The Popular Organizations in Nicaragua Yesterday and Today


Midge Quandt



The Historical Legacy


            Since the 1980s, the fortunes of the social movements have fluctuated dramatically. When the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) held state power, it subordinated the interests of the social movements and the popular organizations that embodied them to its own needs. The Sandinista Front did this in part because of the Contra War and the economic crisis. But the tendency to dominate the social movements was abetted by the hierarchical character of a vanguardist Party: the ideologically disciplined leaders sought to guide the supposedly less politically mature populace.

            In the 1980s, unlike today when worker and peasant organizations are weakened by the economic woes foisted on them by the international lending agencies, the prominent popular organizations were, among others, the CST, a union of mainly industrial workers; the ATC, the farm workers association; and UNAG, the farmers’ and ranchers’ association. Though they varied in the degree to which they acquiesced in state/party policy, the grass roots organizations were generally dissatisfied with the Front’s authoritarianism. So when the Party lost the elections in 1990, criticism from the social movements erupted. For the most part, they insisted on independence. Because the triumvirate of party-state-mass organizations collapsed overnight, the FSLN had to acquiesce. However, habits of top-down leadership remained in most quarters; steps toward autonomy were halting and uneven.

            Some examples of growing independence: CST chief Lucio Jimenez called the sugar strike in March of 1992 despite the objections of the party leadership. (At that moment, Daniel Ortega was trying to curry favor with the U.S. Government by projecting an image of stability.) Then there was the Communal Movement. Under the leadership of Father Miguel D’Escoto, Ortega’s right hand man, the Communal Movement acted as a close ally of the FSLN. But by 1991, D’Escoto had lost so much support within the Movement that in December he stepped down. His replacement, Enrique Picado, was less verticalist than D’Escoto and was not as close to the Party leadership. In July of 1992, Picado spoke adamantly to me about the communal movement’s autonomy: “Our values are revolutionary and the majority of the leadership is Sandinista, but in an institutional sense the Movement and the Party are just friends. There is no longer an organic relationship between us.”

            By contrast, many former members of the Sandinista Women’s Association, AMNLAE, were decidedly not friends of the FSLN. In AMNLAE, gender issues had been largely postponed due to the defense and production needs of the party-run state. It was the organization most subordinate to the FSLN. By the end of the 1980s, some dissident feminists had renounced AMNLAE’s tutelage and were organizing women’s sections of the unions and some new groups. Then many more women took advantage of the space opened up by the Sandinista electoral defeat in 1990 to organize independently. As Ana Criquillon of Puntos de Encuentro told me in 1992, the women’s movement “is the first in Nicaragua to really become autonomous. It’s the first movement that has said ‘we don’t need a political daddy looking after us, we are going off by ourselves.’” Independent feminists criticized the Sandinista Front for its authoritarianism, sexism and homophobia. In addition, they targeted patriarchy more than the Government or the class system. That meant emphasizing power relations between the sexes and renouncing AMNLAE’s service orientation clinics, nurseries, and so on. (What Sofia Montenegro called “the grey ladies of the Red Cross” approach.) In August of 1992, the National Feminist Committee (CNF) was formed to further the goals of an important segment of the women’s movement. In the seminars which she later conducted with the CNF, Montenegro distinguished the CNF and the feminist movement it represented from the women’s movement because of the former’s commitment to end patriarchal domination.

            The promise of the early 1990s soon gave way to a weakening of the popular organizations. IMF-backed structural adjustment and government economic policy hurt the economy. As a result, the peasant organizations and unions were decimated. At about the same time, internal sabotage by party-identified women led to the dissolution of the CNF (to be revived, however, in 1999). All of the social movements suffered from ongoing social and political exclusion under the Aleman and BolaÔos Governments. (For example, the CNF was refused a seat on BolaÔos’ Planning Council (CONPOES).) Some groups youth, the indigenous and the environmentalists were not well-defined or well organized.

