Where Minority Rules Most Nicaraguans Aren't Sandinistas

Posted: August 04, 1986

The debate in the U.S. over Nicaragua focuses on everything but the facts. So here's a fact: The Sandinista political party controls the lives of all Nicaraguans, but only a tiny percentage are members of it.

Membership is estimated at 5,000 to 18,000 in a population of about 3 million. That estimate comes from the U.S. State Department, hardly an unbiased source, but it appears impossible to get a better estimate. Ask the folks at the Nicaraguan Embassy, and they will promise to got back to you. Call a week later, and they will do the same.

It's not surprising that the embassy doesn't want to comment on party membership. A "democracy" run by less than 1 percent of its population stretches the meaning of the word a bit more than the Greeks probably intended.

The average American might wonder why so few people are in the Frente Sandinista de la Liberacion Nacional (FSLN). If the Sandinistas are doing so many good things for Nicaragua, why don't more people want to join?

The answer is literally foreign to the North American mind: A Nicaraguan doesn't just join the FSLN. He or she has to be invited, then go through a period as an aspirante to prove ideological purity. Only then can a Nicaraguan have any say in the party that, through its nine commandantes, makes all decisions.

The system parallels that of the Soviet Union, with one exception: In Nicaragua, competing political parties are allowed to exist. This is the basis for the Sandinistas' claim that the Nicaraguan system is pluralistic.

But Nicaragua has no constitution. So elections like those in 1984 can be conducted with no threat to the party's dominance. This is because the ultimate power, the army (called the Sandinista People's Army) and police (the Sandinista Police), are arms not of the government but of the party. Political parties do not develop their own armies for sharing power with the opposition. An obvious example is Hitler's Nazi Party and its brownshirt wing.

The value of having the army under party rather than government control is obvious: Even if the opposition somehow got around FSLN restrictions and harassment and won a majority in the 96-member National Assembly, all the guns would have remained loyal to the party. The opposition would have been left with control of an assembly that, even on paper, has no power.

That assembly, which the FSLN controls by about a 2-1 margin, begins considering a constitution early next year. But a constitution that gave control of the army and police to one of the smallest political parties in the country would be an open joke. Other advantages, such as the equal billing the party flag now has with the national flag at public buildings, would also look undemocratic on paper.

A spokesperson for the Nicaraguan Embassy, Sarali Porta, said the proposed constitution is being discussed in "popular open forums." The matter of party control of the police and army "is still being discussed," she said. ''There's no final position on that."

A constitution that stripped the party of its privileges and gave all parties an equal shot at power would open the way for true democracy. But everything the party has done since dictator Anastasio Somoza was overthrown in 1979 has been designed to consolidate power, not spread it around.

Many who helped overthrow Somoza have been put out of business by the Sandinistas. The most obvious example is the newspaper La Prensa, but the Permanent Commission on Human Rights also comes to mind. This group, which once helped spring Tomas Borge (now a Sandinista commandante) from prison, has been harassed nearly out of existence, to be replaced by a commission set up by the party.

And the people as a whole, those not ideologically pure enough to become actual members of the FSLN, have been organized in mass organizations under command of party members. Among these are the Sandinista Defense Committees, which encourage people to spy on their neighbors and control access to rationed items. Other Nicaraguans come under Sandinista control by being drafted into the army.

The effect of all this organization is obvious: Great numbers of people can be controlled by a tiny minority (the "vanguard," as the FSLN calls its membership) that controls the arms. As has been proven in the Soviet Union and China, this system can't be beat for imposing the will of a minority on the majority.

Thus we have the ironic spectacle of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega coming to New York and telling a church full of Sandinista sympathizers, "The United States might say no, but we think morality is a greater force than brutality and force of arms."

If Ortega is really interested in curbing the use of "the force of arms" in Nicaragua, he doesn't have to come talk to Americans. He can stay in Managua and talk to his 5,000 to 18,000 companeros in the FSLN.

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