A lifelong Sandinista ideologue who fought in the final offensive against the Somoza dictatorship then headed the FSLN’s International Relations Department during the revolutionary government, Julio López Campos analyzes the challenges of today’s unarmed insurrection against the Ortega dictatorship.
I’ve known Daniel since we were both young. I was president of the Ramírez Goyena Institute’s student center and leader of the Maestro Gabriel High school, so among other things we hammered out an agreement together to organize an annual commemoration of the murder on July 23, 1959, of four university students by Somoza’s National Guard in León. Four…!
We were struggling against a dictatorship that had killed four youths and called it a massacre. That same Daniel Ortega is not only now a dictator himself, but is responsible for the murder of dozens of students in the past two months. I have trouble getting my head around it.
Before April 18, we political analysts had a hard time convincing people this government was a dictatorship. People’s memory of a dictator is someone who kills people, throws them in prison, tortures them, drops bombs on urban neighborhoods… We had to try to explain that this only happens at the end, when the dictatorship sees its power threatened. We kept reminding them that in the first 11 years of the Somoza dictatorship, between 1937 and 1948, Somoza only had one student killed: Uriel Sotomayor.
Nicaragua’s current situation has no precedent
I’ve never seen such a complicated situation in Nicaragua, or one with so much uncertainty about the country’s present and future. Nor have I ever seen Nicaragua subjected to the kind of criminal violence Daniel is now imposing on us. Never. The level of criminality is even worse than under the Somocista dictatorship.
I would never have thought a government with Sandinista roots could be capable of ordering the murder of unarmed people just for protesting. We know about confrontations, about conflicts, about death, but ordering people killed in such a cowardly and monstrous way is unacceptable for those of us who defend Sandinista values.
The repression is so brutal it has nothing to do with left, right or center, but rather poses an ethical and moral challenge we can’t ignore. It’s one we must face with the determination to do what has to be done to resist and defeat this policy of terror. These crimes can be neither justified nor pardoned.
Organized people were what made our effort possible
Exactly 39 years ago, we were in the final offensive in the insurrectionary struggle against Somoza. In June days like these, we went into Managua’s eastern barrios. Our plan was to engage the National Guard for three days, which we estimated would be enough to give the main battlefronts a breather. But we were still there after 15 days, virtually out of food and, even more importantly, munitions.
But we had been able to resist for so long because the population was organized and prepared. That organized participation by the majority of the people, not weapons, was the crucial factor that made our effort possible.
With the people finally desperate, we organized a retreat from Managua to Masaya. At the time, we saw it was a necessary tactical defeat, but it turned into a strategic success.
I’m telling this story because if we see ourselves on the defensive at some moments in today’s effort against this new dictatorship, it doesn’t mean we’re defeated. It means we have to use our ingenuity to move to a counter-offensive and multiply the people’s organizational capacities.
This resistance didn’t come from where we expected it
We’ve suddenly found ourselves facing an enormous unexpected challenge. Organizing people during these 11 years of the new Ortega government was really hard; anything we did was repressed, beaten down. Before April 18 there were only a few small mobilizations around different specific problems, including territorial resistance against mining, defense of water, earlier pensioners’ demands… In the end, the only tenacious resistance didn’t come from where we thought it would; it came from the countryside, from what we call deep Nicaragua, from the peasant movement opposing the canal because they felt their lands threatened.
They have sustained their challenge to the Ortega government for the past four years, infecting us with hope that has nourished us over these years.
They were the first “autoconvocados” or self-organized group of any size and determination. They weren’t organized by the FSLN, as traditionally happens, or by any other party. They autonomously created a force that began struggling against all the negative consequences they envisaged from that anti-patriotic canal law.
Little by little they moved progressively beyond their own specific demands to more national ones, making the leap from defense of their land to the defense of sovereignty. One of the things I like most about them is that they don’t have much confidence in us Managuans, in politicians or political parties in general. They are self-organized and intend to keep it that way.
That movement is the precursor to what we’re experiencing today, giving us leadership of a national timber such as Francisca Ramírez. Their hope and strength, as well as their physical participation, are also present today in today’s unarmed insurrection in very concrete and important ways.
Without such organized people, there’s no way we’re going to be successful. In that regard, the rest of us have a long way to go to reach the heights of valor demonstrated by those peasants for years and by our heroic youth in these past couple of months.
