Debate on Nicaragua: Capitalist Reform or Socialist Revolution?

A protester in Masaya holds a cartoon likening Ortega to the former dictator Somoza.

by Jeff Mackler, originally published on Socialist Action, September 23, 2018

Part II. (Part I appeared in August 2018.)

In today’s epoch of worldwide imperialist intervention and war, real revolutions are hard to make, even harder to maintain, and sometimes difficult to define in their evolution or degeneration. Today’s antiwar movement debate on the still-unfolding dynamics operating in Nicaragua is a case in point. Here we propose to discuss this question in the context of the lessons learned from past efforts to challenge capitalist rule.

In 1979, Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) led a revolution in Nicaragua overthrowing the U.S.-backed Anastasio Somoza dictatorship, which had murdered 50,000 people. Two decades earlier, Fidel Castro’s July 26 Movement, also in large part a guerrilla struggle, overthrew the U.S.-backed murderous Batista dictatorship in Cuba.

Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution defeated the old regime via a parliamentary election in Venezuela, as was the case with Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva’s Workers Party-led election victory in Brazil. Over the past decade or so similar Latin American parliamentary electoral victories in the context of the “pink tide” brought to governmental power left-oriented or radical regimes in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Honduras.

In a similar vein, in 1994, Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) came to political power via an election that codified the previous regime’s agreement to end the racist apartheid system and allow for an election that insured Black-majority political rule. Here too, the previous apartheid regime was armed and backed to the hilt by U.S. imperialism, with Mandela himself remaining on the U.S. terrorist list long after his election.

The example of the Russian Revolution

And then there was Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolshevik Party-led revolution that on Oct. 25, 1917, overthrew the coalition capitalist government of Alexander Kerensky in Russia and ushered in the world’s first socialist revolution.  For the purposes of this discussion, the Oct. 25 date is instructive. Indeed, every one of the above-mentioned events had its decisive moments or turning points. The Russian Revolution of Oct. 25 was preceded two weeks earlier by a special meeting of the Central Committee of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party.

The full name was the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party Majority; the last word, “Majority,” translates into the Russian bolshinstvo or “Bolshevik.” That detail is significant:

V.I. Lenin addresses workers and soldiers.

A 1903 split in the RSDLP resulted in Lenin’s faction winning a majority. Lenin aimed to organize a party of professional revolutionaries whose central objectives, 14 years later, were the seizure of power by the revolutionary mobilization of the workers and poor peasants, the abolition of the remnants of feudalism, the abolition of capitalism, and the establishment of a democratic workers’ state aimed at immediately beginning a transition to a socialist society in Russia and worldwide. Every word of this last sentence is relevant to our present discourse.

With this in mind let us return to that Central Committee meeting two weeks before the Oct. 25 Russian Revolution. Lenin’s blunt proposal was to take power, in two weeks, in the largest nation on earth, a nation that occupied one-sixth of the land surface of the planet. It was an imperialist nation centrally engaged in the ongoing first imperialist World War, a nation with a massive army led by experienced generals of the Tsarist regime, a nation aligned with the most powerful imperialist countries that ever existed—the U.S., Great Britain, France, and Japan, along with their allies.

Lenin’s proposal stunned his Central Committee. The sheer notion of taking power seemed to be the ultimate expression of fanaticism, of adventurism, of a total disconnect with the reality of the moment. But Lenin’s proposal was approved. Leon Trotsky, the head of the Petrograd (St. Petersburg) Soviet’s Military Revolutionary Committee, was assigned the task of organizing the insurrection on Oct. 24. Frightened that they would all be arrested, key Bolshevik leaders opposed Lenin’s proposal, including Lev Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev, who blew the whistle on the revolution and publicly attacked Lenin’s proposal in a non-Bolshevik newspaper.

But the Oct. 24 seizure of power via the storming of the government’s operational headquarters at the former Tsar’s Winter Palace in Petrograd and the arrest of the Alexander Kerensky government’s top leaders—minus Kerensky, who fled—was successful. An estimated six or perhaps eight people lost their lives on this day.

