MANAGUA – Henry Ruiz doesn’t believe history needs to repeat itself. But in order to prevent Nicaragua from replaying its violent past, the former guerrilla hero known as “Modesto” has once again found himself in the repeat role of organizing people and raising awareness about the abuses of dictatorship.
Only this time, Ruiz’s efforts are civic, and the man he accuses of being a dictator is his former revolutionary comrade.
As a leader of the newly formed Movement Against Reelection and Fraud, Ruiz has recently come out of the political shadows to assume a stronger role in Nicaragua’s growing yet fragmented opposition to President Daniel Ortega.
The movement, which was founded by Ortega’s former cell mate and ex-guerrilla Onofre Guevara, is not a political party, but rather a grassroots effort to reach out to the majority of the population that isn’t currently affiliated with any political organization.
The goal, Ruiz said, is to prevent Ortega from getting himself reelected with the support of only a minority of the population by manipulating the judicial and electoral systems.
“We are trying to raise people’s consciousness and organize them,” Ruiz told The Nica Times in a recent interview. “And if we are able to do it in time, Daniel won’t get reelected.”
However, the former rebel leader warned, this could be Nicaragua’s last chance to find a civil solution to its growing political crisis. If Ortega manages to get himself reelected in 2011, Ruiz warned, “insurrection becomes valid” and uprisings “will start to appear” in different parts of the country.
After attending university in Moscow and becoming schooled in communist theory, Ruiz returned to Nicaragua and quickly became a rebel figure of mythic proportions in the mountains of northern Nicaragua. Not only was he known as a brave and intelligent rebel leader, but also as a hard-line leader of the Sandinista faction known as the “Prolonged Popular War.” Ruiz also became a strong ideological influence for many young guerrillas.
After the triumph of the revolution in 1979, Ruiz, a senior comandante and member of the ruling National Directorate, became the minister of planning and later minister of foreign cooperation. But as other comandantes – especially the Ortega brothers and party founder Tomás Borge – sought leading roles, Modesto shied from the spotlight and continued to live up to his nickname.
After Ortega’s 1990 electoral loss, Ruiz defected from the ranks of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and joined the dissident left-wing Movement to Rescue Sandinismo (Rescate).
And unlike many of the other comandantes who became wealthy off the revolution, Ruiz continued to live humbly.
In 2005, Ruiz came out in strong support of presidential candidate Herty Lewites, a Sandinista dissident and former mayor of Managua who ran on the ticket of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).
But after Lewites’ died of a sudden heart attack in the early stages of the campaign, Ruiz again faded from the political scene.
Now he’s back again. And this time he’s not being so modest in his assessment of his former revolutionary comrade.
“Daniel says he is socialist, Christian and in solidarity, but he isn’t any of those three things,” Ruiz said. “This government looks more despotic or tyrannical than revolutionary.”
Though Ortega has billed his government as a continuation of the revolution from the 1980s, Ruiz says it’s nothing more than an “arbitrary interpretation” of the first Sandinista government, which he says was based on the principles of social justice.
“This is an abusive regime that uses imagery that is populist and opportunistic,” Ruiz said.
He also scoffs at the idea that the Sandinista government of today is implementing an economic model based on socialism. Ruiz calls it a “reformed” and “primitive” version of capitalism.
Mobilizing the Bases
In the past, Ruiz has said that change in Nicaragua comes only through violence. Now, however, he says the country needs to be willing to try something different.
“One can’t fall into historical fatalism,” Ruiz said. “We can’t say ‘It happened like shots at one another – the contras and us, the principle actors – are saying no more war. And if we say no to war, then what’s left? If (the government) is altering the institutionalism of the country and violating the laws, what is left for us to do? Form resistance in the streets,” Ruiz said.
By organizing pressure in the streets, the Movement Against Reelection and Fraud hopes it can convince the Ortega government to abide by the law and stop violating the constitution.
He said if the business community comes on board and supports the opposition – a move he claims is in their best long term interest – the “combination of factors can force Daniel Ortega to say, ‘It’s better if we just follow the law’.”
The former communist also hopes that Nicaragua’s multiple free-trade deals with other countries will act as an additional external incentive for Ortega to keep Nicaragua on the path of democracy.
“The part that I don’t even want to talk about, because it bothers me so much, is that capitalism has globalized. It has advanced and broken the borders. Nicaragua is a country that is looking for development and growth and it has signed a bunch of free trade treaties that demand Nicaragua has a democratic system that is plural and participative – so that’s another external factor,” Ruiz said.
But if the combination of street pressure, economic pressure and international obligations are unable to prevent Ortega from remaining in power, then Ruiz says they’ll have to rethink their protest strategy after next year’s elections.
A Different Type of Struggle
Although Ruiz has previous experience organizing people against the government, this time around the mentality is much different, he said.
Preparing a civic movement is much different than an armed rebellion in the mountains, he said.
Plus, Ruiz added, the goal now is to pressure the government into upholding rule of law, not overthrowing the government.
“In the 1970s the message was very simple – it was a struggle against the dictatorship, injustice and oppression. Now the message is more sophisticated,” Ruiz said. “As a young man, I didn’t believe in the laws; by definition I didn’t believe in the laws. You think someone who is going to fight with guns and take the life of someone else is in favor of the law?”
Now, he said, it’s the government that is violating the law with arbitrary presidential decrees and political interpretations of the constitution that serve as a way to justify Ortega’s attempts at continuance in power.
So now the struggle is to save the system, not overthrow it. But if the Movement Against Reelection and Fraud is unsuccessful in the next 16 months leading up to theNovember 2011 presidential elections, the opposition’s organizational tactics might start looking more like they did in the past, Ruiz warns.
If Ortega remains in power, Ruiz said, “then the slogan will change and the form of struggle will change. We’ll talk about that after the elections.”