Ortega is the product of his experiences
The Daniel Ortega we’re seeing today has crossed all the lines of human decency. It’s impossible to understand him and the phenomenal cynicism we’re seeing—including the irregular forces he has put together to terrorize and punish us—without recalling some of the experiences of the 1980s and 1990s and even before the revolutionary victory.
All of us, the FSLN and the revolution included, are responsible for what Daniel Ortega is today.
You don’t emerge triumphant from an insurrectionary war against the Somoza dictatorship that cost the lives of nearly 50,000 people, followed by a dirty war financed by the Reagan administration and supported by the very national sectors he tried to win over this time—particularly big business and the Church—at the cost of roughly the same number of lives without learning to play political hardball.
Daniel would never be who he is today without those experiences, without the pact he made with corrupt Liberal leader Arnoldo Alemán and the gringos’ blessing of that pact, the backing of international bankers and all those who turned a blind eye to the intimidation, corruption and electoral fraud over the years.
Nor can the phenomenon of Daniel Ortega be understood without considering our long history of authoritarian caudillismo and of the perks, patronage and patrimonialism that have prevailed in our political culture right up to today. That’s why the challenge isn’t only to get rid of him, but also to transform Nicaragua so these things are put behind us, so no one like Daniel Ortega will ever have the possibility of appearing again.
All of us, the FSLN and the revolution included, are responsible for what Daniel Ortega is today. At the same time, it’s unfair to label what we’re seeing today as Sandinismo, because Daniel Ortega is no example of what Sandinismo stands for; he’s a deformation of it.
Know thy enemy
If we’re going to organize ourselves better, we not only need to know our opposition, but also have to recognize its strengths, because we’ll only discover the best ways to respond by looking at the challenge from its most complex angles. If I talk first about Daniel’s strengths, it’s not to discourage anybody, but rather to encourage us to struggle with even more determination and organization.
And to do that, we need to be very clear about the difficulties and obstacles we need to surmount.
1. Political experience. Daniel Ortega has accumulated political experience unmatched by those in the Civic Alliance seated at the national dialogue table. When we think of the interlocutors we have compared to Daniel, we have to recognize that we’re in a relatively weak situation in the dialogue. Daniel’s delegation has accumulated discipline and a single top-down command, while we have an alliance of unlikely bedfellows recently created by circumstance, still in formation and lacking solid lines of transmission with the people they represent.
2. A compromised police force. Daniel has an almost exclusive monopoly of force, weapons and repression. He has the National Police upper echelons on his side until the bitter end as they have become so compromised by his policy of crimes and genocide. For now I see no possibilities of major fissures in this armed force.
Many grassroots police officers are demoralized because they feel this wasn’t what they signed up for. But those who have resisted are being repressed and jailed, making it very hard for others to cross over to the people’s side. If the civic insurrection consolidates, if all social sectors show more decision, I’m sure more of those police officers will defect.
We’re living a de facto state of siege 24/7, with no guarantees for anything or rights for anyone.
3. An irregular army. Daniel has gotten away with creating an irregular army (a.k.a. parapolice, paramilitary, mob and thugs) made up of drug traffickers, gang members, former Army and Police members, and criminals pulled out of the jails to impose terror on the population. The creation of this irregular force demonstrates the extreme gravity of Nicaragua’s situation.
It’s absolutely unacceptable and no other country would permit it. Although Nicaragua’s Constitution means very little to this regime, it establishes that the country can only have two armed bodies: the Army and the Police. Yet this month we’ve been seeing an army of hooded men in the streets carrying weapons of war and threatening, jailing, killing and destroying…
We’re living a de facto state of siege 24/7, with no guarantees for anything or rights for anyone. Where are we supposed to go file charges if these hooded men stop, search and rob us? Who will defend us if they kill our brother or neighbor? Who will tell us why they burned our house, killed our child? Where do we go with any grievance whatever? And the situation in the barrios that have protested or resisted is one of total terror. Imagine living on a little street in one of these barrios where a couple hundred of these masked guys come along kicking down doors, shooting in the air, capturing people, killing…
Nothing like this policy of terror has ever happened in this country, and it’s on Daniel’s hands. He’s the one who has built this irregular army and imposed it on both society and the Police itself. We know how complex it is to put a body like this together and get it functioning all over the country. It doesn’t happen overnight and it isn’t cheap. I’ll go so far as to say that if we can’t stop this band of hired guns that’s exercising uncontrolled violence all over the country we’ll all be condemned to suffer the worst subjugation of our history.
