Thursday, October 05, 2006

all politics, all the time

[Editor's Note: This is an extensive political and historical reflection. If such things do not interest you, tune in next week when hopefully this space will return to its more personal content.]

Today is exactly one month from the presidential elections set for November 5th here in Nicaragua. The campaigning has begun in earnest (as if it hadn't been going on all along), with dedicated party loyalists taking to the streets to distribute campaign literature, wave banners, and paint any available light pole with the candidate's name or political party initials. Local newspapers publish stories daily, much like in the States, analyzing the relative positions of the candidates, and opinion articles most commonly urging Nicas to consider the potential disaster of another Ortega administration.

From a historical perspective, the passions evoked (in either direction) by the Sandinistas is understandable. In the beginning, the FSLN (as the party is now known) was just a bunch of guerillas in the mountains. But, as the reigning Somoza regime grew more blatant in its corruption and violence against dissenters (including stealing government aid donated after the earthquake of '72 and the assassination of a prominent newspaper editor), it ceased to have the sympathies of even the middle and upper class of Nicaraguans, giving the Sandinista movement strength, resources and momentum.

Thoughtful Nicaraguans like poet Gioconda Belli (who wrote a fabulous book called The Country Under My Skin) recount the stories of those times as terrifying but liberating. The will of the people was overcoming the culture of fear that covered the country with a dark cloud.

Unfortunately, once the Sandinistas had won the war, they had little time to build the new government they envisioned, as almost immediately a US-funded Contra force forced the new leadership into a prolonged war in the northeastern region of Nicaragua. Much of the country's limited resources were poured into this continued violence, and the US intervention and foreign policy of the time gave the new Sandinista government few options other than accepting the aid of their willing Communist allies in Russia and Cuba. Food was rationed for years; young men fled the country or never went outside their front door for fear of being conscripted—several of my Nica friends tell me that was the worst time in the country's history—they say, “at least with Somoza everyone had food and a job.”

People generally agree that the Sandinista's Literacy Campaign following their victory is the strongest remaining positive legacy of the revolution. (As part of this campaign, teenagers from the cities were sent to the campo to live with illiterate families for a year and teach them to read.) Regrettably, the Sandinistas lost many people's favor in the 80s as internal power plays left a small subgroup holding the party's reigns (led by Daniel Ortega), who went on to make some very unwise political and economic decisions, like seizing the land of all former Somoza supporters, redistributing land to people who had no experience farming (resulting in a greater economic recession and lower food supply), and publicly engaging in fierce anti-American rhetoric (thus making it difficult for most Americans to understand that the Sandinista government was really not a new Communist threat in the region, just politically inexperienced, trying to find its way, and looking for some allies).

The Sandinistas have not held the presidency since 1990, but this year looks like their best chance yet to recapture the elusive office. Ortega, while a divisive figure in Nicaraguan politics, continues to lead by a small margin in the polls over US-supported candidate Montealegre. And while the US appears genuinely concerned for the potential alliance between Ortega and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, it appears that its foreign policy may produce the very result it has been trying to prevent for years.

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