Is Nicaragua Socialist?

In the midst of the Irangate scandal in which US President Ronald Reagan and his accomplices do their best to extricate themselves from the web of lies created to cover up their illegal funding of neo-fascist terrorists aiming to overthrow the government of Nicaragua, a seldom-asked question is, Who rules Nicaragua and what are the consequences for the working class? Conventional leftist wisdom is quite clear on the matter: the imperialist government of the USA is at war against the left-wing government of Nicaragua and therefore the Sandinista regime must be defended against all attacks. Of course, it is true that Nicaragua is the current victim of a campaign of destabilisation and outright terrorism by American imperialism but that in itself does not make the Nicaraguan government a regime to be supported. Struggles between rival capitalist governments are common and socialists do not take sides in the conflicts between robber forces.

In fact, the coming into being of the present Sandinista regime in Nicaragua was the product of a process of class struggle between various ruling factions which has gone on since the beginning of this century. In the early 1900s the British Empire controlled the Atlantic coast region and these imperialists were ousted, with US support, by José Santos Zelaya whose party represented the aspirations of local capitalists with interests in small business and farming. Having removed the British imperialists, Zelaya’s liberal capitalist government was put under pressure to act at the behest of US capitalists. When it failed to do so, refusing to remove restrictions on US capital investment or to allow the building of a trade canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the US imperialists responded in the time-honoured fashion: by sending in the Marines and toppling the Zelaya government.

Until 1926 the Marines kept Nicaragua under US imperial control with puppet governments assuring that the national economy served as a satellite of Wall Street. In 1926 the national capitalists, led by Cesar Augusto Sandino, attempted to oust the US imperialists as they had done with the British but national capitalist liberation (which is of no interest to the workers) was not achieved and instead the US established the regime of Anastasio Somoza Garcia, a man qualified by virtue of having been a second-hand car salesman in Philadelphia. The Somoza regime ruled as a dictatorship, using the National Guard to keep the wealth producers in their place. It was a corrupt, vicious and dynastic regime: Anastasio Somoza Debayle (the second Somoza leader) personally stole much of the money sent to Nicaragua in 1972 after the tragic earthquake and used extreme force in suppressing any opposition.

Politically the Somoza regime was discredited and, as time went on, it became economically incapable of winning any support: between 1970 and 1974,35 per cent of all Nicaraguan factories closed down due to falling profits. The resident capitalists wanted change. It was this more than anything which led to the uprising in 1979 which brought down the Somoza regime. The uprising was a popular rebellion involving workers, peasants and local capitalists – it was in no sense a socialist revolution.

The leading political force in what became known as the Sandinista revolution was the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) which was formed in 1961 and originally comprised mainly young pro-Moscow leftists. There is no doubt that after 1979 there were definite improvements both in the economic standard of living and in the degree of political freedom in Nicaragua. Both of these improvements proved to be short-lived and neither amounted to socialism or anything like it (which cannot be established in one country anyway).

The trouble with capitalism is that there are no “nice” ways of running it: capitalist governments can never be “goodies” because it is their job to administer the exploitation of the working class. A government which is loyal to the nation which it serves (and remember, the Sandinistas are nationalists) must ensure that the nation is performing profitably and that entails squeezing as much surplus value as possible out of the wealth-producing majority. That is precisely what has happened since 1979 in Nicaragua.

The FSLN has used its state power to run a form of state capitalism in which the workers are organised as a military force, expected to obey orders from above in the interest of the national economy. “The FSLN has translated its military structures to civil life – more by circumstance than intention – and as such the recently created mass organisations function with a totally hierarchical structure” (Notas Sobre Nicaragua y la Revolution Sandinista in Bicicleta, February 1981, p. 55). The FSLN controls the workforce, despite the pretence of workers’ participation at ranch and factory levels which are no more than a means of incorporating the workers into previously determined state plans.

Under Nicaraguan state capitalism the major features of the economy are under state control. Unlike in Russia and other “socialist economies” the Nicaraguan government does not directly own the means of wealth production and distribution but does monopolise the banks (which control agricultural credit) and all imports and exports, thus effectively appropriating profits from cotton, beef, sugar and coffee which constitute two thirds of the country’s exports. The state also controls the means of processing agricultural commodities, so that although most land used for cotton cultivation is privately owned most of the cotton processing factories are state-owned; although 70 per cent of cattle are owned by peasant farmers 80 per cent of slaughterhouses are state-owned. The state is under an obligation to use its power as a national capitalist to milk as much profit as it can out of the war-weary workers. This profit is needed firstly to pay the interest on the massive debt – in excess of $2.5 bn – which is owed to the big Western banks; secondly, to offset the massive flight of private capital which has taken place since 1979 – Nicaraguan capitalists quite understandably prefer to invest in safer economic regions than one under military attack by US imperialism; and thirdly, to pay for the destabilisation, which has been openly funded by the US Administration to the tune of $130 million in aid to the contras, added to which has been a US trade war against Nicaragua. Given these circumstances and given the imperative need for capital accumulation which is essential to an underdeveloped capitalist economy, the state as capitalist has no option but to act as a ruthless and exploitative boss.

