- Interview by
- Nicolas Allen
Forty-two years ago today, the capital of Nicaragua, Managua, was liberated by Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) forces. It was a landmark event in the history of Latin America and a major victory for socialist and progressive forces. The Nicaraguan Revolution ousted the government of hated dictator Tachito Somoza and fought on a program of democracy, anti-imperialism, and economic development.
To mark the July 19, 1979 anniversary, Jacobin contributing editor Nicolas Allen spoke with historian Jeffrey L. Gould to discuss the Sandinista Revolution and to try to understand all its complexities, triumphs, shortcomings, and the lessons that can be learned from one of the “last social revolution of the twentieth century.”
Can you say a few words about the Somoza government that the Sandinistas overthrew in 1979? In some ways it was unique among the Latin American dictatorships of the 1970s: a dynastic regime that held political and economic power in Nicaragua for nearly half a century; at the same time, historically speaking, it also enjoyed some degree of popular support in its earlier years.
Like you said, the Somozas were a family dictatorship that lasted around forty-three years. In my opinion, there were two things that were particularly distinctive about the Somoza regime. One was that, in the early years of the dictatorship, particularly before the 1960s, there was very much a populist bent to their rule. The first Somoza son referred to himself as el jefe obrero (chief worker), and he took that label seriously –he really did promote a degree of union organization. Of course it was very much a top-down model concerned with loyalty to the regime. But at the same time, there was a a labor code that allowed union activists to go on strike and organize.
In the 1940s, there were a lot of shifting alliances within the Somoza government, and the Left — represented by the Nicaraguan Socialist Party (basically, the Communist Party) — had a kind of tacit alliance with the regime. The alliance between the Left and Somoza was due, in part, to the fact that large fractions of the anti-Somoza sector were actually tied to the Nicaraguan oligarchy. So there was a confusing and not entirely clear boundary pitting Somoza — at times allied with the Left and with a significant base in the artisanal working class and the peasantry — against middle-class students who continued to consider themselves “Sandinistas” (following the anti-imperialist legacy of Augusto Sandino) and right-wing oligarchs. Generally, though the Left aligned itself with the students.
The basic point here is that Somoza — both the first Somoza, Anastasio, and the second, Luis — ruled with a degree of classic Latin American populism, somewhat akin to Vargas in Brazil and Perón in Argentina. Now, part of the argument I made in my first book, To Lead as Equals, was that the Nicaraguan peasant movement emptied the populist content from the Somoza regime by constantly challenging the limits of what that style of politics could actually deliver, eventually forcing a situation where they faced increasing repression by the late 1960s and the 1970s. By the mid- to late 1970s the Somoza regime really began to resemble the brutal dictatorships that existed in neighboring Central American countries and in the Southern Cone.
The other distinctive feature of the Somoza regime was that it was a huge family business. In 1979, when the Sandinista Revolution triumphed, the Somoza family and their closest friends controlled roughly 25 percent of the Nicaraguan economy, including twenty-five percent of the land and industry. Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic is perhaps the closest analogue, but I don’t think any of the Southern Cone dictatorships or the Central American dictatorships had anything quite like that. And that control over the economy had direct implications for how the revolution and its aftermath would develop.
As you mentioned, your first book focuses on the relationship between rural worker movements and the Somoza regime. One of the things I took from your book is that, on the one hand, peasant movements laid much of the groundwork for the Sandinista Revolution by waging a decades-long battle against the Somozas; but at the same time, it was not a foregone conclusion that those two forces — peasants and Sandinistas — would eventually form an alliance to defeat the regime.
The agrarian protest movement in the northwestern department of Chinandega, which is where I focus my research, grew and fought from the late 1950s into the mid-1960s. By the mid-1960s the peasant movement had pretty much come to a halt both through different forms of repression, but also by the government’s granting of limited land reform. Nevertheless, all those militants continued to have a certain informal network, even though the movement was largely stalled.
What happened next was that a new generation — their kids — began a new wave of land battles in the mid- to late 1970s. And it was there for the first time that people began to relate to the Sandinista movement, which by then had stepped in to join in their struggles. It’s important to understand that in the first years of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which was founded in 1961, the Sandinistas had virtually nothing to do with any peasant movement — partly because they were isolated and had different priorities. But it was only in the mid-1970s that branches of the Sandinista organization began to have contact with this new generation of peasant militants in the West.
