In Nicaragua 37 Times 19 Equals Democracy, Dignity and Justice

By Tortilla Con Sal

In Nicaragua, this July 19 is the 37th anniversary of the 1979 Sandinista People’s Revolution.

Without doubt, history matures a people. It’s not a question of the economy or institutions or more or less developed education systems but rather the lived experience of millions of people who one way or another transmit that experience over generations, leaving their mark on how whole populations see not just themselves, but also the world around them and life overall. Visiting countries like Cuba, southern Lebanon or Vietnam or places like Ramallah in Palestine or any city in Nicaragua, one cannot fail to note the imprint of the experience of struggle in the woman selling bread on the street corner, the irate taxi driver cursing the traffic or even in young people questioning why the world they are born into is dominated by seductive, omnipresent images touting kinds of freedom they will never earn enough to be able to buy.

Anyone with more than a superficial contact with these countries and places will confirm that no matter how adverse their circumstances, none among those peoples are passive victims. They have their own history, a consciousness of what they were, what they are now and what they want to become. Forgetting that subjective factor is precisely what makes for so much careless, faulty and inaccurate political analysis. This is especially true of foreign observers, on the right or the left, whose often categorical value judgments time after time ignore an unfamiliar reality they are in no position even to begin to appreciate. But it is also true of local elites wistful for power, status, influence and control for which they have no broad, consistent, solid national base, a failing they try and make good with support from abroad.

In Nicaragua, this July 19 is the 37th anniversary of the 1979 Sandinista People’s Revolution. Some people in the West who think of themselves as progressive or radical will try and treat this as the anniversary of a failed revolution or even of a revolution betrayed. But the hundreds of thousands of people flocking to the Plaza of Faith in Managua and the millions of Nicaraguans watching the event on television, will know they are witnessing a living process of transformation bringing to reality the promises of 1979: peace and prosperity, stability and security, political democracy and social justice. Most people in Nicaragua feel they live now in a country built on solidarity, a country no longer pawned off cheap by its own greedy elites, one no longer dependent on imperial U.S. intervention as it was for over a hundred years until 1979.

This second phase of the Sandinista Revolution began in January 2007 with the return to government of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN). The Revolution now is one that has become more serene because it is grounded more faithfully in the needs of the people both in concrete material terms and in moral and spiritual terms and also more conscious of some fundamental truths. For example, the strategic military truth that no column can advance effectively at a pace faster than its slowest unit. Or the moral truth that the sacrifice of untold heroes and martyrs can only be vindicated by bringing to reality the ideals for which the fallen gave their lives. Or other home truths that are perhaps cliches like it being one thing to give in and another to be broken or that a river may meander on its way but in the end reaches its destiny flowing out into the ocean. The cry of July 19 1979 “Either a free land or death!” is today accompanied by another cry given to us by our Eternal Comandante Hugo Chavez, “We’ll live and we’ll overcome!”

The insurrectional Nicaragua of 1979 smashed the Somoza dictatorship, that grotesque monument to repression, corruption and anti-patriotic treachery. In those days, impoverished Nicaragua enjoyed figures for macro-economic growth most countries today would envy. But it was growth for the exclusive benefit of the country’s crass, mediocre elite and their foreign owners. It was growth too for buying weapons the regime needed to repress popular rebellion and dissent, for example the helicopters and planes Somoza used to bomb civilians in cities like Estelí and León, murdering hundreds. Perhaps the most symbolically emblematic Somoza business was Plasmaféresis, a company that bought blood for a few cents and a soda from donors among Nicaragua’s impoverished population to sell on to wealthy patients in the United States. Government in Nicaragua before 1979 was based on the principle “for our friends, money; for the undecided, beatings; for the disaffected, bullets.” It was a gangster-run country where the brutal paramilitary National Guard would steal the belongings of the 1972 earthquake victims, beating people up in the chaos. It was a country of youthful rebellion where 10 year-olds learned guerrilla tactics and with home made bombs attacked armored convoys equipped with the latest U.S. and Israeli technology.

