This interview was conducted in October, just prior to the Nicaraguan elections, by the editors and former California Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. Nicaragua's Foreign Minister, Miguel D'Escoto also sat in on the discussion.
NPQ: What kind of political system do you envision for Nicaragua? What country comes closest to being what you hope for Nicaragua?
Ortega: We're struggling to establish a regime that is of a democratic and pluralistic nature. We're not imitating any country in particular, but we have sought the contribution of the experiences of other countries.
Perhaps the Nicaraguan revolution is something that can be compared to the Algerian revolution. In the context of Latin America, we would see it as being close to what the Mexican process has been.
NPQ: What do you mean by pluralism? What is the relationship in your system between the political party and the military?
Ortega: The Sandinista National Liberation Front was the organization, the party, that carried out revolutionary change. The people took up arms under the Sandinista Front. Later, an army had to be constituted. That army was constituted by the same people. Therefore, the army was politicized because it was formed by the men and women who fought against the Somoza dictatorship under the banner of the Sandinista Front.
We seek pluralism in the sense that even though the Nicaraguan revolution is a very profound process, it does give room for participation by diverse groups. The revolution has established a framework within which different political, economic and social forces can be active, can move about. Let me explain.
Remember that in Chile, in 1970 under Allende, democracy was put to a test of whether or not it was possible to alter the system with profound changes through the electoral process. The Popular Unity Party of Allende reached power through elections, but because the party presented a challenge to the system itself, the interests of the established system destroyed the Popular Unity.
Now, within some Latin American democracies there is pluralist participation. For example, in Costa Rica, Venezuela, and now in Argentina, contending political forces are permitted to participate in the electoral process so long as they don't alter the system. The Communists, for example, do participate in the elections in Venezuela. They are part of the pluralist scheme, as long as they do not represent a threat to the system. They have some influence on the political decisions and they have some influence on public opinion.
In the case of Nicaragua, where a profound revolution has taken place and where we have not sought the classic alternative of a one-party state, we have established a framework, a new system. It is, logically, not similar to that of Chile under Allende which was unable to defend itself, nor is it similar to that of Cuba or others within the socialist community. It has its own characteristics.
Now, of course, in the United States, if some political force were to attempt to alter the political system, that force would be destroyed by the system. In the U. S., other political forces can participate, they can present opinions and they can dissent so long as there is no attempt against the system itself. In Nicaragua, we are doing something similar. That is what I mean by pluralism in Nicaragua.
Now about the role of the military. There is an army which has the function of defending the system, which is the function of armies in all parts of the world. The North American army will defend the North American system. The Soviet army will defend the Communist system. The Sandinista army will defend the Sandinista system.
NPQ: In the U. S. border region, where we are concerned with security, there have been two different revolutionary histories - Mexico and Cuba. In Mexico, the role and importance of the army have diminished over the years. In Cuba, the army continues to play a major role in society. How do you analyze this situation and how might the lessons apply to Nicaragua?
Ortega: Cuba has an army such as it has not because of the internal situation, but because they are confronting the United States. I really don't believe the Cubans are all that interested in investing enormous amounts of resources in their army; but until they reach a situation where they are at peace with the United States, it will be very difficult for them to reduce that force. Nicaragua is an even clearer case of the same problem. We need not so much an army, but a people that is prepared to defend itself.
What you say about Mexico is correct, but Mexico was able to diminish its army to the degree that it was no longer threatened by the United States. Despite the very serious problems Mexico has had with the United States, particularly in the earlier stage of their revolution comparable to where we are now, it now has a most stable relationship. But, when the Mexican system has been threatened, as was the case during the rebellion of the students in 1968, then the army has come out to repress.
NPQ: The U. S. government overthrew President Francisco Madero during the Mexican revolution, but as you mentioned, ultimately the U. S. and Mexico came to a pragmatic accommodation. Can the Nicaraguan revolution make the same sort of accommodation?
Ortega: There is a proposal presented by the Latin American countries that are allies of the United States. This proposal has also been supported by all of the U. S. allies in Europe. It is a proposal that has been presented after almost two years of effort. This is the proposal of the Contadora Group - Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama.
