Nicaragua: After the Revolution

The proud and victorious Sandinistas govern a ravaged country, and they look nervously over their shoulders for signs of counter-revolution.


The journey overland from Guatemala City to Managua takes two full days by bus. After passing through three Central American republics and an equal number of border crossings, the highway finally reaches Nicaragua at a place called La Guasule. Here passengers long since numbed by the tedium and the heat slowly become alert, looking around anxiously for some sign of the reception that awaits them. The only thing in view is the border station itself, a huge, undistinguished building shaped like an airplane hangar. Its walls are spray-painted with political slogans, the largest of which reads, “Welcome to Nicaragua—Free Territory of Central America.”

Two guards stand duty outside, both wearing black berets and green fatigue pants stuffed into combat boots. One carries a three-foot-long riot stick, the other an American-made submachine gun. Neither looks more than sixteen years old. What is most striking about these two soldiers, however, is not their age but their look of grim determination. This is the face of the revolution in Nicaragua today: startlingly young, and deadly serious.

In July 1979, in what may truly be termed a popular revolution, Nicaraguans finally overthrew the forty-fiveyear dictatorship of the Somoza family. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) found its greatest support among the country’s youth and its urban poor. The insurrection was resisted to the end by Somoza’s National Guard, a praetorian force whose disregard for civilian life increased as defeat became inevitable. Now that the euphoria of victory has subsided somewhat, the Sandinistas have turned to the serious work of rebuilding the country.

The job is being carried out, in large part, by young people like the two border guards. These are the “compas,” the compañeros of the Sandinista People’s Army (EPS). They can be seen everywhere, directing traffic, guarding public buildings, patrolling the cities in open jeeps; and always with that same intent, impassive stare. Not all of them are veterans; some are classified as mil-icianos, militia men and women who have recently joined the huge force which maintains public order. Many of the female “compas” relieve the olivedrab of their uniforms with such nonmilitary accessories as high-heeled boots, jewelry, or disco bags. The effect is incongruous, but it takes nothing away from their seriousness.

The citrus orchards and coffee plantations that line the road from the border to Managua give an impression of tremendous natural wealth. Much of Nicaragua’s 59,000 square miles is devoted to farming and cattle ranching; until the civil war, it always produced enough to feed its 2.5 million inhabitants—a very small population for a nation the size of New York State. But amidst all this abundance are signs of the damage the country has suffered. Here and there a bombed-out house appears in the countryside, and the road is pitted with holes made by machine-gun fire.

Nicaragua had hardly recovered from a tremendous natural disaster when it was engulfed in a bloody civil war. The earthquake of 1972 killed 10,000 people and destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of property. The war took an estimated 35,000 lives, did $1.2 billion in property damage, and left many thousands wounded or homeless. The fighting took its major toll in the urban ghettos, where resistance to the National Guard was the greatest.

The combined effects of this natural and man-made destruction are nowhere more evident than in the capital. Managua’s former downtown is now a huge urban wasteland, created by the earthquake. The remains of toppled buildings were cleared away, but nothing was built in their place. The rationale was that these areas lie along a geological fault and are likely to be hit by future earthquakes. (It is also true, however, that much of the earthquake relief money contributed by the United States and international agencies was pocketed by Somoza and members of “the Clan.”)

The Somoza government directed its reconstruction efforts at several areas on the perimeter of Managua, outside the old city. This curious experiment in urban redevelopment has turned Managua into an archipelago of neighborhoods and commercial districts, separated from one another by wastelands and connected by a system of intraurban highways. Even before the war, the city’s public transportation was miserable; now, practically the only way to get around is by taxi. The drivers race about with a kind of deathwish recklessness. Many of the cabs are perforated with bullet holes.

Much of Managua bears similar evidence of conflict: bullet holes or craters left by cannon shells. A drive through the city’s neighborhoods is an object lesson in recent history. One need only see the destruction in slum areas, and the comparatively unscathed condition of the affluent districts, to realize that this was indeed a revolution of the poor. In a number of places, people manage to live in the ruins of their former homes, where often only the walls remain.

Everyone has horror stories to tell about the atrocities committed by members of the National Guard, an illustrated catalogue of which would rival Goya’s Disasters of the War. No one was immune to their arbitrary brutality. In many towns, they killed everyone old enough —or young enough— to carry a gun. These outrages, far from instilling terror, only served to unify opposition against the regime. The “Guardians of the Dynasty” are gone now, but their legacy remains: a lifetime of nightmares for some, and a landscape of destruction for all.

