Sunday, July 28, 2019

Is Nicaragua Socialist? (1987)

From the July 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the midst of the Irangate scandal in which US President Ronald Reagan and his accomplices do their best to extricate themselves from the web of lies created to cover up their illegal funding of neo-fascist terrorists aiming to overthrow the government of Nicaragua, a seldom-asked question is, Who rules Nicaragua and what are the consequences for the working class? Conventional leftist wisdom is quite clear on the matter: the imperialist government of the USA is at war against the left-wing government of Nicaragua and therefore the Sandinista regime must be defended against all attacks. Of course, it is true that Nicaragua is the current victim of a campaign of destabilisation and outright terrorism by American imperialism but that in itself does not make the Nicaraguan government a regime to be supported. Struggles between rival capitalist governments are common and socialists do not take sides in the conflicts between robber forces.

In fact, the coming into being of the present Sandinista regime in Nicaragua was the product of a process of class struggle between various ruling factions which has gone on since the beginning of this century. In the early 1900s the British Empire controlled the Atlantic coast region and these imperialists were ousted, with US support, by José Santos Zelaya whose party represented the aspirations of local capitalists with interests in small business and farming. Having removed the British imperialists, Zelaya’s liberal capitalist government was put under pressure to act at the behest of US capitalists. When it failed to do so, refusing to remove restrictions on US capital investment or to allow the building of a trade canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the US imperialists responded in the time-honoured fashion: by sending in the Marines and toppling the Zelaya government.

Until 1926 the Marines kept Nicaragua under US imperial control with puppet governments assuring that the national economy served as a satellite of Wall Street. In 1926 the national capitalists, led by Cesar Augusto Sandino, attempted to oust the US imperialists as they had done with the British but national capitalist liberation (which is of no interest to the workers) was not achieved and instead the US established the regime of Anastasio Somoza Garcia, a man qualified by virtue of having been a second-hand car salesman in Philadelphia. The Somoza regime ruled as a dictatorship, using the National Guard to keep the wealth producers in their place. It was a corrupt, vicious and dynastic regime: Anastasio Somoza Debayle (the second Somoza leader) personally stole much of the money sent to Nicaragua in 1972 after the tragic earthquake and used extreme force in suppressing any opposition.

Politically the Somoza regime was discredited and, as time went on, it became economically incapable of winning any support: between 1970 and 1974, 35 per cent of all Nicaraguan factories closed down due to falling profits. The resident capitalists wanted change. It was this more than anything which led to the uprising in 1979 which brought down the Somoza regime. The uprising was a popular rebellion involving workers, peasants and local capitalists – it was in no sense a socialist revolution.

The leading political force in what became known as the Sandinista revolution was the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) which was formed in 1961 and originally comprised mainly young pro-Moscow leftists. There is no doubt that after 1979 there were definite improvements both in the economic standard of living and in the degree of political freedom in Nicaragua. Both of these improvements proved to be short-lived and neither amounted to socialism or anything like it (which cannot be established in one country anyway).

The trouble with capitalism is that there are no “nice” ways of running it: capitalist governments can never be “goodies” because it is their job to administer the exploitation of the working class. A government which is loyal to the nation which it serves (and remember, the Sandinistas are nationalists) must ensure that the nation is performing profitably and that entails squeezing as much surplus value as possible out of the wealth-producing majority. That is precisely what has happened since 1979 in Nicaragua.

The FSLN has used its state power to run a form of state capitalism in which the workers are organised as a military force, expected to obey orders from above in the interest of the national economy. “The FSLN has translated its military structures to civil life – more by circumstance than intention – and as such the recently created mass organisations function with a totally hierarchical structure” (Notas Sobre Nicaragua y la Revolution Sandinista in Bicicleta, February 1981, p. 55). The FSLN controls the workforce, despite the pretence of workers’ participation at ranch and factory levels which are no more than a means of incorporating the workers into previously determined state plans.

