The growing public grumble against the Sandinista Front’s anti-democratic behavior and rapacious obsession with political control reached the palace walls this week, when a throng of protesters representing thousands more from two dozen municipalities in Masaya, Managua, Rivas and Chinandega marched on the presidential bunker, demanding the voice of the people be heard.
The demonstrators called for—and were promptly denied—a meeting with first lady Rosario Murillo, who was probably too busy working on a flowery “pueblo presidente” speech behind the ramparts to be bothered by the hoi polloi’s nettlesome request for audience.
Instead, the feisty group left a letter of protest signed by some 7,000 people demanding a louder voice in their democracy.
The recent wave of marches and demonstrations in favor of democracy are the strongest and most authentic expressions of protest since President Daniel Ortega’s controversial reelection three months ago. And curiously enough, everyone participating in the protests is a diehard Sandinista.
“We are Sandinista militants; we are el pueblo presidente, so they have to take us into account,” yelled one protester at Tuesday’s protest outside the presidential bunker.
The Sandinista protests are against the so-called “dedazo” – the autocratic practice of party mucky-mucks hand selecting mayoral candidates without consulting the municipal populations they’ll supposedly represent. In a growing number of municipalities across the country, the Sandinista bases are pushing back against the candidates foisted upon them by the presidential couple. Apparently, in many cases, el pueblo presidente views their appointed candidates as inept and corrupt sycophants whose main job qualification is obsequiousness.
And when it comes to mealy-mouthed apple-polishing, no one does it better than Nelson Artola. Officially, Artola is the president of the government’s poverty-relief development fund, FISE. But he spends so much time moonlighting as a Sandinista operative dispatched to tell municipal party leaders who their mayoral candidates will be, that it would be interesting to know what he lists as he primary occupation on his customs and immigration declarations when he enters the country.
For the past three years, Artola has been slinking around the country on a mission from Murillo, twisting the arms of mayors on an independent streak, converting opposition mayors to born-again Sandinistas in exchange for FISE development aid, and—in extreme cases—removing elected mayors from office with dubious authority. The most recent victim of Artola’s cold touch was Manuel Calderón, the controversial, club-swinging Sandinista Mayor of León, who last January was forced to resign from office with his tail between his legs after a humiliating visit from Artola.
The recent beginnings of a Sandinista popular pushback against Artola—and ergo, Murillo’s iron fist inside a pink velvet glove—is an interesting development for several reasons.
First of all, it’s one of the first visible indications of a long-rumored power and ownership struggle within a party that pretends to be monolithic and hates to wash its dirty laundry in public. The Sandinistas are arguably the most disciplined political party in Latin America, but rebellion among the bases suggests even Sandinista etiquette has its limits when FSLN militants feel their party is being hijacked and led astray.
Secondly, the pushback shows that the Sandinistas believe in their party’s boilerplate. The protests are happening in the name of “el pueblo presidente,” not against it. The party bases are not fighting against the Sandinistas’ hackneyed slogan, they’re trying to give it meaning and substance through primary elections.
Which brings us to the third and most important point: Sandinismo is, in its most basic expression, democratic. The Sandinista bases are protesting for a louder say in their local democracy preciously because they believe democracy works.
And therein lies the rub. Murillo thinks democracy is bothersome, messy and self-destructive. She said so herself.
“In the 16 years that we fought to maintain the revolution, unfortunately we had to defend the Revolutionary Process by incorporating styles and practices that are not part of revolutionary projects, such as internal elections, which led to terrible disputes among us,” Murillo said during a speech last July 8, referring to Sandinista Front’s 16-year hiatus from ruling over the land.
“We weren’t born to be election mongers,” she said sillily, considering she’s spent much of her adult life in campaign mode.
Primary elections, Murillo went on to say, have only divided the Sandinista Family. “We lost our original sense of being Sandinistas, in fraternity,” she said.
In other words, for Murillo, the democratic process of electing government representatives is anti-Sandinista. So the party should just let her appoint the candidates so everyone can get back to the puddingheaded work of fist-pumping and singing campaign songs that she remixed without copyright permission using incantations about fraternity, unity, peace and love.
Apparently, however, a growing number of Sandinistas disagree that’s what it means to be Sandinista. And now they are demanding more democracy and accountability from their government—something the opposition has done so unconvincingly and fleetingly over the past five years.
Whether the Sandinistas are eventually any more successful and less compromising in their demand for democracy remains to be seen. But it’s a provocative start.