Some Perspectives on the FSLN

Against the Current No 7, January-February 1987

Alan Wald

A Bit of Background

CONSIDERABLE CONFUSION exists among many socialist and anti-intervention activists about the political character of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the majority party in the Nicaraguan National Assembly and the hegemonic political force in Nicaragua. Such confusion is understandable in the light of the disinformation campaign of the Reagan administration, which falsely charges the FSLN with acts of brutality and “totalitarian” repression-and characterizes the FSLN as “Marxist-Leninist” and “Communist.”(l)

Visitors to Nicaragua can see at once that the Nicaraguan reality bears no resemblance to Reagan’s preposterous charge that the FSLN government is “totalitarian.” But anticommunist ideology in the United States runs so deep that the natural inclination of some sympathizers of the revolutionary process in Nicaragua is to react to redbaiting criticism by denying that the FSLN is in any sense “Marxist-Leninist” or that it proclaims socialism as its long-range goal.(2)

Unfortunately, little of substance is available in English about the history of the FSLN. We know that it was formed in 1961 as a split from the official pro-Soviet party, the Socialist Party of Nicaragua, under the inspiration of the Cuban Revolution. In 1969, the FSLN was reorganized with Carlos Fonseca as its central theoretical leader; at that time, the program of the “Sandinista Popular Revolution” was first publically announced.

In 1975, the FSLN underwent a severe internal crisis resulting in a split into three factions: the Proletarian tendency (led by Jaime Wheelock), the Prolonged Peooplc’s War tendency (led by Tomas Borge, today the only surviving founder of the FSLN), and the lnsurreclional or “tercerista” [third] tendency (led by Daniel and Humberto Ortega). In 1976, Carlos Fonseca, shortly after entering Nicaragua from Cuba in an attempt to heal the split, was killed in battle in the northern mountains of Zinica and his severed head was delivered to Somoza.

In December 1978, the three factions united to form a joint National Directorate, which was an absolute prerequisite for the successful overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in July 1979. A year after the insurrection, the FSLN National Directorate created the Sandinista Assembly, its highest advisory body, and a Political Commission was established in 1982. During the 1984 elections, the FSLN won 61 of the 96 seats in the National Assembly as well as the presidency. In 1985 the Political Commission was changed to the Executive Committee of the National Directorate of the FSLN.(3)

DURING A RECENT trip to Nicaragua I had an opportunity to interview about twenty-five FSLN militants and aspirants (i.e. full and candidate members) in two cities, Managua and Juigalpa. I spoke with party and government officials, rank-and-file activists, youth leaders, as well as individuals such as doctors and teachers whose primary work lay outside the party or government.

Some of these interviews were conducted in a formal setting amidst a group of other North Americans, usually in a state or local government office building, while others were undertaken in more informal settings, such as private homes, restaurants, or in the countryside. In all of the interviews I was assisted by translators who sometimes gave me their own opinions as to the manner in which my questions were being answered-easily, guardedly, without full understanding, etc.

What follows is a synthesis of some of the information that I gathered, which I hope will be useful to the research of those attempting to assemble a more comprehensive view of the politics of the FSLN. Joining the FSLN Members of the FSLN and the July 19 Sandinista Youth. A woman whitewashes the gutter in Juigalpa. (JS-19) with whom I met spoke openly and proudly of their organizations. They did not seem to be secretive or evasive; indeed, several indicated that, since I was a Marxist with my own views who came from a different experience, they would be interested in knowing what I thought of their policies and organizational structure. They showed a willingness to gather additional information, and were in turn eager to receive political materials from me.

Friends of mine who had lived in Nicaragua for some years had warned me that, although the leadership of the FSLN is ‘beyond reproach,” I should be aware that the lower ranks had been flooded in the post-revolutionary period with job-seekers and opportunists hoping to advance their personal careers. Nevertheless, I found that such careerists must have been willing to put up a pretty good front in order to gain admission, because the FSLN is not an electoral party. More accurately it is a cadre organization forged in the FSLN’s own variant of the Leninist tradition. While there is nothing mysterious about the FSLN’s workings, and while there do not appear to be major obstacles to any serious individual who wishes to join, membership requirements are still rigorous.

