Dora María Téllez: “The word Sandinista now is repugnant to me”

This interview of Dora María Tellez, former Minister of Health during the 80s, also founder and past president of the MRS (Sandinista Renovation Movement), is significant for a number of reasons. The questions asked by one of the editors of La Prensa, Fabian Medina, reflect the perspective that sees the FSLN of the 80s composed entirely of human rights abusers, without any redeeming policy initiatives. This echoes a current problem in the ongoing attempts to forge unity among the anti-Ortega opposition. Some, reflective of the questions asked by Medina, are claiming they will not be part of any coalition that includes any group with the name “Sandinista”.

 However, since their founding the FSLN has seen the MRS as their principal electoral threat, given that the other parties have not been associated with pro-poor policies, but rather have been seen as exclusively pro-business. This is a significant factor in elections in the second poorest country in Latin America. The animosity of the FSLN reached the point where they revoked the legal status of the MRS just prior to municipal elections of 2008, where some observers thought the MRS could win the race for mayor of Managua (at that time Dora María Tellez was on a hunger strike precisely to protest that measure). This forced the MRS´s participation in electoral processes to be limited to allying with right wing parties, which clouded their reputation, and gave the FSLN a “public monopoly” on commitment to the plight of the poor.

Further complicating the scenario, is the reputation the FSLN has for infiltrating opposition organizations, preventing them from forming a united electoral front. So, while some right-wing groups use this very reason to refuse to ally with the MRS, more frequently in recent political history the FSLN has successfully manipulated “right wing groups” to prevent a united front. This leads others to believe that right-wing attacks against the MRS are actually incited by the FSLN.

All of these dynamics are reflected in Dora María´s responses in this interview.

Dora María Téllez: “The word Sandinista now is repugnant to me”

By Fabián Medina, La Prensa, July 19, 2020

[original Spanish]

The former guerrilla recognizes that in these times when someone hears the word Sandinista “what is heard are the crimes committed by the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega” and in that sense her party debates whether it is worthwhile to continue using that word in their name.

41 years ago, Dora María Téllez was entering Managua at the head of a large group of guerrillas from the Western Front of the Sandinista Front. She was the leader. She was 23 years old. She was coming to celebrate the fall of the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza and the beginning of the Sandinista revolution. Since then she was always on the stage celebrating that date, year after year, until 1993 when the differences with Daniel Ortega began that led her and other militants of the Sandinista Front to leave, and found in 1995 the Sandinista Renovation Movement party (MRS). Téllez, a guerrilla commander, was Minister of Health in the cabinet of Daniel Ortega in the 80s. If any word has defined her in her life it is “Sandinista”. Nevertheless, she feels that the regime of Daniel Ortega has given that word a different meaning, and she herself questions it now. She addresses in this interview on the 41st anniversary of the defeat of Somoza and the beginning of the Sandinista revolution the controversial MRS and the figure of its old fellow party member, Daniel Ortega.

When was the last time that you were on stage for July 19th?

It must have been like 1993…

Do you feel nostalgia?

Actually no. I am not a person that feels nostalgia for past times. I think about my dead father and mother and I do not have nostalgia. I have good memories, experiences, learnings, but nostalgia is not a feeling of mine.

Is there something to celebrate on July 19th?

Celebration as celebration I do not see in these circumstances. There are commemorations. We, in the MRS, commemorate instead July 17th. The departure of the dictatorship is celebrated, from which we should have learned, but we did not. And in these conditions, the country is not for celebrations.

I was not asking about the moment, but rather about what July 19th means for history.

In historic terms it is like the liberal revolution. They are historical facts. And the celebration depends on each person. It should not be a national holiday. Maybe July 17th, when the dictatorship fell.

Many people do not see just the end of the Somoza dictatorship, but also the beginning of the other dictatorship, that of the 80s.

