Parts three and four of the the Afterparty interview with former Sandinista and now democracy activist Benjamin Lugo. You can read the first parts here: http://thevisionproject.com/2015/01/05/benjamin-lugo-on-the-betrayal-of-the-sandinista-revolution-and-the-tenuous-hope-for-nicaraguan-democracy/ Thanks to Afterparty project intern Anaka Allen for transcribing the interview.
Brian: What was the decision-making process for (Nicaragua President and former Sandinista guerrilla leader) Ortega to finally say, they were defeating the contras militarily, “No, let’s do this election and let’s do it fairly.” What was underneath the decision?
Lugo: They felt they could win.
B: They thought they could win.
L: And then by legitimizing themselves through an election process, then they could ask European people, the United States, for money.
B: They had been turning people off for a while, European social democratic countries that might be willing to support them, and did they see this as a way to say, “We know we’re going to win because we are going to manipulate public opinion and the election and divide all the potential opposition?”
L: After the war, it would take some pressure off from them because they could say to the world, “What’s wrong with all of you? People are supporting Nicaragua, people are supporting us and our policies. You have to show respect for our policies.” So in a sense they allowed international observers by the hundreds: the Organization of American States, United Nations, European Union, Canada; groups of observers with a lot of resources, vehicles, communication equipment. But, they thought that they could win. And the polls were favorable to them. Because even now, you go and ask people, they say we always support Ortega. It’s not true, but they say it. The same thing happened back in 1990, because they thought they could win it and people would be saying that in the polls. And the international observers are the ones that did not let the Sandinistas get away with the denial of the victory of Violeta Chamorro. They couldn’t do it. Carter was the one that told [Ortega], “You have to admit this. We already have all the figures with us. You lost.” So he said, “Okay.” So he gave a press conference at 6 o’clock in the morning the following day. He was crying, and most of his people, too. Because they never thought…After that lesson they learned, from 2008 to this day, they have never allowed international observers for the elections. And that is something that brings us to today.
We, in Nicaragua, are living under a dictatorship. Ortegista in this case.
B: A dictatorship, which is a strong term, is characterized by what?
L: Two things. The origin is not legitimate because it is coming from a fraud, and then an unconstitutional candidacy, he cannot be a candidate again. He had already been president twice, and it is not allowed, the continuous reelection, in this country. So he disregarded that through a supreme court ruling and then he committed fraud in 2011. [Laughs] And besides not being [of] a democratic origin in the sense that he won the election, in practice, he does not act democratically.
B: Is there some parallel between his style and Hugo Chavez’s style, where Chavez had a lot of populist sympathy and then gradually controlled the supreme court, controlled the legislature, changed the law and had more and more intimidating power? Is that a model for him?
L: [Mockingly] A periodista asked me what did I think about the socialismo del siglo XXI, now that Chavez was passing away. I said to him, “What socialismo del siglo XXI? Somocismo del siglo XXI is what we have here.” That’s what we have. Time’s changed. They say that we’re not in 1979, there’s a different story now. But these attitudes of staying in power, just for staying in power, is bad news in a sense that no matter what, to stay in power is the goal. You don’t care whether you have the support of the people or not.
Socialismo del siglo XXI is a set of socialist principles put forward by the late Hugo Chávez among others, ostensibly promoting democratic election rather than violent revolution. Critics challenge Chavez’ electoral practices. Somocismo refers to the dictatorial system of the Somoza family.
B: When I asked Carlos Chamorro, while he was editor of Barricada, why the Sandinista government restricted or shut down the opposition press, he answered, “We are under aggression and we have to do whatever it takes to succeed.” At the time, the attitude was, ‘elections, sure, that sounds fine’, but above elections is social justice.
L: The happiness of the people. So that people can be happy. Yes, but that’s a degradation, a betrayal of what was proposed in ’78. Because it was through freedom, it was through democracy, and it was through the free enterprise regulated by the strong government, but we thought we were going to be able to make changes in Nicaragua. Then the rest is like Stalinist, especially now, we control everything because we are the guardians—
B: So why did the Nicaraguan people put up with it, why do they allow it?
L: We never allowed it. Who allowed it
B: Well Ortega is in power so, it’s allowed.
L: No, it’s not allowed.
B: My first full day in Managua, I walked down Bolivar Avenue, and I saw the huge Hugo Chavez tribute in the roundabout. Now, it’s one thing to pay some tribute, “the guy’s giving us cheap oil and he’s been a friend to our country,” but this statue is like sainthood.
L: Yea they want to make him appear like a god. For them, he was like a god because he gave them the money they never thought they could have, and tried to come back to power through elections. But he’s got control of every single branch of government: the judicial power, the electoral one, legislative branch and the executive branch. He’s got it all, you know; a monopoly of power. And he uses the resources of the country in a discretionary way and also he closed down a couple of political parties in 24 hours. All these political parties that exist right now, they exist today, but tomorrow, they may not exist..
B: In the United States, we keep going to war, sometimes you wonder, is there something in the national psyche that drives certain kinds of behaviors? You look at Russia, you have the czars, and then you have the Bolshevik Revolution, and then you have Stalin acting like a czar. So is there something in the Nicaraguan psyche that draws that kind of behavior because it’s been around so long?
