Nicaragua was an international cause célèbre in the 1980s. Activist and intellectuals from around the world visited and wrote about this Central American nation, which dared to accomplish a social revolution in the backyard of the world’s strongest imperial power. Moreover, it was widely believed that the Sandinista revolutionary project had learned from the decolonization strategies of the past, and would avoid the Stalinist and authoritarian disappointments of previous struggles. While it was clear that its leadership took guidance from Cuba, it seemed that this revolution’s heterogeneous inspirations—socialism, nationalism, and Christianity—would produce something new and vital.
At present, Nicaragua no longer commands this attention. The Sandinistas have returned to power, but in a disappointing form. Under Daniel Ortega, the Nicaraguan state appears to have regressed into a depressing, typical form of caudillismo, characterized by autocratic rule of a family dynasty and a more-or-less apolitical, technocratic ideology. Dan La Botz’s new book, What Went Wrong?: The Nicaraguan Revolution is the most comprehensive and convincing account of the entirety of Nicaraguan political history to have appeared in English. It is an indispensable resource—and not just for those interested in Nicaragua. It is also a vital case study for understanding the dynamics of the revolutions of decolonization and wars of national liberation that occurred during the Cold War. Most significantly, La Botz challenges us to think about the revolution’s Stalinist legacy and its role in the determining ideology of the heroic revolutionaries of Nicaragua, which was often minimized by their sympathizers in the New Left. These Stalinized elements appeared, in different configurations, throughout the decolonization movement. La Botz’s book presents a considerable case for rethinking the organizational outlook of anti-colonial revolutionaries throughout Latin America, and globally.
However, La Botz’s book may have the deceptive effect of appearing to answer its fundamental question too neatly. La Botz makes a compelling case for the lack of democracy in the Sandinista conception of socialism, and for its theoretical roots in earlier, flawed strategies: The populist struggle of Augusto César Sandino, the foco theory of the Cubans, and the state bureaucracy of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. However, it may be necessary to leave this inquiry open and to maintain a certain refusal to accept a definitive explanation of the Sandinista’s victories and limitations, or of the Nicaraguan revolution as a whole. There are very few truly popular revolutions in history. Most political changes involve modification or reform of power relations in society, or modifications of the state’s representatives. An anti-capitalist socialist revolution requires the participation of masses of working people, smashing the state, and questioning old hierarchies. The Nicaraguan moment of 1979 was one of those miraculous situations. Unlike the Cuban revolution, to which it is necessarily compared, the Nicaraguan event included the full participation of masses across the country, rather than a relatively autonomous leadership of dedicated soldiers. For this reason, it ought to remain one of the great knots of history, produced by an irreducibly complex range of factors, and not one that can be untied by a particular analytical method.
Bureaucratic Collectivism or State Capitalism?
La Botz’s commitment to Max Shachtman’s notion of bureaucratic collectivism limits his approach and imposes certain conclusions. Shachtman had been close to the great revolutionary Leon Trotsky, but came to reject Trotsky’s belief that the Soviet Union remained a workers’ state, degenerated into bureaucratic rule. Shachtman believed that the model of governance and production imposed by Stalin was a new class society that represented no advance over what preceded it. In this mode, the bureaucracy ruled over the workers to its own benefit, cynically legitimating its rule with a purely rhetorical reference to egalitarian ideals. As he elaborated it in his work of 1962, The Bureaucratic Revolution, this form had no progressive content and a fundamentally authoritarian character. Shachtman also believed that this basic framework was exported through the post-colonial world, and that China and Cuba were copies of the USSR, in most respects. He believed that this system was accurately described as “totalitarian.” Samuel Farber has been the most distinguished historian of Cuba to advocate this descriptive model
La Botz, too, belongs to this tradition. The Nicaraguan revolutionary leadership—men like Carlos Fonseca and Tomás Borge—was profoundly affected by Cuba, and indeed Fidel Castro guided their strategy and practices (both as an inspirational figure and, at times, a direct advisor). It is not inaccurate to describe the Sandinistas as Castroist, like most of the other guerrilla movements of Latin America. For this reason, La Botz views their goal as a bureaucratic-collectivist society, one that lacks any real democratic accountability. In my view, this relies on a postulate about their real beliefs and values that conflicts with the stated principles of the Sandinistas. The Sandinistas were the only political force prepared to directly confront the Somoza dictatorship, in the name of the liberation of all Nicaraguans. This is why such broad masses of Nicaraguans saw themselves in the Sandinista project and committed themselves to it, at the price of torture and death. The bureaucratic-collectivist model explains the shortcomings and disappointments of the revolution, but it reduces the emancipatory aspect of the project into a fading illusion. It suggests that men like Fonseca or women like Luisa Amanda Espinoza took such great risks, ultimately giving their lives, with the obscure hope of becoming a new bureaucratic elite. There is considerable variation across the guerrilla experiences of Latin America, regardless of their shared inspiration from Cuba and Castro. For example, the Sandinista method contrasts sharply with the long war waged by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who failed to present a broad promise of renewal that could include the participation of the population as a whole.