            In the mid-1990s, non-governmental organizations (NGOs, ONG in Spanish) surged ahead as the principal actors in civil society. The NGOs that had sprung up all over Latin America in the 1960s saw their work as very political and politically radical; they defined themselves not so much as non-governmental organizations but as anti-government organizations. But after the end of the Cold War and the decline of social democracy in Europe, international cooperation changed, and it changed the direction of the NGOs. (Comite Nacional Feminista, Feminismo y Globalizacion, 2003.) By the mid-1990s, Latin American NGOs had even come to serve “the needs of apologists for neoliberalism who borrowed World Bank language to pose NGO-financed popular organizations as the principal promoters of ‘development with a human face’,” noted NACLA’s Report on the Americas (May-June, 1997). In Nicaragua, the trend was especially pronounced after Hurricane Mitch hit in 1998. Montenegro, one of the founders of the CNF, told me then that the Nicaraguan Government was using NGOs as a safety net and as a buffer against social explosion. A few years later, she said that there were more NGOs in Nicaragua than ever, but that they were politically weak. Unfortunately, they had largely replaced the social movements in visibility and prominence referred to in Spanish as “la oenegizacion” of civil society. The NGOs typically try to negotiate with the Government (and are largely ignored or coopted). Montenegro says that the powers that be in the North, including USAID, like this model of organizing. Unlike the social movements, which have a coherent vision and are unified around the goal of systemic social change, NGOs organized in this loose way can’t threaten or destabilize the system. (In her seminar papers, which she gave me five years ago, Montenegro uses European social theorists to contrast the “coalition model” exemplified by NGOs, including many women’s groups, and the “organic model” embodied in ideologically unified and radically motivated social movements.)

            Which brings us to grass roots organizing in 2005. How do the popular organizations look today? What is the interplay between them and the FSLN as well as the NGOs?


Popular Organizing Now


            In the August 2004 issue of the magazine Envio, journalist William Grigsby wrote an article on Central American countries called “Grass Roots Movements Starting to Emerge.” The article was based on interviews with grass roots activitists who had attended the Social Forum of the Americas the previous month. He wrote that in Nicaragua and El Salvador, the social movements were weak and fragmented. Curious about this contention, I asked former Vice President Sergio Ramirez who was at Princeton University in September 2004 what he thought. Ramirez agreed with Grigsby. That triggered a recollection of what Paul Baker-Hernandez, the representative of the Nicaragua Network in Managua, had told me two and a half years ago at the National Leadership Meeting in Chicago. He said that groups like environmentalists, the Consumer Defense Network and organizations coming together against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) had political commitment and worked hard. However, they lacked coordination. Nor had they developed a larger strategy into which they could fit their protests. So when I was planning my trip to Nicaragua for April, I decided to delve deeper into the state of the popular organizations a subject of long-standing interest to me.

            For various reasons, I ended up interviewing Montenegro, Baker-Hernandez and three people from the Center for International Studies (CEI). CEI is an NGO that balances research, educational efforts and working with popular organizations: giving workshops; distributing popular educational materials; and helping to organize people. I spoke first with William Rodriguez, whose main area of work is CAFTA (everyone there works on CAFTA). Rodriguez, along with other researchers, works with a social network, in his case the Convergence of the Movements of Peoples of the Americas (COMPA). He, whom William Grigsby had quoted in partial support of this thesis, explained that Grigsby’s argument was “a superficial analysis” of the state of grass roots movements in Nicaragua. Rodriguez sees them as increasingly coming together and weaving connections. Baker-Hernandez seconds this view, pointing out that Rodriguez works more closely with the popular organizations than Grigsby does. Yet Rodriguez admits that the social groups could be stronger and more unified than they are. The different solidarity committees the Nicaragua-Chiapas Solidarity Committee and the Nicaragua Committee in Solidarity with Venezuela, the student movement, the groups opposed to CAFTA  all have contact with each other and sometimes, common work. But, he adds, they need to be more solidly integrated. In part, this lack of coherence stems from the nature of foreign aid or international cooperation: donors groups that fund NGOs like to focus on specific projects rather than broad social transformation. The grass roots groups are also influenced by the actions or lack thereof of political parties. (More on that later.) As Rodriguez told Envio, “We haven’t achieved any joint mobilization. Where we have achieved greater consensus and mobilization is in opposition to the war in Iraq because it was an issue linked to the sending of Nicaraguan troops and in opposition to CAFTA. These are the only two issues we’ve united on.”