L: No. The Nicaraguan people are people that deserve better. We have fought, we have sacrificed, and we deserve to change the way the country has been, is governed. So we have been out of luck, I think. In that sense, I have no regrets for my people. We have fought every step of the way against dictatorships. And we still haven’t finished, that’s all. We haven’t finished.
Where we went wrong
B: Are there people in Nicaragua, strong, articulate public figures, in opposition, saying we gotta change this? Or are people giving up because they are exhausted and well, just allow [Ortega] to do what he is doing?
L: No we’re not exhausted, we’re tired and uncomfortable with this, but we’re not exhausted. I’m part of this citizen’s movement called Movimento por Nicaragua. It’s a movement [whose] role is to restore democracy, liberty, freedom in Nicaragua, and then on that basis, create a more developed country with social justice. That’s what we want and we don’t want to be a political party. But in 2008, which were the municipal elections, and then 2011 which were the presidential elections, these political parties that were supposed to defend the vote of the people, didn’t do it. So all of a sudden here we were in the streets calling it, “un robo a la luz del día” [a theft in the light of day], the 2011 elections. Everybody knows, here in Nicaragua, you can ask anybody what happened in 2011.
At this point, he stops to speak to the waitress in Spanish, asking her opinion on the aforementioned elections.
L: Everybody in Nicaragua knows it was fraud. She says that [Ortega] gives the order to commit fraud, and it happens because it is a dictatorship. He orders his magistrados to do this or that, and they do that.
B: Magistrados? Magistrates? Judges?
L: Judges, yes.
B: It’s perplexing to me, because I read the books; Stephen Kinzer, Blood of Brothers, all the history. As an American, I read all the history of what the United States has done in Nicaragua and, the Sandinistas, their language is a little Marxist for my taste, that’s fine, it’s motivating and they overthrow Somoza—
L: Up to July 19, the struggle was a just cause. What happened after that, then you can debate.
B: It seems surprising to me, because I’m naive, but it seems stupid to me. It seems like you have an opportunity after all of this horror for so many years to have the United States supporting, providing aid. [It’s the] end of Somoza, end of the National Guard—you might even do something like Costa Rica; no army. You have the Chamorros, and business people, and the Catholic Church. It’s an opportunity, a moment in time of tremendous opportunity.
L: Everybody was supporting this revolution. The whole world. Because we gave up our lives, and then the world, people, recognized that.
B: And didn’t people, I’m speculating, have some sympathy that [there was the] Spanish conquest, a fucking mass slaughter of indigenous people; military dictatorship supported by European colonial powers and the United States; and now [there’s] a chance to move forward. A little bit of guilt, a little bit of inspiration, and a great moment in history.
L: We moved backwards because coming from a right-wing dictatorship, we came into a left-wing dictatorship in the 1980s, with tremendous repression. And now, I have to be honest. Maybe they thought that was the best thing they could do. They were wrong. Some of these people in government in the 1980s thought that this was the best way to do it, but we only have to review a bit what was happening with Cuba, with the Soviet Union to understand that it was not——
B: It sounds like, by that time, they were too much in the pocket of——
B: That’s right, ideologically and organizationally too committed, too controlled, too influenced. Because your brothers and sisters are being killed, you’re being given weapons by the Soviet bloc, support by Cuba, you’re living in Cuba for a while, so it’s pretty hard to say you know——
L: But lately, because everything was helping a lot by lending [to] us, [to] the country, to be at [the same] pace. Venezuela sent some arms and weapons, too. Panama helped with money, so Cuba was not the only support.
B: Especially in the later years.
L: There were [other] democratic governments.
Hope for the future
L: The situation now is that we have this government that has lost, as of today, probably more than 2 billion dollars in aid, 2 thousand million dollars, from the United States, Canada, [and the] European Union. And then from individual countries [including] Germany, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland. They used to help this effort for rebuilding roads, or for schools, or for the health system. So they have retired all this aid because of these two electoral frauds; the municipal elections in 2008 and the presidential election in 2011. They were supported by Venezuela, this regime, at the tune of about 500 million dollars a year.
B: Was that in oil subsidies or in direct support?
L: We have a bill of about 10 million barrels of oil a year, times one hundred dollars is 1 billion dollars. Out of that bill, the Nicaraguan government sends in to Venezuela 50% of the bill and the other 50% stays here. Then they have some discretionary power of how to spend it. Some of that money, to be honest, is being used for subsidizing transportation in Managua. You only pay…about 10 cents of a dollar for any ride, which is too cheap for the cost of it. And they also have a bonus for public employees. If they make under 200 dollars a month, then they give them a subsidy of 80 dollars or so a month. So all of that amounts to a lot of money, but not to 500 million dollars a year.
So the problem right now is that we have elections coming, and we have the same electoral power magistrados, that have been re-elected by the dictatorship to keep the status quo. Because if you let them go away, fire them, everybody will say, “How come we are firing people that are supposed to be doing their jobs right?” It would be like assuming they are at fault, accepting they are at fault.
