Sandinista National Liberation Front

Nicaragua Table of Contents

The FSLN has maintained the cohesion needed to continue as a potent force in Nicaraguan politics despite an internal crisis touched off by its electoral defeat. From the moment that Daniel Ortega publicly conceded defeat, he launched an initiative to preserve the gains that the Sandinista government claimed to have secured for the Nicaraguan people and the property that the movement had acquired. However, the performance of the FSLN leadership before and after the elections regarding the social welfare issue became a topic of dispute among the leaders of the groups and between the leadership and the local members. The dispute was so severe that it threatened to destroy the cohesive party apparatus and discipline that the movement had created over almost three decades of struggle and power.

In his concession speech, President Ortega in essence foreswore the FSLN's identity as a "vanguard party" and called on the FSLN to play a role as a strong but loyal opposition party. In subsequent speeches, Ortega made clear that the FSLN, with 40 percent of the vote, still considered itself the largest single political force in Nicaragua. Although this new definition provided the basis for the FSLN's continued role in government, the tension between its two roles--its role as the country's largest political party and as a force in opposition to the government--proved problematic for the FSLN in the early years of adjustment to the Chamorro regime.

Despite the FSLN's success in maintaining a position for the party and benefits for its members in the postelectoral period, the electoral loss intensified preexisting political tensions within the FSLN, opened new ideological divisions, and brought a host of practical problems that posed great difficulties for continuing party activity. The short-term result within the first two years after the FSLN's electoral defeat was the creation of new power bases and elites. In addition, there were contradictory indications about the future of the party: one was that it might begin reconstituting itself along more traditional political party lines, and the other was that it would modernize, but not at the expense of its revolutionary social principles.

The most pressing practical problems were continued financing of the party apparatus and continued employment for party members. By the end of the Sandinista government, the organizational structure of the party coincided with the administrative structure of the state, including the military and security forces. Thus, according to one analyst, the loss of the government meant the loss of party structures and, in effect, the dispersal of the membership when the new government's economic program separated thousands from their work. For the FSLN, this change meant that its political apparatus shrank from several thousand persons to a few hundred after the election; for many members, it meant that holding on to their old jobs or obtaining new ones became the central focus of life. The Piñata was in part a result of the need to secure new means of support: ownership of property and companies established a financial base from which FSLN members could earn personal livelihoods and produce profits for continued party activities.

The ideological and political debate that took place after election was an outgrowth of ideas that had circulated but never had been formally raised before the election. These ideas acquired new urgency as the Sandinistas sought to understand the causes of their defeat. Positions were formulated in preparation for postelection party activities. The ruling body during the postelectoral years continued to be the National Directorate, which had been in place since 1979, minus Humberto Ortega, who, under the terms of the transition agreement, had been obliged to give up his place in order to remain at the head of the army, and Carlos Núñez Téllez, who died in October 1990. The new sevenmember National Directorate continued to meet regularly and drafted the guidelines for the document analyzing the electoral defeat that was to be discussed in the first postelection Sandinista Assembly in June 1990. That first meeting made clear the extent of the internal differences within the FSLN.

The three-day June 1990 Sandinista Assembly meeting held in El Crucero was attended by a large number of FSLN members. The membership consisted of all FSLN National Assembly members, department coordinators, mass organization leaders, and representatives of the National Workers' Front (Frente Nacional de Trabajadores--FNT). The open debate that characterized this meeting and the resulting El Crucero document that eventually was circulated were viewed as central in opening the party to candid public criticism. In addition, the Sandinista Assembly created an Ethics Commission to examine the activities of party members from the top leadership down and called for the FSLN's first national party congress. Party activities for the next year were geared toward preparation for the congress, held in July 1991.

Although calls for the democratization of the party did not produce changes in the top leadership, they had their effect at lower levels. In August and September 1990, for the first time, almost 600 executive committees and coordinators were elected, rather than appointed, at the municipal and departmental levels. These elections were seen as significant because they resulted in the election of people who would not have been selected under the previous rules. The elections were less than a fully democratic enterprise, however, because campaigning was not permitted, forestalling any uncontrolled discussion of the future of the party. The elections also led to debate about the membership of the party. The Sandinistas opted not to follow the model of standard parties by creating an open membership. They did establish, however, in addition to the categories of militants and aspirants, who numbered 18,000 and 17,300, respectively, in August 1990, a third category of membership--affiliates, numbering 60,400 that month. The party leadership also held about 200 local meetings in the summer of 1990 to discuss a draft statement on programs, principles, and a proposal for new bylaws that would be presented to the FSLN's National Congress. More than 3,000 elected delegates attended eighteen departmental meetings in mid-June 1991, to debate the issues and choose 501 representatives to the National Congress.

The democratization process did not reach to the very top of the FSLN leadership, however. Early expectations that the 501 National Congress delegates would elect individual members to the National Directorate were quashed when the National Directorate proposed that the National Congress vote on the candidates. The departmental congresses ratified this proposal and another giving the nonelected members of the Sandinista Assembly voting rights in the National Congress. In July 1991, nine candidates for the National Directorate ran unopposed as a slate. The slate consisted of the seven current members plus the former vice president and current head of the Sandinista bloc in the National Assembly, Sergio Ramírez Mercado, and the National Directorate secretary, René Núñez Téllez. Humberto Ortega was on the slate but declined a seat because of his army position. Daniel Ortega was elected secretary general of the party. Thus, some congress delegates' hopes of removing individual members were dashed, and the slate was elected by a 95 percent vote.

Nevertheless, the National Congress did adopt significant liberalization measures. It elected ninety-eight members to a new 120-member Sandinista Assembly. The National Congress also decided that future national congresses, to be held every four years, would elect the members of the Sandinista Assembly, the Ethics Commission, and the National Directorate individually by a secret and direct vote. This change was hailed as progress, although not the democratization that a significant but minority elite desired.

The National Congress also brought to the fore the ideological debate between two FSLN factions. On the one side were the pragmatists who sought accommodation with the Chamorro forces and professed a new, more social democratic orientation. On the otherside were the "principled" or radical forces, who sought a continuation of the old revolutionary model and saw progress as dependent on establishing a clear confrontational position against the Chamorro government. The National Congress also aired the FSLN leadership's self-criticism of the party, attributing the electoral loss to several of the party's own failings. Still, ideologically, the congress's result was indeterminate, preserving many of the party's revolutionary aspirations and anti-imperialist, anticapitalist principles but also urging modernization and adaptation to the current global situation.

Differences within the FSLN led to new forces within the party. Three factions have emerged, united on ideals and ends but not necessarily on means, according to analyst Aldo Díaz Lacayo. One faction, headed by Humberto Ortega, stresses the need for an alliance with the Chamorro government's "progressive bourgeoisie." The second faction, composed of those holding positions in state structures such as the National Assembly, and headed by Sergio Ramírez, calls for unconditional democratization. The third, headed by Daniel Ortega, is the party's union sector and is often viewed as the most traditionally Sandinista in style and ideology.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress