According to a local human rights group, at least 34 unarmed demonstrators have been killed, and hundreds injured, as the Nicaraguan government has attacked protests against pension changes which will make workers pay more from their wages to get less in pensions.
The government has promised to consider changes, but only in discussion with Nicaragua’s bosses’ federation, its main social ally.
Yet this government is headed by Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandinista Liberation Front, which first won power in Nicaragua in 1979 as an avowedly revolutionary socialist force.
Back then, some Trotskyists were so enthusiastic that, where Engels had advised comrades puzzled about the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” to “look at the Paris Commune”, a chief writer of the Mandel Fourth International, Gilbert Achcar (Salah Jaber) adapted Engels’ words to say “look at Sandinista Nicaragua” instead (bit.ly/ga-nic).
The Sandinistas overthrow the corrupt old dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Their guerrilla-based movement was an alliance of three factions.
Two factions were more or less committed to a Cuban model of “socialism” (state ownership of industry with all politics and social life controlled by a bureaucratic apparatus called “the party”). The third, Ortega’s, was more social-democratic, and already had close ties with anti-Somoza employers.
Nevertheless, the Sandinistas had mass support. The initial effect of the overthrow of Somoza was a political opening-up, and the growth of trade unions, for example, not tightly controlled by the Sandinistas. The Sandinistas did little nationalising, because by then, in Russia and even more in China, the prestige of the Stalinist economic “model” had faded; and some of the Sandinista leaders, at least, seemed to have a genuine wish for a more open and democratic society than Cuba’s.
The Sandinista regime was thrown into a civil war with right-wing “Contra” rebels backed by the USA, which lasted to 1990. After 1990, politicians broadly from the “Contra” camp won elections and governed, but while retaining some Sandinista social reforms and not reverting to Somoza’s methods. The Sandinistas at first tried to organise social resistance, but then made a formal “pact” with the ruling Constitutional Liberal Party and dissolved their own larger committees in favour of administration by a small group of leading officials.
In 2006 Ortega won the presidency, proclaiming himself a sort of social democrat. He endorsed and enforced a law passed just before he became president which makes Nicaragua one of only five countries in the world which bans abortion in absolutely all circumstances.
Bit by bit, while retaining an anti-US (but pro-Iran, pro-Gaddafi, pro-Assad, etc.) stance in world politics, Ortega moved to orthodox neo-liberal economic policies, favouring foreign investment, allying closely with business leaders.
His pension changes are motivated by economic stress due to the chaos in Venezuela, on which his regime has depended for cheap oil.
The history of Stalinism should have taught us that the ship flagged “revolutionary socialism” can drift a long way when its anchors in democratic principle and working-class self-liberation are cut.
These days it can drift to ordinary pro-business neoliberalism.