While the problem of corruption is significant, the bureaucratic-collectivist framework renders “corruption” the only possible outcome for revolutionaries inspired by Castro and Guevara. For this reason, the bureaucratic-collectivist model does not seem to explain the appearance of a group like the Movement for Sandinista Renovation (MRS), comprised of once-prominent members of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) who now denounce the leadership as traitors to the revolutionary project. The MRS does not appear to be motivated by a simple power struggle, led by conflicting personalities who only wish to share in the spoils of state power. Rather, dissident Sandinistas are able to appeal to the egalitarian principles of the revolution, which have been obscured by the degeneration of the FSLN’s leadership. These dissidents, such as Ernesto Cardenal, have not harnessed the revolution in order to enrich themselves. The bureaucratic-collectivist hypothesis threatens to interpret the entire decolonization project into an exercise in cynicism. This makes it hard to understand the undeniable moment of emancipation in 1979, or the real cultural and social gains for the masses produced by the revolution.
But La Botz is certainly correct that the “socialist” character of Ortega’s state is a name rather than a reality. Workers do not exercise democratic control over their workplaces in today’s Nicaragua, nor did they in the “heroic” period of the revolution, the 1980s. It seems most accurate to characterize the Sandinista model of a revolutionary state according to a theory of state capitalism, as formulated by Tony Cliff, among others, and applied to Cuba by Peter Binns and Mike Gonzalez. Essentially, the Sandinista leadership had hoped to manage the process of development through a state that they would control and that would nationalize private enterprise. The party leadership, not the workers, would control this state; but it would include numerous welfare programs to the benefit of the masses, including literary and health campaigns. They were unable to take this process nearly as far as they would have liked (as in Cuba), because of the limitations produced by U.S. hostility and the artificially prolonged civil war that took place subsequent to their seizing power. For this reason, a degree of bureaucratic state capitalism existed alongside elements of free-market competition. La Botz cites the work of Carlos Vilas, an Argentine sociologist who has argued that the Sandinistas presented a “transition to development,” characterized by small and medium-sized private firms working with the state. This study of private producers in concert with a strong state apparatus seems to lend itself to a state-capitalist interpretation. Bureaucratic collectivism, in contrast, does not comfortably, empirically describe any moment in Nicaraguan history. For these reasons, I am not convinced that it is necessary to maintain it as a postulate for the intentions of the revolutionaries.
Unlike Shachtman’s bureaucratic collectivism, state capitalism in Nicaragua was a progressive development; its effects were partially comparable to the accomplishments of revolutionaries and “Enlightened despots” in nineteenth-century Europe. The Sandinistas—and other revolutionaries following the Cuban model pioneered by Guevara and Castro—aimed to accomplish the tasks of civic nationalism, building an educated, healthy and confident citizenry. In this regard, their ideology was immeasurably superior to that of the Somozistas and Contras. These reactionaries aimed to restore an imperialist client state, characterized by an absolute gap between the elite and the masses. To the extent that the United States and its proxy armies were able to limit the gains of the revolution, they stood not as a limit on the totalitarian ambitions of bureaucratic collectivism, but rather as enemies of a progressive nation-building effort. While the Sandinistas were not truly democratic in the radical sense of true socialism, which would have included thorough self-governance from below, they did accomplish democratic reforms through a more conventional electoral and representative system. Despite his criticisms, La Botz recognizes these victories:
While the Sandinistas may have failed to achieve their political project of creating a Communist society like Cuba’s, they had, despite war and economic crisis, left Nicaragua better than they had found it in many respects. Ironically, they had laid the basis for a liberal, democratic state.
