Over the last few weeks the revolution in Nicaragua has been back in the news as a backdrop to the mayoral race in New York City. The New York Times initiated the new found interest in the revolution in an article about Bill de Blasio’s activism during the late 1980s in solidarity with the people of Nicaragua, and in opposition to the Reagan administration’s efforts to cripple the Sandinista government through financing the Contras and other means. Because the story has been more about defining de Blasio’s political leanings rather than a retelling of events from the 1980s, the history that seeps into these articles has been incomplete, often false, and consistently misleading.
Here are five things the media continue to get wrong
The FSLN and the revolution are one and the same
The most common mistake in my mind is to conflate the revolutionary process in Nicaragua and the Frente Sandinista (Sandinista Front for National Liberation, or Sandinista Party) as one and the same. Clearly the Frente was crucially important to the successful insurrection against Somoza (1977-79). The Frente would also become the dominant force in the interim government prior to winning elections in 1984, and then remained in power until losing elections in 1990. Given this, the Frente and its leadership, like Daniel Ortega, and Thomas Borge, understandably became the face of the revolution to many in the U.S.
However, the agencies underlying the transformation of Nicaraguan society during the 1980s were much greater than the Frente. There is a vast scholarship on the popular organizations (OPs) that made up the revolution. The OPs were the principal vehicles for democracy, many of which, like the ecclesiastical base communities of the popular church, and the rural workers union, existed prior to the insurrection that began in 1977 and were always independent of the Frente. The OPs made the revolution – not just the Frente – and while many shared the Sandinista name and varying degrees of party affiliation, they were never simply tools of the party.
Indeed, one of the important stories of the 1980s is the increasing independence that many of the popular organizations sought from the Frente’s leadership – a process that was structurally determined in many ways, and not surprising. As the country adopted more traditional liberal democratic institutions, the Frente also became more traditionally an electoral vehicle and institutionalized party. This created conflict between the party leadership and the base, which found itself increasingly marginalized (more on this below).
The irony to me is that the more the Frente adopted western style democratic practices, the less democratic the country actually became. This sort of flips the right wing narrative on its head, but certainly worth considering if one aspires to a democracy that is more deeply rooted in society than four or five-year election cycles. There is a context for this process of institutionalization, chiefly the Contra War, that needs to be understood, but the important point is that the FLSN was ONE agent of the revolution, and while in many ways dominant, maybe not the most effective one.
What people from around the world were acting in solidarity with was the popular revolution – they were not simply, or even mostly, defending the FSLN.
Nicaragua was governed by a Marxist totalitarian regime during the 1980s
So even if solidarity was not principally about defending the FSLN, it is important to point out that continuing to paint the government under the FSLN – a government that oversaw elections, established a liberal democratic constitutional order, and transferred power peacefully – as totalitarian is just transparently stupid. They made mistakes, and like any government anywhere, especially during war time, tread on civil liberties. But never was the FSLN “totalitarian” by any meaningful sense of the word. (Of course, people in the U.S. often speak of tax increases or new EPA emission standards as totalitarian actions,..)
When Somoza fled the country in July of 1979, governance was initially in the hands of the Governing Junta for National Reconstruction (JGRN). The original JGRN was composed of 5 members, three of whom were Sandinistas: Moises Hassan and Daniel Ortega, FLSN militants, and Sergio Ramirez, a member of the Group of Twelve – which was a Frente organized group of establishment leaders who stood in opposition to Somoza. The non-Sandinista members were business leaders Violeta Chamorro and Alfonso Robelo.
The JGRN ruled by decree until May of 1980 when the Council of State was formed to act as a legislative body. Membership in the Council was composed of organizational, not party, leaders drawn from the various groups that opposed the Somoza government and had taken part in the insurrection. The Sandinista members of the JGRN would add seats for Frente affiliated OPs assuring a majority for the revolutionary process; a move the led Chamorro and Robelo to resign in June of 1980.
Early on the Sandinista leadership clearly maneuvered to secure a leadership role in the new society being constructed. But they did not then lead the country down a path of totalitarian rule. Indeed, it was quite the opposite. The JGRN and Council of State organized elections in 1984 for a presidency and National Assembly. The newly elected institutions then organized a series of popular consultations in order to draft a constitution. That constitution drew from many sources, but was modeled principally on Costa Rica’s through the establishment of a fourth branch of government, a Supreme Electoral Council. The constitution went into effect in 1987. The Electoral Council would oversee the 1990 elections – which the Sandinista’s lost and then peacefully transferred power to a coalition financed by the U.S. government and led by Violeta Chamorro, former member of the JGRN.
These are hardly the actions of a totalitarian regime.
But what of the economy?
