Privilege’s Paradise Lost

Against the Current No 7, January-February 1987

Dianne Feeley

Revolution in the Family
by Shirley Christian.
New York: Random House, 1985, 337 pages, $19.95.

“… it was not the masses, but the economic and political elites who made it possible for the Sandinistas to march triumphantly into Managua in July 1979.” (248)

ACCORDING TO Shirley Christian’s account of the Nicaraguan revolution, the real facts are that 1) Somoza wasn’t such a bad guy, 2) the moderate opposition could have taken over except for the fact that the Carter administration was indecisive and the Sandinistas were tricky, 3) the Sandinistas are just a bunch of totalitarian commies, and 4) the devastation the country has suffered is, in reality, the result of the internal policies of the FSLN and not because of a systematic war-fought on economic, diplomatic and military fronts-unleashed by Washington. How&ever Christian is so single-minded in her attempt to unmask the Sandinista revolution that she fails to note the contradictions which form the heart of her own basic premises.

Christian states that “the Somoza dynasty, in fact, permitted a greater degree of political, social, and economic liberty than most such regimes.” (305)

For someone who glories in extolling the advantages of “freedom” and “liberty” in the abstract, she seems quite tolerant of dictators who are staunch “allies” of the U.S.

As editor of La Prensa Pedro Joaquin Chamorro had been the unofficial leader of the moderate opposition. His death cancelled the planned dialogue between Somoza and a committee led by Archbishop Obando y Bravo. Christian points to the fact that the FSLN actually gained more from Chamorro’s death than Somoza-although she does not quite assert that the FSLN actually killed him. She does capture the changed mood among the elite after the assassination, but fails to note the irony in her own description:

“In addition to their outrage, a strong sense of fear swept businessmen, politicians, and trade unionists as they realized that what had happened to Chamorro could happen to them. They had always known, or suspected, that the National Guard treated the poor in a repressive manner, especially in isolated settlements where most detainees were not considered important enough to bring into the capital for questioning, but they had felt themselves reasonably secure to carry out peaceful opposition. They had known they could be thrown into jail for a few weeks but had never expected to be killed. It was part of the unwritten agreement covering the political and economic space that Somoza had long allowed them. But Pedro Joaquin Chamorro was not a peasant. He had been one of them, the most outstanding among them, a descendant of presidents and generals, the one whose international reputation should have protected him. His death changed things for all of them. Whether Somoza was responsible or not, it still meant that he could no longer guarantee their right to peaceful protest. Even those who were politically ambivalent now thought that Somoza should go because he could no longer provide the one thing that made strongmen attractive: public order.” (48)

Christian bitterly recounts the paralysis of the Carter administration as they attempted to ease Somoza out of office in 1978. NICARAGUA, Revolution in the Family records these events in great detail as if in repeating the story the author might be able to change the ending, allowing the moderates to come to power. It is a tragic book, in which those who are “deserving” of power are cheated by history. As Alfonso Rabelo–the coffee plantation owner who later served in the first junta-remarked, “We lost the best opportunity we had at that time.” (86)

Some of the book’s best scenes are the ones that describe the various negotiations between Anastasio Somoza and U.S. representatives. Christian has interviewed most of the actors and is therefore able to record the step-by-step process.

One can almost hear Somoza’s voice, bragging that he has more friends in the U.S. Congress than Carter and they are backing him. Even after Somoza has written the terms of his resignation in July 1979-as the insurrection is underway-he notes his resentment over the

U.S. ultimatium. As he kept reminding Ambassador Pezzullo, he was there to help the U.S. overthrow Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 and it was he who had offered to “bomb the hell” out of installations in Cuba during the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Christian summarizes U.S. objectives in Nicaragua under the “indecisive” Carter administration by recounting Lieutenant General Dennis McAuliffe’s report to Somoza. McAuliffe, the commander of the U.S. Southern Command, stationed in Panama, flew into Managua to explain that the U.S. had “no intention of permitting a settlement that would lead to the destruction of the National Guard. McAuliffe said, ‘the leftists and Communists will not take over and we will have a moderate government. What I’m saying, Mr. President, is that we [will] have a moderate government that does not have the name Somoza.'” (82)

Clearly, then, the Carter administration wanted Somoza out. He had become a political liability. But Somoza was determined to ride out the storm and remain in power. And, in fact, the negotiations of 1978 ended in failure, as Somoza worked to insure they would. The collapse of the Organization of American States’ mediation proposal meant that the moderate forces were left “dangling in the wind without desirable options. Their choice now lay between throwing their lot in with the Sandinistas or making peace with Somoza.” (86)

While Christian points to this moment as the high-water mark of the moderates with great pride, she is blinded by the obvious. That is, they could not chart a course forward by themselves, but merely take what might be handed to them. People like that rarely take power.

