There is no way you can understand Nicaragua, know Nicaragua, without knowing about the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979. It’s not an exaggeration to say, even today – thirty-four years later – that the Revolution really lives inside of Nicaraguan people.
The Revolution was led by the Sandinistas, a faction of three underground rebel-groups that fought for several decades to overthrow Somoza, the US-backed dictator who maintained forty-years of violence, political oppression and poverty in Nicaragua. Indeed, the Somoza Dynasty was documented as one of the most brutal leaderships throughout all of Latin America’s political history.
“The younger Somoza, “the vampire dictator,” made $12 million a year buying the blood of his people and selling it abroad at a 300% mark-up, but his biggest single rip-off occurred in 1972 after an earthquake killed and wounded hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans” (1990). Somoza was supported exclusively by the US-government, who (apparently) didn’t sense, or regard the blood on their hands. President Franklin Roosevelt was famously quoted as saying:
“Somoza may by a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
Everyone I’ve asked in Nicaragua has openly shared with me a story about the days leading up to the Revolution, regardless of their relationship to the historic event.
In Estelí, a city located in the north, I spent eight-months of 2007 living in the home of a lovely couple, Pablo and Ivania Blándon, and their family. In July 2007, on the 28th Anniversary of the Revolution, Pablo became animated with memory. He led me to the street outside his home and pointed to the pentagon-shaped bricks that formed the road. Pablo explained how they were the same bricks that Sandinista-supporters had lifted and stacked to create make-shift barricades when there was fighting in Estelí. These bricks were manufactured by a company owned by Somoza, so it became not only practical, but symbolic to Nicaraguans who stacked the bricks to bring down their dictator. Pablo’s mother, Doña Carmen, an old woman bent and wrinkled by her years, also echoed her son’s memories, recalling how she had hid young Sandinista members inside her home when the Somoza military marched into town – head-hunting for rebels and the people that supported them.
Revolution: A Social Experiment Cut Short by US-Imperialism
On July 19, 1979, the Sandinista Movement, made up of young to middle-aged men and women, won a hard-fought struggle against not one, but two of their oppressors – the Somoza government and US imperial forces. Following days of widespread celebrations in Managua, other cities, and rural villages, the Sandinista Party founded a nine-person directorate to run the revolutionary government, and began to implement social reform across health, education and agriculture sectors.
One of the Sandinista-campaigns was to improve literacy in rural areas (during the Somoza-era, the adult illiteracy rate was around 50%). High school students were mobilized into volunteer teams, who visited rural villages and taught 400,000 men and women how to read and write. Applying popular education methodology (peers teaching peers) the rate of illiteracy in Nicaragua reduced from around 50% to 12% in only five months.
In 1980, UNESCO awarded Nicaragua’s efforts with an international Literacy Award Prize for what become known and respected as a Literacy Crusade.
“Literacy is an apprenticeship in life because in the process people learn their intrinsic value as human beings, as makers of history, as actors of important social roles, as individuals with rights to demand and duties to fulfill” read a quote from the Frente Sandinista Party in 1979 (Kleinbach 1985).
But in the early 1980s, the US government and CIA were waiting on the sidelines, preparing to extinguish the Sandinistas who, apparently, were considered a political threat to capitalism. US President, Ronald Regan was quoted in a 1983 speech entitled “Address on Central America” uttering hypocritically: “Violence has been Nicaragua’s most important export to the world.” Reagan’s words transformed into action only a year later using a double-edged machete against Nicaragua, including: implementing an economic embargo and funding CIA-trained insurgents in Honduras to attack from the north.
The Contra War “bled Nicaragua of the human and material resources needed to construct the new society. It forced the [Sandinista] government to institute a draft and devote 40% of its budget to the military, undermining the literacy and health campaigns initiated in the initial years of the revolution” (Feeley 2004).
I met a social worker in Estelí who had joined the Sandinista military (as had many Nicaraguan youth) alongside her older brother, only a year before the Contra War began. When the war broke out in 1984, she had only been seventeen years old. She told me, with sad eyes, how she watched her brother’s body fall from the sky after he was shot down from a helicopter by the Contra who were hiding in the dense forest cover below.
