The FSLN were able to leave behind a democratic legacy in Nicaragua following their electoral defeat by UNO in 1990. This arguably could be traced back in part to the policies of the Terceristas, led by Daniel and Humberto Ortega, who by their pragmatism were able to unite different factions of the FSLN, and eventually also win cross-class support against Somoza. (Gilbert, p.92)
There were many cases during its eleven year reign where the revolutionary government displayed tendencies of classic western style democracy. At times there were necessary restrictions, and even arbitary actions by authorities. Nonetheless the overall thrust has been to advance the cause of democracy and the 'logic of the majority'.
In the lead up to the 1984 elections the Sandinistas encouraged opposition, although in an attempt to dicredit them the main opposition party withdrew. At the same time the U.S. tried to get other parties to do likewise. Despite the state of emergency, press freedoms were allowed, and free media time was offered to opposition parties (Gilbert, p.110). Despite the diluted opposition 75% of registered voters turned out and only a small informal protest vote was recorded.
Twenty-four political parties participated in the framing of the 1986 constitution along with religious groups, unions, and other organizations. Televised debates took place and people at town hall meetings numbered around 100,000. The new constitution guaranteed the same rights as those of the U.S. The FSLN even lessened their role on the commission as to ensure fairness. (Jonas and Stein pp.20,21)
The government admitted it had made mistakes on the Atlantic Coast, which drove many native Misquitoes into the camps of the Contras. It sought to rectify its mistakes by a public apology, the granting of amnesties, consultation with the Misquitoes on their needs, and promises of more autonomy. Somoza had chosen to ignore this region, and the Sandinistas had made a vital mistake in presuming the people of this region would welcome the revolution.(Ibid pp.21,22)
Nicaragua supported the 1987 peace accords more than any other country. It gave legitimacy to its government, and afforded it a better opportunity to advance pluralism. Even though in turn it gave the Contra forces no validity the FSLN chose to initiate talks with them. (Ibid pp.24,25) It also sought to restructure mass organizations so as to make democracy in Nicaragua more participatory and responsive. Imprisoned Contras and former national guardsmen were set free in late 1987.
The minimum 5% of votes needed for representation (as practiced in Germany) helped unite the 14 party UNO coalition during the 1990 election. The FSLN had also worked hard to ensure that the election was free and fair, and encouraged strong opposition. Even former Somacistas were allowed to compete. (Vilas, p.382) When Violeta Chamorro won with 55% of the vote Daniel Ortega accepted defeat and undertook to relinquish power. The FSLN accepted the changes that Chamorro wrought but her own party split between hardline and moderate factions. (Bissio, p.442)
There have been major problems in the construction of Nicaraguan democracy, not the least being U.S. intervention. The broad alliance against Somoza quickly evaporated upon assumption of power over questions of economic reforms and priorities. In reality there was no way to avoid this conflict. (Gilbert p.122) As the bourgeoisie began to indentify with the Contras the Sandinistas became reluctant to deal with COSEP. (Gilbert, p.101)
The covert war actually hurt the opposition who were restricted under the Emergency Law. The militarization of society became a limiting factor on democracy. (Jonas and Stein, p.33) The U.S. continually stalled on negotiations, prefering to wait for the fall of the government.(Gilbert, p.118) Deinvestment, a backlash against tough business laws, and other economic woes bedevilled Nicaragua.(Ibid, pp.113,114)
The opposition of church leaders did not help the Sandinista cause. Allegiance to the church cuts across race and class, and Bishops ensured faithfulness by removing 'troublesome' priests and openly criticizing the government. (Ibid, p.106) The Sandinistas', worried about US influence, also adopted an inconsistent stance on freedom of the press, particularly towards 'La Prensa'. The main conflict of politics also began to take place outside Nicaragua rather than internally as the FSLN struggled for recognition, and against external influences. (Ibid, pp.107-109)
The legacies of democracy left by the revolution are many. Parties of any persuasion can take part in the political process rather than relying on the goodwill of the incumbents. Some have even been able to enjoy more influence than deserved through the leverage allowed them. (Jonas and Stein, pp. 15,26) Dissent may be openly aired and labor rights have become accepted (as shown by major strikes).
The FSLN '...evolved from a guerilla movement into a political party that combined Leninist, electoral and mass party characteristics.' (Harris, p.15) As put by Daniel Ortega,
'...the most global objective of the FSLN has been...to open up political space which has never before existed in Nicaragua, to enable the people to choose between different options...we are reaffirming democracy for Nicaragua.' (Jonas and Stein, p.10)
R.Bissio (Ed.) 'Third World Guide 91/92' Instituto del Tercer Mundo:Uruguay
Dennis Gilbert "Nicaragua" in M. Blachman, et al 'Confronting Revolution' Pantheon:NY 1986
Richard Harris 'Marxism and the Transition to Socialism in Latin America' Working Paper, UCSC 1987
Susanne Jonas and Nancy Stein "The Construction of Democracy in Nicaragua" in 'Latin American Perspectives' Issue 66, Vol. 17 No. 3
Carlos Vilas "What Went Wrong" in 'Report on the Americas' NACLA June 1990
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REF: Nicholas Klar, 1993, "U.S. Foreign Policy: Nicaragua - post FSLN " - http://klarbooks.com/academic/nicaraga2.html + date accessed