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All Seemed Possible When the Sandinistas Took Power 40 years Ago

Image Source: Fuimos siempre ladrones nacionales – Public Domain

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Sandinistas taking power in Nicaragua, a milestone that merits celebration regardless of our opinions on how the Sandinista Revolution evolved. Nor should the hand of United States imperialism in distorting that revolution be ignored — the huge cost exacted by the U.S.-directed and -funded Contras totaled more than four years of Nicaragua’s gross domestic product.

Just as many of the tactics the U.S. government and those on its payroll are using in its all-out economic war against Venezuela replicate what was done to Chile during the era of Salvador Allende (including blowing up power plants to cause widespread blackouts), there are parallels with U.S. tactics against the Sandinistas. Pressuring opposition parties to boycott elections, then declaring those elections fraudulent, was a tactic used by the Reagan administration in 1984, just as the Trump administration is doing in Venezuela today following the attempts to delegitimize the Bolivarian Revolution by the Bush II/Cheney and Obama administrations.

Another parallel between the Bolivarian Revolution of the past 20 years and the Sandinista Revolution of the 1980s is the creation of a mixed economy. The intention of the Sandinistas was to build a mixed economy, one with socialist elements but that would leave much of the economy in the hands of Nicaragua’s big capitalists. The Bolivarian Revolution, although intended to progress toward a not necessarily strongly defined “socialism for the 21st century,” has struggled to advance beyond a stage of ameliorating the conditions of capitalism, although by any reasonable standard Venezuela does considerably more there than any so-called “social democratic” government has done.

The bottom line, however is this: Even when political power is taken out of the hands of a country’s capitalists, if economic power is left in those hands, that economic power will eventually enable the holders of that power (industrialists and bankers) to wrest control of the economy and ultimately force the government to bend to their will. That happened in Nicaragua — ultimately, the devastation wrought by the Contras, the financial blockade imposed by the U.S. and the contradictions arising from the Sandinistas giving ever more concessions and subsidies to Nicaragua’s capitalists resulted in the Sandinista government imposing an austerity program reminiscent of those imposed by the International Monetary Fund, excepting the dubious value of the IMF or World Bank loans.

All of that would be years in the future after the takeover. On July 17, 1979, dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle fled the country after years of waging war on his country and muscling in on so many businesses that even some of Nicaragua’s bourgeoisie wanted him gone. Years of tireless work by Sandinista militants, often at the risk of their lives, led to that day. Two days later, on July 19, the Sandinistas marched triumphantly into Managua, the capital, having already captured control of much the country in the late stages of the insurrection.

Nonetheless, in the early years the Sandinistas made good on most of the promises they had put forth in their 1969 Historical Program. Nor should the vast array of problems left behind by the Somoza dictatorship be forgotten. The following excerpt from It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment discusses the new revolutionary government’s struggles with restarting a shattered economy, meeting the expectations of its millions of supporters and attempting to keep industrialists from stripping their businesses of assets while seeking to create a democracy deeper than what is possible in capitalist countries and simultaneously preparing to defend itself against the inevitable counterattack from the U.S. government.

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New government begins process of rebuilding, with strains showing early

The nature of the enormous problems the Sandinistas faced had similarities to what the young Soviet Union faced in the early 1920s. A revolution had succeeded at enormous cost, with a civil war fought savagely by the revolution’s opponents wreaking staggering economic damage; the revolution faced hostile, much stronger foreign powers; the country was dependent on agricultural exports and could adjust that dependency only with difficulty and at the risk of potentially wrenching changes internally; expanding a small industrial sector was desirable but a goal for which the fulfillment would be partly in contradiction to its agricultural base; and a population that had lived in miserable poverty expected its material needs and wants to be met faster than the country’s shattered material base was capable of doing. Somehow these problems had to be solved by men and women with energy and determination but a lack of administrative experience.

Nicaragua’s militants who had participated in the revolution and found themselves in responsible positions upon the revolution’s victory had no experience in the affairs of state, because they had been shut out of public participation, and if their attempts at organizing became known to Somoza’s authorities, the prisons and torture chambers of the National Guard awaited.

So mistakes, many of them, were made in the early days of the revolution. How could it be otherwise? It is not remarkable that the Sandinistas made mistakes; what it remarkable is their willingness to learn from them and often correct them, sometimes effecting sharp reversals of bad policies.

The early Bolshevik cadres, similarly, couldn’t help but make mistakes when they were placed in responsible positions, having also been shut out of societal participation. But that is enough comparison; it would be too easy to overgeneralize and there were more differences than commonalities between the Soviet Union of the early 1920s and Nicaragua at the end of the 1970s. And the Sandinistas certainly carried out policies drastically different than did the Bolsheviks, having the experience of many revolutions from which to learn, but also having carried out a revolution on their own terms, with a mix of ideologies and strategies rooted in their own and their country’s historical experience. They could not have led a successful revolution otherwise.

