July 19 – today Nicaragua celebrates the revolution, i.e. overthrow of the much hated Somoza reign 31 years ago. The “Frente”, or front, the Sandinista movement that waged a highly popular grass-root revolutionary movement in the 80’s succeeded in ousting a vile right wing dictator who was the United States’ favorite thug in the region, for several decades. No need here to recap the whole story of Sandinista revolutionary credentials and the long list of popular disgruntlements, nor the subsequent history of CIA supported Contra-revolution. In 2007, Daniel Ortega returned to power after a long march in the political desert. And from the very first day of his second term as President (counting the first term in the 1980s), the opposition has had writhing fits about his methods, his philosophy, his personal history.
OK, so today is July 19 and the country is enjoying a mix of legitimate popular celebration and political theater. There are to be sure many Nicaraguans who relive the exciting epoch of the revolution and marvel at their leader’s position of power. They have much to point to as evidence of Ortega’s dedication to helping the poorest of the poor. Roads are being built in regions often disconnected from the rest of the country due to poor infrastructure. Hospitals are getting ambulances. Orphanages and health clinics are sprouting up. Literacy is up. Exports are up. In sum, should you be a Sandinista party member, you would have much to celebrate.
But not all Nicaraguans are celebrating. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Nicaraguans do not support their President. Ortega was elected with a “majority” of 36%. His popularity has gone down from then, but there are no polls available to track his on going popularity. My guess is that he has a strong 25%-30% core support and a very large percentage of the country is just dealing with day to day survival issues, letting politicians be politicians, hoping that the country will not return to a civil war that yielded nothing positive and a whole lot of grief as everyone has a son, uncle, father, daughter or mother who died or suffered greatly during the civil war.
So where does all this lead us today.? As a student of politics and political systems, having majored in political science for undergrad and graduate school, and more generally having a great deal of interest in how political systems work, I must confess to being fascinated by the relentless, ruthless and successful political strategies that the Ortega Administration has executed since he took over. So here is my short summary of “what’s going on” in terms of political developments on this day of revolutionary celebration.
The Ortega political machine is proceeding, as best as I can tell, on 5 distinct fronts. There may be more, but these are the elements of the puzzle which I believe will keep him in power in 2011, when the next election takes place. The objective, for Ortega, is not only to achieve re-election in 2011, but more importantly to reshape the political landscape into a single party system. The democratic process is too messy for Ortega’s taste and oh so inefficient as he sees it, thinking that he could be so much more efficient if he didn’t have to worry about the annoying process called elections.
#1: Divide and conquer – while the “opposition” keeps repeating to anyone who will listen that 65% of the country is against Ortega, the fact is that Ortega has done such a good job at keeping the parties of the right fighting internally, that they have been totally unable to mount a credible opposition. There are two main characters, Montealegre and Aleman, both crooks, one actually accused of robbing the country to the tune of $5Billion, but who avoided jail by making a deal with… Ortega, trading his personal jail sentence against a legislative victory that paved the way for Ortega’s ultimate “majority” win of 36%.
#2: Muzzle the press — this is of course not unique to Nicaragua, but since he took over, the level of pressure on the press has been astounding. Individual journalists roughed up physically by Sandinista “enthusiasts”; Newspapers shut down when possible; Editors removed and replaced by more sympathetic pro-sandinista “professionals” and, in a truly breathtaking development, the outright purchase by a friend of Ortega of a TV station that had been vociferous against Ortega alleged machinations.
#3: Politicize the judiciary: I have no idea if Nicaragua’s judicial system was ever “impartial”, as I have only observed it consistently since moving here, but if there ever was a sense of an independent judicial system, that is no more. Judges are removed when decisions are taken which are inconvenient for the first family.
#4: Use Venezuelan money to gain political favor: the grand deal between Venezuela and Nicaragua is that Hugo Chavez provides today much needed oil, which Nicaragua promises to repay in x years. This pipeline of oil creates enormous “cash flow”, most of which is rather opaque, and which fills the coffers of the FSLN party, to facilitate and fund projects throughout the country that are much needed, but also politically useful as it yields concrete “results” for Sandinista mayors and parliamentarians.
#5: create a one party country, one mayor at a time: The most fascinating political tactic employed by the Ortega government has been to convert, one way or another, opposition mayors into supportive mayors. This is done any number of ways. Some, like Granada’s own mayor, who was elected as a conservative, anti-Ortega mayor, in a town that has been conservative for the past several decades (centuries?), simply woke up one morning and went in front of the press and announced that, he “changed his mind” and now was in support of Ortega. That’s it. The fact that he had accummulated massive personal debts that are rumored to have magically disappeared is totally unsubstantiated and oh so cynical a view, even though it is the most frequently offered explanation. Other mayors are not so easily “turned”, most famous among them is the mayor of a city called Boaco, a medical doctor by training who went into politics as he felt there was a need in his town for a voice against the Ortega machine. Well, that voice went silent a couple of weeks back. The military and police simply marched into his office and “removed him”. No explanation given. The fact that he was legally elected and that his term is not up for another 12 months doesn’t seem to be much of a concern.
So, with this in mind, today, on our way to the beach, we “experienced” the revolutionary zeal in a very tangible way. As Granada is a conservative town, the odds of having enough supporters dressed in Sandinista Black and Red was not high. And that wouldn’t do on a day of celebration of La Revolucion! Every one expects a city like Leon, the historic center of gravity for the Sandinistas, to go crazy and revel in Orteguismo, or Managua. But how much more powerful would it be to have media coverage of EVEN a conservative city like Granada to pay tribute to the great achievement of the Ortega administration. No worries, supporters would simply be “bussed in”. And so they were. Busloads and busloads. (Some headed for Granada and others for the capital of Managua where the main celebration takes place)
Here is a little slice of what we saw on the way out of Granada.
Viva la Revolucion!
- This stray dog travels north – in a tube
- Flowers and paintbrushes in bloom