This article addresses the contentious issue of the role of the military in the current crisis, an important player that receives scant attention.
The Rebirth of Militarism and its Devotees
By José Luis Rocha
Published in Confidencial, October 7, 2019
There are excessively fervent people who light candles to the Army so that it might perform a miracle. Is it reasonable to think that the Army would pull us out of this bloody swamp?
In the beginning of the April rebellion, there was a disperse and at times cacophonous chorus of voices that sang the praises of the Army of Nicaragua and suggested, demanded or begged its intervention to put an end to the repression and the crisis. Someone got to the point of asking that they take it upon themselves to be the spokesperson in the dialogue, in representation of the State. It was a very questionable proposal, but at that time it did not sound so childish, suicidal and worthy of Juan Dundo, the famous character of the road stories who always docilely accepted the tasks and punishments imposed by the patron, without perceiving their injustice, falling time and time again to obvious scams and jokes.
As the repression progressed, the involvement of the Army became evident, above all in the videos where paramilitaries appeared leaving military installations and carrying heavy weaponry used exclusively by the Army. We knew at that time that for more than a decade Ortega had purged the Army of soldiers who were not staunch supporters. More than a year later, on the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the Army, its highest general renewed the vows of his devotion to Orteguism with repeated genuflections before Ortega, and threatened those who allegedly had urged soldiers to join the coup forces. In short, the commandante helps those who help themselves. The Army brought tanks out onto the streets like a wolf that shows its fangs. There were numerous promotions of soldiers and officers, some granted as a reward for repressive work. Words and deeds left no doubt about the official position of the military high command. Swimming against the current of a waterfall of evidence, there are excessive devotees that continue lighting candles to the Army to perform a miracle, like possibly they previously did to Saint Barbara, the patron of difficult and desperate causes.
Admittedly the cause of the rebellion is difficult and at time desperate. But is it reasonable to think that the Army will pull us out of this bloody swamp? The only thing clear is that the Army is a power that, in the current circumstances, has demonstrated having more importance than big capital. Part of its power comes from its economic strength, which could have given it true ideological autonomy. And maybe it has it. Its ties to Orteguism are not ideological: most of its leaders and probably all of its soldiers were not part of the guerrilla forces, nor from the Sandinista Popular Army of the eighties. But there are economic ties, that at times are stronger than the evanescent connections of a creed. The assets of the Army and some of its members have grown on a vast scale during the thirteen years of the Government of Ortega. Why would they want to put an end to the party?
The fact that the Army is a power of enormous economic and political weight is a situation anomalous in itself which corrodes democracy. The history that led us to this point speaks for itself. The Sandinista Army was constituted in the eighties with some members of the guerrilla forces, who were not very numerous. It grew in numbers and its absorption of the national budget, when the FSLN gave an almost exclusively military solution to a problem that in its beginnings was fundamentally an agrarian and political problem. The first bands of counterrevolutionaries were composed of discontented peasants because the promised land did not arrive: the agrarian reform, above all in its first years, was a state concentration of land. The ill-will increased with the abuses of the Army and confiscations. Afterwards the Government of Reagan added its huge sack of dollars and the “contra” flourished. The FSLN could have given preference to others forms of solution: certainly the dialogue that finally put and end to the bloodshed. Before resorting to this formula, it imposed obligatory military service and increased the bloodletting. There you have where solutions take us that turn the Army into its preferential instrument.
From that tortuous history came an Army turned into a formidable financial power, because the General of that Army had more skills of a card-player than of a chess player. It seems that those who now call for an intervention of the Army have digested that situation as an acceptable fact, and not as a terrible sign. Why did the Army have to become a shareholder in the New York Stock Exchange, in a hospital, clinics, hardware store and an immense etcetera? Why did the Nicaraguan Army have to emulate its Guatemalan counterpart, also established as an economic power in itself, an evolution that ended turning it into a seedling of drug traffickers? Would it not be better – in any case, a sign of our commitment as a society – that the primary and secondary teachers had their pensions assured and thriving in New York stocks? Why not the firemen? Or medical staff? We would be another Nicaragua if the teacher training school would have been endowed with such generosity, and the funds to distribute educational material would have been administered with such sagacity as the military´s. Would it not be just that the pensions of those disabled in the war on both sides would have been treated with such astuteness? Well no: those funds and pensions have been administered by the many Juan Dundos that exist in this country, and not Pedro Urdemales, his devious and daring brother, who ended up in the Army.
Seen in a regional perspective, things could not have occurred any differently. The prominence of the Army is in style in the isthmus. In Guatemala it has not ceased to be a constant: a mediocre television comic like Jimmy Morales or a member of the oligarchy like Alejandro Giammattei is governing, everyone knows that one has been a puppet and the other – more dignified – an instrument of the domination of the Army, that has seized the pot by the handle and the handle as well. Honduras is a military State. Its condition of being an ex-platform of three Armies – the national, the US and the “contra” – left a military stronghold as residue that became more flagrant since the coup of Mel Zelaya. But it did not begin then, and is made present in the investments of the military and the land evictions carried out by obedient and violent soldiers. In El Salvador, all the governments have faced the problem of the gangs above all with police and military forces. The National Civilian Police, which emerged from the peace accords, was not able to shake from its leadership the members of the old military graduating classes who had their hands soaked in blood. At times they moved through a revolving door: they would leave for a couple of years and would return unruffled. The weight of the military was reflected in the ministries whose leadership has been given to General David Munguía Payés, a power at times behind the throne, and at times against the throne. An example of the latter case was his opposition to the fact that the purchase of military inputs and weapons would be submitted to public bidding, in open resistance to the ruling of the Constitutional Chamber of the Court.
Militarism has not left the region. It remained in a near larvae state in some countries. And now, when it bares its claws again and shows its destabilizing and antidemocratic countenance, it ends up that in Nicaragua there are those who want to make it pose as our last hope. They forget that when the rifles come out on the streets, politics ends as a game where dissent – a healthy reflection of plurality of positions – is processed through discussions, pronouncements, marches, etc. Politics is the tension of dissent, and there is no dissent possible in the face of a barrel of an AK-47. In this context the reinvigoration of militarism, it would only occur to Juan Dundo that if Costa Rica, the only example of a functional democracy that exists in the region, has remained stable in part because it dismantled the Army, we are going to arrive at democracy walking on bayonets. In Nicaragua it is assumed that we have to say “we must make the best of it now” and that, given that in the eighties we gave the checkbook to the military, now we have to give them a place in politics. Better that we continue praying to Saint Barbara.