Whatever Happened to Nicaragua’s Right-wing Opposition?

Tortilla con Sal

People outside Nicaragua unfamiliar with the country’s politics over the last five years are generally at a loss to explain why Nicaragua’s right wing political opposition is doing so badly, or, conversely, why President Daniel Ortega and his ministerial team have done so well. In large part this is reflected in the population’s feelings about the country’s economic development. On the one hand, the government’s  social and economic policies enjoy massive support. But against that is a general feeling that the country’s private sector is the main motor of economic development.

What is interesting is the fact that around 70% of the country’s population, in small and medium sized businesses of all kinds, create around 63% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. This may explain the apparent contradiction in people’s thinking about the economy, since it is the government’s socialist policies that have strengthened and consolidated the country’s grass roots popular economy which has contributed disproportionately more to the country’s regionally exceptional increase in GDP since 2010 than the country’s much wealthier private business interests.

From 2013 well over 50% of the population favors 21st Century Socialism over the neoliberal policies between 1990 and 2007
(Source: M&R Consultants, March 2016)

Even so, over 80% of people regard the private sector as the main engine of economic development.
(Source: M&R Consultants, March 2016)

In political terms, more than half of voters say they support the FSLN while on a personal level, Comandante Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, who coordinates government policy at an operational level enjoy levels of approval well over 70%. In electoral terms, the opinion polls forecast a solid Sandinista victory of over 60% in the elections due in November in a context where over 80% of voters say they are satisfied with Nicaragua’s democracy. By contrast, avowed support for the right wing parties barely reaches 10% while the political leaders with the lowest levels of approval are those of the right wing. An important body of around 35% of voters say they are independent, neither Sandinista nor Liberal. In past elections this block of voters has split between supporting the FSLN, supporting the right wing parties or else simply abstaining.

Since 2011, over 50% of Nicaraguans have supported the FSLN. while less than 10% have supported the Nicaraguan opposition. Independents tend to vote for the FSLN. (Source: M&R, March 2016)

From late 2011 onwards, over 75% of Nicaraguans say they are satisfied with the country’s democracy
(Source: M&R March, 2016)

In his recent speech during the Sandinista Congress ratifying his candidacy for the Presidential elections later this year, Comandante Daniel Ortega announced that no international observers would be invited to the November national elections. Instead the electoral process will be accompanied by electoral experts from all over Latin America and the Caribbean to offer their guidance and expertise to Nicaragua’s electoral authority, the Supreme Electoral Council. This decision is a reaction to the continent wide campaign to destabilize left wing governments but even more so reflects the reality that Nicaragua’s institutional strength is based on domestic national consensus independent of international approval or disapproval. It is indeed the case that 83% of people in Nicaragua think external electoral observers are desirable, but even so various opinion polls by the leading research companies ((Gallup, Borge & Associates, M&R, Mitofsky…)) indicate consistent, long standing and overwhelming support for the Sandinista government on the main issues of popular concern.

CID-Gallup confirms the pattern of support for the respective political parties in Nicaragua

Likewise, CID-Gallup confirms the relative popularity of President Daniel Ortega in comparison with his predecessors.

From 2007 to date the right wing in Nicaragua has consistently organized provocations to try and destabilize the country or discredit the government. In 2015 four local Sandinista leaders were murdered for political reasons. In July 2014 right wing activists ambushed a caravan of Sandinista supporters returning from the annual celebration of the Revolution, killing five people and wounding 24. The general association of these attacks with the country’s right wing has helped contribute to the current irrelevance of the political opposition in Nicaragua. The government has consolidated its levels of approval by refusing to be provoked.

