Forty Years Since the Sandinista Revolution: Could it Have Been Different?
On the 40th anniversary of the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship, Envío magazine invited Luis Carrion Cruz, one of the nine comandantes on the original FSLN National directorate, deputy minister of the interior and minister of the economy during the 1980s, and in the leadership of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) since 2005, to share his assessment of the current situation. Carrion writes of the revolution, his participation in it, and his take on how we all got to this moment in which Daniel Ortega has Nicaragua trapped in a dictatorial crisis with no clear or easy way out given his determination to remain in power at all cost.
By Luis Carrión Cruz (Envio magazine)
HAVANA TIMES – I’ll do my best to evaluate the revolution, though I’m hesitant to do so for several reasons. First because I was there as a protagonist, so I share responsibilities for the good and bad parts of that period, some of which are still topical today even though they date back 40 years. Secondly, I speak from my memories, and memory is always fallible and selective. And finally, the revolution was such an enormous, complex and multidimensional phenomenon, it’s very hard to summarize what it represented in a few pages.
The revolution was a giant popular movement
A revolution is never just a political power takeover by a party through elections or a coup. In Nicaragua’s case it was a huge political and social movement, a giant movement of people wo overthrew the Somoza dictatorship and later continued pushing for deep changes in our country’s social reality. Masses of people from all social classes and different political positions participated in different moments and in different ways. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was the catalyst and main protagonist of that historic struggle, its ethical and political guide.
But the revolution wasn’t just a social and political phenomenon. It mobilized the spirit of those of us who participated in it. And I’m not referring only to the leaders, but to many, many more. Because of the revolution, many of us set aside all of our personal life projects to replace them with the revolution’s overriding collective project. That vital experience also explains why thousands of people were willing to face enormous difficulties and sacrifices, even risk their lives for the revolution, demonstrating extraordinary heroism that will remain in a history that cannot be erased or debased. Without that, we can’t explain how in 1990 almost 40% of the voters still voted for the FSLN after a decade of terrible difficulties, shortages, pain and many deaths.
The FSLN acquired power nobody had ever had before
The revolution unleashed energies and passions, which mixed with all types of emotions aimed at building “the promised land.” Those emotions and actions ranged from the most basic ones, such as seeking vengeance for perceived or real harm by Somoza’s representatives or followers, to the most noble ones by those of us who wanted to transform the social and political reality in favor of the great majorities.
The fall of the Somoza dictatorship eliminated the plug that was blocking most people’s political participation and opened the doors to a multifaceted, and at first disorganized, popular action. The end of Somocismo allowed for the awakening of all the diverse and many times contradictory dreams and demands of different sectors, frequently manifested in a chaotic form.
For reasons unique to our case, the revolution entirely swept out the capitalist Somoza State. Not a brick was left of it, permitting a new State to be built practically from scratch. By arising in that vacuum as the political force that capitalized on the returns of Somoza’s overthrow after a long history of struggle, the FSLN acquired more power than anybody had ever had before in the history of Nicaragua. With that unanticipated total power, we took on the construction of a new State, placing the Sandinista seal on all public institutions, and on numerous genuinely mass organizations that covered virtually every social sector.
Soon the worse suspicions were mutually confirmed
The revolution didn’t happen in an isolated Nicaragua. It happened in an international context marked by the Cold War between the East and the West, between the US and the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan’s government (1981-1989), which took office just as we were beginning to implement our vision of a true national revolution, saw it as a Soviet Union advance on the American continent that threatened to destabilize the whole region.
During Reagan’s electoral campaign, his team produced a famous programmatic text called the Santa Fe Document that openly established the objective of overthrowing the Sandinista government. Once in power, Reagan launched an ongoing large-scale and multidimensional aggression with political, diplomatic, economic and military actions against the Sandinista government. The Reagan administration supported the remnants of the Somoza family’s National Guard, developed actions of sabotage executed directly by the CIA and last, but hardly least, financed and militarily advised and equipped the “Contra,” as the counterrevolutionary forces that began with those former National Guardsmen soon came to be called. These actions involved not only the United States, but also other countries in the region.
For historical reasons, we had a deep mistrust of US governments because of their military interventions all over the world, and their history of overthrowing governments and supporting sanguinary regimes. Nicaragua, too, had been through more than one US military intervention, and Washington had supported the Somoza family right up to its final moment. We were convinced that the US would always try to destroy the revolution, as it was in its imperialist nature.
Very soon we felt the need to develop a three-pronged defense strategy. One was to support the guerrilla movements of Central America, not only for solidarity reasons, but also defensive ones. Another was to establish an alliance with the Soviet Union, because we needed some sort of umbrella that would protect us from the “monster.” And the third was to create a strong Army.
Both the US actions and ours mutually confirmed each other’s worse suspicions and set the stage for the bloodiest war between Nicaraguans we’ve ever had, and the country has had several in its history.
We felt we were fighting for our survival
The US aggression tapped into a growing disaffection among Nicaraguan peasants, brought about by factors of our own making.
Peasants from all over the central part of the country rose up against the revolution and against the Sandinista government. Many joined the Contra ranks, which made way for a sort of organized civil war, financed and managed by the US, but made up largely of disaffected peasants who were supported by much of the civilian rural population.