That was also the point where the Liberation Theology–inspired movement began to make contact with peasant militants, who in turn were tied to the ATC — the Asociación de Trabajadores del Campo (The Rural Workers’ Association), which was founded in 1978 and was very much part of the Frente Sandinista. So the Sandinistas were able to relate very directly to activists who came through Liberation Theology and the ATC.
If you look at the arrests of people — when they were still getting arrested instead of assassinated — in these land battles, it was pretty clear that they were the children of peasants who had been fighting in the 1950s and early 1960s. So it was the new generation of the peasant movement that formed the closest bonds with the Frente Sandinista.
The FSLN spent nearly a decade in obscurity before eventually gaining in visibility through a series of spectacular operations in the 1970s. Could you say a little about the group’s founding ideals and its main figures?
The ideology of the FSLN could be synthesized in the phrase “revolutionary nationalism.” The two founders who managed to survive the earliest years of repression — Carlos Fonseca, the main leader who was eventually killed in combat in 1976, and Tomás Borge — took Sandino’s legacy very seriously. Their ideology emerged from a particular nationalist background with Marxist-Leninist and Cuban influences woven into it. It was a fairly unique tapestry of revolutionary thought.
At the same time, it’s important to realize that the Sandinistas had divided themselves into three tendencies by the mid 1970s, and that there were probably under one hundred militants in each of those three tendencies — when the first insurrections began against the Somoza government in 1978, there were no more than a couple hundred militants involved.
From 1978 onward there was a sudden upsurge and tremendous identification with the Frente Sandinista. And that identification was because the FSLN represented the only clear popular opposition to the Somoza regime — they were the only ones ready to die in order to liberate Nicaragua from Somoza. That show of courage gave them a tremendous advantage over the bourgeois opposition who, as the Sandinistas used to say, were always looking for a way to build a “Somocismo sin Somoza” (Somocism without Somoza). Before 1979, the goal of the local bourgeoisie and the State Department was to eliminate Somoza while preserving the system he helped to install.
It seems like there was a lot of contingency involved in the eventual success of the revolution. There was the precedent of the earthquake of 1972, which along with other non-revolutionary factors went a long way to undermining the Somoza regime. There were also other competing economic clans poised to help the ouster of Somoza and influence the outcome of the revolution. Meanwhile, like you were just saying, the official ranks of the FSLN were actually very thin. Do you think the circumstances surrounding the revolution — even where they helped to topple Somoza — actually worked against the more revolutionary aspirations of the Sandinistas?
The FLSN may not have had many militants, but they ended up getting support from rural peasants, particularly in the Western area that I mentioned earlier, as well as in the highlands where one of the tendencies had long been to retake Sandino terrain in the Segovia department and reconnect with the old networks of Sandino. But I’d say the bulk of support came from the marginal neighborhoods in the metropolitan area of Managua and León in particular — the participation of urban youth was absolutely key to the FSLN’s success.
At the same time, the Sandinistas had tremendously great timing, in that they were able to tactically achieve such success very early in the game —long before they took power. They took over Somoza’s Christmas party in 1974 and managed to free a lot of Sandinistas from the jails. That was followed by the famous taking over of the National Palace in 1978, in which they captured nearly one thousand people and were able to not only negotiate the freedom for all their political prisoners — of which there were a lot — but also get a huge ransom.
Those actions were incredibly inspirational: you could see it palpably, when the buses left the National Palace carrying the Sandinista fighters to the airport, crowds lined the highway to cheer them on — they immediately sympathized with this tremendous revolutionary gesture. And that led to this massive identification with the Frente Sandinista, and they were astute enough to tap into that fervor and actively recruit people into a revolutionary fighting force and the Sandinista organization.
So those actions saw a massive increase in organizational depth, from February until July 1978. They also relied on a lot of foreign support: from Venezuela, which was then under the social-democratic leadership of Carlos Andrés Pérez; from Costa Rica under Rodrigo Carazo; Cuba of course played a major role. Foreign support was clearly a key factor in the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution, as was the fact that the US was always a step behind and didn’t want to engage in military intervention — even if they didn’t want the Sandinistas to take over.
