By Chuck Kaufman, National Co-Coordinator, Nicaragua Network/Alliance for Global Justice
July 19, 2014 marks the 35th anniversary of the Triumph of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua. On that day, the Sandinista troops led by the nine commanders of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN), entered the capital city of Managua where they were greeted by hundreds of thousands of jubilant Nicaraguans. The triumphant guerrillas found a country in ruins. The last dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, had bombed the cities during the final offensive. When he fled the country two days earlier, he took not only the caskets containing his parents remains, but all the money in the national treasury as well. The Sandinistas were left with no money and a $1.9 billion international debt.
Despite these handicaps, they set up a five member Junta de Reconstrucción as the executive branch and a Council of State including political parties and popular organizations. They launched an ambitious program including the world famous Literacy Crusade which taught the majority of the population to read, free health care, and farm cooperatives plus state-owned farms on land confiscated from the dictator and his close government and military supporters. The successful “Revolution of Poets” made Nicaraguans proud and the social advances made them hopeful for the future.
In 1981 Ronald Reagan (may he suffer eternally) took office as president of the United States. His CIA immediately began training members of Somoza’s brutal National Guard who had escaped across the border to Honduras. The famous CIA manual taught at the School of the Americas and captured after a battle in Nicaragua, showed how they were trained. They were taught to assassinate teachers, health care workers, and peasant cooperative leaders.
For nine years, until the 1990 electoral defeat of the Sandinistas, Nicaragua’s dreams of equality and prosperity were stymied by the need to defend their country from the proxy-army of the greatest superpower on earth. Forty thousand casualties later (added to the 40,000 lost in the war for national liberation), tired of the killing and the effects of the US economic blockade, Nicaraguan voters shocked themselves by electing the US’s candidate, Violeta Chamorro. President Daniel Ortega turned over the presidential sash in the first peaceful transfer of power between parties in Nicaragua’s history.
Then came 17 years of neoliberal hell. Free education and health care had to go, under orders from the IMF, World Bank and USAID.Public employee jobs were cut to the bone. The backbone of Nicaragua’s economy, peasant farming, was starved for lack of credit to provide cheap labor for foreign sweatshops whose ideal employees were 15 year old girls, often the only family member with a job. The US and international financial institutions cared about nothing but the on-time payments on the international debt.
By 2006 the Nicaraguan people grew tired of the economic suffering and watching their children die of preventable diseases. They elected Sandinista Daniel Ortega as president with a plurality of 38% amid threats and fears of a new war with the United States. But that’s not what happened. The world had changed. Latin America had begun to unify and free itself of US hegemony after the election of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the US was mired in two Mideast wars. This allowed Ortega to begin to rebuild the Sandinista promise of free education and health care. To rebuild the peasant agriculture sector. To accomplish justice and equality in peace which they had been unable to do in war.
By the time the 2011 presidential election came around, the neoliberal opposition was totally routed with Ortega winning 63% of the vote and a super-majority in the National Assembly. Nicaragua continued to advance socially and economically. It has already achieved many of the UN Millennium Goals for cutting poverty in half. It has the fastest growing economy in Central America and has moved past Honduras to no longer be the second poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Today, while child refugees flood the US border from Central America, Nicaragua’s children are not among them because they are in school and their parents have jobs and the whole family has enough to eat. Drug cartels have been unable to gain a foothold because the army and police are those same muchachos and muchachas who defeated a US-backed dictator and aspired to be New Men and New Women. Nicaraguans are astounded at the corruption and brutality of the security forces of their neighbors.
Vietnam and Nicaragua (and the liberation struggles in El Salvador and Guatemala) were the formative political events of my generation. Thirty-five years later, when I talk about Nicaragua, I see young people’s eyes glaze over the same way mine did when people talked about the Spanish Civil War. But Nicaragua remains important today and we have to teach the truths that they taught us in the 1980s.
When I made my first trip to Nicaragua in 1987 with a Nicaragua Network coffee picking brigade, I learned a number of things. I learned that it was possible not just to oppose my country’s wars, but to support an alternative to war and capitalist exploitation. I learned that patriotism is not a dirty word because Nicaraguans were rightfully proud of the New Nicaragua that they were struggling to build. I learned that Nicaraguan peasants living way out in the countryside knew more about what was happening in the world than did my friends and neighbors in the United States.
These, and other truths I have learned since, made me an organizer for transformational change, a task I am still learning 27 years after I began. For me Nicaragua was a life-changing experience, as it was for many of the estimated 100,000 USers who visited Nicaragua in the 1980s. We used to say “All Nicaragua is a school.” The composition of refugees crossing our border today demonstrates that that is as true today as it was in the 1980s.