The reality is that Nicaragua throughout the 1980s was a mixed economy in which the majority of productive resources remained in private hands, operating within a tightly regulated market. The much discussed property seizures that took place have mostly been mischaracterized. Initial expropriations, perhaps more accurately nationalizations, were of the property and businesses of the Somoza family and members of that regime, most of whom fled the country in 1979. Further expropriations took place in the context of the Contra War chiefly the taking of idle lands or unproductive lands held by opponents of the revolution, many, but not all, of whom had left the country.
These policies were clearly controversial, set the Frente at odds with many in the business community, and were in cases abusive. They never rose to the level of Marxist totalitarianism, whatever that even means. Further these policies must be considered within the context of the Contra War, which thanks to the Reagan administration, the people of Nicaragua were forced to fight from 1981 to 1990.
The context of the Contra War is irrelevant to discussing alleged violations of civil liberties
Whenever U.S. pundits seek to defame the revolution in Nicaragua, the Frente in particular, and the people in the U.S. that worked in solidarity with them, they will rattle off a list of abuses of civil liberties. The big alleged violations include: forced resettlement of indigenous communities on the Atlantic Coast (true), property seizures (exaggerated), limitations on press freedom and political organizing (exaggerated), occasionally one hears accusations of torture, and when going for the kitchen sink, right-wing pundits in particular, will slip in anti-semitism and vague Nazi references (B.S.).
The New York Daily News, the New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal have each published articles recently that collectively include the kitchen sink level of criticism about the Sandinista’s civil liberties record during the 1980s. The whole point of these diatribes is to discredit de Blasio, and so it is not surprising that none of them mentions the Contra War and are largely devoid of nuance.
The first point to make is that the comparisons of the Sandinista’s Ministry of the Interior with the East German Stasi, or a Nazi totalitarian, anti-semitic state, is ridiculous. Accusations involving widespread political assassinations, mass incarcerations, and torture are unfounded. Were some political opponents arrested? Yes. Might some have been tortured? Very possible. Were regime opponents killed? Almost certainly – though in all the discussions recently only one name, business leader Jorge Salazar, has been raised as a “political assassination” and the circumstances surrounding his death are far from clear. Were such violations committed on a consistent, mass based, level of state terror consummate with what was happening in El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras? Not even close, and no one, even the Frente’s harshest critics, have ever been able to say that.
More than anything, it is important to point out that Nicaragua was at war. And it was a war forced upon the country by the United States. Within the context of a war, in which domestic political opponents were involved in funding an armed resistance, it is hardly surprising that the Frente arrested people (who broke the law), limited some forms of political expression (when people used political fronts to finance armed rebellion), and intervened in the media from time to time. And yet within this context, the Frente’s record is actually pretty impressive.
- Consider that the principal opposition candidate in the 1984 election was a Contra leader, who withdrew from the race, at the insistence of U.S. handlers, at the last minute when his loss was certain, but who was otherwise free to run.
- The principal opposition candidate in 1990, who won, was the publisher of La Prensa, an opposition newspaper, and thus one can hardly say the press was “muzzled” as O’Grady claimed in the WSJ.
- The 1987 Constitution formally banned the use of the death penalty, and established a maximum prison sentence.
Perhaps the biggest mistake made by the Frente was the forced resettlement of indigenous communities on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast. Governments going back years had sought to integrate, and exploit the natural resources of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast. The JGRN did as well. And it was a mistake, one I’m not interested in defending. But it should be pointed out that the Frente was criticized widely for this, within and without Nicaragua, and that they backed off. The sign of a government sensitive to public pressure – not one committed to silencing it. It is also worth noting that in the 1987 constitution, the Atlantic Coast was given autonomous status, guaranteeing (in theory) indigenous control over distribution and access to resources. In fact, neo-liberal governments have done far more damage to the lives and livelihoods of the people of the Atlantic Coast since 1990 by side-stepping autonomy provisions than ever happened under the Frente in the 1980s.
Within the context of war then, violations of human rights did occur, but on a scale many times smaller than what was happening in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Argentina (until 1983), Chile (until 1989) – all U.S. allies who were suppressing domestic opposition, not confronting a foreign intervention as was the case in Nicaragua.
He said/they said
So why was the Reagan administration hell bent on destroying the revolution in Nicaragua? The argument was essentially that Nicaragua would become a foothold for Soviet expansion in Central America. If the revolution was allowed to succeed in Nicaragua, it would spread to El Salvador, and Guatemala, and from there even Mexico. It was an argument that neglected some important facts – there is little evidence of direct Soviet involvement in Nicaragua until the mid-1980s, for example, and then it was limited to military support at the height of the contra war. And it completely dismisses the domestic roots of the revolution in Nicaragua (as well as the insurrections in El Salvador and Guatemala, all against brutal, U.S. backed regimes).
