Michael Conroy on the Nicaraguan elections


Interviewed by D.C. LaWare
April 1990; page 8; Volume 1, No. 5

Michael Conroy, professor of economics at UT Austin, was an observer of the recent elections in Nicaragua as part of the Latin American Studies Association. In the past 10 years Conroy has traveled to Nicaragua more than 30 times and has written extensively about the economy of revolutionary Nicaragua. The following article is a transcript of a taped interview conducted on March 14, 1990.


Q: A lot of the mainstream media has portrayed the Sandinista defeat as another defeat for Marxist-Leninist state planning and international socialism. To what degree was the Sandinista revolution a socialist revolution?

A: That depends on your definition of socialism ... If the keystone of the Soviet, Chinese and Cuban revolutions was the nationalization of the means of production, that was only partially done in Nicaragua, to an extent less than that of Mexico, Peru or Brazil ... The private sector, including the truly independent cooperatives, accounts for more than 60 percent of the GDP in Nicaragua, whereas in the Soviet Union, China or Cuba, the private sector would not exceed 8 or 9 percent of the GDP to this day. If you want to look at the structure of power and the forms of political expression that characterize the Chinese, Soviet and Cuban models, Nicaragua has from its first days been substantially more democratic.

Q: Then what were the most important economic changes made by the Sandinistas?

A: One way of looking at the Nicaraguan Revolution is that it represents the best-coordinated and most aggressively articulated reform, after a revolution, that we have seen in Latin American history, but reform along a structuralist, non-Marxist line. That means agrarian reform, which is not necessarily Marxist. Increasingly the social sector ... in terms of education, pensions, health, etc. increases the role of the state, but still with a fundamentally private sector economy.

Q: The mainsteam press has tended to blame the Sandinistas for the economic crisis, but how has the war contributed to the economic problems facing Nicaragua?

A: The only way to make sense of the Contra war is to see it as economic aggression. It made litte sense as a military strategy because they never had the capability of seizing and holding a single town. It made a lot of sense as economic warfare because Nicaragua is an exceedingly fragile, open economy primarily in the hands of the private sector. And what the Contras did is they [waged war] on the private sector. They would go up into the mountains in the outlying areas of the country and scare the producers into reducing their production, scare them off their land, or at least force them off their land for enough time each month so that their agricultural production fell ...

One of the things you will see after the election is people will be more open about the full effect of the Contra war. People in Nicaragua were unwilling to admit the extent of the economic impact because they didn't want to give the Contras the credibility of being able to say they were [economically] effective.

Q: You said at a talk which you gave last week that UNO was such a disparate coalition that it had no coherent message. What, then, did it offer to the people?

A: The closest you could find to a central issue in the campaign statements, or speeches, was getting the Sandinistas out of power, so it was essentially the U.S. agenda. They would talk about how important it would be to end the war, bring peace to the country, and primarily that meant getting the Sandinistas out of power.

Q: So what did the UNO victory represent?

A: The best way to understand the outcome of the election is not that people were positively accepting UNO for what it was providing, but rather they were given two choices: to accept the claims that were being made by the Sandinista government that, "We're almost there, one more step and we've got it won ... and that one step is voting us in for another six year term." Because then, the Sandinista leadership claimed, they would be legitimate, then the U.S. will stop the Contras, then the U.S. will lift the embargo and everything will get better. The choice was to accept the proposal ... or to give in and say that the Sandinistas are never going to be able to make peace with the U.S., and the only alternative we really have is not to turn another political party that is a little different from the Sandinistas, but to turn back to the U.S. and say, "We give up ... we are simply going to accept the group that you have said you are willing to support."

Q: So then you think the election was in a way a plebescite on whether Nicaragua could maintain an independent course from the U.S.?

A: That's correct. It was a vote by the Nicaraguan people about whether they were willing to continue the struggle given the price they have been made to pay over the last ten years. It wasn't whether they liked the Sandinistas or not, it was whether they believed the U.S. was willing to let up, to accept the legitimacy of the result if they voted for the Sandinistas. The only way the people could be sure of bringing the war to an end [and bring about] a fundamental change in economic condition was to elect someone other than the Sandinistas, and UNO was the only one out there.

Q: A lot of commentators have pointed to the Sandinistas' potential power in the National Assembly as a sign of their continued strength. How much power does the Nicaraguan constitution grant the National Assembly, and will the Sandinistas be a potent force in it?

A: It's a strong central government, but, for example, no changes in the constitution itself can be implemented without a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, and UNO does not have that. A lot of the relationship between the Assembly and the Presidency is still evolving. It's only been four years that Nicaragua has had a functioning modern constitution, and during this period it has had a Sandinista majority in the Assembly, so that the Sandinistas have been able to get most of what they've wanted through the Assembly relatively easily. The UNO government will not have anywhere near the same control over the functioning of the Assembly, because it's supporters are not from single party, are not subject to party discipline, do not have a track record of discipline, but rather have a track record of tremendous factionalism. I don't envy Mrs. Chamorro the problem she is going to have governing ... because the constitution limits the amount of change that can be done by decree ... So what you have is a situation where, ironically enough, the defeat of the Sandinistas is going to put the democratic process to a much greater test.

Q: So you don't see the Sandinista defeat entirely pessimistically?

A: No. One does not have to say that this is the end of the revolution, because the Sandinistas are capable of defending many, if not most, of the major achievements of the revolution in the National Assembly, and are willing to organize to defend them in the streets, if necessary ... Secondly, if the revolution was seen as a revolution with ultimately democratic tendencies, then at some point there was going to be a need for a government supportive of the revolution to be voted out of power in order to demonstrate those fundamental democratic tendencies. And the fact that the Sandinistas have responded as well as they have to the loss is a positive commentary on their internal organization and their long-term goals within the country ... One could also argue that [because of the Sandinista reforms] Nicaragua begins this post-Sandinista leadership in a better economic position than most of the rest of the Central American countries, because the social tensions associated with the grossly inequitable distribution of land has been mitigated by the fact that the Sandinistas achieved a redistribution of land. And if now they can take state farms and give them to the Contras who come back and want their land back, you would have a second transformation accomplished during a ten-year period which would make it politically easier to govern Nicaragua than it is to govern Guatemala, Salvador or Honduras, because they haven't had that social transformation and the increase in equity it brought about.