So in a sense with these new elections that are coming up in 2016, we need to have an electoral process that is clean and that respects each Nicaraguan vote. We need to have for that, observados electorales internacionales and nacionales. Because international review may bring in one thousand [or] two thousand…but you have to add to that some 20 thousand national observers. Then you have a good team to protect the vote of the people. So what the Sandinistas did in 1990, was to learn that they should never allow international observation here. They have never allowed it again
B: So was Somoza right? That if he’s thrown out there’s going to be a communist dictatorship? [laughs] It’s a silly question.
L: You want me to accept that shit that Somoza was right? Well, in a sense he was right because the revolution was betrayed. He is right because the revolution was betrayed, but he was not right because…
B: I only ask that, not to be sarcastic or disrespectful, but in my research I’m looking at Guatemala, Arbenz overthrow, 1954 and then the civil war and Reagan supporting Rios Montt and all of the things the United States has done worldwide. There’s this claim that there’s an international communist conspiracy, and the Soviet bloc, and——
L: Unfortunately we lost that moment in 1979, when we could have had a different kind of relationship with the United States, even though they did what they did with supporting the Somoza regime, because we already were in power—the revolution was in power. So it could have been a different type of dialogue with the United States, and all of that was lost because of this obsession with the Soviet regime and the Cuban socialist regime.
B: The irony to me, is that they overthrow Arbenz, and he wasn’t communist at all, he had some communist advisers, but here’s a situation where they turned out to actually want to create a left-wing dictatorship, which was the paranoid prediction of the Reagan administration and of Somoza.
L: No, it’s not that Carter or the U.S. government was willing to allow a left-wing dictatorship here. They thought that a different kind of a revolution was going to take place in Nicaragua, and that we would be unaligned, and that we would be democratic.
B: But the Sandinistas were not going to allow that.
L: This radical group of people [made] the decision to forget about the 1978 proposal and go back to the 1968 one. And that was a terrible, terrible mistake, and as I said, it was a historical opportunity to have a new kind of relationship with the United States. and I think that even the United States would have learned if that process had gone through. It’s a waste.
B: In effect, you are almost screwing other countries in the future who wanted to say, “We want to do things our own way” and the United States would say, “No, we saw already how that worked out.”
L: Like what happened in El Salvador.
B: That’s right.
L: What we need in Nicaragua, and we’re going to fight for it, is to have these free elections in 2016. We want the will of the people to be respected, each vote to be respected. For that we know we have to struggle, we have to be in the streets demanding observacion electoral, a year before the election.
B: Well I’ll come down to be an observer [laughs]. Tell me Benjamin, how would you like to be known?
L: A Nicaraguan citizen that wants to see a democratic and free Nicaragua, and that has lived through dictatorship, back with the Somoza regime and then with the Sandinista regime. We had a 6-year period where we started getting things back into place with this Violeta Chamorro government. I worked with the Violeta Chamorro government because in 1989, I came and started supporting the campaign, and then in 1990 Violeta won the government, so I came to work with the Ministerio de la Paciencia with Antonio Lacayo. We saw what a country could do.
B: So that period was successful
L: Successful. A tremendously successful period in Nicaragua. Reconciliation. We were not a government that would go after the Sandinistas trying to find them or imprison them. We were more open than that. I think it worked out because the country started to recuperate from all of the terrible things that happened during both wars. The first war against the Somoza dictatorship, and then the other war against the Sandinista dictatorship. But, the point now is that we have lost millions of dollars in aid, and millions of dollars in confidence from investors. That’s why you see all this country with no development compared to Costa Rica or Panama. There is no confidence in people here to invest where his own government cut off aid.
B: It’s a sad story, but there may be an opportunity in 2016 to change it.
L: For change with pacific means, nonviolent means. But if you want to recuperate democracy and freedom, we have to fight for it, nonviolent forms of struggle. We feel that it’s basic, we recuperate the electoral process as a means for the people to decide on which proposal they want to take. Because when you have these proposals made to the people and then you manipulate the votes [on] that night, then [the results make no sense] to the people.
Special thanks to new editorial intern Anaka Allen for transcribing my three hour encounter with Ben Lugo in Granada, Nicaragua, and for offering these additional resources for more information on the subject. Photos will be added after approval by Ben.
For a quick rundown of the history of Nicaragua and its relationship with the United States, check out the “History of Nicaragua” page on Wikipedia. For more in depth information, check out Stephen Kinzer’s Blood Brothers and Pierre LaRamee and Erica Polakoff’s Undermining of the Sandinista Revolution (1999).
For a short but sweet timeline of Nicaragua history check out: http://web.stanford.edu/group/arts/nicaragua/discovery_eng/timeline/
Another timeline more focused on the Iran-Contra Affair:
For more information on the relationship of the contras and Iran:
Background on Sandinistas: https://www.brown.edu/Research/Understanding_the_Iran_Contra_Affair/n-sandinistas.php
For a not entirely objective review of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy, mostly in regards to the Miskito Indians, check out:
For a slightly ragey and more critical view of the Sandinista revolution (and liberal America) read: