Central Europe and Central America: Will there be a historical convergence?

By Joyce McCracken

December 15, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — During October 1956 Soviet tanks rolled into the capital of the Hungarian People’s Republic, Budapest. Much has been written about the event. Discussions have ranged from Communist Party congresses, Fourth Internationalist gatherings, academic forums, and discussions in bars and over kitchen tables — essentially wherever lefties hang out in Europe and beyond.

A young English reporter, Peter Fryer, working for the Daily Worker, witnessed the event itself and the immediate aftermath. That paper was the forerunner of today’s Morning Star, which today proudly and justifiably claims to be the world’s only English language, socialist daily newspaper.

The story of what Fryer witnessed in Hungry can be read in his short book, Hungarian Tragedy. It makes harrowing reading.

Fryer was dispatched to Hungary as there had been reports of a student demonstration. As is often the case for reporters, initial glimpses of information were conflicting: “hundreds killed”, “student demonstrations”, “A few nationalist slogans, but everything is good-humored.”

The Daily Worker was published by the People’s Press Printing Society, a reader-owned cooperative, as is today’s Morning Star. Back then the strongest party political influence on the paper was the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Today it is the Communist Party of Britain.

However, back in 1956, the Daily Worker and the CPGB leadership suppressed Fryer’s reports from Hungary. His colleagues at the paper were even denied the opportunity of seeing his copy.

Fryer had an interview in Budapest’s Duma Hotel with English Communist Charlie Coutts, the English language editor of World Youth. The interview was “taken down as Coutts told it” by Fryer and dispatched to the Daily Worker.

On arriving in London it was subjected to “normal editing and subbing” and printed, though 450 words shorter than the original. Insidious changes were inserted. Instead of “Mr. Coutts said” it read “Mr. Coutts asserted” and “Mr. Coutts believed.” Tellingly, the word revolution appeared as uprising — a ploy not lost today on some Nicaragua commentators.

Hungarian tragedy 

The “Hungarian uprising”, as those events have come to be known, had been preceded by “the capture by the Communist Party of the army, police and State security forces”, as Mátyás Rákosi, People’s Vice-Commissar for Trade and Transport, and later People’s Commissar for Social Production, in the Hungarian Soviet Republic put it in a 1952 speech. I’ll return to that later when examining the Sandinista’s role in capturing institutions of the Nicaraguan state.

Some pro-Soviet commentators promoted the view that the revolutionary government of Hungarian Premier, Imre Nagy, was oblivious to the forces of counter-revolution. That concern was address by Geza Losonczy, Minister of State with responsibility for the press, who recognized that “counter-revolutionary forces are active.”

Losonczy went on to explain: “The Government declares that it does not desire to let any of the gains of the past period be lost: the agrarian reform, the nationalization of factories, the social achievements.”

It is doing history a disservice by omitting so many details, but according to Fryer, the Hungarian tragedy left “at least 20,000 Hungarians dead; at least 3,500 Russians dead; tens of thousands wounded.”

There is a historical connection worth mentioning.

Hungary does not share a frontier with Poland. But they share a history and a common bond of camaraderie. This stems from Europe’s revolutionary year of 1848. Hungarian poet Sándor Petőfi, who to this day symbolizes his country’s desire for freedom, fought alongside General Józef Zachariasz Bem. Petőfi was to write: 

“Our battalions have combined two nations,

And what nations! Polish and Magyar!”

The name Magyar refers to a people who settled in what is now Hungary around the 9th century. It also refers to the language of those people, modern day Hungarian.

General Bem was born in Tarnów in the province of Galicia, in what is now Poland, and fought against the Austrians in defense of Hungary. At the time, the prevailing political power in central Europe was encased in the multistate Austria-Hungary Empire, where the upper hand rested in Austria.

Parallels with Nicaragua

Back in January 2014 the Managua based magazine Envio ran an article covering changes to Nicaragua’s Military Code. Enabled by a safe majority in the National Assembly, President Daniel Ortega achieved changes in legislation that had served the country for two decades. With these changes, Major General Oscar Balladares, head of the Chief of Staffs, was retired at the age of 51 and given a well-paid desk job to compliment his army pension.

He had been considered a “shoe in” for the top job. Balladares had a 33-year military career, dating back to his days as a guerilla fighter. He was described as a tropista, meaning he was of that officer cadre that was close to the army’s rank and file.