La Botz views this as serendipity, an unintended side effect of struggle for a fundamentally undesirable and totalitarian society. It fits the facts more simply to view this relatively liberal, democratic outcome as the expected benefit of a state-capitalist, civic-nationalist project. Elsewhere in the region, the guerrilla armies of El Salvador and Guatemala aimed to accomplish something similar to the Sandinistas, creating a new spirit of civic nationalism through a “socialist” (state-capitalist) government. The bloody suppression of their just war prevented the foundation of a credible, functioning state or a civil society comprised of social trust. The failure to remove traditional elites prevented democratic reforms, leading to the humanitarian crisis and stark inequality of today. This is in sharp contrast to the relative peace that prevails today in Nicaragua. If the Farabundo Martí National Front in El Salvador had achieved their initial goals, and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity party alongside it, the region might have been spared its bloody internecine violence.
An account of the Sandinistas must begin with their stated inspiration, Augusto C. Sandino. An intriguing figure, Sandino drew on two lines of thought that he encountered in Mexico: The anarcho-syndicalism of Ricardo Flores Magón and the mystical Spiritism of Joaquín Trincado Mateo. Sandino pioneered a new form of guerrilla warfare against the U.S. Marines before his betrayal and murder by Anastasio Somoza García. This martial practice was one of the primary inspirations for the guerrilla strategy practiced by Guevara in Cuba and re-introduced to Latin America, in various forms, after the success of that revolution. Sandino’s legacy has been primarily reduced to this guerrilla warfare technique, represented either positively or negatively. La Botz draws attention to the lack of democracy in Sandino’s leadership; while he maintained a populist, egalitarian worldview, aiming to win a better life for peasants and giving them control over their land, he did not create any formal structures of participation or accountability for his military leadership. La Botz views this as one of the sources for the lacuna of democracy in the Sandinistas’ later development. Despite its historical importance, this style of struggle has probably ended; we saw a symbolic coda for that sequence last year, with the death of Castro and the end of the Colombian conflict.
The emphasis on Sandino’s role as a nationalist guerrilla has obscured other, unusual aspects of his worldview. From the perspective of contemporary thought, unusual aspects of his thought may appear surprisingly relevant. Jonah Walters has recently criticized Sandino for neglecting the Afro-descendant population of Nicaragua on the Atlantic coast, in his reflections on national identity. This absence is indeed unfortunate. However, La Botz notes that Sandino, himself half-indigenous, contributed to the movement of indigenism, a revalorization of Indian culture and experience. While contemporary Sandinistas have ignored this aspect of his thought, it is relevant to reflections on the relations between indigenous peoples and nationalism that are taking place today. In 1927, Sandino asserted: “I am a Nicaraguan and proud that American Indian blood, more than any other, flows through by veins, for it contains the mystery of loyal and sincere patriotism.” This anti-racist consciousness was very unusual for its time and remains valuable, although neglected, for considerations of Nicaraguan identity. Contemporary Latin American theorists have insisted on the importance of Jose Carlos Mariátegui, a Peruvian Marxist who attended to survivals of a communist way of life in indigenous communities. Indeed, Mariátegui was fired from one of his positions as a journalist precisely because of his enthusiastic support for Sandino, and wrote letters to him, encouraging his anti-imperialist struggle. This confluence between Sandino and Mariátegui may be of great significance to Latin American revolutionary thought, but has been neglected in the Anglophone world. In my reading, Sandino’s understanding of Mesoamerican identity is close to Mariátegui’s, rather than the exaltation of mestizo identity associated with many famous Mexican nationalists, like José Vasconcelos. Further attention to this intervention may be significant in countering social prejudice that persists in Central America today.
Still further, some contemporary philosophers have participated in a reassessment of indigenous epistemology. This has been most fully developed by Deleuzian anthropologists in Brazil. The most prominent among them, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, has uncovered a fully posthumanist ontology, expressed in the language and thought of indigenous peoples. Most commentators, including the Sandinista leadership who revered him, have dismissed Sandino’s interest in Spiritist mysticism as a private eccentricity. La Botz’s historicist perspective also minimizes its importance. In the light of contemporary investigations of indigenous thought, it should be possible to reassess Sandino’s Spiritism. Like the thinkers of indigenous epistemology, Sandino believed in continuity among human experience, animals, and the earth itself. While his mode of expression can appear eccentric or crackpot, it is possible that he was attempting to develop a posthuman, indigenist system of thought using the tools available to him. He believed that all things were comprised of a single substance, and that justice could be recovered by an awareness of this commonality. This may be read alongside Baruch Spinoza’s advocacy of an “intellectual love of God,” and Gilles Deleuze’s thesis of the “univocity of being” (partly derived from Spinoza). With this in mind, Sandino’s ideas may be more than simple relics of an eccentricity of his time; rather, they anticipate significant themes of contemporary philosophy. Taking his ideas seriously may help to develop links between the tradition of Mesoamerican philosophy and the innovative reassessment of indigenous epistemology currently taking place in South America.
