Neil Faulkner looks at how the US set out to destroy the Sandinista regime and with it any possibility of a wider Central American revolution
In February 1990, Nicaragua’s Sandinista government crashed to defeat in a general election. It secured only 41% of the national vote compared with 55% for its conservative opponents.
The UNO opposition alliance represented the middle class, big business, the Church, and the Contras. The Contras were a murderous militia funded, armed, and trained by the United States with the express purpose of destabilising Nicaragua.
The US had cut off all aid to Nicaragua and launched a proxy war against the country in 1982. The war had killed around 40,000 people, destroyed 15% of Nicaragua’s productive capacity, and forced the Sandinistas to devote more than 50% of the national budget to defence.
The war had devastated the living standards of the Nicaraguan poor and the social programmes of the Sandinista regime. The real value of wages fell by a third between 1981 and 1984. By the end of the decade, unemployment was above 25%. Schools and hospitals were being forced to close for lack of funds. The illiteracy rate, cut to 12% in 1981, soared again to 30%. Infantry mortality, having fallen for years, began to rises once more after 1986.
The people of Nicaragua understood the reasons for their poverty. They did not blame the Sandinistas. In the November 1984 general election, 67% of them had voted for the government. But they could only take so much, and by 1990 the effects of the siege of their country by US imperialism and world capitalism – for that is what it was – broke their will and they voted to end the torment. In a sense, as Mike Gonzalez put it, ‘the Contras were the iron fist, UNO the velvet glove.’
Why did the rulers of the world, especially the rulers of the US, hate Nicaragua so much? It was one of the smallest and poorest countries on Earth. There were only three million Nicaraguans in all, and most of them were very poor indeed. Per capita GDP was around $750, and the country as a whole accounted for just 0.2% of global production. Per capita GDP in the US at the time was around $18,000, and the US accounted for around 27% of global production. Nicaragua constituted no conceivable economic or military threat to the United States.
The problem was political. In July 1979 the people of Nicaragua had destroyed a brutal military dictatorship and propelled to power the guerrilla fighters of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). If this could be done in Nicaragua, maybe it could be done elsewhere in Central America – in Guatamala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica. And if here, perhaps elsewhere in Latin America; indeed, perhaps yet further afield, since the long post-war boom was over, the world economy was again mired in slump, and workers and poor people were fighting back from Brazil to Poland to South Korea.
At first, still reeling from defeat in Vietnam, US leaders had experimented with a ‘soft power’ approach to global dominance, trumpeting a new commitment to democracy and human rights. It did not last. The election of Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980 had seen a return to Cold War rhetoric, increased arms spending, and military aggression.
Nicaragua was a prime target. Here was a bright beacon of resistance in the US ‘backyard’. So the aim was to destroy the Sandinista regime and suffocate at birth any possibility of a wider Central American revolution. Local dictators were rearmed. Death-squads were dispatched to El Salvador. The CIA was granted an initial $19 million for covert operations against Nicaragua. And before long, US government agents would be secretly funding the Nicaraguan Contras from the proceeds of arms sales to Iran (yes: Iran).
The Sandinistas thus found themselves in the front-line of Reagan’s attempt to reverse ‘the Vietnam Syndrome’ and reassert US power across the globe.
The US waged a dirty war against revolutionaries in Central America throughout the 1980s. The men they armed and trained were often sadistic terrorists. Because the resistance was rooted among the poor, virtually everyone was a target: crops were burned, villages destroyed, men murdered, and women raped.
The worst was often reserved for captured Sandinista fighters. One militiaman later reported: ‘Rosa had her breasts cut off. Then they cut into her chest and took out her heart. The men had their arms broken, their testicles cut off. They were killed by slitting their throats and pulling the tongue out through the slit.’
Half a million people fled the Contra terror in the first four years of the war, reducing the productive capacity of the economy, and creating a refugee crisis in the cities.
The strategy was to destroy the Sandinista regime by a process of isolation, terror, and slow strangulation. The aim was to expunge the example of July 1979 – to show that revolution could not succeed.