Having ousted Somoza, there were even moments when the Sandinistas were truly ready to share the government with the bourgeois opposition. But in the end, they saw that it wasn’t necessary and they basically just took over the National Junta, until they eventually won elections in 1984.
What did Nicaragua look like in the immediate years after the revolution? There were flagship programs like the literacy campaign, land reform, nationalization of industry, and more. I guess the question is: how revolutionary were those first years?
I remember writing a letter to my thesis adviser in 1983, when I moved to Nicaragua on a long-term basis. I remember referring to George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, when he talks about how he immediately felt the revolution and how everything was different. I remember writing to my adviser and saying “I don’t feel like Orwell did.” By 1983 there wasn’t much of the revolutionary fervor left, and you could already begin to sense that the priorities of the Sandinistas were shifting in the direction of defense against the counterrevolution (the Contra War had begun in 1981).
Again, those were clearly their priorities, but at the same time there were all these counter-tendencies — revolutionary tendencies, I guess you could say — that still existed and that you could see all over the place. I’m not sure if you could call those tendencies “autonomous,” but certainly there was still an idea that, at local levels, the so-called mass organizations had important roles to play in the revolution and that they should have decisive decision-making authority on those issues that most directly affected them.
Those more autonomous tendencies still existed when I was there, and in fact they were remarkable. But they were constantly running up against directives from on top. And that began to be more and more the case as the Contra War heated up, as everything turned towards defense. There were organizations like the CDS (Sandinista Defense Committee) that were very vibrant, inspirational community organizations. Some people today like to dump on the Sandinista Revolution, but we need to realize how incredibly inspirational it was to the majority of Nicaraguans, because they were able to really take control of their lives and speak in a way that they really hadn’t been able to do safely before.
That inspiration was clearly evident in the CDS and urban and rural unions. But those organizations were constantly losing their range of possibilities, given the defense priority. The one organization which maintained the greatest level of autonomy was UNAG (National Union of Agriculturalists and Ranchers). The UNAG was an organization which split off from the ATC in the very early years of the revolution and was made up of mainly small and middle-sized producers, and also landless peasants. They maintained the greatest level of autonomy and a high level of internal democracy. I would argue that the UNAG played a key role in pushing the Sandinista agrarian policies towards land distribution and away from state control.
It seems like there’s two competing tendencies when talking about the Nicaraguan Revolution, or almost any revolution, for that matter: to either view everything as the handiwork of a small cadre group or vanguard, or to see all deep, lasting social transformation as coming from the kind of autonomous organizations you were just alluding to.
In fairness to the Sandinista leadership, I think that their broad objectives played a key role in the greatest successes of the revolution: the literacy campaign and the incredible growth of education possibilities for people in general, including the university levels. The Sandinistas also oversaw a great transformation of the healthcare system, providing health care to people who never had it before. Those were very radical transformations, and those initiatives came from on top.
The more top-down approach that the FSLN adopted is widely ascribed to the Contra War — that defense tactics eventually became such a priority that the more democratic initiatives had to take a backseat. Is that a fair account? Is it possible to speculate about what could have been had Ronald Reagan and the CIA not recruited Somoza’s National Guard in-exile and unleashed the region’s most ferocious counterrevolutionary war?
I think the Contra War is fundamental to understanding the development of the Sandinista Revolution. But also, all of the original Sandinista leaders — the famous nine comandantes — all subscribed to some version or another of Marxism-Leninism. So I suppose one could argue that if they had been given unbridled control, it would have ended up as some kind of authoritarian dictatorship — but my own sense is that that’s not true. One could make that argument based on their putative ideologies, but in practice things were different.
There were three political tendencies within the Sandinista leadership. All of those tendencies — to one degree or another — prioritized the vanguard status of the Frente Sandinista from the very beginning and argued that it was necessary that the Sandinistas establish their authority and control in the midst of the revolution. But beyond that common ground there were three divergent tendencies.
There was the so-called Tercerista tendency, or third-way tendency, which was associated with the brothers Daniel and Humberto Ortega and was characterized by its openness to alliances with the bourgeois opposition. There was the Guerra Popular Prolongada (Protracted People’s War), which drew on a certain kind of Maoist and Vietnamese background, believing in the long-term consolidation of peasant bases in the mountains. And then there was Tendencia Proletaria (Proletarian Tendency), which focused more on the urban and rural proletariat as the key to the revolution.