According to Carlos, an aspirant in Juigalpa-the capital of Region V-the process of joining the FSLN takes about eighteen months. First, one has to be recommended for membership by a member in good standing. Then, one has to pass through a period of education and physical labor, such as working in the coffee brigades. Finally, one is given certain tests to prove one’s loyalty and reliability; for example, one might be awakened in the middle of the night and asked to carry out a party task to see if one really puts the party before personal considerations. Moreover, one can easily lose one’s membership if he or she becomes inactive.

FSLN membership currently stands at 20,000.(4) At the November 8th celebration of the 25th anniversary of the FSLN, at which I was present, 705 aspirants were promoted to full membership in the Managua section of the party alone.

I was consistently told that the FSLN educational program consists primarily of studying Marx, Lenin, Sandino, and Fonseca, although members are also encouraged to read political materials representing all points of view. The main obstacle to political education is that books are very scarce; for example, in the home of an FSLN doctor with whom I stayed, only the collected works of Fonseca were on her bookshelves, although a photograph of Marx (with an automatic weapon resting underneath) decorated the foyer.

Unfortunately, many of the all-too-few books available in Nicaragua come from the USSR; these are quite prominently displayed in the few extant bookstores, along with pro-Soviet publications in Spanish. At the universities there is a heavy reliance on Soviet-produced textbooks, especially primers on ”Marxism-Leninism” which are used in sociology and philosophy classes.

Moreover, there is no doubt that some faculty who teach university classes have been miseducated in the Soviet version of Marxism and accordingly have a tendency to be a bit too bureaucratic. For example, a friend of mine from the United States who teaches social science at the National Autonomous University believes that she had a course taken away from her because her approach to Marxism was insufficiently “orthodox” from a Soviet viewpoint. She holds nevertheless that this unpleasant incident was the result of actions undertaken by one dogmatic person, not the consequence of a general policy.

Another U.S. friend who teaches at the Agricultural Center and runs a study group on ‘The Philosophy of Science” insists that everyone is quite open to studying any approach, and that in some cases students even prefer anti-Marxist approaches.

FSLN members claim that their organization is internally democratic and under control of the ranks. Juanita, a FSLN high school science teacher in Juigalpa, explained that there is a special house in the city where business meetings of the “Front” (as the FSLN is frequently called) are held every week. She also reported that national conventions of the FSLN are organized three times a year, and that each of these conventions is preceded by the circulation of documents and the holding of meetings to hear and discuss different points of view. Convention delegates, however, are elected on the basis of membership in the different mass organizations-such as the teachers’ organization, the women’s organization (AMNLAE), the Sandinista Defense Committees (CDS), and the farm growers’ association (UNAG).

According to Lopez, the head of the JS-19 organization for Region V, membership in the FSLN youth group is considerably more accessible. The only restrictions are that applicants must be between the ages of fourteen and twenty-eight, and they must accept the general policy of the FSLN. Every month an orientation seminar is held for members in Juigalpa, and national conventions are held once every four years. Lopez reported that there are 30,000 militants in JS-19, plus many aspirants. About one half of the organization is female, although women constitute only 30% of the leadership.

The JS-19 is led by an Executive Council (of which Lopez is a member), and has regional and zonal leadership committees as well. But the center for all work and study remains the “base [grass roots] assembly.” This is usually a group in a school or workplace or in the countryside, but apparently not in an urban neighborhood.

Prior to the national conventions of the JS-19, any member can prepare a document and choose representatives to support it. In theory, the youth group can diverge politically from the FSLN, but first it must try to persuade the FSLN to change its view. So far, according to Lopez, the two organizations have always managed to reach agreement.

About 10% of the members of the youth group are also in the FSLN, which is the smaller of the two organizations, and this includes most of the leadership of JS-19. For technical training, members of JS-19 go to Mexico, Columbia, Brazil, and Argentina. For political training they go to the same places, but also to Cuba and the USSR.

Attitudes toward Cuba & the USSR

When asked about the attitude of the JS-19 toward Cuba, China, and the USSR, Lopez replied that their view is that it is not for Nicaraguans to criticize these countries. He said that their position is that socialism must be defined only by the national situation, without making external reference, and that one must respect the policy decisions of other countries. He insisted that criticism of other countries is “not even a concern”; the only criterion used for judging them is their attitude toward Nicaragua.