It is, then, significant that he became such a profound figure for Nicaraguan national identity. It is possible that a reassessment of his writings will recover not only his role as a martyr of national struggle, but also a contributor to the effort to develop ecological consciousness by means of a rediscovery of the indigenous worldview. Particularly in light of Indian struggle at Standing Rock, as well as in Chiapas and Bolivia, this may be particularly worthy of attention. Moreover, the contemporary FSLN aims to displace indigenous Nicaraguans in order to pursue its own developmental and extractivist projects, including the construction of an enormous canal with the aid of Chinese capital. A rediscovery of the indigenous epistemology of Sandino may add force and national continuity to the struggle of Central American Indians today.
Carlos Fonseca, the founder of the FSLN, remains a controversial figure in Nicaraguan history. In La Botz’s view, he deserves blame for the excessively centralized and undemocratic trajectory of the Sandinistas. Fonseca was at one time fully committed to a Stalinist party, and visited the USSR in the 1950s. However, his mature understanding of revolutionary practice, following from the victory of the Cuban revolution, takes on an entirely new strategy and problematic. Assessing his political contribution is impossible without also reassessing the Cuban experience and the actions of Guevara and Castro.
However, Fonseca did more than simply apply Cuban ideas in the Nicaraguan context. He also thought for himself and led by example, and the people who knew him were all impressed by his intellect and dedication. Among other things, Fonseca was instrumental in forging a new relation with people of faith, befriending and winning Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal, progressive priests, to the revolutionary cause. Fonseca also understood the importance of deep political education among the masses and the necessity of a long struggle in both cities and countryside, which had not been necessary in Cuba. Most significantly, he created a new sense of Nicaraguan national identity, drawing on the example of Sandino as well as an internationalist perspective on national liberation from U.S. imperialism, standing alongside Algeria and Vietnam. His dedication led to his martyrdom, but also set the necessary conditions for the revolution of 1979. La Botz is certainly correct to locate certain Stalinist survivals in Fonseca’s concept of the party. However, La Botz is also aware of the extraordinary dedication of Fonseca and the other cells of Sandinistas. The commitment to the rural guerrilla army, as it turned out, was partly mistaken; the Nicaraguan revolution was won by urban workers to a greater degree.
Nonetheless, Fonseca’s tireless work throughout the lesser-known parts of the country must have been crucial in building a truly nationwide sense of consciousness and identity, as well as paving the way for later rural efforts for literacy and vaccination. His biographer, Matilde Zimmermann, also emphasizes Fonseca’s awareness of the need to rely on the self-activity of the workers themselves. In an internal communiqué not long before his death and the victorious insurrection, he writes:
At a certain point the leadership must recognize … that the creativity, the initiative to stand up to the enemy, to stand up to the ruling classes, has become a mass phenomenon, and that many people who haven’t been organized the way they should—because of the limitations of the Revolutionary Movement, the actions we have carried out, and, we have to admit, even of our propaganda—are fully capable of carrying out certain tasks on their own initiative.
Zimmermann notes that the FSLN had been reduced to fewer than one hundred full members at the time of the Managua earthquake, just seven years before the revolutionary upsurge. For this reason, the Sandinistas must be viewed as presenting a political alternative that was valid and attractive to the masses that made the revolution themselves, rather than ruling above them from the beginning. In general, La Botz may err in overemphasizing everything in the FSLN that may be administrative or verticalist. For example, he gives Castro credit for the unification of the three factions of the Sandinistas, who had become estranged from one another over strategic differences. Castro encouraged their reconciliation in order to win victory. However, Zimmermann and others indicate that the FSLN also faced pressure from below; the Nicaraguan people themselves wished to see unity, and the different factions were swayed by their wishes. It seems to me that the events of the Nicaraguan revolution ought to be read with the determining activities of the people themselves in mind, despite anti-democratic prejudices that may have influenced the Sandinista leadership from the beginning.
Borge and the Civil War
Tomás Borge, who founded the FSLN alongside Fonseca, is a difficult figure to assess. Until his death in 2012, he was the only surviving founder, and as a result may be the most significant individual actor in the Nicaraguan revolution. He possessed many excellent qualities—he was dedicated and made great personal sacrifices for the Nicaraguan people. Somewhat surprisingly, he was also a significant literary writer; his memoirs (The Patient Impatience) have considerable aesthetic merit, and serve as an important record of the Sandinista experience.
