July 19, 2009, marked the 30th anniversary of Nicaragua’s Sandinista anti-imperialist democratic revolution which brought the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSNL) to power in Nicaragua.
What this revolution overthrew was a classic neo-colonial regime that facilitated the submission of Nicaragua’s economy to the interests of US imperialism, and the unconscionable looting of Nicaragua’s wealth by US imperialism’s financial institutions and multinational corporations. This left Nicaragua, a beautiful country brimming with natural resources, in a state of utter destitution.
The neo-colonial regime, that for decades had been headed by the brutal and kleptocratic Somoza family, was opposed not only by the vast masses of peasants and workers kept in dire ignorance and suffering the most excruciating oppression, but also by the national bourgeoisie and urban petty bourgeoisie whose aspirations were stifled by the comprador oligarchy that ran the country, at great profit to themselves, for the benefit of US imperialism.
It was these nationalist elements who initiated the organised resistance to imperialism, whose most famous leader and representative spokesman was Augusto Sandino, who led a guerrilla struggle against the regime in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s that, with the support of the oppressed Nicaraguan masses, liberated large areas of Nicaraguan territory, making a point of especially targeting US-owned properties. As a result of his military successes against the reactionary government forces (fortified by large contingents of US marines), he was able to negotiate a peace deal with the Nicaraguan government that encompassed an undertaking to safeguard Nicaragua from foreign interference in its affairs, and the setting up of an administrative zone in the northern part of the country to be controlled by the Sandinistas where Sandino hoped to encourage the development of cooperatives that would greatly improve the lives of the peasantry. However, after the peace deal was concluded, Sandino was murdered on 21 February 1934 by the National Guard (a “constabulary” set up and trained as from 1927 under US auspices and was in essence a force of local Nicaraguans paid to fight for US interests) on the orders of a Lieutenant Anastasio Somoza, the newly-appointed chief of the National Guard, who was in turn acting on instructions from Washington. Two years later Somoza used his control of the National Guard to seize power for himself.
Throughout the years of Somoza family control of the Nicaraguan comprador government, resistance to the regime continued, although it was largely driven underground by the fierce fascistic repression meted out by the government forces. Anastasio Somoza was shot down and killed by the poet and typesetter Rigoberto López Pérez – an action which Daniel Ortega’s brother Humberto considered to be one of the first attempts at the reintegration of the revolutionary Sandinista movement. However, Somoza’s eldest son, Luís Somoza Debayle, then chief of the National Guard, immediately stepped into his father’s shoes, setting himself up to be ‘elected’ as president in elections to be held in February 1957, which thanks to heavy US financial backing added to the intimidation of any opposition, he could be confident of ‘winning’. Between 1956 and 1960 there were no fewer than 60 armed actions by various opponents of the regime in different parts of the country.
The success of the Cuban revolution in 1959 gave a further impetus to the organisation of armed struggle, and the FSLN was formed as a result of the coming together of various groups supporting the armed struggle against the regime. Throughout the 1960s the FSLN worked among the working class and peasantry to secure support for the armed struggle and in 1969 presented its ‘Historic Programme’. This programme promised to give political, civic, economic and social rights to the people, including rights for “small and medium-sized owners”. It undertook to effect a programme of major agrarian reform through land redistribution on a mass scale, encouraging the formation of co-operatives. It promised labour legislation to protect workers and to set up programmes of social assistance. It also stood for racial and sexual equality. In foreign relations, the FSLN undertook to support liberation struggles throughout the world, as well as struggles for authentic democracy and equal rights (especially for black people in the US).
