John Riddell interviews Felipe Stuart Cournoyer
|Election night in Managua on 6 Nov 2011, as it is announced that Daniel Ortega wins a landslide victory for the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, FSLN). Ortega didn’t just beat the rest of the presidential field, he crushed it, winning 62% of the vote compared to just 31% for his closest rival, 80-year-old Fabio Gadea of the Partido Liberal Independiente (PLI).
In a fit of petulant anger, the U.S. government has lashed out on January 25 against the outcome of Nicaragua’s recent presidential election. To understand the context of the U.S. threats, I talked to Felipe Stuart Cournoyer, a Nicaraguan citizen and member of Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).1
Riddell: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed that Nicaragua’s November 6, 2011, election “marked a setback to democracy in Nicaragua and undermined the ability of Nicaraguans to hold their government accountable,” but offered no particulars. What has roused Washington’s ire?
Stuart: It’s quite simple. The Sandinista candidate, Daniel Ortega, won with 62.66% of the vote, more than twice the total of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) candidate favoured by the U.S. embassy. Washington is not pleased when small, poor countries defy its will.
Riddell: But Clinton says U.S. concern is based on a report by Organization of American States (OAS) observers.2
Stuart: The OAS report notes that the official results were similar to the readings of pre-election polls, and to their own exit polls on election day. Both the OAS and the European Union observer missions noted some irregularities and technical difficulties, but did not consider that they called into question the FSLN victory. The main complaint of right-wing opposition parties was that Ortega should not have been permitted to run for re-election. The voters certainly gave a clear verdict on that one.3
Riddell: Clinton says the U.S. will respond by a “review of our assistance” and “aggressive scrutiny” of loans by international bodies to Nicaragua. That sounds like sanctions. What’s this about? Have aid projects gone wrong?
Economic and social gains
Stuart: On the contrary, aid projects under Ortega’s presidency have been enormously successful. Let me cite the most important. Illiteracy was 30% when the FSLN was elected in 2006. Thanks to a literacy campaign carried out with help from Cuba and Venezuela, the United Nations has now declared Nicaragua to be free of illiteracy.
Riddell: I thought the problem of illiteracy was dealt with under the first Sandinista government of the 1980s.
Stuart: It certainly was, despite the U.S.-sponsored war. Before the 1979 revolution, the illiteracy rate was 52%; we brought it down to 12%. But under the neo-liberal regimes of the 1990s illiteracy grew again to over 30%.
But back to aid: the recent projects assisted by Venezuela and other ALBA countries have had an immense effect. Also there have been useful World Bank projects, and the Bank says it is “optimistic” about Nicaragua’s performance.4
In fact, the Nicaraguan economy has expanded well in recent years, particularly in the countryside. Despite U.S. displeasure and the world recession, exports have doubled since 2006, and the rate of foreign direct investment has increased by about two-thirds. Among the biggest projects: an oil refinery, under construction with Venezuelan assistance (US$4 billion), projects to double electrical generating capacity ($2.6 billion—mostly renewable), along with ongoing projects to bring electricity to tens of thousands of rural families; and a large manufacturing facility for a Chinese company ($3 billion). Inflation is low; economic expansion in 2010 and 2011 was the highest in Central America.5
Riddell: How has this expansion affected working people?
Stuart: Employment has increased about 35% since 2006 in both formal and informal sectors. Extreme poverty has been cut in half: to 9% from 17%. Nicaragua’s reduction in income inequality ranks second in the region, after Venezuela.
Mobilization at the community level
Riddell: What have been the changes on a community level?
Stuart: Using solidarity aid from Venezuela and the ALBA countries, the Sandinista government invested massive resources in programs to aid working people: aid to small businesses, credits and aid to women farmers and small stores, provision of zinc for roofs, and so on. The success of such programs depends on going beyond the government bureaucracy and setting up new structures, run by new people – a source of popular involvement and employment.
This took me by surprise. Back in 2006, I predicted that the Sandinista government could only succeed if carried forward by a mass mobilization. This has indeed happened, but not in the way I expected. Yes, there have been demonstrations, one of half a million in this country of six million. Also, starting in 2008, neighbourhood councils were established. But above all it has been the government programs that have mobilized people – that was the only way these measures could succeed.
Take the literacy campaign, for example. The FSLN launched it back in the 1990s; in 2007, the FSLN government took over responsibility for it. Well, organizing such a campaign, with over a million to be educated, is quite a task. Potential students must be identified, convinced to take part, and signed up. Structures must be established for all the volunteer teachers and administrators. After literacy is achieved, there are follow-up programs, which continue today. It’s nothing less than a mass movement. And the outcome is to involve people socially, raise their political awareness, and enable them to participate in community processes.
