Nicaragua Twenty-five Years Later

Against the Current, No. 112, September/October 2004

Dianne Feeley

“The truth is that we always thought of the masses, seeing them, however, as a prop for the guerrilla campaign that would enable it to deal some blows at the National Guard. Reality was quite different: Guerrilla activity served as a prop for the masses, which crushed the enemy by means of insurrection.”—FSLN Comandante Humberto Ortega [interview with Martha Harnecker, cited in Nicaragua, The Sandinist Revolution, by Henri Weber (London: Verso, 1981) 49-50]

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, on July 17th — under the impact of an insurrectional general strike — President Anastasio Somoza Debayle fled Nicaragua, leaving the government in the hands of his Vice President Francisco Urcuyo. Urcuyo’s task was to negotiate a “provisional government” and, with Washington’s agreement, implement a cease-fire that would freeze the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) army and National Guard positions.

Upsetting U.S. plans, Urcuyo renounced the agreement and resolved to remain in office. Meanwhile when the National Guard discovered Somoza gone, they headed for the Honduran border. On July 19th the FSLN, a guerrilla force of 500, triumphantly entered Managua. They were not an isolated guerrilla group, but one with thousands of sympathizers active in mass organizations and tens of thousands who recognized their political authority.
At that moment the FSLN leadership team was tactically flexible, capable of learning from experience and clear about the objective: to make Nicaragua “the second free territory of the Americas.”

Such a small force had come to power because its three tendencies had been able to unite around a revolutionary program and strategy, because even in the face of vicious repression the population joined the insurrection, and because the ruling class was divided.

The social experiment that began on July 19, 1979 was cut short by the U.S.-backed contra war. That war bled Nicaragua of the human and material resources needed to construct the new society. It forced the FSLN government to institute a draft and devote 40% of its budget to the military, undermining the literacy and health campaigns initiated in the initial years of the revolution. With the errors the FSLN government made, the contra war developed a social base particularly among the Miskitus on the Atlantic coast and the peasants along the Honduran border. Washington advised and funded the opposition, finally cobbling together the coalition that won the 1990 elections.

Today the FSLN is a hierarchical party controlled by the caudillo Daniel Ortega. It is stained by corruption and opportunism. While one-third of the Nicaraguan electorate consistently vote for the FSLN, the grassroots organizations that were the heart of the mass insurrection and the first years of the revolution have been beaten down, dispersed and demobilized — first by the relentless contra war and later by the market forces that have driven the economy over the last fourteen years.

The FSLN uses its power as a party to maneuver with conservative forces to gain various concessions. For example, the FSLN pact with Arnoldo Alemán’s Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) in 1999 turned the pluralistic electoral institution into a two-party system, divvying up posts in the Supreme Electoral Council and even the Supreme Court. Currently 38 of the 92 National Assembly members are from the FSLN.

In the last municipal election the FSLN won 52 races; they govern cities and towns that have more than 60% of the population. While many Sandinista mayors and councilors have governed with transparency and wisdom, internal FSLN election regulations now weed out dissidents.

Polls indicated that the FSLN might win the 2001 presidential election. But the PLC propaganda after 9/11 hammered home the theme that Washington regards the FSLN as being in cahoots with terrorists. Thus an FSLN victory would result in the United States once again declaring war on Nicaragua. In addition such a victory would lead to the imposition of military conscription and the persecution of the Catholic Church hierarchy.

No matter how the FSLN attempts to reinvent itself as a conciliatory and social democratic party, Washington gives them a thumbs down.

Lessons of Victory and Defeat

What are the lessons of the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979? As you might suspect, there are both positive as well as negative lessons to be drawn by today’s revolutionaries.

* The most impressive gains of the Sandinista Revolution were in its campaigns to extend health care and literacy to the entire nation. An anti-malaria campaign reduced the incidence of malaria by 50%. Over one million were vaccinated against polio, measles and tetanus. Infant mortality was reduced by one third.

By the 1980s one out of every three Nicaraguan was studying, not only in Spanish, but also in the indigenous and English languages native to the Caribbean coast. Illiteracy had been cut from more than 50% to 12%.

Today out of a total population of 5.2 million, 900,000 children are enrolled in primary or secondary schools, leaving at least 750,000 outside the system, mainly because of their family’s poverty. With the implementation of structural adjustment programs the education budget has been reduced again and again.