And in each of those tendencies, but particularly the Tendencia Proletaria and the Terceristas, there were also groups more aligned with liberation theology. The people aligned with liberation theology had kind of submerged their politics for a while to go along with the tendency in general. But once the revolution triumphed, those different tendencies coalesced to a certain degree: the people belonging to the Tendencia Proletaria or Terceristas who came out of that liberation theology wing shared a lot in common.
What I’m trying to suggest here is that the three tendencies pretty much collapsed into two, especially as the Ortega group — the Terceristas — came to dominate. Once the revolution triumphed, they were able to position themselves in power. At the same time, there was a lot of contingency involved. If you look at some of the accounts of the revolution — the two most important ones being the memoirs of Gioconda Belli and Sergio Ramírez — you can see just how much contingency was involved in the Ortegas taking power.
Again, what I’m trying to suggest is that the typical portrayal of the “three tendencies” making up the FSLN is much more complicated than what the standard accounts present. There were in fact other tendencies within the Sandinista party: for example, in his writing, Sandinista leader Carlos Nuñez was always emphasizing the importance of the autonomy of mass organizations, whereas the other leaders were constantly arguing the opposite, that the Frente Sandinista had to be the sole conductor of the revolution. From 1979 to 1981, there were still groups involved in the revolution that could be called ultra-leftists: groups like the Brigada Simón Bolívar, made up of Trotskyists from Latin America who were eventually expelled.
By almost any metric those early groups were ultra-leftist, but what’s important about them is that they were keyed into a lot of mass and semi-spontaneous movements that were set off by the revolutionary process. And those movements included massive takeovers of land, the setting up of more spontaneous and democratic cooperatives, mostly in the countryside, and similar initiatives. So in a way those groups were connected with what was the most revolutionary expression of the revolution.
But that came to a halt relatively quickly, and by 1981, not only was the ultra-left basically eliminated, but the groups that the ultra-left tried to influence — largely unsuccessfully — had also been pretty much stamped out. Not, of course, with classic repressive measures, but enough to put a stop to those movements.
There are a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacks who like to speculate about where things went wrong with the Nicaraguan revolution — “wrong” meaning everything from not living up to the revolutionary aspiration of its original leaders or not transforming Nicaraguan society in any deep, meaningful way, to tipping into authoritarianism or even empowering local oligarchs.
In some way those debates seem to maintain two contradictory versions of history: that the revolution was either too indulgent with bourgeois political and economic institutions, leaving the class power of Nicaraguan oligarchs untouched and then holding presidential elections prematurely in 1984; or that the top-down tendency destroyed internal party life and undermined popular support. Are either of those accounts convincing, or do we need a more nuanced vision of the revolution?
Let me back up a bit before I get to your question. As I’ve said, the Contra War was completely decisive in squashing the most democratic aspects of the revolution. By “democratic” I’m not talking about elections, but rank-and-file democracy.
And here it’s important to clarify something. The Contra War was originally plotted in Langley and got the participation of Argentina’s right-wing military dictatorship. (Israel was involved as well.) The original plan involved setting up camps in Honduras, on the border with Nicaragua, right after the 1979 revolution. I think it was forty-four or forty-six officers of the first Contra Army had been members of Somoza’s National Guard. So there’s no doubt about the origins of the Contra War.
But in this discussion of the Contra War’s internal effects on the FLSN, it’s important to also realize that the war had a life of its own and that the Contra Army was filled up with recruits, most of whom were volunteers drawn from the peasantry of the Central Highlands. As the Contra War really got going, a lot of the Contra leadership was made up of basically middle-level coffee growers — people who feared expropriation or who had suffered expropriation or were driven by the Catholic Church’s anti-Sandinista propaganda.
So looking at the Contra War forces us to review the Sandinistas’ mistakes in dealing with the Catholic Church and in its conception of land reform in the highlands. Some of it was inevitable — the Vatican clearly took a side and threw its considerable power behind the war against liberation theology. That opposition to liberation theology was fundamental both in the sense that it affected the way that the Sandinista leadership dealt with the official Catholic Church and in how that played out in the Central Highlands countryside, where the Contras had so much support.