Some saw Somoza era Nicaragua as the dictator’s personal ranch, others as an imperial territory leased out to the dictator in exchange for him and his family minding U.S. interests, both in Nicaragua itself and in the wider region. Nicaragua had no real armed forces of its own, but rather a genocidal constabulary designed by and at the orders of the U.S. government. Under Somoza, the Caribbean Coast was then a region of gorgeous beaches and wretched immiseration and one too of which Somoza was ashamed, because he forlornly wanted Nicaragua to be accepted as a nation of white people. Back then, as Comandante Tomas Borge Martinez wrote with such justice and as the Sandinista anthem notes also, a new dawn was an subversive tempation and to dream of a future land of milk and honey was a dare you paid for with your life.

Even so most Nicaraguans felt great national pride, for example in their national poet Ruben Dario, among the most important founders of literary modernism in the West, certainly in Spain and Latin America. Dario wrote, very much in the spirit of Cuba’s national hero José Martí, “Thanks to the fatal pages of our history / Our land is made of glory and vigor / Our land is made for Humanity.” Also, enough Nicaraguans managed to hold on to the nation’s historical memory after the political genocide following the murder of Augusto C. Sandino and the massacre of his followers who, after defeating the U.S. marines, had set up farming and mining cooperatives under the slogan “Freedom and Fatherland.” The memory of Sandino’s heroism and mystique survived despite his depiction by the dictatorship and its media as an “outlaw bandit”.

Dario and Sandino shone out like beacons in the dictatorship’s obscurity. Then little by little, other lights illuminated the oppression, like the many university students who died fighting the Somoza tyranny, of whom the most famous is Rigoberto Lopez Perez who executed Anastasio Somoza Garcia, the dictator patriarch, on Sept. 21, 1956. It was a time when anyone seriously committed to opposing the humiliating indignity of the dictatorship risked their very life. That was the national context in which a new generation of youth led by Carlos Fonseca and Tomas Borge began putting back together the broken shards of Nicaragua’s history. They set out to rebuild the vision inherited from the country’s inspirational luminaries and their dreams of true nationhood, despite the bloody defeats and seemingly endless dishonor, they creates a new beginning that was far more than mere idealistic temptation.

Their vision was strong enough to attract and engage the longing for freedom of Nicaragua’s people and society, taking up again the example of Sandino, of armed struggle against the regime. They saw Nicaragua’s people as the protagonists of their history, of a sister country to other peoples also struggling for freedom. They realized that vision when they founded the Sandinista Front for National Liberation in 1961. For several years, the FSLN had few members with militants being killed as fast as they were replaced. But the organization quickly became a significant national political reference point with the Sandinistas in the mountains on one side and, on the other side, the dictatorship and its servants. Over time the argument became untenable that political change was possible without directly confronting the dictatorship.

Eventually the social, economic and political contradictions became so extreme both within Nicaragua and, too, in its foreign relations that the regime’s control began to break down. The many social sectors economically and politically excluded by the regime began openly to resist. People historically marginalized, from women street sellers to children shoe shiners, to day-laborers and domestic servants, all the barely clothed, badly fed, ill-educated and uncared-for, slowly took center stage. They instinctively recognized as their own the FSLN’s revolutionary project, whatever they may have known about its principles of a mixed economy, international non-alignment, political pluralism and social justice. Their selfless support led that project to victory on July 19th 1979.

The FSLN’s revolutionary program and its main principles caught the ardent enthusiasm and genuine curiosity of progressive minded people and left wing people around the world. But the ways and paths to realizing that program after the triumph of 1979 faced two main obstacles. Firstly, the Nicaraguan Revolution confronted implacable opposition from the U.S. empire, the most powerful in history, which imposed Cold War criteria on a country with fewer people than a district of New York City, like the Bronx. Secondly, the inexperienced young Sandinista leaders had to learn as they went, making a series of painful mistakes and undergoing setbacks which bring to mind what Karl Marx wrote in his Theses on Feuerbach : “Educators themselves need educating.”