I say “a sort of civil war” because the Contra side didn’t have a coherent, developed political project opposing the revolutionary project. This contrast had an impact at the moment of the first peace negotiations, held in the border town of Sapoá, so they didn’t demand important institutional changes, contrary to what the FMLN did when the war ended in El Salvador.
The revolution lived a good part of its 10-year life under siege, fighting for survival, under constant threat of a direct US military intervention. Let’s remember that just in the 1980s the US intervened militarily twice in our neighborhood: in the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983 and in Panama in 1989. We thus weren’t exaggerating or being paranoid by believing we, too, could experience a military intervention. We felt harassed, besieged and threatened, convinced we were fighting for our very survival.
At the end of the 1980s the world situation changed radically. The socialist camp collapsed, and the United States emerged triumphant from the Cold War. The financial and military support we were getting from the USSR ended abruptly.
There was also a shift in the United States. With a Democratic majority in both houses of the US Congress and Bush Sr. replacing Reagan in the White House following the 1988 elections, the war policy against the Sandinista government wound down and support for the Contra was suspended.
By then, the accumulated erosion of Nicaragua’s human and economic conditions was brutal. While there was less recruitment for military service, it was increasingly difficult and conflictive. Both sides were completely exhausted and negotiations became the only way out.
Following the regional negotiations known as the Esquipulas peace process – named after the city in Guatemala in which they were first held – talks began with the Contra, culminating in the Sapoá accords. These negotiations opened the door for the 1990 elections, the electoral defeat of the FSLN and the end of the revolution.
The FSLN’s 72-hour Assembly Ruptures the national consensus
Now, after that fast forward through the war that so dominated the revolutionary decade, let’s start back at the beginning and look at the ups and downs of the revolutionary process itself. The revolution came into power with a program hammered out by the broad-based five-person National Reconstruction Junta, which itself had been negotiated as a provisional government with other opposition sectors and even the US government before the fall of Somoza.
With respect to democracy, that program said: “The necessary legislation will be enacted for the organization of a regime of effective democracy with justice and social progress that will fully guarantee the rights of all Nicaraguans to political participation and universal suffrage, as well as the organization and functioning of political parties, without ideological discrimination, with the exception of parties and organizations whose intention is to return to Somocismo.”
The equivalent paragraph about this issue in the historic 1969 FSLN program, said: “The Sandinista Front is a political-military organization whose strategic objective is the seizure of political power through the destruction of the military and bureaucratic apparatus of the dictatorship and the establishment of a revolutionary government based on a worker-peasant alliance and the participation of all anti-imperialist and anti-oligarchic patriotic forces of the country.”
The huge differences in the tone and content of the proposals in the two documents are clearly noticeable. One places emphasis on institutional democracy and the other on building a State with a different class content. What happened? As the triumph of the revolution swept out the capitalist Somocista State and its entire military apparatus and left a huge amount of power in the FSLN’s hands, the Sandinista version ended up prevailing.
In September 1979, the FSLN called its most outstanding members to a meeting later dubbed the 72-hour Assembly. Its purpose was to draft the FSLN’s “big plan” for the revolution. Why another program if there already was one? Our answer was that, “the circumstances have changed.” By then, the balance of power among the different sectors and groups that had participated in the overthrow of Somoza had shifted significantly. With the collapse of the National Guard, the FSLN had conquered all the military power; the two large traditional political parties were in disarray or fragmented, and the FSLN had the bulk of the new mass organizations on its side. In short, the FSLN had conquered virtually all the power, hence the circumstances that had led to the Junta’s program and the alliances with non-revolutionary sectors were no longer in force, rendering that program unnecessary.
In the program that resulted from the 72-hour Assembly, one particular point stands out enough to appreciate the course the revolution would take from then on. It defined objective number one as: “to isolate the bourgeois traitors” and to “organize the revolution’s driving forces,” i.e. the workers and the peasants, and “place all forces under the direction of the FSLN.”
This was the guide with which we started acting and followed from then on. The first result of this decision was the rupture of the previously negotiated national consensus. The Junta’s program reflected that pre-triumph consensus, but with the major post-triumph change in the power balance we had an unanticipated opportunity to implement our historic program and we went for it. Our attitude was: “We’re in charge here and can do whatever we want, and we don’t have to make concessions to anyone else…”
Even though other parties existed, a single-party logic was imposed
This decision implied the effective ending of the National Reconstruction Junta. Although Alfonso Robelo and Violeta Chamorro had been in it from the beginning, the decisions made by the FSLN were the ones the Junta implemented and executed. That’s why they both resigned a few months after the Assembly. We replaced them with some other non-Sandinista personalities, but it was a mere formality because the FSLN maintained the hegemony.
In fact, a single-party logic was imposed, even though other parties subsisted, weak and controlled. Under that logic, we began to build not a national State, but a Sandinista State. All institutions were under Sandinista control. The Army was Sandinista, the Police was Sandinista, and all ministries and other state institutions came under the aegis, influence and control of the FSLN. It was assumed that all would adopt, follow and act according to its objectives and policies.
With the party’s political power consolidated, another objective stated in the 72-hour Assembly’s program implied neutralizing any political force that could question the FSLN’s hegemony. In March 1980, right around the time he resigned from the Junta, Alfonso Robelo, leader of the Nicaraguan Democratic Movement party he founded in 1978, tried to reorganize his party and called a demonstration in the town of Nandaime. Faced with a possible massive mobilization, we decreed that “Nandaime isn’t happening” and stopped the demonstration through all means possible.