In other words, I think it’s important to realize that the Sandinistas’ mistakes also fed into the Contra War. In carrying out land reform, for example, there are studies that show that even attempts to eliminate exploitative practices, like trying to get rid of the so-called middle man —who would buy the products from a peasant in a remote area, and then sell in the market — completely backfired. There were also instances of land expropriation which obeyed less a kind of legal and revolutionary program than a more punitive form of retribution against landowners for their political leanings.
All that combined to backfire and give large degrees of support to the Contra, which, again, really affected the course of the revolution on every level, not just in terms of democracy.
In the latter part of the 1980s, something like over 60 percent of the Sandinistas’ budget was devoted to defense, and the great programs that were prevalent at the start of the revolution — in literacy, education, and general health — had suffered tremendously as a result of the war.
As to your original question — to what extent did the FSLN’s program of pluralism and mixed economy sort of dictate the ultimate failures? — I would tend to disagree with the terms of that debate, in part because “mixed economy” can mean a broad range of things. Part of what was happening at the very early stages of the revolution, in the tensions between these subaltern movements and the attempt to consolidate the revolution, was that the Sandinistas’ project included maintaining an alliance with what they called the “patriotic bourgeoisie.”
To some degree, that alliance did play a role in disarticulating the peasant and rural worker movements that were leading takeovers of estates. Very early in the game, the Sandinistas were saying: “no, you can’t take that hacienda because that hacendado is a patriotic bourgeois.” I think that tension was pretty fundamental, and at the same time, I disagree with the view that the democratic project was mistaken.
In fact, if we want to delve into the realm of counterfactual history, from the beginning I always thought that the Sandinistas committed a huge mistake in scheduling the elections for 1984 rather than holding elections in 1980. The reason they gave for not holding elections then was that it would lead to a rebirth of the battle among the different tendencies.
My personal view is that, yes, the different tendencies still mattered a little bit at that time, but more in terms of clientelism than serious politics. Had the Sandinistas won in popular elections in 1980, then the Contra War would have been much harder to unleash. I think that Reagan was able to use all the antidemocratic instances in the development of the Sandinista Revolution to score propaganda points.
I also think that if the Sandinistas had been less interested in establishing the Frente Sandinistas as this hegemonic vanguard party, and more interested in simply stimulating a revolutionary process, there were alternatives that still existed. They could have let class struggle develop in the countryside and in the cities, with some governmental limits and legal order to avoid violence. They could have stimulated those everywhere, including in the indigenous areas, both in the Central Highlands and on the Atlantic coast, where they lost tremendous amounts of support.
So I think there was a possible alternative project, and that was the road not taken.
We haven’t touched on the figure of Daniel Ortega, who, as you suggested earlier, was the most powerful figure from day one of the FSLN government. Jumping around in history a little, the FLSN eventually lost elections in 1990, and Ortega ended up becoming the undisputed leader of the government opposition. He eventually regained the presidency with the FSLN in 2007, in what was widely regarded as a much more watered-down version of the original Sandinista politics.
All the while, as Ortega was consolidating his control over the party and building popular support, there were Sandinista dissidents who either abandoned party politics or, in some cases, formed dissident Sandinista electoral vehicles (some of them were recently imprisoned by Ortega). What I’m wondering is how much appeal does the Sandinista legacy and the Sandino ideology still hold in Nicaragua?
Unfortunately, that’s a really complex issue and one that I’m not really an authority on. That said, I think the losing tendency in the mid-1990s was made up of some really great people, speaking of them as individual figures.
Dora Maria Tellez, who was recently arrested, had been a key figure in the takeover the National Palace in 1978. Tellez also did a wonderful job in the Health Ministry in the 1980s. But when they created an alternative movement, the Sandinista Renovation Movement, they had a very difficult time breaking through the strong link that had been established by the Sandinistas with certain poor sectors, both urban and rural, where there had developed all different kinds of loyalties, often rooted in the initial revolutionary process when so many youth were martyred.
