been given its full due; there’s been a virtual media silence about it, even though it’s so vital for the country’s future. After all, who are we working and struggling for? The kids. That’s why we have to offer children the cultural and educational tools to shoulder the challenges of the country’s development.

The educational reform has various components, including literacy, which has made Nicaragua a “territory free of illiteracy.” Another is free education, which isn’t only about eliminating enrollment fees, but also getting rid of the obligatory uniform and giving kids in the rural areas their school breakfast or snack, because nobody can study on an empty stomach. Doing that has increased the number of kids who finish the course from 75% to 92%, according to official figures.

Another component of the educational reform is improving the teachers’ educational and pedagogical preparation. This means not only upgrading their knowledge, but also eradicating “empiricism,” the hiring of people with no formal teacher training, by providing the teaching staff better tools and basically turning them into protagonists of the educational process through the School Training, Planning and Evaluation Workshops [TEPCS), in which the teachers of a mother school and four or five nearby schools meet monthly to evaluate their work and plan the coming period. The experience has had very good results.

Another component of the educational reform is the change in the educational contents children and adolescents receive. This curricular reform wasn’t made from Education Minister Miguel de Castilla’s desk, but with active participation by teachers and the educational community in a year-long consultation with very strong participation from all nongovernmental organizations involved in the country’s educational network. The curricular reform concluded in mid-2008, and moved on to the preparation of school texts. The primary texts are now ready and the secondary texts, which were delayed due to a lack of funds, will be ready for printing in 2010.

The objective is for the boys and girls who start school this year and graduate from high school in 2020-2021 to know a second language, know their way around a computer and have a skill or trade. Knowing a trade might seem like a minor thing, but it’s vital, because what happens to the majority of kids who come out of school today? If they can’t keep on studying they have to get a job, but in what if they haven’t been trained in a skill?

The educational reform is
conceived to teach critical thinking

The educational reform is conceived to teach Nicaragua’s young people to think and make decisions. And anyone who thinks inevitably has to be critical, to have a critical awareness of reality. The reforms implemented by former education minister Belli taught kids just to obey, to follow orders, but if this current reform is sustained, even if the FSLN doesn’t continue in government, it will have done something strategic for Nicaragua. If something implemented by this government remains, I’m sure it will be the educational reform, which represents a structural change.

But before people can study, they have to eat. I’ve often heard comrades refer disdainfully to the government’s efforts to provide food. But anyone who’s been in the depths of the countryside knows that hunger squeezes, and that if we want to organize people, build citizenship and create awareness, first people have to eat. We can start capitalizing some sectors of the population, but we have to give others something to eat first, because that’s the main priority for thousands of hungry families, not only out in the countryside, but also right here in Managua.

This is another crucial task that can’t be resolved by sheer political will, which is why the government is implementing the Zero Hunger and Zero Usury programs. I’ve heard the Zero Hunger program criticized as charity, as political patronage, mere vote-buying. I don’t care what they call it if it means people eat. We have to get people eating as a result of their own work, but meanwhile, we have to be sure they’re eating. Creating possibilities for them to resolve their own material needs doesn’t happen overnight. They have to eat first in order to think about how to fix this productive model.

The third strategic reform:
The energy production model

This government has made strategic decisions to change not only the productive and educational models, but also the energy production model. Have we already forgotten that up until May 2007 we had energy rationing, electricity cuts of up to 11 hours a day? Well now, even though we still have disasters in the electricity system, this government has managed to work out sources for oil-based electricity generation thanks to the Venezuelan and Cuban generators. And it’s banking on something even more important: to change the energy system for one in which the country can begin to produce with its own clean renewable energy resources—hydroelectric, solar, wind, geothermic and biomass energy —to replace petroleum.

But this can’t happen overnight either. The first results of this strategic effort will start being seen in late 2009 and early 2010. But if this government ends in 2012, it won’t harvest the full results, because it will take until 2014-2015 to reverse the energy system, replacing petroleum and its derivatives with renewal energies as the main component. In addition, we’ll see a sextupling of national energy production by that time. When the FSLN took office in 2007, Nicaragua was producing 520-540 megawatts of electrical energy. By 2014 it will be 3,000 megawatts and we’ll be able to export electricity. It’s a strategic change because everyone understands that we can’t develop the country without electricity.

The fourth strategic reform: Tourism

The FSLN government’s fourth strategic project is the promotion of tourism. The enormous advantage of tourism is that simple investments quickly produce a lot of hard currency and both direct and indirect jobs. In my opinion, large-scale tourism produces waste in every sense of the word; small- and medium-scale tourism is better. The government has officially opted to promote small rural tourism businesses, what we call rural or ecological tourism, but there are tendencies in the government to prioritize large-scale tourism. CANATUR, the Chamber of Tourism, is lobbying hard for that, and the government is giving the big businesses faster responses with more additional benefits—on top of the many the law already gives it—while small businesses that want to venture into tourism are being buried under mountains of bureaucracy. That has to change, and to change it you have to fight against it.

ALBA is a historical opportunity

To achieve all this and much more, the Latin American context is crucial. Nicaragua has a historical opportunity to get its societal model back on the right footing thanks to the fact that other countries are willing to lend us a hand. For the first time ever, Latin American countries are capable of helping each other. For the first time! Before we always had to turn to the opulent North—the United States, Europe, Japan—or to the Soviet bloc when it existed. Now, for the first time, we can turn to the South. That’s historic! We’re experiencing it, but aren’t taking it sufficiently into account. And we’re not only turning to the South, but are doing so in favorable conditions, under a logic of equality rather than subordination, which is what has happened to us with the North, and also with the Soviet camp.