4. A regular Army doing nothing. Daniel has even imposed this strategy on the Army! There’s no justification for the Army Chiefs of Staff doing absolutely nothing to stop these caravans of hooded killers being driven around the streets of Managua and other cities in government vehicles. Without the army, so far nothing can stop this strategy of terror, and that is utterly unacceptable.
5. Crazies on his side. I recall an occasion in the early 1990s when Daniel ordered a particular action… The next day I asked him why he had chosen the person he had to do it. His answer was this: “You need to be crazy to do certain actions and only he could do what we asked.” I have no doubt whatsoever that those in charge of this irregular army have nothing to do with Sandinismo. They are madmen with criminal mentalities, people who get a kick out of this criminal policy.
6. Money. In addition to having the monopoly of force and repression, Daniel also has no lack of resources to finance this policy of death and terror, and all he has to do if he runs out is take some more out of the Central Bank to cover the expenses, as he has already done. His financial advantage is our disadvantage, as we don’t have money to better organize a grassroots resistance policy.
7. Control of the negotiations. Daniel Ortega has so far been willing to dialogue, but not to negotiate; he’s just buying time. He has strict control of what’s happening at the dialogue table and enjoys the total discipline of the people he chose for his delegation. They’re coordinated around a single top-down will and well-defined purpose. Again, his strength is our weakness; we don’t yet have everyone committed to a single-minded “everybody against the dictatorship” stance, because the Civic Alliance is laced through with petty and selfish private interests of all sorts.
8. Strong arguments for Washington. Daniel also has good negotiating points against US government pressure, since he knows the gringo agenda very well. I imagine his dialogue with US government representatives would go something like this: “If I go, what will fill the vacuum of power I leave behind? Who will guarantee stability for you here? Do you believe that kid Juan Sebastián Chamorro [economist, executive director of the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Research] can guarantee it? Or old man Tünnermann [Carlos Tünnerman, ex-Sandinista militant, education minister, writer, ambassador and jurist, among other things]? [Both men are Civic Alliance representatives at the dialogue table].
You know very well that Nicaragua’s stability isn’t just in our interest, but also very much in yours! For one, an increase in the crisis and chaos here will trigger unstoppable migratory chaos. Moreover, a chaotic Nicaragua will have a huge ripple effect on Honduras and Guatemala, whose situations are already complicated. You’re very aware that I’ve erected a retaining wall against migration.
The Panamanians and Costa Ricans let the Cubans through, but I stopped them all at the southern border, and none have passed through here. You also know we’ve cooperated with you in the war on drugs as much as we possibly can. The same with money laundering: you know that whenever necessary you’ve enjoyed our full support, even though our financial institutions don’t have the capacity to control everything, but generally speaking we’ve complied. We’ve even let your troops come in to do their exercises and maneuvers…”
And so the dialogue would go on. “You reproach me because I’m a friend of Cuba. Obviously I am, because the Cubans have helped me since I was very young; they gave me shelter and gave us their solidarity. But we’re only friends of Cuba; we didn’t copy its model: we have a capitalist market economy, pluralism, elections… Remember that with your support we’ve received recognition for our macroeconomic stability policies from the Inter-American Development Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Of course there are things I can’t control because we don’t have the means, but again generally speaking you’ve recognized what we’ve done. .”
My interpretation is that the gringos are sensitive to that discourse and would like to see this crisis have a “soft landing.”
9. A fearful business class. Another of Daniel’s strengths is that the business elite in the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) must be feeling the same panic as Washington about the creation of a power vacuum, an uncontrolled crisis in which there’s no “governability,” as they call it. And even though the business sector is at least nominally on our side in this struggle, Daniel’s strength is yet again our weakness as we can’t count on a business ally with enough backbone and patriotism to not waver.
I can understand their ambivalence. They’re coming from 11 happy years with Daniel Ortega in which they were able to do whatever they wanted in the economic terrain. They decided dozens of economic laws, and had all the facilities they could want on tax and other fiscal issues. Daniel was even more generous with them in that regard than Trump is with his wealthy allies. They also had investment stability, with zero strikes and a docile work force.
Every year the economy grew 4%, 4.5% and the banks’ profit rate was the highest in Central America. Foreign investors came in and had every possible privilege and no obstacles to increasing their earnings and freely repatriating all their profits. Having spent over a decade in that business heaven, it’s easy to see how a different Nicaragua is causing them uncertainty.