That act marked our route: we would stop any political action by anyone who could question the revolution in any effective form. By that same logic, we later imposed media censorship and repressed any attempt at opposition. All political space for those who opposed us was quickly closed. The FSLN was the “enlightened vanguard” that had to lead everything in Nicaragua, as if it was a right born of the revolution. That mentality prevailed from the beginning.
Political democracy wasn’t a revolutionary objective
This logic led to the harassment of business sectors, who we called “bourgeois traitors.” We mainly applied it to the financial oligarchy, but the concept was spread to all of those who opposed the revolution or just did things we didn’t like. We also used confiscations as a political weapon. They were so political that they were announced in public plazas during large demonstrations where everybody would applaud them.
Classist and confrontational language—the proletariat against the bourgeois—was also widely developed, above all during the first years of the revolution. All bourgeois were traitors, with little distinction made between those who were and those who weren’t. In fact, in some places, especially in rural areas, where it was difficult to find any real “bourgeoisie”, petty bourgeois farmers and people with some small business were harassed with that same classist language, accusations and threats. All this shows that institutionalized democracy was not an explicit objective of the revolution, even though we talked about “political pluralism.”
How did we come to terms with this? First by not declaring ourselves the only party, and second by allowing other political parties to subsist, even though they had no possibility of real advocacy in the country’s political life.
The kind of organization needed to fight against a dictatorship must be clandestine, very disciplined and very centralized, with all information compartmentalized and very little debate because the conditions won’t allow for it. All this generates non-democratic behavior and values when transferred to a country’s political system.
Unlike the Cuban model, which had so much influence on the revolution, we never declared ourselves Socialists. Nor did we declare ourselves the only party, although the actions of the other political parties were seriously limited.
And while the media was censored, there were critical media outlets. In reality, we were influenced by the Cubans, but weren’t an exact copy of their model.
We based ourselves on the concept that the revolution was… well, irreversible, that it would be there forever. Because what had been won had cost so much blood and sacrifice, we weren’t about to raffle it off in some election. We thought that if we had risked our lives conquering power, leaving a large amount of blood along the way, we weren’t going to let a few votes change that.
No reflection about the contradictions of the 1984 elections
The revolution was eternal and we weren’t going to raffle off that power… yet, we allowed elections in 1984. It was a tactical decision in the hopes of giving the Sandinista government a legitimacy acceptable to the Western world and weakening Reagan’s aggressive strategy of openly fighting to overthrow it.
The 1984 elections were semi-democratic. I say that because, even though the votes were counted well, the whole campaign and the whole state apparatus were at the service of the FSLN, which controlled all the institutions, assuring its triumph.
The political effect we sought with these elections was important but limited, mainly because the US-backed Democratic Coordinator, at that time the main opposition, didn’t participate. It started out doing so, launching a candidate and all, but a little before election day, it pulled out, claiming it was impossible to campaign under so much hounding and harassment. Pressure from the Reagan administration weighed heavily in its decision, because its participation would had taken justification away from the White House’s determination to bring down the revolution.
The most important thing I want to say about those elections is that they represented a fundamental contradiction with the prevailing logic up until then: that the revolution was eternal and that its legitimacy was based on the struggle and sacrifice, and elections represent raffling off power… By holding elections, we were admitting, without acknowledging it, that the revolution could lose, and were taking the risk of demonstrating that the revolution wasn’t eternal. With those elections, the revolution’s legitimacy was no longer anchored to the struggle, the sacrifice, the martyrs…Henceforward it would be anchored to the popular will, to winning the majority of the people’s votes.
The 1984 elections clearly contradicted the logic we had been following. From my perspective, we didn’t assimilate, didn’t assume, didn’t even understand the huge consequences those elections had. We clung to the tactical perspective that the elections were only a formality and the belief that we could always be sure of victory in any election. For that reason, we didn’t prepare ourselves for what was to come six years later: the 1990 electoral defeat.
People who had never been anything became empowered
In spite of it all, the revolution stimulated true social democracy.
When the revolution blew the lid off the dictatorship, there was an explosion of demands and massive popular participation. A bunch of sectors that had remained crushed during the Somocista regime and, unable to express themselves in any way, started presenting demands: some for land, the Miskitos for sovereignty, others simply for the right to be taken into account…
Mobilizations of all shapes and colors took place, with people demonstrating in the streets, the fields, everywhere…Some organizations that had existed previously, such as the Farm Workers Association (ATC) and industrial unions grew rapidly. Other new ones emerged within this context: the National Farmers and Ranchers Union (UNAG), the Sandinista Defense Committees (CDS) and others. Some were born out of their own dynamics and others launched by the FSLN itself, which according to its vision had to create a network of mass social organizations that were coordinated and subordinated in some way to it.
Just one statistic illustrates what this organizational explosion was like: in 1978, there were 138 unions with 20,000 members in Nicaragua; by 1982, unions had increased tenfold and had 90,000 members.
Organizations gained important quotas of power. I remember unions, including the ones in state companies, having a lot of recognition and influence even in administration decisions. Frequently they would question the company administrator or the manager. Popular organizations had real power. For example, the CDS’s were asked to provide endorsements for anyone from their neighborhood who sought employment with the government and were put in charge of managing the ration cards for the distribution of the five basic products.
