By Asad Ismi
In July 2009, Nicaragua celebrated 30 years of the Sandinista Revolution led by the socialist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). In July 1979, the revolution ended 70 years of brutal U.S.-imposed dictatorship. Since 2006, the Sandinistas have been back in power in Nicaragua, with their leader, Daniel Ortega, echoing President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in saying that he wants an end to “savage capitalism.” Nicaragua is a member of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), the progressive trade alliance led by Venezuela.
Like many Latin American countries, Nicaragua has a long history of U.S. imperialist domination that its people have bravely fought against. In 1909, the U.S. Army invaded Nicaragua, occupying it for 24 years. U.S. forces tried to crush the insurgency of the revolutionary Augusto Sandino, Nicaragua’s legendary guerrilla leader, but failed to defeat him.
General Smedley Butler, who led the U.S. forces in Nicaragua, later described his mission in these words: “I was a high-class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street, and for the banks. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street.”
The U.S. withdrew from Nicaragua in 1933, leaving behind its puppet, the National Guard, to rule the country, under the command of Anastasio Somoza Garcia. Even though Sandino signed a truce, Somoza had him assassinated. Anastasio Somoza and his son Somoza Debayle ruled Nicaragua for the next 46 years through massive repression, murder, rape, torture, and the massacre of peasants. The Somozas plundered the country, amassing a fortune of $900 million while two-thirds of Nicaraguans lived in poverty.
In 1979, the Nicaraguan people rose up against Somoza, and he was overthrown in a revolution led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front. Fifty thousand Nicaraguans died in the struggle against Somoza. The FSLN was named after Augusto Sandino and formed in 1961 as a socialist political party and guerrilla movement. The Party adopted a flexible strategy of forming alliances with different sectors such as workers, the peasantry, students, youth, and the urban middle class, thereby maximizing public support.
The FSLN was led by a nine-member directorate headed by Daniel Ortega. Once in power, the Sandinistas moved quickly to end the enormous poverty created by Somoza, through land reform and by making medical care and education free for the people. The FSLN redistributed land to a million people out of a population of 3.5 million at the time.
In education, an internationally acclaimed literacy campaign carried out by the FSLN reduced illiteracy from 54% to 12% of the population. Doris Miranda is a Nicaraguan educator and former Vice-Mayor of the city of Esteli in Nicaragua. She worked for the Sandinista government’s Ministry of Education at the time of the literacy campaign, and later. Miranda has worked at every level of the Nicaraguan educational system.
According to her: “In terms of education, one of the main focuses of the new government was to launch a literacy campaign, to eradicate illiteracy in the country. This was a massive campaign in which mainly youth were involved, ranging from the ages of 12 and above, and with this campaign came a social movement to bring people for six months to rural communities and give them reading and writing lessons. This was the first part of the campaign. Afterwards, they moved toward adult education, and equalizing the educational system — to give rural school children and urban school children the same right to education.”
Faced with the threat of a good example, as with Cuba, the U.S. attempted to destroy the Sandinista Revolution by unleashing a vicious war on Nicaragua. Starting in 1980, under President Ronald Reagan, Washington armed and trained former members of the Nicaraguan National Guard in neighbouring Honduras; they became known as the Contras. Contra death squads raided Nicaragua, killing 40,000 civilians and blowing up schools and hospitals. In per capita terms, this was equivalent to killing 2.5 million people in the United States.
The CIA mined Nicaragua’s harbours, for which the United Nations International Court of Justice condemned the U.S. government. The court ordered the U.S. to pay Nicaragua $12 billion in reparations. The United States is the only country in the world judged by the International Court to have been guilty of sponsoring international terrorism.
In spite of such barbarous U.S. terrorism, the FSLN held two free and fair elections, in 1984 and 1990, winning the first and losing the second to a right-wing coalition created by Washington. The Contra war was so destructive that the Nicaraguan people wanted to end it, even if it meant voting for a right-wing government. Sixteen years of neoliberal governments followed that made Nicaragua the second-poorest country in the hemisphere. Many of the gains of the revolution were stripped away, and health care and education once again became commodities.
As Miranda describes it: “So when the Sandinistas lost, all of the social programs that they had constructed went into the ground, every social profile was changed, books were burned, all of the processes that the Sandinistas tried to achieve in those 10 years in terms of educational and health care expansion fell to the ground. The educational system was privatized, and the public schools started turning into private institutions, the priority no longer being equality. In terms of health care, health care centres were no longer being created or looked after.”