They are the two events. The fall of the dictatorship of Somoza and the establishment of the regime of the Sandinista revolution that, in effect, was an authoritarian regime, that had the characteristic that it opened the path, in elections, to a peaceful transition, which is exactly the point which we want to reach now.

How would you evaluate Daniel Ortega who appears at this 41st anniversary of the Sandinista revolution?

For me, this is a regime which is dead, in the process of getting its death certificate and burial. It no longer governs. There are no public policies, there is nothing. The only thing that exists is a series of defensive maneuvers for the capital of Ortega Murillo, for the political power of the Ortegas. It is not even a bad government. The pandemic has made this mismanagement more transparent. The country is in the wind. People defend themselves in their homes as best they can, with their medications. Ortega is a ghost, who is there, and is the source of power for an oligarchical machine that wields economic and political power in different spheres.

As a historical figure, where would you place Ortega?

Daniel Ortega has the worst outcome of all. Ortega is going to pass into the same level as Somoza. With the additional characteristic that Ortega is a destructor of the institutional framework. The Somozas built certain institutions that have been long lasting, like social security. Ortega has destroyed it all: Army, Police, even the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, unthinkable things.

The behavior of Ortega now has made a lot of people look backward, and see the revolution as that dark period that he produced. What is your evaluation?

From the political perspective point of view, that was an authoritarian regime. With political intolerance. It oscillated between a single party regime and political pluralism. A very contradictory game, but that finally culminated in elections.

Was it a dictatorship?

From a political point of view, that is what it is. If you are talking about an authoritarian regime, you are talking about a dictatorship. He wields dictatorial power. And from a social point of view, the Sandinista government had a lot of success in establishing some important public policies, creating some institutions and opening space for popular organization, unions, grassroots organizations, etc. Even the 1987 constitution set the pace with some exceptions. The question that I ask myself is, what is it that we did, and what did we not do in 30 years to end up at the same point?

But the eighties are not remembered for those changes that you mention, but rather for its crimes: Red Christmas, Operation Bertha, Military Service, State Security, confiscations… And from there, it is logical that many ask themselves, how can this be celebrated?

That is how it is. It is reasonable. That is why I say that July 19th should quit being a national holiday. Because all that is part of it and is real. Crimes denounced…

What responsibility does Dora María Téllez assume for those crimes?

I assume the responsibility for having been there, but I cannot assume responsibility for crimes that I did not commit. One of the big problems of blaming everyone is that you end up protecting those who are truly guilty. Can I assume blame for Red Christmas? No. if the first information that I had about Red Christmas was through La Prensa.

Complicity could be alleged. You were the leaders, and no one complained about it.

That can be alleged if we would have known.

Operation Bertha which was a huge operation of confiscation, the entire State participated in it.

Yes, it was an operation of change in currency that ended up being harmful. The economic area was not my responsibility. I administered Health in 1988. I can assume responsibility for that, but I cannot for crimes that I did not commit.

And what would be the crimes for which you would assume responsibility?

I did not commit crimes. To begin with, I did not have the power for that. I was in Managua in the organization of the Frente, of unions, from 1980 to 1985, and then in the Ministry of Health. And I am going to tell you, the Ministry of Health never, never was sectarian.

The piñata. When the Sandinista Front lost power an assault on the State took place. The leaders doled out assets. Did you keep some public asset?

No, none. In addition, you can see in the memoirs of Fernanda Cardenal what my position was on that issue. It is not even me saying it. Fernando describes an assembly in El Crucero, a very important one, and you will see clearly what my position was on that.

What was it?

I was completely opposed, and in addition we demanded that that it be rectified. It was compromising the moral capital of Sandinism. And that there had been an illegal appropriation on the part of people who had access to resources. So, they took a peremptory measure on us there. That proof needed to be presented, to be seen. And what proof was going to be presented?

What property do you currently have?

Basically my home. I have set about building a home to rent. I have my home in Matagalpa that I inherited.

Would you submit to scrutiny if it was required?

