What’s left of the Nicaraguan Revolution?

By Mike Phipps

Today is the 41st anniversary of the Nicaraguan Revolution. On July 19th 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) overthrew the long-running corrupt and brutal dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza and embarked on a radical and wide-ranging programme of economic and social reform. This included sweeping land reform, a huge expansion of health care, a mass literacy campaign, improvements to housing and the judicial process, greater gender equality and trade union rights and a non-aligned foreign policy.  In 1984, the Sandinista government held the first free elections in decades, denounced by the Reagan Administration in the US, but validated by international observers from many US-aligned countries.

Throughout the 1980s, the Reagan Administration unleashed a campaign of terror against Nicaragua. This included the mining of Nicaragua’s harbours, later declared unlawful by the World Court, and the contra war. Covert US funding was channelled to arm and train anti-government terrorist forces operating from neighbouring countries to cross into Nicaragua and commit atrocities, including murder, rape and torture, against the civilian population.

Despite all this, the Sandinistas held on through the 1980s due to the huge popular support they enjoyed among the country’s working class and small farmers. An indication of this was that by the end of that decade, notwithstanding the western corporate media’s portrayal of Nicaragua as a one-party dictatorship, the head of the capital’s police force could rightly declare that he was the only police chief in the whole of Latin America that had not fired a single round of tear gas throughout the whole of the previous decade. At this time, the Sandinistas benefited from considerable international solidarity: they were seen as a beacon of hope, a more open, radical alternative to the existing templates for political change in the region of feeble social democracy and Stalinist authoritarianism.

In 1990, in the second free general election under the Sandinistas, the FSLN lost power. A series of right wing governments privatised and embezzled, but they were unable to roll back the gains in human and social rights that the Sandinista era had ushered in.

In 2007, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega (pictured) returned to the presidency under very different conditions. His team made a pact with the then governing party, which granted immunity to one of the most corrupt politicians in the hemisphere. It also did a deal with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church which would support Ortega in return for his introduction of one of the most draconian anti-abortion laws anywhere in the world.

Back in power, the FSLN continued to pursue a progressive agenda that benefited Nicaragua’s popular classes. But by this time, the party was totally dominated by Ortega, who made his wife vice president. Three sons are directors of TV channels and another heads a government agency working with incoming businesses. The father-in-law of one daughter runs the national police.

Opposition parties were bought off with patronage or faced being de-registered. Opposition social movements, including feminist groups which supported abortion rights or farmers opposed to the controversial inter-oceanic canal project, were repressed. Amnesty International expressed major concerns about the fairness of the most recent presidential elections in 2016, which saw Ortega returned to power for a constitutionally questionable third term.

Yet internationally the government is still viewed as anti-imperialist, thanks to the economic support it gets from Venezuela and the very real hostility it draws from the US.  In recent years, opposition organisations have received millions of dollars from US agencies, to promote private enterprise and undermine the government. Under Trump, tough economic sanctions have been imposed on the country and the US has hinted at the possibility of military intervention to impose a compliant regime.

Much of the increasing repression under Ortega was below the radar for many of Nicaragua’s international supporters. So the Ortega government’s brutal repression of protests against benefit cuts in April 2018 was greeted with disbelief. Dozens were killed and any more were injured at the hands of the police, who used live rounds, or in beatings by pro-government groups.

The killings sparked an uprising across the country, with the army deployed amid widespread looting. While Ortega’s supporters inevitably pointed to the hand of the US in stirring up agitators, the fact that the initial massacre was perpetrated by the state cannot disputed, whatever happened later. More uncomfortable for regime loyalists was the involvement of many young people, often from Sandinista families, underlining their anger at the betrayal of the original Sandinista spirit.

Reliable local sources alarmingly reported that the Ortegas hired thugs from the poorest neighbourhoods to put down protests violently. Videos showed goon squads in pickup trucks, driving up and beating protestors with pipes and clubs despite the presence of the police. A leading member of the country’s Human Rights Commission was herself injured in such an attack while observing a peaceful protest.

In the aftermath of the 2018 unrest, the Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights, whose director is Vilma Núñez, a woman of great authority who was herself  imprisoned and tortured under Somoza and served on Nicaragua’s Supreme Court following the 1979 Revolution, produced a scathing report. It laid the blame for the “massive violation of human rights” that it documented squarely at the door of the Ortegas. The Centre subsequently had its legal status cancelled by the government and was raided by the police.

An Amnesty International report confirmed this assessment, documenting how armed groups acted in collusion with the Nicaraguan police to carry out gross human rights violations. Changes to the Nicaraguan constitution that put the national police directly under the control of the president meant responsibility for these actions went to the very top.

Since 2018, state repression has continued, with human rights organisations and media outlets raided by the police and closed. In 2019, the Sandinistas were booted out of the Socialist International because of Nicaragua’s human rights violations.

Today, Nicaragua is a polarised society, and inevitably coronavirus has become part of the propaganda war now being waged. Earlier this year, the respected medical journal the Lancet described Nicaragua’s response to COVID-19 as “perhaps the most erratic of any country in the world to date,” after the government called for mass rallies, without social distancing, to defeat the virus. This was the brainchild of Vice President Rosario Murillo, under the bizarre slogan ‘Love in the time of COVID-19’.  For its part, the Nicaraguan government claims one of the lowest infection rates in the hemisphere, but, given its refusal to reveal how many tests it has carried out, this may not be very meaningful.

Ortega’s authoritarianism has inevitably led to a ratcheting up of US rhetoric against Nicaragua. Ironically, it is the self-serving actions of Ortega himself that leave the Nicaraguan Revolution more exposed to the predations of imperialism and less able to defend itself.

For those of us on the left who were immensely inspired by the Nicaraguan Revolution 41 years ago today, the events of recent years instil a real sadness, reinforced by the knowledge that if Ortega’s government is finally forced out, it may well be right wing forces that take advantage.

At its heart, the Sandinista philosophy was always more pluralist and eclectic than many other radical ideologies. It also drew heavily on the thinking of Central American anti-imperialism and Che Guevara’s conception of the ‘new man’.  This idealism has been much mocked down the years – after all, why would anyone dream of fostering a spirit of self-sacrifice and dedication to collectively improving the lives of the whole community, when a pile of money can be made by exploiting others?

Yet there was also something of this idealism and selflessness about the Corbyn project at its best, personified by the Labour leader himself, who always put principle above career throughout his political life and worked and campaigned tirelessly for a better society, undaunted by the hostility and abuse that was hurled at him by enemies and so-called friends alike. Let’s remember that, as we reorient ourselves amid the false narrative that all Labour’s current problems are the fault of Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters.

What remains of the Nicaraguan Revolution is greatly imperilled – by imperialism, but also by what’s left of its former leadership.  Some on the left understand this. Noam Chomsky has called for early elections. Pablo Iglesias of Podemos in Spain, and former Uruguayan President José Mujica have also been sharply critical of Ortega. None of these individuals seek to promote US government interests. Rather, they understand that defending the gains of the Nicaraguan Revolution requires the orderly exit of the corrupt dynasty that has betrayed it. Others on the left also need to find their voice and separate the great achievements of the Sandinista Revolution from the regime in charge today.