            Carlos Pacheco, another researcher at CEI who works on water privatization and the related issue of free trade agreements, basically agreed with Rodriguez: “The vision of movements is broadening and they’re connecting better than in the past . . . . but social movements continue to be fragmented and weak. There is greater coordination on some issues than others. Nonetheless, coordination isn’t ongoing, it’s ad hoc . . . . For some of us that isn’t enough, but given the current situation . . . I would say that it is fine.”

            Later, realizing that I lacked specifics about the ad hoc connections of popular organizations, I asked Magda Lanuza of CEI for some examples. (Lanuza recently returned from studying development at Brandeis University. She focuses on debt and Jubilee South; also on issues of women and globalization. Lanuza is connected to the Our World Is Not for Sale Network and to various women’s groups.) She cited the case of the Managua social movements. There are many different groups: groups from the barrios fighting against the telecommunication antennas (cell phone towers); the Young Christians, who are supporting the maquila workers; Pro Paz, a group working on peace and conflict resolution. And there is an organization that works on Chiapas solidarity actions. Many small groups with small agendas is the common pattern. From time to time, if they find issues such as water privatization which affect them all, they join a march; or they sign a letter; or they organize street theater.

            I asked Lanuza if the coalition called the Nicaragua Social Movement had the potential to act as an umbrella group, unify the social movements and develop a broad strategy. She thought not.  As a coalition, it’s pragmatic and action oriented. In other words, it has the loose organization, the lack of collective identity and the political weakness that Montenegro says characterizes groups conforming to the “coalition model” of social movements. (Rodriguez disagrees with Montenegro’s emphasis on unified ideology and strategy as a key to social change. He believes that it is unrealistic, preferring a looser joining of groups.)


Why Are the Popular Organizations Weaker Than They Could Be?


          What accounts for the relative weakness of the popular organizations? Almost everyone I talked with gave the greatest weight to the continuing hold of the FSLN on grass roots activists. (This is especially true in Managua where party power is concentrated.) Pacheco explained it thus: the hierarchical, vanguardist ethos of a military/political entity like the Sandinista Front gets transferred to the political culture of the social movements. Changing this mentality is difficult, not only because of the pervasive influence of the past but also because many current leaders of social organizations are connected to party structures. There are exceptions. For example, residents of a Managua barrio stopped the installation of a cell phone tower on their own, as Lanuza mentioned. But according to Envio this is an isolated instance,.

            In my interview with Rodriguez, he stressed the growing capacity of teachers, peasants, people at the neighborhood level and women to organize autonomously outside party structures. He also acknowledged how long it is taking to unlearn a culture of deference. The process is far from finished. In addition, the Sandinista party tries and sometimes succeeds in co-opting organizations engaged in protest. Pacheco put it this way: “The Frente uses the mobilization of militants in the grass roots sector when it’s helpful to show party strength or when the FSLN needs more power in negotiating with the Government.”

            Interestingly, Rodriguez painted a somewhat bleaker picture in his interview with Grigsby. However, he also underlined the joint work of various groups on issues like CAFTA. As he told Envio, there should be more grass roots work to counteract apathy and the fear of being politically used: “It isn’t that people don’t want to mobilize. When we have gone into the neighborhoods with a particular issue the people have mobilized. And there are some very clear experiences of this. What happens is that people want to be mobilized but they’re afraid of being politically manipulated, because they’ve often been deceived in the past. We’ve had some very bad experiences and people don’t want to expose themselves any further to being exploited and used.” And Rodriguez was critical of the FSLN’s inaction and neoliberal tendencies, both of which discourage popular mobilization.

