A Discussion: What Went Wrong?: The Nicaraguan Revolution by Dan La Botz

Andrew Ryder
Dan La Botz
Mike Gonzalez
Front Cover

1. Andrew Ryder

I am grateful for this opportunity to take part in discussion with two important contributors to the rethinking of socialism in Latin America, Dan La Botz and Mike Gonzalez. I’ve learned a great deal from the research presented in La Botz’s new book, What Went Wrong?: The Nicaraguan Revolution. This concerns one of the most significant events of the late Cold War-era for reflection today, regarding political possibility and hazards in Latin America as well as elsewhere in the world. I fundamentally agree with La Botz’s thesis, that the revolutionary leadership (the Sandinista National Liberation Front) never had a truly democratic conception of socialism, and that this tendency toward elite rule limited their ability to produce durable roots in the working class of the nation. This analysis also agrees with critical work written by Mike Gonzalez, over a period of decades.

However, we might consider certain other aspects of Sandinista practice, in the course of the Nicaraguan revolution as a whole. In this respect I also agree with Gonzalez, who wrote in his article of 2011, “Ernesto Cardenal and the Dream of Revolution,” of a Nicaraguan revolutionary’s dedication to the “lifelong pursuit of a democratic culture.” Cardenal, a priest who served as the Minister of Culture in the early revolutionary era, contributed to efforts to provide the material and cultural grounds for socialism from below. He led a diverse group of believers toward reinvention of their religious faith, according to the concrete experiences of common people, through his reading groups and creative projects at the “base community” in the Solentiname Islands. Following the revolutionary victory in 1979, Cardenal was able to implement poetry workshops that encouraged average Nicaraguan workers to express their understanding of their material circumstances. Cardenal was not alone in participating and organizing these cultural initiatives. For example, his cultural initiatives drew from the success of the literacy campaign organised by his brother, Fernando. Margaret Randall, through a series of interviews, has shown how diverse groups of women also took the opportunity to empower themselves socially, drawing from the élan of the revolutionary moment. In his book, Sandino’s Nation, Stephen Henighan traces the complex cultural dynamics of the cultural renewal that took place in these years.

My concern is that these progressive developments might be obscured if Sandinista ideology is diagnosed as fundamentally an outgrowth of Stalinist bureaucratic collectivism, as La Botz appears to suggest. I think that an old debate about the nature of state “socialism” is unexpectedly relevant here, in some respects. In the 1940s, Max Shachtman argued that the Soviet model had a resulted in a new form of class domination, in which the bureaucracy enslaved workers. Tony Cliff agreed inasmuch as he rejected the idea that states inspired by the Soviet Union could be considered “workers’ states”; because the working class did not hold real political power. However, he countered that this mode of production could be understood as “bureaucratic state capitalism,” in which the state acts as a monopoly capitalist. In the case of Nicaragua, it is clear that state ownership to the degree of the USSR or Cuba was certainly never achieved, though this was the original goal of the Sandinistas. It makes sense to me to see the partial nationalisations and creation of a welfare state, as well as the rise of a corrupt bureaucracy, as corresponding to the growth of state capitalism, rather than bureaucratic collectivism. While Cliff was very critical of the process of “deflected permanent revolution” that took place in decolonisation struggles, his analysis allowed room for the complexity and nuance that allowed the intelligentsia to command popular allegiance. I think this interpretation can help to understand the democratic potential that appeared in the course of the revolution, as well as its degeneration and distortion.

I think this problem speaks to a larger issue of how to fight for socialism, in a country where productive forces are underdeveloped and a conscious working class has not coalesced. It seems to me that in these conditions, socialists have immediate tasks of rejecting direct imperialist control and raising national consciousness. In these conditions, it will not be possible to begin the socialist mode of production; so it is possible that state-capitalist mechanisms are inevitable, despite the best intentions of sincere revolutionaries.

As part of the anti-imperialist project, Nicaraguans needed to reinvent their sense of national identity. These required a transformation of gender roles, but also of notions of racial identity that had denigrated indigenous and Afro-descendant populations. I was a bit surprised to read Mike Gonzalez’s description of the Sandinista leadership as “white.” While the legacy of mestizaje can certainly obscure racist social dynamics, it seems to me that many of the Sandinistas were of mixed-race background. Sergio Ramírez, the vice-president in the revolutionary era, later wrote extensively about the African elements of Nicaraguan culture and his own ancestry. It is true that the Sandinistas failed to successfully integrate the Atlantic coast into the national discourse, and this has maintained inequalities up to the present day.