Riddell: These programs affect chiefly the countryside, right?
Stuart: Yes, there has been an economic revival there. The government programs in the countryside have a multiplier effect. They generate consumer demand, which helps small business. The road programs help in marketing products as well as creating employment. The countryside is finally being electrified. This has a long way to go, but the progress is being noticed.
There is still a need for land reform, to undo the expansion of large estates in the 1990s. That is not posed for action right now. Government initiative has aimed mainly at supporting the smallholders, including by promoting small farmers’ organizations and farm marketing cooperatives.
Riddell: How are government relations with Nicaragua’s indigenous peoples?
Stuart: This is an important achievement of the government. Under the first FSLN government, in the 1980s, the constitution incorporated measures for indigenous autonomy, including assuring these peoples of a share of natural resources revenue. After the FSLN was defeated in 1990, the new governments refused to pass enabling legislation. Now that has been done. Indigenous communal lands have won recognition. The FSLN has a strategic alliance with Yatama, the main indigenous party, which governs the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN). Indigenous representatives are also represented in the National government.
Riddell: How do the changes play out in your Managua neighbourhood?
Stuart: The biggest change has been in education and health care, both of which are now free. Operación milagro – largely staffed by Cuban doctors – provides operations for those with limited eyesight, and has been an immense success. There are many health campaigns initiated by the Ministry of Health that are carried out through popular participation at a neighbourhood level. Also, the Sandinista doctors have an association, and they spend their time off and weekends providing medical services in remote areas where the public health system is skimpy. That’s a program not of the state but of the FSLN as a party.
Progress toward socialism?
Riddell: Would you say this process is socialist in its direction?
Stuart: The historic program of the FSLN was for a transition toward socialist revolution, for mobilization to get rid of capitalism. It included the call for nationalization of the banks and the largest industrial firms. Some steps in that direction were taken in the 1980s.
This program has never been repudiated, but it is not what the FSLN is doing now or what the majority of its members consider possible. The FSLN today says it is “socialist – in solidarity – Christian.” That is interpreted to mean an “option for the poor”: less poverty, more employment, social programs, and zero hunger.
Socialists are challenged to participate in this process and raise consciousness with respect to real events. A key issue before the FSLN today is to tax the incomes of the rich, who are largely tax-exempt. Another is to challenge a huge fraudulent debt foisted on the government when two big banks failed some years ago. I think the government should move the take a qualitatively greater share of revue from mobile telephone and digital communications industries, and financial services, including – if necessary – nationalization.
Riddell: How have all these changes affected the outlook of young people?
Stuart: There was good participation by youth in the election, and most of those who voted supported the FSLN. There is wide support for the notion of social solidarity and basic anti-imperialist consciousness. But this does not mean anti-capitalism. Earlier there was concern that an FSLN government would lead to renewed war and conscription, but these fears have collapsed.
Riddell: Has the pressure for emigration eased?
Stuart: Slightly, but it remains very great. There are more economic opportunities in the countryside now. College graduates have a bit more opportunity for a job in the country, but still far too many feel they have to leave. Half a million Nicaraguans work seasonally in Costa Rica.
Don’t forget how poor Nicaragua is – the second-poorest country in the hemisphere. In 2006, the unemployment rate was 50%. That’s improved, but it has a long way to go. Such a poor country can’t transform itself in five years.
Will the U.S. stir up trouble?
Riddell: Is it possible that the new U.S. threats will stir up rightist disruption in Nicaragua?
Stuart: As things stand, there is no campaign of active disruption by the Right, like what they did in 2008-09. There were some small disruptive actions in the elections, and there is vague talk of an armed group in the North. But for now, the more mature forces on the Right are not interested in that. The economic expansion in Nicaragua offers opportunities for capitalists as well as workers.
Of course, if the U.S. turns up the heat on Nicaragua, the right wing may behave differently. But what we hear from Clinton may be just electioneering.
The Right has suffered an enormous defeat – reduced from 62% to 37% of the electorate during Ortega’s first term. They need time to regroup. In the elections, they offered no alternative to government programs – even promised to continue them. They campaigned that the Sandinistas were establishing a “dictatorship” – but there was no evidence for that and it did not go over.
Riddell: What is the role of imperialist corporations in Nicaragua?