This proposal has been accepted by Nicaragua after much reflection and analysis. For us, it represents concessions. The situation we would be in after implementing these accords is very risky because we do not belong to any military pact while the other Central American governments are supported by the U.S. government. To accept this proposal is to put Nicaragua's security in the hands of the international community, especially of the European and Latin American countries.
Although the draft also represents concessions for the United States, the United States' power to affect and influence policies in Central America is far greater than any other country's, and Nicaragua would have to confront that power if its interests are threatened.
We accept the Contadora draft with a pragmatic end in mind, in favor of peace, accommodation and with a sense of responsibility, conscious that our security is going to depend on a political and moral commitment of the Latin American and European friends of the U. S. That is what counts above all.
Nicaragua would be placing its security on a certain political, moral commitment because we are not a part of any military bloc or alliance, nor do we aspire to be. We are in a zone where the influence of the United States is very heavy. We cannot have our security depend on what the United States says, because the Central American region will continue to be a region controlled by the United States.
NPQ: You acknowledge the fact, then, that Nicaragua is within the "sphere of influence" of the United States.
NPQ: It is obvious that conservative forces are in the ascendancy in the U. S. Whether that is good or bad, it's an objective reality. How do you deal with that?
Ortega: I am very conscious of the new strength and force that the conservative forces have gained in the United States, and the role that the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and the hostage situation in Iran have played in helping to create this new conservatism.
Now, what is the problem we Nicaraguans confront? Our crime has been that we have made a revolution. We changed a system that was created by the United States and this administration does not want to accept our revolution. Every day Nicaragua is being looked at through an enormous magnifying glass. All the propaganda resources the government of the United States has are deployed against us.
In Nicaragua, for example, there is a much more open society, a more pluralistic society, more liberty, more freedom of the press than in Chile, for example, or Paraguay or Haiti - just to mention the most crude examples. But the United States is not concerned about democracy in those countries. There are no comparisons made concerning those countries' totalitarianism.
I believe that in Nicaragua there is more democracy than in El Salvador. Human rights are not being violated in the way that they are in El Salvador with the uncontrollable death squads and so on. Nicaragua is being accused of religious persecution and it is the only country in Latin America that is being accused of religious persecution by the U. S. government. But after five years of revolution, not even one priest has been assassinated in Nicaragua. In many Latin American countries, dozens of priests and religious figures have been assassinated.
It is true that in Nicaragua we don't have complete freedom of the press. There are restrictions regarding military information and sometimes the censors make mistakes censoring certain information that doesn't have to be censored. But the mass media continues to express itself against the Sandinista government. There is right now opportunity of expression through the newspapers and on the radio. But every time a piece of information is censored in Nicaragua, this seems to be a scandal. In certain supposedly democratic countries in Latin America, the mass media have been closed down. But that's not news.
The problem is that there is an attitude on the part of the U.S. government to destroy the Nicaraguan revolution. Regardless of the efforts to establish a pluralist regime, the government of the United States does not want to take these efforts into account. The great concern of the Administration is a reflection of the historical policy of the United States toward Latin America. The U.S. government is concerned that this revolution may be able to consolidate itself and thus become a very dangerous example for Latin America. It would be proof that nationalist revolutions can take place that move toward democracy and pluralism.
In one way of looking at it, the greatest favor we could perform for this Administration would be if we were to define ourselves as a regime such as Cuba's. If we were to declare a Marxist-Leninist socialist revolution, if we were to declare ourselves allies of the Soviet Union, then the U.S. government would be able to say, "Do you see that it is impossible to have democratic revolutions in Latin America? Do you see that everything leads to Communism? Do you see that everything is promoted by Russia and Cuba?"
In the final analysis, the U. S. would prefer to deal with a regime of that type. That would automatically isolate the struggle of the Salvadoran people. It would reflect a retreat, a step backward in the struggle for Latin American democracy. The Latin American governments together with the European governments would then change their attitude about the phenomenon of change in Latin America. Then the U. S. government could say to the Europeans, "Do you not see that they are a silly bunch of fools? Do you see that you are a silly bunch of fools to think it is possible to have democratic revolutions in Latin America?"
NPQ: Wouldn't you describe yourself as a Marxist-Leninist?
Ortega: How can anyone with even a minimum of intelligence believe that Nicaragua would want to invade its neighbors?. What possible benefit could accrue to Nicaragua by so doing? Wouldn't the United States love to see us do that? Then they could invade, but not only that, they could invade with applause from the world! Wouldn't we, deservedly so, be the object of repudiation from the entire international community?