It’s estimated the US-sponsored Contra War killed 50,000 Nicaraguans and seriously injured hundreds of thousands more (Feeley 2004). The Revolution, along with the legacy of these young men and women, died in 1990 when a US-funded government was finally “voted” in. Nicaraguans were quoted as being ‘exhausted’ by the violence.
Not every Nicaraguan I’ve met has shared with me a favorable story on what the Revolution meant for them. Some of these stories have belonged to Miskito indigenous peoples who live along the rainforest border of north-central Nicaragua and southern Honduras – sadly, the very place where the Contra War was staged.
There are stories of families being torn apart by the Contra War, brothers being forced to choose to fight for the Sandinistas or Contras, which divided brothers, cousins and family structures. There are stories of land-mines planted throughout indigenous territory that have killed and blown away the limbs of people’s children. There are stories of an entire population of Miskito peoples being relocated from their traditional lands to harvest coffee on state plantations in Jinotega and Matagalpa. There is even a story of a plane that was carrying women and children heading to Jinotega that was shot down in the Contra-Sandinista cross-fire – and everyone died.
The Miskito were an entire population displaced due to the Contra War, and when they returned after the ‘death of the socialist revolution’ in 1990, their homes and land were burnt to the ground.
For good reason, many Miskito people are deeply distrustful of the Sandinista Party and revolutionary rhetoric today (Lacey 2009). Even so – during my two visits into the Miskito territory, I was still able to spot several black and red Sandinista flags flying proudly from homes along the Coco River. I’ve also met Miskito, who are politically opposed to what the revolution meant for them, yet still sing the lyrics to revolutionary songs with the same passion as fervent Sandinista-supporters.
“Hermano de la montaña, hermano de la ciudad…Brother of the mountain, brother of the city…” one of the most famous songs begins…(And here were brothers who had fought against one another as Sandinistas and Contras – singing together songs of solidarity).
On the eve of the 28th Anniversary of the Revolution in 2007, held in the Revolutionary Square of Managua, I stood in awe, watching a sea of Sandinista flags, tens of thousands of them, waving wildly in celebration. Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandinista Party since 1984, and the ruling President in 2007 (and to the present day), stood on the stage beside his wife and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
“Arribe el pobre del mundo! Rise up the poor of the world!” Ortega cried to the crowd who became enraptured with emotion, waving their flags, cheering, and applauding to same revolutionary rhetoric that, perhaps, in the 21st Century, has become more symbolic than literal. I remember watching a man, visibly poor in tattered and dirt-stained clothes, laying face down in the gutter. No one else, not one of the hundreds of people pressed around me, seemed to take notice of the sad irony, suffering, at our feet. “¡Viva!” they cried.
When I first flew to Cuba in 2010, an island that overthrew a US-backed dictator in 1959 (and the only Latin American country to hold their own against the US, long-term), I was surprised by the lack of visible poverty that I had seen sprawling in every other Latin American country I had visited, including Nicaragua.
I should’ve felt inspired by the visit – which I did, to some extent – but a part of me also felt deflated, sad…contemplating hard about everything I had seen and learned in Nicaragua, particularly about some of the positive socialist reforms of the early 1980s.
Often I’ve wondered: what if the US hadn’t intervened in Nicaragua? What if the Sandinista’s social experiment, like implementing nation-wide literacy campaigns using popular education methodology, would’ve had economic and political freedom to continue? What would health, education and job security look today? Could have relations with the Miskito peoples improved? Would it have the same poor health and education indicators (especially amongst young children) that it has today?
If you want to understand the anti-American graffiti that’s spray-painted along buildings throughout villages and cities of Nicaragua, if you want to understand criticisms of international foreign businesses, particularly from North America, if you want to understand why one of the poorest demographics in Managua resisted being relocated from the wasteland of La Chureca – you have to learn about the Revolution.
For me, to know Nicaragua, for me, is to know the complexity (and contradictions) of the Revolution (and the events that followed) that lives on, even today, inside the people, the government, the civic movements, the organizations, and the youth. And most certainly – the people of La Chureca who flew their flag without abandon.