The Land of Echoes (Part 2)
[continued from Part 1] Which brings us to the victorious Sandinista Revolution, which had been simmering for many years. Not to put too fine of a point on it, but the Sandinistas had many grievances with the Somoza dictatorship. To name a few of the primary concerns: Corruption was rampant through all levels of governance. Somoza and his family kept increasing their control over the economy by snapping up holdings in vital industries, such as cement, ranching, coffee, shipping, airlines, and numerous other enterprises, large and small. Collusion with the U.S. government and outside investment sources resulted in unfair economic distribution of wealth and resources. And, of course, Somoza and his lackeys in the National Guard brutally suppressed dissent through detention, torture, and execution.
As mentioned (in Part 1), Somoza’s totally corrupt mishandling of earthquake disaster relief finally shifted momentum toward the side of the revolutionaries. Popular support for the guerilla movement was galvanized when, on January 10, 1978, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, a journalist and outspoken critic of the Somoza regime, was assassinated. A year and a half later, on July 19, 1979, the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN)—the political arm of the revolutionary movement—entered Managua as victors.
[Aside: I was born the next day, July 20, 1979, the very same day that Giaconda Belli landed in Nicaragua to deliver the Sandinista’s exiled newspaper, which featured headlines of the triumph. Incidentally, if you are looking for answers as to why, exactly, the Sandinistas fought Somoza, don’t look for them in Belli’s memoir, The Country Under My Skin. While her story is fascinating and thrilling, it starts from the assumption that a) Somoza was a dictator worth overthrowing, and b) you know the reasons already.]
The Sandinista Revolution is probably the most fascinating (and gripping) aspect of recent Nicaraguan history. There’s no need to go into much history here, though: this blog is neither the time nor the place. I highly recommend a study of the revolution, however, to glean insights as to what succeeds and what does not in a violent, revolutionary movement. Among the couple of former guerilla fighters/Sandinistas I was able to speak to in Nicaragua, one can find candid appraisals of the successes (e.g., literacy campaign) and failures (e.g. mistreatment of indigenous people) of the Sandinista Revolution.
The Sandinistas had significant successes soon after they gained control. Healthcare and public transportation was subsidized, the death penalty was abolished, and the country’s first east-west telecommunications line was built. Most notably, there was a nationwide literacy campaign that reduced illiteracy rates by nearly forty percent; tens of thousands of literate Nicaraguans answered the call and spread throughout the country to teach their countrymen to read. For these efforts in particular, the United Nations gave the Sandinista government a UNESCO award.
That same approach was used for other initiatives, especially as a way to put more privileged Nicaraguans in touch with the less fortunate. One woman I spoke to, I’ll call her Lisa, spoke fondly of campaigns in which she and her teenage peers were sent into cotton and coffee fields to work alongside poor farmers. It was a formative learning experience, Lisa said, one that taught her how her countrymen lived and worked and brought her closer to her fellow Nicaraguans. Lisa is now a successful architect.
These collective actions and amenities resonate today. While the ruling party certainly takes some very seriously misguided positions on some political and social matters (see: abortion rights), the strain of communism—by which I mean the acting on a feeling or spirit of community—runs deep. Healthcare is still provided and more literacy campaigns have been initiated. Telecommunications infrastructure has also been upgraded for the 21st century—on my two and a half hour trip through the country to the coast, we never lost cell phone signal (I can’t say the same for a bus ride through New Jersey!). And the roads? The highway system would put my home state of Illinois to shame.
Of course, all along that highway, we were bombarded with images proclaiming various political victories of the FSLN in the most recent nationwide elections. Hardly a bend in the road was not overseen by a garish, pink billboard showcasing a waving, chummy Daniel Ortega. FSLN flags and colors decorate the landscape like ornaments on a tacky Christmas tree (not a terribly imprecise metaphor, considering that in Managua, Christmas trees, for whatever reason, decorate rotundas and plazas ... year round.)
A typical campaign billboard featuring Daniel Ortega (Always Room for One More)
And everywhere—in sprawling graffiti—are the exhortations of the glorious Sandinistas and their still standing revolution. On the surface, the revolution in Nicaragua appears to be ongoing.
This type of graffiti is everywhere, proclaiming Long Live ... the Revolution, the FSLN, the Youth, and Daniel [Ortega] (Andy and Tara)
The revolution would have consequences that would reach far beyond Nicaraguan borders. Up next, the Contra War...
Follow Shaun on Twitter: @shaunrandol