MANAGUA – From “compañero presidente” to “comandante disparate” (commander crazy), President Daniel Ortega has been called a lot of things by a lot of different people over the years.
Now, as the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary of revolutionary triumph July 19 – an event the party has been hyping incessantly for more than a year – the label the government most wants to avoid is “illegitimate.”
Three decades after the Sandinista revolution toppled the Somoza family dictatorship and came to power through the use of arms, the former guerrilla movement, which returned to power with a 38 percent victory in the 2006 elections, still views itself as locked in a fierce battle for legitimacy against improbable odds.
“We are in the second phase of the revolution and we are fighting the same enemies as always – the oligarchy and the Gringos,” said Sandinista lawmaker and union boss Gustavo Porras.
However, the battlefield is now public opinion.
“It’s a media war,” Orlando Núñez, Ortega’s top adviser for social policy, told The Nica Times in a lengthy interview. “We are always in this battle for legitimacy. And it’s a national and international battle.
“There is a dispute for legitimacy,” he added. “You can be legal, but not legitimate. We have to win the battle for public opinion, which is not easy because we have the media against us.”
Like the insurgency against the dreaded and powerful National Guard in the 1970s, the Sandinistas’ battle for legitimacy is equally lopsided, Núñez said. Most mainstream media in Latin America have always sided with the “right wing” and the “oligarchy,” and have been “harshly critical” of revolutionary projects, he complained.
“The Sandinistas have radio, some TV and discourse in the barrios. But it’s a bit unequal, like all revolutionary struggles,” he said.
Yet, unlike traditional revolutionary struggles, the Sandinistas also have the machinery of state to wage their own lopsided battle against the independent media, which Ortega has criticized as “devils,” “children of Goebbels” and “enemies of the Nicarag uan people.”
A recent report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) criticizes the Sandinista government for employing the court system and other state institutions to harass journalists. The free press group also criticizes the government’s policy of using state advertising funds and access to official sources “in ways designed to punish critical media and reward allies.”
“After several decades of hostilities with the press, Ortega perceives the media as an enemy,” Carlos Lauria, the CPJ’s Americas program coordinator and author of the report, told The Nica Times.
Lauria said Ortega not only tries to “completely ignore” independent media, but also obstructs journalists from doing their jobs “with the intention of minimizing the influence of the press.”
More recently, the Sandinista government has shown even less tolerance for media criticism. In June, several dozenarmed men, supposedly from the government’s telecom and radio regulatory body, Telcor, raided a small opposition radio station and confiscated all the equipment. The highly questionable raid has been called illegal and was denounced by local and international press freedom groups (NT, July 3).
In addition to trying to silence critical media, the Ortega administration is fighting for legitimacy among Sandinistas, Núñez said. He added it’s not an easy task for a revolutionary movement to maintain its legitimacy once it becomes the establishment.
Being a revolutionary, he said, is much easier to do when the person is not in power and can maintain a critical eye on the government.
Now that they are in office in times of peace, the Sandinistas have tried to assume the seemingly schizophrenic role of being both the government and the opposition.
“It’s a paradox, as we are the government but we are in opposition. We are in opposition to the system,” Núñez said.
A key part of the Sandinista government’s strategy to maintain legitimacy among its rank-and-file supporters has been to continue its traditional struggle in the streets, where the Sandinistas claim sole ownership.
“The opposition wants to win the battle in the streets; all opposition wants the streets,” Núñez said. “But we are not just a group of government officials; we are a government that is in opposition to the system. So we have to be in the streets to show our force.”
The Sandinistas’ constant presence in the streets, where they have clashed violently with opposition groups attempting to mobilize marches, has been widely criticized as a symbol of the government’s intolerance and fear.
But Núñez said Ortega is being held to different standards, which he said is not fair.
He said when U.S. President Barack Obama packs a huge crowd in the streets, it’s called democracy and “his legitimacy grows” as a leader because “people forget about how many votes he won.”