Everywhere there is destruction, and everywhere there is hope. Faith in the new government ranges from outright enthusiasm among the poor to cautious optimism in the middle and upper classes. The unifying sentiment is a tremendous joy that Somoza and the Guard are finally gone.

In downtown Managua, a few blocks from the National Palace, a construction crew is hard at work making a park out of one of the many vacant blocks. A man standing nearby nods his approval of the work. “You see, they’ve already started to rebuild things around here. It’ll be beautiful when they finish it, the new Nicaragua.”

During the revolution, the Sandinista government-in-exile was established in Costa Rica. Its membership, which ranged from Marxist revolutionaries to moderates to conservative businessmen, reflected the political pluralism which would characterize the new regime. After Somoza fled, a five-member junta assumed power. It is assisted by a cabinet that includes several Catholic priests and the man who early emerged as the revolution’s most charismatic figure: Tomas Borge, minister of the interior and a founding member of the FSLN. The junta is also advised by the Council of State, an interim legislative body composed of representatives from various political, religious, and labor organizations.

The FSLN, which provided military leadership and political organization for the revolution, still exists as an entity apart from the government. Members of its nine-man national directorate also hold top positions within the government, and control of the police and the army lies unquestionably with the FSLN. But the organization itself will eventually assume the nature of a political party, to be known as the Partido Sandinista.

Political power at the grass-roots level is invested in the Sandinista Defense Committees (CDS), an outgrowth of the defense committees established in the factories and neighborhoods during the revolution. CDS duties are described as maintaining the public order, combatting anti-revolutionary activities, and providing political orientation for the populace. The inevitable comparison to Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution is not entirely accurate; one official asserts that the CDS’ functions are “more of a civic nature,”and not limited to denouncing suspected counter-revolutionaries.

The job facing the National Reconstruction Government (GRN) is, simply put, to make order out of chaos. The government itself must be reorganized, and new judicial and ministerial systems established. Former Somoza holdings in agriculture and industry must now be administered by the state. More important, the government must make every effort to keep the economy afloat during this period of greatly reduced production. Wartime damage caused the 1979 per capita gross national product to drop to the level of more than a decade ago.

Unemployment remains high, an estimated 35 to 40 percent; great numbers of people are still homeless; food and jnedicine, especially antibiotics, are in short supply. All these difficulties must be dealt with on a shoestring budget, for one of Somoza’s final acts was to rob the nation’s treasury, leaving the new government with only $3.5 million.

But the young Sandinista leaders have a series of ambitious programs. In January, the junta announced its economic plan for 1980. Among other things, it calls for the creation of 90,000 new jobs, and projects an increase in the gross national product of 22 percent in 1980.

First priority for economic reconstruction will be the badly damaged agricultural sector. Although the traditional export crops— cotton, coffee, beef, and sugar—will be produced on the new state-owned cooperative farms, the government’s objective is to “balance production for domestic consumption with production for a dynamic export sector.”

Reconstruction is also taking place in the urban ghettos. A program of public works projects has brought schools and parks to such places as the newly renamed Ciudad Sandino, a large slum on Managua’s perimeter.

Beyond the immediate goals of providing more housing, employment, and medical care for the populace, the government’s major focus is on education. Nicaragua’s illiteracy rate is estimated at 55 percent and runs as high as 90 percent in rural areas. Following the example of the Cuban revolution, the Sandinistas launched a giant literacy campaign on March 24. At a cost of $20 million, more than 175,000 volunteers have been sent to the countryside to teach the peasantry how to read and write. Volunteers from Spain, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Costa Rica are also participating. As was the case in Cuba, the literacy campaign is the first large-scale demonstration of the government’s commitment to improving the quality of life for the poor.

The Sandinistas have made a tremendous effort to publicize the revolution. Radio, television, and the press are heavily inundated with political propaganda. Along the highways, billboards in vivid colors proclaim the revolutionary message. Dominating the scene are the images of two men: Augusto César Sandino, the guerrilla leader who successfully evaded the U.S. Marines from 1929 to 1933 and was afterward murdered on the orders of Anastasio Somoza (father of the recently deposed dictator); and Carlos Fonseca Amador, who founded the FSLN in 1961 and remained its leader until his death in 1976. The portraits of Sandino and Fonseca, along with the red and black Sandinista flag, have become the logos of the revolution.