Under Nicaraguan state capitalism the major features of the economy are under state control. Unlike in Russia and other “socialist economies” the Nicaraguan government does not directly own the means of wealth production and distribution but does monopolise the banks (which control agricultural credit) and all imports and exports, thus effectively appropriating profits from cotton, beef, sugar and coffee which constitute two thirds of the country’s exports. The state also controls the means of processing agricultural commodities, so that although most land used for cotton cultivation is privately owned most of the cotton processing factories are state-owned; although 70 per cent of cattle are owned by peasant farmers 80 per cent of slaughterhouses are state-owned. The state is under an obligation to use its power as a national capitalist to milk as much profit as it can out of the war-weary workers. This profit is needed firstly to pay the interest on the massive debt – in excess of $2.5 bn – which is owed to the big Western banks; secondly, to offset the massive flight of private capital which has taken place since 1979 – Nicaraguan capitalists quite understandably prefer to invest in safer economic regions than one under military attack by US imperialism; and thirdly, to pay for the destabilisation, which has been openly funded by the US Administration to the tune of $130 million in aid to the contras, added to which has been a US trade war against Nicaragua. Given these circumstances and given the imperative need for capital accumulation which is essential to an underdeveloped capitalist economy, the state as capitalist has no option but to act as a ruthless and exploitative boss.

As with the economy, so in national politics the FSLN monopolises power. Technically, power is vested in the Council of State. Epstein and Evans, writing in the radical US paper, In These Times, contend that the Council is “little more than a sounding board for the policies of the nine-man FSLN directorate” (11 January, 1983). The FSLN junta has suppressed opposition parties and newspapers and, as is the usual tendency when a vanguard party monopolises the state, the new bureaucratic elite has established for itself a privileged lifestyle:
  As the FSLN consolidates its hold over the government, its leaders inevitably gain access to the perquisites of power. Commandantes live in the wealthier districts of Managua, occupying mansions previously owned by the leading Somocistas. They are provided with chauffeur-driven cars, servants and bodyguards. Their government offices are air-conditioned, a most exclusive and important status symbol in tropical Managua. (“A Critical Look at the Sandinistas”, Changes, May 1982, p. 14).
One black marketeer quoted in The Toronto Star (12 April 1987) complains that “President Daniel Ortega and the nine commandantes are the only people in the country with money. The rest of us are dying of hunger”. No doubt this quotation is printed by a pro-US Canadian newspaper as part of the ideological war against the Sandinistas but it does probably reflect the resentment which is all too common in the so-called nationally liberated countries such as Cuba, Vietnam or Kampuchea where the beneficiaries of “liberation” are the small class of bureaucrats who control the national state. Of course, Leninist mythology has it that the state is being run by the bureaucrats on behalf of the working class: it is a dictatorship on behalf of the proletariat. So it was that Pedro Ortiz, head of the Sandinista Workers’ Central could tell Nicaraguan agricultural workers that
  For workers to conduct a strike against the state is to conduct a strike against themselves, because the land is now administered by the workers and campesinos (Volya, No. 3, p. 3)
This is similar to the instruction given by Trotsky to the Russian trade unionists after 1917. Indeed, the FSLN’s attitude to East European state capitalism is that of admiration: the FSLN newspaper, El Nuevo Diario, described East Germany as “a model society . . . organised on the basis of jobs for all, peace and justice”. In 1980 when ten million Polish workers resisted their state-capitalist masters and formed Solidarity, the head of the FSLN Propaganda Department, Frederico Lopez, lined up with the most reactionary forces worldwide in condemning such trade unionists as “counter-revolutionary elements which seek to place Poland into the hands of imperialism”. (FSLN memorandum, 23 December 1981, quoted in Nicaragua: Say Hello to the New Bosses, p.31. Published in No Middle Ground).

It is an irony of political history that many of the workers who nominally supported the Sandinista revolution in 1979 then went on to support Solidarity in 1980, only to discover that the FSLN, having established its role as a national capitalist in opposition to the idea of independent trade unions, now opposed the struggle of the Polish workers. In expressing such opposition the FSLN was only being consistent, for it has done its best to ignore or suppress independent unions in Nicaragua. The country’s two largest trade unions, the Sandinista Workers’ Central (CST) and the Association of Rural Workers (ATC) each have about 100,000 members. They are essentially company unions, run by and in the pay of the state bosses. It should be pointed out that Nicaragua is traditionally a badly unionised country: on the eve of the revolution in 1979 only 6 per cent of the workforce was unionised.

There are some unions which are not state-run, but these are either too small to be of significance or discriminated against by the state employer. They range from the very small People’s Action Movement (MAP) which characterises Nicaragua as well as Cuba, China and Russia as “state capitalist” (several of them are now locked in Nicaraguan prisons) to the 65,000-strong Nicaraguan Workers Confederation (CTN) whose manifesto asserts
  . . . the need to guarantee the development of a union movement that is democratic, independent, unified, revolutionary and class-conscious . . . so as to rebuff every effort to impose a single union hierarchy that would be totally subordinate to the party in power.
Despite its Catholic illusions – not dissimilar to those of Poland’s Solidarity – the CTN is the major force in Nicaragua with a chance of threatening the state’s stranglehold over labour.

