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
Having been voted out of government in 1990, the Sandinistas have
never been returned. KEN DOUGLAS examines the lessons of the 1979
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.