            Also blaming the Sandinista Front for the “demobilized social movements,” Henry Ruiz, who supports Herty Lewites as the Sandinista presidential candidate, took a somewhat different tack in the April 2005 issue of Envio. All grass roots movements, he argued, saw popular interests being systematically ignored. Popular interests were negotiated away by the FSLN in various pacts with the Government. Therefore the popular classes “lost faith that any political force responds to and represents them.”

            Let me make a detour here. Unlike most of the social movements, the feminist movement has been free not only of ties to the FSLN but also of a cultural deference to the party. The National Feminist Committee was created in 1992 by Montenegro, Maria Teresa Blandon and others in a group called La Malinche. It is currently the strongest and most ideologically coherent arm of the women’s movement. In part, its unity lies in rejecting the coalition model; i.e., it recruits individual women rather than creating a network of loosely affiliated groups. The other basis for its cohesion is the series of seminars that Montenegro has given to CNF’s members for several years. Dealing with politics, social movements, feminism and globalization, the seminars provide a well-defined ideology and a strategy for social change. In terms of action, the CNF will oppose the bill backed by the Catholic Church in the National Assembly that further criminalizes abortion (so that abortions can’t be performed to save the health or life of a woman).

Along with the Network of Women Against Violence, the CNF organized another autonomous grass roots group the Movement for a Secular State and Citizens’ Rights (MEDEL). Its aim: to fight the efforts of the Church to influence politics and control people’s lives to the detriment of all Nicaraguans but especially women, gays, youth and the indigenous. The Movement decided that fighting back issue by issue was not a winning strategy. So MEDEL focuses on one demand. This demand, which appeals to many Nicaraguans because, in Montenegro’s words, “it [the Constitution] is practically the only thing they have left” is to uphold the constitutional separation of Church and State. A year ago Montenegro told me that MEDEL exposed the machinations of the Church hierarchy to undermine the equal opportunity bill in the National Assembly. (The bishops denied the specific human rights of women and the indigenous.)

            Montenegro has three goals for the MEDEL. One is to fight the Church using the constitution as a focal point. Through the constitution the women’s movement can appeal to the rest of the population. The second goal is to work on strengthening the relationship of the National Feminist Committee with the rest of the women’s movement and to rebuild the latter so that it can be a political force. Third, she says that they need to recruit for the National Feminist Committee in the proper way. Montenegro says that membership is by invitation only because the organization needs to grow in a controlled way and build common ideas together. That way you can prevent one or two people from wreaking havoc with the organization, as happened in the past. All of these goals, Montenegro thinks, will strengthen the popular resistance that this new movement represents.

            Recently both MEDEL and CNF have been less active than previously, Montenegro told me in April of this year. When I came back to the U.S., I queried her about that. In an e-mail she said: “We had to slow down our pace publicly, since we dedicated effort and time to raise money to pay for medical expenses in the hospital to save the life of our coordinator.  There is practically no social or medical security here. You must remember that in this country militancy goes hand in hand with solidarity and survival. And this is a movement without money. Saving the life of one of our leaders, who has dedicated the work of a lifetime to building the movement, is part of our investment in the very same movement, since they [the leaders] are not replaceable. In my view, it is part of the support a movement is able to give to one of its own. It’s a way to honor the social debt to an individual who has given so much. It’s part of the ethics of reciprocity.”

            With the exception of the feminist movement and, according to Grigsby, the Consumer Defense Network, the popular organizations are still dependent on the FSLN. This dependence weakens them.  A second reason for their limitations is the eclipse of the social movements by the NGOs. There is a structural problem: the social movements don’t have legal status, and they don’t want to get it, because then they would have to bureaucratize, and lose some of their autonomy and their ability to criticize both government and donor organizations. (It should be said that NGOs differ from each other in terms of their dependence on donor organizations and in terms of the focus of their work. For example, William Rodriguez says that CEI doesn’t accept money with conditions on it.) It is difficult for the social movements to do what they want such as mobilize people, come into Managua for meetings, pay for educational materials and have some core people dedicated 100% to the movement. They lack the funds for these activities. The NGOs, on the other hand, have access to funding and therefore can pay someone to work full time on an issue; they can produce their own materials; they can pay travel expenses for networking and attending meetings; they can pay for radio and TV spots. So NGOs working on any issue that the social movements are working on have huge advantages over the movements in the formation of public opinion and in the ability to advocate.