Instead, General Oscar Mojica, director of the Institute for Retirement Provision and Military Security, left his desk job to become top soldier. Having previously achieved constitutional changes, asserts Envio, this “was President Ortega’s final step in articulating his power strategy.”

Ortega’s reach and hold on various other institutions of state have been detected and brought into the realm of public knowledge. His son Laureano heads up ProNica, facilitating foreign businesses wanting to set up operations in Nicaragua.

The Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) oversees all Nicaraguan elections. Ortega’s grip on the CSE through its president, the now discredited and corrupt Roberto Rivas, is well documented. Rivas and family have left the country on a private luxury jet to the Spanish capital of Madrid. There they have a “little palace’ estimated to be worth over US$11 million.

The Rivas family may still face further problems. The Nicaragua daily La Prensa announced on December 12 that Roberto and his wife have both been sanctioned by the US State Department. This will affect any US dollar accounts they have.

Then there is Francisco Díaz, the head of the police force. He is the father–in-law of one of Ortega’s daughters.

By the time of a peaceful demonstration on April 18 against social security reforms, the people had absorbed and internalized enough of their president’s non-consultative style of governance. The police, well equipped for the job that day, came at the protesters in a heavy-handed manner. Protest and resistance followed, and continues.

Early media reports frequently pointed out that those who confronted the National Police were armed with mortars. This implied the muzzle-loaded, high-arching projectile launchers used by infantry soldiers. What these protesters in fact had were morteros, the Spanish word for a short length of two-inch diameter pipe, welded up in a local workshop. These can be primed with readily available gunpowder and used to propel stones or broken up concrete.

The British based Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign Action Group (NSCAG) works to establish partnerships between British unions and Nicaraguan organizations. A July 2018 NSCAG statement and briefing note points to laudable achievements made during the 11 years of Ortega-led government. However, some of these achievements are not beyond questionability.

Here are just two examples:

Illiteracy virtually eliminated (36% in 2006)…

One of the very few countries in Latin America and the entire developing world that produces all its textbooks at all levels, from primary school to University and Adult Education.

A research project carried out in 2016 by a student from the US Syracuse University, Affecting Nicaraguan “Vegetable” Literacy with Social Change Advertising, points out: “There is a greater population of individuals unreported by the government that struggle from the lack of fortification of knowledge. These Nicaraguans are learning basic literacy, and then losing it because they do not continue to use it. They are defined as ‘vegetable literates’.”

This does not make for a country where literacy thrives.

On the second point, no university in Nicaragua is confined to “all its own textbooks”. Foreign textbooks also exist. However, the reality is that rather than buy or borrow textbooks, Nicaraguan students rely on folletos (brochures) comprised of photocopied pages of books passed on from student to student. A standard economics textbook in Nicaragua is US-born Paul Samuelson’s world famous Economics.

Haunting specter

Hungary today is a member of the neoliberal European Union and NATO. So too is Poland. Since he was first elected in 1998, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has moved the Central European country steadily to the right. His trademark style of government is anti-Muslim, anti-immigration and populist nationalism. All this combines with him saying “Europe could only be strong by ‘preserving its Christian culture’,” (Financial Times, January 3, 2018).

In what he proudly calls his illiberal democracy, signs of homophobia and intolerance reign and help and support for migrants and refugees have been criminalized. NGOs helping immigrants have been dealt a 25% tax hit. Writing in the Guardian (June 22, 2018) Owen Jones says: “The state media promotes pro-government propaganda and smears the opposition; pro-government media is buying up independent publications; media outlets that are opposed to or critical of Orbán are under growing pressure.”

It does not sound like Hungary — nor Poland, which is on a similar trajectory — is a good place to be if you are on the left. It is easy to recall the rumble of tanks during the 1950s and point an accusing, pejorative finger towards the left and anything reminiscent of socialism.

The “tankie” outlook and mentality that flourished through the mid to late years of the 20th century lingers on. It is evident in much of the left commentary voicing an uncritical narrative while at the same time avoiding mention of Sandinista abuses of power.

If it continues, then woe betides any nation in Central America and the Caribbean that aspires to move left with open, democratic and transparent policies. The Central European specter of news suppression and history-in-the-making denial will be there to haunt another generation.