The Sandinista Revolution achieved extraordinary victories, like the National Literacy Crusade and the programs reordering the relations of power in Nicaraguan society like rural and urban land reform, or the autonomy statute for the Caribbean Coast which finally recognized Nicaragua’s plurinational culture and society. But despite these achievements the national economy during the 1980s eventually span out of control. What the U.S. government backed Contra fighters were unable to achieve in military terms, they achieved in economic terms. The country’s economic collapse occurred in tandem with the decline of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe, countries which provided considerable, vital economic support to Nicaragua. Nor under those conditions could Cuba’s revolutionary government, which supported the FSLN during the worst of the fight against the Somoza dictatorship, continue its unconditional material support for the Sandinista government.

Finally, what the U.S. government was unable to get via its proxy terrorist war, condemned by the International Court of Justice in 1986, it managed to get when the FSLN government lost Nicaragua’s second ever democratic elections on Feb. 21, 1990. For many revolutionaries in Nicaragua, the region and the rest of the world, it seemed like an irrevocable defeat. But the day after the elections, won by a broad opposition coalition, Nicaragua was still there, along with its first democratically established police and army and the FSLN still its largest political party. Nor had the country’s war-accentuated impoverishment gone away. The incoming opposition government were saddled with a host of promises they had neither the ability nor the least intention of keeping. But, in any case, as the negotiations for the handover of government progressed the people of Nicaragua finally obtained some respite from well over a decade of war.

The political paradox of the 1990 election was that it definitively created the political space making possible the future completion of what began with the revolutionary triumph of July 19, 1979. Immediately following those 1990 elections, the Sandinista Front, led by Daniel Ortega, declared their determination to defend the gains of the revolution and, as Comandante Ortega put it, “govern from below.” The priority was to defend the revolutionary structures of the police and the army and the Sandinista presence in the judiciary. That meant preventing the new right wing government from overturning the 1987 Constitution or turning the army and police and the freshly created democratic judiciary and legal system against the Nicaraguan people. Despite all the virulent anti-FSLN propaganda, most people in Nicaragua understood very well that the Sandinista Revolution had made possible the first ever democratic, peaceful handover of power from one political force to another in Nicaragua’s history.

After the FSLN’s 1990 electoral defeat there followed 17 years of what people in Nicaragua now call the “long neoliberal night.” Almost all the productive investments of the revolutionary government were privatized, sold off to the government’s right wing cronies at knockdown prices or outright stolen. Not just the Sandinista militants but almost everyone associated with the Sandinistas lost their jobs, found they could no longer get credit, were denied educational opportunities or were otherwise marginalized in innumerable ways. The mayor of Managua was so vindictive he ordered Managua’s inspiring revolutionary murals to be painted over. In the health service, the revolution’s innovative preventive health programs were scrapped, including, for example the revolutionary government’s public dental health program. Encouraged by the U.S. government, Nicaragua’s ruling right wing abandoned any talk of reconciliation and instead systematically harassed the whole Sandinista population. That was a fundamental mistake. All through the period of right wing governments, the massive crowds filling Managua’s main square every year on July 19 to celebrate the Revolution if anything grew in size.

These days the crowds that travel to Managua every July 19 now overflow the Plaza of Faith and the Plaza of the Revolution, filling up the great wide boulevards that run down to Managua’s lakeside promenade. That outcome is the result of a people and its natural political expression, the FSLN, making good the severe but not fatal electoral debacle of 1990. Now the Educators can be said to have returned after having learned some lessons of their own from a people making its own history. And not just its own history but also lessons learned from our sister and brother peoples of Abya Yala, especially the Bolivarian People of Venezuela to whom we in Nicaragua owe not just a great deal of indispensable material support but also the incalculable moral inspiration of the immortal son of Bolivar, Comandante Hugo Chavez Frias.