            The people at CEI, however, see themselves as helping not competing with the social movements. In the words of Rodriguez, “CEI is not a classic research outfit;” the team is very committed politically. Each researcher connects to a social organization or movement. They go to meetings and provide materials in popular language to improve economic and political literacy. They also put Nicaraguan issues in an international context. On an organizational level, that means linking Nicaraguan grass roots groups to bodies such as the Mesoamerican Social Forum the regional offshoot of the much-heralded World Social Forum.

            So CEI is more political than many NGOs. And donor groups like NGO projects that are non-political, such as a community health center or a forestry program. Responding to this situation, NGOs themselves tend to be cautious and apolitical. They also feel pressure to show results for the money spent. (Lanuza said that for most donors CEI is too political; it doesn’t have micro projects such as agricultural cooperatives. “We don’t have records on the numbers of trees, chickens and pigs,” she noted.)

            Lanuza had an interesting perspective on the issue of grass roots dependence on the FSLN and the influence of the NGOs. She says that “the grass roots accept the legitimacy of NGOs but don’t see them as the natural leaders that the [party] commandantes are.” The NGO staffs, unlike the poor majority in Nicaragua, have salaries and sit at computers. In the eyes of people struggling to survive, NGOs can’t substitute for party leaders.


The Promise of the Popular Organizations


            Now for the good news. Because the political parties aren’t interested in anything but keeping a share of power, the Nicaraguan people are waking up and the grass roots movements are taking up the slack. Teachers organized a successful strike last winter on their own. Peasant sectors are demanding their rights. Even citizens at the neighborhood level are organizing outside party structures to defend their rights to transportation, food and safety. As far as defending people’s rights is concerned, the Consumer Defense Network is one of the most visible actors. Last year, Baker-Hernandez told me how the Network had stalled the privatization of water. As of this spring, Katherine Hoyt wrote in the April issue of The Nicaragua Monitor, the Network is still active. It has testified before two legislative committees of the National Assembly about the need for changes in the water bill.

            Then there are the international links. From the bottom up, pivotal networks or axes have formed: Nicaraguan groups participate in a Central American network called the Mesoamerican Social Forum. Together with other fora in Latin American and the Caribbean, it forms the American Social Forum. This Forum in turn connects to other networks in the Global South. Altogether they constitute the World Social Forum.

            A third hopeful sign is the evolution of the student movement. From 1992 until the outbreak of the Iraq War in 2003, their sole demand was for the allocation of 6% of the national budget to the universities. After the war began and anti-war sentiment erupted, said Lanuza, CEI and other groups in the Nicaragua Social Movement thought the time was ripe to work more closely with students. As a result, the student movement has become more combative; it has also broadened its focus. This year, students were in the streets protesting the increase in transportation fares. They also participate in the Nicaraguan Social Movement and do anti-CAFTA work. (Some ties to the FSLN still exist and are problematical, Pacheco told me. The Sandinista Front uses students to “pound their fist on the table with the Government when it suits them.”) But Pacheco, Lanuza and Rodriguez were all optimistic about the student movement.

            Most of the activists that I talked with were optimistic  about the popular organizations in general. Here is William Rodriguez: “We Nicaraguans have a special ability to weave the popular movements together; we are very good weavers . . . . We have fifteen years of experience, which taught us that we need to strengthen a movement-building process that is autonomous and has its own social agenda. This is what enables the Nicaraguan social movement to pressure the Government.”





My thanks to Mark Lester and Anne McSweeney for translating. It’s always a pleasure to work with them. I’m grateful to Aura Ruiz and Sergio Martinez for arranging the interviews. Thanks go to the Nicaragua Network for its contribution to the production of this pamphlet and to person X for editing the manuscript.