NPQ: If you are not a threat to your neighbors, then why did even the Carter Administration, which had originally aided the revolution, withdraw support?
Ortega: On the contrary, Carter continued to defend aid to Nicaragua until he left office. There was opposition to this aid, and even we at a certain point were tempted to say, "well, okay, let them keep their money" because there was hope and expectation by the Nicaraguan people, and the people were becoming indignant when they heard how the discussion was taking place in the U.S. At last the aid was approved. Perhaps $55 million of that $75 million was disbursed. The rest of the aid was canceled by the Reagan government. It wasn't the Carter government.
During the same period, there was a propaganda campaign stating that an offensive in El Salvador was being carried out with the aid that Nicaragua was giving to the Salvadoran rebels. At that point, we had talks with Ambassador Pezzulo (U. S. Ambassador to Nicaragua during the Carter Administration) who gave us information that from a certain point in Nicaragua arms were being transported into El Salvador. Measures were taken from within Nicaragua to eliminate that problem, thanks to the information Ambassador Pezzulo made available to us. But the campaign regarding the supposed arms that were reaching El Salvador from Nicaragua served as a justification for renewing aid to El Salvador. At that point, President Carter was totally weakened. The newly elected Reagan Administration was already exerting influence and the renewal of aid to El Salvador - an action the new administration was going to take anyway - was attributed to Carter,
NPQ: Why do you have the largest army in Central America?
Ortega: According to U. S. figures, the largest army is that of El Salvador - I'm talking about armies, not militias. But, why would anyone doubt why we have a large army, or why we need effective weapons when the Americans are doing what they are doing to Nicaragua?
NPQ: Your government has been increasingly criticized by the bishops in Nicaragua ....
Ortega: Not all of the bishops criticize the government, but some of them do because the government is promoting a revolutionary process. Even in the United States, the bishops criticize the government for some of its policies in the nuclear arms arena. But, of course your country is a big country, a powerful country which cannot be the victim of effective propaganda from other countries.
In Nicaragua, when the bishops criticize the government it does have great implications. However, in other Latin American countries we also see that there are bishops who for various reasons criticize different governments, but that is not news. What is news is everything that happens in Nicaragua.
NPQ: Some of the Europeans who have been supportive of the Nicaraguan revolution have also asked that you postpone elections. What is this about?
Ortega: What there has been is an interest that all political parties participate in the elections, especially since the United States has presented Mr. Cruz as the only opposition. In fact, of the eleven parties that exist in Nicaragua, seven are participating in the elections. Of these seven, six are opposed to the Sandinista government.
We are the only country in Latin America that has been concerned that all parties participate in the elections. Instead of setting up obstacles, we have made efforts to insure everyone can participate and register.
The conditions presented by the non-participating parties - over which Arturo Cruz has no influence - are conditions that are out of reality. What they are trying to do is impose a program of government as a condition for participation in the elections rather than going to the elections to defend their program of government.
Within the non-participating parties there are two positions. One is a minority group position held by Arturo Cruz which has been in favor of participating in the elections. They have been flexible. There is a majority position which doesn't really want the elections, which plays the game of the U.S. aggression, which wants U.S. intervention.
NPQ: The latest reason given by the United States for objecting to the Contadora process is that disarmament and arms flows would be unverifiable....
Ortega: This is totally untrue. There are many contemplated mechanisms of verification and control right there in the draft Contadora treaty that we have accepted.
NPQ: Do you believe that the participation of the French, Spaniards and Portuguese by signing an annex to the Contadora treaty - or Brazil and Argentina, as has been talked about - would be sufficient to assure international opinion that you are in full compliance'!
Ortega: They could be chosen. The French, Spanish and Portuguese were present at a meeting of twenty-two Central American and European foreign ministers recently in Costa Rica. They said, to paraphrase, that "we have analyzed everything here in this Contadora document that concern the objections that the U. S. is raising about the inadequacy of verifiability and control. We conclude that this is a magnificent agreement, an exemplary kind of proposal for an international treaty." Again, let me note, this is not our proposal - we had proposed another measure for verification and control earlier last year. This is the proposal of Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and Panama that we have accepted