Without doubt, the US-backed terrorism against Nicaragua is brutal in its disregard for life and hypocritical in its undemocratic tactics in the avowed interest of a perverse notion of democracy. In fact, the US terror is having the reverse effect to that intended: it is uniting Nicaraguans behind the Sandinistas in an act of national defence. Without a US war against it there is a much greater likelihood that Nicaraguan workers would be resisting the state. The US assumption that Nicaragua is “socialist” is utterly mistaken and so probably is the theory that Nicaragua is about to fall under the control of the Russian Empire, taking with it other Central American countries. In fact, it is only the US offensive which could make that feasible, if only as a last resort for a terrorised Sandinista regime.

Needless to say, the Socialist Party is hostile in every way to the contra terrorists and their backers. But the enemy of an enemy is not necessarily a friend (if it was, then socialists in Britain would have had to have defended Hitler in the last world war or the Galtieri junta in the Falklands war). Socialists do not support the state-capitalist government of Nicaragua and to the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign which implores us to do so we respond that our only support is for workers of all lands in their struggle against the capitalists of all lands, be they imperial exploiters or native ones, left or right wing.
Steve Coleman

Within those walls (1987)

From the July 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

As we drove along the narrow road bordered by grass with trees and shrubs beyond, I felt curious yet mildly uneasy about our destination. The others were laughing and joking around me, apparently thinking nothing of our impending encounter, though it was true that most of them had been there before. I was struck by the bleak, apparently deserted surroundings, just a stone's throw from a newly completed section of motorway hidden in a cutting beyond a high wire fence.

Then suddenly we were upon it: a large group of grey, uninviting buildings linked together by a single interminable corridor. There were annexes and outbuildings which had been added at intervals. Surrounding the entire establishment was a high stone wall, interrupted in places by large cottages. High atop the central administration building was a clock tower but each clock face had stopped on a different time. I had been expecting a more attractive and friendly building nestling in leafy grounds. Instead, the whole place was gravely forebidding, with an aura of despair reminiscent of a prison save for the absence of bars on the windows.

Originally the establishment was a virtually self-contained unit with its own farm, set well away from the town which had grown and crept towards the boundary wall. Despite this, there was still an inescapable remoteness about the place, a sense of having been abandoned and forgotten by society. Our guide led us into the foyer, a cold unsociable room almost noiseless but for distant echoing footsteps and the buzzing of the telephone switchboard behind the reception window. There was a scruffy, middle-aged man on the floor by a wall, head propped up on one arm. voraciously smoking a cigarette held between fingers burned by years of dragging discarded nips down to the filter. His staring eyes seemed menacing but his manner suggested that he had no will to do anything other than lie around smoking second-hand cigarettes.

We filed through a double door into a reverberating corridor with hideous decor punctuated by patches of bare plaster. There were more vacant-looking people wandering aimlessly up and down. Some were recognised by members of my group, who offered greetings. A couple acknowledged the attention; most were silent and unresponsive, as if senseless. I noticed that they were all wearing very similar clothing: the men all in bland shirts with huge collars, check jackets and crimplene trousers and the women in shapeless dresses that made them look like animated curtains.

I hesitantly followed the others into a long high-ceilinged room lined on either side with old tubular-framed beds. Once through the door, my nostrils were assaulted by a pungent offensive odour. The dormitory was stark and soulless, not a homely or personal artefact in sight. The beds were all covered with identical counterpanes, the only means of identification being pieces of card stuck to the ends of the bedsteads on which were written the names of the night-time occupants.

We were standing on a hideously patterned carpet which led like a causeway over the slippery linoleum to another door, also with two handles. Through the glass I could make out several haggard figures moving to and fro. They looked as if they were anxiously awaiting the arrival of something. We entered this living area, which had thoughtfully been labelled above the door with a large placard. It later occurred to me that to describe it as a "living" room was something of a misrepresentation; "existing" room would have been a far more accurate description. I was unprepared for the scene which confronted me.

The impatient men wandered about, apparently oblivious of our presence. Nearby there were many languid figures seated in uncomfortable plastic-covered armchairs, some half asleep, others staring into the room or fiddling with their clothing. Apart from one man periodically growling at the odorous atmosphere, the only sound was that emanating from a television set placed high on one wall.

Next we called on some younger women, trooping up two flights of worn steps like class and teacher on an outing to the local museum. The place was markedly different; it had a more homely atmosphere. The sleeping arrangements were also remarkable because the beds were in the same huge room as the living area but enclosed in four glass-topped cubicles. I noticed a woman peering at us from within one of these cubicles; her eyes were petrified into an iron stare, isolated inside dark rings. She looked as if she hadn’t slept for weeks.