One of the main challenges facing the governments in the Bolivarian alliance—Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua—is to get their peoples to assume ALBA [the Latin American Bolivarian Alternative] as their own, and stop seeing it as an alliance among governments. If it remains only among governments, it won’t outlive the governments that joined it; it’ll begin and end when those governments begin and end. But if people take it on as theirs, they’ll condition future governments to keep it going.

ALBA—that set of countries that pool their resources—opens up a historical opportunity we must learn how to use. That’s why what’s happening in Honduras is a test case: a concertation of political forces close to the United States is using the situation for an offensive against ALBA and anything else that smells like change. If it goes well there, they’ll come after the rest of us. If it goes badly, they’ll at least have learned a lot.

Even without thinking about the attack on ALBA, this whole Honduras issue is extremely serious, because it’s the power of weapons over the power of the people. If that coup is legitimized, it will be a statement that weapons are more important than laws and people. If the military coup and military power are legitimized, it will also legitimize military invasions. It’s irrelevant who Zelaya is. The Honduran people have been oppressed for centuries, without ever enjoying full freedoms. But social organizations—such as unions and trade, women’s, peasant and ecological organizations—have been carrying out silent work, growing and working like ants… It’s their people who are in the streets. They aren’t pro-Zelaya, as the international media say to disqualify them. They’re merely people taking advantage of this historic opportunity. Zelaya’s an excuse. They’re risking their lives for themselves, not him.

The fifth strategic reform: The state

Thirty months into the Ortega government, the next strategic change on the FSLN agenda is the reform of the state. The proposal to shift from a presidential system to a parliamentary one is no longer being considered and only two reforms are now being contemplated: to permit presidential reelection and to legally establish the possibility of calling a referendum to revoke all elected posts: President, legislators and mayors.

In one of its first decrees, shortly after taking office in 2007, the FSLN tried to reform the state by organizing Citizens’ Power. The idea was to create Councils of Citizens’ Power (CPC) as executive instruments whose decisions would be binding. In other words, if people made decisions from below, they would be binding on the officials at the top. But that project was aborted and the opposition denied that function to the CPCs, which remained only as political instruments.

The original idea wasn’t to make the CPCs party instruments, but unfortunately the majority ended up being precisely an extension of the party. In Nicaragua nothing prevents us from organizing to influence decision-making or make our own decisions. I don’t think this can be promoted by decree or depends on political volition; it’s a daily fight. The CPCs aren’t the only instruments for decision-making or influencing other decision-makers. If they want to talk to us about direct democracy, let’s assume it and put it in practice, be it in the CPCs, unions, trade associations, or wherever. Whatever you want to call them, they ought to assume this philosophy. If they tell us there’s direct democracy, let’s take it seriously and see if it’s really true.

Some believe that an organizational network was created around the country during the neoliberal years, but I don’t see it that way. What I see are organizational shells—including the FSLN itself. This all adds up to a number of comrades who received a certain formation in those years and learned a number of organizational tasks, but I don’t see any massive organization. Nicaragua isn’t an organized society today, and that’s one of this country’s major problems. Citizen’s Power should have been created taking advantage of the whole scaffolding of participatory democracy that already existed, even while creating a new organization—the CPCs—to foster direct democracy. But it didn’t happen and now it’s too late to turn it around.

Do we need a new Constitution?

If I represented the FSLN, I’d put my money on reforming the state through a Constituent Assembly, but I don’t see that idea exciting FSLN leaders. I think the social contract that goes by the name Political Constitution no longer represents everybody; it’s no longer a contract that reflects the country’s political, social and economic needs. I think reality has moved on and that for a new social contract to be successful today, it has to guarantee direct democracy, in which people get involved and are taken into account when they do.

One of the things I complained about most in the neoliberal years was that you could rail against Bolaños, Alemán, Violeta and even Daniel, and nothing happened. You had the right to bellow like a bull, but so what? They all still did whatever they wanted. We can’t go on like that. We have to find a way to link our opinions to our decisions and those of the state and society. And to do that, there has to be a new constitutional framework, not only to reduce the number of public posts or update our rights, but above all to involve people in decision-making. But how do we do that? I’m the first to admit that I don’t have the formula.

In my opinion, if the FSLN can enthuse, court, convince young people to get involved in building a new society, the instrument and the name they give it—CPC, community organization, or whatever—won’t matter. If it gets people involved, particularly young people, providing them with binding organizational instruments, it will transform society. But I also believe this isn’t politically possible right now because I don’t think people are socially convinced this is how things should be. Why? Because one of the neoliberal successes is that it confiscated our right to participate in politics, making us view politics as something dirty, fit only for thieves and the corrupt, and decide there’s no point in getting involved in politics because it doesn’t put food on the table. We’ve said that so often and have heard it everywhere, and in essence it means they’ve snatched away our right to build society, to participate in things that concern us; and that in turn means we’re leaving them to a political class that’s habitually linked to powerful interests. It means the wealthy aren’t just powerful because they have money, but because they get to make all the decisions. If we can instill in people, particularly young people, the idea that making decisions isn’t limited to politicians, but concerns us all, things could be very different.

William Grigsby is a journalist, political commentator and radio and magazine director.

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