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Nicaragua: The Sandinistas, Socialism and Independence

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Carlos Fonseca Terán (Photo: Nick Caistor)Carlos Fonseca Terán is the son of one of the founders  of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. His father, also Carlos Fonseca was killed in 1976 during the struggle to topple the Somoza dynasty. Carlos Fonseca Terán has devoted his life to the Sandinista cause – in the Sandinista youth, the national army, as an FSLN deputy in the National Assembly and, since 2003, as a member of the Sandinista Council. Now deputy head of the FSLN’s International Department, he talked to LAB’s Nick Caistor during a recent visit to Britain.

NC: The National Assembly has just adopted significant changes to the national constitution. Among the most polemical is the removal of term limits for the presidency, which has been seen by critics in Nicaragua and abroad as giving Daniel Ortega the power to stand for re-election as long as he wishes.

CF: No, that measure is only giving recognition in the constitution to what already in fact exists. Before the last elections in 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that Daniel Ortega or anyone else could stand for re-election, and this is now being ratified in the constitution. But that is not what is important in the new measures that have been adopted (and need to be ratified in the next session of the National Assembly.) The most important thing is the way that ‘direct democracy’ is being strengthened, so that the will of the people is sovereign. And this is expressed through ‘citizen power’ (poder ciudadano) and through the organizations that represent different social sectors, especially the poorest ones. From now on, it is the citizens who will be able to tell the deputies in the National Assembly what they think the national budget should be spent on, and what areas most need attention.

NC: What exactly do you mean by ‘citizen power’? 

CF: These are organizations which represent different sectors – the unions, women’s organizations, municipal or other territorial groups, the grass-roots whom the FSLN has been encouraging to participate in order to govern themselves rather than through the political parties. Yes, this comes from the top down, because often people need to be encouraged to believe that they are the ones who can take important decisions affecting their lives, but more and more Nicaraguans are becoming convinced this is needed. I should say that in the beginning perhaps only 5% of the population was involved, but now it is at least 40%. And the government does not care what their political allegiances are, they want to find the widest consensus among these participants on issues they think are most important. 

NC: in the past though, Nicaraguan society has been deeply divided. How can the Sandinista government bring people together so that there is a real consensus?

CF: We say that our aim is to ‘put an end to division by creating justice’. Our political programme involves reducing poverty, promoting health and education, but also bringing different sides together to achieve this. The unions of course, but also private enterprise. Whereas in the 1980s they opposed the government, now they have come to accept the Sandinistas as the reality of today, and so they are much more pragmatic; they realise that they either have to work with us or leave Nicaragua.

NC: Some critics of Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista authorities say they are the ones who are too pragmatic, for example adopting orthodox economic policies in order to please the IMF and foreign aid donors to Nicaragua.

CF: Well, our policies have delivered between 4- 5% growth over the past four years. And that growth has been used to reduce poverty, to boost education and health and generally to support the poorer sectors of society. But because of the poverty that the capitalist system has created in our country, we are still dependent on foreign help, and many governments insist that the IMF has to agree with the policies we are pursuing. But I can assure you that our current Sandinista government is very different from the neo-liberal administrations of the 1990s. Then the IMF was able to impose all sorts of conditions, but now there are very tough negotiations before we accept what they are demanding, and our people realise this. At the moment, we are necessarily in a mixed economy, but there is no doubt that our aim is to create a socialist one.

NC: So what does socialism mean for the Sandinistas in the 21st century?

CF: What it has always meant: ‘propiedad social’ – the social ownership of property and the means of production. But for us this does not mean the state owning everything, but the real transfer to popular sectors so that they are in control. In the long term, we do not want the state to be running everything, but for the people to be in charge. But these popular sectors still need a vanguard revolutionary party to lead the way in the implementation of this model, to create the awareness of the need for it. So our slogan is: ‘una vanguardia para dirigir, el pueblo para mandar, el gobierno para obedecer [a vanguard to lead, the people to be in command, the government to obey]. In that way we think that with true independence it will be the people of Nicaragua in charge without the need for any intermediaries.

NC: But how does a poor country like Nicaragua achieve that true independence?

CF: We already have steady growth in the economy, and a solid politico-economic model. But what the Ortega government sees as key to securing our future independence is the construction of the inter-oceanic canal between the Atlantic and the Pacific across Nicaragua. We think that this US$40 billion project could add some 15% annually  to our GDP over the next 50 years, and help create the conditions for real independence from foreign aid. 

NC:  But isn’t the fact that the proposed canal will be built and run by a Chinese consortium make Nicaragua even more dependent on others?

CF: Well, it is true that the financing of the project comes from the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Investment Co, and that at the beginning they will receive all the income from the tolls for using the canal. But Nicaragua will receive one per cent more each year until we have 51% of the income, and at the same time there will be income from the railway alongside the canal, and all the construction and other jobs associated with it. This is not going to be an enclave like the Panama Canal was for many years. We see it as the guarantee of our national sovereignty.

NC: Your father was killed in 1976 fighting for the Sandinistas. What do you think he would make of his comrade Daniel Ortega and the current Sandinista government?

CF: I think he would be very pleased. We are putting his ideas and beliefs into practice in our politico-economic model, so wherever he might be now, I’m sure he would be happy.