Nicaragua: the epilogue

Nicaragua protests
Image: Voice of America / WikiCommons

Over 40 people were killed in Nicaragua last month during protests against austerity measures. It is a familiar story in a neoliberal world. The difference is that the demonstrators were killed by the Sandinista police, and the measures were implemented by Daniel Ortega, the leader of the Sandinista Revolution that, in 1979, overthrew the brutal Somoza dictatorship in that country. Six years earlier, Salvador Allende had been killed in Chile during the military coup led by Augusto Pinochet. When Somoza fled and his regime fell, it seemed that the possibility of revolution had returned. The language of Sandinismo was borrowed from liberation theology; it spoke of love, of community, of social justice.

The U.S. government laid siege to the young revolution. The new US president, Ronald Reagan, had already denounced it as a direct threat to US imperialism, and financed a counter-revolutionary force paid for out of arms sales to Iran, with Oliver North as his front man. Since Nicaragua was among the poorest of Latin American countries, wrecked by a 40-year dictatorship, devoid of natural resources, with a population of three million, it hardly posed any serious threat to the giant of the north – except, as one writer put it, “the threat of a good example”.

The ensuring conflict – the Contra War – took an enormous toll. 50,000 Nicaraguans were killed and 100,000 wounded in the ten-year siege supported by Washington with the support of the US military base in Honduras. It wrecked the economy. A decade after their victory, in 1990, the Sandinistas were voted out of office, and replaced by a right-wing regime under Violeta Chamorro. But the defeat was not solely the result of the assault from the north. The Sandinistas had lost the support of Nicaragua’s poor and working people who had celebrated the fall (and later assassination) of the dictator Somoza. The promised redistribution of land had barely begun; the literacy campaign of the early years was inspiring but the regime had no economic strategy and lurched from crisis to crisis. Ortega introduced conscription without consultation.

The Sandinista revolution was to be a new kind of revolution, a Marxist popular democracy. Yet the FSLN was organized in a rigidly centralized way, and was never accountable to grassroots control. The slogan shouted at demonstrations told its own story – “Dirección Nacional Ordene” (”National Leadership, We await your Orders”). In fact, despite the romantic image created internationally, the founders of the Sandinistas adopted a Stalinist version of communism coupled with a Guevarist notion of the revolutionary vanguard. Decisions were taken by a nine-man national directorate; the emphasis on community and solidarity borrowed from liberation theology was not reflected in the structures or practices of the Frente. There was a presidential election in 1984 and Daniel Ortega was elected. From that point on, the Sandinistas grew more distant from their mass base, and allegations of corruption became more and more persistent. The ‘comandantes’, or most of them, lived in what had been the bourgeois areas. And Ortega advocated an alliance with the middle class. The concentration of power that today has reached an extreme began then.

The image presented in the West of Sandinismo was of a romantic Third World revolution, reflected in the music of its troubadours – the Mejía Godoy brothers – and the simple paintings produced by peasants in workshops organised by the Minister of Culture, the poet Ernest Cardenal, himself a member of a religious order. But the underlying political reality of the Frente was reflected in its centralized structure and its command model of the state. The Frente’s founders (in 1963) were all members of the Communist Party, and their political mentors were the Cuban government. The character of popular movements in the 21st century, with their emphasis on control from below and internal democracy, is very far away from the authoritarian heart of the FSLN. Now, as he sends troops against protesters, Ortega has abandoned the myths of twenty years ago and proclaimed himself a leader for life with his wife Rosario Ibarra as his self-appointed successor.

Nicaragua protests what's happening
Fighters in the Sandinista Irregular Combat Battalions (BLI) in the 1980s | Stephanos Westgoten / WikiCommons

When the Sandinistas left power they stole anything from the state that wasn’t nailed to the floor. Ortega’s brother Humberto, head of the army, signed over to himself a huge private estate in the centre of Managua. Other ministers and Sandinista leaders did the same. Tomás Borge, the idol of the solidarity movement, took a million dollars from the corrupt president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas, to write his autobiography. This organized pillage was called “la piñata” – a reference to the clay figures full of sweets that Latin American children smash open on their birthday. As soon as Chamorro’s government took over, Ortega signed a power-sharing agreement with her. The only movement with any independence or capacity for a fightback at the time was the women’s movement. Ortega mobilised against it, attacking abortion rights and forming a joint campaign with the conservative elements of the Catholic church who had worked with the US and the contras to destroy the revolution after 1979. And the radical priests and religious figures who had won the Sandinistas their reputation as selfless revolutionaries, like Cardenal, were driven out of the Frente. Ortega’s ambitions were clear – he would become the country’s president and drive any critical element or opposition out of the Frente.

Nicaragua Sandinistas
A Sandinista mural in 1991

It took Ortega until 2006 to become president, though he worked hand in hand with each of the reactionary governments that followed the Sandinista defeat. He and his parliamentary block supported austerity measures, watched as living standards for the majority collapsed, and shared the fruits of corruption. As soon as he had the presidency in his control he changed the constitution to ensure his continuation in power and began the relentless persecution of any opposition, including those who had once been his comrades-in-arms. The new Sandinista millionaires shared the pickings with the old Somocista bourgeoisie. It is their joint interests that Ortega defends and protects, in his now fourth presidential term.

The tragedy of Nicaragua is twofold. On the one hand the long struggle to remove the brutal Somoza dynasty has ended by creating a new dynasty – the Ortega line – which has reproduced the authoritarian regime and the repressive apparatus that the old dictatorship had formed. The wheel, it seems, has come full circle. Ortega has signed a $40 billion dollar deal with a Taiwanese company for the construction of an interoceanic canal. It was the dream of the robber barons of the US in the late 19th century. The new canal will cross Lake Nicaragua, the source of the country’s fresh water and cause massive and permanent environmental damage. But it will make Ortega and his circle very rich indeed.

The second tragedy is that Ortega is still included in the list of left leaders of Latin America. He is an unscrupulous opportunist who today is representing himself in a messianic campaign that hangs giant portraits of him from public buildings, while his wife, who will continue the dynasty, proclaims him the saviour of the country. Yet nothing could be further apart than the caricature of socialism that Ortega represents, and the new movements of the region pursuing a participatory grassroots democracy. Those abroad who once supported Ortega, like other regimes that have abandoned the search for revolutionary change, seem oddly unwilling to recognize corruption and betrayal where they arise, if they lay claim to revolutionary credentials. Those in the West who are still colluding in masking the reality will win no friends in Nicaragua, beyond the shrinking circle holding power on behalf of global capitalism.


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