There was a huge leap in organization, and organization changes people. People who had never been anything during the dictatorship, who were totally ignored or marginalized, suddenly felt a sense of dignity, of having rights and of the strength to do things and demand things. They became empowered.
The organizations became conveyor belts
The leap by these popular organizations was huge, but that achievement gradually weakened, basically because the FSLN, which viewed these organizations as their “conveyor belts,” eventually placed them totally under its direction, converting them into Sandinista organizations, rather than somewhat autonomous organizations whose members were affiliated with them. There were always tensions between the organizations’ role of representing sectorial interests and of being vehicles for government policies. In the end, the FSLN’s hegemony prevailed.
Non-Sandinista and anti-Sandinista opposition started being left by the wayside in these organizations or had little influence inside them. Those who expressed their disagreement were soon dubbed Contras, enemies of the revolution, and were disempowered… The old unions from the Somoza era as well as some more recently organized by other leftist parties were completely marginal; they had no meaning.
The Association of Women in Response to the National Problematic (AMPRONAC), born in 1977 to fight the dictatorship, particularly its human rights abuses against young people who demonstrated against it, was one of the first organizations to be put under Sandinista control as FSLN officials and administrators quickly replaced founders and leaders, effectively bringing the original organization to an end. They even changed its name to the ‘Luisa Amanda Espinoza’ Association of Nicaraguan Women (AMNLAE), the female wing of the FSLN which quickly turned it into another conveyor belt. With AMPRONAC’s dissolution, the country lost the knowledge of a very rich experience accumulated by its first large organized, autonomous, democratic, multi-party, multi-class mass women’s movement, made up of both grassroots women and those from all other social classes.
We knew absolutely nothing about the Caribbean coast
We didn’t know a thing about Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast, absolutely nothing, other than that it had been colonized by the British, while the Pacific side had been colonized by the Spanish. We had no clue how important that different history was in practice. The National Reconstruction Junta’s program only said: “The population of the Atlantic Coast region will be integrated into the country’s development.” That was all. Absolute ignorance. Not even the existence of the five different native indigenous and Afro-Caribbean peoples in the region was acknowledged in the program.
But the revolution triggered expectations among the different groups, particularly the Miskitus, the most numerous and dominant indigenous population. By the time of the revolution, the Coast already had a new generation of young, educated leaders. With the revolution, new organizations blossomed, just as they did in the Pacific, but with their own cultural, political and social stamps. For example, there was Misurasata, which means Miskitus, Sumus and Ramas allied with Sandinistas. Later, due to conflicts that arose, it broke with the Sandinistas and split into two armed organizations, one of which removed the “SA” from its name and called itself Misura.
The avalanche of demands and complaints coming to us from the Coast was truly huge. But since we didn’t understand anything, this promptly caused mutual mistrust, confusion and, from our side, suspicion and accusations of separatism.
The revolution would send party leaders and government officials from the Pacific to the region and put them at the head of all the government areas, but those people didn’t know anything about the Caribbean either. They wanted to mechanically transfer all that was being done in the Pacific—the same organizations, the same approaches, the same discourse—to a region with an utterly different history and five different cultural identities. I don’t remember a single official or political leader having at least tried to learn to speak Miskitu. Maybe there was someone, but I don’t know a single one of the main ones who even made an attempt.
There was a huge culture clash with the Coast
The cultural clash provoked dissatisfaction, irritation and resentment among the Coast populations. They felt the revolution as an invasion of “Spaniards,” because for them, all of us from the Pacific are Spaniards. And on our side, a high degree of racism developed among the “Spaniards” who were sent over; we saw the people from the Coast as “lying and cheating Indians,” not understanding that they had to lie and pretend in order to defend and protect themselves.
On the positive side, the revolution did a literacy program in the Coast’s three main languages. Some say we imposed literacy in Spanish, but that’s not true. The literacy program began on the Coast after the national campaign, but only because we had to make different textbooks in those three languages: Miskitu, Sumu and English. Unfortunately, the content of the literacy materials was similar to that of the rest of the country: highly politicized… and Sandinista and didn’t even take their cultures into account.
In this context, and with such a serious lack of communication, the protest on the Coast spread, and became a generalized resistance to everything that came from the revolution. As the conflict escalated, we responded with repression. With that the war started and the US got involved in the Coast, with President Reagan taking up the Miskitu cause for his own purposes. That war was different from the Contra war in the rest of the country, because the demands from the Coast people, especially the Miskitus, were very different: they specifically had to do with their identity as a people.
We proclaimed Nicaragua a multi-ethnic nation
At a certain point, we finally grasped there was a different reality on the Coast and gave the war on the Coast a different treatment. In 1984, the government began negotiating with Brooklyn Rivera, a Misurasata leader, and then with Yatama, an organization that had reunified the different armed indigenous groups, seeking a ceasefire and talks regarding their political demands.
In that context, the revolutionary government recognized and published a Decalogue of the specific rights of the indigenous peoples. It was an enormous advance over what had existed up until then in Nicaraguan history, which was a benign misunderstanding of the indigenous peoples in the rest of the country, and frequently brutal exploitation by extractive companies, especially foreign ones.