To be sure, contemporary Nicaraguan social movements are in direct opposition to the current state and the Sandinista government in its current form, dominated by Daniel Ortega’s clique. These new struggles take place in resistance to the state’s canal projects and other land grabs from subsistence farmers; often led by women in indigenous or Afro-descendant areas. The question is to what extent this is a break with the earlier revolutionary legacy, or a continuation of it. I would like to suggest that these new revolutionary currents act against the revolution as Ortega institutionalised it, but also draw from other innovations and practices that were first enacted by more democratic elements of the Sandinistas.


2. Poet in the Revolution: A Reply to Andrew Ryder

Dan La Botz

I appreciate this opportunity to discuss Nicaragua, its revolution, and the aftermath with Andrew Ryder and Mike Gonzalez. In his comments, Andrew raises important issues about the nature of the Nicaraguan Revolution and the role within it of those priests inspired by the theology of revolution who supported it, of those cultural experiments that developed alongside it, and of the common people who became involved in both the cultural and revolutionary events. He raises the question: Did the presence of a radical priest-poet living in a community of artists and peasants somehow make a difference?

To put my reaction to Andrew’s question in context, let me first state very briefly the central argument of my book. The dictatorial Somoza dynasty (1937-1979) had by the 1970s—especially after the 1972 earthquake and the government’s corrupt handling of foreign aid— widespread opposition to the regime among all classes in Nicaraguan society. On the left, the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN),  the Sandinistas, founded in 1962, attempted first to build a guerrilla movement in the mountains, inspired by the guerrilla war of Augusto César Sandino against the U.S. Marines in the 1920s and 30s, but principally modelled on the experience of Fidel Castro and the July 26 Movement in Cuba and by Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s theory of the guerrilla foco, that is, the idea that a small band of dedicated revolutionaries who could, if they were persistent, detonate a social explosion and overthrow virtually any government in Latin America.

When, after nearly a decade in the mountains, the FSLN’s implementation of that guerrilla strategy failed, Daniel Ortega and his allies in the Third Tendency of the Sandinistas decided to build an army in neighbouring Costa Rica and launch an invasion of Nicaragua combined with the organisation of a national uprising. With remarkably broad political and material support from a variety of Latin American governments, as well as European Social Democrats and the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc Communists, Ortega and his faction led the Sandinista insurrection. It was that uprising in 1979 that, despite Somoza’s bombing of his own cities, finally brought the Sandinistas to power.

In that period of invasion, and uprising and immediately after the revolution had been won, the Sandinistas proclaimed that they believed in a mixed economy, political pluralism, and a non-aligned foreign policy, that is not aligning with either the United States or the Soviet Union. None of that was true. The Sandinistas remained believers in the Cuban model of a one-party state that would nationalise and direct the entire economy; and the FSLN saw itself as part of the “socialist camp” led by the Soviet Union. But the Sandinistas’ circumstances—the continued presence of capitalist landowners and businessmen in Nicaragua, the decline of the Soviet Union, and its unwillingness to play a greater role in the Americas, and most important the US support for the Contras (counter-revolutionaries) in the Nicaraguan civil war—made it impossible for them to carry out their full programme. The Sandinistas—initially just 400 people in a nation of three millions—did, however, take control of the state and did organise a variety of party-controlled organisations (agricultural workers, teachers, health workers, women’s organisations, and many other) all directed by the FSLN from above.

The FSLN never succeeded in creating the kind of monolithic political-social organisation that Castro and the Communist Party of Cuba attained, largely due to the continued post-revolutionary existence of political rivals on left and right. Still, the FSLN dominated Nicaragua until a series of problems—their own refusal to distribute land to the peasants, their mishandling of relations with the indigenous people, continued US support for the Contras in the war, and the FSLN’s institution of the draft—finally wore down the Nicaraguan people and in 1990 they voted for the conservative Violeta Chamorro to become president. I go on to explain how after that Ortega and the FSLN entered into a series of political alliances with conservative political parties, with wealthy businessmen, and with the rightwing of the Catholic Church that led to the authoritarian and conservative Sandinista government that rules the country today.

