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July 19, 1979: Nicaragua's Sandinista revolution remembered -- Video by John Pilger

On July 19, 1979, the Nicaraguan people led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) overthrew the brutal US-backed dictator Somoza. In this film, made by John Pilger in the 1980s, the background to the revolt and the gains won -- and the United States' virulent opposition -- are graphically explained.

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Hundreds of thousands rally in Managua on July 19

On July 19 well over 200,000 Sandinistas rallied in Managua’s Plaza La Fe
and the Plaza de la Revolución to celebrate the 29th anniversary of the
overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship and the victory of the Popular
Sandinista Revolution. It was at the same time a powerful demonstration of
mass support for the Sandinista government led by President Daniel Ortega.
And it was a frank and demolishing reply to two recent right wing "protest
demonstrations" of from 15 to 20 thousand people at the most -- the public
side of the anti-Sandinista destabilization campaign.

The rally was addressed by Aleida March Guevara (Che’s widow), Cuba’s Vice
President Esteban  Lazo, the presidents of Venezuela (Hugo Chávez), Paraguay
(Fernando Lugo), Honduras (Manuel Zelaya), and Daniel Ortega.

The speeches can be heard on the website of Managua’s Radio La Primerisima
at http://www.radiolaprimerisima.com/noticias/general/33909

 

Le Monde Diplomatique: Nicaragua: revolution compromised

http://mondediplo.com/2009/08/08nicaragua

August 2009

It’s 30 years since the Sandinistas overthrew the last of the dictatorial Somoza dynasty. And since 2006 the Sandinistas have been back in power in Nicaragua . But did they sell out to their former enemies to regain government?

By Hernando Calvo Ospina

In 1927 the Nicaraguan guerrilla leader General Cesar Augusto Sandino replied to a letter from a US marine captain who threatened to hunt him down if he refused to lay down his arms. “I will not surrender,” said Sandino, “and I await you here. I desire a free homeland or death.” US-Nicaraguan tension was by then historically established: the United States had invaded Nicaragua several times, first in 1854-6, and Britain had also tried to take control of its Atlantic coast. The US and UK saw Nicaragua as key to their plans to build a canal between the Caribbean and the Pacific, realised in Panama in 1914.

The US Secretary of State Philander C Knox sent troops into Nicaragua in September 1909, under the pretext of easing political and military tension between liberals and conservatives. They stayed until 1925. In 1926 more than 5,000 US Marines landed, and didn’t leave until 1933: they were supposed to be guarding against “agents of Bolshevik Mexico” who wanted to take over the nation.

Sandino (1895-1934) was one of those “agents”. Although he considered himself a liberal, he began to fight in 1927 against the “imperialist, cocaine-addicted” occupier, and against Nicaragua ’s liberal-conservative elite, which he saw as oppressive, exploitative, racist and prepared to sell national independence. “Sandino adopted the ideas, and the black and red flag, of the Mexican anarcho-syndicalist movement, and the class analysis of the Salvadorian Farabundo Martì” (1), explains the sociologist Orlando Nuñez. “He wrote about the need for Latin-American integration, which was the dream of Simon Bolivar, and also the need for indigenous people to be integrated into the political struggle, and for alliances to be forged with nationalist businesses, to confront US imperialism.”

The making of a martyr
Harassed by Sandino’s small band of guerrillas, the US forces withdrew in 1933. They were considered too expensive during the Great Depression. They left behind a National Guard under the leadership of a soldier trained in the US : Anastasio Somoza. Sandino agreed to negotiate with the national government, but on 21 February 1934 he was assassinated as he left a meeting with President Juan Batista. A few years later, Somoza admitted that the order to kill had come from the US ambassador, Arthur Bliss Lane .
The dynasty of Somoza dictators settled in for four decades, under Washington ’s supervision: Anastasio (1936-56), Luis (1956-63), Anastasio Jr (1967-79). Yet the struggles of the past had not been in vain. In 1960, inspired by the success of the Cuban revolution and guided by the ideas of Sandino, Carlos Fonseca Amador, Tomas Borge and other intellectuals formed the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) guerrilla movement.