The recognition of a culture native to the Caribbean Coast was the result of a lot of work, dialogue and meetings. We always maintained communication with some Miskito leaders. Finally, in 1987, all this resulted in a regional autonomy law and recognition in the Constitution that same year that “the people of Nicaragua are of a multi-ethnic nature.” Until then, we had seen ourselves as only mestizos.
The autonomy scheme was not perfect, and the way it was conceived and built is possibly outdated. Today, the reality of the Coast is a lot more complex, because now the majority population on the Coast is relatively recently arrived mestizos from the Pacific. We are seeing that the current government isn’t defending the indigenous communities from the aggressive advance, sometimes armed, of settlers from the Pacific on lands now legally demarcated as belonging to those communities.
I believe Caribbean Coast autonomy and recognition of the native peoples were very important contributions by the revolution that led to a change in how we see ourselves as a country. But they weren’t a feat only of the revolutionary government. They were also fruit of the effort and sacrifice of the Miskitus and other Coast people who fought and resisted and placed what we were ignoring on the table.
Confiscations infringed upon the peasants’ values
The US government’s many-faceted aggressions against the revolution in Nicaragua wouldn’t have reached the proportions they did if the massive peasant uprising against the revolution hadn’t happened in the central part of the country, from north to south, despite the revolution defining the peasantry as one of its “driving forces” within the “worker-peasant alliance.”
Why did that force rise up against the revolution, particularly if there had been an agrarian reform? One important reason was the confiscations. These first affected the Somocistas, then those “close to Somocismo”, even when it wasn’t clear who was or wasn’t close. Afterwards, confiscations continued for various other political reasons: for example, to punish people who collaborated with the Contra or were opposition activists. Those actions were perceived as arbitrary or abusive in a society where private property and work are important values.
In addition, many of those confiscated had relatives and friends who were offended by what we were doing. I remember a case in Boaco in 1979, after a farm had been confiscated with the argument that the owner had been a Somocista: “And why did you confiscate his land?”, one woman who knew him demanded. “He had supported Somoza, yes, but he earned that farm you took away from him with his hard work; he didn’t steal it from anybody and nobody gave it to him.” It is a generalized concept in the rural areas that someone who honestly earns his land, independent of his political affiliation, has the right to his land and it’s unfair to take it away, no matter how unequal land distribution might be. Our confiscations attacked the traditional values of agrarian society in the central part of the country.
Another problem is that confiscations were conducted by government functionaries and political leaders who came from the cities and were imbued with an ideological vision of the countryside, without knowing a thing about the identity of a peasant society. The impact of that created more contradictions and lack of communication, and an incapacity to relate to peasants, who speak a language quite different from those who went to the countryside representing the revolution.
Roadblocks for rural products: Another negative policy
With the war, shortages increased and the food prices rose higher in the cities. The government wanted to protect its social base, especially the urban one. An official food price policy was established, for products produced by peasants. Roadblocks were placed on the highways and when farmers headed into the city to sell their produce, they were stopped, the produce was taken from them and they were paid the official price for it. That produce was then sold in the city at an even lower price. This policy harmed the peasants’ way of being, living and understanding things in a very fundamental way, and they rejected these impositions.
It was a very negative policy. The cities were protected with lower food prices, which was positive, but at the cost of huge sacrifices from the peasants. Production fell because the peasants saw they weren’t getting paid enough for their efforts, and when production fell, shortages worsened.
This caused a dramatic deterioration in the peasants’ standard of living, only made worse by the fact that while the prices of their products were kept low, prices for industrial products went up. An example of the impoverishment this policy caused in the rural areas is that in 1978, a peasant could buy a pair of pants with 49 pounds of corn and a shirt with 22 pounds, whereas by 1985, a pair of pants would cost him 230 pounds of corn and a shirt 140.
Still other factors that influenced the peasants’ rebellion were the pressure to form cooperatives, the confrontations with the Catholic Church hierarchy, the destruction of the traditional commercial networks and the continuous harassment in the rural area.
Repression also caused the war
While the above are some of the reasons for the peasants’ rejection of the revolution, they aren’t all of them. A few weeks ago, I was at an event in Brown University in the US to evaluate the revolution after 40 years. A Contra leader who was there explained why he had joined that side, and he didn’t mention any of the reasons I’ve just mentioned. He said he did so out of fear. Fear of repression, fear of being imprisoned and fear that they’d take away his properties.
In the context of war, repression and abuses tend to multiply. If we add to this the imperative of having to defend ourselves against the aggression and permanent threat from the US government, which put the revolutionary government in a situation of fighting to the death for survival, oversight regarding respect for human rights weakened. Abuses increased, and only a few of them were investigated and punished.
With the peasant rebellion joining forces with the US aggression, the result was a large-scale war that polarized the country and led hundreds of thousands of young and not so young people to join the Sandinista Army or the ranks of the Contra. The consequences of that war are beyond comparison in our country’s history. I don’t believe any of the many wars between Liberals and Conservatives that fill our history have caused even a tenth of what that war did: deaths, orphans, disabled, deranged, large-scale material destruction, hate, resentments and divisions, even within families… The after effects were huge, the divisions were deep, and many wounds that were never healed have reopened with this current reality.
The changes came too late
A Manichean interpretation of the war of the eighties is off base. It wasn’t black and white. Thousands of people on both the contra side and the Sandinista side went to battle convinced it was the only fair and decent choice they could make. Both sides have examples of disinterested heroism, whose memory we honor. Many youths willingly accepted the military draft and many others offered to serve even before reaching draft age. On both sides, they fought for a better Nicaragua, convinced of the justice of their cause.
