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From The Socialist newspaper, 11 September 2004

Nicaragua 1979

Lessons Of The Sandinista Revolution

ON 19 July 2004 thousands of Nicaraguans gathered in Managua's main square, once called Revolution Plaza, to remember the day 25 years ago when they celebrated the fall of the hated Somoza dictatorship and the coming to power of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).
Yet, today, three-quarters of the population live on less than two dollars a day. More than one-third of school age children don't attend school - government expenditure on education is only $19 per person, per year.
Having been voted out of government in 1990, the Sandinistas have never been returned. KEN DOUGLAS examines the lessons of the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution.

THE FSLN ('Sandinistas') and other forces had conducted a long and heroic struggle against the Somoza regime.

The Somoza dynasty had been in power since 1937. The Nicaraguan masses lived in dire poverty through decades of ruthless repression while Somoza accumulated vast wealth, owning 25% of industry and 10% of cultivable land.

Following widespread industrialisation, there was a big strike movement in the cities during the 1970s. By 1978, there was virtually a civil war in the country - 50,000 were killed in the two years before the fall of the Somoza dictatorship. The towns of Leon Esteli, Chirandega and Masaya were bombed by the National Guard, killing 6,000.

The FSLN had mainly conducted a guerrilla struggle in the countryside but it was the working class in the cities, particularly Managua, that proved to be decisive with a series of strikes, a general strike and an uprising that effectively suspended the government in mid-air. The old Somoza regime collapsed and the FSLN, led by Daniel Ortega, marched into Managua in July 1979 and took up the reins of power.

Social gains

OVER THE next few years infant mortality was cut from 33% to 8%, vaccination programmes were put in place, literacy increased from 50% of the population to 86%. 500 doctors a year were qualifying, compared to just 1,000 doctors in the whole of Nicaragua before the revolution. By the elections in 1984 over 80% of the eligible population had registered to vote and overwhelmingly voted for the FSLN.

These were massive gains for the Nicaraguan people, compared to the conditions under the Somoza dynasty. But the Sandinistas left alone the private ownership of the economy - attempting instead to appease the former ruling elite, the big land-owners and the industrialists.

60% of the economy remained in private hands, which meant that it was vulnerable to sabotage by the capitalists. 80% of agricultural production was still privately owned; the holdings of the multinationals, Exxon and General Mills were untouched. Their programme at the time called for a mixed economy. Fidel Castro endorsed this in 1985: "You can have a capitalist economy. What you undoubtedly will not have, and this is the most essential thing, is a government at the service of the capitalists."


THE US, fearing that its interests were under threat and that the revolution might spread across Central and South America, had launched a proxy war, using the Contras. These were paramilitary gangs led by warlords, capitalists and remnants of the Somoza regime backed with massive amounts of US money and weapons.

The war meant that by the mid-1980s, 50% of GNP was committed to military expenditure. In 1985, the US imposed a trade embargo and by 1988, inflation was at an astounding 33,600%. In 1989, the government were forced to make massive cuts in public expenditure.

Wages had fallen by 90% since 1981 and unemployment was higher than under Somoza. The standard of living, per capita income, had fallen lower even than Haiti. The war in the countryside was taking its toll, 35,000 had died in the war against the Contras.

They faced a choice. Either the Sandinistas went all the way in abolishing capitalism and landlordism in Nicaragua, establishing a democratic socialist revolution and calling for the spread of the revolution throughout Central and Latin America and beyond, or the capitalists and the landlords, with the backing of the US, would re-establish themselves and overturn the gains of the revolution. Militant the forerunner of the Socialist Party warned of this at the time.

The Sandinistas were being forced by these circumstances and the pressure from below to consider expropriating the capitalists and the landowners. But they were held back by Castro and by the Soviet Union, headed by Mikhail Gorbachev.

In 1985 Daniel Ortega visited Moscow to ask for arms and support but returned empty-handed. A year earlier some old MIG fighter planes destined for Nicaragua had been held up in Cuba.