And the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) did it with much help from inside the country, and very little from outside the country.

The Soviet Union’s theorists had consistently held the position that conditions were nowhere near ripe for a revolution in Central America, and because challenging official dogma in the Soviet Union was anathema, that viewpoint could not in those years be challenged. Indeed, the Soviet Union, since Stalin’s assumption of power, had opposed revolutions everywhere. True, it did use the Red Army to impose régimes in Central Europe, but that, too, went against the spirit of Marxism that believes revolutions can only be made by a people themselves, not imposed from outside. Stalin opposed home-grown communist revolutions in China, Yugoslavia and Greece — counseling revolutionary leaders to stop and instead back their nationalist capitalists in the first two and refusing to lift a finger for the third when its revolution was drowned in blood by the United Kingdom. All of Stalin’s successors held fast to this refusal to back revolutions elsewhere; partly this was out of ideological rigidity tinged with a lack of confidence in other peoples, but perhaps more it reflected a desire to maintain peace with the capitalist West at any cost.

Tomás Borge, the only FSLN founder who lived to see the revolution, spoke frankly during an interview conducted eight years after the Sandinistas took power. “Since it was not easy to see the prospects for such a change — even revolutionary forces in the world had not grasped the imminence of victory and had adopted a rather indifferent attitude — we did not receive support during the war from any of the socialist countries, except Cuba,” Borge said, without judgment.

“The Soviet Union and others did not support us because they believed that only the Latin American Communist parties were the representatives of revolutionary changes, and it was not possible for them to think otherwise at that time. They had been through a whole series of experiences, developing ideas in distant countries that divorced them from particular realities. … I am not blaming those countries, simply pointing out an objective fact. … It cannot be said — in that idiotic language that is sometimes used — that Nicaragua’s revolution was the fruit of Moscow gold. Not even the Soviets, the Soviet revolutionaries, believed in revolutionary change in Nicaragua. So how were they going to help us!”

Official commentary in the Soviet Union’s leading theoretical journal stressed the prevailing viewpoint that armed struggle was hopeless and that Latin Americans should use peaceful tactics while participating in broad coalitions — a view echoed by the head of the El Salvador Communist Party, who went so far as to call those who advocated armed struggle “nihilists.”

The behavior of the Moscow-aligned Nicaraguan Socialist Party can best be explained in this context. The party was a participant in the Sandinista governing structure, but less than two months after the FSLN took power, it issued a formal resolution calling on the FSLN to

“be sensitive to the demands and interests of the capitalist class allies. Putting aside or neglecting those interests, in the name of excessive revolutionary radicalism, will not only lead to losing those allies but will strengthen the counter-revolution. … [T]his revolution must be conducted in such a way as to prevent the influence of tendencies seeking to skip stages or leap arbitrarily over the necessary stages and their corresponding transformations.”

Overall, a statement quite consistent with the Nicaraguan Socialists’ long-standing resistance to revolution. The party’s resolution might reasonably be read as a warning against moving too fast, but regardless of how that resolution is interpreted, it is quite far removed from a “revolutionary” mindset. Continual shrieking about Soviet bogeymen under every rock ceases being comical at some point and becomes simply morbid.

Triumphing with a large coalition

Regardless, there was no need to worry about precipitous moves. The FSLN had consistently carried out its line of encouraging mass participation, creating the largest possible coalition in the final months of the insurrection and leaving plenty of room for political participation by sectors of society ranging from Marxist parties to its Left all the way to capitalist organizations on the moderate Right. Most of the eighteen ministers in the first government lineup were capitalist figures and two of the five seats on the executive body of the provisional government, the Junta of National Reconstruction, were held by prominent capitalists.

The FSLN had adopted Augusto Sandino’s motto, “Implacable in struggle, generous in victory,” and applied that generosity even to the National Guard. Seeking to avoid a bloody revenge, Borge recalled, “When they tried to lynch the [Somozist] prisoners who were in the Red Cross building, I personally went to see the relatives of our martyrs … and convinced them not to do it by saying, ‘So why did we make this revolution, if we are going to do the same things they used to do?’ ” Borge had the moral authority to make that plea, for he suffered through two prison terms in Somoza’s prisons, undergoing torture and being held in solitary confinement, and his wife was tortured to death by the National Guard. Borge had been involved in struggles against Somoza since the late 1940s.

Borge was one of nine members of the FSLN National Directorate, which was the ultimate authority after Somoza fled. The directorate’s structure was based on unity — when the three tendencies reunited, each tendency was represented by three leaders. Daniel Ortega, of the Tercerista tendency, as the one directorate member who also sat on the five-member Junta of National Reconstruction, became the Junta’s chair.

