Augusto C. Sandino: Beyond The Borrowed Masks

Tortilla Con Sal

When Derek Walcott wrote

“I had a sound colonial education I have Dutch, nigger and English in me and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.” (from The Schooner Boy), he was writing about the fundamental human impulse to have an identity, which is at at the same time, whether at a personal or a national level, an impulse towards freedom, autonomy, sovereignty, independence.

General Augusto César Sandino, in 1927. During the U.S. occupations of Haiti and Nicaragua, Augusto Sandino and Charlemagne Peralte fought against the same colonialist army and many of the same people (Photo credit:

An identity does not get invented out of nothing. Freedom does not exist in a vacuum. It is impossible to discuss seriously the legacy of August C. Sandino without looking at what he received from his precursors, at his contemporary international context and the various legacies he himself received consciously and unconsciously in that context.

On one level, as a national liberation hero, Sandino resembles other outstanding anti-colonial guerrilla leaders of his time. Emiliano Zapata predominates as an outstanding figure of the Mexican Revolution. But one can think also of leaders like Michael Collins who confronted the British Empire during the Irish War of Independence between 1919 and 1921.

In the Caribbean one finds the transcendental figure of Charlemagne Peralte, the Haitian guerrilla leader who confronted the invasion of his country by US marines between 1917 and 1919. All these heroes were killed in ambushes. All of them were called “bandits” and “outlaws” by their imperialist enemies.

But also and perhaps even more importantly as cultural and ideological support were the great revolutionary figures noted by Rodrigo Quezada Monge, namely José Martí, Eugenio Maria Hostos and Ramon Betances. Recently, the historian Aldo Diaz Lacayo has written profoundly about the relationship between Ruben Dario and Sandino. Much depends on the focus one chooses.

Political leaders like Hugo Chávez, Daniel Ortega and Manuel Zelaya emphasize the continuity of Sandino’s actions with the ideas of Simón Bolívar and Francisco Morazán. If one changes focus, one finds oneself considering the actions of the Cubans Julio Antonio Mella and later Antonio Guiteras, of the movements contemporary with them in Colombia and Venezuela or the revolution in El Salvador.

On another level Sandino is a figure of social transformation who had counterparts around the world. It is no mere historical accident that in our era the progressive governments of the countries of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) have close relations with the government of Iran. Here, it is worth mentioning another great anti-imperialist warrior-reformer of Sandino’s time, Abd El-Krim Kattafi, who fought against the Spanish Empire in North Africa.

Just like Sandino, Abd El Krim received solidarity from progressive and anti-imperialist movements not just in his region but from around the world. Like Sandino, Abd El-Krim inflicted a humiliating defeat – in the battle of Anual – on the imperialist oppressor. Sandino and Abd El-Krim both wanted to make existing socio-economic relations more just and equitable, in equilibrium with a spirituality itself revolutionary by reason of its deep anti-imperialism.

As Quezada Monge wrote:

If Sandino was unfamiliar with Marxism, or knowing very little about it, did not really understand the nature of the Farabundo Martí’s struggle in El Salvador, that doesn’t imply that his anti-imperialism, which is the truly important thing, was less valid or vigorous, just because he expressed honestly his ideas about the divine and the profane in his personal project.

(In “El antiimperialismo a la luz de los héroes del 98: Martí, Hostos, Betances y Sandino”.)

Diego Rivera, Salvador de la Plaza and their colleagues of the Anti-imperialist League of the Americas published in their magazine El Libertador pictures of both Sandino and Abd El- Krim. In this way they recognized that the struggles of those leaders were of global significance. To defeat Abd El-Krim, Spain had to combine with France so as to deploy two huge armies by those European colonial powers.

France and Spain only defeated Abd El-Krim in 1926, after using chemical weapons via aerial and artillery bombardment against the civilian population. In Nicaragua, the United States was more economical. As they had done with Charlemagne Peralte in Haiti, they used treachery to murder the General of Free Men and Women, Augusto César Sandino.

Probably Roberto Fernández Retamar’s essay “Caliban” offers the classic definition for our times of the centrality of identity in the development of societies in Latin America and the Caribbean. From the perspective of the figure of Sandino, the first paragraph of Retamar’s essay is a powerful litany of the past and future in which Sandino has always been a key, permanent presences. Retamar writes,

Our symbol then is not Ariel, as Rodó thought, but Caliban. This is something we see especially clearly as people of mixed race who live in these islands where Caliban lived. Prospero invaded these islands, killed our ancestors, enslaved Caliban and taught him the invader’s tongue so as to communicate with him. What else could Caliban do except use that same language – he had no other – to curse Prospero, to hope a ‘red plague’ might befall him?

I know of no other more apposite metaphor for our cultural situation, for our reality. From Túpac Amaru, Tiradentes, Toussaint-Louverture, Simón Bolívar, the priest Hidalgo, José Artigas, Bernardo O’Higgins, Benito Juárez, Antonio Maceo and José Martí, to Emiliano Zapata, Augusto César Sandino, Julio Antonio Mella, Pedro Albizu Campos, Lázaro Cárdenas, Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara; from the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the Aleijadinho, popular Caribbean music, José Hernández, Eugenio María de Hostos, Manuel González Prada, Rubén Darío (yes : despite everything), Baldomero Lillo and Horacio Quiroga, to Mexican muralism, Héctor Villalobos, César Vallejo, José Carlos Mariátegui, Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, Carlos Gardel, Pablo Neruda, Alejo Carpentier, Nicolás Guillén, Aimé Césaire, José María Arguedas, Violeta Parra and Frantz Fanon. What is our history, what is our culture, if it is not the history and culture of Caliban?

Thus Retamar states the cultural dilemma created and imposed by the colonizers and their crimes. At the same time he validates the remedy which has always been resistance and the unyielding revolutionary impulse towards self-determination.

Retamar ends his litany of heroic figures with the name of Frantz Fanon.

In his book “Black Masks : White Skin”, Fanon wrote

I am not the slave of the enslavement that dehumanized my ancestors.

Since 1971, the year Retamar wrote his essay, many other martyrs have died in the name of their peoples. Prominent among them are Francisco Caamaño in the Dominican Republic, Salvador Allende in Chile, and in Nicaragua, Comandante Carlos Fonseca Amador.

A vital part of the huge contribution of Sandino to our contemporary life is precisely his rejection of the identity the invaders and aggressors sought to impose on him. Sandino shares that with all the other emblematic figures of the anti-imperialist struggles of peoples around the world. He ensured the transmission of that heroic rejection to Carlos Fonseca and thus on to the present day.

Imperialist collaborators take pride in the degree to which they assume the posture and masks they borrow from the oppressors of the world’s peoples, the United States and Europe. Augusto Cesar Sandino and inheritors of his legacy, like Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega, made it possible for whole peoples to abandon those masks so as to recognize their own faces, know their own minds and find their own souls. That is the simple, profound meaning of the Hymn of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation – Sandino made it possible for a people to take ownership of their history.