I found a somewhat different point of view when I participated in a group interview of the FSLN representative to the National Constitution Commission, the lawyer and poet Alejandro Bravo. During a discussion of cultural policy, I asked whether there might ever be political criteria used to determine which literary projects should be funded by the Sandinista Cultural Organization.(5) Bravo responded with a homily against Stalinism. According to my notes, he said: “We know what Stalinism is, and we will never let that happen to our cultural life. Never will culture come under control of the state! Never will art be judged by political criteria! Barricada’s cultural supplement was intentionally put under exclusive control of the independent Sandinista Cultural Organization, not the editorial board. I myself, when asked to contribute poems to Barricada’s cultural supplement to honor the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the FSLN, chose to contribute personal love poems!”

Bravo’s eloquent outburst against “Stalinisrn” was the only occasion that I heard the term used and the phenomenon criticized. In fact, I never heard the USSR criticized directly on any issue, although it was never lauded either-and neither the USSR nor Cuba nor any other country was held up as a model for Nicaragua.(6)

At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (the Nicaraguan equivalent of the State Department), I very aggressively raised questions about Nicaragua’s possible adaptation to Soviet foreign policy, particularly referring to Poland and Afghanistan. The spokesperson, Saul Aranda, who is the head of the Ministry’s North American Bureau, never backed down from his position that, while Nicaragua had an important relationship with the USSR, it never assigned the relationship any special priority. He emphasized that the principles of the Nicaraguan revolution (he mentioned only three: nationalism, anti-imperialism, and pluralism; other government officials have also included Christianity(7)) were born with Sandino, not in Moscow. He claimed that, while it was certainly true that many Nicaraguan government officials had been educated in Cuba and/or the USSR, others had been educated in France, West Germany, and Italy (he himself was educated in Chile and was there at the time of the coup that overthrew Allende). Aranda maintained that it was the principles of Sandino, as elaborated by Fonseca, that became the unifying force of the FSLN.

He then proceeded to explain that what determines Nicaraguan foreign policy today is the principle of nonalignment, along with respect for self-determination and opposition to racism. He acknowledged that, on occasion, the votes of Nicaragua in the United Nations coincided with those of the USSR and Cuba, but he insisted that this was only a coincidence and occurred less frequently than India and Peru voted the same as the Soviet Union. Nicaragua, Aranda concluded, will not follow the lead of any superpower.

In the case of Afghanistan, he said that it was true that Nicaragua abstained from voting on the UN resolution Saul Aranda condemning the Soviet Union. Officially, government policy was that Nicaragua should not take sides in a conflict in which it was not involved; however, in its own private “rationalization” (his term), the FSLN condemned all such interventions.(8)

When I followed up this response by asking why was it that he never said anything directly critical of the USSR, Aranda replied that the Nicaraguan revolution is learning through its own experiences, pragmatically, and that the FSLN sees no point in criticizing the USSR at the present time.

In response to someone else’s question as to how the FSLN could have committed the “terrible blunder” of scheduling Ortega’s trip to Moscow at the moment of the 1985 U.S. Congress’s vote on contra aid; he responded that the Nicaraguan government had simply been unaware of the exact date that the vote was to occur. Moreover, he pointed out that at the time Nicaragua had sufficient petroleum for only two more days, which required an immediate visit to the Soviet Union by a top Nicaraguan official, although “we would be very happy to have any country other than the USSR give us 90 % of our oil.”

Theory & History

In interviewing lower-ranking members of the FSLN, I found that attitudes toward the USSR and Cuba, as well as toward general problems of revolutionary history and theory raised by the revolutions in those countries, were very empirical.

For example, if someone’s friend had been to Cuba, or if some Cubans had visited their area as part of a work brigade, then there invariably was a favorable opinion of the Cubans, although Cuba was never presented in terms of an example of “socialism.” To the contrary, Carlos, the FSLN aspirant in Juigalpa, gave me a little lecture to the effect that Cuba was not now nor had it ever been “socialist.” He said that Castro had made a “big error” after the Bay of Pigs when he claimed that Cuba had already achieved socialism.

