MANAGUA—As Nicaragua’s newly elected and reelected lawmakers report to National Assembly Monday for their first day of grip-and-grin and disingenuous argle-bargle, Sandinista reformer Monica Baltodano will not be among them.
For the first time in 15 years, the National Assembly—or “La Chanchera,” (the pigsty) as it’s known derisively in Nicaragua—will be absent of Sandinista dissidents.
The Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), once a formidable legislative bloc, has been absorbed by the untested, right-wing Independent Liberal Party (PLI), and the Sandinista majority will be a monolithic 62 votes loyal to President Daniel Ortega. Meanwhile, the very small handful of independent lawmakers who struggled as endangered species in the previous congress can now be officially reclassified as “extinct.”
In many ways, Baltodano—an independent leftist who represented the lonely Movement to Rescue Sandinismo (Rescate)—was the last her kind. Her departure from the National Assembly drives another nail into the coffin of political pluralism, however symbolic it once was.
Baltodano’s refusal to play by the rules of congressional decorum (all Nicaraguan lawmakers should: 1. Employ partisan invective while forming secret alliances with their opponents; 2. Vote mindlessly along party lines, 3. Celebrate personal mediocrity and collective underachievement; and 4. Obsess over reelection) made her a bit of an oddity during her five-year term as lawmaker.
Now that she has escaped the pigpen and shampooed the lingering barnyard stink out of her hair, Baltodano says she is ready to get back to the work of organizing disobedience—only this time where she feels she can have a real impact: on the streets.
“My role is to struggle from the streets, to organize civil movements among the popular sectors of society,” the former Sandinista guerrilla leader told The Nicaraguan Dispatch in an interview from her home in Managua.
Baltodano, who led the guerrilla insurrection in Managua in 1979 after leading Sandinista rebels to victory in Granada, says Nicaragua needs to organize a genuine grassroots citizen movement that can “put the corrupt political system up against the wall.”
She criticizes opposition political parties “that don’t offer any real opposition,” as well as civil society movements that have lost touch with the streets and only “make declarations from hotel conference rooms.”
“The politicians are failing and the civil movements are failing,” she said.
Baltodano, whose Rescate movement boycotted the Nov. 6 poll with a protest vote, thinks the opposition was silly to believe in an electoral solution to Nicaragua’s problems. And she thinks the opposition made a tactical error by focusing its time, efforts and resources to mobilize people for an attempted election-day putsch.
“I don’t think that democracy should be reduced to the act of going to vote every several years, because democracy has to be every day. It’s a daily struggle,” she said. “We have to change the way politics is done in this country.”
Baltodano says legislative politics in Nicaragua has become corrupted by power and pork-barrel remuneration for lawmakers, some of whom have few job qualifications beyond obsequiousness.
“Politics in this country has been reduced to fighting for status quo and to protect the lifestyle of a handful of politicians,” she says.
Baltodano says that same system of political rewards and punishments makes it difficult to organize civil opposition.
“There is a lot of pressure and blackmail by the government,” she said. “If people want work, they have to be with the government party. If they want to benefit from social programs, they have to be with the government party. If they want a land title, they have to be with the government party. If they want basic rights to education and health, they have to be with the government party. So the situation is very difficult because (the government party) is organizing a system of oppression. This is system that represses and restricts rights from the bottom up with mechanisms of control: the CPCs (Sandinista Councils of Citizen Power).”
She says one of her top youth organizers for Rescate was told last year by government agents that that he had to renounce his political activism if he wanted his mother to benefit from the government’s property-title program.
As a result, she said, some political activists are starting to use pseudonyms again, like they did during the days of clandestine struggle against the Somoza regime in the late ‘70s.
“The situation here is not easy,” Baltodano said. “And the worst is yet to come. This (government) project is just starting. They are not only interested in controlling all government institutions, but also public opinion by trying to control the media.”
A peaceful struggle
Despite—or perhaps because of —her personal history of leading armed insurrection, Baltodano says change has to come peacefully.
“We have so much history of confrontation in Nicaragua,” she says in her characteristic whispered voice, which is barely louder than a rustle of the plants in the warm afternoon breeze. “I don’t know if this is just a personal dream of mine, but I envision change will happen here as part of a great civil movement that creates a situation where the regime falls without resorting to armed violence.
“Nicaragua has lots of experience with war, but we have to develop confidence in peaceful solutions,” she says. “Nicaragua has never tried a peaceful solution.”
At the same time, Baltodano says, leaders can’t sit back and wait for change to happen on its own.
“We have to foment indignation,” she says. “We need to organize indignation. Because it will not happen here on its own, like it has in other countries. We need to organize it in the neighborhoods and communities.”
While that may sound like recalcitrant rabble-rousing, Baltodano says it’s really just about being prepared for when the moment comes.
“There are circumstances that cannot be predicted, but they trigger a social explosion,” she said. “The idea is to be organized and ready for when it happens.”