Ortega assumed his roles because the Terceristas were the dominant faction due to their strategy proving successful and because their tactics could include the other two tendencies’ strategies, giving them a moral authority within the FSLN. Ortega had a long history of political work, joining the student protest movement as a teenager despite the disapproval of his accountant father who had once been a fighter for Augusto Sandino. Interestingly, Ortega also gave bible lessons when a student. He joined the FSLN at age eighteen in 1963, becoming a resistance fighter before spending seven years in jail, where he was tortured.

The new Sandinista government may have shown generosity in victory, but it was going to consolidate that victory. An FSLN commander, Bayardo Arce, put it this way: “This is a Sandinista State; it is a state where the majority of our people subscribe to the political philosophy of Sandisimo, that is why the Council of State has to reflect this majority.” Arce was referring to a new legislative body that would soon be formed, but, more generally, he was noting the reality of Nicaragua. The revolution had been fought under the Sandinista banner, the Sandinistas had organized the insurrection and protected people from the wrath of Somoza’s goons as best they could; there simply would not have been a revolution without them. So while Arce’s words may have been difficult to hear for some, it was a plain statement of how most Nicaraguans felt.

Formally, the five-member Junta of National Reconstruction headed the government as a collective executive, and it ruled by decree for a year until the Council of State convened. Although the FSLN National Directorate was the true center of power, setting overall policy, the Junta worked by consensus in forming policies to implement the Directorate’s broad policy decisions, and the capitalists also had opportunity to affect the carrying out of policy through their ministerial positions. The Directorate worked in a collegial fashion, creating a collective style of leadership. The Sandinistas did not wish to have a dominant personality, nor were there any candidates for such a role; only Carlos Fonseca, killed in a National Guard ambush in 1976, had any potential to do so and it is an open question as to whether he could have. Among other reasons, Fonseca advocated the Prolonged People’s War line, not that of the Terceristas.

The nationalization of Somoza’s stolen property

One of the Junta’s first acts, in Decree Number 3, was to confiscate and nationalize the property of Somoza, his family and a few very close associates. Somoza’s business empire was so extensive that the Sandinista’s new state-controlled sector represented one-quarter of the economy. Included in the nationalization were Somoza’s landholdings, which constituted 23 percent of the country’s farmland. More than 90 percent of the confiscated lands consisted of the largest plantations, those more than three and a half square kilometers (875 acres).

This decree was followed by the creation of the Nicaraguan Institute of Agricultural Reform, and, unlike other ministries, this important department was put in Sandinista hands from the start, under the direction of Jaime Wheelock, a National Directorate member and a Proletarian Tendency leader. Wheelock had originally wished to implement his tendency’s more radical agricultural program, but a more modest program was implemented under Directorate consensus. And, already, the Sandinistas were holding back landless agricultural workers from seizing more land.

The Rural Workers Association had emerged a few years earlier, organizing farm workers, particularly day laborers, and created a national organization by early 1978. The association not only organized guerrilla units and coordinated armed actions with the FSLN, but in the final months before the takeover backed spontaneous land takeovers. The land seizures assured there was sufficient food for the liberated areas; the seized lands were collectively farmed and managed, and not parceled into individual plots.

Other early acts of the Junta were nationalization of banks, insurance and foreign trade. Nicaragua’s banks, however, had collapsed; therefore taking them over meant taking over responsibility for the banks’ debts. As that amounted to a bailout, the capitalists were happy to go along with this decree. But this aspect of the nationalizations had its firm logic, as well — the banks had played a large role in the massive corruption under Somoza’s reign and the insurance companies were unable to cope with the country’s massive economic damage. Nicaragua’s foreign minister, Miguel D’Escoto, explained the banking and insurance takeovers in a letter to his embassies and consulates: “In this case, we were forced to act in response to economic necessity rather than ideological preference. The financial institutions were bankrupt. The nationalization of the banks was, in effect, the nationalization of their debt. In order to reopen the banks, the government has assumed an additional debt of $230 million.” That debt was on top of the $1.6 billion foreign debt that Somoza had saddled the country with, which the Junta agreed to honor.

The government takeover of foreign trade was also in effect a subsidy to capitalists, primarily agricultural exporters. The confiscation of Somoza’s properties put some of this sector under state control, but private plantation owners still commanded about three-quarters of the country’s agricultural exports, primarily cotton, coffee, beef and sugar. Maintaining agricultural exports was critical to economic recovery — they accounted for 80 percent of Nicaragua’s exports. Under the nationalization of foreign trade, the state sold imported inputs to exporters at the official exchange rate and purchased their production for export at guaranteed prices better than the exchange rates.

