Daniel Alegría still thinks of himself as a Sandinista, “a Sandinista, no Orteguista.” He looks pretty much the same as he did when I first met him at Comedor Sara in January, 1984 where he spent his evenings drinking beer and talking politics with the internacionalistas who gathered there in the evenings. The big question in those days, was when, or if the US would invade the country, and Daniel, who worked as Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN, the “Frente”) Comandante Tomás Borge’s bodyguard and translator, we knew would have the inside scoop. Tonight, as he cooks up a delicious garbanzo bean and sausage stew, I can still see him in my mind’s eye as he looked then: a crisp green military uniform, hair and beard slightly incongruous by most standards except here in Nicaragua and Central America where the wild hair was part of the guerrilla uniform; in the end, a dashing fellow who usually had one or two women hanging on his every word. Now, as he dances between the kitchen and the cool patio, where a cold Toña beer awaits him, I can see he’s put on weight, his wrinkles have deepened and his hair is gray at the temples. But he’s still a strikingly handsome man with a rare enthusiasm and zest for life.
There’s a reason I began my attempt to unravel the puzzle of Nicaraguan politics under the Daniel Ortega regime here with his tocayo (person of the same first name), Daniel Alegría. Those of us who came to know Alegría respected him as one who could, and would, always give a straight, honest answer to any question about the Sandinista Revolution. When I finally managed to track him down after all these years, he confirmed my faith in him with the description above.
For those of us who worked in the Central American solidarity movement in the 1980s, the Sandinista Revolution was a beacon of hope, a light in the very dark Reagan years. The FSLN came to power 1979, uniting the social movements of the nation, proposing a mixed (socialist/capitalist) economy based on Marxist analysis, liberation theology and the nationalist, anarcho-syndicalist mysticism of Augusto Sandino, the “General of Free Men.” It was a unique moment of the late twentieth century and the confluence of forces inspired utopian hopes, as well as the very down-to-earth work of rebuilding a country destroyed by the US-backed Somoza clan, a devastating earthquake and a painful revolutionary struggle.
As I nurse a lemonade, Daniel tells me, in perfect English with an ever-so-slight British accent, “Those years in the Revolution were the best years of my life—maybe not the happiest, but certainly the most intense.” Daniel isn’t alone in that judgment. There are many solidarity activists in the US who, while we were never as close to the center of action as Daniel, felt that same inspiration and intensity. Indeed, the gains made under the FSLN Government of Reconstruction were stunning: Fr. Fernando Cardenal, then Minister of Education, led a literacy campaign that won a UN award for bringing the literacy rate up from 13% to 53% in six months with all volunteer help. Unlike any other country in Central America, in Nicaragua the campesinos wore glasses which they got free from the government and which they used to read from the river of books that were produced by the Ministry of Culture under the poet/priest, Fr. Ernesto Cardenal. Healthcare was suddenly accessible to everyone and little by little the country began to rebuild — until the US began the counter-offensive.
The CIA, with the help of Argentine fascists, fresh from torturing, murdering and “disappearing” thousands of their fellow Argentineans, began organizing and training the former National Guard of the Somoza dictatorship. These mercenaries, who came to be known as the “contras” were then sent in to kill healthcare and literacy workers, farmers and cooperative members. If the US — or the world — had had a legal system that had dared to prosecute Reagan and his cronies for financing the Contra army with profits from sales of weapons to Iran and cocaine trafficking, for the terrorist proxy war of the Contras, for the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors by the CIA and for the eventual destruction of the country, the entire Republican Party would be just another prison gang in the Federal prison system. In 1986, the World Court did find the US guilty of the terrorist war, but the US simply refused to recognize the Court. Eventually, the exhausted people of Nicaragua were bled dry by the war and did as Reagan requested: they “cried uncle.”
Daniel and I have laughed and talked loudly through the evening, but when he gets around to telling me of the elections of February 25, 1990 which turned the Sandinista National Liberation Front out of power, his voice suddenly softens and you can hear the wind rustling the leaves of the nearby lemon tree.
I ask him if anyone in the Frente knew they were going to lose. He smiles. “Yes, Tomas Borge knew. I didn’t believe it. I’d seen the opinion polls and they gave us the victory. All the comandantes were sure we were going to win. Then I found out and Tomas was in a press conference. I whispered to him that we’d lost and he ended the conference abruptly. We were all called to El Chipote,” he says, motioning with his head toward the what used to be a military base above the Intercontinental Hotel, just below the volcanic Lake Tiscapa.
“There we prepared for the worst. We strapped on guns. I was expecting another Night of the Long Knives. I don’t know who I was going to defend myself from. We didn’t know what was going to happen. Then at dawn Daniel Ortega made the finest speech of his life, saying we were going to rule from below,” Alegría tells me.
At first it appeared that Ortega and the Frente would occupy the moral high ground of Nicaraguan politics. Indeed, what came to be known as the “Piñata” was initially an attempt of the comandancia of the FSLN to protect the gains of the Revolution, according to Gonzalo Carrion of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center. “The Sandinistas, and I was one of them, were preparing to leave power with nothing,” he told me. “To protect the gains of the revolution, they began dividing up things in preparation for a return to power later.”