We followed our guide back down the stairs to the endless corridor, talking earnestly about what we had seen. After another brisk trek we were led through a door into the warm June sunshine — bright, refreshing and gratifying. We walked up a concrete path towards a prefabricated building near the boundary wall.

Inside there were three tables littered with half-finished wicker trays, stools with cord seats and some recently moulded resin figures. At another table there were four men playing a disinterested game of cards. The atmosphere was one of indifference, although a couple of people were making an heroic effort to master those blister-inducing pieces of cane to produce a passable tea tray. Others sat and glared with undisguised contempt at their work through clouds of cigarette smoke.

I've briefly described my first impressions of a psychiatric hospital, in which I subsequently worked for almost three years. The experience was both enlightening and disturbing. The place was a spectre from the past, one of those places we all know exist but don’t like to acknowledge. Within its antiquated walls, time became inert for most of the inhabitants. There was a different world outside of high speed travel, microchip technology, fast food, piped music and canned laughter. Inside there was safety, comfort and seclusion; security in a persistent and unvarying routine. There was of course a vivid window on the world in the form of the television screen but I discovered later that it was more of an intruder than a welcome guest. Here second-hand, pre-packaged escapism was redundant and there was no place for sophistry. The people here made their own world, away from the tangled. mind-bending turmoil outside, insulated in a cocoon of predictability and convention. There were no decisions to be made, no bills demanding to be paid, no production targets to be met. This place was indeed a sanctuary from the economic and social battlefield outside . . .  an asylum.

Although my first impressions were so unpleasant I later developed a fondness for the place and the patients in it, along with a firm contempt for the largely reactionary psychiatrists and their methods of "treatment". During my short experience it became clear to me that the majority of people admitted to a psychiatric hospital would not be there but for poverty and the stress of modern living. Their treatment could only be a palliative, usually in the form of drugs, to enable them to cope — accept the unacceptable, to render them docile and controllable. But the causes of their illnesses would still be there when they returned home, and it was the real causes that were rarely addressed.
Nick Bunskill

Three ring circus (1987)

From the July 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

How did you feel as you waited for the results of the Eurovision Song Contest? Did you pace up and down in a nail-biting frenzy of excitement as one after another authority on music and culture announced their verdict on the cream of the world's musical ability?

Or were you one of the majority of reasonably sane people who were bored to tears by the whole degrading spectacle, who realised that the banal, sickly, sugar-coated verbal garbage you had been listening to was not going to have the slightest effect on your life and future happiness, and was in fact nothing but a vulgar attempt to create yet another socially useless "Superstar", and vast fortunes for those involved.

If so compare it — the second largest time wasting non-event of 1987 — with what was undoubtedly the most expensive, spectacular, but phoney epic of the advertising profession that we have experienced for several years. I refer of course to the General Election.

How did you feel as millions of TVs and radios bombarded you with the irrelevant result of this gigantic con trick? If you had previously felt slightly cheated by the vague promise of something a little bit special in the world of song and entertainment, you should have felt a passionate fury and demanded immediate revenge on Robin Day who for the last month had paraded endless parasitical hypocrites before you with the implied suggestion that if you backed the right one, your problems and those of society could be solved. Whether on the morning after the Election as you prepared for another day’s work you felt revitalised, thankfully relieved that all would be well for the next few years, or alternatively, panic stricken, convinced that the end was finally at hand, — relax, nothing is going to change. Tomorrow, next week, next year, the army of unemployed will still be with us, so will the ever increasing list of urgent, socially useful work waiting to be done. Next winter pensioners will die of the cold again, coal mines will go on being closed for economic reasons. Thousands of children around the world will continue to starve to death every day. our newly-elected leaders will still attempt to explain away their obscene actions in allowing vast quantities of food to be destroyed because the starving have no money to pay for it.

A minor shake-up in our political leadership has served no useful purpose whatsoever.

This, the latest farce in capitalism's comedy of errors, has more in common with the Song Contest than you might imagine. Apart from the false smiles and the pollution of the airwaves that the contestants inflicted on us, they were both totally useless as far as society's needs are concerned. Neither were run for our benefit although our support was vital for both. Those who did well out of each of them did so at our expense. In short — we were conned.

However, unlike the losers in the song contest who can go away and forget about it, we the vast majority who were all losers in the General Election (whether we realise it or not), have got to live with the consequences.
Nick White