[Indeed, since the 1850s the biggest obstacle to democracy in Central America had been, and in some sense remains, the United States. But then, one would hardly expect Reagan to make that case.]
Whatever the motivations, the historical record is very clear on what was done, and it was bad: the Reagan administration funded and directly engaged in terrorism, and broke numerous international and U.S. laws in its effort to cripple the Sandinista revolution. A few uncontested low-lights based on numerous investigations, official documents and the testimony of Reagan’s own minions before Congress:
- The CIA worked with the Argentine military of “Dirty War” fame, and former Somocista’s to train the Contras, who began operations in 1981, crossing the border from Honduras into Nicaragua assassinating civilian political leaders, murdering doctors and educators, and blowing up infrastructure.
- The CIA blew up a Nicaraguan port at Corinto, a civilian target, for the sole purpose of creating economic hardship for Nicaraguans as part of the broader campaign to undermine Sandinista legitimacy.
- The CIA placed mines in Nicaragua’s harbors putting civilian shipping at risk.
- When Congress found out about these activities and suspended appropriations for the purpose of “overthrowing the Nicaraguan government,” the National Security Council over saw a secret operation, selling weapons to Iran in violation of U.S. law and then diverting the proceeds to fund Contra operations.
- The State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy was directed by the NSC during the 1980s and worked to plant false stories and misinformation in the U.S. media about Nicaragua in order to discredit the Sandinista government and generate support for Contra aid.
- The NSC oversaw the creation of slush funds used to discredit Contra aid opponents in Congressional elections.
- The Reagan administration ignored World Court rulings citing numerous breaches of international law and a finding to pay reparations to the government of Nicaragua.
Along the way the Reagan administration invaded Grenada to topple a government – in violation of international law. It undermined democratic institutions in Honduras to keep it a safe haven for U.S. bases and Contra operations. Reagan supported the military of El Salvador’s brutal counter-insurgency campaign that left 70,000 people dead, and found ways to keep funding the Guatemalan military’s genocidal campaign against first nations. Reagan thought Rios-Montt was a great guy, given a bad rap by human rights campaigners. Montt was recently convicted of genocide.
One is hard pressed to find these details in any recent story about Nicaragua. And yet, the primary motivation for solidarity activists in the 1980s was stopping these policies. If you are going to evaluate one’s political motivations, and base your “analysis” on events in Nicaragua in 1980s, how do you not address the vast record of crimes committed by the U.S. government? Most of these crimes were known in the 1980s, but after 25 years of research and archival work, it is all confirmed.
Activists may have been well meaning, but were naïve.
While most of the de Blasio/Nicaragua coverage has tried to paint de Blasio as a radical by association, there have been a few articles attempting to defend de Blasio and the peace movement, but sadly, as naïve folks whose good intentions blinded them to some of the Sandinistas’ “authoritarian impulses.”
My own experience in Nicaragua dates back only to 1995. But in the course of nearly 20 years of doing work in Central America I have met, worked with, and interviewed dozens of people who were active in the Nicaragua solidarity movement. I have met very few people who struck me as the least bit naïve about the FSLN, the revolution, or U.S. politics. Quite the opposite, some of these folks are actually among the most astute political analysts I know.
To repeat a point I started with, people were engaged in solidarity with a popular revolution, and in that role, were trying to press the U.S. government to stop funding terrorism against said popular revolution. The vast majority of the organizations doing this work were very clear that they were not simply defending the FSLN. Some of the biggest groups organized in solidarity with Nicaragua like Witness for Peace, Quixote Center, Pledge of Resistance, were formally unaligned viz Nicaragua’s domestic politics, making clear that their work was to change U.S. policy. Many who worked in solidarity were clearly sympathetic to the FSLN – but folks were generally not there, or doing work here, simply for the Frente. The revolution was bigger than that, and so were the motivations to defend it against U.S. aggression.
Lest this sounds defensive though, we need to ask, so what if folks were defending the FSLN? The ubiquitous use of the phrase “authoritarian tendencies” always goes unspecified, and let’s be real: What government does not have authoritarian tendencies? This is why we have constitutions, and why they are constantly tested. One could simply google the NSA for recent articles to get a sense of this, no? The FSLN along with other agents of the revolution took over the government from a U.S. backed dictator whose rule was rooted in terror and systematic abuse of power. They created a liberal democratic, constitutional order, that for a time was far more progressive than anything most U.S. Americans have experienced. They did all of this while fighting off aggression from the most powerful country on the globe. There is no reason to apologize for solidarity in this context.