Stuart: They are powerful in the mining industry and in the maquila sector.6 Gold is Nicaragua’s third-most-important export (after beef and coffee), with the largest mines owned by Canadian capital. Gold mining comes with environmental and employment issues, of course – that has always been the case.
But some things are different from conditions in nearby countries. The companies cannot use private militias to drive peasants or indigenous people off the land. In case of conflicts with workers or neighbouring peasants, the companies cannot rely on help from police or army. That would be inconceivable. Please bear in mind that the police and army were established by the revolution of 1979, and its influence endures among them.
The maquila sector is growing at the expense of Honduras mainly because firms are seeking greater investment security and social stability in Nicaragua.
Riddell: How are Nicaragua’s relations with its neighbours?
Stuart: Good, with two exceptions.
First, there is a dispute with Costa Rica over a small scrap of territory that is now before the world court. Costa Rican construction of a road along their side of the San Juan river, which borders Nicaragua, has raised environmental concerns. The Costa Rican government is right-wing, and it has allowed the U.S. army onto its land, a potential threat that has not caused trouble so far.
Second, there is Honduras. Nicaragua led the international campaign against the June 2009 right-wing coup in Honduras. Porfirio Lobo’s subsequent election to the Presidency did nothing to alter the nature of the coup regime and efforts to restore Honduran democracy have not yet succeeded. Meanwhile, Nicaragua is extremely vulnerable in a conflict with Honduras – 60% of Nicaragua’s exports go through the Honduran port of Cortés.
Last year the Cartagena agreement was signed in an effort to normalize the situation. Unfortunately, in Honduras, right-wing repression and assassinations continue. But Nicaragua has utilized the agreement to normalize its relations with Honduras.7
Riddell: Could you speak of the condition of women in Nicaragua?
Stuart: There has been a big increase in political participation by women. Of the 62 Sandinista parliamentary deputies, 34 are women – more than half. Seventy percent of the Sandinista candidates in the forthcoming 2012 municipal elections will be women. Women play the key role on the community level. The FSLN leadership, including the Presidency, has made women’s participation in governance and politics a national priority.
Pressure from the women’s movement secured passage of a new law to counter violence against women, especially within the family.
The abortion question is still closed. Abortion has long been illegal, largely because of the strong Catholic bent of the population. In 2006 the outgoing Liberal government, with FSLN support, extended the ban to therapeutic abortions. However, despite this, the incidence of maternal death has declined.
In general, women’s situation is better because of the improvements in the countryside and in public health. Contraception is available if you can afford it.
Riddell: And gay rights?
Stuart: It is accepted, although not to the same extent as in Canada. Public display of affection, although not illegal, sometimes attracts police attention. There is an active gay movement, influenced by developments elsewhere in the hemisphere. Although same-sex marriage is stalled in the U.S., it is now legal in Argentina and Mexico City and seems close to adoption in Cuba. Young people are especially influenced by these trends.
Riddell: What are the prospects for 2012?
Stuart: We shall see. Before November, the FSLN faced an immense barrier: it was a minority in parliament and its measures could only pass with support of forces to its right. Now the FSLN has a majority at all levels and greatly enhanced authority. Let us see what Nicaraguans can make of this opportunity.
John Riddell is a Toronto-based activist, many of whose writings are available on his website. He is a member of Toronto Bolivia Solidarity.
Felipe Stuart Cournoyer, a Canadian-born socialist, is a citizen of Nicaragua and member of the Sandinista National Liberation Front.
Related: Nicaragua A young country on the move - la juventud, motor del desar
- Tortilla con Sal
Related articles by Felipe Stuart Cournoyer:
- Felipe Stuart’s comments represent only his own opinion, not necessarily that of the FSLN or the Nicaraguan government.
- On January 23, the Organization of American States issued its final and definitive report of its Observer Mission to the November 6, 2012 Nicaraguan national elections. See Nicaragua News Bulletin (January 31, 2012) for a brief summary and resume of reactions to the report
- For more information on the elections, see “Nicaragua: The Other Side,” by Fred Morris, published by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. See also “Nicaragua’s 2011 National Elections,” by Toni Solo.
- See the response by Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Samuel Santos to Clinton’s statement.
- For a detailed assessment of Nicaragua’s economy, see interview with Dr. Paul Oquist Kelly, Minister, Private Secretary to President Ortega for National Policy.
- A maquila is a manufacturing operation in which a factory imports materials and equipment on a duty-free and tariff-free basis for assembly, processing, or manufacturing and then re-exports the assembled, processed, or manufactured product.
- See Felipe Stuart Cournoyer and John Riddell, “Agreement Signed for Democratic Rights in Honduras.”