Starting in 1985, we attempted to correct the revolution’s course. Based on an evaluation of the situation, the government decided to implement a series of policy changes aimed mostly at the countryside. Orders were issued to suspend the land confiscations; the prices of agricultural products were freed up; and an effort was made to develop more political and respectful behavior by the armed forces and the FSLN authorities. We stressed that this war couldn’t be viewed merely as a military confrontation but was also a vital political struggle to win the peasantry’s support.
It was very hard to fully implement all those changes to the degree needed; and it was already too late. The peasantry’s distrust of the revolution was firmly lodged in their consciousness. In my opinion, there was no longer any way of overcoming that.
The mixed economy concept had no definition
During the revolution we talked about a mixed economy, but we had no coherent concept of it. We basically understood it as the coexistence of different types of property ownership, which actually exists everywhere in the world, as every country has public, cooperative and private property to a greater or lesser degree.
The phrase “mixed economy” didn’t define anything. There was no model to explain how the sectors would interrelate, though we did say state property formed the heart of the national economy. That was the only thing we were clear about: ownership of the resources would be concentrated in the state area. Foreign trade was nationalized, as was the banking sector and all extractive industries. We also put the commercialization of basic grains in state hands. There was no room in any of these areas for private enterprise.
In the productive and commercial areas, large state agrarian, agro-industrial, industrial and commercial businesses were created. The spaces for private enterprise were greatly reduced, obliging it to compete for the scarce resources available at a disadvantage with the public companies. Private investment ground to a near halt, and although large amounts of resources were pumped into public investment, it couldn’t replace the loss of private investment.
The economic model failed due to its own contradictions
The costs of the war kept growing and growing until they became enormous, yet we continued the major social programs and huge economic projects, even though we didn’t have the money to cover them. At that point, we began to simply print money, without production or any other source of revenue to back it. That only generated hyperinflation, which at its peak, in 1987, reached 56,000%.
A change in the economic policy finally came in 1988. A huge effort was made to reduce state spending, prices were freed up for the majority of products, and export businesses were allowed to keep the hard currency they brought in so they could reinvest. The controlled distribution of basic products was suspended.
The changes were an attempt to give the market a greater role in resource allocation. All this effort had some positive effects, but state spending continued to be too high and available resources too scant, so inflation quickly shot up again.
The mixed economy model failed due to its own contradictions and to the imposition of the war, which weighed on everything we did. Our corrections in this area were too little, too late, because we no longer had the resources to underpin them.
The revolution made important transformations in education
In Somoza’s time education covered only a tiny percentage of school-aged youths. At the triumph of the revolution, more than 40% of the Nicaraguan population couldn’t read or write. The revolution changed that radically.
Massively promoting educational coverage, facilitating access to all who wanted to study, became a central government objective. Just to provide one comparative figure: in 1978 there were 2,696 teachers in the entire country, and ten years later there were 19,289. Such accelerated growth had consequences that affected the quality of education. So many new teachers meant too little training, and although new schools were built, construction couldn’t keep up with the increased number of students.
The literacy crusade, which was an effort by the whole of society, especially the youth, deserves a special mention. More than 100,000 young people participated in that campaign. Many from the cities on the Pacific side of the country learned about the rural areas by teaching entire families to read while living with them for five months.
It was a heroic feat and I believe that. In addition to the obvious fact that so many people learned to read and write, it had a huge impact and effect on the consciousness of the young people who went out as teachers. For the first time, both they and the adults who participated learned first-hand about the poverty in which the peasants were living and in many cases established emotional ties with them that still exist after all this time. Increasing literacy to well over 80% had impacts on the country’s educational development and on the development of awareness and solidarity among the campaign’s volunteers.
On a visit to a coffee farm in Matagalpa in 1985, I met a girl who was giving classes to a group of kids. She told me she had learned to read in the literacy crusade and that had enabled her to become a teacher, which was her vocation, what she wanted to do in life. And there she was, teaching a group of kids from three different levels, in a multi-grade school. I don’t know if she was doing well, average or badly, but the crusade changed her life, giving her the possibility of achieving a dream and of making a contribution to society, That’s the kind of thing the literacy crusade left that statistics don’t reflect.
In my opinion, the downside in all that educational effort by the revolution was the politicization of teaching, because education was also an instrument for disseminating Sandinista concepts that included very important values but also promoted the FSLN as the guiding force of society. And that was its deadly sin.
There were huge advances in health
The revolution gave our country a national public health system for the first time, something that had never existed during the Somoza years. Hospitals were previously the responsibility of local Social Assistance Boards and were seen almost as a government charity by the people who went there. This radically changed with the revolution, which invested heavily in resources and capacity-building.
Health care was seen exclusively as a government responsibility. Particular weight was given to preventive health care and the population was mobilized to implement different activities. Thousands participated in the health campaigns at different times of the year, vaccinating and offering health information.
As in education, there were important results. The number of health professionals quadrupled compared to before the revolution and the vaccination campaigns reduced transmittable diseases. Poliomyelitis, which had been endemic in Nicaragua, has been eradicated since 1982 and there have been no national diphtheria or measles epidemics since 1983, although after 1990 there was a major outbreak in the Caribbean Coast region. And during the revolutionary years infant mortality was reduced by half.
