Last August, I was staying in a sleepy coastal village on the Uruguayan coast when I met a dyslexic revolutionary. On his knuckles were tattooed the letters ‘FLSN’. He said he got them done when he fought with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Knowing the correct acronym for the Sandinistas to be ‘FSLN’, I was hesitant to believe him. But I also knew that he wouldn’t have been alone in deciding to lend support to the Nicaraguan revolution. His account was sufficiently detailed and coherent that I believed his story. We had one of the bluntest and most refreshing conversations about the political situation in various Latin American countries. I never did ask him if he was dyslexic or just pissed when he got the tattoo.
Four months later, after an absence of many years, I returned to Nicaragua: a country which has been part of my political consciousness since I was a teenager; one which informed and influenced my perspective as an internationalist.
Why Nicaragua? Blame Thatcher. In May 1979 the Tories won the general election in Britain. Three months later, on the other side of the Atlantic, the people of a small country on the Central American isthmus overthrew the Somoza dynasty that had reigned as US-backed feudal lords for over four decades. The Somoza regime was ferociously oppressive. The level of theft carried out by the extended family and their supporters was breath-taking: land was stolen, aid budgets plundered, markets rigged…the usual.
Of course, there was resistance: the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN – known as the Sandinistas) was formed in 1961. The group took its name from Augusto César Sandino, who had fought a guerrilla war against US occupation in the 1930s. While there were earlier low-level armed initiatives, it wasn’t until the 1970s that support for the Sandinistas grew sufficiently to make a full-scale insurrection look like even a faint possibility.
This isn’t the place to write about the growth of the FSLN and the ideological differences within the group but, suffice to say, a faction headed by Daniel Ortega assumed the leadership and made opportunistic alliances with the country’s middle-classes, business leaders and the liberal press.
It is crucial to understand that without the mass involvement of the people in the armed struggle, the revolution would have failed. Popular support for revolution grew with every crass mistake of the dictatorship (e.g. assassinating a popular and leading journalist). Only a year before the final victory, the FSLN still had very few combatants against a National Guard numbering 14,000 but by 1978 women and men in their thousands had directly intervened, taking up the struggle with whatever arms they could find.
After a final period of fierce fighting, in July 1979, Somoza fled to Miami.
Unsurprisingly, the US was alarmed at this development in ‘their’ backyard. Things got worse in 1981 when Ronald Regan became the US President. His administration took a hard line to stop Nicaragua’s example spreading. Immediately, all aid was stopped; the ports were mined, a trade embargo imposed, and by November Regan had authorised covert military support to those opposed (called the ‘Contras’) to the new de facto Government. It was a war that we know deployed the CIA’s book of dirty tricks. It was a filthy business.
Despite this, over the next few years, the revolution produced huge gains for the workers and peasants. Although a cash poor country, resources were re-allocated to health and education. People were trained to go out to the countryside to improve public health and literacy rates. The results were fantastic; infant mortality fell from 33% to 8%, vaccination programmes were put in place, literacy increased from 50% of the population to 86%. Before the revolution there were 1,000 doctors but the revolutionary government made health a priority and 500 doctors a year were qualifying. Controversial land reforms helped redistribute large swathes of confiscated land to campesinos.
These achievements against enormous odds inspired a massive mobilisation of political, material and moral solidarity. Many travelled to Nicaragua to stand with the people, to utilise any skills they had, to learn, and on their return worked to counter the misinformation spread by right-wing propagandists of the Thatcher-Regan era. I was one. I was privileged to witness the bravery of those who were fighting so hard to bring about social and economic change.
In 1984, elections were held. The people overwhelmingly voted for the FSLN. The election, seen as free and fair by international observers was not recognised by the US. Instead Regan’s administration increased its support for the covert contra war.
Huge resources that should have been spent on health, education and building a fair economy had to be diverted to the war effort. The economy was wrecked. The death toll was increasing. Few families were left untouched by the war. Many argue that the ruling group in the Sandinistas also made major political mistakes and miscalculations that lessened their support.
Further elections were held in 1990. Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista comandante, lost the election for President. Instead, Violeta Chamorro was elected. She was the candidate of a wide coalition of liberals, conservatives and others disconcerted with the ruling group within the Sandinistas. I was here just before and after the election. I remember being shocked at the result but Nicaraguan comrades’ analysis ran true: the people knew that re-electing Ortega would mean no respite from the US. The vote was for an end to the war and for ‘normality’.
Ortega went on to lose the next two Presidential elections. What followed was 16 years of successive neo-liberal policies that rolled-back many of the gains of the revolution. But, following a major political makeover Daniel Ortega won the 2006 election. He also won the elections in 2012 and last December.
The example of Nicaragua has ever been in my mind. I was one of the young idealists that gave fervent support in the 1980s and 1990s. I received much more than I gave. After a long absence, I’ve returned. The country has changed, but my politics haven’t really. The extra years have, I think, made me better at probing the motives of those we place in positions of authority and power, especially those we have called comrade.
Ortega, once a darling of the left, and his clique are now widely criticised with accusations of personal enrichment and authoritarianism. By the time I leave in two weeks, I’ll have spent three months talking to people, reading, observing, and asking myself if the values asserted by the revolution have been betrayed.
I’ll let you know.
16 March 2017