As with the economy, so in national politics the FSLN monopolises power. Technically, power is vested in the Council of State. Epstein and Evans, writing in the radical US paper, In These Times, contend that the Council is “little more than a sounding board for the policies of the nine-man FSLN directorate” (11 January, 1983). The FSLN junta has suppressed opposition parties and newspapers and, as is the usual tendency when a vanguard party monopolises the state, the new bureaucratic elite has established for itself a privileged lifestyle:

“As the FSLN consolidates its hold over the government, its leaders inevitably gain access to the perquisites of power. Commandantes live in the wealthier districts of Managua, occupying mansions previously owned by the leading Somocistas. They are provided with chauffeur-driven cars, servants and bodyguards. Their government offices are air-conditioned, a most exclusive and important status symbol in tropical Managua“. (“A Critical Look at the Sandinistas”, Changes, May 1982, p. 14).

One black marketeer quoted in The Toronto Star (12 April 1987) complains that “President Daniel Ortega and the nine commandantes are the only people in the country with money. The rest of us are dying of hunger”. No doubt this quotation is printed by a pro-US Canadian newspaper as part of the ideological war against the Sandinistas but it does probably reflect the resentment which is all too common in the so-called nationally liberated countries such as Cuba, Vietnam or Kampuchea where the beneficiaries of “liberation” are the small class of bureaucrats who control the national state. Of course, Leninist mythology has it that the state is being run by the bureaucrats on behalf of the working class: it is a dictatorship on behalf of the proletariat. So it was that Pedro Ortiz, head of the Sandinista Workers’ Central could tell Nicaraguan agricultural workers that

“For workers to conduct a strike against the state is to conduct a strike against themselves, because the land is now administered by the workers and campesinos” (Volya, No. 3, p. 3)

This is similar to the instruction given by Trotsky to the Russian trade unionists after 1917. Indeed, the FSLN’s attitude to East European state capitalism is that of admiration: the FSLN newspaper, El Nuevo Diario, described East Germany as “a model society . . . organised on the basis of jobs for all, peace and justice”. In 1980 when ten million Polish workers resisted their state-capitalist masters and formed Solidarity, the head of the FSLN Propaganda Department, Frederico Lopez, lined up with the most reactionary forces worldwide in condemning such trade unionists as “counter-revolutionary elements which seek to place Poland into the hands of imperialism”. (FSLN memorandum, 23 December 1981, quoted in Nicaragua: Say Hello to the New Bosses, p.31. Published in No Middle Ground).

It is an irony of political history that many of the workers who nominally supported the Sandinista revolution in 1979 then went on to support Solidarity in 1980, only to discover that the FSLN, having established its role as a national capitalist in opposition to the idea of independent trade unions, now opposed the struggle of the Polish workers. In expressing such opposition the FSLN was only being consistent, for it has done its best to ignore or suppress independent unions in Nicaragua. The country’s two largest trade unions, the Sandinista Workers’ Central (CST) and the Association of Rural Workers (ATC) each have about 100,000 members. They are essentially company unions, run by and in the pay of the state bosses. It should be pointed out that Nicaragua is traditionally a badly unionised country: on the eve of the revolution in 1979 only 6 per cent of the workforce was unionised.

There are some unions which are not state-run, but these are either too small to be of significance or discriminated against by the state employer. They range from the very small People’s Action Movement (MAP) which characterises Nicaragua as well as Cuba, China and Russia as “state capitalist” (several of them are now locked in Nicaraguan prisons) to the 65,000-strong Nicaraguan Workers Confederation (CTN) whose manifesto asserts

“. . . the need to guarantee the development of a union movement that is democratic, independent, unified, revolutionary and class-conscious … so as to rebuff every effort to impose a single union hierarchy that would be totally subordinate to the party in power.”

Despite its Catholic illusions – not dissimilar to those of Poland’s Solidarity – the CTN is the major force in Nicaragua with a chance of threatening the state’s stranglehold over labour.

Without doubt, the US-backed terrorism against Nicaragua is brutal in its disregard for life and hypocritical in its undemocratic tactics in the avowed interest of a perverse notion of democracy. In fact, the US terror is having the reverse effect to that intended: it is uniting Nicaraguans behind the Sandinistas in an act of national defence. Without a US war against it there is a much greater likelihood that Nicaraguan workers would be resisting the state. The US assumption that Nicaragua is “socialist” is utterly mistaken and so probably is the theory that Nicaragua is about to fall under the control of the Russian Empire, taking with it other Central American countries. In fact, it is only the US offensive which could make that feasible, if only as a last resort for a terrorised Sandinista regime.

Needless to say, the Socialist Party is hostile in every way to the contra terrorists and their backers. But the enemy of an enemy is not necessarily a friend (if it was, then socialists in Britain would have had to have defended Hitler in the last world war or the Galtieri junta in the Falklands war). Socialists do not support the state-capitalist government of Nicaragua and to the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign which implores us to do so we respond that our only support is for workers of all lands in their struggle against the capitalists of all lands, be they imperial exploiters or native ones, left or right wing.