The old government essentially fell on its own dead weight. It needed but a single decisive push at a critical moment to relegate it to a brief mention in historical accounts. No one came to its defense except a pathetic parade of the city’s bourgeoisie dressed in their finery and demanding of the Bolshevik soldiers and workers, whom they scolded and threatened with arrest, that the Kerensky government be returned to power. They were politely escorted away.

The Bolshevik had seized the moment that cried out for resolution. They had won over vast sections of the army, virtually the entire working class and a peasantry in revolt against a feudal autocracy allied with the nation’s capitalist class, who insisted on pursuing Tsarist imperial war aims at the expense of the lives of countless millions of Russia’s conscripted army.

A day later, Oct. 25, the action was overwhelmingly approved by a meeting of the All Russian Congress of Soviets, where the Bolsheviks had won a majority. This body of soldiers, who were mostly peasants, and workers, democratically elected by their peers from every quarter of society, became Russia’s new revolutionary government. To a standing ovation that lasted several minutes, Lenin announced to the 649 delegates representing 318 provincial and local soviets across Russia, “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.” And they did! And immediately!

Within days, this All-Russian Soviet [Council] of Workers, Peasants and Soldiers Deputies approved and implemented a series of decrees that shook the world. It nationalized all the land of Russia and granted the peasant soviets the authority to distribute it to the nation’s poor peasants—the vast majority of the population; it decreed the right of self-determination of Russia’s Tsarist-conquered and oppressed nations, including their right to secede; it decreed its intention to immediately end Russia’s participation in the imperialist war, and it carried out this promise within months; it established worker’s control of the nation’s factories as a prelude to their formal nationalization; it nationalized all capitalist banks and related financial institutions and established a monopoly of foreign trade.

It renounced all foreign treaties that the previous governments had imposed by force on other nations; it abolished all laws discriminating against women and decreed the absolute right to divorce and abortion while establishing free childcare; it banned all discriminatory laws aimed at persecuting people because of their sexual and gender preference; it established soviet bodies at the local, regional,  and national levels as the formal governing institutions of the new state with all elected delegates subject to immediate recall and paid wages no higher than an average skilled worker in their occupation.

Most important, it put out an international call to the world’s revolutionary fighters to follow the Russian example, to establish new revolutionary parties everywhere, and to join to construct a new party for world revolution. Less than a year later, the Communist International was established. It included the best revolutionary fighters and their new parties from around the world.

The example of the Cuban Revolution

Some 40 years later, the Cubans followed a similar path. Within six months of their 1958-9 defeat of Batista’s army, they implemented a massive land reform and abolished capitalism. At an early meeting of Cuba’s central leaders, Fidel Castro is said to have asked, “Is there anyone here with experience as an economist?”

Fidel Castro (left) and Che Guevara (ctr.) lead a march in Havana, May 5, 1960, for the victims of the explosion on the freighter La Coubre, considered one of the CIA’s first attempts to sabotage the Cuban Revolution.

A young Argentinian, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, raised his hand and was approved for the assignment. When later asked about his economic credentials, Che, a trained doctor of the medical profession, responded, “I thought Fidel asked for an experienced communist.” Che proceeded to lead in the implementation of Cuba’s early efforts to convert nationalized capitalist enterprises to a rational, democratic, and integrated system of production aimed at meeting human needs as opposed to maximizing capitalist profits.

The Cubans continued to deepen their revolution with the steady implementation of measures to empower the masses and win their confidence in the socialist future and in their revolutionary government. It invited Latin America’s best revolutionary fighters to Havana to attend international conferences to discuss how the Cuban example could be applied everywhere.

To this day, beleaguered, embargoed, blockaded, sanctioned, invaded, and having thwarted some two dozen CIA-confirmed and promoted assassination attempts on Castro’s life, the Cubans continue to set a sterling example for revolutionaries everywhere.

The Russian and Cuban Revolutions set an example that is as relevant today as it was in decades past. Both definitively abolished capitalist rule as the precondition for their survival and because of their dedication to the highest aspirations of humankind for a world of equality and social justice. They were based on the fundamental proposition that only the formal abolition of the monstrous capitalist system of endless war, plunder, exploitation and human degradation, can provide the foundation for the building of a new society. Capitalism cannot be reformed in the U.S. or anywhere else on earth! Whatever temporary “reforms” are won in struggle will always be subject to reversal, until the beast itself is slain at the hands of the vast majority in every nation.

