Hostility to the U.S. a costly mistake
MANAGUA -- It was hard to say which was shining more brightly, Moises Hassan thought, as his makeshift military caravan rolled down the highway: the sun in the sky, or the faces of the people crowded along the road, shrieking ``Viva!'' to his troops.
It was the morning of July 19th, 1979, and Nicaragua had just awakened to find itself abruptly, stunningly free of a dictatorship that, for more than 40 years, had passed the country around from generation to generation like a family cow.
Hassan, as a senior official in the Sandinista National Liberation Front, the guerrilla movement that had spearheaded the rebellion against the dictatorship, had played a key role in ousting it. But now, as he waved to the crowds lining the highway, he realized that it was what came next that would really count.
``You could see the happiness in the people's faces,'' he recalled. ``And you could see the hope, too. And I told myself, `damn, we've taken a lot of responsibility on ourselves . . . We cannot let these people down.' ''
Twenty years later, neither Hassan nor any other
Sandinista leader denies that the revolution they led did
let Nicaraguans down. It would reel headlong into a
decade of confrontation with the United States, a
catastrophic economy where peasants literally preferred
toilet paper to the national currency, and a civil war
It would end 11 years later in an ignominious electoral defeat from which the Sandinistas still haven't recovered, and, some say, never will. And it is still a source of wonder to them how everything could have gone so disastrously wrong.
``We believed -- it was one of our many errors -- that we were going to hold power until the end of the centuries,'' mused Tomas Borge, who helped found the Sandinista Front in 1961. ``It didn't work out that way.''
Just as the Sandinista victory in 1979 echoed around the world, ushering in a new chapter of the Cold War, its collapse sent a tidal wave washing through the international left.
Leftist theoreticians who could no longer defend the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union or Fidel Castro's erratic military adventures abroad pinned their hopes on the Baby Boomer regime in Nicaragua. They were devastated when it fared no better than the graying revolutions in Cuba and the USSR.
``It's like saying we had a project to make the world over with greater justice and greater fairness, and we failed,'' said Margaret Randall, an American academic who lived in Nicaragua during the first four years the Sandinistas governed and wrote four adulatory books about them.
``It's been very, very hard for those of us who gave
our best years to Nicaragua, our greatest energies to
Nicaragua, who had friends who died there . . .
It's one thing to say the people are gone, but the
project is still there. But now there's nothing. We're
still picking up the pieces.''
On that day 20 years ago, it was a little hard to imagine that any government would emerge from the debris left behind when Anastasio Somoza -- the last of three family members to rule Nicaragua -- slipped away in the middle of the night.
Within hours of Somoza's departure, the entire senior officer corps of the National Guard, the army on which the dictatorship was built, bolted for the border. On the morning of July 19, Managua's streets were littered with cast-off uniforms of panicky junior officers and enlisted men who were making their own getaways in civilian clothes.
Chaos was everywhere. Children lurched about the parking lot of the Inter-Continental Hotel, spraying the air with bullets from automatic rifles left behind by the soldiers. Inside the hotel, the last of the foreign mercenaries Somoza employed as bodyguards was going room to room, robbing reporters (including one from The Miami Herald) at gunpoint.
At the airport, clogged with government officials and Somoza cronies trying to catch the last plane out, an armed band of teenage Sandinista sympathizers climbed into the tower to try to arrest the air traffic controllers, who were still wearing their National Guard uniforms. Only the intervention of a Red Cross official prevented a complete disaster.
Elsewhere in the city, those who couldn't or wouldn't leave were nervously preparing peace offerings to the revolutionary army that was headed for Managua. One elderly couple spray-painted FSLN -- the Spanish initials by which the Sandinistas were known -- across the sides of their new Mercedes Benz.
But as Sandinista forces poured into the city over the next few days, the situation quickly stabilized. And as FSLN leaders admit, the anarchy they found actually offered them a marvelous opportunity to start a country from scratch.
``The state dissolved completely,'' said novelist Giaconda Belli, who delivered the first newscast over Sandinista television. ``No army, no judges, no congress, no nothing. . . . It was like a clean slate for us.''
What the Sandinistas had promised -- to the Organization of American States and the U.S. government, as they tried to mediate the war against Somoza -- was a pluralist, non-aligned democracy with a mixed economy. Many Sandinistas still say that was what they tried to build.
``We were not trying put a communist government in Managua,'' Belli insisted. ``We were very critical of the Soviet model and the Cuban model. We never closed our borders, we never prohibited organized religion.''
But though there many members of the FSLN who rejected communist dogma, the nine men who composed the Sandinista directorate -- the central committee -- were committed Marxist-Leninists.
``All the top leadership was Marxist-Leninist,'' agreed Hassan, who wasn't. ``And I knew that if they had their way, Nicaragua would be a Marxist state. But I wasn't too worried about it. I didn't think they would be able to brush aside the rest of us.''
Hassan was part of the five-member junta -- which included two non-Sandinista members -- that was theoretically governing Nicaragua until free elections could be held. But, he soon realized, all the important decisions were being made by the party leadership. The junta was little more than a rubber stamp.