However, he was also capable of great ruthlessness and must bear responsibility for the wrong turns of the FSLN in the mid-1980s. The greatest error was probably the compulsory service in the Sandinista Popular Army (Patriotic Military Service) instituted in 1983 and maintained for the rest of the decade. It is true that Ronald Reagan forced the Sandinistas into a primal struggle for existence, and this limited their options and forced them into a military posture. However, it was the decision of the Sandinistas themselves to fight the war against the Contras by means of a huge standing army, heavy artillery, and total-war strategy encouraged by Soviet veterans. While Humberto Ortega bears the primary responsibility for this turn toward military administration as a defining characteristic of the Sandinista project, Borge cannot be fully separated from it. To be sure, they could have pursued alternative means of self-defense. Borge’s original plan had been to rely on worker’s militias, led by the people themselves. The abandonment of this strategy in favor of a more conventional and authoritarian approach led to the downfall of the Sandinistas. Even Castro himself makes this point in his memoirs, although one would think that he could have pushed things in a different direction had he felt strongly on the matter.
As the state maintained its centralized, elitist character, Borge also became corrupt and pursued financial gain. At the end of his life, he failed to denounce the increasing preeminence of Daniel Ortega's clique, profiting from his rule while embarking on his own private ventures. He even became friends with Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the neoliberal president of Mexico and wrote his authorized biography. Salinas, who facilitated the North American Free Trade Agreement, was the primary adversary of Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, who declared war on him in 1994. Marcos himself had been partly inspired by the Sandinistas when he first set out on a guerrilla project as a member of the Mexican Forces of National Liberation in the 1980s.
Borge, then, is an object lesson in the limited outcomes of the global decolonization struggle. He was captured and tortured, and lost his wife to the Somoza dictatorship. Despite this, he had the strength to organize and eventually overcome that dictatorship, and to institute a new and more popular form of state. Upon entering into a new role as state functionary, he lost the original capacity for self-sacrifice and popular commitment. We might read this as a saddening confirmation of Flores Magón’s thesis in his statement of 1914, “All Rulers Are the Same”:
Before, he saw things from the bottom looking up; now he sees things from the top looking down. His psychology is different: before, he thought and felt as part of the great mass that comprises the nation; now, he feels detached from this great mass, he sees himself above this mass, he believes himself better than the mass, he imagines himself superior to the mass.
Even in 1979, the Sandinistas founded a tight inner circle—the nine commanders of the National Directorate. This was defensible while they were a clandestine organization. But La Botz contends, correctly, that after the success of the revolution they ought to have opened the party to mass democratic decision-making. Instead, the Directorate held a fairly tight monopoly on power. Of these nine, Borge and Jaime Wheelock were more intellectually impressive than Daniel Ortega. Ortega, though, was able to assume increasingly autocratic rule by building support and loyalty among functionaries, regardless of their politics. Making deals with moderates and right-wingers in a broad coalition, this pragmatic intelligence was his main strength. Ortega's early commitment, as a young, idealist revolutionary who was captured and tortured, still commands respect. However, upon taking power he supported the mass conscription spearheaded by his brother, thereby weakening the popular base of the revolution in the midst of the long war against imperialism. This led to his electoral defeat in 1990 and the end of the revolution.
In the second phase of his political career, with his return to power in 2006, Ortega emerged as an unprincipled and opportunist character. There may be some merits to Nicaragua’s alliance with Cuba and Venezuela and a partial challenge to U.S. hegemony. However, Ortega has shown no desire to break with the Central American Free Trade Agreement and the Nicaraguan economy is still heavily dependent on trade with the United States. Ortega also abandoned much of the progressive social agenda that characterized earlier Sandinista politics, by imposing heavy restrictions on reproductive justice. In his personal life, he is also an alleged abuser. It is hard to fully account for his psychological character. Under his leadership, the Sandinistas no longer have the romantic pull that they once did; he includes symbolic references to the great figures of anti-colonial struggle in a purely opportunist and rhetorical fashion. Some people have seen improvement in his regime, compared to the non-Sandinista period. Nonetheless, his social programs are mainly on the level of microloans and public entertainment — rather than education or health measures that would dependably raise quality of life. Moreover, he has acted to close the possibility of any political opposition; increasingly, he has acted to close the democratic potential that the revolution created.