The most powerful business leaders, the ones who really decide things, don’t have a clear picture of the future, but we don’t have clarity about where we’re going at the moment either. The one thing I’m sure of is that there’s no chance of returning to that past model some dubbed “responsible populism.” I think we need to make a greater effort to truly win over at least a sector of the business class, convince them to shake off their fear and support the grassroots mobilization. We need to work even harder to consolidate a single voice with the greatest possible clout to impose itself over both the business people’s uncertainties and Daniel’s pretensions.
What are Daniel’s pretensions?
If we look at what’s happening in the country after over two months of resistance, we can see that Daniel is using his strengths in an effort to gradually restructure his base. At the beginning he couldn’t do anything; in fact his followers had to hide their little red & black flags to avoid being identified. A
s everybody from the barrios reported, even Sandinistas who had nothing to do with Daniel’s crimes felt fingered. Daniel’s first reaction was to create that irregular criminal army. Also, knowing perfectly well that the big landowners and other business leaders who had crossed to the other side of the dialogue table were cowards, he has more recently organized land takeovers so they can see what they’re losing by leaving him and supporting the people… Now, little by little, Daniel is re-establishing some of his base, although not everyone he had before April; he has lost some of them forever.
We mustn’t give him time to recuperate his forces, because if we don’t react quickly, we’ll face an even more complicated situation. The solution has to be now. We should never forget that even huge grassroots uprisings can also be defeated.
Let’s now look at some of our own strengths
Seeing the people’s strengths, I think we can win out even over all of Daniel’s. And I also think we can do it without using anything other than nonviolent struggle, which is the great challenge the people have set themselves.
1. Commitment to nonviolent struggle. The first and most important of our strengths that consistently catches my attention since April is the widespread determination of the majority of people to wage a nonviolent struggle against the most violent regime we’ve known in Nicaragua. It particularly surprises me given our history. First we won an armed revolutionary war, and now, 40 years later, our people have decided to win a new victory against another dictatorship, but this time without weapons. This can only be achieved by a people with a marvelous capacity to find its own path and agree on it in an absolutely fantastic way.
I keep telling people how much trouble I have seeing that not one contact bomb has appeared in Monimbó, for example. It’s a more offensive instrument than the homemade mortars people are shooting off, and it’s not like they don’t have the elements to make them. They not only know how to make them but also how to use them. Still more stunning is that we haven’t seen people take out rifles, even though everyone in the countryside has their .38 or .22 pistol or their hunting shotgun. That determination to win without resorting to weapons requires a great deal of strength. It also requires an incalculable capacity for sacrifice, which is the people’s greatest strength. I think that tells us a lot about their potential for victory over a couple that has up to now imposed its will over us. No, they can’t defeat a people with this kind of determination.
2. Unanimity of grassroots will. This unanimous determination to keep the struggle civic is shared by an unusual array of sectors, from the peasant movement to university students, the peoples of the Caribbean Coast and urban and rural neighborhoods all over the country. This capacity to bring together the different wills of so many people is a great strength.
3. Daniel’s loss of the people. Just as some of Daniel’s strengths are our weaknesses, his weaknesses also count as our strengths, and the fact that he has lost the people is one of the latter. As one peasant told me, the people have “switched.” Until April, many supported the government—70%, according to some polls—but following April’s criminal massacres of young people that started all of this, the latest polls show 70% now rejecting it. Whatever happens, Daniel has lost those people’s backing forever.
4. Control of the streets. Daniel has not only lost public opinion, his hegemony over the people; he has also lost control of the streets. Until very recently, that would have seemed impossible, because we knew what would happen if we protested on any street corner. Yet suddenly, in a matter of days, half a million people were out in the streets telling the governing couple to leave.
5. An undefinable strength. This population also has some mystifying strengths that we haven’t managed to interpret intellectually. I’ve been talking to people related to the kids dug in at the National Autonomous University in Managua (UNAN) and they don’t want to leave. They’ve decided that come what may, they aren’t giving up their barricades; they’re in it to the end. We’re seeing that same thing in the people at the roadblocks. Defending a roadblock on a highway with weapons is one thing, but doing it unarmed against people who are out to kill you is something else. To stay at your post at the roadblock or in the trenches unarmed requires a fierce volition that’s hard to explain.
All these strengths were summed up in a placard in one of the mega-marches: Daniel has lost the people, and the people have lost their fear.