``I remember when the Russians invaded Afghanistan late in 1979, the junta had to meet to decide what position we were gong to take at the United Nations,'' Hassan said. ``We decided we would condemn it. But when [Foreign Minister Miguel] D'Escoto went up to New York, he abstained when it was time to vote. The Sandinista directorate told him what to do, and he obeyed them, not us.''
In fact, there was an increasing confusion between the identity of the country and the party. The police became the Sandinista National Police, the army the Sandinista People's Army. Schoolchildren pledged allegiance not only to Nicaragua but to the Sandinista party, and promised it their ``love, loyalty and sacrifice.''
Meanwhile, the failure to condemn the Soviet invasion was symptomatic of the revolution's leftward march. The government quickly moved to seize anything that was ``mismanaged'' or ``underexploited.'' Farmers were ordered to sell grain only to a state purchasing agency and cattle only to state slaughterhouses.
Newsmen who criticized government policies lost their papers or radio programs, and sometimes were jailed. Kids learned math from schoolbooks that taught two grenades plus two grenades plus two grenades equals six grenades, and their alphabet from sentences like this one that illustrated the use of the letter Q: ``Sandino fought the yanquis. The yanquis will always be defeated in our fatherland.''
It was the profound Sandinista hostility to the United States -- the party anthem even referred to the U.S. as ``the enemy of humanity'' -- that led to what some party leaders now consider its most ruinous mistake: supporting Marxist guerrillas in nearby El Salvador against the American-backed government.
First Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan warned the Sandinistas to stay out of the Salvadoran conflict. When they didn't, the United States first suspended aid to Nicaragua, and later began supporting the counterrevolutionary forces that came to be know as the contras in a civil war that ultimately cost the Sandinistas power.
``It was just political machismo,'' Belli said. ``Everybody was young, wearing uniforms, and they thought they were cute. They wanted to be heroic, and going up against the United States was heroic. . . . But it was the wrong thing to do, and the Nicaraguan people paid a high price.''
Several Sandinista leaders say the party missed a golden opportunity when Thomas Enders, an assistant U.S. secretary of state, came to Managua in 1981 with a final carrot-and-stick offer from the Reagan administration: Quit fooling around in El Salvador, and we'll leave you alone, no matter what you do inside Nicaragua. Keep it up, and we'll swat you like a fly.
``It was a great opportunity for a deal,'' said Arturo Cruz Jr., who was a key official in Nicaragua's foreign ministry at the time. ``I think it was a sincere offer. Ronald Reagan considered Nicaragua a lost cause. Their concern was El Salvador.'' Sergio Ramirez, a member of the junta and later vice president, agreed: ``I thought it was an opportunity, and I said so, but no one agreed with me.''
Even with the benefit of hindsight, some Sandinistas say it was unthinkable to back away from the Salvadoran guerrillas.
``That was a matter of ethics on our part,'' said former President Daniel Ortega. ``The Salvadorans had helped us [against Somoza]. And thanks to the armed struggle, El Salvador has changed. It's a much different place than it was then. . . . The war in El Salvador has led to a political advance, and we are part of that achievement.''
The United States wouldn't have kept its promise anyway, said Borge. ``Look, I don't think Cuba was ever a threat to the United States, but let's say it was at one time,'' he explained. ``Well, with the fall of the Soviet Union, it obviously isn't a threat anymore. But the U.S. agitation against Cuba and attempts to isolate it continue. The U.S. doesn't like revolutionaries, and we were revolutionaries.''
But if some Sandinistas had doubts about the carrot in Enders' offer, they know he was serious about the stick. Three months after the Sandinistas rejected the deal, the Reagan administration was funneling money to the contras. Four months after that, in March 1982, the contras blew up two major bridges in northern Nicaragua, and the war was on in earnest.
The war led directly to some of the Sandinistas' most unpopular policies, like the military draft, and broadened others, like moving peasants off their land into cooperatives. Censorship expanded until the daily paper La Prensa, the last voice of the opposition, was shut down completely.
What had been skirmishes between the Sandinistas and the Roman Catholic Church erupted into full-fledged firefights, climaxing when FSLN militants shouted down Pope John Paul II as he tried to say Mass.
It accelerated the decline already begun by their economic policies. By 1988, inflation was 33,000 percent annually, and it took a shopping bag full of cordobas just to buy lunch -- that is, if you could find lunch.
Practically everything was in short supply: No hay, there isn't any, became about the only Spanish phrase a visitor to Nicaragua needed. The vast shelves of the supermarkets built in the days of Somoza were empty except for Bulgarian-made dishwasher soap, useless in a country with no dishwashers.
When the Sandinistas managed to obtain food from their socialist trading partners, people were suspicious. A bumper crop of Russian potatoes in 1987 led to the widespread certainty that they were contaminated with radiation from the breakdown of the Soviet nuclear reactor at Chernobyl.
Some of the problems, Sandinista leaders insist even now, weren't their fault.