Gorbachev wrote in his book Perestroika: "Rightwing forces portray our interest in Latin America as an intention to engineer a series of socialist revolutions. Nonsense! The way we have behaved for decades proves that we don't plan anything of the kind."(pp187-188)

Although the FSLN had won mass support, it had not become a mass party. Restricted to just 500 members by 1981, this was increased to 5,000 and then 12,000, with the aim of preventing infiltration by careerists and counter-revolutionaries. But this meant that the FSLN developed as a privileged elite with none of the checks and balances that a mass, active and politically conscious membership would provide.

The Sandinistas did develop mass organisations, such as the trade union based CST and the Sandinista Defence Committees (CDS), but these organisations didn't control or decide policy and they didn't control the Directorate - the de facto government.

By the 1990 elections the FSLN had degenerated politically. Participation in the Committees for the Defence of the Sandinistas had fallen, the professional army had been enlarged and the popular militia (set up after the revolution) cut. Morale amongst the activists was low, as this extract from an interview at the time shows:

"I was a radio engineer. Me, a radio engineer, a fighter in the revolution, a Sandinista brigade commander and I had to go to the rubbish dump to collect paper to sell to feed my children...It wasn't me who changed, it was the Sandinistas who let me down. I'm still a revolutionary." The Independent, 27 February 1990.

Russian revolution

YET, COULD history have been any different? Could the Sandinistas have carried through the revolution and taken on the might of US imperialism?

The FSLN leaders believed that first they had to develop Nicaragua as a stable capitalist country before moving on to socialism but the Russian revolution of 1917 showed that this was not the case.

The Russian revolution took place in an economically backward country, more so than Nicaragua, relying mainly on agriculture and dominated by the foreign capital which had built factories and developed enterprises there.

Lenin and Trotsky understood that in Russia, the weak capitalist class dominated by imperialism and tied to the powerful landowners, would be incapable of carrying through a 'democratic revolution' ie land reform, representative democracy, and the establishment of an independent nation state.

The capitalists, faced with a revolutionary working class and peasantry, would side with Tsarist reaction. The tasks of the democratic revolution therefore fell on to the shoulders of the working class who would immediately be faced with carrying out the tasks of the socialist revolution ie nationalise the economy, establish a workers' democracy and a national plan of production, and take the land from the landlords. Without such a thorough transformation of society the forces of counter-revolution would recover.

If the FSLN had gone on to overthrow capitalism and landlordism, as in Russia, undoubtedly US imperialism would have intervened. But with the participation of the working class and peasants in government, through the Soviets (workers' councils), the Russian revolution repulsed 21 invading foreign armies in the most difficult of circumstances and with great sacrifices.

At the same time the Bolsheviks looked to the development of the world revolution to defend and extend the gains of the Russian revolution and established a socialist international organisation (the 'Third International'). The Sandinista leaders could have appealed to the working class of the whole of the Americas. Such a movement would have had the potential to defeat US imperialism.

Instead the FSLN based itself on the idea that first a period of capitalist development was necessary, and limited the revolution to, in the words of Tomas Borge (one of the FSLN leaders), "a national affair". This meant that they sought to come to an accommodation with the capitalists and US imperialism.

Before the 1990 elections, in an attempt to appease the counter-revolutionary forces, the government were banning strikes and agreeing to the release of associates of Somoza and allowing ex-Contra leaders to return to the country. The Sandinistas' election slogan was: "Everything will get better".


The Nicaraguan working class and rural workers fought a heroic struggle. Thousands were killed and thousands more made huge sacrifices to overthrow Somoza and then defend the revolution against the US-backed Contras.

In the end they were let down by their leadership, who had failed to learn the lessons of the revolutionary movements of the 20th century - only the working class, led by a mass revolutionary party with a determined leadership can ensure the success of the socialist revolution.

Only an international struggle to spread socialism throughout the world can ensure its continuance.

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In The Socialist 11 September 2004:

A Spiral Of War And Terror

Bloodbath in Beslan

What Lies Behind The Terror

Socialist Party news and analysis

Protest Against Low Pay

Civil Servants Prepare To Fight Jobs Slaughter

Strength In Numbers

Save Southmead Hospital

Action - The Only Language The Government Understands

Blair And Beckham - The Champagne Charlies

Blair's Welfare Wonderland

International socialist news and analysis

Thousands Looking For An Alternative

Lessons Of The Sandinista Revolution

A Long View Of History


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