Latin America’s “pink revolutions”

Today’s debate on the present course of the FSLN in Nicaraguan and all other “pink revolutions” provides critical lessons for serious revolutionaries and social justice activists.  First and foremost, as we have demonstrated, the deadly hand of U.S. imperialism is always at work, seeking any and all openings to weaken and defeat insurgent movements and governments that in any manner challenge capitalist prerogatives. Nothing is new in this respect.  Anything less than expecting the worst from the imperialist colossus and all its parties would be naïve at best and dangerously mistaken.

Revolutionary Russia and Cuba planned for the worst by cementing the loyalty of the vast majority, who stormed the heavens to make the revolution, beginning with a decisive break with minority capitalist rule and the implementation of a planned economy that prioritized human needs. This included campaigns aimed at eradicating institutional racism and national oppression, nationwide literacy campaigns and the establishment of quality systems of free education and health care. The people were armed, with the right to keep their weapons to defend their class interests. Their perspectives were internationalist to the core, reaching out to the people of the world for support and extending solidarity to their struggles.

In sharp contrast, the FSLN leadership, along with all the other “pink tide” or social democratic reformist leaderships, began with the proposition that upon achieving governmental power they could and would coexist with capitalism. This coexistence was expressed by the simultaneous inclusion of leading capitalists in their governments and in the associated and inseparable promise that capitalist wealth and property in the means of production and in the land would be respected.

When decisive moments presented themselves in Nicaragua, as when the two leading capitalists in the initial five-member 1979 government, the Junta of National Reconstruction (JGRN), Alfonse Robelo and Violetta Chamorro, resigned in 1981, the FSLN left their positions open or reserved for their return or to be replaced by other major representatives of capitalism, a statement to the world that, resignation or not, the FSLN’s commitment to capitalism had not changed. Robelo went on to join or form a series of opposition capitalist parties culminating in 1987 with his helping to found the National Resistance that represented the murderous Contras—the Honduras-based military operation, armed and financed by the U.S., that took the lives of 15,000 Nicaraguans.

Following Daniel Ortega’s and the FSLN’s 1990 presidential election defeat, a reflection of both the deep demoralization arising from the constant Contra terror, sabotage, and military incursions in the north and the failure to introduce any significant land reform and other major incursions on capitalist property—a deadly reality that fueled some support for the Contras among Nicaragua’s landless peasants and poor workers—the FSLN splintered into fractious infighting.

Ortega lost two subsequent presidential election bids while becoming skilled at endless maneuvers with a variety of Nicaragua’s capitalist elites as he prepared for and won the 2006 election.  Essentially absent as a spokesperson and active leader of the oppressed masses, Ortega reappeared 16 years later as the presidential candidate of an electoral coalition including Nicaragua’s Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), the Catholic Church, and some leading capitalist politicians.

Venezuelan oil & FSLN’s social programs

Some solidarity activists today tout the FSLN’s more recent social programs that are said to have raised the standard of living and wellbeing of its people to the highest levels in Central America. This was accomplished through the largess of Venezuela, via 2007-2016 oil shipments at half the market price valued at $3.7 billion and with generous payment due dates on half the value of the already reduced oil price postponed to 23 years at a 2 percent interest rate. The FSLN in turn sold the oil at full market value and used 40 percent of the profits for its popular programs to provide microloans to small businesses, as well as food and housing subsidies for the poor.

Venezuela’s massive contributions over the same period helped to boost Nicaragua’s GDP growth, largely due to promoting its private sectors, to an annual average of 4.1 percent.

Similar and generous terms were negotiated between oil rich Venezuela and its “pink tide” allies in Brazil, Argentina, and Ecuador, as well as with revolutionary Cuba. Well and good. But here a fundamental question arises in full force. In Nicaragua’s capitalist economy, as with all other capitalist states, who is responsible for the distribution and utilization of the remainder of the profits from the sale of Venezuelan oil—the 60 percent or $2.3 billion that was not spent on social programs? Was this huge amount by Nicaraguan standards overseen by a democratic workers’ state to meet social needs or by a capitalist state that inherently subordinates human needs to the private profit of the elite?