In the 1970’s, the prices for most of Nicaragua’s exports fell drastically, causing tremendous hardship to the Nicaraguan population – bearing in mind that Nicaragua’s economy is heavily dependent on agricultural exports. In addition to this bitter blow, an earthquake hit Managua on 23 December 1972, causing 20,000 deaths and leaving three quarters of the capital’s population homeless. Although some $60m was received in international disaster relief funds, most of this was expropriated by the National Guard. All of this angered the masses and strengthened the revolutionary movement, while at the same time causing dissension among the various sections of the ruling class and disaffection among the urban petty-bourgeoisie which found it more difficult to justify its collaboration with the Somoza regime. The FSLN was able to focus around itself broad sections of the anti-Somoza opposition, as it led a series of spectacular mass assaults on the regime. On 31 May 1979, Radio Sandino called for the final insurrection and a general strike, leading to three months of heroic battles fought in the streets by ordinary people, at the cost of heavy loss of life. On 16 June the FSLN declared a provisional government in León, a city which it then controlled. On 10 July, the FSLN took control of Matagalpa. On 16 July it captured the National Guard barracks at Estelí. And on 19 July, FSLN guerrilla columns from different parts of the country converged on Managua and finally deposed the Somoza regime whose personnel fled the country.
The FSLN in government
The FSLN set about building what it termed a socialist society – i.e., a society that would deliver social justice to the broad masses of the people. However, it was committed to political pluralism, which meant in effect that people of all classes would be able to have parties representing their class interests participating in the political life of the country – the exploiters as well as the exploited. It did not set itself the task of overthrowing capitalism but stood for a ‘mixed’ economy, where state-owned industries, peasant co-operatives and privately owned enterprises would operate side by side. However, by removing the imperialist stranglehold on the economy, it was expected that all patriotic classes would be able to benefit. It sought to offer the masses participatory rather than merely representative democracy by means of encouraging the setting up of mass organisations (e.g., of youth, of women, trade unions, etc) through which members could directly influence political decision-making.
Furthermore, in order to make such participation more meaningful, the FSLN sought to raise the cultural level of the masses. In 1980 the National Literacy Crusade was launched, which within 6 months taught the best part of 500,000 Nicaraguans to read and write – reducing the rate of illiteracy from over 50% to just 13%. It was envisaged that this would help people to be better informed when making their political choices.
Agrarian reform was implemented as promised. However, the only land distributed to the peasants was land confiscated from members of the Somoza regime, and land which was under-utilised. Usury was abolished. Credit, marketing assistance and technical assistance was made available to small farmers. Social facilities were created in the countryside. Some 2,000 co-operatives were formed by the end of 1980, encouraged by favourable credit terms and facilities. Agricultural workers were encouraged to participate in the Association of Rural Workers in order to advance their separate interests.
The result of these reforms is that malnutrition, that had been rife, was eliminated, and infant mortality, thanks also to the provision of access to health care and mass vaccination programmes, fell from 12.2% in 1978 to 6.2% from 1985-90. Life expectancy rose from 52.9 years in 1979 to 63.26 years from 1985-1990. This was achieved despite the civil war being waged by the Contras which especially targeted health and education workers, and it was achieved because of the FSLN’s commitment to improving access to health care and improving its quality, as well as its ability to mobilise mass organisations to assist in the process.
Massive priority was given to education. In 1987, 983,803 students of all ages – almost a quarter of the population – were attending classes of one sort or another. The number of children in school almost doubled. At the same time, the revolution embraced teaching methods which allowed a student to “participate in his or her own education… we’re not interested in creating young men or women who only know a lot of facts … but in order to become someone who can promote his or her critical participation in society … we believe that an interaction is necessary… The teacher doesn’t have to be the one who knows everything, that considers the student down there as ignorant, who must just open their mouths and swallow everything that the teacher says”. The idea was to encourage students to become adept at problem solving, for in the words of Father Fernando Cardenal, who was FSLN minister of education, “like all developing countries we are lacking many things – there is something we have never lacked … that is the problems … and we are becoming experts at working with those problems and advancing despite those problems.”
Armed struggle against the revolutionary regime
US imperialism was quite unable to accept the fact that the Nicaraguan masses had reclaimed Nicaragua’s sovereignty. It set out to deploy its economic might for the destruction of the Nicaraguan revolution. Its tactics were many and various, but all of them vicious. The main thrust of US imperialist sabotage was through (a) economic sanctions, (b) slander and calumny, (c) mobilising disgruntled elements and (d) financing and arming reactionary elements to cause massive economic damage to Nicaragua, with a view to undermining the revolution’s ability to carry out its programme of reforms and thus destroying popular support for the revolution.