Nicaragua for many years had one daily newspaper, La Prensa. Its former editor, the popular opposition leader Joaquin Chamorro, was considered the man most likely to succeed Somoza, had the dictator decided to step down. Chamorro’s assassination in 1978 radicalized the moderate elements of the opposition and set the revolution in motion. La Prensa is now run by his widow, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, until recently a member of the governing junta.

Throughout the Somoza era, La Prensa was the country’s most vocal instrument of dissent. Today, it continues to criticize those in power. Although its major news stories have a pro-government slant, the paper publishes many articles that are hardly flattering to the new authority. Reports of abuses or irresponsible conduct by the “compas” appear almost daily. La Prensa also prints letters from readers petitioning the government for the release of relatives who, they claim, have been mistakenly or arbitrarily imprisoned.

This kind of free expression has not been popular with the more radical Sandinistas. Last November, an unsuccessful attempt was made to boycott La Prensa on the grounds that it was acting against the interests of the revolution. More recently, the paper ws closed owing to a strike over editorial policies. The dispute ultimately resulted in the creation of a second daily newspaper, El Nuevo Diario, which is run by the late editor’s brother, Javier Chamorro. He is known to be more strongly pro-Sandinista than the other members of his family who serve on La Prensa’s editorial board.

Television is the medium most affected by the revolution. Nicaragua formerly had two distinct TV networks, but now both broadcast the same fare: news programs with a strong political bias; “tele-novelas” (soap operas) from Cuba that are short on technical sophistication and heavily didactic; and programs devoted to political propaganda. Some American television shows have been allowed to remain, as long as they do not cast imperialists in heroic roles. (Baretta, for instance, which depicts some of the seamier aspects of American life and carries a heavy law-andorder message, is still broadcast. But Hawaii Five-O, which glorifies the rule of Yankee law in a dominated tropical land, has been taken off the air.)

The media campaign of revolutionary propaganda has been effective as a consciousness-raising device among a largely illiterate populace, but the educated elite view it with growing annoyance and nervousness. The constant indictment of imperialism and capitalism arouses the underlying fear of Nicaragua’s middle class and business community—that the country will go communist.

“This country can’t go communist,” says one man, an agronomist who gave financial support to the Sandinistas but now faces the possibility of his lands being nationalized. “If that were to happen, the people would rise up and make another revolution.” One oftenheard notion is that the presence of Catholic priests in the new government somehow precludes the possibility of a leftist take-over.

These assumptions reveal wishful thinking on the part of the moneyed classes. For the present, however, they have received ample assurance from the government that their position is secure. The new economic plan is emphatic in its inclusion of the private sector. During the current year, more than 60 percent of the gross national product is expected to come from private business. Although there are many new state-owned farms, over 40 percent of the productive lands remain in private hands.

The GRN’s announced intention of maintaining a mixed capitalist-socialist economy has been further substantiated by the manner in which nationalization has been effected. Immediately after the revolution, all of Somoza’s private holdings and joint ventures were seized. Insurance companies, private banks, and the mining sector were also nationalized. In the months that followed, expropriations were carried out on a somewhat arbitrary basis; anyone with multiple landholdings or connections to the ancien regime was a likely target. In December, however, the GRN temporarily suspended the decree authorizing nationalization of Somozaconnected properties, conceding that it had been abused.

The encouragement given the private sector has made the middle and upper classes somewhat optimistic about the future; but it remains, at best, a cautious optimism. Just as many of its members quietly awaited the outcome of the civil war (often while giving financial support to the Sandinistas), the bourgeoisie now finds itself playing another game: waiting to see what future this revolution will finally bring.

If the principal threat to the middle classes is a communist take-over, the government also has its abiding concern: the counter-revolution. It is regarded with the same fatalistic resignation as the natural disasters that are a fact of life in Central America. But while earthquakes and volcanic eruptions cannot be foreseen or averted, the counter-revolution is something the Sandinistas are very much prepared for.

“You have to understand something,” says the new Nicaraguan ambassador to Guatemala. “The counter-revolution is something we view, not as a possibility, but as an inevitability. We know it’s coming; we just don’t know when.”

The question of where the counterrevolution might originate is quite another matter. The overwhelming military presence in the country and the obvious popular support for the revolution make any such movement from within Nicaragua seem doomed to failure. And despite Somoza’s millions, hardly a nation on earth would permit him to assemble an invasion force on its shores.