For many years its success was limited by its lack of connection with the rural population. But the political landscape was changing: the concentration of power in the hands of the Somoza family, which remained totally subordinate to US interests, and the abuses of the regime, began to stir discontent among some of the middle class. They saw that an alliance with the FSLN would allow them to get rid of Somoza and reclaim the power he had denied them. The FSLN believed such a partnership would help it achieve its objectives. The support of followers of Christian liberation theology (“the church of the poor”) was decisive. The FSLN’s spectacular military victories in 1978, against a background of worsening repression, won it sympathy around the world. Even the administration of US president Jimmy Carter (1977-81) could no longer support Somoza. The revolution triumphed on 19 July 1979.

The Sandinista revolution became fashionable abroad, and gained the support of many foreign governments, particularly European social democrats. They were reassured by the presence of young people from the upper middle classes in positions of authority in the new government. In Nicaragua , revolutionaries from poor or anti-capitalist backgrounds were most accepted by the population. As Carlos Fonseca junior, the son of the FSLN’s founder, remembers: “The revolution was so exciting and inspiring that it marked the lives of all the Nicaraguans who were just entering adolescence. We could be optimistic and dream.”

A national literacy campaign by young Daniel Ortega’s government reduced illiteracy from 54% to 12% in less than a decade. The poor now had access to higher education, and medical care was no longer the preserve of the privileged few. Agrarian reform benefited the peasants, strategic resources were nationalised, and workers and small producers were encouraged to organise in trade unions and cooperatives. For Nuñez it was “a process of social justice and organisation of the people, without precedent in the history of Nicaragua or of Latin America, with the exception of Cuba .”

But to carry out these reforms, the political and economic system needed to be restructured, and this soon exposed fundamental disagreements within the ruling alliance. While the upper middle classes who had united with the FSLN wanted to overturn the dictatorship, they were not prepared to change the structures of the state. They lost the argument. The revolutionaries saw the alliance as a way of giving their government legitimacy abroad and avoiding international isolation or foreign aggression: “The revolution had to show that it was democratic and Catholic,” says Nuñez. “That is to say that it didn’t threaten the interests of the US and Europe .”

But they miscalculated. Under Carter, the US had already been helping ex-Somoza guards form counter-revolutionary groups, and that worsened when Ronald Reagan became president in January 1981. He went as far as declaring Nicaragua his number-one national security priority. Already, by April 1980, almost all the members of the FSLN who came from the upper middle classes had pulled out of the alliance, and joined with the ex-Somocista elite to support Washington ’s destabilisation plans. In Honduras , El Salvador and Costa Rica , US and Cuban-American soldiers and mercenaries trained counter-revolutionary forces: the “Contra”, which carried out murderous cross-border raids. “Our generation was forced to make war,” says Fonseca. “I was just 15 when I had to go and fight, like thousands of other Nicaraguans. This was the fault of the United States and the country’s elite.”

“Atheists”, “warmongers”, “totalitarian exporters of revolution”, “drug traffickers”: the FSLN’s enemies mounted an international propaganda campaign with the help of the anti-Sandinista Nicaraguan daily La Prensa and other local media. Financing the war meant there were food shortages and a slowdown in social programmes, causing suffering among the poor. Sandinistas were partly to blame when some peasants went over to support the Contra, unhappy about the priority given to collective farms, constraints on business and the free market, and price controls.

‘Some big mistakes’

The introduction of military service in September 1983 made things worse. Jacinto Suarez is an FSLN MP and former guerrilla: “We didn’t know how to manage the relationship with the rural population, and when today we talk to ex Contra leaders we realise we made some big mistakes. We attacked peasant and Indian areas (2): some of us thought that because we had weapons we could impose our will.”

The counter-revolution caused the deaths of 29,000, but militarily it was a failure, confined to a narrow band – the “Contra corridor”. The Sandinistas won a convincing victory in the presidential and legislative elections of 1984, and in 1986 Washington was engulfed in scandal: “Irangate” revealed that US officials had been selling arms to Iran in contravention of an embargo, and the CIA were found to be trafficking cocaine from Colombia, both to finance the Contras. In 1987 the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled against the US for mining Nicaraguan ports.