While it is true that the right wing in Nicaragua is politically weak in itself, with no recognizable policy agenda and poor leadership, it is also the case that they have failed to take advantage of factors in their favor. For example, Nicaragua is exposed to the same psychological warfare campaign in the media as everywhere else. Despite being a poor country it has one of the highest rates of people owning mobile phones and ever increasing levels of participation in Internet social media. Right wing media like the La Prensa national newspaper or the Radio Corporación national radio station are second to none in Latin America in terms of vitriolic right wing political propaganda. The insults and demonization in their reports and broadcasts against Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo are similar or even worse than the campaign against Comandante Hugo Chávez or Nicolas Maduro by right wing media in Venezuela, against Rafael Correa in Ecuador or against Evo Morales in Bolivia.

Faced with that psychological warfare campaign, the FSLN has refused to fall into the trap of polarization which was so disastrous in the 1980s. In order to achieve a political majority after winning the Presidency with just 37% of the vote in 2006, the FSLN in government worked incredibly hard to achieve the electoral win in 2011 with 63% of the vote. It achieved that by a massive commitment to solving people’s fundamental problems in the areas of health care, education, transport, access to basic services, access to credit, support for rural families, security of land title and better infrastructure. Government policy also prioritized food assistance to the most vulnerable, support for very young children, replacement of defective domestic roofing, mass health campaigns against mosquito borne diseases, nationwide support for sports activities and also cultural activities both traditional and contemporary. The focus of all these policy initiatives has prioritized women and youth.

Just as important as the content of this successful policy program has been the style of its implementation, always emphasizing reconciliation and national unity which has decompressed earlier levels of conflict and tension. The war of the 1980s left around 150,000 victims between dead and injured in a country, back then, of just 3.5 million people, a casualty rate comparable to that in Syria now. Back then, for US President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, the war was a crusade against communism. Now the government has just built a museum to Pope John Paul II, a powerful symbol of its commitment to reconciliation stemming from its friendly relations with the country’s Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo and much to the chagrin of the country’s more reactionary right wing Catholic Church hierarchy.

While space exists for revolutionary discussion and analysis, government aligned mass media do not directly challenge the prevailing neoliberal media model. They avoid demonizing anti-Sandinista opinion or similar political sectarianism, focusing instead almost exclusively on positive messaging about the country’s economic and social development. Pro-government commercial channels focus quite conventionally on sport and entertainment with an emphasis on youth and a message of gender equality. The official government television channel Canal 6 offers innovative programming, promoting quality production values with a Sandinista bias without being exclusively party political or polemical. That policy also applies in the social networks where “trolling” is generally ignored by Sandinista supporters in favor of positive messaging, a strategy that has paid dividends in the real world beyond the Internet.

While all these considerations go a long way towards explaining the Sandinista government’s success, the plight of Nicaragua’s right wing opposition also reflects the inherent weakness of Nicaragua’s oligarchy, its bourgeoisie and their imperialist patrons. Back in the 1980s, Nicaragua’s big businesses boycotted the Revolution. The main capitalist families stopped investing and openly sabotaged the process of change taking place in Nicaragua. They turned their backs on the country and made money speculating in offshore fiscal havens or investing in other Central American countries. Freed from the Somoza family’s monopoly over most of Nicaragua’s economy, rich Nicaraguans regionalized their business interests while they waited for the Revolution to collapse, allowing them to return to political power. At the same time, most of Nicaragua’s political right wing benefited from the funding and patronage of the United States authorities within the framework of the Contra war.

The Sandinista Revolution of 1979 was supported by Nicaragua’s private business sector insofar as they saw it as a way of breaking the economic monopoly of the Somoza dictatorship. Once Nicaragua’s anti-Somoza business class saw that the Revolution was sufficiently politically powerful to block their new found freedom to freely accumulate capital, they reacted accordingly, seeking to defend their elite interests. Nicaragua’s bourgeoisie is highly opportunist and relatively dependent on the centers of economic power. It has a regional focus within Central America and its different factions are chronically divided. For 200 years they have failed to build and sustain a coherent political project of national development. That reality is reflected in their long standing dependence for policy ideas and funding on Western governments and NGOS subordinate to the elites of North America and Europe.