Nicaraguan teachers are the worst paid in Central America, with the average earning less than $60 a month. Almost half of the schools have no water or electricity. High school enrollment in the areas surrounding the “free trade zones” is dropping.

Half the population is unemployed; illiteracy is currently at 33%, but has grown to more than 50% in rural areas. Infant mortality (deaths before the age of five) stands at 39.5 per thousand. Fully 29% of the population is malnourished, with children affected the most. As a result, 60% of the children under two years old (400,000) are suffering from anemia — which, for those who are anemic in early childhood, is associated with adult mental retardation.

Of the 175 countries studied by the UN in its annual Human Development Report Nicaragua fell from 118th to 121st place. The report interprets the drop as a “stagnation” of the quality of poor people’s lives.

* The U.S. government was able to wage a military and economic war that sharply limited the small country’s revolutionary possibilities. Upon assuming office in 1981 Ronald Reagan proclaimed an interventionist foreign policy: it would restore the loss of U.S. authority and commitment to “freedom” by intervening in wars in various Third World countries where Reagan detected the footprint of the Soviet Union.

This policy, which came to be known as the “Reagan Doctrine,” supported surrogate armies in Angola, Afghanistan and Central America, particularly Nicaragua, to roll back the Soviet “empire” by attacking it at its weakest points.

This ideological battle was waged in Nicaragua not by the U.S. army but by CIA operatives, private contractors and right-wing Christian missionaries. Using the U.S. embassy in Honduras, with Ambassador John Negroponte in charge, the CIA recruited, supplied, armed, trained and directed a proxy army initially based on Somoza’s ex-National Guard (first trained by Argentina and Honduras).

In 1983, when Congress passed the Boland amendment, which forbade the CIA from using its funds to overthrow the Nicaraguan government, Reagan turned to other government agencies, private contractors and other countries — particularly Israel, South Africa and Saudi Arabia — to supply the contras.

Funding came from secret sources: from drug-smuggling operations involving the Medellin cartel — cocaine from Colombia, via Panama, was brought into the United States; from donations from Saudi Arabia, Israeli, Egypt and Brunei; and from Israeli/ U.S. arm sales to Iran.

This contra scandal surfaced in October 1986 when the FSLN downed a cargo plane loaded with weapons. The surviving crew member, Eugene Hasenfus, revealed the details of a contra supply network coordinated by the National Security Council staffer Lieut. Col. Oliver L. North.

The FSLN government brought a legal suit to the World Court against the 1984 CIA mining of the Nicaraguan harbors. The Court found that the U.S. government used illegal force and ordered Washington to pay $16 billion in damages. Washington, of course, ignored the judgment.

Throughout this period the FSLN government carried out a non-aligned foreign policy that sought trade and balance economic and political ties with Cuba, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as well as with Western European countries and other developing countries. However, Washington sought to block those ties and then denounce any aid/trade that Cuba or the Soviet Union might offer.

Between July 1979 and the end of 1987 the country received almost $6 billion in credits and donations. Total assistance from the Soviet bloc totaled $3.3 billion, with $1 billion released during 1985, the year the U.S. trade embargo was imposed. But then there was a sharp drop off 60% the following year.

By 1988 Nicaragua’s economic crisis hit like a full force hurricane. Inflation stood at 33,000%.

Reagan, who stated “I am a contra,” bled Nicaragua in his campaign to “roll back” the Soviet empire. The proxy war resulted in 50,000 deaths — which would be equivalent to 2.5 million U.S. deaths — and several hundred thousand injured.

Through forcing the government to divert its resources to defense, Washington’s goal was to erode popular support for the revolution by undermining its ability to make a difference in people’s lives.

Between October 1983 and October 1984 over 50 hospitals, 360 schools and 840 adult education centers were closed because of attacks or sabotage.

The diplomatic, economic and military offensive launched by the Reagan administration against the FSLN government, combined with the crippling legacy of the Somoza dictatorship, did erode the gains of the revolution and wear down the population. In 1990 the Nicaraguan people voted the FSLN out of office because they saw no other way to end the war.

Washington continues to dominate Nicaragua, primarily through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Nicaraguan agriculture cannot compete with advanced U.S. agricultural production; if the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) goes into effect it will result in deepening the already severe rural crisis.

Alvaro Fiallos, president of the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers, predicts that CAFTA will result in the loss of 420,000 jobs and increased migration to cities, particularly to Costa Rica and the United States.

* The FSLN political leadership made costly errors that Washington was able to capitalize on even when the FSLN was able to learn from, and correct, its errors.