To reach socialism, in Carlos’ view, is a very long process for an economically underdeveloped country. Thus Cuba was placed in an embarrassing position when it suffered subsequent economic defeats; in fact, Carlos said there had been ten years of “backsliding” from what had been publically declared a “socialist” stage. However, he thinks that Castro may have subsequently recognized his error, and he holds that Nicaragua will certainly never make the same mistake of prematurely declaring itself ”socialist.”

The pattern seemed to be consistent that, due to the lack of educational materials, much of the political knowledge of the FSLN ranks comes from practical experience, which has as many drawbacks as benefits. In Juigalpa, Juanita explained to me that her fears about a lack of political democracy in Cuba (“because they have only one political party there, unlike Nicaragua”) were assuaged after a Cuban Jehovah’s Witness stayed at her house and assured her that there was no political repression in Cuba. Carlos, too, explained that he had been greatly suspicious of Cuba until he traveled there and discovered that he had “complete freedom to go anywhere and do anything that I please, just like here.”

I didn’t talk to anyone who indicated that he or she had visited the Soviet Union, or who had met with any Soviet visitors to Nicaragua, so I heard few opinions about the Soviet Union except for the general statement that “we want to take what is good from other revolutions and reject what is bad; we do not want to be subservient to any superpowers.”

I did interview a young soldier whose leg had been blown off by a U.S.-made land mine. Since Nicaragua is short of prostheses, the Bulgarian government brought him to Bulgaria to be fitted with an artificial leg. Although the soldier didn’t say anything explicit, I suspect that his feelings about Bulgaria are more positive than those about the U.S.

In general, knowledge of revolutionary history and theory seems to be quite low among the FSLN rank and file. When I questioned members and aspirants about the political struggle between Stalin and Trotsky in the Soviet Union, they seemed entirely ignorant of the debate; Stalin was seen as neither a hero nor a villain. One woman thought that her FSLN unit had studied both Stalin and Trotsky, but she was unable to say anything specific about either, and I (and the translators) suspected from her manner that she wasn’t really familiar with them but was embarrassed to admit it.

None of the discussions described above were particularly surprising to me. The FSLN is as much a product of Nicaraguan conditions as it is the result of political training certain of its leaders may have received in Moscow, Cuba, West Germany, Chile, France, or elsewhere. Leaders spoke with different styles, emphases, and levels of sophistication.

The history of the revolutionary struggle-in particular, the role of the anti-Somoza bourgeoisie and the split in the Catholic Church, as well as the legacy of the three factions of the FSLN-combine to give the party many unique features. Certainly in its approach to a mixed economy, political pluralism, Christianity, homosexuality, and many other areas, the FSLN has departed sharply and creatively from previous revolutionary practice.(9)

Given the suppression of cultural life–including basic literacy–under Somoza, and the continuing poverty of the country, exacerbated by conditions of war, the “pragmatic” political bent of the FSLN ranks is wholly understandable. Due to the heterogeneous origins of the FSLN at least one informed observer is convinced that, once the contras are defeated, important political realignments may occur within the FSLN and the party may even break up into several smaller parties that would promote different orientations toward the economy.(10)

Undoubtedly, there are many contradictions and countervailing trends among the FSLN. Within the organization there certainly exists an “authoritarian potential,” alongside the fresh and liberatory elements that are also present, and there are important ambiguities in the forms (the mass organizations) through which workers’ control from below has been institutionalized to date. Moreover, the logic of the brutal war waged by the U.S.-backed contras is to strengthen the authoritarian currents and to increase a political as well as economic dependency on the USSR.

Some of the ambiguities of the situation can be seen in the attitudes of FSLN members toward La Prensa, the temporarily-banned reactionary newspaper, and toward the religious freedom of groups uncooperative with the revolutionary process. In the case of the former, all of the FSLN members and sympathizers with whom I spoke–including Xavier Chamorro, editor of El Nuevo Diario, and the Tijerinos, a wealthy, landholding couple who support the revolutionary process out of religious convictions–believe in the necessity of a right-wing paper and expressed regret for the closing of La Prensa.

The consistent explanation I received was that La Prensa had to be closed not only because it published misinformation (about shortages, about the contras), but because the editors assisted Reagan in his campaign for the $100 million for contra aid, are in league with the U.S. embassy, are the recipients of funds to help create an internal situation favorable to a U.S.-sponsored invasion, and so on.