Alegría offers a different angle. “Up to that moment there wasn’t a distinction between the FSLN and the state. We’d taken power and ruled as a government of reconstruction. The FSLN was the state and the state was FSLN. Now, suddenly, as we were voted from power, we had to separate everything. The lands of Somoza that had been given to campesinos, for instance: whose lands were those now?” he asks. “So the campesinos were given titles and things were divided up,” he says. And that was what came to be called the “Piñata,” named after the paper maché figure stuffed with candy and broken open at children’s birthday parties in Latin America.
“It happened to me, too. I went in to the office after the election and someone put ten thousand dollars on my desk,” Daniel tells me. For a man who had started out earning $7 per month in FSLN Special Forces and had risen in rank and pay to a total of $40 per month, ten thousand dollars must have looked like a lot of money.
“I was told, ‘you’re never going to be able to get a job in Nicaragua now. You should take the money and find something to do.’ I refused. After all, I hadn’t come to Nicaragua to make money. I was there for the Revolution.”
I ask him how he felt about that now. Does he regret refusing the money?
“Not at all,” he tells me. “If I’d taken that money, I’d never be able to speak again. But now I can talk.”
Alegria went to work as associate editor and editor of Barricada International, official newspaper of the FSLN, until 1993 when Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, the editor, got in hot water with the Frente. As a result of the FSLN’s refusal to undertake democratic reforms in the party in favor of maintaining a Leninist, guerrilla verticalist structure, a split had occurred and Chamorro, the editor of Barricada, had helped write the platform of the new Movement for Sandinista Renewal (MRS, Movimiento de la Rescate de Sandinismo). The Barricada was yanked from Chamorro’s hands over the objections of Alegría. “Tomas Borge had called me into his office, offering me the job of editor. I told him I thought he was making a big mistake, turning it from a reliable source of news into a party paper.” Alegría followed Chamorro out of the offices of Barricada, as well as the ranks of the Frente.
Ortega, it seemed, was willing to do anything to return to power, but there were many obstacles to be overcome. First, the Sandinista caudillo had incurred the wrath of the women of Nicaragua and much of Latin America as his step daughter, Zoilamérica Narváez in 1998 accused him of rape and sexual abuse. The Interamerican Human Rights Commission made a friendly settlement in favor of Narváez in 2002, and even though Ortega continues to deny the charge, his step-daughter has not withdrawn her statements. Then Ortega made the infamous “El Pacto” (The Pact) with Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC) leader and former president of Nicaragua, Arnoldo Aleman, which allowed the two parties, PLC and FSLN, to dominate the politics of the country. Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo then married in the church and received the blessings of former arch-enemy, Cardinal Obando y Bravo. In return, under Ortega’s leadership, the FSLN backed a law to prohibit abortion in Nicaragua, a law which passed in 2006.
Choosing former Contra Jaime Morales Carazo as his vice presidential candidate, Ortega won the presidency in 2006 with 38% of the vote. Prior to the municipal elections of 2008 Ortega maneuvered to pack the Electoral Commission with his people and then succeeded in disqualifying the MRS and the Conservative Parties from the elections. Despite these dirty maneuvers, the FSLN still had to perpetrate a fraud in order to win 94 of the 146 municipal mayoralties.
Fast forward to the present. The day I arrived in Nicaragua Ortega had issued Presidential Decree 3-2010 which would give him the power to appoint members of the Supreme Electoral Council, the Supreme Court, the Comptroller General, Attorney for the Defense of Human Rights and Superintendent of Banks. This power grab has united an incongruous and very broad coalition against Ortega, whose popularity is now on a par with George W. Bush at his low point. Former Contra commanders, including José Benito Bravo, Julio Cesar Blandón and others met with Arnoldo Aleman and former members of the FSLN on Tuesday, January 12, to organize a “civic struggle.” The Coordinadora Civil, a social movement organization consisting of some 600 groups, including many former FSLN militants, has called for a demonstration later in the month, and the seven person directing council of the National Assembly has voted four to three to reject the Executive Decree 03-2010.
My taxi driver, Mario, who joined the FSLN as a guerrilla soldier in the 1970s and left the party in the early 1980s when he said he saw in Ortega an untrustworthy leader, is inspired by the talk of unity to rid the country of what he calls “the Ortega dictatorship.” “We’ve got to make a coalition with anyone who’s willing to help us get rid of Ortega. Their politics don’t matter. First we have to get rid of Ortega and then we can settle our political differences later,” Mario told me as he weaved through the streets of Managua. Mario is convinced that if Ortega pushes Nicaraguans too far, they’ll rise up and overthrow him. Daniel Alegria isn’t so sure.
“I don’t think Nicaraguans want to have another revolution. It’s an absolutely terrifying prospect,” Daniel says.
Either way, twenty years have now passed since the FSLN lost power. President Ortega has tried to convince the people that his new term in office is simply an extension of the Sandinista Revolution, but not quite a third of the population is buying that. Daniel Alegría finds himself among the skeptics and he quotes Marx. “Didn’t Marx say all facts and people appear twice? First as tragedy, and then as farce? We lived the tragedy in 1990. Now with this second appearance of Ortega, we’re living the farce.”