The state was guaranteeing the exporters a higher price, with the state absorbing the difference between the guaranteed higher price and the price set by the international market. The beneficiaries of this subsidy were overwhelmingly large plantation owners. A government pamphlet later explained that “100 percent of the private sector’s needs for working capital and investment” were now financed by the public, whereas never more than 70 percent of these needs had been subsidized under Somoza. The pamphlet continued, “Despite the fact that the private sector has made significant profits [in 1980 and 1981], the producers in this sector have not been forced to use these profits to meet their own needs for working and investment capital.”

Despite subsidies and guaranteed profits, the big capitalists continued to chafe at not being in charge politically. A class that believes it is entitled to exercise political control found it increasingly difficult to remain part of the government, and the contradictions between what the big capitalists wanted and the many policies of the Sandinistas that sought to provide better wages, benefits and working conditions, and new democratic structures, for urban and rural working people — the overwhelming majority of the population and the classes who made the revolution — slowly intensified.

Shifts in the government as the revolution advances

Those stresses caused a major shift in the cabinet. In December 1979 and February 1980, a series of resignations and reshuffles, along with shifts to the Left by other ministers, resulted in a radically different cabinet, with almost all ministries now headed by Sandinistas. Several members of the FSLN National Directorate assumed important ministerial positions. The work of the ministries were difficult at first; most of the bureaucrats who had worked in government before the takeover had fled. But the Junta asked lower- and middle-level employees to return, and about 90 percent did so. A new culture of honesty in the ranks of the ministries was created, and dedication and sacrifice were rewarded; massive corruption had been the norm under Somoza.

A new type of temporary legislature, the Council of State, convened on May 4, 1980. The council had 51 seats, each reserved for organized groups — eight political parties, three mass-participation and community organizations, seven labor organizations, seven professional guilds, five employer organizations and the armed forces. The Council originated most of the legislation and could pass or reject legislation introduced by the Junta of National Reconstruction, although the Junta could veto Council-passed legislation.

There had been hope among the employers that they would be able to control the Council of State, but when mass organizations aligned with the Sandinistas were granted seats, one of the capitalist members of the Junta, Alfonso Robelo, used that as an excuse to resign. Days earlier, the other capitalist Junta member, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, had stepped down. Both were replaced by industrialists. The mass-participation organizations deserved representation, the Sandinistas argued, because of their massive growth during the past year. Robelo had wanted a guaranteed majority for capitalists on the Council, but walked out when a majority instead went to the organizations that had carried out the work of the revolution — the members of which had literally put their lives on the line for it and constituted a large majority of the country’s population.

The Sandinistas were also faced with the massive task of building a court system. Unlike in the ministries, it would not be possible to use the bricks of the past to rebuild; the court system had been a completely servile instrument of Somoza’s dictatorship. Plus there was the need to have trials for the thousands of imprisoned National Guardsmen. Special tribunals were created to try Somoza’s war criminals in which the defendants were afforded vastly more rights than political defendants had been under Somoza, and the trials were open to the international press, another change.

“We didn’t have anything,” said Nora Astorga, a trained lawyer who was selected to be the prosecutor at the trials of the Guardsmen. “They gave you a job and you had to do everything from finding people to do it and a house to do it in, to inventing the mechanisms. From nothing. They’d say to you, ‘You’re in charge.’ And you had to figure out how to do it.” Astorga found prosecuting Guardsmen difficult because many had wives and young children living in poverty. She had the authority to release them without trial, and did so in about one-fifth of the 6,000 cases she handled, and most of those who were convicted received sentences of five or less years. No more than fifteen percent received the maximum penalty of 30 years’ imprisonment; the Sandinistas had immediately abolished the death penalty.

Astorga said, “We had a group of compañeros who could go where the Guard member had lived to get information, to investigate why he joined the Guard, how he had behaved, what he had done. … I’m not saying we were never unjust. It’s difficult to be fair 100 percent of the time, but we made a tremendous effort.”

Citations are omitted from the above excerpt from the book It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist ExperimentThe omitted sources cited in this excerpt are: Alan Benjamin, Nicaragua: Dynamic of an Unfinished Revolution [Walnut Publishing, 1989]; John A. Booth, The End and the Beginning: The Nicaraguan Revolution [Westview Press, 1985]; Forrest D. Colburn, Post-Revolutionary Nicaragua: State, Class, and the Dilemmas of Agrarian Policy [University of California Press, 1986]; Carmen Diana Deere and Peter Marchetti, “The Worker-Peasant Alliance in the First Year of the Nicaraguan Agrarian Reform,” Latin American Perspectives, Spring 1981; Gary Ruchwarger, “The Campesino Road to Socialism? The Sandinistas and Rural Co-operatives,” The Socialist Register, 1988; Richard Stahler-Sholk, “Stabilization, Destabilization, and the Popular Classes in Nicaragua, 1979-1988,” Latin American Research Review, Vol. XXV, No. 3 (1990); and “Nora Astorga In Her Own Words,” Envío, April 1988

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Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog and has been an activist with several groups. His book, It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is available from Zero Books.

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