When the FSLN took over, it inherited major economic problems. Having been systematically looted by imperialism, it was chronically underdeveloped. In addition to that it had suffered losses as a result of the two years of insurrection amounting to some $500m at least – equal in value to its entire export earnings for two or three years, and leaving the country extremely short of food and export crops. Somoza had fled the country bearing with him $3m of the country’s reserves. The foreign debt stood at the eye-watering figure of $1.6bn.
In these conditions, where Nicaragua desperately needed access to foreign loans, the US blocked all international loans, forcing Nicaragua, for instance, to cut back on its plans to provide housing for workers. It also blocked Nicaragua’s trade with its traditional trade partners, although Nicaragua was very quickly able to establish trading relations with other countries, especially the USSR. However, much of Nicaragua’s farm machinery, for instance, had been imported from the US, and it became impossible to obtain spare parts.
The greatest damage was done, however, by the US’s mobilisation, arming and financing of the Contras. At the core of the Contra movement were the ex-National Guard. They set up their bases in Honduras from where they conducted raids into Nicaragua, targeting civilians and attempting to destroy the rural economic infrastructure, particularly the cooperative farms. The Contras also targeted health care facilities, destroying no fewer than 45 in the years from 1981-5, and deliberately setting out to murder health personnel, such as those conducting vaccination campaigns in rural areas.
In just one year, 1986, the losses caused by these incursions amounted to $864.6m, equivalent to three times the country’s export earnings for the year. In fact total direct and indirect economic damage caused by the war up to 1988 has been estimated at $18bn. Given that the population of Nicaragua was then around 3 million, the losses amounted to $6,000 for every man, woman and child – a huge sum in a country where incomes are very low at the best of times.
The cost to the US of all this destruction was more or less equivalent to the destruction itself. Daniel Ortega pointed out at a speech commemorating the eighth anniversary of the Revolution in July 1987 that:
“The United States has spent … US$9.7 billion on military installations in the area; given US$1.2 billion in military assistance to Nicaragua’s neighbours, and another US$2.8 billion to ensure their support for US military policy. Billions have been spent on espionage flights over Nicaragua, on the maintenance of military installations, and on manoeuvres. Altogether we calculate that the United States has invested US$15.6 billion in trying to destroy the Revolution.”
Why would US imperialism consider it imperative to disburse such vast sums to destroy a tiny country like Nicaragua which was hardly in any position to cause it any harm? However, as Hazel Smith,  correctly points out:
“If the Sandinista social and political system which tried to respond to the ‘logic of the majority’ could be made to work in a small and underdeveloped Third World country like Nicaragua, it could perhaps work elsewhere. The US interest was to prevent the success of the Sandinista experiment of promoting economic growth, redistributing wealth and implementing pluralist democracy. If other states adopted the Sandinista example, which would necessarily challenge the rights of the US to control economically or politically their social, economic and political systems, this would indeed be a threat to the ‘national security’ of the United States, which relies for that security on a worldwide interlocking system of formally independent but informally dependent Third World nation states.
“These states provide raw materials for US business and the military, and bases for US armed forces. They provide markets and cheap labour. They provide investment havens and tax breaks. They provide the source of billions of dollars’ worth of repatriated debt payments and profits. In short, they are indispensable, as long of course as they do not start to follow independent political policies, which would no longer permit their dependent integration into the US-dominated Western world”.
Loss of the 1989 election
These were the circumstances in which, completely unexpectedly, the FSLN lost the elections held in Nicaragua in 1989. They lost in spite of the fact that the Contra had been effectively defeated, and they lost despite the fact that in elections held on 4 November 1984, in which 74.41 of the electorate voted, the FSLN secured 63% of the votes cast. And they lost primarily because the Nicaraguan people were tired of war; tired of the fact that because of it, the FSLN could not fulfil all its promises; sick of the deaths and injuries that it was causing.
