'Some say yes, others say no': Nicaragua a country divided

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Canadian members and Nicaraguan farmers at a workshop in Rivas. Photo credit: Lois Ross

Forty years after Nicaragua's revolution, the country's revolutionaries and their supporters find themselves divided -- between those who support Daniel Ortega's government and those who oppose it. What is behind the political differences among Sandinistas, members of the political group that led the revolution? Isn't Ortega, the iconic revolutionary leader, a Sandinista himself? The answer, as they say, is complicated.

In the early months of 1985, I travelled to Ullysses Rodriguez, a co-operative farm north of Esteli, a small city north of Managua. At that time I was volunteering with the Canadian Farmers Brigade to Nicaragua, a brigade sponsored by the National Farmers Union (NFU), individual Canadian farmers and Oxfam-Canada, and supported by the Nicaraguan Ministry of Agricultural Development and Agrarian Reform (MIDINRA). We were volunteering in the countryside, trying to help as best as we could, in situations that were difficult. It was the early years following the Sandinista Revolution -- years six and seven in the language of revolutions -- and the height of the Contra war, funded by the U.S. administration and managed by the now infamous General Oliver North. Brigades came from around the world to lend a hand providing technical assistance, harvesting coffee and cotton, organizing production and consumer co-operatives, and providing medical assistance.

That day, north of Esteli, I can't remember exactly what I asked a Nicaraguan child, carrying a plastic bowl of milk straight from the cow to her mother, who was making tortillas in a dirt-floored kitchen -- but the answer still makes me smile.

"Some say yes, others say no!" replied the child. She was obviously repeating what the adults around her had said at some point. "How could adults be so ambivalent?" I wondered. Children are so prescient. "Algunos dicen que si, otros dicen que no!" The response to my question was tantamount to a Canadian response of: "Well, yes and no!"

I chuckled at the time, but soon realized that this phrase denotes the murkiness of Nicaraguan politics. It has long been so. Before the 1979 revolution, siblings and families were often divided on political issues. And since 1979, there have been several divisions in the political situation -- and a few definite right turns -- along with some firm and stoic left turns. Many who once supported Daniel Ortega abandoned his leadership in the 1990s and 2000s, as noted in an article recently published in the New Internationalist. And many, although they identify as Sandinistas, did not support his re-election in 2006, in 2011, and again in 2016. To the contrary, many believe the elections were not democratic and that opposition was repressed.

In Nicaragua, "some say yes, and others say no" was a phrase I heard more than once when I was working with the brigades. And again today, Sandinistas appear to be both in government as well as demonstrating in the streets.

Daniel Ortega's alliances with the right-wing leadership of the Catholic Church, international investors, and foreign financial institutions, and the move to build an interoceanic canal funded by China, have all been contentious issues and speak volumes about how regressive his leadership has become for many. Farm families and the agrarian reform, a key priority of the Sandinista Revolution, has lost much ground, leaving the poorest of Nicaraguans as poor as ever.

Some say that Daniel Ortega has to go because he has turned into a corrupt leader, serving the interests of his family and inner circle, while ignoring pressing issues of social justice and poverty. Others say, no, he needs to stay and this violence is an example of the "soft coups" that have been undertaken across Latin America in recent years, quietly staged by the U.S. And that is indeed the official Ortega government line as well.

The reality is that if something does not change soon, Ortega will be forced from office as his profits and his family's future disintegrates along with the economy of his country.

Until April, Nicaragua was considered to be one of the most stable countries in Central America. But below the surface is a country still considered to be the second poorest in the Western hemisphere. And that means that close to half of the population struggle to meet basic daily needs.

On September 28, the Ortega government made public demonstrations and street protests illegal. That same day, three Dutch progressive, left-wing parties -- the social democrats, greens, and socialists -- each with representation in the Dutch Parliament, sent off a letter to the Sandinista National Assembly, addressed to Gustavo Porras, President of the National Assembly and Chief of the Sandinista bloc.

That letter reads in part:

"We hope that you (Sandinista deputies) are aware of the great international interest in your actions. After almost forty years of your revolution, which was a source of inspiration to millions of people in the entire globe, it carries the danger of becoming a great shame… Representatives of the people, please act, take your responsibility seriously and defend the international law as did your colleagues in the eighties and nineties of the twentieth century… We urge you to do everything possible to put an end to the repression and polarization that -- according to the news received from friends and colleagues -- mainly have their origin in the government's actions."

There are Sandinistas against Ortega and some still aligned with him. All of this is in stark contrast to the heady days of the '80s when the agrarian reform and the promise of eradicating poverty mobilized both Nicaraguans and Internationalists. An article in Briarpatch provides a recent, firsthand view and analysis of the political forces that are currently at work. Another article in the well-respected progressive U.S. publication NACLA provides yet more information and perspective on the past decades of political change in Nicaragua.

Is Ortega not a Sandinista? Well, some say yes, and others say no. Should Ortega resign as many in the country are calling for? Should there be early elections? Some say yes, and others say no.

Recent surveys published by Envio, a Nicaraguan research institute launched in 1981, indicate that Ortega's support, even among Sandinistas has seriously eroded. Only eight per cent of those surveyed acknowledged they were Ortega supporters -- and another 28 per cent identified as Sandinistas.

Is Ortega's time done? Some say no, but most appear to be saying yes.

This is the third part of a series of columns on Nicaragua. Follow the full series here.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Photo credit: Lois Ross

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