medico: In a text of yours from 2009 on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution, you quote the former guerrilla fighter Dora María Téllez: "I don't believe that the revolution was lost. It was successful. The more time goes by, the more convinced I am of it. It has been engrained in the minds of Nicaraguans that they have rights: Human rights, political and social rights." Would you still subscribe to that today?
Dieter Müller: Absolutely. Many people I met through the medico projects in Nicaragua, such as the El Tanque village project, had exactly this basic view: they had developed self-esteem, strength and independence in the revolution, and this all remains. In view of the failure of the Sandinista Party, however, I wonder who will still have memories of a revolution in the positive light that Dora María describes. The following generations are increasingly fed up with the glorification of Ortega. Today, the revolution is associated with a giant stage full of flowers and dignitaries. That is not the image that Dora María painted. It is the image of an arrogant elite that no longer has anything in common with the revolutionaries of the past.
Let's go back a few decades. When medico started its engagement in Nicaragua, the concept of "liberation aid" was still at the forefront. What did that mean?
The successes of anti-colonial liberation movements on the African continent had kindled a spirit of optimism that was very influential for medio for a considerable time. In solidarity with the new governments, the common goal of a right to health and an emphasis on primary health care were turned into a reality. When the revolution in Nicaragua emerged victorious in 1979 and the country freed itself from a brutal dictatorship, it was clear that here, too, the health sector would be a key factor in building a new state system. The Nicaraguan Ministry of Health asked medico for support. Because the war against the Contras ignited relatively quickly in the north of the country, medico was supposed to help implement the principle of Health for All in the south, in the province of Río San Juan. This involved health outposts in villages, health centres and a district hospital in the provincial capital. In addition, a nurses' school was to be built in San Carlos to train local staff. All this has actually been realised – including thanks to massive worldwide solidarity.
In 1990, a radical change took place: the FSLN lost the elections to an anti-Sandinista electoral alliance supported by the USA.
Yes, and then what we were fearing happened: The model of grassroots, people-centred health care and provision was no longer assigned priority. We could not continue our previous engagement alongside the state. After all, we did not want to serve as a fig leaf. So we switched to supporting those who continued to work for social justice, equality and human rights under the new conditions. One very important area was women's health because the former Sandinista government had not enshrined women's sexual and reproductive rights in any binding way. Even then, parts of the Sandinista women's movement had begun to organise and articulate themselves independently of the party with its patriarchal structures. Organisations emerged in the process, some of which we cooperated with for a very long time. Topics ranged from obstetrics to psychological counselling, which also addressed intra-family and sexualised violence.
Another break was Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which caused huge destruction.
On the ground, people knew about our experience with integrated approaches: that a disaster is not just about distributing food parcels and setting up emergency shelters. When we were asked by survivors if we would support them in occupying land and starting over again, we immediately agreed. People needed a new way of life: housing, clean water, health, education, psychosocial support – it was all about the big picture. This is how the village of El Tanque came into being. Its cooperative also exists to this very day. Despite all the pressure, the people resist selling their land to the sugar cane and peanut industries. They realise that it offers them and their children a different future.
The FSLN returned to power in 2007. Was the government still pursuing a project of social change back then? Or had it long since embarked on an authoritarian path?
As far back as the mid-1990s, there had been internal fissures in the FSLN. However, the alienation of the grassroots from the party was slower and more gradual. By the time of its re-election, the FSLN was already fully embodying a mixture of paternalistic, charitable and capitalist approaches, while cladding itself in revolutionary rhetoric. It must be admitted, however, that the government was able to launch generous social programmes, mainly thanks to support from Venezuela. The criticism that such programmes were purely charitable and did not change anything in terms of structures was at the time mainly voiced by the intellectual and political cadres as well as internationally. Many people, however, accepted corrugated sheets or food rations with gratitude – and remained loyal to the party. At that time, those who today form the Orteguist elite acted to ensure that an electoral defeat like the one that took place in 1990 would not be repeated. Neither political power nor access to economic resources was to ever be lost again. Aid from Venezuela was no longer administered through the state, for instance, but through private structures – an invitation to corruption.
In 2018, the situation escalated: the government brutally suppressed the broad protest movement that had risen up all over the country. Were you surprised by the extent of the state-sponsored violence?
When a few years ago protests by the women's movement were attacked on a massive scale and shortly afterwards the police and military also moved on peasants protesting against the plans for an inter-oceanic canal, this was evidence of increasing repression. The violence did not take place in isolation, either, but was perpetrated in different places. From my point of view, it was nevertheless scarcely foreseeable that street fighting would break out in Managua in 2018 and that the police would shoot at students.
Democracy and an awakening have been turned into their opposites: an ossified system in which every form of opposition is suppressed. Dora María Téllez, who was quoted at the beginning, has been convicted of conspiracy by a politicised judicial system. What mistakes or failures on the part of the international left have contributed to this development?
We have to analyse more intensively what critical solidarity from a leftist perspective specifically means. I think it is a mistake to extend misunderstood sympathy to real or supposedly left-wing governments. In Nicaragua as far back as in the 1980s, the international left should have been more explicit, for example, on issues of women's rights, participation and also the rights of ethnic minorities. It is also always important for there to be actors who monitor and support what the left does in government in a spirit of solidarity, but to also remain critical. There needs to be an external critical mass and force. But the main criticism must be directed at ourselves as the international left. We have closed our eyes far too often. In view of our own inability to make a difference here in the Global North, we have projected a lot onto other countries: "May there be liberation there. We support them." In this respect, the question of what mistakes the Sandinistas made can only go hand in hand with the question of what we did wrong.
Interview: Moritz Krawinkel, Transcription: Anna Pagel, Translation: Rajosvah Mamisoa