Here we re-state the self-evident proposition that no self-respecting capitalist, however “democratically minded,” is in business to lose money. The terms “progressive capitalist” or “non-neoliberal capitalist” are oxymorons of the first order. In Nicaragua, the Ortega leadership and its family and personal associates, as we demonstrated in my previous article, “Nicaragua: Dynamics of an Interrupted Revolution,” in the August issue of Socialist Action, are steeped in ownership and control of a broad range of leading capitalist enterprises and have been so since 1990, if not before. It cannot be otherwise in a capitalist state.

Today, with the massive drop in world oil prices, and in the context of a world economic crisis, Venezuela’s economy, dominated by oil production, could only suffer grievous blows. These have been undoubtedly magnified by drastic U.S. economic sanctions and a host of other imperialist measures aimed at destabilizing the country. We would be remiss in omitting that, like Nicaragua, Venezuela is a capitalist state, with its major factories, land, and banking institutions owned and operated by the capitalist elite, who today, have every intention of once again collaborating with imperialism to undermine and eventually overthrow any government that in the slightest way interferes with their accumulation of profits.   

The same is true for Brazil. Lula came to head that government after his fourth presidential run in 2002. But unlike his previous runs, he was the candidate of an electoral coalition of his trade union-based Workers Party (PT) and a reactionary right-wing Catholic party that provided its central, multi-millionaire leader as Lula’s running mate. To insure that Brazil would remain in the world capitalist orbit and pay its debts to its leading financial institutions, Lula’s first parliamentary effort was to impose a massive austerity program that severely cut into workers’ pensions and other vital social programs. PT senators and members of the Chamber of Deputies (lower house in Brazil’s bicameral system) who voted against Lula’s austerity measures were summarily expelled from his party.

Today, the “pink tide revolution” is in rapid decline, with Argentina, Brazil, and Ecuador reverting to reactionary regimes via the electoral process, wherein discontented sectors of the working class and the poor, enticed by a capitalist cabal and corporate media largely left intact, undoubtedly registered their discontent at the polls. With Venezuela similarly under siege—incapable of resolving its deep economic crisis and maintaining its commitment to its capitalist system at the same time—and with the Honduran government overthrown in a U.S.-supported coup, Nicaragua is high on imperialism’s hit list.

All the self-proclaimed “socialist” leaders of these governments, their best intentions notwithstanding, believed they could make a bargain with the devil—to coexist with the class enemy. All of these reformist capitalist governments had their own distinct politics and ideologies. These ranged from ingrained reformism, if not personal corruption, to an honest, if not well-founded belief that an outright challenge to the capitalist state order would inevitably bring on isolation, embargo, CIA-instigated internal subversion, or active intervention—either by the orchestration of a military coup or overt U.S. intervention and war. All of the above are imperialism’s stock-in-trade.

The revolutionary alternative

From our vantage point there is another alternative, the variant of Lenin and Fidel—socialist revolution, the mobilization of the masses of workers and peasants to challenge and defeat capitalist power in all its manifestation and to place the fate of the new nation in the hands of the people themselves, organized democratically in soviet-type institution.

Over the past decade or so this alternative was on the order of the day, with massive working-class mobilizations across Latin America driving the discredited capitalist regimes from political power and radical anti-capitalist ideas on the ascendancy. What was lacking then, and now, was an international revolutionary socialist party with deep roots in the struggles of the oppressed everywhere, coordinating its efforts for a common end.

Socialist revolution was on the agenda in the mass consciousness of the vast majority of the entire continent. What was lacking then, and now, is a revolutionary leadership intent on throwing fear and caution to the winds, and relying on the capacity of the revolutionary masses to determine their own fate. This combination of mass anti-capitalist consciousness and the capacity to repeatedly mobilize to challenge the capitalist status quo and a revolutionary party with the program, will, discipline and mass implantation with every progressive struggle, is unbeatable.