``The conflict with the church was strong, and it cost us, but I don't think it was our fault,'' Ortega said. ``There were so many people being wounded every day, so many people dying, and it was hard for us to understand the position of the church hierarchy'' in refusing to condemn the contras.
Others, they acknowledge, were in large part their responsibility. ``When we arrived, we had almost total power,'' Borge said. ``And we didn't know how to handle total power. What came hand in hand with total power was the mistaken belief that we were never mistaken. This made us behave in an arbitrary way. And the most grave and arbitrary abuses were made in the countryside, where the peasants began to join the contras.''
Sandinista leaders agree that the contras would never have grown into such a huge and destructive force -- some 22,000 by the war's end -- if the U.S. hadn't been arming and supplying them. But most of them also admit that the revolution made the war possible by alienating hundreds of thousands of peasants.
``During the 1984 election, we had a rally down in the southern part of the country, and they had this peasant -- a contra who had surrendered -- make a symbolic presentation of a rifle to me,'' Ramirez recalled. ``We always talked about the contras as American mercenaries, but this guy standing across from me was not some big gringo Ranger. He was a simple peasant.
``Before that, my understanding of the counterrevolution had been intellectual. But here, right before me, was the face of the country. This poor man. . . . He thought we were going to take away his children, interfere in his family, butt into his religion, make him work in a collective.
``And this was the man that the revolution was
supposed to be for! You know, the revolution was headed
by intellectuals. We did it in the name of the workers
and peasants, but we were all intellectuals. And in the
end, most of the peasants were against us.''
The war eventually forced the Sandinistas to agree to internationally supervised elections. They lost -- to Violeta Chamorro, publisher of La Prensa, one of their most important allies during the war against Somoza -- in a landslide that stunned them.
``We had a naive syllogism: If it was a revolution for the poor, then the poor couldn't be against us,'' Ramirez said. ``But we should have known much earlier. We started out with 90 percent of the population behind us. By 1985, there were 400,000 Nicaraguans who had fled to Miami, several hundred thousand more in Costa Rica and Honduras, and we still only got 60 percent of the vote. The Nicaraguan family was split.''
Since the 1990 election, the Sandinistas have lost three more elections (one presidential, two for local offices across the country) by nearly identical margins. The party newspaper is closed, the party television station under the control of Mexican investors. Two major scandals -- one over the way Sandinista leaders looted the government on their way out of office in 1990, another over allegations that Daniel Ortega molested his stepdaughter for nine years, beginning when she was 11 -- have been sandwiched around countless minor ones.
Those who govern now say the Sandinistas left nothing behind but wreckage. Nicaraguan Vice President Enrique Bolaņos, a lifelong opponent of the FSLN whose farm was confiscated during the revolution, says it will take decades to undo the damage the Sandinistas did to the Nicaraguan economy.
``Per capital income dropped to the levels of 1942 when they were in charge,'' he said. ``The trade deficit, which had always hovered around zero, went up to $400 million to $600 million their first year, and it's stayed there ever since. Even if we get the foreign debt they left us under control -- it went from $1.3 billion to $12 billion under them -- that trade deficit will kill us.''
Many of the party's most loyal militants -- including Ramirez, Belli, Hassan and Cruz -- have deserted it. Some are harshly critical of what the revolution left behind. Hassan, who has left politics and now manages a garment factory, said that what he saw during the revolution has soured him on the political left.
``I think the left equal populism, which equals give-me-give-me-give-me,'' he said. ``What we bred here are people who say, `I'll go to demonstrations and shout, but I won't work. I want a salary, but I won't work. I want food, but I won't work. I want a house, but I won't work.' ''
But others believe that the revolution left some things of lasting value, including a sense that even poor people have inalienable rights.
``A Nicaraguan peasant will look you straight in the eye,'' said Alejandro Bendaņa, once Daniel Ortega's top foreign policy adviser, now estranged from the party. ``That wasn't always true. When I was a kid, they walked up to you, bowing, humble and deferential, saying boss this and boss that. That is a legacy of the revolution.''
Bendaņa, like many past and present Sandinistas, believes that the revolution would have been worthwhile even if it never accomplished anything but getting rid of the Somozas.
``Our parents had failed to get rid of the bastard, and we were the ones who did it,'' he said. ``And to get rid of the dictatorhip, armed force was required. Banging pots and pans in the streets, like in the Philippines, that wasn't going to do it.''
Ortega, somewhat paradoxically, believes that the election that ousted him proves that the Sandinistas moved the country forward.
``When we lost the election, we gave up the government,'' Ortega said. ``That hadn't happened before. What we have here is a typical bourgeois democracy -- not a true people's democracy -- but I still think it represents an advance for Nicaragua.''
But being remembered as a transitional asterisk in Nicaraguan history was not what the Sandinistas dreamed of in 1979, when they boasted that they would do nothing less than construct a New Man, free of the chains of ego and selfishness.
``I always thought the revolution would be a transcendental story in human development,'' mused Ramirez earlier this month. ``But it wasn't, was it?''
Copyright 1999 Miami Herald