However, not all of the prominent members of the FSLN became corrupted in this way. A focus on the nine commanders, especially Borge and Ortega, tells the story of the steady reassertion of self-interest, in the hearts of revolutionaries who were once self-sacrificing. However, the revolution’s full scope is not exhausted by the activities and policies of its inner circle. The Sandinista movement included many other people who also took guiding roles and indelibly affected the fortunes of the Nicaraguan people. Understanding the revolution requires attention not only to the state and its policies, but the social changes and initiatives that occurred across society. These activities benefitted from state funding obtained by seizing Somoza’s property, but they were also conducted the people themselves and by leaders whose trajectory differed from the mainstream FSLN. Attention to these other currents presents other facets of the Sandinista project, and suggests other pathways that could counteract the tendency toward centralization and corruption.
Ernesto Cardenal and Democratic Poetry
Ernesto Cardenal continues to stand as one of the most admirable leaders of the Sandinista project. His brother, Fernando, directed the literacy campaign of 1980 with the consultation of Paulo Freire. Ernesto led a “base community” in the Solentiname islands in the years just prior to the revolution. In this community, Cardenal encouraged Nicaraguans from all walks of life to reinterpret the Christian gospels in light of their own experience. Further, he wrote his own poems, drawing on socialist and Christian thought as well as the modernist innovations of Ezra Pound and the Beat generation. Cardenal's alignment of the Nicaraguan revolution with both modern poetry and avant-garde theology certainly contributed to its prominence in the international left and the imperative project of global solidarity. Of the wide field of liberation theology, Cardenal is among the most innovative thinkers. First, he generalized the incarnation and the apocalypticism of the Gospels toward class solidarity and revolutionary commitment. In his late work, he has developed a kind of “Darwinian Catholicism” with a posthumanist understanding of the divine. This naturalism echoes Sandino’s earlier insistence on a fundamental bond among all things, exceeding anthropomorphism. Arguably, Cardenal’s poetry reconciles Sandino’s Spiritism with Christian theology.
Cardenal has lived long enough to denounce the usurpation of the Sandinistas by the Ortega clique. Along with Sergio Ramírez and others, Cardenal founded the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) in 1995. Theoretically speaking, his poetry and ideas need to be read carefully in order to determine the novelty of his contribution to both Christianity and to Marxism. Cardenal's contribution may best be read as a subtle and sophisticated variety of ideology critique appropriate to the conditions of Central American faith. I think that he was able to retrieve the social core of Christian teachings and to redeploy it, away from quiescence. Moreover, his ethical, aesthetic and political ideas are profoundly democratic. Cardenal aimed to guide Nicaraguans of all classes toward poetic, artistic, and social self-expression. He famously led social programs in which all citizens were encouraged to write poetry and to express their own point of view; the aim of this initiative was “the democratization of culture.”
La Botz’s insistence on an authoritarian bent essential to the Sandinista project makes Cardenal’s approach difficult to situate. While La Botz has high praise for Fernando’s literacy project, it is not immediately easy to tell how this squares with the apparently bureaucratic-collectivist ends of the revolutionary project. While literacy itself might be viewed as a fundamentally technical goal (one that all Stalinist states have attempted to achieve), this does not seem to fit with the critical pedagogy developed by Freire. Nor does it provide a convincing explanation for Ernesto’s base communities and collective poetry workshops. To sideline them is to obscure the democratic potential of the revolution.
The omission of Cardenal’s poetry and theology is characteristic of La Botz’s approach, unfortunately. While he aims to follow Marxist historical methodology, his study is almost entirely confined to political and economic history. In this light, Nicaraguan history, including the revolution, is primarily a series of state policies. The events of 1979 appear as simply a transitional moment, from one type of state to another. However, resources exist in Spanish and English that provide the view from below. Oddly, La Botz does not include very much information from any of the memoirs or interviews that could have produced a social history, more attendant to the qualitative experiences of Nicaraguan individuals and communities. Aside from Cardenal, he does not include any awareness of the literary or artistic activity that characterized Nicaragua in this community, such as the poems and novels of Gioconda Belli, the paintings of Armando Morales, or the interviews with feminist authors and activists conducted by Margaret Randall. These documents present a more complex face for Sandinismo; an organizational schema that could be exclusive and administrative also presented a real sense of national empowerment. The revolution was not simply an intermediate moment from one period of governance to the next, but presented a real change in the horizon of Nicaraguan expression. Without this event, subsequent social developments around gender, sexuality, indigenous consciousness, and other forms of self-knowledge would not have taken place so easily.
