Reviewed by Jill Clark-Gollub and John Perry
The latest book by labor and human rights attorney, Daniel Kovalik, Nicaragua: A History of US Intervention & Resistance (2023, Clarity Press, 292 pages), is a worthy addition to the author’s collection of works on countries targeted by U.S. imperialism, such as Venezuela, Russia, and Iran. While giving readers a thoughtful and much fuller picture than one can glean from the corporate media, this volume tells an engaging tale based on personal experience and extensive research.
Dan Kovalik’s love for Nicaragua is not only palpable, but very important in the telling of his story from a perspective shared by many people who were first introduced to the country and its revolution in the heady years after 1979. Whatever one’s views on how the revolution has developed since, that initial love for Nicaragua, its people, and its revolution stamp the book with a perspective that is very different from that of a detached spectator.
This is not to say that the book is uncritical or that it skates around the issues and problems that have faced the revolution over the 44 years of its development. But it does ground Kovalik’s analysis in the inescapable fact that, unlike any other mainland Latin American country, and especially unlike its near neighbors, Nicaragua has both established a revolutionary government and, with some exceptional periods, resisted the attempts by the United States to put the revolution into reverse.
Indeed, Kovalik reminds us that the history of Nicaragua, dating almost back to its independence from Spain in 1821, is one of resistance to repeated attempts by U.S. governments and private enterprise, and their allies among Nicaragua’s elites, to have their will with Nicaragua, right up to the present day. It is fitting that a book with an overriding theme of U.S. interference should be published this year which marks the 200th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine.
Kovalik’s latest volume contributes to studies of Nicaragua in several important ways. First, while covering the two hundred years of the nation’s independence up to the present day, the book devotes more chapters to the past 43 years of Nicaraguan history since the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) became the leading political force. Context for this is provided by a recounting of the legendary figure of Sandino, the first revolutionary leader in the developing world to triumph over invading U.S. troops. A chapter called “Insurrection and Repression” tells of the rise of the Somoza family dictatorship and the founding of the FSLN, the vanguard party in resistance. Chapters called “The Triumph” and “Reagan’s Brutal War Against Nicaragua” tell the part of Nicaraguan history most familiar to the outside world: when a mass uprising successfully ousted the despot and installed a government devoted to meeting the needs of the country’s majority poor population. Peace was short-lived, however, since the U.S. government spent the next 10 years waging a terrorist proxy war against the very accomplishments of the revolutionary government.
In a chapter called “Dark Days Return,” the text offers a well-needed history of the FSLN’s activities during the 16-years of neoliberal government when it was not in power, such as defending the land reform of the 1980s and resisting mass privatization of state enterprises. Given that most of the international solidarity activists of the 1980s were not present in Nicaragua during this time, this should be a welcome opportunity to fill in knowledge gaps. One of the unique contributions of Kovalik’s latest work is in telling the story of the split within the FSLN. What is unusual here is that the author does not write this history from the perspective of the losers of that battle–as has been done in the mainstream media and much of the Western left literature–but rather from the perspective of the winners–the majority of Nicaraguans who still support their revolution. The book offers important lessons on movement building and how a revolutionary party legitimizes itself by standing alongside social movements in the trenches of civic struggle rather than engaging in cheap electoral politics.
In the next chapter, “Sandinistas Return,” Kovalik recounts the political maneuvering that allowed the FSLN to regain the presidency through the ballot box in the November 2006 election. He then goes on to tell of the many social programs instituted by the FSLN government during this “second phase of the revolution” starting in January 2007, which led to significant gains in education, healthcare, poverty reduction, and women’s rights. Kovalik rightly stresses combating hunger, one of the keystones of the Sandinista platform:
“It is Nicaragua’s food sovereignty, I would urge, which makes it particularly dangerous to the U.S.’s economic aims in the Americas, and indeed in the world. Thus, the U.S. government actively attempts to undermine other countries’ ability to grow food for themselves so that they will be dependent upon food imports from the United States, many of the imports being heavily processed foods which are quite unhealthful. Indeed, as economist Michael Hudson explains in his book, Super Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire, a key pillar of U.S. international policy since WWII has been one of fostering food dependency amongst countries in the developing world, a phenomenon Hudson refers to as “food imperialism.” And those countries who resisted this policy were deemed a threat.”
The longest chapter of the book, titled “The April 2018 Crisis,” offers an in-depth examination of the violence that led to the deaths of over 200 Nicaraguans from April to July of 2018, the repercussions of which are still being felt five years later. Kovalik includes important details readers will not find in the corporate media, such as the stories of students and municipal workers who were targeted by violent opposition “protesters” simply because they were known to be Sandinista supporters, and the perspectives of social movement leaders whom Kovalik has interviewed on repeated occasions over several years.
Through multiple chapters, Kovalik also gives us a thoughtful analysis of the figure of Daniel Ortega. While Nicaragua is one of the countries in which imperialist propaganda paints the nation’s leader as a dictator and murderous villain in order to manufacture consent for regime change, Kovalik does not fall into that trap. Instead, he shows how ordinary Nicaraguans participate in governance, bringing about their own liberation. Most importantly, Kovalik gives us some insight into why “Daniel” has had such an enduring base of support among the Nicaraguan people. The main text and the Afterword by Orlando Zelaya Olivas, paint the picture of a reluctant leader who has been key to unity within the revolutionary movement, while also a savvy strategist who has been important for the movement’s staying power.
Finally, a very valuable contribution of this work, thanks to Kovalik’s decades-long involvement in Nicaragua through numerous friendships and visits, is a description of and appreciation for one of the most unique characteristics of Sandinismo: forgiveness and reconciliation. He shows how these have been evident even after the many extremely violent events in the country’s history: limited retributions against Somoza’s hated National Guard after the revolutionary triumph in 1979, reconciliation when the Reagan-funded “Contra war” ended, and a 2019 amnesty for those found guilty of terrorist acts during the 2018 failed coup attempt. Kovalik also mentions 222 people convicted of treason and serving sentences for their involvement in another coup plot that was discovered in 2020 and 2021. In his book, Kovalik states:
“…the vast majority of Nicaraguans approved of this course of action. In my view, the Sandinista government finally learned what history had taught them ever since Sandino was murdered when traveling to Managua in good faith to sign a peace accord–that the U.S. Empire and its faithful servants in Nicaragua do not reward acts of kindness and reconciliation. Rather, they take advantage of them to destroy revolutionary movements and impose their will upon the people.”
Since the book came out in January of 2023, the Sandinista government made the extraordinary gesture of releasing these convicted criminals to the United States, even though they had many years left in their sentences. True to form, the U.S. government, media, and Nicaraguan elites have since ignored that magnanimous gesture and instead focus incessantly on the fact that these individuals lost their Nicaraguan nationality (they were granted two-year visas and presumably a path to citizenship in the U.S.). Indeed, Kovalik’s words that the “Empire and its faithful servants do not reward acts of kindness and reconciliation” seem prescient.
Nicaragua: A History of US Intervention & Resistance offers a very readable history that will appeal to academics and laypersons alike. But it will be most valuable to those who study revolutions, both out of solidarity with other peoples and out of a desire to build or improve their own revolutionary movement. Nicaragua‘s experience offers lessons to revolutionary movements everywhere, and Dan Kovalik is well placed to show what these lessons are. His book will certainly need to be translated into Spanish and other languages to make it accessible to those seeking liberation in the non-English speaking world.
Jill Clark-Gollub, COHA’s Assistant Editor/Translator. John Perry is a COHA Senior Research Fellow and writer living in Masaya, Nicaragua.