Strengths and weaknesses in the international camp
I worked in the international field for a long time, and I have to say that throughout these 11 years the Ortega regime has covered its trail very well. No one could have imagined that we had an authoritarian, corrupt regime in Nicaragua, much less that a criminal one was gestating. For over a decade there has been total ignorance—willful or otherwise—of what was happening here and those most ignorant were our friends on the left. International surveys showed Nicaragua as one of the happiest countries on the planet and the Nicaraguan government enjoying the most widespread support.
Most people abroad who are friends of Nicaragua, of Sandinismo and/or of the revolution were delighted at how well things were going here.
Now that we suddenly find ourselves facing this new reality, a great number of people simply don’t believe what’s happening here. It’s admittedly hard to believe even for us living it. Some are clinging to the nostalgia of what that revolution meant for them, OAS secretary general Luis Almagro among them. The government is playing to that ignorance and/or nostalgia through a propaganda campaign in the media it controls by denying responsibility for the deaths.
At the same time that it’s sending its irregular army out into the streets to kill, it variously insists that the killers are either vandals or US-financed rightwing coup plotters while the government only wants peace. It even at times denies it’s happening at all; with the government media news portraying a very different country than the one people see in the streets.
Our weakness in breaking through that ignorance about what’s truly happening here is due to the success with which the regime has operated for years, as if it were wearing an invisibility cloak. Nobody gave it a second look, nobody worried about what was happening here, and those few of us on the left who did speak out were dismissed by the government and its supporters as rightwing converts. I could see it in my communications with people who care about us, who love and value Nicaragua.
Even now it’s virtually impossible to persuade them that this government is a band of murderers, of corrupt criminals. It’s all too sudden for them to grasp and denounce it and support us. We need to be honest in admitting that not everyone is on our side against these criminals. We haven’t convinced all the international forces we need, although we have won many over, and that’s a growing strength. We have to make a much greater effort to line up all the international stars behind us.
How can we correctly negotiate.
Daniel Ortega’s surrender?
Ortega can’t undo what he has done; he can’t go back. But the issue is to correctly negotiate his surrender because the cost could be terribly high if we don’t. Knowing our people, it also needs to be said in all honesty that the potential risk of sliding into armed civil war is one of the permanent dangers we’re facing and must avoid at all cost.
So what could pressure Daniel Ortega?
Given his experience, the only thing he respects is the correlation of forces. And I’m not talking about what could be expressed at a negotiating table. He isn’t the least bit bothered by four or five gentlemen telling him “You have to go.” He’s only able to respect the force of mobilized masses, so if we can’t re-establish the correlation of forces demonstrated in late April and May, it’s going to be hard to force him to negotiate.
We need more mobilization in the streets, more roadblocks, more barricades, more neighborhood and community organization, an indefinite work stoppage… in short a greater accumulation of forces to break the policy of terror he has imposed on us. If we can’t put together a counteroffensive that reverses this apparently unfavorable, terror-based correlation, forcing him to stop, the situation will get more complicated for us. I repeat, great uprisings in history have also been defeated.
“Everyone against the dictatorship”
From the very first moments in late April, people very wisely said two things have to be done: the repression has to stop and this bastard has to go! They said it that simply and that directly from the outset, recognizing that the other problems wouldn’t be that hard to resolve afterward.
That’s from our side. From the other side, we have to understand that Daniel Ortega truly believes he can reverse the situation. Even more incredible to me is the criminal emphasis of the options he has chosen to try to do so. He will exhaust all measures of terror to try to turn the situation around and negotiate in more favorable conditions. That’s the intention I see behind the terrorist policy he has unleashed and is why I think the first thing we have to do is agree to halt that repressive force, not only for ethical humanitarian reasons, but also to modify the correlation of forces. It’s crucial that we do so.
It’s extremely urgent to generate massive unity to strengthen the grassroots struggles. The optimum situation we must reach is “everyone against the dictatorship.” We don’t need great masses to sit down and negotiate, but we do need them to change the correlation of forces, and we need to keep struggling, motivating each other and increasingly organizing to achieve the profound changes the country needs.
I want to conclude by saying I’m confident Ortega is finished. My dream isn’t of victory, but for it to come at the least possible cost. I’m also confident there will never be another regime like Ortega’s in Nicaragua and I see very little possibility that we’ll have an Ortega-style FSLN in the future.
At the same time, however, I want to think we Nicaraguans will be capable of recovering the best of our inheritance, the legacy of Carlos Fonseca headed by Sandino and all the values of that man who struggled for justice and deserved “not only to be heard but to be believed” because he wanted nothing for himself, not even “a plot to be buried in.”