In order to register these social changes, it may be helpful to consider prominent figures of Nicaraguan feminism. La Botz is attentive to social problems that especially affect women, and to some of the social movements that have taken place to counter them. For example, one of the strengths of his book is his documenting of the activity of the Working and Unemployed Women’s Movement, which educated and organized women in the maquiladora sector in the 1990s. He also discusses the rise to power of Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, and refers to the hunger strike of Dora María Téllez. However, he does not contextualize Nicaraguan feminism as a whole and its relationship to the broader effects of the revolution, or the global socialist-feminist movement. To thematize this explicitly may help us to understand social aspects of the revolution that go further than conventional political or economic history.
The accomplishments and contradictions of Nicaraguan feminism ought to be more widely known. Even today, feminisms that developed outside the United States, Canada, and Western Europe have generally remained marginalized and neglected. A certain reference to “Third World feminism” (as was said in the 1980s) or “postcolonial feminism” (in the '90s) tends to homogenize a wide variety of figures and currents into an apparent unity. Moreover, it makes a geographical origin into a conceptual framework, in ways that diminish the intellectual novelty of the authors and activists under consideration.
We might begin by distinguishing liberal, radical, and socialist feminisms. While liberal feminism has maintained hegemony in Western Europe and the United States, socialist feminism has been generally dominant in the former colonies. However, there are important debates and differences within this general commitment to socialist feminism. Three prominent Nicaraguans have each taken very different paths out of this socialist-feminist origin: Gioconda Belli, Rosario Murillo, and Dora María Téllez.
Belli’s approach is in some ways closest to the poetic revaluation of the feminine often associated with French feminism, particularly figures like Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous. She is primarily a literary writer and a poet, and she emphasizes female sexual difference, embodiment, and eroticism. However, this insistence coincides with her participation in the decolonization movement and her debt to figures like Frantz Fanon and Eduardo Galeano. She took part in small-arms training in Cuba, which would be very uncharacteristic for the authors of écriture féminine. Belli articulates motifs we might associate with a poetic radical feminism, but does so in a militant register.
In contrast, Murillo has become one of the most powerful and controversial women in Latin America. Murillo is a very peculiar and complex figure, once a close friend of Belli’s and now the vice president and first lady. Rather than Ortega, she is said to be the real power of the FSLN and the Nicaraguan state today. However, she does not fit the mold of a Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi at all—she came out of the feminist poetry scene and a bohemian lifestyle! Her political persona today is very difficult to interpret in the categories of feminism. She continues to write poetry and to speak in New-Age terms about the future of Nicaragua, and practices various superstitions; she’s said to sponsor international gatherings of witches. Simultaneously, she draws on Christian rhetoric to legitimate her power. She has contributed to an increase in female participation in government, but hires primarily anti-feminist women; she agreed to one of the most restrictive laws on reproductive rights in the world. She even participated in shielding her husband from prosecution, after her own daughter accused him of molesting her. She represents a particularly conservative and neoliberal version of Pink Tide “socialism.” Murillo represents an odd and unstable blend of elements of conservative feminism (recourse to the natural maternal power of women), radical feminism (her poetic, mystical elements), and “power feminism” (her assertive, take-no-prisoners leadership style).
Téllez was the only female guerrilla commander of the Sandinistas and led the units that captured the city of León. In a manner of speaking, she presents a kind of “female masculinity” (as Jack Halberstam would term it), a consistent warrior outlook. Moreover, she is one of the most principled Sandinistas, breaking with the FSLN leadership in 1995 to found the MRS along with Cardenal and Ramírez. In 2008, she began a hunger strike against Ortega and Murillo and their betrayal of the revolution. This complexity of Nicaraguan socialist feminism should be studied more thoroughly by more people. The intense circumstances of struggle there have produced unusually stark distinctions and debates, as well as enormous creativity.
Restoring the Popular Core of the Revolution
La Botz does make note of the existence of the MRS and the heroic hunger strike conducted by Téllez, the dissident revolutionary. The MRS, however, lack a real popular base, and the story of their unsuccessful struggle can be found in Ramírez’s Adiós Muchachos. It seems to me that more attention ought to be directed toward this attempt to salvage the redemptive core of the Sandinista project, despite its limitations. La Botz’s pessimism, by locating a deep authoritarian origin in Sandinismo that he traces back to Castro, Stalin, and Sandino himself, runs the risk of contributing to the discredit of the entire revolution. This dismissal of the potential lying within it, whose traces can be found most evidently in poetry, perhaps, may have the inadvertent effect of strengthening anti-communist ideology that has proven quite destructive across the region as well as internationally.