But when the Sandinistas try to do the same, he said, it’s viewed as aggressive and a threat to democracy.
“People don’t like to see the Sandinistas in the streets because it reminds them of the revolution,” Núñez said. “But we are in a struggle, so we have to keep up the pressure. Like a soccer team that wants to win the game, we have to stay mobilized.”
The Sandinistas’ obsession with the streets also has become a distraction to the government, especially when public employees are required to leave office during the workday to attend party rallies and protests. On numerous occasions during the past year, government officials from the Tax Collection Agency (DGI) and other state offices have been sent into the streets to stand in traffic circles in downtown Managua and wave Sandinista flags – part of what the Sandinistas call their “constant mobilization.”
State workers also are required to attend Ortega’s political rallies in the evenings and on weekends, including the July 19 rally next Sunday.
Confusing State and Party
For human rights advocates, the perceived abuse of public employees is another example of Ortega’s confusion between state and party.
“The confusion starts with the fact that Ortega’s personal house is also Sandinista party headquarters and his government’s office,” said Gonzalo Carrión, director of defense for the NicaraguanCenter for Human Rights (Cenidh). “There’s a general confusion over where one thing starts and the other thing ends.”
Carrión said the same confusion has been reflected in street protests. Last year, he said, a group of DGI employees attacked a group of human rights protesters who were demonstrating against the government.
The tax office employees, he said, “were acting like a paramilitary thug group. We don’t pay state workers to attack people.”
In recent months, the Sandinistas have been signing up state workers for FSLN membership cards in an attempt to claim they represent the majority political party in the country. Rights advocates have denounced the partisan act as a communist-era policy of pressuring state workers to join the party for fear of losing their jobs.
Even Sandinista Ombudsman Omar Cabezas, a fierce defender of the Ortega government, admitted on a TV talk show last month that many of the state employees signing up for the Sandinista cards are doing so as “an insurance policy” rather than revolutionary conviction.
The Fight for Majority
When the FSLN overthrew the Somoza dynasty on July 18, 1979, the revolutionary movement represented the clear majority of the population – perhaps as much as 80 percent, according to some accounts. But the first defections occurred almost immediately after the FSLN took power, and they continued until they were voted out of office in 1990 – something the Sandinista leadership never thought possible.
The party continued to lose support throughout the 1990s, as it moved increasingly away from its pluralistic revolutionary roots and became the private property of Ortega. Many people left the party, and others were thrown out for challenging Ortega’s ownership claim. Still, it held firm at a core base of Sandinistas representing about 35 to 40 percent of the population.
Aided by a divided opposition in the 2006 presidential elections, Ortega managed to win with only 38 percent of the vote and fewer total ballots than he got in 2001, when he lost to Enrique Bolaños.
Since coming back into office, the Sandinistas have strived to reclaim their old role as the majority party by implementing social programs geared toward the poorest sectors of society.
“You can’t have a revolution without a political majority,” Núñez said.
But the fear within the party, according to insiders, was that the numbers were going in the opposite direction.
The municipal elections last November were supposed to be the moment of payoff and vindication for the Sandinistas’ majority claim. Instead, it was a moment of tragic irony as the FSLN was accused of stealing more than 40 mayoral seats in what’s been called “the most documented case of electoral fraud in Latin American history.”
Instead of legitimacy, the Sandinista government – which claimed to be the father of Nicaraguan democracy 20 years ago – is now criticized by many as being dictatorial, incompetent and regressive. And on the international front, the government has chilled relations with the U.S. and the European Union, and it has managed to offend a host of other nations, most recently Taiwan.
The government has lost more than $100 million in U.S. and European aid lately, and it is now at risk of losing its eligibility for much-needed funding from the International Monetary Fund.
Indeed, analysts say the government’s quest for legitimacy and majority has cost it and all of Nicaragua dearly. As one pundit put it, “In wanting everything, the government lost it all.”