Absolutely. You say to me, how was this house built? And there are the bank loans. I have my receipts, my bills, my papers.

When the MRS was started in 1995, did it propose to be a new version of the Sandinista Front?

No. The MRS was founded from a profoundly critical position. All this that we are talking about was put forth. The term “Sandinista” was taken from the point of view of identification with the issue of national sovereignty, with Sandino, national independence and social justice.

But it reclaimed the revolution. In the first years there was an ongoing allusion to the revolutionary years.

In the first years, yes, but the critique continued to deepen. The MRS has the characteristic of keeping a strong grounding. Later new generations have come whose reference point is not the Sandinista revolution.

There are members of the MRS, even leaders, who think that the party should no longer bear the word “Sandinista”.

Yes, there is a debate about that. There is a debate about the distinction that would have to be made under these conditions. That includes the name change, change in symbols, etc.

Could the MRS remove the name Sandinista?

It is possible. If the convention decides it, it will be removed.

And what is your position?

It seems to me that in this moment the only thing that the Sandinista name evokes it what is happening with this dictatorship. No matter how much we might say that this has to do with Sandino, with social justice, independence and sovereignty, when someone hears it what they are hearing are the crimes committed by the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega. It is not worth it, for a political party like the MRS, that is looking toward the future of the country, that is committed to a profound democratization process of Nicaraguan society, to keep that name. For me this is a personal opinion, it could be that there are other opinions in the MRS. There is a debate now for several months about this topic. And this has to do with the youth who are currently leading the party.

There is also a debate among political groupings about “Orteguism” and “Sandinism”. There are those who see the word “Orteguism” as a disguise for Sandinism itself.

Orteguism was a larvae that infected Sandinism. Like Somocism was a larvae that infected liberalism. And nearly finished it off. Then there were groups that left Somocism that formed parties, the PLI was one of them, CxL another, let us say, that see themselves as liberals. But if you look in the year 1979 Somocism had completely infected liberalism. I think that Orteguism completely infected the Sandinista Front. Let us not say Sandinism, but the Sandinista Front. In such a way that the institutionality of the Sandinista Front disappeared, and a segment was left there completely and absolutely committed to the Ortega Murillo family, and a segment was left that has an interest in saving the party, for whom the Frente is their party, and they are going to see how to save it. There is a difference there, and that difference is important because it has to do with the effort itself of the deconstruction of the dictatorship.

The party in power comes down hard on the MRS, but the opposition does as well. It is seen as a party that is in everything, always conspiring.

Certainly Orteguism is the mortal enemy of the MRS. That is very true. Because it was not able to break us, because it was not able to make the MRS disappear, because every time that it beat it, it resurged. That is the reality. The MRS is 24 years old and it has been 24 years the object of punches and blows. It has not been easy. The Sandinista Front took on the task of selling to a sector of the business class, a sector, not all, because they did not buy it, that we were the great confiscators of the 80s, and not Daniel Ortega. Imagine, who am I going to confiscate from the Ministry of Health, or who is Victor Hugo Tinoco going to confiscate from the Vice Chancellor´s office.

The thing is that if you were part of the team, you have personal responsibilities. So, you pay for that.

Yes, that is clear, but it is not exactly like that. What one section of La Prensa does, no matter the fact that you might be an editor, if it is not your section, you cannot assume responsibility for that. You can even not be aware of it. You can assume responsibility for everything, but you cannot take on the guilt of others. Ortega unleashed a campaign against us by every path, in every possible way, and there are people who bought it. For what reason? I am not clear, but I imagine that they are the embers of old animosities, without realizing that organizations are evolving.

And there is an apparent contradiction: the MRS is a very famous party, your name appears everywhere, but it does not show up in the surveys.

Maybe it does not show up because people are afraid to say.

There is a stigma on the MRS?