In a way there is a slight analogy with Somoza, in that he did have his base of popular support and the opposition had a very hard time cracking it, in part based on social class. Perhaps because the class position of the Sandinista opposition in the 1990s was made up of middle-class or professional groups [regardless of class origin], they could not find a way to break through the wall of support that the Ortega group had established. Even in the elections of 1990, which they lost, Ortega still won 41 percent of the vote, and that remained fairly stable when Ortega won the election of 2006 with 38 percent of the vote.
So a big chunk of the population stayed loyal to Ortega, and that dissident tendency within the Sandinista movement was never really able to establish a popular base or clearly articulate an anti-neoliberal position. That being the case, I still want to emphasize the individual greatness of some of those people and their courage throughout their lives.
But to get back to your question, it’s significant that many of those same Sandinista dissidents eventually changed their party name to UNAMOS (dropping the allusion to the Sandinistas). I think the repression 2018 really tarnished the symbolic value of the FSLN because the Frente Sandinista, as Ortega’s organization, validated and supported the repression. That’s of course not the same as making the claim that the whole tradition of Sandinismo lacks value. I talked to one of the leaders of the new opposition movement and he recounted how, at the first meeting of a student opposition group, everybody confessed that in many cases their parents or family members had been Sandinistas in the 1980s.
The other thing that I’ve been confused about for many years is exactly what are the sources of Ortega’s strength, because, even today, according to polling, he’s still got one-third of the population behind him and he’s only suffered a minimal loss of support. I’ve never seen any good, serious efforts to try and come to grips with that issue; most accounts usually just say something about government assistance and how they use whatever state largesse they have to appease the populace. I think that’s not enough.
I also share that confusion. On the one hand, every time Ortega runs for election he’s increased his vote share, and elections at least appear to be fair and clean. But the most recent social indicators are also fairly disastrous in Nicaragua. I’m not sure how to make sense of that.
Actually, I think if you look at his first administration, from 2007 to 2011, the social indicators actually changed positively, and possibly even during the next administration as well. So you find that things did improve for a lot of people, and, to some degree, that accounts for the jump in support, where you start to see 60 percent victories.
I wanted to ask one last question, about the international impact of the Sandinista Revolution. In Central America, the Sandinistas’ example had a direct influence on armed left-wing movements in Guatemala and El Salvador. Further afield in South America, the Sandinistas encouraged some of the clandestine guerrilla groups to launch resistance operations against military dictatorships. There were even counterexamples, like in Peru, where the Shining Path group had observed how the FSLN lost the 1990 elections and decided to double down on the path of armed insurrection. How would you chart the influence of the Sandinistas?
In both Guatemala and El Salvador, there were much more substantial rank-and-file union and peasant movements than the FSLN ever had — so it’s definitely not as if they were copying the Sandinistas. And, on the other hand, the influence of the Iglesia popular, or liberation theology, was much stronger in Guatemala and especially in El Salvador than in Nicaragua. If you just took a snapshot in 1979 of the level of worker and peasant organization in El Salvador and Guatemala, it was much more advanced than in Nicaragua.
The other fundamental difference between Nicaragua and the other Central American countries were these contingencies that were unique to Nicaragua: namely, the bourgeoisie, the agrarian elite, and the small industrial sector were all politically split. It was a divided elite that pitted the Somoza elite against everyone else. And those splits did not exist in the other Central American countries, at least with such salience.
That said, when the Sandinista Revolution triumphed, it had dramatic effects in both El Salvador and Guatemala in terms of pushing people towards a kind of triumphalist perspective. The idea became that if Nicaragua can win, so can El Salvador — “Si Nicaragua venció, El Salvador vencerá” was the slogan. The same was true in Guatemala. In those Central American countries, the example of the Sandinistas led to a massive surge in new recruits among the guerrillas, who believed that they could achieve victory relatively quickly thanks to the Nicaraguan example.
We now know that that certainly was not the case in El Salvador and Guatemala — that belief actually had horrendous, really tragic consequences. But beyond the Central American region, the Sandinista Revolution obviously was tremendously invigorating for the Latin American left. Nicaragua became a magnet for Latin American exiles, particularly from Argentina and Chile. It was a huge inspiration. And yet, by the same token, the electoral defeat of 1990 was a huge defeat that felt like the end of a revolutionary era in Latin America.