When I proposed that the government may be rallying more sympathy for La Prensa by banning it than La Prensa might have been able to gain on its own through continued publication, it was suggested in a friendly way that I might be interpreting the situation correctly from the point of view of the political situation in the United States, but that I had little understanding of the military complications of defending a besieged revolution.

In other words, the FSLN holds that it is using a strict criterion of military defense in closing La Prensa. Yet, at the same time, the Tijerinas conceded that the censorship policy used before the closing of La Prensa had been “abused”; Xavier Chamorro said that the censorship policies of the government are mistaken; and members of my delegation who examined a bulletin board of censored articles from La Prensa found it difficult to see the threat to military security that they posed.

In the case of religious freedom, the Vice President of Region V, Augustin Lara, insisted that the FSLN scrupulously defends religious freedom and that Juigalpa’s Bishop Pablo Antonio Vega had not been allowed back into Nicaragua only because of his treasonous activity in supporting the $100 million contra aid bill.

Nevertheless, Juanita told me that she was disturbed about the situation of the small number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Juigalpa, for she had “come to see that they have less freedom than the rest of us.” Since the revolution, the Jehovah’s Witnesses-who refuse to engage in any political activity at all-have opposed the “revolutionary vigils” (to guard the city), the literacy campaign, the inoculation campaign, and the draft. Consequently their church was taken over and they are now obligated to restrict their meetings to private homes, after receiving permission from the city government.

Some Conclusions

Despite such ambiguities, it is a dangerous error to confuse a potential authoritarian outcome with the present state of development in the revolutionary process.

Even when acknowledging the many mistakes made in regard to the Atlantic Coast and in the treatment of some rival groups on the left-most of which have been rectified-the political record of the FSLN to date is overwhelmingly positive; but this can only be recognized if one takes into account the objective reality of Nicaragua and holds a realistic assessment of previous revolutionary experiences.

In contrast, by concentrating exclusively on the negative aspects of the revolutionary process, out of context and in exaggerated form, one can create a frightening caricature of its present stage. Thus we have “left” critics who point to the 60% privately-owned economy without mentioning the important ways in which the FSLN has undermined the political power of the bourgeoisie; or the critics who decry the “Emergency Measures” imposed by the government (that are rarely enforced) without taking into account the genuine state of emergency that exists because of the contras; or still others who point to instances of “Stalinist” policies (such as the Barricada articles condemning Polish Solidarnosc) without acknowledging the much stronger non-Stalinist practices and policies that permeate the revolutionary process.

It is certainly a disservice to the revolution to deny particular abuses and mistakes that occur; but it is equally a disservice to elevate discrete episodes of incorrect policies-or to interpret the results of inexperience, incompetence and frustration-as if they represented a conscious Machiavellian practice.

Polemicists who either idealize or disparage the revolutionary practice of the FSLN tend to selectively focus on events and episodes which bolster their respective cases, while ignoring other contradictory, problematic, and crucial countervailing factors. Against the Current should aspire to a richer approach.

In my judgment, the overall strategy and tactics of the FSLN merit political support; at the same time our Nicaraguan comrades also merit and need our criticism-concrete, balanced, and friendly, but criticism nonetheless.(11)