Where, then, would the counter-revolution come from? The Sandinista ambassador smiles politely. “From other elements,” he replies.

Whether or not “other elements” are likely to become involved in supporting counter-revolutionary movements also remains a point for conjecture. One thing is certain: the Nicaraguans are not likely to overlook the amount of CIA-sponsored counter-revolutionary activity in Cuba during the early 1960s. Nor will they disregard the recent move in the United States to restore some of the CIA’s former autonomy. The Sandinistas are being realistic when they take precautions against “other elements.”

What will be the foreign policy of “the new Nicaragua” vis-à-vis the major powers? The official line is that Nicaragua wants to remain an independent, nonaligned country, with a mixed capitalist-socialist economy. The government has so far made a determined attempt to remain on good terms both with its friends in the socialist world and with the United States.

Many nations have responded to Nicaragua’s problems with aid programs, which could be the bases for future friendships. The neighboring Central American republics have contributed a total of $100 million; the Federal Republic of Germany, $30 million; Venezuela has given $45 million; while Spain and the Netherlands have donated $11 million each.

Aid from Cuba is described as being “mostly of a technical nature.” But the very reticence of this phrasing betrays the complexity of Nicaragua’s relationship with the Castro government. While the Cubans gave nominal support to the revolution, they have since maintained a low profile regarding the Sandinistas. Havana continues to provide technical aid —there are 1200 Cuban teachers and technicians in Nicaragua—but the two nations have been careful not to present their friendship as a threat to their powerful northern neighbor.

Relations with the United States have been good so far. Shortly after recognizing the new government, the U.S. sent $50 million in relief aid to Nicaragua. Washington has since used its influence with the international lending agencies to obtain additional credits for the financially strapped regime.

The proof of U.S. support for the new Nicaraguan government still rests, however, on final approval of a $75 million aid bill proposed by the Administration last November. Conservative congressmen based their opposition to the bill on the fear that Nicaragua is “already lost” to Cuban (and, by extension, Soviet) influence. They point to the Cuban presence within the country, and to Nicaragua’s abstention on the UN vote condemning the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The bill narrowly passed a preliminary vote in the House; its progress was then delayed by parliamentary roadblocks, and by events in Nicaragua.

In late April, a flurry of resignations evidenced the first ideological rift in the broad-based coalition that has ruled since July 1979. Alfonso Robelo and Violeta Chamorro, the two most moderate members of the junta, stepped down from their posts. Chamorro cited poor health as her reason; Robelo said he was protesting the effective exclusion of his opposition party, the Nicaraguan Democratic Movement, from membership in the Council of State. Although he proclaimed his continued support of a “free, democratic, and revolutionary Nicaragua,” Robelo has since become a strident critic of government policies.

In May, the junta announced the appointment of two independent (nonSandinista) members to fill the vacant positions: Arturo Cruz, former head of the Central Bank, and Rafael Cordova Rivas, a Supreme Court justice. The move assuaged fears in Washington and Managua that the regime was undergoing a swing to the left. Two days later, the Senate completed authorization of the Nicaragua aid bill by agreeing to the House version. The timing of its actions indicates that Congress will require continued assurances if the funds are to be finally appropriated. (A separate aid bill, authorizing $25 million for Nicaragua during fiscal year 1981, has since passed the House and gone to conference committee.)

Despite the sometimes strained nature of their coalition, the Sandinistas have so far succeeded in creating what might be termed a “model revolution.” In spite of an understandable wish for revenge, the ruling Sandinistas have abolished the death penalty, imprisoned rather than executed most captured National Guardsmen and other Somozistas, preserved remaining elements of the private sector, and assumed a posture of polite formality visa-vis Washington. The junta has made clear its commitment to human rights, as well as its intention to keep up payments on the huge foreign debt it inherited from the Somoza regime. A timetable for elections was scheduled to be announced before July 19, the first anniversary of the revolution.

Any aid from the United States at this time may still be considered a humanitarian gesture toward a country struggling to rebuild after a devastating civil war. It would also be a symbolic indication of support for the moderate elements in the Nicaraguan government. The Sandinistas have already given evidence of their commitment to pluralistic democracy, and of their willingness to begin a new relationship with the United States. The future of that relationship will ultimately be decided, not in Managua, but in Washington.