The conquests in health and education remained after 1990 and all the governments continued promoting what we initiated in the revolutionary years. Some have done better than others, but health and education were definitively established as rights for all Nicaraguans.
Access to land was democratized
Despite all the contradictions and limitations of the agrarian reform, there was extensive land redistribution, both to individuals and collectives.
What remains today of that democratization of property ownership? All I have at hand are the data of the 2011 Agricultural Census, which shows that while owners of less than 7 hectares had 2% of cultivable land before the revolution, they had 6% in 2011. The owners of properties of between 7 and 35 hectares possessed 11.2% before the revolution and 20% in 2011; and medium owners of between 35 and 140 hectares had 30% of the land before the revolution and 36% in 2011. And finally, owners of more than 350 hectares made up 41% of the land ownership before the revolution and only 22% in 2011.
The FSLN is today a mafia band
One of the questions people are asking today is what has become of the FSLN since 1990.
The FSLN’s destruction was a gradual process. One of the pivotal moments was the crisis caused by the electoral defeat that year, which resulted in a two-line struggle about where to go from there. Some of us wanted to transition into a truly democratic party that would play by the rules of the electoral game and renounce violence as a political weapon. The other group, Daniel Ortega in the lead, proposed maintaining the same model, the same schemes and the same discourse. In the 1994 party congress, which I would argue was the most open and democratic we’d ever had, Daniel’s side won.
Its victory demonstrated that our position was a minority within the FSLN. We lost the debate both for that reason and because Daniel Ortega understood the psychology of the Sandinista rank and file better than those of us who wanted a change. For the party’s base, the change we were talking about represented more of the fear and insecurity they were already feeling. The electoral defeat had been such a traumatic change for the immense majority of Sandinistas that they were looking for reaffirmation that it was nothing more than a historic accident, the FSLN was still right and the tremendous sacrifices hadn’t been in vain.
Daniel picked up on that very well and acted on it. He responded to their psychological need, not to the FSLN’s needs if it wanted to evolve in the new context. That was the point at which he began to take over the party. It is no longer even a political party today, because it has no orientation and no arenas of debate. All that’s left is a mafia band at the service of a family that maintains alliances with other powerful individuals and groups in order to hold onto its own political power.
Daniel Ortega was considered the personal representation of the revolution
During the revolutionary years, the National Directorate functioned as a collegial body and a space of debate among the nine of us. It was also an expression of a balance of forces in which there were internal alliances, as happens in all bodies of power.
That shared leadership began weakening in 1985 because Daniel Ortega’s election as President the previous year meant his legitimacy no longer derived from the National Directorate, as it had done since 1979 when we chose him to head the Government Junta of National Reconstruction. From November 1984 on it grew out of having been elected by the people, which was a different source of political backing.
No one imposed Ortega as a candidate in either 1984 or 1990. We all agreed he was the best choice to avoid changes that could create internal conflicts or even splits. He was the most messianic figure of us all and was considered the personal representation of the revolution. This idea, which was also growing inside him, became even more acute after 1990. He saw his conceptions and decisions, whatever they might be, as the only truly revolutionary ones. That aggrandizing of his own views meant he gave increasingly less importance to consensus by the other National Directorate members.
I resigned from both the Directorate and my FSLN militancy in 1995 due to differences I considered irresolvable. Some others of the original nine also resigned and others just kind of slipped quietly away until the only ones remaining were Tomás Borge and Bayardo Arce, both originally from the Prolonged Popular War tendency. Most of the figures of a certain relevance who are still with him are from that same tendency. Daniel Ortega, of course, was from the Tercerista, aka Insurrectionist tendency, from which no important figures any longer accompany him.
The vices of our political culture are still present
Daniel Ortega isn’t Nicaragua’s first dictator. We came out of one that lasted for nearly 50 years: the Somoza family dynasty. And before him there was Zelaya, and still others. The roots of this authoritarian matrix go deep in our political culture. The FSLN’s authoritarian tendencies don’t emanate only from ideological factors, but also from our country’s history. And if we don’t recognize and learn more about that history, we’re doomed to repeat it.
Following the April (2018) rebellion, there’s a risk if we don’t recognize that the underlying problem we’re dealing with today isn’t Sandinismo versus anti-Sandinismo. Many of the political prisoners and those who were killed come from Sandinista families and some of those who are part of what’s known as the blue and white opposition are reproducing the behavior and values that brought us to Daniel Ortega. The confrontation today is between dictatorship and democracy, but if we don’t accept that we’re all carriers of anti-values and authoritarian attitudes and aren’t very tolerant of different ideas and criticism, authoritarianism will only be repeated. Some young people believe that being under 30 makes them exempt from the evils of our political culture. They’re wrong.
We need to keep lines of self-criticism and dialogue open
We can only surmount this by maintaining an ongoing debate. We have to keep information and reflection flowing. Regrettably, these times since April 2018 have been ones of action and viscera, of a lot of activism and very visceral reactions in which the “bad guy” is always the “other one” and “mine” is “the only truth.” This impedes any authentic political reflection, self-criticism and dialogue, which in turn leads us to exclusion and to repeating the cycle.
