Venezuela - a look back at the Nicaraguan War
Tortilla con Sal, May 26th 2016
In Nicaragua, most people watch the dramatic situation our Venezuelan sisters and brothers are going through with concern and also with a degree of self-recognition. In many ways, for people old enough to remember here, it is déja vu. None of us want to see repeated in Venezuela the mistakes we made in the past. That is why we write this now.
In spite of all the libraries full of books on the subject, and all the academic and political careers built on the struggle of the heroic Nicaraguan people, the experience of the Popular Sandinista Revolution remains a big unknown all over the world. That is true both in the academic sphere and among the international Left in general. It is true both of the multi-faceted struggle against Somoza's genocidal dictatorship until its victory on July 19th, 1979 and even more so of the subsequent revolutionary decade of the 1980s. Needless to say, what happened after the electoral defeat in 1990 until the Sandinistas' return to power in 2007 and what has been achieved since then to date are even more unknown. Much, if not most, of what the Sandinista Front for National Liberation is doing today is to a great extent based upon all that experience.
In the 1980's, Nicaragua was one of the foci of the World's geopolitics and it attracted all kinds of sympathies... and also all kinds of antipathy. An entire generation of leftist activists, progressive and revolutionary, invested their hopes in this small, impoverished Central American country that had somehow managed to defeat one of the most genocidal dictatorships in Latin America. With its socialist program of political pluralism, mixed economy and social justice, and its slogan "Between Christianity and Socialism there is no contradiction" the Sandinista Revolution caught the dreams of the regional and worldwide Left in a time of crisis for utopias.
During those years, Managua was an almost mandatory pilgrimage site attracting a virtual "who's who" of worldwide progressives and revolutionaries : Allan Ginsberg recited his poems in the city of Leon; every revolutionary singer, from Pete Seeger to Daniel Viglietti, traveled to Nicaragua to sing to our people; such disparate figures of Left-wing politics as the notorious Régis Debray (who, surprisingly enough, brought to the country fast combat launches courtesy of Francois Mitterrand -- the only European weapons received by Sandinista Nicaragua in those years), or the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, or Comandante Fidel, who came to Managua to offer "all his beard" to our people.
Except for people like Fidel and a handful of other friends, mainly in the Third World with a few also in Europe and North America, most of those personalities and movements distanced themselves from the Sandinista Revolution after the electoral defeat in 1990. Every movement and every personality attempted to make sense of what had happened and why what had started so well ended so badly. In the vast majority of cases, the analysis came up short, tending to focus on one or two anecdotes (a case of corruption here, some arbitrary behavior there...) that more or less confirmed people's own prejudices of what a true revolution should be. Immediately afterward they turned the page, as they also did with the collapse of the Socialist Bloc, in which the Sandinista Revolution was included, and went on to engage in the moment's more urgent tasks of attempting to confront (or, in some cases, to adapt to) the newly dominant neoliberal regime of the Washington Consensus.
As a rule, the balances drawn up of Nicaragua's Revolution were hasty and un-selfcritical, often including some variety of the argument that the revolutionary Sandinista government had not been sufficiently radical and left wing. The task of making a serious evaluation of what had happened was left in the hands of those most affected and most interested : the Nicaraguan people themselves. The conclusions drawn from their balance, made between 1990 and 2007, are reflected in the current policies of the Sandinista government led by Comandante Daniel Ortega, successful policies which have achieved many victories in the midst of utterly difficult and precarious regional and global conditions.
Drawing up that balance based on the experience of the 1980s, has not been the product of academic speculation but of the Nicaraguan people's need to survive. It was carried out formally through very difficult Sandinista party congresses in 1990 and 1994. Perhaps more fundamentally, that process took place through the practical resistance to neoliberal policies and defense of the fundamental achievements of the Sandinista Revolution. The evaluative process was worked out through struggle and resistance by the Sandinista political party and related organizations of all kinds, but at a grass roots level too by groups of friends, by families and even by individuals. The process included revolutionary activists, but also many other kinds of people, including even those who had been enemies of the Revolution.
From this society-wide process of evaluation emerged a broad consensus both within and outside the Sandinista Front about the country's contemporary history from the Revolution of 1979 to date. This consensus currently translates into overwhelming popular support for Comandante Daniel Ortega and Compañera Rosario Murillo who coordinates government policy. Conversely, it has translated into the virtual collapse of the political Right, whose parties together barely reach support of 10% in a country with very high levels of electoral participation. Today, everyone takes for granted a strong victory for the Sandinista Front in the national elections of November 2016, maybe with as much as 70% of the vote.
The experience of the wars in the 1970's (struggle against Somoza) and of the 1980's (Contra war) marked Nicaragua. Nobody wants to repeat them. Sometimes certain leftists talk glibly, with great superficiality about war. Generally, they are people who never experienced it at first-hand.