The tremendous achievement of the Sandinista Revolution was finally to endow Nicaragua with a Constitution, an army and police force truly identified with a nation building project. That project was and remains clearly identified with and led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front representing Nicaragua’s impoverished majority. Despite being forced from government after losing the 1990 elections, the FSLN was still the largest and best organized political party in the country, a status briefly and unsuccessfully contested after 1996 by Arnoldo Aleman’s Liberal Alliance. Between 1990 and 2006, the political right wing tried by every possible means to destroy the FSLN, to no avail, until their own political advantages slowly eroded away leaving them where they are now. From 1996 onwards the FSLN learned how to maneuver, divide and isolate the most reactionary sections of the political right wing while at the same time co-opting other sectors into productive collaboration to meet the needs of Nicaraguan society.

For example, most of the rural families who opposed the FSLN in the later stages of the Contra war realized they had been used as cannon fodder and then abandoned by Nicaragua’s oligarchy. Parts of the Catholic Church hierarchy recognized that they would lose their social base if they did not embrace the option for the poor whose political expression is the FSLN. Large sections of the evangelical movement also identify with the FSLN message of reconciliation and national unity. Finally, pragmatic business leaders recognize that the FSLN’s economic program offers incomparably more commercial opportunities and benefits than the wishful thinking of failed do-it-yourself neoliberal voodoo economic policy.

All of those variables favoring the Sandinista national project explain why the Nicaraguan right wing is currently so marginal. But the fundamental core of the FSLN’s new social and economic leadership, if not hegemony, is the policy of encouraging and defending freely associated small and medium producers of all kinds who own and control their means of production. The economic logic of that associative, family-based and cooperative sector is not the reproduction of capital but the satisfaction of human needs. 63% of the population produce 70% of the country’s wealth including production of most of the country’s food, controlling most of the country’s transport and also its huge markets moving hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Furthermore, this sector’s savings and loan cooperatives with tens of thousands of members are now working together with labor unions of the country’s formal economy to develop distribution and marketing networks to support the sector’s producers. This social economy, independent of the bourgeoisie, largely free of the private banking sector’s choke hold on credit is well able to resist potential boycotts or sabotage by the traditional private business sector. A large part of the social economy’s finance comes from family remittances sent from abroad by relatives of which a major portion ends up benefiting grass roots producers.

For their part Nicaragua’s bourgeoisie, like their private business counterparts in other parts of Latin America, realize they have to hedge their bets between the ever more doubtful benefits of dependency on the US economy, the promise of more diverse commercial relations in a multipolar world and the hazardous opportunities available in dealing with giant predatory multinational corporations. Over the last forty years Nicaragua’s rich elites have had to face the fact that their historical failure to build a nation has been made good by the country’s impoverished majority embodied in the FSLN. That majority and their political expression hold the keys to the country’s governability, to its stability and to its material prosperity, including that of the elites themselves.

Another example of this reality occurred over the last week or so when the Supreme Court finally adjudicated a long running dispute for control of the extreme right wing Independent Liberal Party (PLI). Its current leader, the banker Eduardo Montealegre lost the legal representation he had fraudulently usurped several years previously supported by an alliance of civil society figures against three rival factions. This week, the Supreme Court judged that another of the factions held the PLI’s legitimate legal representation, provoking a fiercely angry response for Montealegre and the La Prensa newspaper, virtually a political party in its own right. Now the PLI will hold its first genuinely democratic party congress for years, which is a serious blow to Montealegre’s clear strategy of mounting a phoney electoral scandal in the November elections aimed at involving the OAS in a similar way to that targeting Venezuela recently.

While Nicaragua’s wealthy elites have rushed to claim the Supreme Court’s ruling was “political”, they are probably relieved at the outcome because Montealegre’s political project is self-evidently a dead end, completely at the margins of Nicaragua’s political and economic reality. In any case, the internecine antics of Nicaragua’s right wing are of no interest to the great majority of Nicaraguans, whether they support the FSLN or not. Such is the power of the consensus the Sandinista Front has built around its nation building project. And all of this is why the Nicaraguan right wing has collapsed in on itself like a popped balloon.