The manifold strands of the bourgeois opposition – no less than 14 political parties – had succeeded in uniting behind Violeta Chamorro, whose election campaign was funded by the US to the tune of $1 million. Because, however, winning the election did not give Chamorro and her supporters control of the Sandinista army, the FSLN continued to be a powerful force in Nicaraguan politics. A neo-liberal in economics, she nonetheless in politics promoted a policy of national reconciliation, allowing the Sandinista’s land redistributions to be maintained, for instance, and granting unconditional amnesties to FSLN supporters for what might otherwise have been considered political crimes. She did reduce the military as much as was possible and organised a weapons-buying campaign to disarm the masses peacefully.
Although the disbanding of the Contras and the lifting of economic sanctions that succeeded her election victory somewhat alleviated Nicaragua’s dire economic position, supplemented by the less than princely $300 million in aid provided by the US in 1990 and $241 million the year after – very trivial sums as compared to the losses that had been caused by the Contra war, the naked capitalist logic of neo-liberalism quickly led to a rise in unemployment and under-employment and a severe reduction in social spending. As the years wore on, and Chamorro was replaced in elections by other candidates acceptable to US imperialism, being first Aleman, and then Bolaños, identical neo-liberal policies further aggravated the situation of the masses, until finally in 2006, with the right-wing parties quarrelling among themselves, the FSLN’s Daniel Ortega was once again elected president. Although he is everywhere accused of having ‘moderated his Marxist ideology’, and of having undertaken to implement the economic policies of his opponents, the fact remains that since his election, the FSLN has been able to implement a series of programmes to reduce the appalling levels of poverty. “Zero Usury” has assisted small business start-ups in the towns, whilst “Zero Hunger” supports low-income families in the countryside. “Streets for the People” is patching up neglected urban areas, whilst “Houses for the People” is providing affordable accommodation for the urban poor. All of these popular programmes, along with medical and literacy programmes, are being helped by Venezuela and Cuba. With aid from Venezuela, electricity supplies have been regularised, so that the country no longer suffers incessant power cuts, and miles of roads are being laid in order to facilitate transport of commodities. Progress may be rather slow, but it is steady and it is tangible. Under FSLN government, Nicaragua has also joined ALBA, the growing community of Latin American nations determined to support each other in developing their economies free from imperialist economic or political control.
Although the US has not yet intervened militarily to stifle ALBA, no doubt because it is militarily committed to the limit in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is certainly anxious to undermine ALBA as thoroughly as possible. The recent kidnap and deposition of the President of Honduras shows that it is necessary for all independence loving countries in the region to be on their guard. As far as Nicaragua is concerned, Daniel Ortega is being subjected to a campaign of vilification suggesting not only that he has ceased to embrace the political ideals for which he once stood, but worse that he profited personally from land redistributions, to say nothing of making lewd allegations about his sex life, criticising his religious conversion as well as his ability to turn former foes into allies. Added to this, of course, are the inevitable accusations of electoral improprieties and ballot rigging.
The people of Nicaragua and the people of progressive Latin American countries in general must be on the alert with regard to this vilification campaign. Experience has shown that electoral alternatives to the FSLN in Nicaragua exacerbate the hardships faced by the masses of the people. Whoever wins elections in Nicaragua will be unable overnight to cure Nicaragua’s chronic impoverishment. The FSLN, however, has shown that it is prepared to work hard to improve the lives of the masses and that its programmes are extremely effective, particularly when considered in the light of the country’s very limited resources. Experience has also shown that such campaigns of vilification are invariably linked with attempts to bring about regime change with a view to promoting the interests of imperialism in general, and US imperialism in particular. There can be no doubt that the people of Latin America continue to face a tough struggle ahead.
[1.] See Humberto Ortega Saavedra, 50 años de lucha Sandinista, Ministry of the Interior, Managua, 1979-80.
[2.] These quotations from Father Fernando Cardenal are from an interview he gave Hazel Smith, and are cited in her book Nicaragua – self-determination and survival, Pluto Press, London, 1993.
[3.] See EVK Fitzgerald, ‘An evaluation of the economic costs to Nicaragua of US aggression 1980-1984’, in Rose J Spalding (ed), The political economy of revolutionary Nicaragua, pp.195-213. Allen & Unwin, London, 1987.
[4.] Barricada Internacional, Managua, 30 July 1987.
[5.] Op. cit., see note [2.], p.249-250.