But Nicaragua was exhausted economically and psychologically. So the Sandinistas began talks with the Contra, and prepared for a new election campaign. With the support of the US , an anti-Sandinista coalition was formed – the National Opposition Union (UNO). Under its leader Violeta Chamorro, it won the legislative elections of 25 February 1990. During the election campaign the FSLN still had 53% support, according to opinion polls. Then came the US invasion of Panama (3). According to Suarez: “The war had become less intensive because of the negotiations with the Contra, and so the number of casualties had gone down. We could at last see the end of the tunnel. But when the US invaded Panama , tanks surrounded the US embassy in Managua and armed Sandinistas came out on to the streets in solidarity with Panama . Two days later an opinion poll showed our support had plummeted to 34%. It was too late then to change opinion: the prospect of a return
to war had scared people.”

The outgoing Sandinista government signed a transition agreement with Chamorro. Despite opposition from the US , the new government agreed not to change the current leadership of the armed forces, police and security services, although the security services were gradually dismantled.

According to Lenin Serna, an army inspector at that time, Europeans took on this task through military missions within the context of the “peace process”. The Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzalez “did what the gringos could not do themselves”, says Serna. “That’s how, in the end, our intelligence services ended up almost entirely in the hands of the US .”
By keeping control of the army and the police, the Sandinistas prevented the security services from becoming instruments of oppression. The last high-ranking officer to have been a Sandinista guerrilla will retire in 2010.

No winners
With the Contras disbanded, its members had the sometimes difficult task of reintegrating into Nicaraguan society. The new rulers began to renege on the agreements with the FSLN and to reverse the gains of the revolution. Those who did not belong to the new elite soon realised what was going on. Israel Galeano, a former Contra leader, noted: “The oligarchy chased out Somoza with the help of you, the Sandinistas. Then they chased you out with our help. Neither of us won... It was the oligarchy that won” (4).

Elena Aguilera is a former Sandinista fighter who works for the Francisco Morazan school for workers and peasants outside Managua . She says the elite robbed the state and tricked the peasants out of thousands of hectares that had been redistributed to them in the 1980s: “The peasants were told that the original landowners had wanted their land back, but that the government would compensate them for their loss instead, which they did at a good price. Despite this, the landowners went to court claiming their land had been stolen. The cases dragged on for ages. The peasants and the co-ops did not have enough money to defend themselves. So ‘advisers’ turned up and recommended they sell their land to the plaintiffs – those who had already been compensated by the government. It is no coincidence that these landowners had close links to people high up in government.”

Chamorro brought Nicaragua into the neo-liberal era, to the benefit of multinational companies – North American in particular, but also European and Asian. The elite devoted itself to embezzling state property and financial speculation. “In only a few years,” says Nuñez, “they had almost wiped out the already weak middle classes, and stifled opportunity for small businesses in the countryside and in the towns. They plunged Nicaragua into the worst economic and social crisis of its history.” From 1990 onwards, three presidents – Violeta Chamorro, Arnoldo Aleman and Enrique Bolanos – destroyed almost everything the revolution had achieved. Salaries lost a third of their value, unemployment reached 45% and many Nicaraguans were in poverty.

This backward slide went unchecked. “The revolution didn’t last long enough to create a new system,” says Fonseca. “This was due to the political and economic realities and the war that was imposed on us. Popular participation in the exercise of power had not been institutionalised. If it had, neoliberalism would not have been able to dismantle our social gains so easily.”

The ability of the Sandinistas to resist this was weakened by fierce internal conflict. At the FSLN’s congress in 1994, “one group advocated renouncing the party’s avant-garde, anti-imperialist and socialist position,” says Fonseca. “The other current, led by Daniel Ortega, argued it was necessary to make adjustments to the party’s programme, without straying from Sandinista ideology.” Ortega’s faction gained 12 of 15 leadership posts. The majority of the party’s national leaders and members of parliament, and most former ministers, denounced Ortega’s “authoritarianism” and left to form the Movement for Sandinista Renewal (MRS) (5).

Policy of alliances
Nonetheless, the FSLN came to power again on 5 November 2006 when Ortega won the presidency with 38% of the votes. To get in, the party had agreed a series of political deals, which provoked strong criticism from supporters at home and abroad. The FSLN had previously allied itself with the conservatives to get the former president Arnoldo Aleman prosecuted for corruption. Now they offered him a deal: he would be freed from prison (where he was serving 20 years) and put under house arrest in return for the “neutrality” of his Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC). The FSLN also provoked amazement when they signed a pact with a staunch enemy of the 1980s: Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. Under threat from the spread of evangelism, the Catholic church saw an opportunity (6).