Poetry and Politics

Now to turn to Ernesto Cardenal. Andrew writes, “Cardenal, a priest who served as the Minister of Culture in the early revolutionary era, contributed to efforts to provide the material and cultural grounds for socialism from below. He led a diverse group of believers toward reinvention of their religious faith, according to the concrete experiences of common people, through his reading groups and creative projects at the ‘base community in the Solentiname Islands.” Yet poetry and culture and the common people and a community don’t live outside of politics.

Ernesto and his brother Fernando Cardenal, both Catholic priests, not only supported the revolutionary cause, they actually joined the Sandinista Front for National Liberation. For Ernesto, this was easier than it was for his brother, since he shared the fundamental political conviction of the Sandinistas, that is, that Cuba was the model. In 1970, Ernesto had visited Cuba, eleven years after the revolution, and wrote rapturously—and uncritically—about the country. His poems praised Che Guevara, the self-sacrificing embodiment of international revolution, without questioning his strategic approach of building focos in countries like Bolivia, rather than organising the working class. The fact that Castro was a caudillo, that the Cuban Communist Party—a merger in 1965 of the old Cuban Stalinist Communists and Castro’s July 26 Movement—ruled the one-party state, or that gays were rounded up and put in concentration camps did not deter Ernesto Cardenal from making a literary endorsement of Castro’s regime in his book In Cuba.

Still, it is true that Ernesto and Fernando did not have ideals and politics identical with those of the Sandinistas, the leaders of whom had come out of the pro-Soviet Communist Party, modelled themselves on Cuba, and borrowed from Maoism. Fernando’s memoir makes clear that his Catholic humanism expressed in the theology of liberation lay at the root of his decision to join the Sandinistas. These Catholic humanist priests influenced by the theology of liberation and by Marxist and other radical ideas did not share the Fidelista’s top-down view of the role of the revolutionary leadership. The fact that they an independent point of view based on their religious humanism made it possible for them eventually—and it took them a long time, too long—to break with Ortega and the Sandinista and criticise their authoritarian politics.

Andrew is right that, “As part of the anti-imperialist project, Nicaraguans needed to reinvent their sense of national identity. These required a transformation of gender roles, but also of notions of racial identity that had denigrated indigenous and Afro-descendant populations.” And it is true that this was sometimes down through literature. Other poets too were developing the literary culture.

For a small country, Nicaragua has an exceptionally rich literary culture and many poets and other writers contributed to the development of a sense of national identity and new gender and race identities as well. The poetry of Giaconda Belli, through “The Eye of the Woman,” certainly did so, and so did the novels of Sergio Ramírez. Those two both working with Daniel Ortega in the late 1970s became international diplomats for the Third Tendency, winning the support of Latin American and European governments for the final revolutionary push in Nicaragua. They became (perhaps they always were) social democrats and opponents of Ortega and the Sandinistas’ authoritarian regime. Ramírez wrote brilliantly—from his point of view—in his Adios muchachos: Una memoria de la revolución Sandinista, a critique of the regime.

So many poets, so many communities. Even Rosario Murillo, the mystical demagogue and populist politician who now rules Nicaragua with her husband Daniel Ortega (remarkably like Eva Perón did with her husband Juan), even Murillo is a poet. All of these poets and writers, from Cardenal to Belli, Ramírez, and Murillo help to weave the fabric of Nicaragua and its culture, but they also have politics. Murillo, the fiercely anti-feminist opponent of abortion rights, develops that culture, unfortunately, as much as Cardena or Belli. While culture has its own realm and a remarkable persistence, it also exists within political economic structures. We can recognise the role of priests and poets, but only if we place them in their historic position and political economic context.