In the 1980's Nicaragua, with a smaller population than New York's Bronx, was subjected to a genocidal war by the United States government, which invested hundreds of millions of dollars as well as all the resources of its well-oiled propaganda machine. What today is known as the process of Latin American integration, with UNASUR, CELAC and ALBA, did not exist back then. To make matters worse, a country whose economy was based on agricultural exports, with help almost solely from the Soviet Union, was subjected to a devastating economic and financial blockade, as well as to sanctions of all kinds.
But while the balance of forces was brutally uneven, it would be false to deny that we revolutionaries made serious mistakes. It is well known, for example, that our refusal to lift the Patriotic Military Service was one of the reasons behind the electoral defeat in 1990. However, self-critical analysis of the experience of the Sandinista Popular Revolution has not stopped there and it is worth sharing some of the important lessons most Sandinistas agree we have learned from that historical period.
One of the main lessons from the 1980s in Nicaragua was how important it is not to confuse our wishful thinking with the real correlation of forces. In 1979, when the Sandinistas came to power, with a surging guerrilla movement in Central America, we came to believe that we were much stronger than we really were. Despite recent defeats and setbacks in Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela, despite the coup in Brazil, the regional situation today is much better than it was back then. In the 1980s we were just beginning to lay the groundwork for Latin American cooperation outside the neocolonial Organization of American States through the Rio/Contadora Group, which culminated in a successful peace process bitterly opposed by the US government.
Internally in Nicaragua, ousting the Somoza dictatorship had overwhelming popular support which, at least for an important majority of Nicaraguans, by no means extended to a revolutionary project of radical transformation. Today, if we look at the prevailing correlation of forces in our countries, we are forced to note the prevalence of values contrary to Revolution and Socialism among widespread sections of the popular classes. In Nicaragua we learned we cannot expect to change those values except through a prolonged process, being careful not alienate the unconvinced and inimical but to integrate them as protagonists and producers in the new society and the new economy under construction. The instant our deeds seem to confirm the deepest fears of those groups (in relation to religion, to private property, to social and economic freedoms in general), those groups quickly end up embracing apparently plausible opposition political projects, no matter how reactionary those projects may turn out to be.
Another lesson learned was that we tended to confuse power with hegemony. For example, the expropriation of the Somoza family gave the Sandinista Popular Revolution control over the majority of agriculture, industry and banking. That destruction of Somoza's autocratic State gave the illusion of a re-organization of power from scratch. All that, plus the prestige attained by the Sandinista Front after having led the struggle against the much hated dictatorship made a fertile ground for the illusion of securely consolidated power.
But militarily, Somoza's army, the National Guard, retreated from Nicaragua intact and formed the core of the terrorist guerrilla campaign against Nicaragua's people. Targeting teachers, medical personnel, engineers like Ben Linder, as well as ordinary rural workers and their families, that terror offensive was organized, trained, armed and funded by the United States government. This military dimension is mirrored in Venezuela by the destabilization caused by Colombian paramilitaries and organized crime. Likewise, the US government has funded opposition Venezuelan political groups and NGOs just as they did in Nicaragua throughout the 1980s. The opposition media too played the similar protagonistic opposition role in Nicaragua as they have done and continue to do in Venezuela.
But even without those dimensions of military, media and external aggression, democratically based power is generally never absolute but in fact always provisional – a power for which one has to toil day after day. The hegemony apparently expressed through massive political rallies is very deceptive and can even be illusory, leading to sudden, ill-considered, fundamentally flawed decisions. True hegemony embodies itself in the everyday common sense loyalty of the masses to a revolutionary program, and to achieve that in a consolidated way takes whole historical periods.
Nor are actions that are perceived as strategic triumphs by our movements and governments necessarily the same as substantive changes in the real correlation of forces, or actions the general population truly perceives as victories. For example, in 1988, in order to face a situation of rampant price inflation similar to the one Venezuela is facing today, our Sandinista government carried out Operation Berta, converting in 24 hours all the country's bills and coins into what was in effect a new currency. The operation was a masterpiece of hermetically secret planning because nobody outside those directly involved knew about the plan until it was actually carried out.
However, Berta did not stop inflation, which was due to other causes, and had really only marginal side effects, such as depriving the Contras in Honduras of cash currency for a while but at the same time causing losses to many small and medium-sized Nicaraguan traders, most of whom were not against the Revolution. Most problems, perhaps the most important ones, are seldom solved by even perfectly executed operations. In the case of the economy, the Sandinista experience confirmed once again that the Law of Labor Value exists and unless production costs are respected, serious imbalances are bound to erode the credibility of a given revolutionary project.