Today, on this July 19, the People-as-President will fill Managua’s plazas and boulevards based on an inclusive consensus that has brought together in the broadest possible way virtually all sectors of Nicaraguan society. As Daniel Ortega put it recently discussing the difficulties facing the Central American Integration System, “To dialog is not to impose and threaten. To dialog is to reflect, agree and move forward.” The current consensus in Nicaragua reflects exactly that process because it recognizes, while certainly not necessarily sharing, the reasoning of the other side. It recognizes too the pridefulness and blind spots of the past, so as to be vigilant against committing those failings again. Economically, the current consensus stems from having learned the importance of direct control of the means of production by freely associated workers. In Nicaragua the family, cooperative, community and associative sector contributes 63 percent of GDP and makes up 70 percent of the labor force despite the country’s capitalist economy and its dependence on global markets.

This economic consensus constitutes a collective consciousness of the need to diversify the country’s economic relations as much as possible and to make the best possible use of every last cent of investment. Another hugely important component of this economic consensus is Nicaragua’s food sovereignty, with 90 percent of all basic food consumed in Nicaragua, overwhelmingly rice, beans and tortillas, produced domestically. That vindication of small and medium sized agricultural producers is a revolutionary reversal of the almost total marginalization of those rural farmers and their families by the right wing governments that for 17 years followed sterile, dead end neoliberal policy nostrums that threatened to completely destroy Nicaragua’s family based rural agricultural economy, just as NAFTA did in Mexico.

In summary, the Nicaraguan government’s main achievements under Daniel Ortega’s administration from 2007 to date have been profoundly revolutionary. People in Nicaragua enjoy the guarantee of constantly improving free public health care and education. The resurrection and democratization of Nicaragua’s agricultural economy has been accompanied by a similar mass inclusion of women as the vital productive force they represent for Nicaragua’s economy. The successful defense of the country’s food security and food sovereignty has necessarily included the orderly restructuring of property rights, both processes deliberately designed to prioritize women. That breakthrough in economic democratization for women’s is matched by the consolidation of equality of women’s political participation. Similarly this second revolutionary phase in Nicaragua has given genuine protections and guarantees for previously marginalized indigenous peoples’ rights, and the steady advance towards integration of the country’s Caribbean Coast into the national economy. That integration is just part of the huge national advance in physical infrastructure, in terms of roads, ports, airports, telecommunications, electricity generating capacity and distribution and also important improvements nationally in access to drinking water. Those domestic advances have been facilitated by Nicaragua’s non-aligned foreign policy which has enabled the country to greatly diversify both its trade relations and its relations in terms of development and technological cooperation.

On July 19, 1979 everything seemed possible to the newly liberated Nicaraguan people. 37 years later it all seems possible again, but in a much more realistic way. Since the FSLN’s return to government in January 2007, Nicaragua has experienced a gradual but steady process of changes for the better. President Daniel Ortega not only enjoys higher levels of approval than any President since 1990 but among the highest levels of approval for a national leader anywhere in Latin America and the Caribbean. President Ortega is not just the best President Nicaragua has ever had in over 200 years. He also has enormous prestige as one of the region’s outstanding and principled national leaders, especially, for example, on the issue of Climate Change.

Before 2007, Nicaragua was a country most of whose people wanted to emigrate. Increasingly now, against the trend in most of Central America, Nicaraguans choose to stay because they look to the future with optimism, despite the turbulent regional and global context. For the young people who now comprise most of Nicaragua’s population, July 19, 1979 is a steadily receding point of reference and Nicaraguan society faces the dual challenge of both remembering its history and realizing in contemporary material terms the vision of a 21st century land of milk and honey. History really has matured the Nicaraguan people and made it possible for us to overcome our past experiences so as better to face the future. So in a positive sense everything still remains to be done but now Nicaragua can look forward to celebrating the victories of many more 19ths of July.