3. Mike Gonzalez

I very much welcome the opportunity that Andrew and Dan have given us to review the Sandinista experience. It is a very good example of how easily the enthusiasms of solidarity movements melt away when the objects of their support fail them. And I see that as a sign of a political weakness. Analysing and understanding revolutions and their outcome, however painful, is an indispensable part of the growth of socialist ideas, and the only guarantee that errors can be made sense of to avoid their repetition. It is extraordinary to think how much attention was given by the left worldwide to Nicaragua for a decade, and then how quickly it faded from view, allowing Daniel Ortega to appropriate its legacy and transform it into the grotesque formation it has become under his dynastic control, as Dan's book shows so clearly.

Like Andrew and Dan, I was deeply impressed by the cultural movement in Sandinista Nicaragua, especially given the absence of cultural expression under Somoza, for whom culture was acquired in shopping trips to Miami. I took pleasure in showing my students the poetry magazines printed on brown paper and tied together with string that Cardenal's Ministry produced. They were anthologies of work produced by poetry workshops in police stations, military barracks, agricultural cooperatives and neighbourhood groups. Cardenal's ministry also promoted art classes  and encouraged the beautiful 'primitive' paintings of the kind that illustrated his Gospel according to Solentiname. His policy was to rediscover an unacknowledged popular culture as the basis of a national identity. In the final essay of his meditations in Vida en el amor (Love) he identified communism with the kingdom of heaven. And he did join the FSLN, though at quite a late stage.

What is extremely important about Dan's book is his tracing of the trajectory of the Sandinistas. Their model, as he says, was Cuba as a state capitalist economy, or at least one dominated by the state capitalist sector - and this was reinforced by a direct political involvement of Cuba both before and after the 1979 revolution. The guerrilla phase, theorised by Fonseca and Borge, collapsed at Zinica in 1969, where Fonseca - who had travelled from Cuba to resolve internal conflicts within Sandinismo - was killed.

The political model was a command structure, like Cuba's, though without the cohesion that Fidel provided. But it co-existed at the tactical level with a broad front, alliance-building perspective. As Dan emphasises, the political nucleus was kept hidden, in order to mobilise a wide range of social-democratic and liberal opinion. 

I think it is instructive to explore how that affected the relationship with the Salvadorean left, who were leading a significant mass movement that expressed its strength in the demonstrations of January 1980. In fact the Sandinistas and the Salvadorean left were never close, and their relationship grew increasingly tense after the overthrow of Somoza.

It would be wildly simplistic to suggest that this was a straightforward confrontation between a kind of soft Stalinism and a version of 21st century socialism before the fact. Yet forms of popular democracy were developing within the liberated areas of El Salvador, and the concept was central to the debates taking place across the Latin American left at the time, influenced by the theology of liberation. The PT in Brazil, after all, was founded the year after the Sandinista Revolution, and embraced a range of revolutionary and radical currents. Yet, despite the connections between the Cardenal brothers and others in the Sandinista leadership with liberation theology, the debates about popular democracy did not develop within the Frente. As Dan recognises, Cardenal's En Cuba (In Cuba) is uncritical - indeed it sees Cuba as the embodiment of the community which was such a central notion for Cardenal. And he did not change his perspective later.

So, while Ernesto's role in the Sandinista revolution was to develop organic expressions of participatory democracy rooted in popular culture, it is legitimate to question how far that conception of socialism was reflected at the level of a political leadership which hung on the slogan 'Direccion Nacional Ordene' (We await instructions from the national leadership). My feeling is, very little. The role of culture was limited to a kind of moral universe, to an imaginary that was inspirational and often intensely moving (as for example in the music of Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy) but very different from the harsh realities of political power-broking to which the FSLN, under the leadership of an arch-manipulator like Daniel Ortega, devoted itself. Education, for example, was instrumental rather than ideological or philosophical.

The starting point for all three of us is socialism from below. So the  analysis of the Sandinista experience is especially appropriate now, when the concept of 'poder popular' has been used and abused so much in recent times. If we trace the discourse of socialism from Nicaragua to Venezuela today there is a disturbing continuity - from the hopes of a popular movement that has swept aside the old structures of control to the inflation of a state sector, the growth of a new state bureaucracy and  endemic corruption. What the discussion can illustrate are the consequences of a separation between grassroots democracy as a rhetoric and the political process in practice - a separation whose beneficiary will be authoritarianism. We have to demonstrate that that outcome is never inevitable, and that the lessons of the past can point a different way ahead.