Washington was in shock on July 19, 1979. A massive popular insurrection had put radical leftists in power in Nicaragua, a country ruled with an iron hand for the previous 43 years by the Somoza family, funded and armed by the U.S. to keep "order" in its "backyard."
Coming just four years after the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and coinciding with a revolution in Iran, the first successful revolution in Latin America since the one in Cuba 20 years earlier couldn’t have come at a worse time for rulers in Washington For workers and the poor in Central America and throughout Latin America–tens of millions who were suffering under the boots of U.S.-backed dictatorships–the revolution was an inspiration.
Nicaragua, a desperately poor country with a population then of about 3 million, had long been a target of U.S. imperialists because of its strategic location on the isthmus between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Tennessee adventurer William Walker launched a private invasion of the country in1853, briefly taking power and restoring slavery in the interests of wealthy Southern slaveowners.
Fifty years later, Wall Street literally owned the Nicaraguan economy–by then geared to coffee exports–and U.S. Marines occupied the country between 1908 and 1912. A second Marine occupation began in 1927–but this time the U.S. faced a nationalist guerrilla war led by Augusto Sandino, who had worked in the sugar mills and banana plantations owned by U.S. companies in Central America.
Sandino was eventually assassinated, but his fighters forced the gradual withdrawal of the U.S. by 1933. Washington turned to Anastasio Somoza García, head of the U.S.-trained National Guard, who initiated the savage family dictatorship that would last until the revolution. His nephew, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, who became president in 1967, was known for the murder and torture of opponents and staggering levels of corruption.
Meanwhile, the country suffered under the biggest foreign debt per capita in Latin America. By 1975, just 1.5 percent of the biggest landowners owned 41.5 percent of the agricultural land.
Somoza even targeted the wealthy bourgeois critics of his rule–and in 1978 ordered the assassination of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, a newspaper editor and scion of one of Nicaragua’s wealthiest families. The murder of Chamorro triggered widespread popular protests–120,000 marched at his funeral and highlighted the widespread hatred of Somoza.
Yet while Chamorro’s Conservative Party sought to oust Somoza with U.S. backing, the revolutionary Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) rallied mass support for a revolutionary overthrow of the regime.
The FSLN, inspired by both Sandino’s legacy and the example of the guerrilla fighters of the Cuban Revolution, had three main tendencies. The first, called Prolonged Peoples’ War, sought to emulate the Cuban example of daring military acts by bands of guerrillas to build popular support in the countryside.
Another grouping, the Proletarian Tendency, pointed out that with 60 percent of the country’s population living in cities, the working class–about 20 percent of the population–would be the decisive factor in revolutionary change.
The third tendency in the FSLN–known in Spanish as "Terceristas"–argued that the armed struggle should be linked to a mass movement that could bring together workers, peasants and sections of the bourgeoisie into an anti-Somoza revolution. The revolution unfolded in much the way the Terceristas had envisioned.
When Somoza unleashed his U.S.- and Israeli-supplied weapons on unarmed civilians–including the aerial bombardment of working-class neighborhoods in the capital city of Managua–the mass opposition only deepened. An estimated 50,000 people died in the fighting that lasted more than a year. The U.S. finally pulled the plug on Somoza, forcing him to flee to Miami.
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The revolutionary government immediately faced two interrelated questions. One was whether to encourage worker and peasant struggles and expropriate the wealth of Nicaraguan capitalists beyond Somoza’s immediate circle, and two, how to deal with an increasingly hostile U.S.
The FSLN directorate, led by Daniel Ortega, aimed to consolidate the revolution by nationalizing Somoza’s vast properties–worth 40 percent of the country’s gross domestic product–while encouraging the "patriotic" bourgeoisie to undertake private investment in a "mixed economy." This strategy, they believed, would mollify the U.S.
Socialism–the stated eventual aim of the FSLN–was to be postponed to an indefinite future. Peasants did benefit from immediate land reform, while workers gained the right to organize unions and were promised better pay and conditions.
A series of FSLN-sponsored mass organizations–including those for women, youth, students and others–were created to deepen the roots of the revolution. But with leftist guerrilla movements gaining ground in nearby El Salvador and Guatemala, Washington was determined to bleed the Nicaraguan revolution to death.
When Republican Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he dramatically increased support–funds, arms and training from the CIA and right-wing Cuban exiles–to the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries, or contras. Reagan called the FSLN "totalitarians" and vowed to make them say "uncle."
The U.S. ambassador to neighboring Honduras, John Negroponte–who now holds the same post in Iraq–turned that country into a U.S. base for the contras and right-wing death squads throughout Central America.
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The contras sought to destroy the Nicaraguan economy and terrorize the population through landmines, kidnapping, rape, torture and murder. By 1990, more than 40,000 Nicaraguans had died at the hands of the contras–and the country was compelled to spend 62.5 percent of the government budget on defense.
Sanctions imposed by the U.S. greatly compounded economic problems. Nevertheless, in 1984, Ortega and the FSLN won the presidential election with 67 percent of the vote, closely monitored by international observers.
When the contras’ human rights violations came to light, the U.S. Congress banned further aid. But Reagan’s White House illegally and secretly sold arms to the Iranian government in exchange for the release of hostages–and funneled the proceeds to the contras.
As the 1990 elections approached, the FSLN was confident of victory. Instead, the election went to the conservative candidate, Violeta Chamorro, widow of the newspaper editor murdered by Somoza’s thugs.
Many on the international left spoke of an "electoral coup." The reality is more complicated.
While the U.S. and its contra butchers are to blame for the destruction of the Nicaraguan economy, the contradiction at the heart of the FSLN’s politics was instrumental in its downfall. FSLN leaders couldn’t escape the centrality of class divisions in the "revolutionary alliance"–the fact that workers and "nationalist" employers had contradictory interests.
The conditions of workers had deteriorated throughout the 1980s as runaway inflation wiped out wage gains. Workers participated in Sandinista unions and mass organizations–but they didn’t hold political power, and their right to strike was suspended for a year as early as 1981. This allowed the opportunistic Nicaraguan Socialist Party–a longtime rival of the FSLN–to give a left-wing cover to Chamorro’s coalition, which in turn functioned as the respectable face of the contras.
There’s no guarantee that a different course–a seizure of the factories and fields by workers and an attempt to internationalize the revolution–would have succeeded. The tragedy is that FSLN’s policies of accommodating to capital all but guaranteed defeat–and for many leftists in Latin America, the experience has discredited the very idea of revolution.
While the FSLN continues to function as an opposition party, its leaders accept the framework of free-market "globalization" policies pushed by Washington. Today, Nicaragua is the poorest country in the Americas after Haiti, and is a haven for sweatshops that supply U.S. corporations.
Yet at a time when mass movements have overturned governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru and the U.S. has a backed coups in Haiti and Venezuela, the experience of the Nicaraguan Revolution points towards the possibility–and necessity–of revolution and an uncompromising, internationalist transformation of society based on workers’ power.
Lee Sustar writes for the Socialist Worker and is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org