“We put in place a daring and advantageous policy of forming alliances with members of the oligarchy,” says Eden Pastora, the famous “Comandante Cero” (7). “And so, without selling out, we divided and weakened the opposition. At first I found it hard to accept this policy, but then I understood. If these pacts get us into power and allow us to relaunch our social programmes, then God bless them.” Cerna adds: “The alliances we struck when we were not in government were manoeuvres. We knew all about tactics and strategy. We had been guerrillas, soldiers and politicians.” But for many, such pragmatism was hard to swallow.

Having gained the presidency on 10 January 2007, the FSLN won control of 105 out of 145 councils in the municipal elections of 9 November 2008. After all the ups and downs, health care and education were free again. Thousands of children went back to school. A “zero hunger” programme was started with one million meals a day distributed to educational centres. Land and low-interest loans were given to small producers to ensure food security. The programme has benefited 100,000 peasant families, and is administered by women organised in cooperatives. “They are more reliable and are usually in charge of the family’s welfare,” observes Aguilar. “Even more so now that men have to go in search of work [often abroad]” (8). These women are given training, cows, pigs and seeds. They pay back 20% of the loan, and reinvest the rest so they can become independent food producers.

Another programme called “zero usury” (at an interest rate of 5%, as opposed to the normal 25%) finances some of the 45% of Nicaraguans who are self-employed. The banks saw this as a declaration of war, but small businesses selling shoes, furniture or clothing have benefited, and are able to offer better-value products. “The US embassy and the oligarchy are furious at the loss of political leadership,” says Nuñez, “but also that so many local businesses are moving closer to the Front.”

Regional co-operation takes care of the rest: as a member of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) (9), Nicaragua exchanges beans, meat and calves for Venezuelan oil (10). ALBA also finances many of its social programmes. Cuban doctors perform thousands of eye operations free of charge using modern equipment provided by Venezuela, and a literacy campaign has been launched as part of a Cuban aid programme “Yo si puedo” (Yes I can).

“We are making good progress with the little we have and with the help of friendly Latin American and Caribbean countries,” says Aguilar. “But a media war has been declared against us. We get nothing but negative press.
No doubt they want to prevent the Front winning again in 2012.” In February 2008 the new US ambassador, Robert Callahan, arrived in Managua , reopening old wounds. He had worked as press attaché at the US embassy in Honduras in the 1980s under John Negroponte – at a time when the embassy was being used by the CIA to direct the most violent elements within the Contras. Today, worried by the progress of the Sandinistas, Callahan openly supports the Nicaraguan opposition. Such interference led President Ortega to threaten his expulsion in February 2009. Members of the elite and Ortega’s opponents have replied that the head of state is “biting the hand that feeds him”.

Hernando Calvo Ospina is a Columbian journalist
(1) Farabundo Martì was the founder of El Salvador ’s Communist Party. He was shot dead after a popular uprising in 1932, which was crushed, killing more than 20,000 people.
(2) A reference to the conflict between the revolutionary powers and the Miskito Indians of the Atlantic coast.
(3) On 20 December 1989 the US launched Operation Just Cause to overthrow and arrest Panama ’s leader Manuel Noriega – an undemocratic drug trafficker and former CIA collaborator.
(4) Quoted from Orlando Nuñez, La oligarquia en Nicaragua , Cipres, Managua , 2006.
(5) Without much success – the dissidents only got 1% of the vote in the 1996 elections (and 7% in 2006).
(6) The Nicaraguan elite and Washington immediately put pressure on the Vatican to replace Monsignor Obando y Bravo.
(7) On 22 August 1978 the commando leader Eden Pastora took control of the National Assembly. He became deputy minister of defence, but went over to the Contra in 1982 and joined the front near the border with Costa Rica . The main effect of his faction’s presence there was to stir up ill feeling among the other counter revolutionary groups, and to neutralise the southern front, to the benefit of the Sandinistas.
(8) See Raphaelle Bail, “Nicaragua exports its poor”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, January 2007.
(9) Instigated by Caracas , ALBA is made up of Venezuela , Cuba , Honduras , Bolivia , Dominica , Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Nicaragua .
(10) Around 20 countries signed the PetroCaribe agreement, which gives them preferential payment conditions for Venezuelan oil. They pay 50% upfront and the rest over 20 years at 1% interest. The savings must be used to finance social programmes.

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