All these ideas I’ve presented about the revolution, its objectives, accomplishments and failures are pretty sketchy, but I trust they will contribute to a much needed and long-postponed debate about its light and shadows and its consequences for the country. I also hope my words have helped people understand that there are no easy answers or black and white interpretations; that simplistic explanations only encourage extremism and stop us learning from our own errors to avoid making them again.
Reflecting on the revolutionary period is indispensable
One of the major problems in our history is that after a big crisis we not only wipe the slate clean and start fresh, but we also shut it out, cover it up and try to forget what happened before that caused or contributed to it.
After the FSLN’s electoral defeat, two narratives emerged about the revolution and the counterrevolution, in short about the war of the eighties, and there was never any dialogue between them. What we’re seeing today is that same lack of dialogue, and if we still don’t engage in one, don’t put the truth on the table, the risk of repetition will remain. It’s not about revenge or getting even, because that only intensifies hatreds rather than ensuring non-repetition.
Truth and justice are indispensable to reconstructing what was lost in April. If all those involved in the crimes against the blue and white movement get off scot-free, what’s to stop others from repeating similar actions, confident they won’t be sanctioned either? The fact there have been so many amnesties in Nicaragua’s history —52 before this year’s amnesty law—, is the best proof that such laws don’t resolve the need for reconciliation and justice between Nicaraguans.
I believe a truth commission, in fact several, are essential. I’m also convinced that a reflection about the revolutionary period, about the conduct and behaviors of those of us who headed it, is necessary for the reason I mentioned before, that some blue and white sectors are repeating our same conduct.
They think it’s enough to reject Ortega and disqualify anything and anybody to do with Sandinismo. They don’t understand that for cultural and historical reasons we all bear the vice of sectarianism. In my party, the MRS, we’ve engaged in a profound and ongoing reflection about many of the characteristics of the political culture that brought us the Somozas, the FSLN and now Daniel Ortega.
I can’t deny I was part of that…
In the end, reflecting about and summing up the revolution is also a personal appraisal. Because I can’t deny I was there, even if I left in 1995 and have been active against this new dictatorship since 2005.
Am I still the idealistic committed youth ready to give my life for the revolution that I was before 1979? Or am I the person I became in the eighties… and if so, what moment of the eighties? Am I who I was in the nineties or in 2005 or am I strictly in and of the present? I’m all of those people, with all my contradictions, cause for pride and also responsibility for the things I did or failed to do.
For me the revolution was a dream. I joined the struggle for it with no certainty what I would see. Many died along the way and I was almost surprised that I lived to see the culmination of our struggle. The triumph was an intoxicating experience after years of clandestinity, suffering tremendous restrictions, difficulties and dangers. It was like a drunken binge, which only increased when we saw thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people mobilized by the same dream.
And having accomplished that dream, even though there were problems, I didn’t feel they negated the essence of what the revolution was, because all societies have bad things: there’s corruption in all of them. So they inevitably also existed in the government and in the governing party, but they didn’t justify breaking with the revolution or certainly not switching to the other band, the Contras.
Could have it have been otherwise?
We thought the revolution could be improved. We also understood, for reasons of ideological or political vision, that any revolution generates a counterrevolution, that a revolution has to stand firm to avoid being swept away by counterrevolutionary forces…That was the ideological and political model we had in our heads.
It was in that context that we saw the closing of political spaces, press censorship and repression as weapons in a fight to the death in which we were at a disadvantage… I’m not justifying myself by saying that. Today I think that not everything had to be done the way it was, that important things could have been done differently. But that’s how we thought at the time.
In my personal case, a certain frustration was building even before the 1990 elections. I could see that what we had achieved in 10 years fell well short of our dream and ideal. And I wondered if it could have been any other way; if what we were going through wasn’t just a particular circumstance but rather a law of history, the price to be paid for a revolution like ours in a totally adverse world context, with the triumph of the United States in what was suddenly a unipolar world.
In 1990 I felt a different possibility had opened up
With the 1990 defeat, I perceived that behavioral changes couldn’t be brought about by force, that social transformations made by force are also reversible because they haven’t taken root in people’s consciousness. And I told myself that it’s different in a democratic context; that first you have to change people’s consciousness to then achieve political results. It had been the reverse with the revolution because political changes came first and then we aspired to mold people’s consciousness to those changes we were making from power.
With the FSLN’s electoral defeat in 1990, I felt personally that a different possibility was opening up; that if the revolution had been unable to achieve what we had once dreamed of on its own particular path, another path was before us that we had to take to try to obtain the same goals another way.
At that point certain values reemerged from my personal formation, my family and my activism for a time in the popular church. These values had been put on a back burner, inundated by the tsunami of the revolution and the idea that the revolution was so great that it justified anything.
That threw me into conflict, first with myself and then within the FSLN and in 1995 it finally led me to break with the organization I had been a part of for nearly 25 years. Today I feel at ease, even though back then I was in power and today I’m on the sidelines.
2 thoughts on “Forty Years Since the Sandinista Revolution: Could it Have Been Different?”
Regardless of what is happening in Nicaragua….Ortega turning from CARING about the people in the 1980’s to needing to control today, socialism traditionally has offered healthcare, jobs, and education (pre-K through college) to ALL!!
You shouldnt be on the sidelines. After all you were part of the sandinistas. You with your experience should have no doubt that socialism is not the answer for Latin America. As expresident Uribe said capitalism is the only system that we know that functions. Things we could fight against is the corruption of government within our latin nations!
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