For that reason, it is counterproductive to label as speculators and smugglers wide sections of the popular classes who are only trying to defend their families' well being. In Nicaragua, the worst speculators were the traders in Managua's huge Mercado Oriental, but they were also the women who sacrificed most sons in defense of Nicaragua. We used to sell subsidized boots, machetes, nails, salt and kerosene to the peasants, who the next day went over the border in order to re-sell them to the Contras so as to buy other things they needed. Luckily, our government stopped just in time applying the policy of treating these ordinary people as counter-revolutionaries. Had they not, then our eventual defeat would have been much worse.
Another conclusion from the economic experience of the 1980s in Nicaragua is that confusing public ownership with socialization, or top-down collectivization with socialism is a basic mistake. Without doubt, State enterprises in the form basic service utilities or as primary sources of income (like PDVSA) are important assets so long as they ensure an economic advantage or are strategically important and necessary. But apart from that, maintaining inefficient production enterprises above average production costs definitely hurt Nicaragua's revolutionary government program.
A better approach to socialization of the economy has been to promote it as a broad process through which freely associated direct producers take control over the economy and over society in general. That can happen through self- or co-managed enterprises, co-ops and co-op federations, through federations of consumers and so on. The role of government is crucial in terms, for example, of ensuring progressive taxation systems and policy or through official promotion of structures of popular and communal power. Dialog and consensus are fundamental for this process to work successfully.
In the 1980s, it was a serious mistake for our government to distribute land to rural workers under the agrarian reform on condition they worked it collectively. Firstly, most rural workers wanted to own the land individually. Secondly, only a minority of the groups receiving land had fought collectively together to occupy it. In many cases, land was given to groups of people who only associated together so as to receive resources from the State. In other cases, land went to small groups wanting control of highly productive land to be able to exploit as capitalist land owners hiring large numbers of rural workers. Nor did it help that the government often attempted to force the pace of development of cooperatives by forcing them into over-sophisticated investment projects whose operational and management problems provoked frustration and atrophy.
Then towards the end of the 1980s, our Sandinista government had to face the fact that the Contras had built up a substantial social base among rural families. At that point, land distribution conditioned on its collective use ended and was replaced by a much more effective process of land redistribution which has helped Nicaraguan society maintain the Sandinista Revolution's significant reduction in social inequality, despite the era of reactionary neoliberal policies that prevailed between 1990 y 2007. Today Nicaragua has one of the world's most extensive mass cooperative movements, where family and associative enterprises represent 63% of GDP and comprise over 70% of the workforce.
One of the most popular programs of the Sandinista Government today is the delivery of individual property titles to thousands of families in the cities and the countryside. Two aspects of that program merit attention. One is that the land redistribution includes secure title to each property, something neglected in the 1980s leading to chaotic land conflicts and disputes in Nicaragua which still occur even to this day. Secondly, the current land titling program overwhelmingly deliberately benefits women, who were almost completely sidelined in the land reform of the 1980s. That policy and other women-first programs like Zero Usury and Zero Hunger are now ensuring that previously impoverished women realize their full potential as productive protagonists in Nicaragua's economy. This has been vital to Nicaragua's current economic progress and social stability.
All through the 1980s, the Sandinista government was forced to devote significant resources to the eventuality, which we all expected, of a direct military invasion from the United States. We could not see then that after their defeat in Vietnam, the US government only sends in its marines against countries that are effectively defenseless, like Grenada or Panama. In the meantime, the US and its local proxies bled Nicaragua's people of resources, taking advantage of all our mistakes. Subsequently, the collapse of the USSR from 1988 onwards did the rest. If the Sandinista Front had refused to hand over power after losing the elections in 1990, the country would have been plunged into a bloodbath and the Revolution that made it possible to have free elections in the first place would have been buried forever.
It was the explicit call from Comandante Daniel Ortega to “rule from below” after the 1990 electoral defeat that empowered the Nicaraguan people to take to the streets for the next seventeen years to defend their revolutionary achievements. Daniel Ortega had sufficient vision to see that Nicaragua for the first time in its history had an army, a police force and a Constitution clean of any US government influence. The combination of that institutional authority and the strong popular commitment to the social and economic gains of the Sandinista Revolution gave the Sandinista Front and the Nicaraguan people a framework within which to set the limits of what was acceptable to concede and what had to be fought for and defended.
Not everything was lost after the 1990 elections. The Nicaraguan people had won a whole country, which is no small matter. Now Nicaragua is a country that has again risen up and taken back unfinished achievements effectively stolen at gunpoint in 1990 by the country's oligarchy under orders from the United States government. All that unfinished revolutionary business is now back on track under different conditions with different kinds of problems and difficulties. If we had known then what we know now, it may have been possible to act more wisely to avoid the electoral defeat of 1990. But similar defeats are not inevitable if we can all learn from the things we did wrong before. This is the experience we want to share with our sisters and brothers in Venezuela and elsewhere.