I decided to take a class at one of the Spanish schools in León to make another connection with the community. I asked for a teacher who could talk to me about politics and current events, and met a man in his mid-twenties, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, with glasses and spiky dark hair. He introduced himself as Carlos, and I asked for his last name for my notes. “Fonseca,” he replied. I looked at him, surprised, because I knew one of the founders (and martyrs) of the Sandinista revolution was Carlos Fonseca. “Were you named in his honor?” I asked. “No,” he smiled, “he’s my grandfather.”
Well, Carlos Fonseca (the original) is to Nicaragua perhaps what Martin Luther King is to the U.S.—a brilliant radical who synthesized the critiques and methods of those who came before, and was killed before he could see the fruits of his labor. (Though in terms of philosophy the comparison is not apt–Fonseca proposed the armed resistance against the Somoza dictatorship, and as a guerrillero was killed during a battle in the northern mountains.)
I was fascinated by this connection, and an opportunity to frame the current political situation in Nicaragua in light of the revolutionary history. First we talked about the history of the Sandinista revolution. “Después del Triunfo,” Carlos would frequently say, “they launched a massive literacy campaign” or “they rewrote the Constitution.” Even though I have consistently lived and volunteered in Sandinista communities in Estelí and Miraflor, I hadn’t heard this expression, “after the Triumph,” (and yes, it is capitalized) which has apparently been revived in the current political climate. Carlos and I ended up talking for a couple hours about his grandfather, his father, and his own beliefs about Daniel Ortega, current president of Nicaragua and Sandinista “nobility” himself.
The critics of Ortega are many, mostly from the right but also from the left, who accuse him of undermining Nicaragua’s democratic institutions by consolidating press outlets like television stations under the auspices of the state, of manipulating the judiciary, and most glaringly, of violating the constitution by running for a second term as president. (The Nicaraguan constitution, dating from the end of the first Sandinista era, limits presidents to one 5-year term). Many foreign governments have also lost faith in the Nicaraguan government, closing their embassies and discontinuing aid projects. Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Holland and Austria pulled hundreds of millions of aid dollars from the country after documentation of fraud in the 2008 municipal elections.
Carlos supports the frente, the Sandinista party itself, yet I asked him how he could support Ortega, knowing that he had violated the constitution. He repeated the party line, that Ortega’s “right” to run for office as an equal citizen under the law trumped term limits. (Ortega argued, and won, this point in a court of hand-picked judges, after his argument was rejected by the National Assembly). That’s the argument of philosophy, as it were. Further, Carlos posed the argument of function: Daniel (as his supporters call him) needs more time to manifest the great changes he and the frente have promised.
Carlos also named some of the achievements of the Ortega government: free schooling through high school, funding and support for public universities, projects in building homes and in nutrition and rural electrification. (From my own observations in rural northern Nicaragua, Ortega’s government did succeed in bringing electricity to many people who’d been promised la luz for decades.)
Carlos offered his own critique of the right: they’re neoliberal, haven’t offered concrete solutions to the social and economic problems of Nicaragua, and are posting as their candidate ex-president Arnoldo Alemán, convicted of corruption and money laundering (yet who never served jail time as a result of a sketchy “pact” made with Ortega).
I pushed Carlos on the impact Ortega’s decisions were having on the frente and the country: was it worth it to lose so much foreign support, to have a less-than-free press, all so Ortega could be reelected? Yet he was unwilling to concede that Ortega might be doing more harm than good.
I also studied with another teacher, a law student who was raised staunchly Sandinista, who was critical of Ortega, and lamented that there were simply no good choices in the presidential race. Others have told me the same thing, and said they would either not vote or would vote for Daniel since he was the least reactionary.
It may be difficult, if not impossible, for Carlos to critique the people who have brought about so much change, and who, furthermore, are his actual family. Yet I imagine young people, with fewer entanglements with the past, and more social connectivity, will be the ones to envision a path for Nicaragua that combines socialist ideals with media openness and self-expression.