One of the decisive questions of the Nicaraguan revolution is this: What would have happened if the Sandinistas had not been forced into a bloody and protracted conflict with the United States (via Contra proxy soldiers)? One might think that the struggle with imperialism was part of the deal from the beginning, a fundamental element of a national liberation struggle in Central America. However, it is not impossible to imagine the counterfactual; perhaps if Jimmy Carter had won a second term. In this case, the United States certainly would have tried to isolate and destabilize Nicaragua, just as it continued to do toward Cuba, but a Carter administration would not have pursued the completely ruthless and illegal strategy embraced by Jeane Kirkpatrick, Oliver North, and others. In the absence of this robust support from Washington, the Sandinistas certainly would have eliminated the Contras within a few years; if anything, the counterrevolution, such as it was, would have persisted only as a nuisance.
In this situation—a Sandinista revolution with no civil war—what would Nicaragua have become? The leadership would have made Nicaragua into a new state and economy very similar to Cuba’s. There would have been some differences and challenges, in that Nicaragua has always had a smaller economy than Cuba’s. On the other hand, they never would have pursued certain repressive policies, such as the persecution of gay people or of observant Christians. The Sandinista leadership, whatever its limitations, had no interest in homophobic policies and supported socially progressive reforms. In fact, legislation against gay people was only put in place after the first electoral defeat of Ortega, in the 1990s. The most significant single difference with Cuba was that, in Nicaragua, there was a long revolutionary struggle with mass participation across the cities. So the revolution could not be simply placed under the authorship of the guerrilla command structure. The Nicaraguan people themselves collectively overthrew Anastasio Somoza Debayle. In the absence of the protracted civil war, there would be no justification for the restriction of decisive power in the hands of nine commanders. As a result, Nicaraguan state-socialism would have had a more democratic character than prevailed in Cuba.
The limits of the revolution would still have produced corruption and a privileged bureaucratic strata. Even with the mass participation in the revolution, there were not the necessary institutions to produce shop-floor democracy or enduring workers’ power. The nation would have remained somewhat dependent on foreign trade, with other states and multinationals in the region as well as Cuba and the Eastern Bloc. For this reason, social programs and welfare-state measures could be introduced on the basis of nationalization of capital, but Nicaragua still would have remained a state-capitalist society rather than a workers' state headed toward socialism.
Prospects look better if you imagine that the success in Nicaragua would have led to allied revolutions by the UNRG in Guatemala and the FMLN in El Salvador — which is likely. We cannot be certain how any U.S. administration would have handled a series of revolutions across the region. However, in the absence of the machinations characteristic of the Reagan administration, the Cuban model would likely have spread across Central America. This would have been very positive for the political development of the region, because it would have built a new spirit of civic national identity, with similar consequences to French revolution in Europe. There would have been a strong regional confederation, rising living standards for the population, and a cultural renaissance overcoming historical chauvinisms. Even in this scenario, it would have been primarily an Enlightenment-guided national revolution, and not yet truly socialist. A socialist restructuring would depend not only on the overthrow of cultural privileges and imperial oppression, but the democratic restructuring of working conditions — toward an eventual abolition of alienated work.
Sandinismo as State Capitalism and Civic Nationalism
La Botz’s book provides a solid, well-researched guide to the events of Nicaraguan history. His anti-Stalinist, Marxist outlook provides a necessary corrective to previous accounts inspired by the New Left, which tend to overestimate the democratic content of Sandinista leadership. However, his adherence to Shachtman’s model of bureaucratic collectivism provides a hindrance to a fully convincing explanation. By continually underlining the undemocratic aspects of Sandino and Castroism, his study neglects the positive aspect of the revolution and fails to account for the long popular adherence to it. Moreover, he pays a price for overlooking the considerable aesthetic innovations of the Nicaraguan revolution, particularly in literature, and the recorded testimonies that provide a broader social history. Attention to these developments provides a better awareness of the civic-nationalist dimension of the revolution—a libertarian, egalitarian cultural movement that exists alongside the administrative state-capitalist project.
With this in mind, La Botz’s pessimism is overstated. He is correct to counter the romanticizing of the Sandinistas that was once common, and especially to criticize the pretensions of the latter-day FSLN. However, it is too much to draw from this the sense that the moment of 1979 is simply exhausted, or a sham from the start. Contemporary historians, militants, and artists ought to return to study of the circumstances of the revolution, to mark a rare moment in which collective action and solidarity overcame a corrupt and hubristic dictatorship. The self-sacrifice, organizational talents, and collective imagination of that generation should be remembered as indelible aspects of an unsurpassable political event.
Andrew Ryder teaches in the English department of Tacoma Community College. He has written numerous articles on Marxism, decolonization theory, and modern literature.