Sandinista Government Takes Power in Nicaragua

On January 10, 2007, Daniel Ortega of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) was inaugurated for his second term as president of Nicaragua after spending seventeen years in opposition.

Ortega was one of the leaders of the 1979 FSLN-led Nicaraguan Revolution, which toppled the decades-long US-backed Somoza family dictatorship. He served as president from 1985 to 1990, during the heat of the US-backed Contra war and economic embargo.

The Nicaraguan electorate voted Ortega out of power in 1990, with the election of a coalition of rightist forces led by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. Though the FSLN remained an important force in the National Assembly, the Judicial Branch, and the Supreme Electoral Council, Ortega suffered two more electoral defeats in 1996 and 2001. In spite of these losses, Ortega was finally elected president on November 5, 2006, due to a split on the right and a change in electoral law that allows for a candidate to win with only 35% of the vote as long as the runner up is at least five percentage points behind. However, the FSLN’s presidential victory is somewhat hampered by its lack of a majority in the National Assembly, which remains divided among four different parties.

Although Ortega ran on a platform of "National Reconciliation" in an attempt to make amends with former opponents, and spent the months since the November 2006 elections reassuring the business community that the new Sandinista government would guarantee property rights and maintain the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the first few days of the new Ortega administration demonstrate a strong commitment to left-leaning reform and to establishing relationships with outspoken leftist governments in the region.

Though Ortega’s rhetoric is a far cry from the virulent anti-imperialist language he used in the 1980s, his actions have made it clear who his preferred allies are. After an inaugural ceremony, which Ortega celebrated with Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia close to his side, Ortega’s first official act as the president of Nicaragua was to sign on to the Alternativa Bolviariana para las Americas (ALBA), an agreement based on the principles of cooperation, solidarity, and mutual assistance as opposed to neoliberal economics. Ortega stated that the integration and unity of Latin American and Caribbean peoples will "permit the incorporation of our region in the world with conditions that assure our right to sustainable development and the unrestricted exercise of national sovereignty in the face of hegemonic pretensions." ALBA’s membership now consists of Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, and could soon grow to five if newly inaugurated Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa signs on.

After joining ALBA, Nicaragua signed a series of agreements with Venezuela regarding energy, health, infrastructure, and credit for agriculture, making Nicaragua an even larger recipient of Venezuelan aid than Cuba, Bolivia, or Argentina. Chávez also agreed to cancel Nicaragua’s US$31.8 million debt to Venezuela. In an attempt to alleviate the energy crisis that has led to frequent and widespread blackouts and crippling transportation strikes in recent years, Venezuela will install a total of at least thirty-two electricity-generating plants in the country, many of which have already arrived. Chávez has also promised to build an oil refinery with the capacity to store more than 150,000 barrels of petroleum in Nicaragua and to provide at least 10 million barrels of oil annually, enough to cover the country’s entire demand. The company Alba Petróleos de Nicaragua (ALBANIC) is responsible for the distribution and sale of the oil, which Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA) will provide at preferential payment rates. The agreement made between ALBANIC and PDVSA last year stipulates that 60% of the petroleum’s cost must be paid within ninety days, while the remaining 40% will be paid back over a twenty-five year period at a very low interest rate.

The Nicaraguan Ministry of Education has also announced a plan for reforming the nation’s education system in order to boost attendance levels and the quality of instruction. The new Minister of Education, Miguel de Castilla (who served as Vice-Minister of Education during the 1980s), declared an end to school autonomy, which was established in 1993 and has effectively led to the privatization of the public school system. Under the policy of school autonomy, the government only provided money for teachers’ salaries, forcing schools to charge their students fees in order to cover other operating costs. This has undermined the very notion of public education, and in a country of under 6 million, currently 850,000 school-age children do not attend school. Moreover, 50% of students who enroll in school at the beginning of the year are forced to drop out because their families cannot afford the school fees.

The new Ministry of Education has thus committed itself to abolishing all forms of fees in order to make public education affordable to all. De Castilla has also announced plans for a national literacy crusade using a version of the Cuban "Yo Sí Puedo" methodology. The 1980 National Literacy Crusade, in which tens of thousands of volunteers worked in the countryside and cities to lower the illiteracy rate from 51% to 12.9%, was one of the most important achievements of the Nicaraguan Revolution. This low illiteracy level was unable to be maintained due to the Sandinista government’s subsequent economic problems resulting from the war and embargo and the later neoliberal governments’ lack of funding for education.

Ortega has also announced a plan called "Cero Pobreza" to eradicate the extreme poverty that more than half of the Nicaraguan population suffers from. The Council for Food Security, headed by sociologist Orlando Nuñez, will carry out the program. Nuñez explains that the program’s objective is to "capitalize the food production sectors in Nicaragua. That is to say, it is not just a social assistance program, but also a productive project that sets up the base for an agro-industrial project. The economic heart of the program is to capitalize 75,000 peasant families with large and small scale livestock, seeds, and industrial equipment."

In addition to joining ALBA and announcing plans for various domestic reforms, the January 13-14 visit of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to Nicaraguan culminated in the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two nations, which have remained suspended since 1990, and the signing of a "Memorandum of Understanding." This memorandum states that both nations will support each other in "the exchange of experiences in the economic, energy, commercial, financial, infrastructure, and technical spheres."

Iran promised to provide Nicaragua with housing, water, medical, and industrial projects. In a visit to a poor Managua neighborhood, Ahmadinejad affirmed his support for leftist Latin American governments, stating that, "Today we are not alone; Iran, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and other revolutionary countries, we are together and we are going to resist together. God will also be with us and our people, be sure that victory is ours." The clear implication in Iran’s support for Ortega is that Nicaragua will support Iran in its conflict with the United Nations, where a resolution passed in December gives the Islamic state two months to suspend its "proliferation of sensitive nuclear activities."

This stance puts Nicaragua on a collision course with the United States, whose threats against Iran’s uranium program and its role in the Iraq conflict have taken on a particularly confrontational tone in the past week. Ortega’s close relationship with Venezuela will also most likely cause conflict with the US. These alliances, combined with the history of tense relations between the US and Ortega and the constant threats made by US officials before the November 2006 elections about the consequences of an Ortega victory for relations between the two countries, make a cordial relationship with the US rather unlikely. However, the Sandinistas’ ability to fulfill their promises to spend more money on education and health care and to increase support for small producers in a country where 80% of the population lives on less than US$2 per day will be the measure by which most Nicaraguans measure Ortega’s success.

Photo from El Nuevo Diario