What we have observed over these past years, decades and centuries has never been the incapacity of the masses to struggle but rather a profound crisis of revolutionary leadership. The FSLN, once capable of heroic deeds, opened the door to socialist revolution in 1979. But its leaders were disabused from this course, at least in part, by the counter-revolutionary Stalinist bureaucracy of the former Soviet Union, who warned against a break with capitalism and instead counseled “peaceful co-existence” with it.

History has repeatedly demonstrated that these “socialism in one country” bureaucrats regularly traded revolutionary possibilities that they influenced as bargaining chips in secret deals with imperialism to preserve their own interests and privilege at home.

They made clear that should the FSLN embark on a challenge to capitalist rule they would receive no aid from the USSR. The Stalinist regime did the same with regard to the Salvadoran Revolution, also underway in 1979, and with regard to Grenada’s 1979 revolution led by Maurice Bishop, who was later murdered by the Stalinist misleader, Bernard Coard.

The same forces aligned to the USSR’s counter-revolutionary bureaucracy pressured the South African ANC and its South African Communist Party partner to agree to place the Black mask of an ANC government over the white racist face of a still-in-place apartheid capitalist regime rather than organize to bring it down. These tragic decisions largely accounted for all these lost revolutionary opportunities. These events are still under debate today, but the lessons are clearer than ever. Capitalism will not be defeated by halfway measures and agreements to rule in partnership with capitalism.

Today it appears that the leading players in the recent mass mobilizations and counter-mobilizations in Nicaragua have perhaps once again entered into a dialogue to resolve their differences, a dialogue in which the voices of the vast majority of working people are absent.

While the evidence is still unclear as to the origins of the violence that erupted during and immediately following the April mass protests against the government’s decision to reduce pensions and increase taxation rates, the FSLN’s monopoly of police and military power and its control over all the state institutions leads us to question its denials with great skepticism. Some 300-400 people have been killed. The wounded are said to have been at least 2000. But we also cannot be blind to the possibility that the hand of imperialism, via its CIA secret teams and provocateurs, may have been involved.

In truth, however, the question as to who fired first is subordinate to the truth that mass opposition to the FSLN’s austerity measures was fully justified and reflected a deeply held anger and frustration by working people that their standard of living and general conditions were in decline.

Nicaragua’s wages are among the lowest in Latin America; its foreign-owned free economic zone low wage sweatshop maquiladoras exist to serve imperialist needs for cheap labor. The majority of the population is relegated to the “informal” sector of the economy—that is, to selling trinkets and other petty commodities and food on the streets to survive.

In the U.S. the first obligation of antiwar and social justice activists is to unconditionally support Nicaragua’s right to self-determination, free from every form of imperialist intervention—from the heinous congressional NICA Act (Nicaragua Investment Conditionality Act), aimed at restricting Nicaragua’s access to international lending institutions, to U.S. government sanctions and U.S.-backed financing of NGOs and National Endowment for Democracy operations aimed at bringing down the FSLN government.

Only the Nicaraguan people have the right to decide their fate. U.S. Hands Off!

Inside Nicaragua, as with every nation on earth, we are partisans of the formation of a deeply rooted revolutionary socialist party aimed at organizing the nation’s poor and oppressed for a definitive break with capitalist rule—a party totally independent of the Daniel Ortega/FSLN capitalist rulers and their capitalist associates as well as against today’s dissidents organized by the COSEP, the Catholic Church, and other opposition capitalist forces who look to U.S. imperialism as their savior.

Any serious opposition to the FSLN government must be known as champions of a new world, a world free from all forms of capitalist exploitation, a world where democratic rights and decision making are institutionalized, where environmental degradation is outlawed, where the rights and traditions of indigenous peoples are honored, where women are equal in every respect—including access to free and legal abortion, which is banned in Nicaragua today.

In short, Nicaragua’s future, as with all other nations, depends on the emergence and consolidation of mass forces dedicated to socialist revolution.

Jeff Mackler  is the national secretary of Socialist Action, a Trotskyist political party.[1] He was the nominee of Socialist Action for United States Senate in 2006 and President of the United States in the 2016 election. Mackler founded Northern California Climate Mobilization, is a longtime teacher and union activist with the American Federation of Teachers in Hayward, California and is director of the Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal.

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