Anastasio Somoza was the third in a dynasty of Nicaraguan dictators who had first seized power in 1937. The Somoza family became Nicaragua’s richest, accumulating wealth through landholding, financial investments, and, latterly, the appropriation of international relief funds donated after a huge earthquake destroyed 75% of Managua, the capital city, in 1972.
This crony-capitalism was underpinned by the dictator’s direct control over the National Guard. Protest was met with brutal repression. For more than 40 years this worked. In particular, the guerrilla resistance of the FSLN in parts of the countryside was effectively contained. Only in September 1978 did things begin to change.
Mass uprisings in several towns were suppressed with the usual violence. But this time people were too enraged to stop, and the resistance was not cowed. The US, smelling change on the wind, cut off arms supplies to Somoza. The FSLN launched a new offensive. By early June, its leaders were confident enough to summon a general uprising.
The last few weeks were exceptionally bloody. Insurrections in the barrios (urban slums) were sometimes crushed. The regime sent planes and helicopters to bomb them from the air. The National Guard rampaged through them, killing, raping, and torturing without distinction. But each murderous assault swept young street-fighters out of the urban barrios and into Sandinista training-camps in the bush.
On 19 July, Managua fell to the revolutionary forces. Four of Nicaragua’s seven cities were in ruins. A desperately poor country was even poorer. The Sandinista inheritance was grim.
The FSLN took its name from Augusto Cesar Sandino, an anti-imperialist who had refused to compromise and lay down his arms after a liberal revolt in 1926, sustaining guerrilla resistance to Nicaragua’s pro-US government until 1933. The choice of name reflected the Sandinistas’ politics: they were anti-imperialists and radical reformists, not socialist revolutionaries. The Cuban Revolution had provided the primary model when the FSLN was founded in 1961. Rural guerrilla warfare had been their principal modus operandi ever since.
Nicaragua was not only impoverished and devastated. It remained what it had always been: a country of subsistence farmers and producers of agricultural exports like coffee.
The Sandinistas did their best to redistribute some wealth and provide a basic minimum for all. But there were strict limits to this process. They needed foreign aid, foreign loans, foreign investment, and foreign markets. They needed these things both to grow their economy and to defend their state. This involved making major concessions to capitalists, both at home and abroad.
Two-thirds of the economy remained in private hands. Dollar supermarkets sold imported goods to Nicaraguans with the wealth and hard currency to buy them. In nearby people’s stores the shelves might be empty, often of such essentials as toothpaste and toilet paper, sometimes even of staples like rice and coffee.
The burden of building basic infrastructure and industry, and of maintaining a huge army, fell primarily on the workers, the peasants, and the poor. The regime’s priorities were austerity, production, and defence. The Sandinista state had its own interests – national survival – and they were in contradiction with the material needs of the people.
The regime remained popular. Its mass base was huge: more than half a million Nicaraguans, 20% of the population, were enrolled in one or another Sandinista organisation in 1982. But this was a top-down ‘command’ structure for transmitting the priorities of the Sandinista leadership to society – not a bottom-up democracy capable of formulating and advancing alternatives.
The Nicaraguan Revolution was trapped by poverty and war, and these constraints were warping it into a caricature of its noble aspirations. National independence in a world of giant corporations and imperial powers was proving a mirage.
The only way out would have been to have formed an alliance with workers, peasants, and poor people elsewhere, to have given full support to their struggles, and thus to have attempted to spread the revolution, perhaps first to Central America, then to the great centres of the Latin American working-class like Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, and elsewhere.
The key lesson of Chile’s Allende government is that the achievement of socialism depends on the overthrow of the capitalist state. The key lesson of the Nicaraguan Revolution is that it also depends on internationalism.
Capitalism is a global system. Therefore, you cannot build ‘socialism in one country’. The economic power of global markets and the military power of imperialism will, sooner or later, destroy any islands of socialism that attempt to survive in isolation from the rest of the world.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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