Even under the neoliberal governments, the FSLN remained the second biggest political party in Nicaragua. In 2006, the Sandinistas, still led by Daniel Ortega, won the national election, and immediately brought back free education and medical care. Thousands of children returned to school and illiteracy, which stood at 35% of the population, has been reduced to 3.3%. The UN has declared Nicaragua to be free of illiteracy, making it the fourth country in Latin America to achieve this impressive feat.
As part of bringing back universal free access to health care, teams of Sandinista doctors “have gone throughout the Nicaraguan countryside, performing thousands of surgeries and tens of thousands of lab tests and medical consultations.” Since 2006, the maternal mortality rate has been reduced by 24%.
With its Zero Hunger program, the Ortega government has dramatically reduced hunger and malnutrition, and enhanced food security, eliciting praise from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The program has reduced malnutrition from 52% of the population to 22% in two years. Zero Hunger distributes one million meals a day to educational centres and gives land, low-interest loans, animals, seeds, and technical help to small women farmers. The program has provided food security for 100,000 peasant families. The focus on women is meant to ensure that benefits go to all family members, particularly the children.
After a fact-finding trip to Nicaragua, Katherine Hoyt, National Coordinator of the Nicaragua Network, a leading U.S. solidarity organization, reported in December 2009 that the Ortega government’s social programs were improving the lives of the poor. Hoyt wrote: “We traveled with the agricultural extension workers of the town of San Ramón to visit the small farms of two women who have benefited from the [Zero Hunger] program… ‘We see improvement,’ one of the workers told us, ‘in that the people are not eating just corn and beans, but also cheese and eggs, and they have elevated self-esteem; I feel elevated as well!’”
The FSLN also moved to make Nicaragua a member of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), the progressive trade alliance led by Venezuela. Under ALBA, Nicaragua is able to exchange beans, meat, and calves for Venezuelan oil. ALBA also finances many of the FSLN’s social programs.
Moisés López of Nicaraocoop (a union of 41 cooperatives) explained to Hoyt how the money earned from the domestic sale of Venezuelan oil under ALBA benefits Nicaragua’s poor. Nicaragua pays 60% of the price for the oil, and the rest is financed with a loan to be repaid over 25 years at 2% interest. The profit from the sale of that 40% of Venezuelan oil goes into a fund for social needs, which includes the Zero Hunger program. According to Lopez, “Nicaracoop has benefited from ALBA funds, which have helped provide access to markets for many small farmers.”
The Ortega government’s social programs have greatly improved living conditions for many Nicaraguans and helped reverse 16 years of destructive U.S.-backed neoliberalism. However, in order to gain power, Ortega has made some compromises with the right-wing opposition that can only be condemned. These include setting free Arnoldo Aleman, the leader of the Constitutional Liberal Party who was convicted of stealing $100 million in public funds and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Even more disgraceful is Ortega’s deal with the Catholic Church, in return for whose support the FSLN has banned therapeutic abortions for women. This means that women cannot legally get abortions in Nicaragua, even when their lives are in danger.
As Doris Miranda puts it: “Women have the right to decide. This was something that was integrated into the Nicaraguan declaration of rights, and therefore with this new law we are going backwards. Because here, we are not talking about normal abortions as a form of common birth control; we are talking about therapeutic abortion. Therapeutic abortion is a treatment that the doctor provides to save a woman’s life. I do not agree with this ban. It is unacceptable.”
Daniel Ortega is not by himself the Sandinista Revolution, and the legacy and power of the revolution far outmatches his own. As Violeta Delgado, leader of the Nicaraguan non-governmental organization Network Against Violence Against Women, explains: “The lasting legacy of the Sandinista Revolution has been the levels of organization that the people have created to bring about change – changes in their living conditions and the development of their communities, and to make a reality the Nicaragua which we all dream of.
“This legacy can be seen in the existence of over 200 women’s organizations, an unprecedented number in the entire region… Since the 1990s, these have continued making the revolution in their communities, in their ‘trenches’ of resistance. They are part of the process of social change that has promoted social justice, democracy, inclusion, solidarity, transparency, equity, and respect for social, economic, and political rights.”
Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor , September, 2010
Asad Ismi is international affairs correspondent for the CCPA Monitor. He is author of the anthology The Latin American Revolution (which can can be ordered from the CCPA) and the radio documentary with the same title which has been aired on 40 radio stations in the U.S., Canada and Europe reaching about 33 million people. Special thanks to Sara Loureiro for conducting and translating the Miranda interview in Nicaragua.