While maintaining that the Carter administration blew the game through indecisiveness, Christian believes the FSLN got ahead as if they were card sharks on a winning streak. The FSLN got all the aces while the moderates ended up being dealt out of the game.

Of course, the weakest part of Christian’s book is her description of the post-revolutionary process. Her villains are too unrelenting in their villainy, her heroes totally blameless. The people she likes–the moderates who had been forced to unite with the Sandinistas–quickly become disenchanted with the revolution. But though she discretely fails to state it explicitly, the vast majority of these moderates end up as contras.

Salazar As Symbol

One of her greatest heroes is a man named Jorge Salazar. According to Christian, he was a natural leader, building an impressive base of support in the Matagalpa area. While he was replanting and improving his family’s coffee plantation, Salazar initially accepted the need to work with the FSLN. But by mid-1980 (barely a year after the insurrection) he had already begun to lead two lives: “one that was public and law-abiding, another that was private and conspiratorial.” (175)

In the words of his cousin and coconspirator, Salazar came to the decision that “the only way to get the Sandinista leaders out of power was ‘to shoot them out.’ ” (175) He set about organizing an uprising that would be based upon army officers and established contacts with

various opponents of the FSLN, including Enrique Bermudez, who, as an ex-National Guard officer, were living in exile. [Bermudez is today one of the main contra leaders.] Salazar, a leader of the businessmen’s organization, COSEP, was killed in a shootout with the Sandinista Police at the end of 1980. Christian believes that he was killed by the FSLN in order to eliminate an articulate member of the opposition (similar to her more veiled charge regarding Pedro Chamorro]. But she presents an extremely weak case. After all, she carefully notes Salazar’s growing involvement in organizing armed counterrevolutionary activity, Yet this man, who had no record of taking up arms against the Somoza regime, becomes Christian’s symbol of the independent man, who felt he had “a right to remain in Nicaragua and a right to influence the political and economic future of the country.” (185)

View from the Top

What makes NICARAGUA, Revolution in the Family a fascinating book is that Shirley Christian has conducted interviews with U.S. State Department officials, former U.S. Embassy staff members stationed in Managua and a large layer of Nicaraguans who are now associated with the contras. These include people like Adolfo Calero, Arturo Cruz and Alfonso Rabelo.

Combining her sources with her own ideological prejudice against the Sandinistas, Christian is able to accurately reflect the outrage of these privileged sectors of the Nicaraguan population when they discovered that the revolution did threaten their universe. It was enough to drive a relatively “unpolitical man,” Jorge Salazar, into conspiratorial activity.

The book is unrelenting in its ability to find nothing of value in the FSLN. Sandinistas seem to come in two varieties: the bunglers and the smoothies. While there is much sympathy for the plight of the wealthy, there is only sarcasm and scorn for the Sandinistas. Christian indulges in the crudest form of anti-communism, yet poses as somewhat objective because she presents so many “facts” and quotes.

Christian knows that the FSLN is evil because it is Leninist, although she never once attempts any definition of Leninism. She finds the FSLN arrogant for calling itself the “vanguard,” but she herself assigns that role to the moderate opposition. It never crosses her mind that perhaps the Carter and Reagan administration’s policies are arrogant in their assumptions.

According to Christian, everything from the literacy campaign to the 1984 elections constitutes a hoax perpetrated on the Nicaraguan people by the Sandinistas. She assumes, for instance, that education is ideologically value free except in Nicaragua [and other “communist” countries], where it is propaganda.

Her summary of the historic problems between the Pacific and Atlantic Coast peoples in Nicaragua does not even suggest that the FSLN has admitted its errors and is attempting-in the middle of a war-to chart a new course. For Chris&tian, the FSLN is a monolithic organization that has instituted a highly totalitarian, Stalinist regime. So when the reality is different from her model, she chooses to dismiss the reality. It simply doesn’t fit into her scheme of things.

Presenting a monochromatic portrait of the Nicaraguan revolution is quite an important feature of NICARAGUA: Revolution in the Family. Although it is not a theoretical justification for armed U.S. intervention, it is nonetheless an attempt to circulate horror stories-often unsubstantiated, single-source material-that can be used to prove that the revolution is dead, a victim of arrogant radicals. But the bitter lessons and moral dilemmas with which Christian ends the book all flow from the inability to accept the fact that it was the Sandinistas-not the bourgeois opposition-who led the insurrection. And that was no historical accident.

January-February 1987, ATC 7

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