  1. Typical examples of the Reagan administration’s slanders can be found in the following contributions to Peter Rasset and John Vandermeer, eds., Nicaragua: Unfinished Revolution (New York: Grove Press, 1986): “President Reagan’s View of Nicaragua,” 10-13; “The Kissinger Commission on Nicaragua,” 14-17; “State Department Report on Human Rights in Nicaragua,” 119-121. Many of these charges are refuted in the America’s Watch reports on “Human Rights in Nicaragua” for 1985 and 1986.
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  2. In Paul Berman’s essay, “Nicaragua 1986: Notes on the Sandinista Revolution,” Mother Jones (December 1986, 20-54), the same point is made, but from a liberal perspective hostile to Marxism-Leninism: “Marxism-Leninism appears to us a rather creaky old doctrine, and admiration for Soviet-type societies somewhat absurd. And since the Sandinistas are anything but creaky or absurd, the temptation is to recreate them in the image of our own ideas–as radical democrats, for instance.” Unfortunately, Berman thoroughly confuses the matter when he cites Carlos Fonseca’s naively pro-Soviet A Nicaraguan in Moscow (1958) as proof of the FSLN’s Stalinist affinities; Berman implies a false continuity in political thought by failing to provide the date when Fonseca split from the Stalinist movement, which was several years after the book appeared. An accurate political chronology appears in Henri Weber’s outstanding study, Nicaragua: The Sandinista Revolution (London: Verso, 1981, 20-21.
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  3. A useful chronology of events in the history of the FSLN appears in Barricada International 6, no. 227 (6 November 1986), 12.
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  4. This figure is dramatically higher than others given in the few references to the FSLN’s current membership I have seen in English-language publications. For example, in Sam Bottone’s essay in the Summer 1986 issue of New Politics states that membership is “probably no more than 3,000 to 4,000”; and in an essay by Phil Hearse and Dave Packer in the November December 1986 issue of International, the FSLN is described as “a small party of just a few hundred members.”
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  5. Almost all mass and popular organizations in Nicaragua are called “Sandinista.” FSLN members claim that this is due to the national respect for Sandino and does not indicate FSLN control. Their critics, of course, claim that such organizations are mere “fronts.” In any event,… no one would deny that the FSLN cadres, being exceptionally dedicated, capable, and experienced, tend to be hegemonic in these organizations.
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  6. Here I should note that my questions about Soviet and Cuban influence were always premised on the agreement that the acceptance of arms and other aid was the perfect right of the Nicaraguans, and that my only concern lay in the possibility of adaptation to certain Soviet policies and practices that I considered deleterious to the revolutionary process. In all cases I believe that my point was well understood; I certainly was never accused of trying to deny the right of self-determination, etc., to Nicaraguans, nor was I met with any form of resentment or questioning of my motives by the Nicaraguans. Among some of the U.S. citizens living in Managua, however, there was considerably more defensiveness and a greater tendency to evade any troubling political questions by references to the threat of U.S. invasion and the contra war.
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  7. See “The Sandinista Philosophy of Government” by Miguel D’Escoto, Minister of Foreign Affairs, in Nicaragua: A Look at the Reality, (Hyattsville, Md., Quixote Center, 1985).
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  8. See “The Sandinista Philosophy of Government” by Miguel D’Escoto, Minister of Foreign Affairs, in Nicaragua: A Look at the Reality, (Hyattsville, Md., Quixote Center, 1985).
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  9. According to the study by Waltraud Quieser Morales and Harry E. Vanden, “Relations with the Nonaligned Movement,” in Thomas Walker, ed., Nicaragua: The First Five Years (New York: Praeger, 1985), 467-484, Nicaraguan foreign policy is to be differentiated from that of Cuba, which holds that the USSR is the “natural ally” for developing countries. In the UN vote calling for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, Nicaragua did not join Cuba, Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Grenada, and the Soviet-bloc countries in opposing the resolution, but instead joined India, Cyprus, Algeria, and Finland in abstaining. Moreover, the authors claim that, in the debate over the resolution, Nicaragua ‘1isted among events that threatened world peace ‘the presence of Soviet forces’ in Afghanistan,” and also that, at the time of the September 1983 UN Security Council resolution criticizing the Soviet downing of the Korean airliner in which 269 died, Nicaragua joined China, Guyana, and Zimbabwe in abstaining. It is also worth recalling Tomas Barge’s remarks, translated in Intercontinental Press, 6 July 1981, that “we are… aware that our Revolution is different from Cuba’s in many ways: we have political pluralism and a mixed economy …. We also have a collective administration …. Without going into detail, in international policy the Nicaraguan Revolution has its own opinion about Afghanistan and Poland.”
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  10. On the matter of homosexuality, see “Lesbian/Gay Brigade Visits Nicaragua,” Listen Real Loud, Winter-Spring 1986, 10-11.
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  11. Interview with John Vandermeer, Managua, November 9, 1986. Professor Vandermeer has been living and teaching in Nicaragua on and off for several years and is co-editor of Nicaragua: Unfinished Revolution.
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  12. One of the most comprehensive and sophisticated political analyses of the Nicaraguan Revolution published in the U.S. to date is Permanent Revolution in Nicaragua by Paul Le Blanc. It analyses the revolutionary process over the first five years of the revolution.
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January-February 1987, ATC 7

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