That is how it is. Maybe people say that if they are in favor of the MRS they are going to be repressed. Or they will be fired from their job. That already happened to me with one person. This has to do with a price that you pay, and it can be that for that reason it does not show up in the surveys, because there is a repression completely directed and aimed at the MRS.

In the discussion about the unity in the opposition, the MRS reappears as a figure that creates antibodies.

What antibodies? That depends.

Groups that say that they are not going to be part of a union where the MRS are present.

CxL (Citizen for Liberty Party). But remember that the CxL were our allies. We had an alliance with them for seven years. In addition, an alliance that worked very well in the National Assembly. It began to stop functioning when Ortega told the CxL that in order to ensure their legal status they had to abandon us. And under those circumstances also Violeta Granera and the Liberal United Front left, for considering that to be onerous. But the alliance with the current CxL, and Kitty Monterrey [current president of CxL] was there then, was an alliance for at least seven years.

But the fact that you have been allies does not mean that you can be now, just like you in the MRS were allies with Ortega and now cannot be.

With Ortega we never shared more than a program in some specific circumstances, where there was Antonio Lacayo, Miriam Argúello, Agustín Jarquín, Alexis Argúello, some stayed and the rest of us left, because the course that we already know was followed. But with the CxL we jointly promoted laws, we put to work agreements we had, and we jointly ran electoral campaigns. Kitty Monterrey cannot say to me, “I am not joining with you because you are the same.” Hey, why did you join before? The proposal should be more sincere. She should say the truth. What is the truth about why she does not want to join the National Coalition?

What would be that truth?

You would have to ask them, but it stands out to me the fact that the CxL did not even try to talk about what their terms where to join the Coalition. Everyone has made an effort, the National Unity has made an effort, the people of Saturnino [party linked to evangelical churches] have made an effort, the PLC has made an effort, but the CxL do not want to make any effort. The question that they need to be asked is what is the reason they do not want to join forces in a coalition?

If the MRS would end up being an obstacle for unity, could it rethink its participation?

But what is that measure? Who is going to decide that measure? Is the measure going to be decided by CxL? Who decides what an obstacle is? Up to now the obstacle for unity is the CxL. The MRS instead has tried to aggregate forces.

And whether you see elections in 2021?

I think that we have to fight so there is an electoral outcome. If not, this is going to go from bad to worse. The economic condition of Nicaraguans is getting worse. The regime itself is completely unviable from an economic point of view. We have to do everything at hand to achieve clean, transparent and competitive elections.

And what would you do so that Daniel Ortega would allow that?

He has a large stone on top of him. He does not have one cent, tax income no longer exists, the economy is plummeting again worse than in 2018, and external aid is zero.

But if Ortega faces the dilemma of continuing to govern in that way, under those misfortunes, or losing the elections and going to sit in court to be judged, obviously he will opt for the former.

Daniel Ortega you can be sure is going to do everything possible to stay in power. We cannot count on him saying, “Well, this is as far as I go.” You have to keep pushing. We have pushed it to here, you have to keep pushing until he falls.

Does it cause any sentiments in you the fact that Sandinism, to which you dedicated your life, is ending with this stigma so similar to Somocism?

What makes me sad is the fact that the country is once again at this point. It makes me sad for the youth. Nicaraguan youth should be doing something else, acting in different environments, finishing their majors, contributing in different areas to national development, and politics should be under other conditions. It makes me sad to see that there are generations of young people who are in exile, who said good-by to their majors because they are in exile under some horrible conditions. Those who are in hiding and are harassed every day by the Police, young people who are in prison. It is an awful thing that we are once again facing a dictator.

Does Dora María Téllez continue being Sandinista?

I identify with Sandino. I can no longer tell you that I identify as a Sandinista in the terms that it is understood today. That word now has another connotation. Words have their contexts. I identify with Sandino´s quest, with social justice, national independence, the fight for sovereignty, but it is difficult for me to identify with the word Sandinista, because it now is repugnant to me, because of what we have all experienced.


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