A. The FLSN did not understand that the peoples of the Caribbean coast [Miskitos, Suma/Mayangnas, Garifunas, Ramas, Blacks (often called Creoles) and mestizos] did not welcome the revolutionary government. For the most part Somoza had left them alone so that they had virtual autonomy.

In 1979 the Atlantic coast contained 9.5% of the country’s population, 46% of its territory and 53% of its national resources.

The failure to understand the national aspirations of the costeños played into the hands of Washington, who used this dynamic to recruit a contra army, particularly among the indigenous people whose people lived on both sides of the Honduran/Nicaraguan border.

In response, the FSLN government forcibly removed and resettled communities, deepening the bitterness. However, the FSLN was forced to reexamine their approach, opening a dialogue with indigenous community leaders in the fall of 1984. By 1987, out of a series of meetings Nicaragua passed an Autonomy Statute.

This victory became toothless once the central government was in the hands of those who opposed its implementation. Nonetheless it remains a beacon around which either a genuine multiethnic nation or a movement for independence can emerge.

B. The FSLN launched a land reform immediately after the insurrection, but it did not prioritize giving titles to the peasants. It prioritized state farms and cooperatives, but didn’t create the legal framework for this form of property.

Within the first three years consumption of basic foods soared, food self-sufficiency was within reach and innovative farming, including integrated pest management rather than expensive and polluting chemicals, was introduced.

But the failure to provide peasants with individual land titles fed the contra recruiters anti-communist propaganda. Along with the government’s decision to establish a monopoly of basic grains, buying from the farmers at fixed prices at the same time inflation (because of the war) was skyrocketing, these well-meaning projects did not speak to the needs of the peasantry.

While the agrarian reform shifted in 1985 to emphasizing distribution of smaller plots of land to individual peasants, this occurred after the contras established a peasant base. Washington’s strategy did not allow the FSLN the political and economic space to fully implement land reform.

* The FSLN failed to transform itself into a party capable of internal debate, maintain a collective leadership and develop an ethics commission that could investigate and discipline its members.

The first ethical problem that surfaced was the piñata incident, in which top FSLN leaders and mid-level cadre appropriated property for themselves in the period between their 1990 defeat and leaving office.

Then in 1998 Zoilamérica Narváez, an FSLN activist and Daniel Ortega’s stepdaughter, charged Ortega with sexual abuse.

In both cases the party was immobilized. This inability to deal with profound ethical issues involving FSLN members has been demoralizing to many former FSLN militants, who have, as a consequence, chosen to distance themselves from the party.

* The FSLN failed to appreciate the autonomous character of the mass organizations of workers, youth, women and peasants. Maybe even a deep understanding of this autonomy would not have been able to maintain the FSLN in power or even preserve the mass organizations — given the fierceness of U.S. intervention. However it would have placed the population in a better position to organize in the post-1990 period.

Part of the process of developing a top-down, undemocratic and increasingly secretive leadership within the FSLN — perhaps seen as a necessity in fighting a brutal U.S. embargo and proxy war — also resulted in attempting to use these organizations as transmitting orders from the government/ party to the masses, who were then expected to carry them out.

But these social movements needed to develop in their own image, articulating their own needs (which sometimes conflicted with those issued by the FSLN).

In the revolutionary period (before the adoption of the constitution and first post-Somoza election in 1984) the National Assembly was composed of representatives from mass organizations.

Had that organizational format been incorporated into the election law, there would have been an effective mechanism to force the FSLN leadership to think through its plans and avoid some of the mistakes it made.

For example, could a national assembly composed largely of representatives of the mass organizations have understood the problems in the land reform that drove peasants into the arms of the contras, and therefore created a base for the counterrevolution?
There are many other lessons one could extract from the rich experiment of the Nicaraguan Revolution, including the abolition of the death penalty, sweeping away the repressive forces and building a Sandinista army and police force as well as an extensive examination of the contradictory land reform.

The Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979 demonstrates that no matter how powerful Washington is, there will be moments in which it will not be able to “control” people’s lives. And in that moment revolutionaries must be prepared to step forward. Let us be even better prepared because we have the opportunity to review the last revolution of the 20th century.

Sources: Articles over the years from NACLA’s Report on the Americas (<a href=””></a>) and envio, an excellent monthly magazine published in English and Spanish editions by the Central American University in Managua (<a href=””></a>).

ATC 112, September-October 2004